Nation loses in arcane fight over judicial filibuster

"It ain't over till it's over," Yogi Berra once said of baseball. He could have been talking about a game called Senate filibuster. That match is not over either. And it won't end until President Bush rolls out his Supreme Court nominees. Then we shall see whether this bizarre and tedious battle over eliminating the Senate filibuster rule has really been settled.

Meanwhile, 14 centrist senators, proclaiming they have rescued the Senate and possibly the republic, have imposed a cease-fire over changing the Senate rulebook. There will be no vote, right now, on whether the Senate will abolish filibusters - a way to "talk to death" a judicial nominee.

Before the settlement was announced, the filibuster fight cast a surreal, almost crazy aura over Washington politics. The ripple effect reached Georgia. Partisan extremists from both the left and right took control. In the days and hours leading up to the compromise, some old-timers could barely believe what they were seeing and hearing.

In Atlanta, the Rev. Joseph Lowery - one of the keepers of the flame for Martin Luther King Jr. - delivered a rafter-ringing address in favor of the Senate filibuster. He termed the filibuster a "bedrock of the republic" and a "protection of minority rights." Not too many years ago, this same venerable civil rights leader repeatedly denounced the filibuster as a segregationist tool used to deny minority rights.

In Washington, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss proudly portrayed himself as a steadfast foe of the filibuster, especially as it is has been used to delay confirmation of judicial nominees. "I cannot envision me not agreeing to allow somebody an up-or-down vote. The way our country's judicial system has always worked is to remove the politics from the nominee," Chambliss asserted in a declaration that does not jibe with our past.

Chambliss occupies the historically significant Senate post held by the late Richard Russell (1933-1971), the nation's most skilled practitioner and organizer of filibusters.

If Russell were alive today, he might concur, in principle, with Lowery. The filibuster is indeed needed to protect minority rights.

Except Russell would refer to 1960s Southern conservatives as the minority whose rights he sought to protect. And he wouldn't be too happy about using filibusters to keep conservative judges off the bench.

This latest episode in this Senate soap opera is reminiscent of Russell's pivotal role in the 1968 derailment-by-filibuster of Abe Fortas as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Russell first supported the nomination of Fortas by President Lyndon Johnson and then withdrew his support. When the president lost his main endorsement and saw that Fortas was about to be "talked to death," he withdrew the nomination.

During his career, Russell directed about 15 filibusters or "talkathons" against civil rights legislation offered by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson and "won complete or partial victory" in each battle, according to Josephine Mellichamp's 1976 book, "Senators from Georgia."

In 1964, Russell, in opposition to a public accommodations bill, led a filibuster that lasted from March 9 to June 19. The Senate ultimately passed the civil rights measure, handing Russell his worst setback in Washington.

"I have exhausted my resources. I have fought the battle to the bitter end," Russell said.

However, the Georgian continued his role as a Senate giant and one of LBJ's close advisers. Russell's influence on military and agriculture matters remained unsurpassed.

Obviously, those were different times. Senate leaders of perhaps greater intellect possessed the ability to compartmentalize their partisan differences. In most cases, they kept rancor from spoiling their main mission of serving the nation's interest and preserving the Senate's dignity and integrity.

To many of us outsiders, fiddling with the Senate filibuster rule falls close to the not urgent category. This shaggy-dog, inside-the-Beltway issue was not the equivalent of a nuclear option or an assassination, as each side has screeched.

Despite the temporary compromise, the damage has been done. The American people have lost another round. Our senators, Democrats and Republicans, spent time and energy on an arcane dispute that should have been settled off camera weeks ago by a leadership with more vision and less vitriol. It should be noted that neither the GOP Majority Leader Bill Frist nor the Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid fashioned the truce. Their far-out, uncompromising partisan backers apparently would have preferred to fight on.

In case our coddled representatives in Washington haven't noticed, our country is embroiled in imminent crises that transcend the wild desire for judges who will void pro-choice abortion laws - the apparent starting point for the current stupidity.

America's base of good jobs is vanishing. Several of our biggest corporations teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. Manufacturing is disappearing. Illegal immigration is out of control. Our health care system is a disaster. The war in Iraq is not going well. A billion Muslims are rapidly being converted into blood enemies.

Our senators should be embarrassed. They have spent days fretting over the number of votes needed to close debate on hiring judges - and playing tit-for-tat in a complicated game that has little resonance beyond the biased babble of cable television and talk radio.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA, 30160 or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net . His Web site is www.billshipp.com . His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.