While the Senate deal on judicial nominations may have bought peace for now, President Bush still faces bitter fights in Congress over Social Security, trade, stem-cell research and other contentious second-term issues.
The compromise on judges could help break logjams in other areas, emboldening centrists in both parties, some politicians and analysts suggested. Or it could just be a temporary pause, giving way to more partisan bickering from hard-liners.
Both sides sought to gauge the fallout from this week’s unusual agreement that opened the way for up-and-down votes on some of Bush’s stalled nominations while protecting, for now, the future right of Democrats to use the filibuster. It wasn’t completely clear whose hand was strengthened: Bush and his GOP allies in Congress or minority-party Democrats.
“It set a different tone: a rejection of partisan politics. No one won here, but nobody lost either,” said Frank Luntz, a pollster who often works for Republicans. Still, Luntz added: “There’s still a lot of partisanship in Washington. While they may have solved this one dispute, there’s still a lot more left.”
Interest groups on both the left and the right have strongly denounced the deal _ the left complaining it opened the way for the confirmation of right-wing judges and the right complaining that it seems to preserve the right of Democrats to block a Supreme Court nominee with a filibuster.
American University presidential historian Allan J. Lichtman said the compromise was an important victory for moderates that could influence future votes, including those on other issues.
“The political center has been disparaged as the poor children of American politics as the parties have become increasingly polarized. Now the center is saying, hey, we’ve got some power here,” Lichtman said. “On the Republican side, seven votes matter, even absent the filibuster.”
In the days ahead, Bush faces close votes on a free-trade pact with Central America; his nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador; an effort to curb the growth of federal spending; and preliminary steps on proposed Social Security overhaul.
In most instances, Democrats are united in opposition while Republicans are struggling to limit defections.
Bush could find that, in the aftermath of the agreement on judicial nominations, he might have an even harder time getting support in the GOP-run Congress. More moderates might step forward and break ranks with the GOP leadership.
It also might force him into compromises on issues like Social Security.
The deal on judges “is a constructive throwback to the old politics where people were able and willing to split the difference,” said Fred Greenstein, a political science professor at Princeton University.
“There were significant defections on both sides, and the defectors held the majority” in putting forward the judicial nomination agreement, Greenstein said. “If this kind of brokerage can come to pass, then the centrist figures are going to be very important and decisive.”
Legislation moving through Congress that would loosen Bush’s restriction on federal financing of stem-cell research is an example of legislation that has the support of such moderates. It has been gaining support in Congress, even though Bush has vowed to veto it.
Leaders on both sides of the aisle reacted cautiously to the deal on judicial nominees, apparently not wanting to antagonize core constituencies by seeming too enthusiastic.
“It’s about time we’re making some progress,” Bush said of the deal.
Yet White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to call it a victory. “It’s real progress that they’re moving forward on these nominees. I mean, that’s the way I would describe it,” McClellan said.
Likewise, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean was uncharacteristically guarded.
“I would be hesitant to say yet that it’s a win for the Democratic party,” he told The Associated Press. He said it’s too soon to know the long-term ramifications.
At the same time, “it was a huge loss for the right wing,” Dean said. “It was clearly a loss for the president because he was getting accustomed to ramming things through the House and the Senate without any confrontation.”
Away from Washington, “this is all sort of a mystery,” said presidential historian Thomas Cronin, president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Most people don’t understand filibusters and the rules that govern them, but see partisan bickering “and it annoys them,” Cronin said. “And that’s a negative.”
“Therefore, it is a victory for the Senate if they can get on with their business, even if they’re just postponing future bickering,” Cronin said.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.