Filibuster Compromise Not a Relief to All in Senate

Judicial nominee Priscilla Owen, President Bush and Sen. Bill Frist.

Judicial nominee Priscilla Owen visits with President Bush and Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) at the White House Tuesday. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

The Senate votes to end the filibuster on Texas Judge Priscilla Owen, meaning she could be confirmed as soon as Wednesday to take a federal judgeship. That is the first result of a compromise by 14 senators of both parties to avert a showdown over the Senate's tradition of filibusters. Senate Republicans are clearly less pleased with that agreement than their Democratic counterparts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today was supposed to be the day the Senate stopped, the day the impasse over President Bush's judicial nominees would come to a climax. Instead the Senate voted quietly to end a filibuster on one nominee and agreed to do the same for two others. It was part of a bipartisan agreement that also preserved the right of the minority party to filibuster and left open the question of what happens the next time they do. We have two reports from the Senate tonight. First up, NPR's David Welna, who's been watching the action on the Senate floor.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

With the expected showdown vote today on barring filibusters to block judicial nominees bumped from the agenda, there was scant drama surrounding the roll call vote announced by New Hampshire Republican John Sununu.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): The question is: Is it the sense of the Senate that debate on the nomination of Priscilla Richmond Owen to be United States circuit judge for the 5th Circuit shall be brought to a close? Under the rule, the yeas and nays are mandatory; the clerk will call the roll.

WELNA: It was the fifth time senators had voted on cutting off debate on Owen's nomination. But unlike the other four times, in the 81-to-18 outcome, more than half the Democrats voted to allow a confirmation vote for Owen. Texas Republican John Cornyn accused his Democratic colleagues of first letting Owen get pilloried in ad campaigns sponsored by liberal groups and then changing their minds.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): After $2 million or more perhaps, the American people are told, `Never mind. We didn't really mean it, or even if we did mean it, you're not supposed to take us seriously because what this is all about is a game.'

WELNA: The bigger question hanging over the Senate chamber today was: Who were the winners and who were the losers in the deal reached last night by senators who bypassed their leadership? Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist clearly had reservations about the agreement, which kept him from outlawing judicial filibusters.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): The memorandum of understanding makes modest progress in that three individuals will get up-or-down votes on the floor of the United States Senate. But to me, it does stop far short of guaranteeing judicial nominees the fair up-or-down votes that they deserve.

WELNA: What's more, Frist declared that what he called the constitutional option and others call the nuclear option, the elimination of judicial filibusters, was an option that's still on the table. He said he would not hesitate to use it should Democrats filibuster as they did in the last Congress. Democratic Leader Harry Reid pointed out that only 10 of the 218 court candidates sent to the Senate had been stopped by such filibusters.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): I support the memorandum of understanding. It took nuclear option off the table; nuclear option is gone for our lifetime. We don't have to talk about it anymore. I'm disappointed that there's still these threats of nuclear option. It's gone. Let's move on.

WELNA: Other Democrats also expressed satisfaction about the agreement. In it, seven Democrats promised that they won't support the use of judicial filibusters, except in what's called extraordinary circumstances, in exchange for the seven Republicans' vow to oppose the nuclear option for the next two years. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who signed the accord, said Democrats had reason to be pleased.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): But please don't say as a Democrat that you can do anything you want to do in the 109th Congress and nothing can happen because that is not true. I have every confidence we can get through this mess. But there is no agreement that allows one side to unilaterally do what it would like to do and the other side be ignored 'cause if that were the case, it wasn't much of an agreement.

WELNA: Graham and others said that agreement averted possible legislative catastrophe today, but that it will hold only as long as its signatories keep their promises. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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