Senate Centrists Reach Agreement Preserving Filibuster

A bipartisan group of 14 senators announce they have reached an agreement to preserve the minority party's right to filibuster judicial nominees. The agreement includes a vote on some of the president's stalled judicial nominations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

There is a deal. A short time ago on Capitol Hill Senate moderates, Republicans and Democrats, stepped forward to announce an agreement to avoid the partisan showdown over judicial nominees and filibusters. Republican John McCain of Arizona stepped to the microphone first.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We have reached an agreement to try to avert a crisis in the United States Senate and pull the institution back from a precipice that would have had, in the view of all 14 of us, lasting impact, damaging impact on the institution.

SIEGEL: John McCain was joined by Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and 12 others. The senators said there will be an up or down vote on three of the president's nominees. Other nominations were left in question. We're joined now by NPR's congressional correspondent, David Welna.

And, David, tell us about the deal.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Robert, the deal is one that has Republicans agreeing not to vote for the so-called nuclear option, which would do away with judicial filibusters altogether. This is seen as--was seen by them as being a very drastic step that actually could hurt Republicans should they end up in the minority, and on the part of Democrats it was an agreement to not block up or down votes on three of the judicial nominees who were renominated by President Bush. They were filibustered in the last Congress. Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor and Priscilla Owen would all be allowed to be voted on on the Senate floor. There would be no filibuster for them. There was no commitment made for William Myers, who was nominated for the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco, or for Henry Saad, who was nominated for the 6th Circuit Court. And there's a certain understanding that they may not actually make it out of the Senate without that understanding. But Democrats said that they would only filibuster in the future, and this could include Supreme Court nominees `under extraordinary circumstances'--those were the words they used.

SIEGEL: Let's make sure we understand this. There will be, as I understand it, up or down votes on some of the president's nominees, but on the others the Democrats retain the right to filibuster and the Republicans in this deal acknowledge that it requires 60 votes to close off debate on those nominations?

WELNA: That's true, except that there's an understanding also that the use of a filibuster would be very exceptional, and one very key element to this agreement is that no one of the seven Republicans who signed on to the agreement is under any obligation to stick to the agreement on an individual basis if he or she feels the Democrats are not keeping good faith with their promise to support filibusters only under what are called `extraordinary circumstances.' So we could see a return to the so-called nuclear option in the future if these Republicans feel that there are people being stopped from getting up or down votes for what they feel are not extraordinary circumstances.

SIEGEL: Now centrists in the Senate have been trying to reach a deal for weeks. What finally brought them together?

WELNA: I think there was a sense that the Senate was about to go through a huge institutional nervous breakdown, and that there was a huge danger that nothing would get done in the Senate and that things would go from bad to worse, and that the acrimony would be irreversible, that they would take a step off the precipice, as several of them called it, and they really put their shoulders to it and, as Mark Pryor of Arkansas said, this was a deal that came about not because of inspiration but because of perspiration. I think these people were really sweating what could happen tomorrow if they indeed voted to do away with judicial filibuster.

SIEGEL: Right, he said, `There is no Thomas Jefferson among us,' in his statement.

WELNA: Indeed.

SIEGEL: Who were the winners and who were the losers tonight?

WELNA: Well, I think that the winners were those who really cared about the traditions of the Senate, the institution, those who felt that if you do away with judicial filibusters what could be next would be filibusters of other judicial nominations and next may be filibusters of legislative matters as well, and this would really take away the full nature of the Senate, which is one that requires a certain consensus between the majority and minority. And I think that the losers are those who felt like these filibusters has to come to an end altogether and who were very worried about what groups who support them in doing away with the filibuster might do if they didn't get rid of them.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's congressional correspondent, David Welna. David, thank you very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.

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