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Some senators seek compromise in judicial nominee deadlock

WASHINGTON—A small bipartisan group of senators is looking for about a dozen colleagues—six Democrats and six Republicans—to strike a deal that could break the Senate's stalemate over a handful of President Bush's judicial nominees.

Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., are spearheading the effort in an attempt to avert a historic confrontation over the Senate's tradition of unfettered debate.

Efforts to negotiate by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have gone nowhere and served only to harden their partisan positions, but the Lott-Nelson approach could give the Senate a way out of the impasse.

Six senators from each party would be enough to force a compromise even if Frist and Reid reject it. The Senate has 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats.

Frist needs at least 50 votes to force his will, and Reid needs at least 40 to block Senate action under current Senate rules. If six members from each side refuse to back their leader in this pending showdown, the rebels could prevent Frist or Reid from executing his tactical threats and force both parties to compromise.

The current impasse centers on seven Bush nominees to federal appeals courts whom Democrats have blocked by exploiting Senate rules guaranteeing extended debate. Their parliamentary maneuver, called a filibuster, requires the votes of 60 of 100 senators to overcome.

Frist has threatened to rule the filibuster of judicial nominees unconstitutional, a finding that could be upheld with a simple majority vote of 51, and Vice President Cheney could break any tie.

Several Republicans, however, have expressed qualms about weakening traditional minority rights in the Senate. The filibuster is a treasured weapon for Senate minorities and its existence strengthens each senator's potential power. It is unclear whether Frist thinks he has the votes to outlaw judicial filibusters.

Nelson said Monday that he has commitments from at least six Democrats not to support filibusters against future Bush judicial nominees, except in "extreme circumstances." (That phrase remains vague pending further negotiations.) But some Democrats voiced doubts on how secure those six votes are.

In exchange for that concession by the six Democrats, the six dissident Republicans wouldn't support any attempt to shut down the Democrats' right to filibuster.

However, before any such deal can be struck, significant obstacles must be resolved, including which, if any, of the currently blocked judicial nominees would be approved.

"What you do with the pending seven judges is still subject to negotiations," Nelson said.

Lott's office released a statement on Monday saying, "There is no deal," although he has been seeking one. His spokeswoman, Susan Irby, said Lott hasn't changed his mind that "all judicial nominees should have an up or down vote on the Senate floor."

Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, said Monday that any deal would have to guarantee simple majority, up or down votes on all judicial nominees.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said any deal would have to include a guarantee that Frist wouldn't try to eliminate the judicial filibuster. Those two positions leave little room for compromise.

Republicans have been focusing their attention on two blocked nominees—Janice Rogers Brown, a candidate for the circuit court in the District of Columbia, and Priscilla Owens, a nominee for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Frist aides believe that Rogers, an African-American woman, and Owen pose public relations problems for the Democrats who vote against them. Democrats plan to spend this week portraying both women as conservative extremists.

Attention to the Nelson-Lott negotiations, first reported on Monday by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, came as Bush renewed pressure on the Senate to bring the stalled nominees up for a vote by issuing a written statement. All seven blocked judges have the support of a Senate majority.

"Each deserved a simple up-or-down vote by the entire Senate," Bush said, saying it has been four years since he nominated two of the blocked judges.

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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Trent Lott, Ben Nelson

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