updated 5/17/2005 11:08:33 AM ET 2005-05-17T15:08:33

The Senate’s top leaders have ended their attempt to find a compromise on President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees, but other members continued to work on a possible deal to clear five blocked appeals court appointees and end threats to change the long-standing filibuster rules.

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Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Tuesday his negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist failed because he refused to give up Democrats’ ability to block Supreme Court and lower court nominees they consider too extreme. Court watchers think a Supreme Court vacancy could happen sometime this year.

“The goal of the Republican leadership and their allies in the White House is to pave the way for a Supreme Court nominee who would only need 50 votes for confirmation rather than 60,” the number of senators needed to maintain a filibuster blocking a confirmation vote, Reid said.

Frist, for his part, insists that all of the White House’s court appointments deserve confirmation votes from the Republican-controlled Senate.

“We both agreed that after several months of discussions, we have been unable to come to a negotiated position where the president’s nominees get an up-or-down vote,” Frist said.

Set for a showdown
The Senate thus was pushed closer to a historic confrontation that could decide the fate of appeals court candidates and Supreme Court nominees during Bush’s term.

“This whole showdown is a symptom of the bitterness and partisanship that prevails here in Washington,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday on CBS’ “The Early Show.” He said there “should be a compromise out there that allows votes on most of the judges.”

The standoff between the two parties “has a great deal to do with anticipation of upcoming vacancies in the United States Supreme Court,” McCain said.

Also at stake: the Senate’s venerable filibuster rules, at least as they apply to judicial nominations.

Democrats prevented final votes on 10 of Bush’s first-term appeals court nominees, and have threatened to do the same this year to seven the president renominated. Frist has threatened to strip them of their ability to do so by blocking use of the filibuster, a parliamentary device that can be overcome only by a majority of 60 votes or higher, to block confirmation votes.

It requires only 51 votes to approve a nominee once an up-or-down vote is called in the 100-member Senate. Likewise, Frist could prevail with 51 votes supporting his move to rule filibusters out-of-order when used to block a confirmation vote.

Neither side appears certain it has enough votes to prevail if the issue is put to a vote. At the same time, if six Republicans and six Democrats agree to a compromise of their own, they could impose it on the leadership if necessary, averting a showdown.

Grassroots proposal
Even as Frist and Reid gave up efforts to reach a compromise, a small group of Democrats, who have been meeting with Republicans also eager to avoid a showdown, floated a proposal to clear the way for confirmation of some of Bush’s blocked appointees.

Under the proposal, circulated in writing, Republicans would have to pledge no change through 2006 in the Senate’s rules that allow filibusters against judicial nominees. For their part, Democrats would commit not to block votes on Bush’s Supreme Court or appeals court nominees during the same period, except in extreme circumstances.

Each member would be free to determine what constituted an extreme circumstance, but Republicans would bind themselves to not changing the filibuster rule for the next two years.

Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Democrats involved in the compromise would vote to end any filibuster blocking a final vote on Richard Griffin, David McKeague and Susan Neilson, all named to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Democrats would also clear the way for final votes on William H. Pryor Jr. for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and Janice Rogers Brown for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Both are among the nominees most strongly opposed by organized labor as well as civil rights and abortion rights groups and others that provide political support for the Democratic Party.

Three other nominations would continue to be blocked under the offer: those of Henry Saad to the 6th Circuit Court, Priscilla Owen to the 5th Circuit and William G. Myers III to the 9th Circuit.

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