Senate Showdown on Filibusters Draws Closer

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For the second straight day, the debate continues on the Senate floor over the nomination of Priscilla Owen to a U.S. Court of Appeals seat. But the larger fight is over Republican plans to end judicial filibusters altogether — a move Democrats say would result in a dangerous shift power in the Senate.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Senate today continued to debate US nomination PN194-109. That's how the congressional docket lists President Bush's renomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. What's also at issue, of course, is whether a filibuster can be used to block judicial nominations. Republicans, led by Majority Leader Bill Frist, have threatened to eliminate this kind of filibuster, which Democrats used once before to block Owen's nomination. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Just as they did yesterday, Democrats protested debating a nomination that they'd already rejected by blocking all committee meetings, except those related to national security. And with new polls showing the lowest public esteem for Congress since voters ousted Democratic majorities in 1994, Republican Leader Frist signaled he's ready to bring the often-repetitive arguments on both sides to a close shortly, most likely early next week.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): We'll take as long as it takes for senators to express their views on this qualified nominee. But at some point that debate should end, and there should be a vote. It makes sense, up or down, yes or no, confirm or reject, and then we move on in regular order.

WELNA: Though he made no mention of doing away with judicial filibusters with a simple majority vote, Frist left no doubt that that's what he intends to do. And efforts by centrist senators to avert such action seemed to go nowhere today. Republicans, meanwhile, argued that President Bush deserves the rules change Frist is contemplating. Here's Oregon's Gordon Smith.

Senator GORDON SMITH (Republican, Oregon): Presidents have rights, and we have a role to play in advising and consenting. But I also feel that when we use the Senate rules to essentially overturn this right of a president and the result of an election, we do more than just violence to the executive branch of government. We do serious injury to the judicial branch of government.

WELNA: Smith warned judicial filibusters may scare away many brilliant jurists from serving on the federal bench. But Senate Democrats say by moving to rule out such filibusters, Republicans are trying to strip them of the rights that have traditionally been granted the Senate's minority. Harry Reid is the Democratic leader.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): The White House is trying to grab power over two separate branches of government, Congress and judiciary. And they're enlisting the help of the Republican Senate leadership to do this. Republicans are demanding a power no president ever had, and they're willing to break the rules to do it. And make no mistake, this is about more than breaking the rules of the Senate or the future of seven radical judges. The attempt to do away with the filibuster is nothing short of clearing the trees for the confirmation of an unacceptable nominee to the Supreme Court.

WELNA: Doing away with judicial filibusters has come to be known as the nuclear option, and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin warned that exercising it would eliminate a moderating force in the Senate that's also traditionally nudged presidents to choose moderate nominees.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): Because of the tradition of free speech and minority rights, specifically because of the threat of filibusters, senators have a strong incentive to act with moderation and restraint, to make compromises, to accommodate the legitimate concerns of the minority. That is exactly what the nuclear option would demolish.

WELNA: Unless a deal is reached in the next few days, the vote that would eliminate judicial filibusters could happen as soon as next Tuesday. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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