Filibuster Deal Seen as a Mixed Blessing for Frist

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The Senate is expected to confirm Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, one of the judicial nominees who set off the filibuster fight. The vote comes a day after a bipartisan deal averted a showdown over barring use of the judicial filibuster. But some say the agreement won't do much to advance Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's prospects as a potential Republican presidential nominee.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

One of the judicial nominees who set off the fight over the filibuster is expected to be confirmed by the Senate today. Priscilla Owen would serve on the 5th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. The vote comes just a day after an extraordinary last-minute agreement struck by 14 senators, half of them Democrats, half Republican. That deal averted a showdown over barring the use of the filibuster to stop judicial nominees. Many on both sides of the aisle congratulated themselves yesterday, but the agreement is a mixed blessing, at best, for Majority Leader Bill Frist, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

When Senate Majority Leader Frist spoke on the Senate floor following Monday night's announcement of the agreement that would effectively shelf the nuclear option barring judicial filibusters, he wasn't exactly enthusiastic. He said parts of it were disappointing and that it falls short. Yesterday, in brief remarks to reporters, he asserted that the nuclear option, or as Republicans prefer to call it, the constitutional option, remains viable.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Senate Majority Leader): I've made it very clear that I will reserve the constitutional option for a time that they demonstrate once again a irresponsible filibuster. We did not see that today. I reserve the opportunity to use that if necessary.

NAYLOR: `They' are the Democrats who voted yesterday to end their filibuster of Owen, one of the three judicial nominees Democrats agreed not to block. But Frist's disappointment stems from his inability to deliver up-or-down votes on all seven of the nominees President Bush resubmitted to the Senate after Democrats stalled them in his first term. Frist was under pressure from conservative groups, who see the battle over Mr. Bush's conservative judicial nominees as a central front in the culture wars. Their support will be crucial to Frist's chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 if, as is widely believed, he plans to run. The good news for Frist is that, so far, conservatives are not blaming him for the agreement. There wasn't much he could have done, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas told reporters yesterday.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Well, I think Senator Frist has been a stalwart in all of this. He has--we would not have come even to this point without him and his determination. As I say, this is not a deal that the leadership participated in. This was a side deal between 14 senators.

NAYLOR: Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, believed himself to be interested in the Republican presidential nomination, was also forgiving.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): He's still the leader of the Senate. He tried and tried and tried extraordinarily hard, as Senator Reid tried from the Democrat side. They're still leaders and they're still leaders of the Senate, and today's another day. And each day, you need 51 or 60 votes, so they'll continue to work to get those things done.

NAYLOR: It may never be known whether Frist had the 51 votes necessary to bar judicial filibusters, although his lieutenant, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, said he did. And if he had won the fight, it's unclear whether the cycle of retaliation Democrats promised would have helped or tarnished Frist's legacy. What's more certain is that more battles lie ahead. Two judicial nominations, for Henry Saad and William Myers, were explicitly not covered by the Democrats' agreement not to filibuster. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin promised yesterday that many in his party will continue to stand in these two nominees' way.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We believe that they're still objectionable. If they are brought to the floor, it is our intention to filibuster. We, of course, will count votes before we make a final decision.

NAYLOR: Frist shows no inclination of shying away from a fight. After confirming Owen today, the Senate will move onto the nomination of John Bolton to be UN ambassador, a nomination nearly all Democrats oppose and that has already proved problematic for some Republicans. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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