Pryor Tries to Pull Together Filibuster Compromise

Melissa Block talks with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) about his meetings with Republican and Democratic Senators to try and broker a compromise on judicial nominations and the use of the filibuster. Among the Senators he's been meeting with today: John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Warner (R-Va.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The fight over judicial nominees moved to the Senate floor today. Senators are debating the merits of one of President Bush's most controversial appeals court nominees, Priscilla Owen of Texas. Republicans say Owen deserves an up-or-down confirmation vote. Democrats say Owen is out of the judicial mainstream. They vowed to filibuster her nomination and the nomination of several others. The partisan standoff sets in motion a chain of events that could end in the so-called nuclear option, a vote to ban the use of filibusters by the minority party to block judicial nominees. Behind the scenes, though, there's still a bipartisan effort to forge a compromise.

BLOCK: Joining us is one of the Democratic senators trying to work out a compromise over judicial nominees, Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Thanks for being with us.

Senator MARK PRYOR (Democrat, Arkansas): You bet.

BLOCK: Can you tell us how far along you are in trying to get a compromise?

Sen. PRYOR: I think we've made a lot of progress, but I don't have any big news to report. I can tell you there are a lot of senators who would like to see this nuclear option go away.

BLOCK: Well, can you be any more specific about what options are on the table at this point?

Sen. PRYOR: Well, it's hard to be real specific. Let me just say this. I think it's fair to say that we have put every conceivable combination that all of us can think of on the table to try to see if we can't defuse the nuclear option and get the important business of the country done.

BLOCK: Speaking for yourself, if not for the rest of the senators you're working with, would one thing you would entertain be an agreement not to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee?

Sen. PRYOR: Actually that has been discussed at length. I think that Supreme Court nominee and--considering the fact that one may be coming available soon, clearly that's in people's minds as they are considering the nuclear option and, also, considering whether we should change our rules.

BLOCK: So that might be something that you would agree to then?

Sen. PRYOR: Well, it's something that I think is on the table. I think the parties have kind of talked about it; when I say `parties,' I mean individual senators have talked about that. But there's really been no agreement reached on that yet.

BLOCK: I'm assuming that of the nominees that the president's put forward, are you opposing all of them?

Sen. PRYOR: Well, I voted actually for 108 of his nominations to various court positions, and I have voted against 10. But some of the controversial ones, I'm just very concerned that they're going to be activist judges. In fact, if you think about it, these nominations should not break down along party lines, and if they do break down along party lines, that's a pretty good indicator that there's something about the nomination that the public should be concerned about.

BLOCK: Do you figure that there is some middle ground here still? I mean, is there a number that you can hit--`OK, we're going to let six go through but block the rest or seven'? I mean, does it come down to, really, just some mathematics here, or is there fundamental principles that we'll not be able to get beyond that?

Sen. PRYOR: Now I think that you are looking at some mathematics. You're looking at the future, you're looking at the past. And one of the issues here is that so many of President Clinton's nominations were blocked by the Republicans. They...

BLOCK: In committee, not on the floor.

Sen. PRYOR: Well, yeah, they didn't filibuster them, but they bottled them up one way or another under the Senate rules. And, you know, there's still a lot of wounds from that; there are people that would like to have that remedied. You can't really go back in time, but people have very different viewpoints about the same set of facts. And we're still not done, but I do think we're making progress.

BLOCK: A colleague of yours on the Republican side, Lindsey Graham, was saying that, `If we don't reach a'--seems to be saying, `If we don't reach a compromise this afternoon, that's it; we've run out of time.'

Sen. PRYOR: Well, I would not want to put an artificial deadline on it like that. Certainly I wish we'd been able to work something out last week. Now we have nominations on the floor. But I would certainly hope that all of the senators who would like to find compromise would keep the option open till the very last moment.

BLOCK: And does it seem to you that Senator Frist has the parliamentary means at his disposal to get around the rules as they are now or to alter the rules so that this can go forward?

Sen. PRYOR: You know, I think that Senator Frist is making the calculation right now whether he has the votes in order to pull the trigger on the nuclear option. If he does this, he's got to win. You know, he just has to politically. And I think right now his numbers are floating right around the 50 mark; he needs 50 votes, and then Vice President Cheney can break the tie. So he needs 50. And the question is: Does he have 50, or does he have 49 or does he have 51? And I don't think anybody knows the answer to that because I've had heart-to-hearts with lots of senators, and I don't know the answer to that question. And I'm not sure that anybody in the US Senate knows the answer to that question.

BLOCK: Senator Pryor, thanks very much.

Sen. PRYOR: You bet. Thank you.

BLOCK: Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. He spoke with us from the Capitol.

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