Senate Prepares For Filibuster Debate
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
Workers set up cots in the Strom Thurmond Room of the Capitol for Republican senators who are prepared to spend all night Monday discussing filibusters of judicial nominees.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/23/2005 5:06:13 PM ET 2005-05-23T21:06:13

Cots were brought into the Capitol Monday as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist scheduled an all-night session stretching into Tuesday to dramatize the debate over President Bush’s judicial nominees and the filibusters that Democrats have used to block votes on 10 of them.

The slender chances of averting a confrontation over the filibuster rule appeared to grow even slimmer as Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters “the prospects of something being worked out are very, very remote.”

In a symbolically important statement, one of the Democratic senators who have been trying to arrange a bipartisan deal to avoid a filibuster showdown, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, stood side by side with Reid and gave his own pessimistic view, saying a last-ditch compromise was now only “a remote possibility.”

Adding to the rhetorical kindling that has heated the controversy, Salazar denounced Majority Leader Bill Frist’s proposed filibuster rule change as “an abuse of power.”

Frist is prepared to put the rule change to a vote on Tuesday morning.

Fielding reporter's questions at the White House, the president urged senators to vote on his judicial nominees. "I expect them to get an up or down vote. That's what I expect. And I think the American people expect that, as well," he said.

Reid threatens to sink asbestos bill
Reid warned Monday afternoon that if the Senate passes the filibuster rule change, he will react by making it impossible for the Senate to approve the pending asbestos litigation reform bill.

"You can kiss asbestos goodbye," Reid said.

The legislation, being championed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and the senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. is a priority for people with mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, as well as for the insurance industry and corporations with big asbestos liabilities.

Reid also forecast rough sledding for the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement.

Salazar said the bipartisan group of about a dozen senators, which includes Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Sen. John Warner, R- Va., would meet late Monday afternoon to resume marathon talks which recessed Thursday night.

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“Sometime before 7 or 8 o’clock (Monday), we’ll make a decision as to whether or not there’s a deal doable or whether we’re just going to walk away from it and say that we gave it our all,” Salazar told reporters.

The Senate debated the nomination of appeals court hopeful Priscilla Owen for four days last week and is set to vote on a cloture motion to end the debate on Tuesday.

Vote on a motion to end debate
The key to Tuesday's vote will be how many Democrats decide to join the 55 Republican senators in backing a cloture motion. Under the rules of the Senate, it takes 60 senators to vote to end debate.

If Frist does not win the cloture vote, he would then seek a ruling of the presiding officer that further debate was dilatory. If the Senate sustained such a ruling by majority vote, then the filibuster-ending threshold would be lowered from 60 to 51.

Frist's proposed filibuster rule change would apply only to nominations, not to legislation.

The vote has larger implications than the fate of one nominee — it will likely determine what could be the most consequential battle of Bush's presidency. At stake: Bush's ability to steer the courts in a more conservative direction.

With the likelihood that Bush will have an opportunity to fill one or more vacancies next month on the Supreme Court, the issue takes on a heightened importance. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, is ailing with thyroid cancer and some court observers expect him to retire at the end of the court's current term on June 27.

If Democrats lose the ability to filibuster, the president would have greater latitude in filling the vacancy on the court because of the GOP majority in the Senate.

The scenarios for what might happen on Tuesday include the following:

  • Five Democratic senators vote for cloture, cutting off debate, as part of a deal in which Frist agrees to not seek the filibuster rule change. The debate on Owen ends and the Senate votes to confirm her. Two other Bush judicial nominees are quietly jettisoned. Both parties claim victory.
  • Of the Democrats, only Sen. Ben Nelson, D- Neb. votes for cloture. Needing 60 votes, the cloture motion fails on a vote of 56 to 44. Frist then seeks the filibuster rule change and wins on a vote of 51 to 49. The Senate then votes on Owen’s nomination and those of Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor. Reid reacts by using procedural tactics to bring most Senate business to a halt.
  • Of the Democrats, only Nelson votes for cloture. The cloture motion fails on a vote of 56 to 44. Frist seeks the filibuster rule change, but loses on a vote of 51 to 49. Democrats rejoice.

Implications for 2008 presidential race
Meanwhile, an array of conservative leaders in Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses in 2008, warned Republican presidential contenders that they must support Frist’s move to end filibusters of nominees.

Frist is a potential contender for the 2008 presidential nomination.

“We are concerned about the two potential (presidential) candidates, Sen. McCain, and from our neighboring state of Nebraska, Sen. Hagel, who have so far refused to support an up or down vote," the group said.

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