KWAME HOLMAN: It came as no surprise when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist released a statement this afternoon saying he would seek confirmation next week of two of President Bush's nominees for seats on Federal courts of appeals: Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown. Frist foreshadowed the announcement earlier this week at the capitol.
SEN. BILL FRIST: So, it's time for us to move to the issue of judges.
KWAME HOLMAN: Owen, Brown, William Myers and William Pryor, four of the president's most controversial judicial choices, all have had their nominations cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee in recent weeks.
SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE: Are there any senators wishing to vote or to change their vote?
KWAME HOLMAN: That happened during the president's first term as well. But each time, Democrats, using the filibuster, were able to block the four nominees from getting a confirmation vote. President Bush re-nominated the four again this year, but Democratic Leader Harry Reid has vowed the results will be no different.
SEN. HARRY REID: On the judges that have been brought forward previously, we're going to treat them just the same as we have in the past.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats again cite what they call rigid ideological positions of the candidates on issues such as gay rights, abortion and affirmative action. This time, however, Republicans are prepared to force up or down votes on the nominees, the so- called nuclear option.
It refers to their plan to strip Democrats of their ability to filibuster the nominees. The 55-strong Republican majority could change Senate rules to allow judicial confirmations by a simple majority vote. John Cornyn of Texas:
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Fundamentally, what we have is a partisan minority blocking a bipartisan majority from being able to act on the Senate floor. And this is something that we think needs to come to an end.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats have been outraged by the suggestion and have said they will respond by using procedural delays to slow Senate business virtually to a crawl. New York's Chuck Schumer:
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: We're right on the edge of one of the most important moments in the history of the republic.
PROTESTER SPOKESPERSON: This is what activism should be.
KWAME HOLMAN: That sentiment also was heard outside the Capitol all week long. There, members of Congress and interest groups joined forces to raise the volume of their arguments.
GROUP: Up or down. Up or down.
KWAME HOLMAN: But there's no guarantee Republicans can exercise the nuclear option. Nearly half a dozen members of the party have signaled they may not support the move. That could put Bill Frist's vote count below the 51 necessary to pull it off. Nebraska's Chuck Hagel:
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: The president's nominees deserve votes, but at the same time, I think it's important that we maintain the minority rights tools that assure that the Senate is a little different body, and the filibuster is one of those tools that we use.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Hagel's position has made him and several moderate colleagues targets of conservative interest groups pushing for straight up or down votes on all the nominees. Jan LaRue is a member of the Coalition to Prevent the Filibuster.
JAN LA RUE: We're urging all this week, many times a day, to call Senators Warner and Chafee and Lincoln and Snow and Collins and McCain and Nelson and Hagel and say, "Get a grip, we won the last election, they lost. Start acting like we won."
KWAME HOLMAN: Other conservative groups also have signed up. Progress for America went on the air two weeks ago, demanding a vote on Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen.
AD SPOKESMAN: So, courtrooms sit empty while thousands of Americans have their cases delayed. The job of a U.S. senator is to vote.
KWAME HOLMAN: The liberal interest group People for the American Way, long a leader in the charge to save the filibuster, responded with this ad.
AD SPOKESPERSON: This one? President Bush's own attorney general criticized her ten times. Her? She's so radical that she says with programs like Social Security and Medicare, seniors are cannibalizing their grandchildren. I say save the filibuster.
KWAME HOLMAN: The aggressive outside lobbying coupled with the uncertainty in the Republican ranks has increased the pressure on Sen. Frist. If he's unable to secure the votes necessary to "go nuclear," Frist might be forced to cut a deal with his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid.
But so far, the two leaders haven't found middle ground. On Monday, Sen. Frist offered to dedicate 100 hours of floor debate for each nominee, to be followed by an up or down vote. Sen. Reid rejected the offer. On Tuesday, Reid countered with an offer guaranteeing confirmation of one of the hotly contested nominees.
SEN. HARRY REID: Whatever one of the five they want, and that leaves four that wouldn't be accepted, the nuclear option would be off the table.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Whip Mitch McConnell shot down that idea immediately.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: This kind of sort of random selection of people to be denied an up or down vote, it seems to all of us, is not an appropriate way to end the controversy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Then yesterday, Sen. Reid caught Bill Frist by surprise.
SEN. BILL FRIST: I didn't realize the Democratic leader was going to make a specific offer.
KWAME HOLMAN: Reid said Democrats would clear the way for approval of three nominees for the Sixth Circuit of Appeals in Michigan if Republicans would agree not to eliminate the filibuster.
SEN. HARRY REID: Once again, I say to my Republican colleagues, do you want to confirm judges or do you just want to provoke a fight?
KWAME HOLMAN: But Frist held firm, repeating that all nominees deserve a vote.
SEN. BILL FRIST: And I appreciate his offer for Senate debate and vote on the president's judicial nominees, but once again, it is that principle of up or down vote that is going to govern this side of the aisle, and I believe it's what the American people expect.
KWAME HOLMAN: At that point, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd stepped into the negotiations.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Mr. Leader, what's wrong with that? What's wrong with the proposition that the minority leader has suggested?
SEN. BILL FRIST: The specifics of, just like you asked, I have heard, and we'll consider that. But why not take Priscilla Owen for the Fifth Circuit, who's on this calendar, who's waited four years, rather than other judges, if we're going to be addressing judges?
SEN. HARRY REID: We're not going to resolve this issue right now. We're trying to do that. We're going to have some private conversations. What I am saying to my distinguished leader, give us a little bit of time on this.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, a small, bipartisan group of senators, including Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, worked all week behind the scenes on a deal to avoid a crisis in the Senate.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I don't think and many of the senators don't like the idea of changing the rules. We don't think it's good for the Senate or good for the country.
KWAME HOLMAN: Under their plan, six Senate Democrats would agree to allow votes on any four of the seven circuit court nominees currently in limbo. In exchange, six Senate Republicans would agree not to support their leader's call to outlaw the filibuster. That would leave Sen. Frist short of the votes he would need.
SEN. BEN NELSON: Sometimes you make some adjustments, give up something to get something else. I think hanging onto the filibuster is an important part of the procedures and rules of the Senate. On the other hand, I'm going to be very judicious by my judgment and analysis of how I use it, and I think my colleagues feel the same way.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Senators Nelson and Alexander admitted that the window to cut a deal is closing quickly. Majority leader Frist is expected to bring the nomination of Priscilla Owen or Janice Rogers Brown to the Senate floor by Wednesday. At that point, the window for negotiation may be closed.