The Senate's top two Democrats, seeking a break in the impasse over seven stalled judicial nominees, said for the first time yesterday that they would consider a compromise in which some of the seven would be confirmed and the others withdrawn.
The comments by Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) startled some liberal groups because Democratic leaders have said until now that all seven nominees were unacceptable because of their sharply conservative stands on women's issues, civil rights, the environment and other issues.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), center, leaves the office of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) after talks Thursday.
(Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
It is far from clear that such a deal would be acceptable to Republicans, because it would require them to drop their threat to change Senate rules in order to ban filibusters of judicial nominees. Democrats, who hold 44 of the Senate's 100 seats, used the filibuster to block 10 appellate court nominees in President Bush's first term. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster.
When Bush renominated seven of the 10 judges this year, Democrats vowed to filibuster them again. If the Democrats persist, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said, he will push for the rule change, which would allow judicial nominees to be confirmed with a simple 51-vote majority. Both sides say the seven nominees would be confirmed under that standard.
Despite the tough rhetoric, members of both parties have quietly been seeking a compromise. It is unclear whether Frist could muster the votes for the rule change, several senators say, and moderates in both parties are pressing their leaders to avert a showdown that could deeply wound the losing side and severely damage Senate relations. Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican whip, said in an interview with CBS over the weekend, "We have the votes we need."
The first sign of a possible Democratic concession came Sunday. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, told ABC News's "This Week": "I think we should compromise and say to them that we're willing to -- of the seven judges -- we'll let a number of them go through, the two most extreme not go through, and put off this [rule-change] vote."
Reid, speaking yesterday on CNN's "Inside Politics," said Biden's "numbers are a little -- not quite right. But I'm happy to look at some of these numbers. We're doing that. We're looking at a number of different things that can be done to change the procedures."
Meanwhile, Durbin told reporters that the possible compromise -- in which Democrats would allow a confirmation vote on most of the seven contested nominees -- "has been part of the conversation" with Republicans. "We have not reached agreement," he said. A key problem, he said, would be deciding which of the seven to move forward, given that all of them face significant opposition from liberal interest groups, some of which are spending heavily on TV and radio ads to fight them.
Nancy M. Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said in an interview that she was amazed to hear of Reid's and Durbin's comments. "I can't even wrap my head around it," she said. "Here we are doing all this work, spending all this money" to keep the seven nominees off the appellate courts. "You'd best believe I'll be on the phone to Reid's office," she said.
When Bush renominated the seven contested appointees earlier this year, Reid showed no willingness to accept any of them. "The president is at it again with the extremist judges," he said, adding that the Senate should not "redebate the merits of nominees already found too extreme by this chamber."
Democratic aides predicted yesterday that Frist could find it very difficult to sell the proposed compromise to conservative groups eager to ban judicial filibusters before there is a Supreme Court vacancy, which many expect this summer. But moderate GOP senators -- many of whom have criticized the idea of changing the filibuster rule -- might press Frist to accept a deal in order to defuse the situation and avoid a bitterly partisan confrontation.
Frist's office did not respond to a request for a comment on Reid's remarks last night. A senior Republican leadership aide, who would speak only on background because of the issue's political sensitivity, said "it's typical Washington horse-trading" but nonetheless "encouraging" that Democrats broached the idea of dropping their filibusters.
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.