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Frist principles

SENATOR BILL Frist, the majority leader, should follow the example set yesterday by House Republicans and back off before he leads his party over the brink.

Frist, egged on by President Bush and White House political guru Karl Rove, has taken an increasingly hard line in support of Bush's hard-right judicial nominees. But it is a road that threatens embarrassment for Frist and the Senate, and possibly long-lasting damage to the nation's political foundation.

Frist says the Republican majority in the Senate may use a parliamentary trick to change Senate rules so Bush's nominees can be confirmed by a simple majority vote. This maneuver would eliminate the Democrats' ability to block a nomination by filibuster as long as they can hold on to 41 allies and avoid the 60 votes for cloture that would end debate. The move would also circumvent the Senate's own procedures, which require a two-thirds vote to change the rules. This has become known in Washington as ''the nuclear option."

The damage this move would cause to the Senate would extend far beyond the seven judicial nominees in question, since there would be no reason for the majority Republicans not to use the same bulldozer on every issue they declared to be important.

Frist is already losing a running debate with the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, over which side is breaking precedent. Frist claims that the Democrats' use of the filibuster against a group of judicial nominees is unique. But, citing a study by the Congressional Research Service, Reid pointed out yesterday that Republicans have led filibusters against presidential nominees for various jobs in 20 of 30 cases, including six of the 13 who were judicial nominees. Several of President Clinton's judicial appointments could not be filibustered because the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee never sent them to the floor.

Frist has promised that, if he does push through a rules change, it will apply only to the appointment of judges, leaving Democrats free to filibuster other matters. But, given their lifetime tenure, federal judges are exactly the kinds of appointments that should be made with some element of bipartisanship, or, at least, protection for minority interests. The same goes double for any Supreme Court appointments.

In the Capitol yesterday, not many yards down the winding marble corridors to the south, House Speaker Dennis Hastert was conceding that his efforts to gut the House Ethics Committee were ill advised. The new rules would have allowed each party to block any investigation. This was the House's nuclear option, and it was clearly unworkable. ''I'm willing to step back," Hastert said yesterday. Frist should do the same.

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