Monday, May 23, 2005

Senate Doomsday Clock Stops
Watching tape of the press conference held by clearly exultant centrist Senators after announcing their deal to avert the "nuclear option," I'm reminded of a Saturday in January 1991 when I was riveted by the all-day debate in the Senate over whether or not to grant President George H.W. Bush's request to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein's forces then occupying Kuwait. Although the view I supported lost (I was 17 and pretty much reflexively anti-military force), on a very close vote, I remember being deeply impressed by the eloquence and sincerity of the Senators on both sides, and feeling something like pride to live in a country where arguments were settled in such an elevated way.

There's a glimmer of the same feeling tonight, but while the "traditions of the Senate" perhaps held, and though I agree that those traditions are noble and worth fighting to preserve, I'm unhappy about the outcome even as I admire the process and respect the feelings that drove the search for an accommodation. Even though some measure of civility and cooperation and consensus-building might remain in the Senate, the body at best represents an outpost of moderation in a raging sea of extremism.

And as compromises go, this one feels a lot like the 1850 deal that postponed the outbreak of the Civil War by a decade and change, while failing to address the underlying causes of the conflict. The absolutists, mostly on the religious right, who pushed this fight in the first place won't be appeased; if anything, they might agitate even more fervently for an ideologue of their liking when a vacancy appears on the Supreme Court, later this year or next. Then the argument will shift to just what meets the standard of "extraordinary circumstances"; indeed, there's a chance that Republicans who might have voted against the abolition of the filibuster Tuesday morning will advance the argument that, say, Miguel Estrada is less "extraordinary" in his extremism than Janice Rogers Brown, and thus shouldn't be filibustered when Bush nominates him to the high court. (And it will be Estrada, I think; why else would he have asked not to be renominated along with the other Bush extremist picks, and you know Karl Rove will play the identity-politics card in his long-term plan to court Hispanic voters.)

(Hell, who isn't less extreme than Janice Rogers Brown?)

So what we're left with is the strong likelihood of three hard-right ideologues--Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor, all richly deserving of the "activist jurist" pejorative--winning confirmation to lifetime posts in which they will consistently rule against the New Deal, against corporate responsibility, against personal liberties. In exchange, the Democrats have a symbolic victory: they can keep the filibuster in theory, but who knows whether or not they'll ever be permitted its use.

At best, what has been gained is a little time; the exacerbation of frictions within the Republican coalition--the raving righties seem to be as or more upset than those of us on this side--and, maybe, a signal to the administration that extremism has its consequences. But reading the comments from Rev. Frist and the rest of the theocratic enablers, I have the strong sense that the centrists have only delayed the conflict, not defused it.

Update: Here's a much more positive analysis of the actual text of the deal. I think this makes a very solid case in terms of what the arrangement means within the Senate, and it's consistent with my thought that the deal buys us some time to improve the larger political context, but I also believe the author doesn't fully appreciate just how bad that context is right now.

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