Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Senate began debate on two of President Bush’s filibustered judicial nominations yesterday as a team of senators from both sides of the aisle strived for a last-ditch compromise to avert a “nuclear option” showdown.

“The hour of decision has come for our nation’s Senate,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid, who earlier this week said he and Majority Leader Bill Frist had given up on official leadership negotiations. “In the debate that has begun, the Republican majority that holds the reins of power will have to make a choice.”

But even before Mr. Frist could call to the floor the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the Senate got mired in partisan discord. Mr. Reid and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, wanted Mr. Frist to call up another Bush nominee instead.

At 9:47 a.m., the presiding officer ordered a close to the quarreling and called up Justice Owen — thus beginning the debate that appears increasingly likely to end in the deployment of the so-called nuclear option.

In addition to Justice Owen, senators also discussed the nomination of California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, although her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was not officially called to the floor.

Republicans portrayed the nominees as highly accomplished, well-qualified jurists who were retained on their respective courts with higher vote margins than any other justices running in those elections.

“Janice Rogers Brown can get 76 percent of the vote in California, and Priscilla Owen can get 84 percent of the vote in Texas, but neither can get a vote to be confirmed in the Senate,” said Mr. Frist, answering Democratic arguments that the nominees are “out of the mainstream.”

“Are 76 percent of Californians and 84 percent of Texans out of the mainstream?” he wondered. “Denying Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen a vote is what’s out of the mainstream.”

Democrats portrayed Justices Owen and Brown as hostile to abortion and to worker rights, sympathetic to corporate interests and “anti-woman.”

Dozens of female Democrat lawmakers, including Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington, denounced the nominations of Justices Owen and Brown at a press conference inside the Capitol.

“When Americans think of a scary person in a black robe, they should be thinking of Darth Vader, not Republicans’ choices for judges,” Mr. Reid told supporters yesterday. “But what the Republican leadership is attempting to do is to pack the courts with judges far out of the mainstream of American values.”

While debate continued on the Senate floor throughout yesterday, Mr. Reid forced all committees to cancel their meetings.

The move served as a precursor to Democratic promises earlier this year to “shut down” all nonessential Senate business if Republicans carry out their plans to ban filibusters on judicial nominations.

“Despite any differences over the judges, the American people want their government to continue working on issues important to them,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said. “They want the Senate to do its job.”

Although official negotiations between Mr. Frist and Mr. Reid have broken down, a group of senators bent on compromise spent yesterday shuttling among offices for private meetings.

In one meeting yesterday, 11 senators gathered in the office of Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, for about an hour.

Other Republican negotiators were Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Democratic negotiators were Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Negotiators gave positive signals during the day.

“We continue to make progress, and we continue to be optimistic,” Mr. Nelson said after walking out of Mr. Warner’s office. “We wouldn’t continue to do it if we didn’t have some expectation of achieving an agreement.”

For a deal to be struck, aides close to the negotiations say that either Democrats will have to stop filibustering nominees or Republicans will have to vote against individual nominees.

Mr. Graham said that although he would consider a deal that doesn’t guarantee votes for all the filibustered nominees, he would not oppose any of the nominees.

“No,” he said. “I’m not going to agree to vote ‘no’ on somebody just to get a deal.”

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