How Senate fracas may shape '08

The filibuster fight may help cast midterm elections and give McCain a boost in the next presidential race.

By the time the 2008 presidential elections roll around, the 2005 nuclear-tinged battle over judicial nominees may be but a distant memory. But for now, that battle - and the 11th-hour compromise that averted the ultimate showdown - holds implications for the nascent presidential race, particularly on the Republican side.

Among those who appear to be actively considering a run, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona emerges a winner, analysts say. Senator McCain played a significant role in crafting the compromise announced Monday evening by a bipartisan group of 14 senators. And he is no stranger to the spotlight - or the public. In the 2000 presidential race, he nearly knocked off heir-apparent George W. Bush for the GOP nomination.

The agreement on judges "certainly burnished his credentials as an independent thinker and someone who's a problem-solver," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

McCain's biggest drawback is that his shoot-from-the-hip style makes him unpopular with religious conservatives. But he opposes abortion, and could become palatable to that GOP bloc if he appeared the strongest Republican to face the Democratic nominee, analysts say.

Monday's outcome appears less helpful to the political future of Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate and another possible '08 hopeful. The fact that Senator Frist allowed himself to get backed into a corner, then had to cede leadership to his colleagues in the crafting of a compromise, does not speak to his skills as a leader, analysts say.

"Any outcome would have caused problems for him," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. If Frist had gotten what he wanted - a change in Senate rules to ban filibusters of judicial nominees - he would have received a temporary boost from the activist religious conservative wing of the Republican Party. For that constituency, placing conservative judges in the federal judiciary is a top political goal, ultimately in the name of overturning the national right to abortion, and Frist has courted that lobby heavily.

But if Frist had succeeded in banning judicial filibusters, the Democrats would have retaliated, leading to a near-paralysis in the functioning of the Senate. Frist's wider public image could have taken a hit. "The Senate would have been such a mess, which would have raised questions about his stewardship," Mr. Ornstein adds.

The seven Republicans and seven Democrats agreed to vote on some of President Bush's judicial nominees, but held open the right to filibuster other nominees under "extraordinary circumstances."

Another Senate Republican who has been gaining traction of late for '08 is George Allen of Virginia. He took a low-key but strong stand against filibusters of judicial nominees, and has burnished his credentials among religious conservatives and generated buzz.

On the Democratic side, implications are less clear. The most prominent '08 possibilities in the Senate - including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry - stayed on the sidelines during the fracas. "One potential upside [for the Democrats] is it may invigorate the liberal interest groups to get a Democratic president," says Professor Green. "Not that they didn't try hard in '04, but they may redouble their efforts."

The filibuster fallout may affect the '06 midterm elections, too. Given that the so-called "nuclear option" - a move to change Senate rules and ban judicial filibusters - remains a live possibility for the future, the Democrats know it is not sufficient just to have a filibuster-proof Congress, that is, one in which the majority has fewer than the 60 votes needed to end debate. Currently, the Republicans hold 55 of the Senate's 100 seats.

"They know they have to reduce the Republican margins," says Green. "I don't know if the Democrats can retake the Senate in 2006, but they certainly could whittle down the Republican majority."

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