GOP Senators Back Pryor, Reject a Democratic Deal

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, left, Sen. Mitch McConnell, center, and Rep. Fred Upton discuss judicial nominations.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, left, Sen. Mitch McConnell, center, and Rep. Fred Upton discuss judicial nominations. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Michael A. Fletcher and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 13, 2005

The Senate continued its march toward a historic partisan showdown yesterday, as the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee approved another of President Bush's nominees to a federal appeals court despite threats from Democrats to block the nomination with a filibuster on the Senate floor.

At the same time, GOP leaders rejected a Democratic offer to confirm four long-stalled nominees, two of whom were filibustered last year. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Democrats should not be allowed to choose which nominees get confirmation votes and which do not. Democrats replied that Republicans are more interested in confrontation than in compromise.

The Judiciary Committee, voting 10 to 8 along party lines, endorsed former Alabama attorney general William H. Pryor Jr., 41, for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

Democrats used the filibuster -- which requires 60 votes to be stopped in the 100-member Senate -- to block Pryor's nomination during Bush's first term. Democrats said Pryor's conservative views are too extreme for a lifetime appointment to the appellate court. Bush later named Pryor to the court in a temporary appointment during a congressional recess, but Pryor must receive approval from the full Senate by the end of the year for a lifetime appointment.

Soon after the committee's vote, Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told Frist, in a floor speech, that he was willing to allow confirmation votes on four stalled nominees without demanding GOP concessions in return. Three of the four are from Michigan, which was the focus of a long-running dispute dating to Republican senators' blocking of several judicial nominees during Bill Clinton's presidency. The three are Richard A. Griffin, David W. McKeague and Susan Bieke Neilson, all appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The other judicial nominee that Democrats are ready to release, Reid said, is Thomas B. Griffith, appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In the past, Reid had insisted that Republicans drop their threats to change Senate precedents and prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees. But Reid said yesterday's offer had no strings attached because "we have to move forward."

Frist did not accept the offer, saying another stalled nominee -- Priscilla Richman Owen of Texas, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit -- is more deserving of a prompt vote after waiting more than four years. A Democratic activist with close ties to senators said Reid's strategy is "simply to make Frist look rigid and extreme and unwilling to deal on any level." The activist spoke on background to avoid alienating Democratic officials.

A handful of moderate senators from both parties said they are still seeking a compromise that would avert a showdown over the filibuster issue, which Frist said could occur by the middle of next week. Yesterday, however, several senators said a compromise seems unlikely.

"We stand here on the precipice of a constitutional crisis," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called the Judiciary Committee vote on Pryor "a stage-setter for an attempt to undo what the Senate has been about for over 200 years."

With the Judiciary Committee's approval of Pryor, four Bush appellate court nominees previously blocked by Democrats are now awaiting Senate action. The others are Owen, California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, and William G. Myers III, a former Interior Department lawyer and mining lobbyist. The committee delayed votes on two other appeals court nominees, U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle of North Carolina and White House staff secretary Brett M. Kavanaugh.

The battle over the judges has been joined by religious conservatives and business interests on the right and by civil rights and abortion rights groups on the left. They cite the courts' pivotal role in determining the course of some of the nation's most contentious cultural issues, including the availability of abortion, the use of race-conscious affirmative action and the role of religion in public life.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company