Holding the Bag

To be sure, the compromise on the filibuster issue reached by 14 moderate senators of both parties -- and imposed, ipso facto, on the Senate -- is an imperfect solution. Most solutions are. But the virtue of the agreement announced in Washington late Monday afternoon was not just that it preserved, however tenuously, the viability of the filibuster, but that it took the play away from Majority Leader Bill Frist.

For his own good as well as the country's, we might say. Beguiled by presidential ambition, Tennessee's overreaching senior senator seemed hell-bent (pun intended) on following his new pals of the Christian right down their primrose path, at the end of which lay either political Rapture or constitutional Armageddon. More likely the latter than the former.

Frist's strategy was called the nuclear option, in recognition of the fact that pursuing it would lead both parties to a devastating no-holds-barred conflict in which the operative concerns would be those of absolute domination on one side (the Republicans) and bare-bones survival on the other (the Democrats). Whatever the outcome, the very traditions of the Senate as the world's foremost deliberative body were under dire and imminent threat.

This catastrophe was averted by seven Democrats and seven Republicans who came to the saving agreement Monday night by altering the mathematics of the confrontation and forcing the warring sides to a truce.

Yes, three questionable judges have been given a pass, while two others seem about to be thrown overboard. Perhaps a few more will be able to walk into their lifetime jobs under cover of the armistice. It's not an ideal outcome, by any means, but it does preserve the opportunity for a filibuster in case President Bush attempts to dictate the choice of an unacceptably right-wing appointee to the Supreme Court sometime next year, when ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist seems certain to leave the court, one way or another.

The agreement presents both sides with legitimate grounds for discontent. The right-wing Republicans aligned with the majority leader see their hopes for unfettered hegemony dashed, while the give-no-quarter Democrats have had to -- well, give a few quarters.

But we are grateful for the intercession of the 14 Senate dealmakers. For the record, they are Robert Byrd of West Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, John Warner of Virginia, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

As for Frist, the onetime moderate turned zealot whose enthusiasm for the agreement was notably less than fervid, he is left holding a bag with a clear and conspicuous hole in it. All we can say, courtesy of the Rolling Stones, is that, if he couldn't get everything he wanted, he may have gotten what he needed -- a modest comeuppance. It was high time that the dangerous game of all-or-nothing came to at least a temporary stop in Washington.


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