Filibuster Battle Lines Are Drawn

This week Senate Republicans, led by Tennessee's Bill Frist, are expected to initiate a process that could strip the minority Democrats of the right to hold up judicial nominations via the filibuster. Both sides are preparing for what may be a historic battle.

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This could be a historic week in the US Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist says he plans to bring one or two federal appeals court nominees to the floor for a vote on Wednesday. They were stopped by filibusters in the last Congress, and if Democrats try to stop them again, Senator Frist says he's prepared to do away with such filibusters, a move that's come to be known as the nuclear option. NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Majority Leader Frist had his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, over to his house last night for dinner, but their breaking bread together produced no breakthrough. Frist and the White House still insists every one of the seven court candidates who's been renominated by President Bush deserves an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. But Democrats led by Reid insist at least some of those nominees, whom they view as right-wing ideologues, either be withdrawn or be voted down.

Frist is threatening to eliminate judicial filibusters with a simple majority vote, and at a rally outside the US Capitol today, Democratic Leader Reid called on half a dozen Republicans to break ranks and keep Frist from getting the votes he needs.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): We only need six profiles in courage. They're out there. I have had senators this morning, Republican senators, tell me, `I know you're right, but I can't vote with you.' Think about that. Is that a profile in courage? No, it is not.

WELNA: On the Senate floor, Reid later said that he and Frist are still talking trying to find a way to satisfy both sides in this heated dispute. But Reid told reporters he's actually made very little progress with Frist.

Sen. REID: We're going to have to end this thing pretty soon, and so I think there's going to be a vote down the road. I don't think Senator Frist is capable of working something out on this. I think he's going to try to satisfy the radical right.

WELNA: Reid says the Senate's parliamentarian has told him it would be wrong for Republicans to do away with judicial filibusters with a simple majority vote, but the associate historian of the Senate, Donald Ritchie, says Republicans won't be bound to follow such advice.

Mr. DONALD RITCHIE (Associate Historian, US Senate): If the parliamentarian should advise the chair that such an action is unprecedented, the chair could ignore the advice of the parliamentarian, make a ruling. And, of course, it would be at that point that the ruling would be challenged, and then the senators would be called on to vote either to uphold or to overturn the ruling of the chair.

WELNA: And that would be the moment of truth of whether Frist has persuaded enough of his Republican colleagues to do away with a procedure that they might want to use themselves someday should they end up in the minority. James Thurber is an expert on Congress and the presidency at American University.

Mr. JAMES THURBER (American University): It's a test of the power of the president, as well as the Republican Party, in the sense that it is a test for not only these judicial picks of the president, but also theoretically, potentially, as many as three selections for the Supreme Court.

WELNA: Senate Republicans kept curiously silent today about the looming showdown, but in his most recent statement about the fight late last week, Frist seemed to indicate the first nomination he'd bring up would be that of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): How does Priscilla Owen not deserve, out of courtesy--it's our responsibility to give advice and consent. How does she not deserve next week not having an up-or-down vote on the floor the United States Senate, or the following week?

WELNA: Frist is expected to bring up that nomination on Wednesday. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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