The Senate's Cease-Fire

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005; 8:54 AM

No nuclear war -- wow! It doesn't get more exciting than this!!!

Now we can all spend the next few days firing shots about who won and who lost in last night's typically mushy Senate compromise.

You can't even explain it in 10 seconds -- some Bush nominees get filibustered, some don't, and the Democrats promise to use the weapon only in "extreme circumstances," which frankly can mean anything they want it to mean. No wonder both Bill Frist and Harry Reid were declaring victory.

I confess: I've had a hard time getting excited over the filibuster showdown as a great clash of principles.

The reason: You know that if a Republican minority were blocking a Democratic president's judicial nominees, nearly everyone, from lawmakers to commentators, who is now passionately defending or denouncing Senate talkathons, would be taking the opposite position. This whole thing reeks of hypocrisy.

How do I know this? Because many of the players have done a 180 since the days when the Republican Senate was blocking Clinton judges.

I don't mean to minimize the importance of this battle. A virtual Senate shutdown would have had serious political repercussions for one or both parties. And there is a fairness question when nominees can't get votes. Although the Senate has long lived up to its reputation of 100 men and women, each armed with a nuclear bomb -- a club in which any member can slow things down for any reason.

Both Republicans and Democrats have chosen not to be embarrassed by their flip-flopping on this issue. Some of the examples were nicely compiled the other day by Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Tom Harkin, for instance, is defending the filibuster -- the same Tom Harkin who in 1995 called it "a relic of the ancient past" and vowed to join in "slaying the filibuster dinosaur." Harkin got 18 Democratic senators to vote for the measure, which was motivated by GOP opposition to the Clintonian agenda.

Orrin Hatch, who now argues strongly for the fairness of up-or-down votes, had a different view when he ran the Judiciary Committee in the Clinton years. He changed the panel rules -- allowing anyone to block a nominee from his or her home state with a "blue slip" -- that prevented 60 of Clinton's bench picks from getting a vote, some for as long as four years.

And the Republicans -- including Bill Frist, who now seeks to detonate the nuclear option -- filibustered Clinton nominee Richard Paez in 2000. Was Paez spectacularly unqualified? Republicans were ticked because he had pronounced California's Prop 187 an "anti-civil rights initiative." An important policy question certainly worthy of debate. But didn't Paez deserve an up-or-down vote?

Now let's see how the moderates' compromise is playing in the press:


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