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ROBERT KUTTNER

Bush and Frist got what they wanted

THE WASHINGTON press corps loves the conceit that polarization is what ails American politics and that bipartisan moderation will save the day. The high drama of the ''nuclear option" averted by brave moderates from both parties fits the script perfectly.

In the conventional account, Republican leader Bill Frist, tired of court nominees being denied a floor vote by obstructionist Democrats, threatened to scrap the filibuster rule. Just hours before this nuclear option was to be exercised, 14 moderates of both parties, after marathon negotiations, heroically fashioned a compromise in which just three controversial nominees get a floor vote, and the filibuster is preserved.

Several press accounts had Frist isolated and humiliated, and right-wing groups furious. The only problem is that this happy spin is almost totally wrong. Consider what actually happened.

By threatening what amounted to a parliamentary coup d'etat, Frist got nearly everything he wanted. A rules change requires a two-thirds vote. Frist's ''nuclear option" would have had the leadership rule from the chair that the filibuster can be scrapped for judicial nominees; then a simple majority of 51 senators would have upheld the parliamentary ruling. End of filibuster.

Faced with bad publicity for this show of crude force, several Republicans looked for a face-saver that would still preserve the substantive result -- confirmation of extremist nominees. They and Frist won. This was no mutiny against the Senate leader; it was merely a change of tactic.

What does the vaunted compromise actually do? First, it guarantees an up-or-down floor vote on three of the most reactionary judges ever to come before the Senate: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor, and Priscilla Owen. It was Democratic resistance to these appellate nominees that caused Frist to go nuclear in the first place. He and George W. Bush won. The three judges are now likely to be confirmed, and other extremist nominees will keep coming.

Second, the deal commits the GOP to relent on the plan to scrap the filibuster, but only for now. Frist is free to revive the nuclear option any time he likes, say, when the first Bush nominee to the Supreme Court comes before the Senate. Frist can hold this threat over the heads of Democrats, who are committed to minimize the use of filibusters.

Frist, Bush, and the Republican propaganda machine have been expressing outrage that Bush has been denied a handful of court nominees. The fact is that Republicans denied Bill Clinton far more court nominees, not by filibustering, but by refusing to let nominations out of committee. And Clinton tended to appoint moderates in an effort to appease Republicans, while Bush's nominees are mostly far-right conservatives.

Frist needed 50 votes plus Vice President Cheney as tie-breaker to sustain his threatened parliamentary coup.

In the end, seven of the 55 Senate Republicans decided to pursue this ''compromise," leaving him two votes short. But if these Republicans were genuinely moderates, they would not just be providing this parliamentary fig leaf; they would be voting against confirmation of these extremist nominees when they come up for a floor vote.

If you want to look for profiles in courage, see whether ''moderate" Republicans like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island actually oppose any of these nominees. For the most part, these people posture moderate and then do Bush's bidding.

The nuclear option is a very fitting analogy. Throughout the Cold War, the two super powers never used nuclear weapons. It was the threat to use them that produced the power. This is what Frist has done. He did not have to blow up a Senate norm, and he got his way just the same.

This week's nuclear compromise was no victory for moderation. It was just the latest in a series of salami tactics, where the right takes some now and comes back for more later.

In addition to the myth of bipartisan moderation, another myth is that the country wants moderate policies but that both parties are at fault for moving to the extremes. In fact, the Democrats have moved steadily to the center on issues of social outlay, progressive taxation, and deregulation, while Bush has worked to energize his party's most extremist interest groups.

If the country is not getting moderate policies, it's because the Bush administration has shown that if you play real hardball, you can enact policies far to the right of what most voters want.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.


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