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Democrats offer compromise on judges

With a showdown looming, a small group of Senate Democrats offered a compromise  Monday on President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees, offering to clear five for confirmation while scuttling three others.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With a showdown looming, a small group of Senate Democrats floated a compromise Monday on President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees, offering to clear five for confirmation while scuttling three others.

Under the proposal, circulated in writing, Republicans would have to pledge no change through 2006 in Senate 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.

Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that 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 11th Circuit and William G. Myers III to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dinner with the Leader
Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, outlined the suggested compromise for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on Sunday night at a dinner at the Tennessee Republican’s home. Nelson also has spoken with Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Reid criticized Frist during the day on the judgeship issue, saying that earlier efforts toward compromise had produced little progress. “I think he’s trying to satisfy the radical right,” he said.

Frist’s spokeswoman, Amy Call, said the Tennessee Republican “is going to satisfy the principle of the up-or-down vote, and it’s unfortunate that Senator Reid continues with bitter partisan rhetoric as opposed to coming to the table to work this out.”

Nelson’s spokesman, David DiMartino, declined to confirm the details of the compromise offer. “There are a number of Democratic senators who have agreed to some sort of compromise on the seven judges and an agreement on future nominees,” he said, stressing that any proposal was subject to further revision as it was reviewed by Democrats and Republicans.

DiMartino declined to say which other Democrats were willing to pledge to support the proposal, but a spokesman for Sen. Mark Pryor, Rodell Mollineaux, said the Arkansas lawmaker was “the No. 2 Democrat on this” effort to compromise.

Democrats successfully blocked 10 of Bush’s first-term appeals court nominees, using a filibuster, a parliamentary tactic that erects a 60-vote threshold. Bush has renominated seven of the 10, and Democrats have threatened to block them again.

In response, Frist has threatened to seek a parliamentary ruling to ban filibusters in the cases of appeals court and Supreme Court judges, a test vote that would be settled by simple majority. He has announced plans to begin forcing the issue at midweek by initiating a debate over Owen and Brown.

Outcome seen as uncertain
Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, meaning they can afford five defections and still triumph. Already, though, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have said they will break ranks. Vote counters on both sides have said they expect Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine to do likewise.

Several other Republicans are publicly uncommitted, and 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.

Even Republicans who strongly opposed the Democrats’ repeated use of filibusters argue that banning such moves would amount to a sweeping change in the way the Senate conducts business. The Senate’s uniqueness, they say, stems in part from the rights it preserves for the minority.

McCain: ‘I think we're close’
As a result, many have expressed hope that a confrontation could be avoided.

McCain privately urged fellow Republicans to seek a deal when he spoke at a closed-door meeting last week. “I think we’re close, but whether we’ll actually achieve it or not is not clear at this time,” he said Sunday on ABC.

“I believe that we are skating over very thin ice here with regard to the continuity of life in the Senate as we’ve known it,” Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said over the weekend on CNN. “I’m opposed to trying to eliminate filibusters simply because I think they protect minority rights, whether they’re Republicans, Democrats or other people.”

As for the current offer, said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., “The problem with what you’re talking about is the use of the words ’extraordinary’ or ’extreme circumstances.’ How would that be defined? And, by the way, who would make that determination? That’s very difficult to do.”