GOP Files Cloture Motion to End Debate

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005; 4:32 PM

The Senate's Republican majority today began a countdown to a vote that has been dubbed the "nuclear option," a decision on whether to end the ability of the chamber's minority to use filibusters to block the appointment of federal judges.

After a third day of debate on one of President Bush's most controversial judicial nominees, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) filed a cloture motion to end the debate and put the nomination to a vote. The cloture vote, scheduled for Tuesday, would trigger a series of steps leading to the "nuclear option" -- unless a bipartisan group of moderate senators succeeds in negotiating a compromise to head it off.

The cloture motion was filed by Cornyn on behalf of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was traveling today. With strong backing from the White House, Frist wants to ensure that Bush's nominees to the federal bench get "a fair up-or-down vote" on the Senate floor, with a simple majority of the 100 senators deciding the matter, instead of allowing Democrats to block nominees through filibusters, which require 60 votes to break. Republicans say filibuster threats mean that, for practical purposes, a "supermajority" of 60 votes is required to confirm the nominees, rather than the traditional 51 votes.

After submitting the cloture motion, which was signed by 18 senators, Cornyn said there would be a fourth day of debate Monday on the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.

Cornyn rejected the idea that proceeding with a de facto rule change to end filibusters against judicial nominees would lead to a "constitutional crisis." He added, "This is a controversy, a disagreement, not a crisis." Once the matter is resolved by a majority vote, he said, "we should get back to work."

But Democrats have vowed to use other Senate rules, such as the need for unanimous consent to hold committee hearings, to tie up the chamber and prevent other business from going ahead.

In a floor speech preceding the cloture motion, Cornyn was critical of the bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators who have been trying to craft a compromise that would ensure votes on most of the contested nominees in return for preservation of the filibuster for use in "extraordinary circumstances."

The Texas senator said a resolution of the dispute should not be based on "some bogus suggestion, some deal cut by a handful of senators," that would "throw some nominees overboard" while leaving the main issue unresolved: the potential use of the filibuster to block a future Supreme Court nominee.

"Now is the time to resolve this issue once and for all," Cornyn said.

The cloture motion followed more than 25 hours of debate during the past three days, much of that discourse devoted more to the looming "nuclear option" than to the qualifications of Owen. Elevated to the Texas Supreme Court in 1994, she was nominated by Bush to a seat on the 5th Circuit appeals court in 2001, but was blocked by Democrats through filibuster threats. Democratic opponents asserted that she is too extreme and "out of the mainstream" in her conservatism to warrant a lifetime judicial appointment, charges that Republicans reject.

Owen was one of 10 Bush judicial nominees who were blocked through filibuster threats during his first term. Three subsequently retired or withdrew, and Bush resubmitted the nominations of the seven others. Of those, Democrats continue to oppose five, including Owen.

Throughout the past three days of debate, Democratic senators pointed repeatedly to the Senate's approval of 208 of Bush's judicial nominees. Instead of being satisfied with a 95 percent success rate, the highest for a president's judicial nominees in the past two decades, Bush has shown that he wants to have everything his way, the Democrats charged. By comparison, Republicans blocked 69 of President Clinton's judicial nominees during his two terms, Democratic senators pointed out.

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