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The Senate steps back

FOURTEEN SENATORS proved late Monday that they love their country and their institution more than they love the ideological extremists who increasingly drive the national debate. By disarming the ''nuclear option" that right-wing Republicans were threatening to detonate, the senators pulled their leaders back from a very steep precipice.

If the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, had pushed the nuclear button, most Republicans would have cheered the unprecedented power grab, because it would have given them the ability to to run the Senate without paying any attention to the minority Democrats. But the Senate was designed more than two centuries ago to protect minority rights. The nuclear option required breaking the rules to change the rules. Had Frist done it, he would have proven himself an unscrupulous partisan, wrecked the Senate's reputation for consensus and comity, shown the Senate in thrall to the White House, and hurt the judiciary by seating blatant partisans on the bench.

Frist said yesterday that the compromise leaves open the threat that the option may be acted upon in the future. Whether or not this is pure bluff makes little difference. Even the threat has damaged Frist's reputation -- deservedly, and he should shelve the nuclear option before he burns his fingers again.

Every compromise leaves regrets on both sides. The fact that three of the five most controversial of President Bush's nominees to appeals courts will now likely be confirmed is a significant disappointment.

Still, Democrats retain the ability to block nominations, including any to the Supreme Court, by using the filibuster. The key language in the compromise committed the Democrats to using that tool only in ''extraordinary circumstances," with each senator explicitly charged with determining what that might mean. Minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada wasted no time in pointing out that the Senate has so far confirmed 208 of President Bush's 218 nominees. ''The fact that there have only been 10 filibusters out of 218 nomination in the last four years means that filibusters are already rare," Reid said.

President Bush may be tempted to test the compromise sooner rather than later. He may be urged to send up only far-right conservative nominees now, forcing Democrats to accept extremists or make frequent use of the filibuster, potentially reviving the threat of the nuclear rules change.

Bush would do better to heed the call of the 14 senators to consult more actively on judicial appointments, and to send up nominees that can get appreciable bipartisan support. Otherwise, he will contribute to his legacy as a divider, not a uniter.

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