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Senate Braces for Potential Showdown Over Judicial Nominees

May 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Majority Leader Bill Frist brought before the cameras two of the president’s re-nominated judicial nominees: Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and California Justice Janice Rogers Brown.

Democrats blocked both candidates when President Bush nominated them during his first term by using the filibuster. But this time, Frist is determined to see they get a vote on the Senate floor.

SEN. BILL FRIST: All of which we feel as we look at the circuit courts and the Supreme Court deserve a fair up-or-down vote, confirm or reject, yes or no, up or down.

KWAME HOLMAN: Frist, expecting he’ll have 49 Republican votes to back him up, has vowed to strip Democrats of their right to filibuster judicial nominees. That change in Senate rules, dubbed the “nuclear option,” would permit judicial confirmations by a simple majority vote. This morning New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman said he believed Sen. Frist already had the votes needed to thwart the minority.

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN: Well, my impression is the majority leader would not be pushing this to a head unless he felt he had the votes to win.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats, in turn, have vowed to slow Senate business to a crawl, using procedural maneuvers. Frist criticized that threat again this afternoon.

SEN. BILL FRIST: They said they’re going to shut down government. So, if we vote on Priscilla Owen or if we vote on Janice Rogers Brown or we vote on Pryor, to me that’s unreasonable.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Frist and his Democratic counterpart Harry Reid called off their efforts to reach a compromise last night.

SEN. HARRY REID: If you’re involved in an athletic contest, let’s say a boxing match, and you’ve trained, you’ve done everything you could to be as good as you can be and you go out there and ready to fight, you feel pretty good about yourself. That’s how I feel about our caucus. We’ve done everything that we could.

KWAME HOLMAN: Arizona’s Jon Kyl serves in the Republican leadership.

SEN. JON KYL: Well, they’ve tried very hard. I think both leaders have tried to come to an accommodation, but there’s a matter of principle involved. I think both sides look at it that way. From Leader Frist’s side, all of these judges deserve an up-or-down vote. And the other side wanted us to pick and choose and let some of them be voted on, but not others. And that’s kind of a matter of principle. And so it’s tough to compromise on that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden said Frist never negotiated in good faith.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: The only thing I’m aware that Mr. Frist has offered is 100 hours of debate. We can do that anyway. I mean, that’s not relevant. I think it seems to me that Dr. Frist has concluded that it’s in his interest, win or lose, to make this fight. And so I’m not second-guessing that, but that appears to be the reason to me why there’s no willingness to compromise at all.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, two members, Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson and Arizona Republican John McCain haven’t given up hope. Under their proposal, a group of Republicans would agree not to outlaw the filibuster between now and 2006.

A group of Democrats would commit not to filibuster President Bush’s Appeals Court or Supreme Court nominees during that same period, except in “extreme circumstances.” Support of at least six senators from each side would be required.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We should be able to work this out. There should be a compromise out there that allows votes on most of the judges.

KWAME HOLMAN: This evening, Senators McCain, Nelson and several others from both parties convinced Leaders Frist and Reid to sit down with them in a closed door meeting. It was an apparent last ditch attempt to find common ground on the president’s judicial nominees before Sen. Frist brings the first of them to the Senate floor tomorrow. But afterward no progress was reported.