Advantage: Democrats?

From Tom DeLay to John Bolton, from Social Security to Bush's judges, Harry Reid and the Democrats are outplaying the Republicans -- for now.

Published April 27, 2005 1:39PM (EDT)

You hate to get ahead of yourself on these things -- God knows, Democrats have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory more than once before -- but it's sure beginning to seem like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill are flat-out out-maneuvering Bill Frist and the Bush White House.

Check out the big news stories from the last couple of days.

1. Although George W. Bush gave Tom DeLay a big Air Force One embrace Tuesday, Republicans in the House seem to be conceding defeat on their plan to protect their leader from an ethics investigation. In the face of the Democrats' steadfast refusal to let the House ethics committee operate after Republicans changed the committee's rules to protect DeLay, House Republican leaders blinked Tuesday, saying that they're ready to cancel the rule changes they made so that an investigation of DeLay can begin. A Republican advisor tells the Washington Post that the move is Dennis Hastert's way of "trying to put this behind us and get us back to regular order." Acknowledging the effectiveness of the Democrats' stand, the advisor said that Hastert will pay a political price for switching the ethics rules again, "but if he had not done this, the cost would continue to increase."

2. Although the White House continues to insist that John Bolton is "exactly the right man" for the job of U.N. ambassador, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have remained united in their opposition, and it seems likely that at least a couple of Republicans will join them in voting against Bolton's confirmation -- if it ever comes up for a vote. On Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats on the committee agreed to broaden the Bolton investigation with a series of formal interviews over the next 10 days.

3. Although the president continues to barnstorm the country in support of his plan to privatize Social Security, the proposal -- to the extent the president has made a proposal -- appears all but dead on arrival in Washington. The Senate Finance Committee began work on the Social Security reform Tuesday, but with Democrats united against private accounts and the Republicans divided, it seems that Bush's proposal is going nowhere. As Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday, "We've hit a wall."

4. And although it's still too soon to tell whether Frist has the votes to put an end to filibusters of judicial nominees in the Senate, the Democrats seem to be outplaying him in the court of public opinion. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that the public opposes the nuclear option by a three-to-one, 66 percent to 22 percent margin. And by proposing a sly compromise solution -- under it, Democrats would allow confirmation of four of the seven judges who were blocked and re-nominated, but they'd also restore the right to "blue slip" judges -- Reid put Frist in the position of looking intransigent and unreasonable when he refused the offer Tuesday.

There have been dark spots for the Democrats; they rolled over too easily on some of Bush's second-term nominees, and by lining up to support the bankruptcy bill, they sold out some of the working folks they're always claiming to protect. And Frist may ultimately have the votes to prevail on the nuclear option; if he does, the Republicans' ability to ram through any judge they like will make the Democrats' tactical victories seem inconsequential. But at the moment, even those of us who expressed doubts about Harry Reid's intestinal fortitude early on have to acknowledge that the Democrats are doing something right.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Harry Reid Social Security Tom Delay War Room