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Moderate Success

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For much of the past six months, official Washington has been obsessed with the idea that Senate Republicans might pull the trigger on the so-called nuclear option. Journalists have consumed barrels of ink and pundits have talked themselves blue over whether Republicans had the votes, what banning the filibustering of judicial nominees would mean for the Senate as an institution, what it would mean for current and future judicial nominees, and how it would affect the 2006 and 2008 elections.

This debate largely stalled this Congress's work and relegated what it has accomplished to footnotes. The debate ate up the time and resources of both the Republican and Democratic Senate campaign committees and whipped interest groups into an ad-buying, petition-carrying, rally-holding frenzy. But, as one Democratic Senate candidate remarked just before the compromise was unveiled, average voters care a lot less about this fight than do those of us in the bubble of the Beltway. She said that not one voter she's met this year wanted to talk about the Senate "going nuclear." Instead, she heard questions about health care, education, the deficit, and the war in Iraq.

For this reason alone, reaching a compromise -- any compromise -- was important. And the deal is indeed a compromise. Neither side got most of what it wanted, both conceded important ground, individual senators preserved their prerogative to follow their consciences, and the Senate's traditions have been maintained -- at least for now.

Yet the compromise is fragile, and its success depends on the discipline of the Gang of 14 and the leadership of both parties. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the compromise, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was quickly dubbed the "loser" because he will not get up-or-down votes on every nominee. And Frist played that role well by taking to the Senate floor for a speech in which he looked like a poor sport. While Frist's stance may have helped him with social conservatives, it may not keep them with him through the 2008 presidential primaries. And he has probably done himself some damage in the eyes of the electorate at large just as he did with his actions in the Terri Schiavo case.

Like the political pro he is, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took a higher road by accepting the deal and declaring victory, thus earning praise from colleagues, journalists, and pundits. However, in the larger scheme of things, both Frist and Reid "lost." They had drawn lines in the sand that became impassable chasms guaranteeing that neither side would get what it wanted. That a bipartisan group of 14 senators could trump both Frist and Reid showed that while Frist and Reid may lead their parties, neither is really in charge.

And even though Reid was smart to claim victory, the compromise holds greater peril for him. The deal does not eliminate the filibuster, but does confine its use against judicial nominees to "extraordinary circumstances." If Reid decides to filibuster a judicial nominee and resurrect the threat of the nuclear option, the onus will be on him to prove "extraordinary circumstances." He'd be playing defense after being on offense for much of the nuclear debate.

Perhaps the biggest winners are the Senate moderates. Their influence has been waning for more than a decade. And in recent years, the Republicans in their ranks have been treated more like rebellious teenagers than like respected members of the world's greatest deliberative body. Their success may empower them to step up to the plate more often.

In fact, in crafting this compromise, moderates of both parties may have stumbled onto a formula that can increase their relevance on legislative issues. Much of the success of the nuclear-option compromise depended on the participation of a couple of the Senate's senior members. Those Senate elders are far more ideological than the other members of the Gang of 14, but they were motivated by their reverence for the Senate as an institution. They brought gravitas to the process and were in a good position to approach some of their colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was probably more open to an appeal from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., than he might have been to one from a more junior member of his own party.

Perhaps in the future, the moderates could recruit different groups of senior senators to help them move legislation forward and thus refocus the Senate on the business of legislating.

 
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