Originally created 05/25/05

Dismaying compromise

So who comes out ahead on the U.S. Senate's "historic" filibuster compromise? President Bush is promised the full Senate's up-or-down vote on only three of his filibustered federal appeal court nominees.

This is a far cry from the up or down vote on all his nominees, which is what the president would have gotten if the Republican majority had the courage to go through with the "constitutional option" - a rule change that would bar the use of filibusters on judicial nominees. Filibusters, in effect, require 60 votes to win judicial confirmation, as opposed to a simple 51-vote majority when the filibuster - i.e., endless debate - is disallowed.

Reactions also indicate who came out ahead. Conservatives were disappointed, seeing the compromise as a sellout. It's like agreeing to disarm when you have all the weapons. A Democratic leadership that has long been on an unsuccessful quest for its own relevance gets it handed to them - ceded to them, more accurately - by a group of so-called "moderates."

But liberals were delighted, seeing the compromise as a reprieve that keeps them active in the court wars.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., exulted that the deal negotiated by seven "moderates" from both parties including, sad to say, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was very close to what Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., turned down in leadership talks with him.

Ralph Neas, People for the American Way's lobbyist for far-left judicial activism, characterized the compromise as "a major defeat for the radical right" that keeps alive the filibuster option for "judges who would undermine Americans' rights and freedoms." In Neas' view that's anybody the hard left doesn't approve of.

Specifically, the compromise calls for Republicans not to change the Senate rules in exchange for Democrats' promise not to filibuster except under "extraordinary circumstances," whatever that means. Neas seems to think, except for the three appellate judges on which the gang of 14 agreed to let the full Senate vote, it means filibuster business as usual, especially when it comes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And this is what the appellate-court filibuster fight has been about all along - not Senate comity or tradition - but a warm-up for the main event when one or more ailing Supreme Court justices step down and replacements are nominated, possibly this summer.

Democrats surely will try to trot out the "extraordinary circumstances" provision to block any high-court nominees whom Neas and his gang of left-wing special interests don't like. It also will be much more difficult, in the charged partisan atmosphere of a pitched high-court battle, for Frist to bring back the "constitutional option" as he threatens to do if Democrats do resume abusing the filibuster.

Even so, the compromise is so full of ambiguities and uncertainties that it might backfire on the left and turn out to benefit conservative nominees after all. The balance of power really rests with that gang of 14. If they hang together, no one's sure how they'll use their clout - not even themselves, at this point.


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