Let's make a deal

A bipartisan group of moderate senators forges a deal to head off the nuclear option.

Published May 24, 2005 1:52AM (EDT)

Despite some pessimistic predictions earlier in the day, a band of centrist senators managed to reach an eleventh-hour compromise on President Bush's judicial nominees on Monday night, effectively averting the nuclear option. The agreement stipulates that the Democrats involved in the deal will prevent the use of the filibuster against controversial Bush nominees Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor. In return, Republican participants will oppose any attempt to change Senate rules regarding the filibuster.

14 senators (seven Republicans and seven Democrats) signed the agreement, which further states that future Appeals and Supreme Court nominees should "only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances," leaving the senators to determine for themselves what circumstances qualify as extraordinary.

But just because there's a deal doesn't mean the wheeling and dealing is over; politicians started scrambling to spin the compromise as soon as it was announced. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., waxed poetic: "In a Senate that is increasingly polarized, the bipartisan center held." Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., had a more industry-friendly take, crowing, "The Senate is back in business."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid interpreted the compromise as a major signal to the White House, saying "We have sent President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the radical right of the Republican party an undeniable message... the abuse of power will not be tolerated."

But for his part, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan didn't seem to be getting Reid's message. "Many of these nominees have waited for quite some time to have an up-or-down vote and now they are going to get one. That's progress," McClellan said. (We're not sure how McClellan figures that two or three judges constitute "many," but we'll save that discussion for another day.)

The man who stands to lose most in the compromise, Senate Majority Leader and filibuster-fighter Bill Frist, also struggled to stay on top of current events. Frist called the deal "a victory for the Senate," and indicated that even if he can't change the evening's outcome, he's still keeping score: "It has some good news and it has some disappointing news and it will require careful monitoring."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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