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Senators strike deal to end showdown over judicial nominees

WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group of 14 senators on Monday averted a historic and potentially debilitating Senate showdown over judicial nominations by agreeing to retain Senate rules that give extra power to political minorities.

The deal, struck in the offices of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would permit votes on three of five Bush nominees to federal circuit courts of appeal that Democrats have blocked, including Priscilla Owen of Texas.

Democrats had already agreed to grant votes on two other blocked judges. But the deal also would retain the use of extended debate against judicial nominees—a tactic that requires 60 out of 100 votes in the Senate to overcome and which Democrats have used to prevent votes on 10 of 45 of President Bush's nominees for appellate courts.

The seven Democratic negotiators agreed that they would use the maneuver, called a filibuster, only in "extraordinary circumstances." In exchange, seven Republicans said they would vote against Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and defeat an effort to do away with the filibuster altogether on judicial nominations.

The extraordinary bargain thwarted a partisan confrontation that could have significantly altered how the Senate governs itself, strengthened Bush's ability to put a conservative stamp on the federal judiciary and shifted the government's balance of power more in favor of the White House.

"We have reached an agreement to try an avert a crisis in the United States Senate and pull the institution back from a precipice that would have had, in the view of all 14 of us, lasting impact, damaging impact on our institution," McCain said.

Frist, who initiated the move to alter the Senate rules, said he was pleased that some judges would get up or down votes but said he was disappointed that the question of judicial filibuster hadn't been settled once and for all.

In addition, the seven Democrats said they would vote to end debate on California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, who has been nominated to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, and William Pryor to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada praised the agreement as a "victory for the country."

Assistant Democratic Leader Richard Durbin, of Illinois said, "There is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at and missed."

Earlier Monday, the Senate debated all day and through the night over Bush's judicial nominations in anticipation of the looming vote. Custodians rolled cots into the Capitol in preparation of an all-night session that would lead to the showdown.

That vote now will not occur. Instead, the Senate is expected to vote to end debate on Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice whose nomination to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had been blocked by Democrats for four years.

Throughout Monday's debate on the Senate floor, Republicans framed the issue as letting the Senate do its duty.

"Nominees have been left in limbo, courthouses sit empty, justice is delayed, political rhetoric has escalated and political civility has suffered," Frist said. "It is time once again to decide ... I favor fairness and an up or down vote."

Democrats argued the Senate was on the edge of dangerous precedent.

"Step back, step back, step back from the precipice," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. "Things are not right and the American people know things are not right. The political discourse in our country has become so distorted, so unpleasant, so strident, so unbelievable."

Democrats used press conferences, a 90-minute television ad and a bit of real theater to make their case. Senators were invited to attend a midnight showing of Frank Capra's classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which James Stewart portrays a callow senator who heroically carries out a one-man filibuster, or extended debate, to regain his good name.

Republicans and their allies arranged news conferences of their own, airing ads and even appealing to a higher power to get an edge on the vote. The Christian conservative Family Research Council, eager to get more socially conservative judges on the federal bench, e-mailed supporters asking them to "pray that no compromise will be allowed which will let this unprecedented use of the filibuster remain."

Bush weighed in at a White House press conference earlier Monday, saying he intended to nominate judges "who will interpret the Constitution, not use the bench from which to write law. I expect them to get an up or down vote. I think the American people expect that as well."

Frist, who earlier Monday expected to fail in his effort to stop debate on Owen, had planned to call a point of order on Tuesday declaring that further debate would be "dilatory." The presiding officer—who was likely to be Vice President Dick Cheney acting in his constitutional role as Senate president—would then have ruled in favor of the point of order.

A Democrat would have appealed the ruling, arguing that it was contrary to Senate rules. Republicans would then move to table, or kill, the Democratic appeal. That would require a simple majority. Senators called this gambit the "nuclear option" because Democrats say it is so extreme an abuse of Senate rules that they will retaliate by disrupting the Senate's future work.

Leading the negotiators throughout the week were McCain and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. In addition to those two, others signing the agreement were Republicans John Warner of Virginia, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Democrat signers were Byrd, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

DeWine and Graham said they had been prepared to vote for Frist's option if the agreement had failed.


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

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