Democrats, GOP End Talks on Filibusters

By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced yesterday that he and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had broken off negotiations aimed at averting a showdown over President Bush's judicial nominees, moving the Senate to the brink of a constitutional confrontation and a battle that holds peril for both political parties and the White House.

Reid, emerging from an afternoon meeting with Frist, declared that the two leaders had reached an impasse after weeks of talks. "Negotiations are over," he said. "It'll have to be decided on the Senate floor."

Frist did not speak with reporters but issued a statement. "Republicans believe in the regular order of fair up and down votes and letting the Senate decide yes or no on judicial confirmations free from procedural gimmicks like the filibuster," he said, "and I hope Senator Reid and others know our door is always open to reasonable proposals for fair up or down votes for judicial nominees."

There is still a chance that a confrontation can be avoided, if a bipartisan group of senators finds support for a compromise. The group, led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), had deferred to Frist and Reid. But now it plans to intensify discussions in hopes of attracting half a dozen colleagues from each party to agree to a deal that would block any change in the Senate rules while allowing for filibusters only in extraordinary circumstances. The White House has been encouraging key Republican senators to support a change in the rules.

The confrontation has been brewing for weeks and could begin tomorrow, when Frist puts forward two judicial nominees, Janice Rogers Brown of California and Priscilla Owen of Texas. Democrats have vowed to filibuster both to prevent their confirmation.

At some point this week or next, Frist is expected to seek a change in Senate rules that would bar the use of the filibuster for judicial nominations. That change has been dubbed the "nuclear option," because of its potential to disrupt the Senate and shatter what little comity remains between Republicans and Democrats .

It usually takes 60 votes to shut off debate in the Senate, but the change contemplated by the Republicans would allow a simple majority to stop a filibuster on judicial nominations. Republicans say Democrats have abused the filibuster to block judges who enjoy majority support; Democrats argue that changing the rules represents a drastic curtailment of the rights of the minority in the Senate.

Speaking with reporters yesterday afternoon, Reid said Frist wanted "all or nothing" in negotiations. He said the Senate GOP leader wanted guaranteed votes on all of Bush's pending judicial nominees without promising to shelve the nuclear option. Democrats are determined to preserve the filibuster in case they want to use it to thwart Supreme Court nominees.

As talks broke down, Democrats were cautiously optimistic that they might beat the rule change outright by attracting at least six Republicans to vote against it. Three Republicans have signaled they will vote against the rule change: McCain, Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine).

Many Democrats think Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) will join Snowe in voting against a change in the rules, but she has not stated her position. Other Republicans the Democrats see as possible allies include Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.), Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (Va.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.).

Republicans express confidence that they will have the votes when they need them. But a senior White House official said over the weekend that vote counts have been inconsistent and that neither side will know the status of things until there is a vote.

The Democrats' challenge is to win over one or two rock-ribbed Republicans, as opposed to GOP moderates who more regularly cross party lines on big votes. One of the Democrats' best hopes appears to be Warner, the veteran conservative.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company