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Alas, a Nuclear Freeze

Even more so than usual, the halls of the Capitol were filled with self-congratulation Monday. With their compromise preserving the filibuster, Republicans and Democrats alike were able to stand before the microphones and declare victory for the republic, the Constitution, the Senate and, indeed, democracy itself.

Not necessarily in that order. Above all else, what the agreement preserves is the power of the Senate. Amid the press conferences and floor speeches, perhaps the most telling comment was that, with the deal, “the Senate is back in business.”

The quote was from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), but the sentiment was near universal. In the Senate, business as usual too often amounts to delay and obstruction, and the chief enabler in this process is the filibuster. Under the terms of the deal announced Monday, Senate Democrats essentially agreed not to filibuster some of the president’s judicial nominees if Senate Republicans agreed not to abolish the filibuster. We’ll let you have this gun, Republicans told their colleagues, as long as you promise not to use it.

The immediate effect of this agreement is that an up-or-down floor vote will proceed on three of President Bush’s most controversial nominees: Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William H. Pryor Jr. More long-term, the deal -- which lacks the imprimatur of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) -- will allow filibusters to be used on future nominees and on other issues. (The filibuster allows 41 senators to block a vote by extending debate on it indefinitely.)

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It hardly qualifies as commentary to note that politics trump principle in Washington. But it is worth pointing out that many of the same conservative Republicans who insisted that every judicial nominee deserves an up-or-down vote are threatening to filibuster a bill encouraging stem cell research. Many Democrats, meanwhile, came to realize that the filibuster is one of the shining jewels of American democracy only when they were in the minority.

As this page has argued, the filibuster is essentially a reactionary tool that unduly empowers obstructionist minorities. Due to its disproportional representation -- California (population 36 million) and Delaware (population 830,000) each get two senators -- minority rights are already well protected in the Senate. The filibuster, as an additional brake on democracy that goes beyond the constitutional framework to give individual senators even more power, should have been nuked for all purposes, not just in the context of judicial nominees.

It was always going to be a long shot given the clubby institution’s instincts for self-preservation, but this debate at least held out the possibility of making the system more fair. Now that the Senate is back in business, to borrow a phrase, its privileges preserved, its members are understandably pleased. Forgive us if we decline to join them.


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