Senate Reaches Compromise on Judicial Filibusters
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
An impasse lasting several years has ended. The Senate voted today to allow a vote on one of President Bush's controversial judicial nominees, Priscilla Owen. It's the first fruit of last night's surprise compromise. A group of seven Democrats and seven Republicans reached an agreement to avoid a showdown over the so-called nuclear option. Republicans had been threatening to eliminate the use of filibusters by Democrats against President Bush's nominees to the federal bench.
Joining me now is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And, Ron, Democrats had vowed to fight Owen's appointment. What happened today?
RON ELVING reporting:
What happened today was that the Owen nomination was cleared for takeoff. It has not yet left the ground, but the filibuster has ended, and since we know she has majority support when it comes to an actual up or down vote, she will be confirmed.
BRAND: And that could happen as early as tomorrow.
ELVING: It could possibly even happen today. I think it's a little more likely it will happen tomorrow or later in the week, because we don't yet have a time agreement, which they must have before they actually take the vote. But it could happen anytime this week, and now it has become a virtual certainty that she will be voted on and approved.
BRAND: And tell us about last night's compromise.
ELVING: This is an extraordinary moment in that seven Republicans were willing to leave the fold and leave the leadership of their Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, and join with seven centrist Democrats to sign an agreement that said that they would not support the idea of a nuclear option that stripped the filibuster weapon from the minority party, and that instead, they thought that in exchange for approving some of the justices, the Republicans should be willing to step back from the precipice, step back from the showdown over the filibuster power. And as a result, they were able to win the agreement of these seven Democrats to vote for cloture--that is to cut off a specific filibuster--for these three justices: Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor.
There are two others who are pending right now that the Republicans had hoped to get approved and confirm, but those two were left out of the agreement, so they are still subject to the filibuster. That's Henry Saad and William Myers.
BRAND: And we'll talk a little bit about them later. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist didn't buy into this agreement. Today, he seems to be acting like he's not bound by it.
ELVING: Well, Bill Frist was not part of the agreement, and I think, in a very real sense, this was a conscious effort by several of the Republicans to take a different tack from Majority Leader Frist's leadership. They were in something of a subtle rebellion against him, and they were saying they would rather preserve the Senate they know and the attitude between the two parties, by which some kind of consensus can be reached.
BRAND: Well, how usual, or unusual, I should say, is this for senators to go around their leaders and make this kind of deal?
ELVING: It's quite unusual. We don't see this. The leaders are elected by their own colleagues. The loyalty factor is usually quite high. And in this particular case, I think what we see is that Bill Frist is pursuing the White House's agenda here with these judges, over and above the usual Senate arrangements between the parties, between the individual senators. That's certainly his right to do, but it's also the right of his constituent members--that is the other Republican senators--to draw a line at some point and say, `No, we're not willing to go that far with you.'
BRAND: And what does this mean for President Bush? He had been pushing for an up or down vote on his nominees.
ELVING: Well--and the president is still saying he hopes to get an up or down vote on every one of his nominees. He's gotten it on three. Apparently, two have been excluded. There are others to come, and he will continue asking for that and Bill Frist will continue saying that that's what he expects the Senate to do. Does not appear that that's what's going to happen in every case, but what we're really talking about here is the rules for a Supreme Court nominee, and that could be coming up fairly soon, and at that point, the Democrats insist now they have established that they have the right to filibuster on that vacancy whenever it should arise.
BRAND: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving, thanks for joining us.
ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.