Back From the Brink

Posted May 24, 2005 at 3:14pm

We were surprised and delighted that, with the Senate teetering on the precipice of institutional breakdown, seven Senators from each party seized control of the chamber and pulled it back from the brink. The problem for the future lies with the other 86, who were prepared to allow partisanship to drive the Senate into chaos.

The very fact that 14 Senators out of 100 can preserve Senate traditions and save the body from disaster is a demonstration of the precious distinctiveness of the U.S. Senate. As any number of Senators observed during the “nuclear” option debate leading up to Monday night’s agreement, the framers specifically designed the Senate not to be a majoritarian institution, but rather a brake on popular passion.

It’s worth remembering that, notwithstanding the excess of military metaphors — “culture war,” “nuclear option” — to describe the current political climate, the country is not as divided now as it has sometimes been in the past. Polarized as our current political environment is, America is not on the brink of civil war, nor are there riots in the streets. Partisan activists on both the right and the left are in constant conflict, but the public, overwhelmingly, simply wants its problems solved — its economy kept working, its retirement system secured, its schools improved, its roads built, its world kept safe.

In this context, the fight over the nuclear option represented an intrusion — and almost the triumph — of activist passion over attention to the people’s business. The passionate right wants to remold the federal judiciary to respect traditionalist cultural values. The passionate left fears that judicial “reactionaries” will “turn back the clock.” Bowing to the left, Democrats broke Senate tradition to make judicial filibusters a routine method of blocking “extremist” nominees.

Bowing to the right, Republicans were willing to break Senate tradition to ban judicial filibusters and, in the process, make it possible to change Senate rules by a simple majority vote rather than the two-thirds prescribed in Senate rules.

Had the nuclear option been adopted, Democrats vowed to bring Senate business to a halt. More important institutionally, a precedent would have been established for changing any Senate rule by simple majority, potentially changing the nature of the Senate itself forever.

Fourteen Senators stopped this, preserving the filibuster for “extraordinary circumstances” and blocking imposition of the nuclear option. Their agreement allows the Senate to get on with the people’s business and to arrest a dramatic drop in public respect for Congress. The group, led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is a remarkable assemblage of the Senate’s most venerable fixtures and some brand new arrivals. Politically, it is centrist — a breed that had been written off as hopelessly impotent, but which has now proved that it can act decisively.

We’re encouraged that, among the 86 Senators who were not party to the agreement, there was palpable relief that a crisis was averted. The passionate right and the passionate left are going to rage that neither side defeated the other, and it will take work to keep the agreement intact as President Bush offers new judicial nominees, especially to the U.S. Supreme Court. But we urge all those among the 86 who now cheer the agreement to resolve, in the future, to support its spirit.