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Avoid the War

Despite intense pressure on Senators from outside interest groups and increasing partisanship and personal rancor inside the chamber, there’s still time for Senate Republicans and Democrats to avoid a “nuclear” war that would blow up Senate tradition and turn the chamber into a highfalutin’ copy of the House of Representatives.

In numerous ways, the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to be more deliberate than the House, to reflect considered judgment rather than the immediate will of the popular majority. The tradition of unlimited debate, embodied in the filibuster, is part of that legacy. Misused though it has been over the decades, the filibuster remains a protection for the Senate minority and a check on majority bulldozing.

But the current GOP majority, frustrated by Democrats’ repeated use of the filibuster to block President Bush’s nominees for appellate judgeships, is on the verge of partially eliminating the filibuster. And it is preparing to do so in a way that violates other traditions. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has declared, contrary to history, that the Senate’s rules do not carry over from one Congress to another — even though two-thirds of the Senate membership remains in office — and that Senate rules may be changed by simple majority vote, not by the two-thirds vote called for under Senate rules.

Even though Frist’s “nuclear option” is designed to serve the political ends of a conservative president and is being pushed by interest groups that call themselves “conservative,” the move is anything but conservative in an institutional sense, that of respecting history. And even though the option as floated affects only judicial nominations, there is no reason to think that a Senate majority in the future, frustrated by filibusters of legislation or executive appointments, might not eliminate the filibuster entirely.

The Framers intended the House to be the embodiment of majority sentiment, and in fact it has developed into a chamber where the majority rules almost absolutely — to the point where the minority has lost even the automatic right to propose alternative amendments on the floor. Does the Senate really want to be the House?

We urgently hope that Republican and Democratic leaders will find a way to avoid nuclear war by agreement. Columnist David Broder suggested one method: Democratic acceptance of Frist’s offer of 100 hours of debate on Bush’s current appeals court nominees and an up-or-down vote afterward, in exchange for a GOP agreement that the right to filibuster Supreme Court nominees would be retained for “extraordinary circumstances.”

If the leaders fail to come to terms — a result that looks increasingly likely — we hope that a group of “institutionalists” of both parties will succeed in imposing a compromise. Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are working on such a plan. We hope that they can find enough colleagues who’ll put the Senate above partisanship and ideology.

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