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Senate prepares for possible demise of filibuster

WASHINGTON—A handful of senators from both political parties worked fiercely Wednesday to avoid a historic partisan showdown over Senate power and judicial nominees, trading one-page proposals and negotiating details, including even the definition of the word "extraordinary."

On the Senate floor, Democrats and Republicans argued the merits of a handful of President Bush's judicial nominees and the Senate rules that have allowed Democrats to block their confirmation. But the hard bargaining was taking place behind closed doors, where nearly a dozen senators worked against the odds to find a compromise.

At stake is Bush's ability to reshape the federal judiciary and the Senate's traditional safeguards for its minority's power, which help distinguish it from the House of Representatives and enable it to check and balance the power of the president.

Wednesday's floor debate set the stage for a possible confrontation, probably next week, on whether to change Senate rules and restrict the use of the parliamentary delaying tactic known as the filibuster. Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's judicial nominees by using that maneuver, which requires the votes of 60 of the 100 senators to end debate. Bush has renominated seven of them.

"In these cases, the filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Wednesday. "Right now, the only check on President Bush is the Democrats' ability to voice their concern in the Senate."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wants to eliminate judicial filibusters, saying Democrats have abused their rights. He has placed two previously blocked nominees before the Senate, Priscilla Owen of Texas and Janice Rogers Brown of California, and expects to trigger a battle over the filibuster rule by calling for a vote on Owen next week.

It takes 67 votes to change Senate rules, but Frist plans to avoid that requirement by invoking a point of order to end debate, which can be upheld by a simple majority vote. Republicans hold 55 Senate seats.

Senators call Frist's gambit the "nuclear option" because if he succeeds, Democrats intend to retaliate by slowing the Senate's work to a crawl and ending the civility that's essential for the chamber to do its business.

"A minority of senators will hold America back just because a majority of senators want to do, of all things, what the American people expect us to do: vote," Frist said.

The contours of a possible deal are simple enough: Six Republicans would agree to vote against a "nuclear option" for the rest of this two-year Congress, and six Democrats would agree to vote against filibusters of judicial nominees except in "extraordinary circumstances."

Six votes on each side would be enough to foil party leaders' tactics under Senate rules. But so far no deal has been reached.

Three Republicans are ready to vote against the "nuclear option:" Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Likewise, three Democrats appear committed to negotiating a deal: Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Among other Republicans thought to be most open to a deal are Susan Collins of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Warner of Virginia. Warner hosted a closed-door meeting in his Senate office Wednesday. Among Democrats there were Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

Social conservative groups, who have pushed Frist to change the rule and confirm Bush's judges, began to focus on possible dealmakers Wednesday.

In an e-mail to activists, Manuel Miranda, who runs the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters, called for "no unprincipled compromises." He urged conservatives to target senators who are seeking compromise with radio ads and especially to pressure Warner.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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