New dealmakers on Capitol Hill

A group of centrist senators are working to avert a showdown over filibustering.

As an all-out war of rhetoric over judges plays out on the Senate floor, a shifting coalition of moderates, mavericks, and Senate traditionalists is working every angle to find a way out.

Days after their leaders declared an end to negotiations - no deal, no truce - they are deep into an exercise in building trust at a time when many of their colleagues are preaching scorched-earth politics.

They meet quietly, alternating Senate offices or exchanging words in the hall, in search of a compromise to avoid a bitter party-line vote next week over the so-called "nuclear option" - a rule change that they say will undermine the character of the Senate long into the future.

While elements of a deal have leaked out of these talks, the details are still in flux. They include an agreement by at least six Republicans to vote down the GOP leadership's proposed rule change on filibusters. In exchange, at least six Democrats would agree to allow some number of the blocked Bush nominees to come to a floor vote.

A key addition: Democrats would also agree not to support a filibuster against future Bush judicial nominees, including for the Supreme Court, except under "extraordinary circumstances" - a phrase that's been tough to nail down.

If the bid succeeds, it means Democrats can no longer use the filibuster as weapon of choice in defeating Bush nominations. And Republicans can't succeed in eliminating it. It also opens these moderates to the wrath of outside interest groups aligned on both sides of the judges' fight - and already running ads against senators standing outside party lines. There may also be reprisals within party ranks.

"It's a dramatic story of a group of centrists trying to influence politics in a polarized age," says Julian Zelizer, a historian of Congress at Boston University.

Some, like GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have stood together against their party's establishment on issues ranging from McCain's 2000 presidential run to abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.

Others, like Sens. Susan Collins (R) of Maine and Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, typically work outside the partisan red-blue zone. As chair and ranking member of the recently renamed Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, they forged one of the most durable partnerships in the Senate.

Another important element in the compromise coalition are Senate traditionalists, like Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, who don't want to see the Senate fall into the partisan folkways of the highly disciplined House of Representatives. Fifty-two members of the current Senate have experience in the House, the highest since Senate historians have kept records.

"Over time, a lot of the older traditionalists have left," says Donald Ritchie, associate Senate historian. When liberal Democrats tried to change the filibuster rule in the 1950s, only about a third of the Senate had House experience. "The voters have elected a very different kind of senator, and the institution hasn't figured out how to adapt to this," he says.

But even for Senate newcomer Mark Pryor, whose father also served in the Senate, preserving minority rights is essential to the institution of the Senate. "From my early childhood, I learned to respect the Senate and its traditions, and its unique roll in American government. Part of that is the filibuster," he says.

For decades in the early 20th century, the main use of the filibuster in the Senate had been to block civil rights legislation. In 1957, liberal Democrats tried to break the filibuster with a procedural maneuver very much like the one majority leader Bill First is proposing for next week, except that the target of the rule change was filibustering Southerners in their own party.

Like Frist, they planned to propose a rule change from the floor, to be ruled in order by the presiding officer. In 1957, the presiding officer was vice president Richard Nixon, who hoped to gain black votes in the upcoming 1960 election. In the end, the bid was deftly blocked by majority leader Lyndon Johnson, also with an eye to keeping Southerners inside the Democrat Party to boost his own presidential bid in 1960. "Both parties had sizable divisions in those days," explains historian Ritchie. "Senators then were constantly forging alliances. They didn't want to burn bridges with colleagues."

Democrats concede that they are now defending a practice that was once used to suppress rights, but insist it still has a key role in protecting the rights of minorities. "The filibuster was used [in the 1950s] for what we would consider today bad purposes, but there have been many, many instances when it has been used for good purposes," says Senator Pryor.

For Republican moderates involved in these negotiations, the stakes are especially high. While a stand down on the nuclear option would be a victory for Democratic leader Harry Reid, it would all but surely be viewed as a defeat for majority leader Frist. He has staked his leadership on getting a vote on all of the president's nominees and ending the filibuster before a vacancy opens on the Supreme Court, expected this summer.

He also needs the support of conservative activists, who are not budging on the need to end the filibuster, in his expected run for the presidency in 2008.

"The moderates are looking for the political equivalent of the resolution to the Cuban missile crisis," says Marshall Wittman, a former McCain aide, now with the Democratic Leadership Council.

"The bottom line for the senators who want a compromise is that we have to have a stand down and not change the rules of the institution in the midst of a partisan, polarizing confrontation," he adds. "They don't want to have a showdown in which there are no winners and Washington and the institution will be the big losers."

Leading the compromise effort on the Democratic side, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson says he is committed to fighting for a deal right up until the vote on ending the use of filibusters, expected on Wednesday. "We're not accepting deadlines," he says.

Others involved in the closed-door negotiations include: Democrats Ken Salazar of Colorado, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and, earlier, Trent Lott of Mississippi.

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