With the recent agreement averting the judicial nomination meltdown in Washington, D.C., the Democrats can claim a small victory. Despite holding the presidency and a majority in the Senate, the Republican leadership has lost in its attempt to garner up-or-down votes for all of President Bush’s judicial nominees.
In a two-page memorandum of understanding, a 14-member bipartisan group of senators agreed to vote to end debate on three of the president’s controversial nominees and allow a vote on whether to confirm them. While Priscilla Owen was already confirmed prior to the drafting of the agreement and Janice Rodgers Brown and William Pryor will now receive a vote, other nominees are either explicitly exempt from the agreement or appear to be in limbo.
It is nearly impossible to overestimate the importance of this judicial fight. While the legislative agenda of Social Security reform, stem cell research and reformation of the tax code draw a great deal of heated debate, legislation this term can be rolled back next term.
Juxtaposed with the limited timeframe of legislative action is the gravity of lifetime judicial appointments. Issues such as the Terri Schiavo case, parental notification for minors in abortion cases and equal recognition for same-sex partners are increasingly being decided in courtrooms and not in the halls of Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike understand this, ergo the intensely partisan wrangling over the confirmation of these particular nominees.
That being said, who are the winners and losers after Monday’s compromise? Certainly the Democrats seem to come out ahead. Understanding that they can lose a few battles if they don’t lose the war, allowing three nominees to be confirmed reserves the real fight for the anticipated vacancy on the Supreme Court. The intense battle over a Supreme Court candidate (or possibly even two) will certainly dwarf federal circuit court appointments, and keeping the right to filibuster under “extraordinary circumstances” is paramount to Democratic success on this issue.
In an increasingly partisan political climate, this agreement helps the moderates in both parties. With a Republican majority of 55, moderates increasingly have a large role in deciding contentious issues. These particular senators have exhibited a certain degree of independence from their party positions and leadership. Independent thinking and attempts to find common ground on difficult issues would seem to be a rare and welcome commodity in Washington, D.C., and around the country.
On a personal level, this agreement helps boost the political capital of Sen. John McCain. This could prove to be crucial as the battle for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination heats up. McCain accomplished what the majority leader and rumored 2008 contender Sen. Bill Frist could not: progress on some of the judicial nominations.
In addition, McCain was able to stop, perhaps temporarily, what appeared to be momentum toward consideration of the “nuclear option,” which would have changed the rules to allow 51 senators to vote to end a filibuster rather than the previously required 60. This course of action could have led to an inability of the Senate to accomplish the most basic of committee tasks.
Sen. Frist’s weakened stature as majority leader would seem to hurt the future of the Bush administration’s priorities, especially at a time when Republican unity is most important. With a general unraveling of the party on issues such as stem cell research and a failure to unite around a Social Security reform plan, this judicial fight only appears to hasten the effects of a lame-duck presidency. Congressional members understand that mid-term elections are decided by winning constituent support, not that of a president seeking to shore up his legacy.
Perhaps we are all winners when considering the language in the memorandum of understanding that states, “We encourage the Executive branch of government to consult with members of the Senate, both Democratic and Republican, prior to submitting a judicial nomination to the Senate for consideration.”
Productive consultation with Congress would almost certainly guarantee a faster approval process for judicial nominees as well as those for other positions within the executive branch. In addition, political compromise is probably much more appealing to the growing apathetic electorate than political posturing with little result.
Aaron Hill is a junior majoring in firstname.lastname@example.org