In the contest to claim the title as the true champion of bipartisan politics, both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama often portray themselves as the man most likely to have success reaching across the aisle to break the logjam of Washington politics.
To bolster his case, McCain recently harkened back to the spring of 2005, when he was part of a small bipartisan effort to resolve a bitter standoff between Senate Democrats and Republicans over three conservative judicial nominees named by President George W. Bush.
"I joined the Gang of 14, seven Republicans, seven Democrats, so that we wouldn't blow up the United States Senate," McCain said in a virtual town hall meeting on June 14, 2008. "Sen. Obama had the opportunity to join that group. He chose not to."
At the time, the Democrats were using the filibuster to block confirmation votes on some conservative judges. Traditionally, the selection of judges had been viewed as a presidential power that was not to be curtailed. Senators felt free to vote against a nomination, but using procedural powers in the Senate to keep them from coming to a vote at all hadn't been done. The idea that Democrats were willing to use the filibuster to block judges was seen by many as an affront to the protocol-driven operations of the Senate.
The Republicans, headed by Bill Frist, were bucking for the so-called "nuclear option," in which they would approve a series of procedural changes to allow the Senate to end filibusters with a majority vote, rather than a "supermajority" vote of 60 votes (essentially putting an end to the practice altogether).
As part of the Gang of 14 compromise, the Democrats agreed not to support furthering the filibuster of the judicial nominees and not to initiate filibusters of future nominations except under "extreme circumstances." In exchange, the Republicans agreed not to vote with Frist on the "nuclear option." To be sure, McCain caught a lot of political heat from hard-line members of his party who wanted to move ahead with the "nuclear option."
Obama was not one of the seven Democrats on the Gang of 14.
At the time, Obama reluctantly supported the filibuster.
"I'm not a huge fan of the filibuster," Obama was quoted as saying in April 2005. "Historically, what was it used for? Keeping me (an African-American) out of polling places."
Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, one of the Gang of 14, told McClatchy Newspapers in March 2008 that it was unfair to emphasize Obama's absence from the bipartisan group, because he wasn't pressed to join.
"When we got to seven (Democrats) counting myself, there was some discussion of expanding it," Nelson said, "but there was the thought it would be more unworkable."
In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama states: "I declined to be a part of what would be called the Gang of 14; given the profiles of some of the judges involved, it was hard to see what judicial nominee might be so much worse as to constitute an 'extraordinary circumstance' worthy of filibuster. Still, I could not fault my colleagues for their efforts. The Democrats involved had made a practical decision — without the deal, the 'nuclear option' would have likely gone through."
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on May 21, 2008, Obama was less generous in his assessment of the deal.
"The Republicans like to emphasize the Gang of 14 because frankly the Republicans got everything they wanted out of that," Obama said. "I don't think it was a particularly good compromise."
One can attach whatever significance one wants to McCain's statement, but the bottom line is that it's accurate. We rate it True.