updated 5/11/2005 3:23:04 AM ET 2005-05-11T07:23:04

Sen. John McCain is urging the Senate’s GOP majority to cut a deal with Democrats over President Bush’s judicial nominees even as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist warns that a confrontation over judicial filibusters could come next week.

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Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that McCain told fellow GOP senators at their closed-door weekly lunch that he believes Democrats will agree to a deal allowing confirmation votes on nearly all of the seven judicial candidates they blocked during Bush’s first term. Democrats want their right to filibuster judicial appointees as part of any compromise.

McCain, R-Ariz., said Republicans should trust assurances from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., regarding Supreme Court appointments. Privately, Reid has told Republicans he will not filibuster any Supreme Court nominees, except in extreme circumstances, according to officials familiar with the conversations.

Some Republicans claim Reid has offered to make sure that even if there is a filibuster against a high court nominee, it will fail. His aides vehemently deny he has made such a proposal.

Frist, R-Tenn., was pushing ahead with Bush’s seven filibustered court nominations and trying to end the Democratic blockade on them. “We need to look to the 100 United States senators and see what their will is,” Frist told reporters.

Reid, who needs Republican help if he wants to preserve his minority’s ability to block judicial nominees from the White House, sounded like he isn’t worried about the showdown ahead if Frist doesn’t accept a deal with Democrats. He proposed two compromises that he says offer “a path away from the precipice.”

“But if neither of these options are acceptable, let’s vote,” Reid said defiantly.

No response from Frist
Republicans have threatened to use their majority to abolish judicial filibusters — a technique that sets a 60-vote threshold and that Democrats used to block votes on 10 of Bush’s first-term appeals court nominees. Bush has renominated seven of the 10, triggering a confrontation in the early months of a new Congress more securely in Republican hands.

McCain’s remarks at the luncheon drew no response until Frist spoke, according to the GOP officials who talked about the meeting. He said that as a matter of principle all nominees — not just most of them — deserve a vote. He said Reid has never offered a proposal to ensure votes for all seven stalled nominees, and rhetorically asked fellow Republicans which of them should be discarded, these officials added.

McCain is one of three Republicans who have publicly announced they will vote to retain the right to filibuster judicial nominees. The GOP can afford two more defections and still prevail.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate, has said he would vote to ban the judicial filibusters if there is a 50-50 tie.

Frist and Reid are still negotiating to find a solution, talking privately twice during the day. There was no indication of progress toward an agreement.

Publicly, both staked their ground for a political showdown.

Reid said he’s ready. “I want to be clear: We are prepared for a vote on the nuclear option,” he said, referring to the GOP threat of banning judicial filibusters. “Democrats will join responsible Republicans in a vote to uphold the constitutional principle of checks and balances.”

Frist continued to insist that all Bush’s nominees deserve a confirmation vote.

“We have seven nominees, each of whom deserve an up-or-down vote, and some of whom have waited four years for the fairness of that vote,” Frist said. “We also have to look to the future, to see that nominees for that appellate or circuit court level and the Supreme Court have that opportunity for an up-or-down vote.”

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