Nuclear Option, McCain, Frist, and 2008

Last night’s deal in which the Democrats agreed to do their job on some judicial nominees in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to give up their leverage will have an impact on the 2008 presidential race, since Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and John McCain, the leader of the deal brokers, are both all-but-official candidates. As things stand now, both are weakened by the compromise.

Frist, never a particularly strong candidate to begin with, looks weaker. He has allowed his leadership to be undermined by a backbench faction and been unable to deliver on his promise of an up-or-down vote for every nominee. The Republican nominating electorate will not be pleased. McCain has long been viewed with skepticism by the base and last night’s move only strengthens that. While conservative on many key issues, he loves the limelight even more than the average Senator and has found that the best way to get it is to play the role of “maverick,” a term the media applies to Republicans who often vote with the Democrats.

Frist can recover from this; McCain can not. Pat Buchanan, appearing on the Don Imus show this morning, pointed to a way ahead for Frist. Basically, he can simply insist on an up-or-down vote for each nominee, this deal be damned. If the Democrats deem that “extraordinary circumstances” have been reached on a particular nominee, then Frist can call for a cloture vote and force McCain and the others to cast an on the record vote. McCain will then have to either vote with the Republicans and kill this deal, or he has to vote with the Democrats and further alienate the party. Either way, the nuclear option could still be played and, again, McCain and the others would have to cast a vote.

One wonders if Frist has the mettle for such a maneuver. If not, his small chances of being the Republican nominee in 2008 are finished. McCain’s are already over.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, Uncategorized, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just Me says:

    I don’t think Frist has the mettle. I think he is probably a very nice man, and many senators may enjoy working with him, but he does not have the ability to lead this senate, which makes me very unlikely to support him in a presidential primary. McCain shot himself in the foot a long time ago, and while he may do well among independants, there is no way he will survive a GOP primary intact and with the nomination.

    The GOP screwed themselves on this one, and the Democrats once again got their way.

    We will just see how the deal plays out when the first supreme court justice gets nominated.

  2. GP says:

    While McCain showed real leadership in brokering a deal among fractious sides, his actions won’t be viewed as positive by the Republicans who vote in primaries. These voters generally seem to like Bush’s “my way or the highway” style of leadership, mixed with Christian populism. McCain is much more of a Bill Clinton triangulation leader and isn’t doing himself any favors towards getting the 2008 nomination. His hope is that the other candidates are either lack luster or shoot themselves in the foot and he is the last qualified man standing. I still think McCain would do very well in a general election. So Republican primary voters may hold their noses and vote for him in order to keep the White House. And the media loves him. So I wouldn’t write him off yet, but I wouldn’t order the President McCain china yet either.

    Frist however looks weak and incapable here. He can’t even get his own party together, let alone broker a bipartisan deal. His chances at the nomination are looking slimer by the moment, and I never thought they were particularly good.

  3. Norman Rogers says:

    I see this deal as a complete cavein by the Democrats. They would not have agreed to any deal if they thought that Frist did not have the votes.

    Here’s how this will play out:

    1. Brown, Pryor, and Owen get immediate confirmation votes.

    2. Bolton gets his confirmation vote.

    3. The outer four are brought up by Frist, one-by-one. Amid much sound and fury, each of them is brought to a vote. If the Democrats fillibuster, two of the seven Republican signatores claim bad faith and the Democrats cave again (50 + Cheney = nuclear explosion). The Democrats won’t risk it. Indeed, it won’t come to this.

    What’s not to like?

  4. James Joyner says:

    Norman: With the nuclear option, the Republicans get their votes anyway. Now, if they invoke it, it’ll look like they’re going back on their word.

  5. Anderson says:

    What James said. Rightly or wrongly, the public will perceive that a deal’s been made, and Frist can’t simply blow it off.

    Anyone else heard this rumor that Lindsey Graham thinks Brown’s nomination will lose on a floor vote? If he’s counting noses on the 7 Repubs in the compromise faction, he may know what he’s talking about.

  6. DaveD says:

    The Democratic Party threatens to filibuster in a context it has never been used before. Now, they manage to convince everyone in the spirit of comity that a compromise is needed on the threat. It’s kind of like the Reagan SDI. Without any hard results that the USA could actually down a missle with another missle, the Soviets come to the bargaining table and their collapse nudged just that much farther. I am surprised at the number of people who think the filibuster, rather than a direct floor vote, is essential to the system of checks and balances in our government.

  7. SoloD says:

    Two guy secretly smiling today are Allen and Brownback. They just saw two potential rivals fall to the side.