The far-right wing of the Republican Party is hopping mad, as well they should be. Just when it seemed the Republicans were on the verge of a smashing victory, one that could have changed the very nature of the Legislative Branch, they were betrayed by seven conscience-ridden members of their own party, in concert with seven moderate Democratic senators.
Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist had the scent of blood. You could see it in his eyes. During debate, he would stare at his counterpart across the aisle, those eyes cold and calculating, like a wolf’s, waiting for the moment when he could unleash the killing instinct lying within. I would not have been the least surprised if, once the final tally on the would-be filibuster vote had been made, the Republicans on top, Senator Frist had led a charge across the center aisle, fangs exposed, and began to rip the Democrats asunder. No, the blood pooling in front of the dais on that fine day would have had nothing less than the air of inevitability, had the conservatives gotten their wish.
But they did not.
What lofty ambitions they had. On Tuesday, the day that happened, not the day conservatives expected, the Democratic members of the Senate agreed to abandon their right to prevent three radical, right-wing judges from obtaining lifetime appointments to the federal bench. In addition, the Democrats agreed to refrain from using the filibuster to block judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances. What does this vague language mean?
Using the words of columnist David Brooks, it means there will now be a “Brown Standard” applied to all Bush nominees from here forward. Basically, a nominee has to be more conservative than Janice Rogers Brown for the Democrats to be justified in filibustering. Conservatives should be ecstatic. The Democrats have given up the right to block every judicial nominee who believes the New Deal is a socialist revolution, or thinks it is somehow protected speech for an employer to taunt his workers with ethnic slurs. On top of this, the Democrats have failed to remove the threat of the nuclear option. The Republicans have retained the ability, and the sole discretion, of determining whether or not Democrats have crossed the line on filibustering, which essentially means the Democrats have given up the right to filibuster judicial nominees for at least the rest of the 109th Congress.
The only reason many Republicans are angered at this fortuitous turn of events is that they were greedy. I, for one, do not know if the Republicans had the votes to change the rules of the Senate and end the filibuster, but I do know the odds were with them. As many Republican senators as there were who were appalled at their leadership’s brazen attempt to smash 200 years of precedent, there were far less who were willing to vote against that attempt. A person could count them on one hand. Not enough to prevent the Democrats from becoming the first completely irrelevant party in American politics.
So when the compromise was announced Tuesday night, the conservatives seethed. The Democrats gave up three judicial nominees, and all they received in return was a temporary reprieve. It was all they could get, and they were smart to take it. Maybe it’s just the blue-blooded liberal that I am, an ideologue every bit as brazen as the Dobsons of the world, but I see no victory for liberals, just not a crushing defeat, and victory in whole for the Republican party.
The aforementioned David Brooks also sees a victory for the Republican Party, one he maintains the moderates will someday be thanked for. There is a good chance the more reasonable members of the GOP have slowed, or even stopped, their party’s precipitous downward spiral in the eyes of the American people. Good thing for them, too. The chameleon had stopped changing colors just long enough for the voters of this country to get a good look at it, and they were recoiling en masse from what they saw.
I would have loved to have seen six Republicans cross the aisle in a real filibuster vote, and really stick it to Frist, Bush, and all the rest. But that wasn’t going to happen, compromise or no.
What the marvel of Tuesday’s events hold, is that instead of the filibuster being weakened or eliminated, it has been reaffirmed. Yes, the Democrats have all but given up their ability to use it, at least in judicial confirmations, but the filibuster is not weakened. A Democratic Senate, or the year 2009, whichever comes first, will reveal that the most important, most frustrating, tool of the minority view in the senate is alive and well.
As the conservatives will some day thank moderate Republicans for steering their party away from militant idealism of the worst order, so liberals will look at their moderates and thank them for dodging a bullet.
But we should never forget what the Republican majority tried to do — the nuclear option — was an attack on the Legislative branch. Had they succeeded in rendering the filibuster a thing of the past, then the Senate would have been reduced to the same level of bickering and strict party-line voting that is tantamount to gospel in the House of Representatives.
Our bicameral system of legislation was designed specifically so that one chamber of Congress, the Senate, would not, could not, be held hostage to a naked grab for power by an out of control majority. Don’t think the nation has not paid a price for this security. Civil rights legislation arrived decades late because of the Senate principle of unlimited debate. But this same principle has protected the judiciary, the one branch of our government that protects the rule of law for Americans, and hence, our rights, from being further undermined by ideologues of the far right.
A compromise was never something I considered, being a staunch liberal. Any compromise on the use of the judicial filibuster, or filibustering as a whole, is a loss of constitutional protection for the minority party (in this case, a minority of senators that represents a majority of the population), and a gain for the majority party in power. Unfortunately, there are different degrees of losing. Just ask the conservatives.