Some Senate Republicans are wisely beginning to cool on the "nuclear option" to end the Democrats' filibuster of a handful of President Bush's judicial nominees.
The option is, by a simple-majority procedural vote, to ban judicial filibusters. It's called "nuclear" because it would vaporize a longstanding Senate prerogative — unlimited debate — and the fallout could be horrendous.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has threatened to thoroughly gum up the workings of the Senate, which he can easily do if the Republicans go ahead with the change.
It takes a supermajority of 60 votes to end a filibuster, and Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, with 55 GOP senators, is tantalizingly close to having a free hand to approve nominations. But he may not have the votes to enact the nuclear option, because a number of Republicans believe there are good reasons to stick with the status quo.
Filibusters are commonly used to block legislation. Southern Democrats used them for years to hold up civil-rights legislation. Judicial filibusters, while not unprecedented, were rare — until George W. Bush took the White House and Republicans the Senate.
Even so, Bush has an impressive record. The Senate has approved 205 of his district and appellate nominees, the latest a 95-0 vote Monday on a federal district judge for New York. Of Bush's 52 appeals-court nominees, 34 have been confirmed, but the Democrats are balking at 10. And they say they will filibuster those 10 until the nominations are withdrawn.
It is not an idle threat. They held up Miguel Estrada's appellate nomination for 28 months until Estrada withdrew in disgust.
Frist is seeking a compromise and the Democrats would do well to listen, not just for their own sake but that of the Senate. The filibuster is one tool for the minority to protect itself from the tyranny of the majority. It is also a mechanism to stop the Senate from acting in haste. Republicans should keep in mind that one day they could again be the minority. It could happen. The Senate has changed hands three times in the last 15 years.
This particular standoff should not go nuclear.