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The Senate saves itself

THE US SENATE may have just rediscovered its better self.

Sitting in the Senate gallery on Monday afternoon, watching as one senator after another took the floor to drone on to an empty chamber -- if no longer the world's most attentive deliberative body, the Senate remains the nation's most ornate TV studio -- an observer couldn't help but ask a simple question:

Where were the men and women bigger than the partisan passions of the moment, the sort of figures that come to mind when you think of the Senate's best moments? Certainly, when Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana opined that country and Senate would survive curtailing the filibuster, explaining that ''I think at times we underestimate our own abilities," one could only conclude that such a perceptual failing couldn't possibly apply to today's Senate.

And then, even as the Republican majority seemed ready to toss away the unique compromise-catalyzing character of the institution in a naked power grab, 14 senators did rise to the occasion. Under the dramatic agreement they unveiled Monday evening, seven Senate Republicans said that they wouldn't support stripping away the right to filibuster judicial nominees -- something the GOP leadership was willing to break the Senate's rules to accomplish.

In exchange, the seven Democrats pledged to refrain from filibustering nominees except ''under extraordinary circumstances." Given the Senate's composition, those 14 are enough to make that understanding hold sway, at least for now.

As announcements go, this one was remarkable for the political panoply it offered. There was 87-year-old Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who has served for more than 46 years, and Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, who has five months of service under his belt.

New England was on prominent display, with Maine's Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins; Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman; and Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, who was there in signature, if not in person. The South was equally well-represented, with Republicans John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

If you had to pick one indispensable player, it would likely be Arizona's John McCain. Certainly, he was praised for his role in brokering the pact, though Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson and Pryor are said to have played important roles.

To be sure, this is a fragile deal, one already under assault. To endure, it will have to make solid ground of the murky middle. But here's a reason to be hopeful: The bipartisan agreement was based on the genuine trust and respect that had developed among the signatories.

At first glance, Democrats might ask what, exactly, they got, since they are now letting through three of the judges they have blocked and pledging extremely limited use of the filibuster against judicial nominees. The immediate answer: The essential preservation of the filibuster against a conservative power play that had started with judicial nominees but might have proceeded to other areas. Further, if the deal does hold, Monday could mark the reassertion of independent-minded centrist politics. Indeed, the group's memorandum of understanding included a pointed note encouraging ''the executive branch to consult with members of the Senate, both Democratic and Republican," before nominating judges.

It remains to be seen if those hopes will be realized, but clearly this pact dealt a blow not just to the Senate's right-wingers but to a White House that had urged them on. Certainly minority leader Harry Reid deemed it a positive step, calling the agreement a ''victory for our country." In contrast, leading proponents of the so-called nuclear option ended the day looking small.

Addressing the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist seemed almost petulant as he tried to spin the development as a victory for his leadership. But a leader wasn't what Frist looked like. Rather, he seemed like a power-hungry partisan who had been willing to sacrifice a legitimate prerogative of the Senate as he cultivates the religious right for a planned presidential campaign -- until seven GOP members joined with seven Democrats to keep that from happening, that is.

They were the real leaders. And their brave declaration stands as a rebuke not just to Frist but to the legion of Lilliputians who had hoped to claim the United States Senate for their very own.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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