YESTERDAY, Senate Majority Leader Baker led his flock out of a parliamentary impasse which he had described as "legislative gridlock." Opponents of Supreme Court decisions on both prayer in the schools and abortion tried to attach court-stripping proposals to an essential bill raising the debt ceiling. But liberals put on pressure of their own in the form of filibusters, first on abortion, then on prayer. The anti-court forces, led by Sen. Jesse Helms had a majority, but never the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster. The liberals were able to maintain a filibuster, but could not round up a majority to set aside the prayer proposal.
Enter the leader. He suggested that since there had already been a number of inconclusive votes on the prayer amendment, and time was running short on the debt ceiling, all the players should begin again with a clean bill. To the relief of all but 16 holdouts, this was done.
In the course of this month-long parliamentary hassle, both sides have learned something. First, there are a substantial number of senators who may disagree with specific decisions of the Supreme Court but who are, nevertheless, extremely reluctant to deal with constitutional questions by taking away the court's jurisdiction over them. Because he could not produce the two-thirds vote necessary for a constitutional amendment -- the straightforward way to deal with a court decision involving constitutional rights -- Sen. Helms sought to keep these questions from the courts. He failed, and he lost the votes of some who agreed with him on substance but not on procedure.
Second, in keeping the social agenda issues before the Senate long after it was clear they could not be passed, Sen. Helms exasperated his colleagues. Some questioned his motives in forcing repetitive roll calls on identical questions, one even suggesting that it was done to inspire contributions to conservative political action committees that the North Carolina senator himself controls.
Finally, it is now clear that liberals have mastered the tactics of stall and delay that they fought so vigorously during the civil rights debates of the '50s and '60s. We noted the irony of this development in this space a few days ago, and we're still not quite comfortable with it.
Neither side now holds a consistent philosophical position on the filibuster. Conservatives will vote for cloture if the cause is right, as they never would have done in years gone by. And those who always stood for majority rule no longer have qualms about talking a bill to death when the other side has the votes. Now that both sides are using the time-consuming filibuster weapon, perhaps the legislators returning in January will be ready to look at Rule XXII again and call for a truce.