Sunday, May 22, 2005

Moderates Matter

My last post outlined some of the challenges that moderates in both major parties face in countering the radical elements of their own party and pursuing a centrist agenda. For some readers, it was difficult to imagine that Republican and Democratic moderates could ever join together into a single party, or even have much influence in the polarized political climate of today.

However, the imminent showdown over the filibuster in the Senate provides exactly that kind of opportunity for moderate Senators and the outcome will be a referendum on their power. A quick recap: 10 of President Bush’s nominees to the federal bench are being held up by Senate Democrats through the use of a legislative maneuver called the filibuster. The filibuster has a long institutional history in the Senate, and is especially controversial during the Senate’s “advise and consent” role on the President’s nominees. The filibuster allows the minority party to prolong debate and prevent an up or down (majority vote) on a nominee unless 60 Senators vote to close debate. Therein lies the problem for Republican Senators, who have the majority of the votes in the chamber, but not the 60 required to force a vote. Thus, the most controversial of the President’s nominees to the federal bench have been effectively blocked by the Democrats, which infuriates Republicans who believe that they were handed a mandate after the 2004 election.

Enter the “nuclear option." Republicans are now planning to break Senate tradition and call for a majority vote to change the rules and force an up or down vote, effectively eliminating the filibuster for judicial nominees and drawing a line in the sand for a pitched battle over the next Supreme Court Justice. With no filibuster, President Bush’s nominees will all be confirmed and the Democrats will have virtually no check on Republican power in any of the three branches of government.

Many Republicans, especially long tenured Senators like John Warner and Dick Lugar, seem nervous about this dramatic break with tradition, while Democrats are furious over what they consider to be a naked power grab by the GOP. Still, social conservatives are pushing the Republican leadership, and most importantly Senator Frist, a potential 2008 Presidential candidate, to stand firm on all of President Bush’s judicial nominees. For the religious right, the judiciary is ground zero because of their disgust for liberal judges, who they believe impose their own morality onto issues like abortion, school prayer, and gay marriage. For some libertarians on the right who have been talking about “A Constitution in Exile”, the judiciary is also an important battlefront for overturning Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and stripping the federal government and its agencies of much of their power.

For liberal Democratic interest groups, who define themselves by their support for abortion rights and gay marriage, the war over the judiciary is equally as important. Without the filibuster, President Bush could radically reshape the courts in the conservatives’ favor, maybe even stacking 1/3 of the Supreme Court with staunch pro-lifers if retirements go as predicted. Groups like Move On and NARAL are thus very concerned and are organizing their members to fight to maintain the filibuster.

Some moderates in both parties have been working on a compromise, perhaps independent from the Senate leadership. If a handful of Senators could reach an independent agreement, they could defeat the nuclear option but reign in the use of the filibuster, and idea that appeals to moderate Republicans and red state Democrats. Senator Trent Lott (motivated more by his rivalry with Frist than anything else), Senator Mark Pryor (being a Democrat from Arkansas means that you have to be working with the other side), Senator John McCain (we’d be surprised if he was not involved) and Ben Nelson from Nebraska (sort of the Arlen Specter of Democrats) are all rumored to be at the center of negotiations. Each Senator is factoring in his own profile in his party, his reelection chances, and possibly higher office aspirations. For Republican moderates, a compromise with the Democrats could mean a serious challenge from a social conservative for reelection. For Democrat moderates, it could mean further alienation if they do not filibuster the Supreme Court nominees that the liberal wing of the party tells them to. In short, the stakes are high on both sides.

If the moderates can succeed, they should be applauded by all those who respect the traditions of the Senate and credited for overcoming the intense pressure from both sides. If they fail, the Senate could be effectively shut down by Democrats who will fight back the only way they can, and the American people will lose even more faith in their elected leaders. Only the moderates can save us from this fate. We will likely find out for sure this Tuesday. Contrary to conventional wisdom, being a centrist isn’t boring; it just means you’re in the middle of every fight.

R.C.

P.S. Here's David Brooks on the Senate moderates.

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