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The Senate has stopped short of pressing the button on what some call the nuclear option. This was a battle over a small number of President Bush's judicial nominees, but it had wide implications. To avoid a bigger fight, Democrats agreed to allow a vote on some of these nominations starting today with Texas Judge Priscilla Owen. Republicans admitted that some nominees will not get a vote, and they gave up plans for now to take away the minority power to filibuster these nominations. Now when we say Democrats and Republicans, we have to qualify that somewhat. Neither party's leaders were involved in the negotiations, but neither side had enough votes to prevail after some of their members reached a compromise. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.
BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:
For weeks now as the Senate confrontation drew closer, a bipartisan group of moderate Senators worked on but never quite reached a deal that would bring both sides back from the edge of a cliff. Last night, with the pressure of an impending vote today perhaps focusing their minds, the agreement jelled. It was the unknown, said Virginia Republican John Warner, that inspired the pact.
Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): And the one unanswered question that guided me all the way through is--it was unanswered--what would happen to the Senate if the nuclear option were done? And no one was able to answer that to my satisfaction.
NAYLOR: Fourteen senators signed the agreement, seven from each party. The Republicans won the right for up-or-down votes on three of the president's appeals court nominees--Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor. Two other nominees, however, William Myers and Henry Saad, will in all likelihood continue to be filibustered. Democrats were promised that the seven Republicans who signed the deal will oppose rules changes in this Congress that would bar the use of judicial filibusters, taking the so-called nuclear option off the table. And the Democrats pledged to use the judicial filibuster only under extraordinary circumstances in the future, leaving it up to the discretion and judgment of each senator to determine when those circumstances exist. One of the signatories, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, predicted there will be some fallout from the agreement.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): People at home are going to be very upset at me for a while. Judges are going to get a vote that wouldn't have gotten a vote otherwise. We're going to start talking about who would be a good judge and who wouldn't, and the White House is going to get more involved and they're going to listen to us more.
NAYLOR: And, in fact, the fallout was quick. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, one of the outside conservative groups pressuring Republican leader Bill Frist to invoke the nuclear option, called the agreement, quote, "a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats." Neither Frist nor his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, was party to the agreement, and they had different reactions. For Frist, it was a mixed bag.
Senator BILL FRIST (Senate Majority Leader): The agreement falls short. It has some good news and it has some disappointing news and it will require careful monitoring.
NAYLOR: Democratic Leader Reid was more upbeat.
Senator HARRY REID (Senate Minority Leader): This is really good news for every American tonight. This so-called nuclear option is off the table. This is a significant victory for our country, for our democracy and for every American.
NAYLOR: Democrats had threatened to dramatically slow down the Senate in retaliation if Republicans had succeeded with the nuclear option, so the White House was, if not exactly pleased, relieved with the agreement and what it will mean for the president's agenda. Spokesman Scott McClellan called it progress.
It's unclear what the long-term implications of the deal will be, assuming it holds, whether it will cause the White House to consult with the Senate on future judicial nominees, including a possible Supreme Court opening, as the centrists hope, and what effect it will have, if any, on the possible presidential aspirations of Majority Leader Frist and the leader of the consensus builders, Republican John McCain of Arizona.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.