WASHINGTON—Top Senate Republicans and White House officials rejected Tuesday a compromise over stalled judicial nominations, setting up a confrontation that could determine President Bush's ability to shape the nation's judiciary.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he wouldn't entertain Democratic offers to approve some judges but not others. Instead, Frist and White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that Democrats must be stripped of their ability to block judicial nominations with parliamentary maneuvers.
"My goal is to have fair up-and-down votes," Frist said. "Are we going to shift from that principle? The answer to that is no."
Democrats were equally adamant, saying that while they might compromise on some of the judges nominated, they wouldn't agree to make it easier to shut down a filibuster, the parliamentary maneuver they've used to block 10 of Bush's appellate-court nominees. Democrats have approved 205 of Bush's candidates for federal courts.
The filibuster permits a minority of the 100 senators to engage in unlimited debate—effectively preventing conclusive action—unless they are stopped by a vote of at least 60 senators. Frist is threatening to reduce to 51 the number needed to shut off debate on judicial nominees, and he leads 55 Republican senators.
"This is about removing the last check in Washington against complete abuse of power—the right to extended debate," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The Senate dispute is for high stakes and both sides have dug themselves deeply into their positions. Both sides consider the fights over appellate-court judges to be warm-ups for an all-out battle over eventual Supreme Court vacancies.
For Bush, the outcome could decide whether he'll be able to turn the Supreme Court into a bastion of social conservatism on issues ranging from abortion and homosexuality to prayer in schools, conceivably one of the more lasting legacies of his presidency. Vice President Dick Cheney huddled Tuesday with GOP senators at their weekly private luncheon.
For Democrats, it means energizing the party's liberal base, which is determined to prevent a change in the Supreme Court's ideological balance of power. For Frist, who's contemplating a presidential bid, it is key to his support from religious conservatives.
Braced by conservative religious leaders and the White House, Frist has threatened to change Senate rules by a simple majority vote to prevent filibusters against judicial nominees. First's move—which has come to be called the "nuclear option" because it would blow up the way the Senate traditionally operates —wouldn't affect filibusters on legislation, where it's more commonly used.
Although there are 55 Republican senators, several of them have expressed reservations about changing the filibuster rule. They argue that the Senate has a tradition of giving the minority party a voice and that the Senate's role is to be deliberative.
In a recent interview, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said his concern about changing the filibuster rule "emanates from my great respect for this institution, which could well be the last bastion of any type of legislative body where the rights of the minority are protected."
Reid, eager to secure support from some of the wavering Republicans, offered to hold up-or-down, simple-majority votes on some of the contested judges, but not all. His proposal also called for some horse-trading on vacancies in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from federal cases in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
Frist turned down the offer Tuesday morning, echoing comments by Bush counselor Karl Rove, who told USA Today on Monday that "we believe that every judicial nominee deserves an up or down vote."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated that view Tuesday. "Our view is that Senate Democrats need to stop playing politics and give all judicial nominees an up or down vote," he told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush traveled to Galveston, Texas.
Reid indicated this week that Frist's stance has been influenced by his interest in running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Frist aides have denied the suggestion. But religious conservatives, an influential bloc of the Republican Party, have made it clear that Frist needs to act quickly to eliminate the judicial filibuster if he's to win their support.
"Procrastination is a deterrent to winning Republican primaries," the Rev. Louis Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, said in an interview. "If Frist bellies up and does it, it would be to his favor."
Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said Frist won't employ the "nuclear option" until he's exhausted all other options. He said Frist may soon make an offer to Reid to resolve the impasse.
But with Frist and the White House insisting on an up-or-down vote on all of Bush's judicial nominees and with Reid determined to retain Democrats' right to filibuster judges, the outlook for compromise seemed dim on Tuesday.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050426 JUDGES
Need to map