The Nuclear Compromise

Ken AshfordCongressLeave a Comment

I’ll let Josh Marshall set the stage and share his thoughts:

The Washington Post and other news outlets tonight are reporting that Senate Democrats are hinting about a possible compromise on judges — specifically, that they might cut a deal that would allow two or more of the seven filibustered judges to go through.

This in turn has caused splutters of outrage and bewilderment among some Democrats who believe Sens. Reid and Durbin are considering throwing in the towel just as it is becoming clear that voters overwhelmingly oppose what the Senate Republicans are trying to do.

But I’m not so sure.

Let me first stipulate that I know no more about any potential deal than what I’ve read in the papers this evening. And the devil is most certainly in the details.

A deal that would let most of the seven judges go through in exchange for assurances that would allow Senate Republicans to try to go nuclear again six months from now would be a disaster.

A deal that would allow perhaps the two least egregious judges to go through in exchange for taking the nuclear option off the table for good might not be a bad deal at all.

The key here is that there are many moving parts to this puzzle and it’s key to understand each one of them.

First, this isn’t just about these seven judges. It’s about three and a half more years of judges President Bush still has yet to appoint. And even more, it’s about one or more crucial Supreme Court nominations he’ll get to make. The American judiciary will look very different in 2009 with the filibuster than without it. And letting through a couple judges now to secure that difference isn’t necessarily such a bad deal.

Second, there are sometimes tactical advantages in appearing to be reasonable, even if the reasonable compromises you float are ones your political opponents will have a very hard time accepting.

And this brings us to the third and perhaps most important point. There’s no way to judge the best way to approach this stand-off without seeing clearly just what a powder keg Bill Frist and company are sitting on.

If you think ending the filibuster is the ‘nuclear option’, just watch what happens when Bill Frist rings up James Dobson and says, "Sorry about the judge thing. The Democrats won’t let us."

At that point you can start with the horizontal mushroom clouds coming out of Dobson’s ears and it’s pretty much a chain reaction through the rest of Wingnut Nation from there on.

That means two things. First, Frist probably just isn’t in a position to accept the ‘compromises’ Democrats are floating. And I suspect they know that. Second, should he accept such a compromise, it will unleash something close to a civil war on the right flank of the Republican party — a development with possibly grave consequences for Republicans in 2006 and thereafter.

So, to pull this all together, I’m not saying Democrats shouldn’t keep up the pressure on their senators. They must. And any deal that doesn’t put the nuclear option off the table in a permanent and meaningfully binding way is a joke. But let’s remember what this is about. It’s about whether the Democrats retain their significant lever of power to block President Bush’s most extreme judicial nominees. Democrats give that up, they lose. Republicans give that up, they lose. It’s really that simple. A couple judges passed through are a secondary matter. From having watched so far, I get the sense that Sen. Reid sees all those moving parts. So I’m inclined to give him the room for maneuver he needs to back these folks into a ghastly trap.

I’m not sure I agree.  These ten judges ARE the most extreme.  Democrats HAVE compromised, by allowing 95% of Bush’s judicial nominees through.  And I think the American people understand that.  And if they haven’t, this is an opportunity to educate them. 

Also, I’m not sure that the un-reality-based right flank of the right wing party will go into disarray if a two-judge compromise is reached.  Dobson perhaps, but not necessarily all of them.  These people have a tendancy to claim victory when such a victory is far from certain (witness, Iraq).

I’m not opposed to a compromise at some point, but since the tide is going toward the Democrats and against those who want to push through these ten judges, why start raising the subject now?  Are we going to snatch a compromise from the jaws of victory?

For those just tuning in, Media Matters has an excellent backgrounder on the birth of the term "nuclear option."

UPDATE:  Ezra agrees.

UPDATE #2:  Here’s the key data from the WaPo poll that I linked to above:

The Senate has confirmed 35 federal appeals court judges nominated by Bush, while Senate Democrats have blocked 10 others. Do you think the Senate Democrats are right or wrong to block these nominations?

Right 48
Wrong 36

Would you support or oppose changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush’s judicial nominees?

Support 26
Oppose 66

So I ask again, why should Dems feel compelled to compromise when the majority of people are opposing the Republicans on this?