Filibuster Battle Nears in Senate

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With the two Senate leaders having ended their bid for a compromise over the fate of President Bush's judicial nominees, it is now up to a group of other lawmakers to try and head off what would be a historical decision by the Republicans to end the minority's ability to hold up nominations by the use of a filibuster.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The stage is set for a confrontation in the US Senate. Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist says he's ready to bring at least one previously blocked judicial nomination to the floor. Should Democrats try to filibuster, Frist is threatening to use what many call the nuclear option. That would try to change long-standing Senate rules and eliminate filibusters altogether for judicial nominees. A small group of senators from both parties is still trying to strike a deal to keep that confrontation from happening. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Majority Leader Frist and his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, called it quits last night in their failed quest for a deal to head off a showdown over filibusters. Today on the Senate floor, Reid told of an unnamed House Republican approaching him at the gym this morning and saying he never thought he'd tell a Democratic leader this, but that he was praying for Reid to prevail and preserve judicial filibusters in the Senate.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): So as the moment of truth draws near, I, too, am praying, Mr. President, and I don't say that lightly. I pray that cooler heads will prevail and responsible Republicans--and they're there; I know they're there, like this congressman who spoke to me this morning--will join Democrats in standing up against this abuse of power to maintain our checks and balances.

WELNA: There is, in fact, a last-ditch effort under way to round up enough Democrats and Republicans to keep the nuclear option from being detonated. Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman said today he's one of those involved in talks to strike such a deal.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): There are more than enough senators on the Republican and Democratic sides actively considering a way to find a meeting of minds, but there has not yet been a meeting of minds.

WELNA: If a vote on changing the rules to eliminate judicial filibusters were to fail, six Republicans would have to oppose it. In return, six Democrats would promise to vote against filibusters of most of the blocked judges. But Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, who's leading the drive in his party to strike such a deal, said today it would not stop filibusters altogether.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): Under the agreement, the Democrats would not give up the right to filibuster. We'd just be limited to extraordinary circumstances and the discretion of each senator. So that's what it is today, and I think that's what it would be tomorrow. I think that's what everybody is interested in preserving.

WELNA: Nelson says he has enough Democrats to support such a deal. But Arizona's John McCain, who's leading the effort to find six Republicans, said today he can't discuss the status of his negotiations.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We're working to try to reach a compromise. And, no, I have no time, I have no time. I have no time line. I have no deadline. I'm doing everything that I can and hoping for the best.

Unidentified Man: And how many...

Sen. McCAIN: I have nothing else to talk about. I'm not going to name names, and I'm not going to name the provisions because this is a sensitive time. I'm sorry. I apologize. I don't usually do this.

WELNA: The biggest problem is figuring out which of the seven previously filibustered and then renominated court candidates will not be allowed up-or-down votes under the deal. Majority Leader Frist, for his part, insisted today that none of those candidates could be excluded.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): The goal is the principle that each of these nominees coming from the president of the United States for circuit courts and for the Supreme Court, for the highest courts in the land, deserve a fair up-or-down vote.

WELNA: Tomorrow Frist's aides say he plans to bring up the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen for a seat on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. There will be debate, and then Frist will call for an end to that debate, and that's when a showdown may occur, possibly, early next week. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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