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Political Analysts Discuss Senate Filibuster Compromise

May 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. David, how would you characterize what has happened and add to that what you’ve just heard from these four senators?

DAVID BROOKS: Well I think first there’s the deal and then the spinning of the deal.


DAVID BROOKS: First the deal. You know, I think it’s great. You know, the sky opens up. Angels come down. Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, because what happened is they actually compromised. There’s two ways of doing politics where you try to just crush the other side 100 percent or where you actually cut a deal.

And they cut a deal and the way they cut the deal at the end of the day — and I didn’t think we could do it — was with a measure of trust among the 14. When they were in that room — McCain’s office — trying to write language there was a level of distrust among those 14 who are friends. They couldn’t trust each other, so they didn’t know how they would spin the deal.

When you look at the agreement they did trust each other because it’s vague. They said, okay, the filibuster will be safe, legal and rare. You won’t abuse it and we won’t abuse our side of the thing. And so at least among those 14 for this week there’s a level of compromise, deal-making and trust.

JIM LEHRER: How would you characterize it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I agree with David it is a compromise. That’s something we don’t see very often. In a compromise both sides give something.

JIM LEHRER: Both sides win; both sides lose.

MARK SHIELDS: And both sides lose, and that was obviously the case.

JIM LEHRER: We just heard it explained.

MARK SHIELDS: We sure did, absolutely. It was a victory, a triumph of, by and for the moderates. And the moderates are among the most disparaged groups in all of politics. The definition of a moderate.

JIM LEHRER: Define a moderate.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the definition of a moderate is kind of a wise guy is that moderate is somebody when you’re drowning 20 feet off shore throws you a 15-foot rope and boasts he went more than halfway. They’re always well intentioned, but they’re not hard headed pragmatists.

Well, these guys took on the toughest interest groups in both parties. They risked their disdain, their all-out hostility; the safety in this, to be very frank about it, was in the pack, the safety was staying in your caucus, whether it was the Republican Caucus or the Democratic Caucus.

JIM LEHRER: Stay with Frist or stay with —

MARK SHIELDS: Stay with Harry Reid. But they rolled the dice and David’s right, they trusted each other. But they did something bigger than that. They took a risk that showed they were willing, and they broke from the critical safety, they refused to play it safe.

And I have to say, Jim, during my time in Washington, all the great achievements, the ones that stand the test of history — the Marshall Plan, authored by a Democratic president, pushed by a Republican senator, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan; the great Civil Rights Acts of Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t have passed without Jacob Javitz, the Republican of New York, and Everett Dirksen, the Republican of Illinois; there wouldn’t have been an environmental movement without a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress.

And I just — I think this example of bipartisanship — I agree with David. I think it is terrific. I think it’s important, and I think these people deserve enormous, enormous credit.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you admitted it a moment ago that you didn’t think this could — the moderates would do this.


JIM LEHRER: What do you think happened to them?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think first of all they focused the mind, because you know, they really hated the idea of what was about to happen to their body. I think the other thing that happened, they had some support from the leaders, I think.

JIM LEHRER: I mean, a wink, you think they had?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they had a wink. And I also think they had — a lot of people say on the Republican side, who are publicly going to vote for the constitutional option or the nuclear option, but privately were against it. So I think that happened. And then I think they just realized that this was the moment to take a risk. You know there’s going to be a cause.

I think John McCain led in a way that is unusual for his reputation because he was not the lone wolf. He was actually organizing other people. So I think he did a good job. I think Ben Nelson was persistent. But then the people who are most nervous and who have the most to lose were people like Joe Lieberman in Connecticut and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

JIM LEHRER: Lieberman being a Democrat, Graham being a Republican.

DAVID BROOKS: Who had significant home state opposition at least amongst the interest group, maybe not among the people, and so they took a risk and those people — and I think it was the Democrats who were wavering last week. And those people took a risk. And I think whether you agree or not those are honorable people.

JIM LEHRER: What about John McCain? A lot of the punditry since last night has been, “Oh, well, he has pretty much forfeited any Republican, conservative support for the presidential nomination in four years.” Do you agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t. I think John McCain has always been a maverick. I mean in that group there were moderates, there were mavericks and I would add there were institutionalists. And I think the two institutionalists that stood out, the people who were there represented no ambition beyond the immediate. These are men who have remarkable careers: John Warner of Virginia and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. And I think they were the ones, when they went into that room and said this is big —

JIM LEHRER: We need to understand it because we’re using a lot of labels here. Robert Byrd would hardly be considered a moderate of the Democratic Party.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: And you would not consider John Warner a moderate of the Republican Party.

MARK SHIELDS: Not the same way you certainly consider the New England Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Exactly.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But both of them, both of them remember the Senate when it was a more collegial, a more humane, and a more trusting place. And they represent that. They don’t want to see it further descend. Jim, you have to understand Washington is the politically paralyzed, politically polarized Washington is the only place in America where the word “moderate” is an insult, an invective. I mean, that’s what they were charged today.

They were condemned by conservatives all over the place from Paul Wyrick to others, these moderates. They’ve robbed us of our great victory. And, you know, it really is remarkable. John McCain has always marched to a different drum. If the Republicans are going to nominate somebody who stands solely alone, you know who he is, what he believes, there’s no trimming, no hedging, John McCain will be their guy. If there’s looking for somebody who is a true believer, it will never be John McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Take us through this, David. These are your folks — the conservatives. How are the conservatives going to react to this? Is anybody going to have to pay a price, do you believe?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think they’ll have to pay a price. The conservative like James Dobson are apoplectic. James Dobson wakes up apoplectic. But, you know, they wanted to fight. I’m reminded of that old joke that when two men fight over a woman it’s the fight they want, not the woman. They were geared up for this fight. But I think in a not-too-distant future people are going to see that this is a good win for those conservatives because —

JIM LEHRER: In what way?

DAVID BROOKS: It creates what I think of as the Brown standard. The Democrats said they would only filibuster under extraordinary circumstances. They said the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown is not an extraordinary circumstance.

So any time a judge is nominated and who is as conservative as Janice Rogers Brown, which is pretty conservative, the Republicans will say, “Hey, if she’s not extraordinary, then this person is not extraordinary. You have got to allow a vote on this person.” So I think what it does, it widens what we call the mainstream of what’s an acceptable nominee up to Janice Rogers Brown and in years to come, that’s going to be a good standard for conservatives.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think this doesn’t stop but prevents a major fight over the next Supreme Court nominee?

MARK SHIELDS: No. No. I think if it’s somebody like Clarence Thomas to be Chief Justice there will be a fight.

JIM LEHRER: No matter what? Even though he was confirmed before?

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah. He was confirmed. He got a negative report out of the committee. He got —

JIM LEHRER: We don’t want to go into the specifics.

MARK SHIELDS: It was a brilliant — it was a brutal fight on the floor. I mean so —

JIM LEHRER: I don’t mean to go through individuals here but do — you don’t think this will in some way mitigate — that’s the word I was reaching for and couldn’t find a moment ago — do you think this mitigates the possibility of a huge fight over the next Supreme Court nominee?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think it probably does. But I do think, Jim, that as you look at that, the discussion when Gwen just had, when Lincoln Chafee brought up the advise part, that was very important in this whole thing — that the president — the Senate not only consents to the president — they advise. And Bill Clinton did on both Breyer and Ginsberg he went to be sure that there weren’t going to be any problems before —

JIM LEHRER: Went to Orrin Hatch before. Let me get a quick –


JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the Supreme Court thing?

DAVID BROOKS: I think there’s a step toward trust because people have really looked over the precipice but if there’s sort of a controversial nominee, what we saw just now with those senators was Jeff Sessions has his version, Chuck Schumer certainly has a different version and so that trust element, if that washes away then we’ll be back to where we were.

JIM LEHRER: All bets are off.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing and that is the ultimate irony would be this — that the Republican Congress, which has plummeted since January in popular approval, I mean, it’s dropped 20 points since January alone in its performance, if in fact it was rehabilitated and saved by the moderates who get the disdain of the conservatives in the Republican Party.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll continue this conversation on Friday night. Thank you all very much.