Accessibility links

US Political Centrists Exert Influence

Political centrists were the big winners in Washington this past week. A bipartisan group of 14 members of the Senate forged a compromise that avoided a potentially crippling showdown over several of President Bush's judicial nominees. But will this spirit of bipartisan cooperation last?

The Senate centrists agreement came just hours before a political showdown over a parliamentary delaying tactic known as the filibuster.

Opposition Democrats were threatening to use filibusters to block several of President Bush's choices for federal judgeships. Filibusters involve endless debate and delay and effectively prevent final votes in the Senate on legislation or presidential appointments.

Majority Republicans were about to force a Senate rules change that would have made it much easier to end a filibuster and allow the president and the majority party to push his nominees through the Senate.

But 14 moderates, seven Republicans and seven Democrats, interceded and forced a compromise. The agreement allows the president to have some of his judicial nominees confirmed in the Senate, while Democrats preserve the right to use the filibuster in the future. Democrats say they will only resort to the filibuster in what they call extraordinary circumstances.

Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is one of the moderates who shaped the compromise.

"In a Senate that has become increasingly partisan and polarized, the bipartisan center held," he said.

The rise of a group of influential moderates in the Congress is noteworthy in a country that has experienced a sharp partisan political divide in recent years.

Washington-based political analyst Charles Cook says the relationship between the two major political parties remains tense following two close presidential elections.

"We are in a very polarized country with emotions on both sides, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, just incredibly intense," explained Mr. Cook.

With Republicans and Democrats focused on issues that are important to their base constituencies, moderates from both parties have seen their influence limited in recent years.

But Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says that the centrists can still exert influence when they come together.

"Well, if you look at both parties, there are not very many moderates left in either one," he noted. "But together on a highly explosive, polarizing issue they can provide the balance and that is what they did this time on judges."

Many conservative groups and several liberal activist organizations were not happy with the bipartisan compromise. Conservatives wanted to eliminate the use of the filibuster to block presidential appointments.

Liberals are upset that Democrats are allowing confirmation of some of the president's judicial choices, nominees they regard as extreme conservatives.

Many political analysts predict that this organized assertion of influence by political moderates will be challenged sooner rather than later, especially if a vacancy opens up on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ross Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"I think that people may be feeling very good about it now because we have postponed a confrontation in May. But who knows what is going to happen in October," he said.

Senators from both parties agree that a Supreme Court vacancy could set off a major confirmation battle between the president, who must choose a replacement justice, and opposition Democrats, who may decide to block his choice during Senate debate.

Once again, analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

"It all depends on the kind of person that the president nominates," he explained. "I think the president is going to have a hard time finding somebody who is broadly acceptable. But it will be a good test of this compromise and what the moderates of both parties meant when they said that all but the most extreme nominees will go through.

For the moment, the political centrists appear to hold the balance of power, at least in the Senate. How long that will last in this politically polarized capital is anybody's guess.