Monday, May 23, 2005

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said yesterday that he doesn’t think a compromise can be reached with Senate Democrats and predicted his party has the 51 votes needed to employ the so-called “nuclear option” that will prevent the filibustering of judicial nominees.

“I just think that it is not that big of a deal for senators to exercise their constitutional responsibility,” Mr. Allen said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think that we’ll get the constitutional option done, and we’ll vote on judges.”

Also yesterday, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, answered “yes” when asked on CBS’ “Face the Nation” whether his party “has the votes to overturn this Senate rule.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have abandoned their threats to shut down legislative action if Republicans change Senate rules to bar the use of filibusters to block judicial nominations.

The showdown is scheduled for tomorrow, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, will call for a vote on Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, whose nomination been blocked by a Democratic filibuster for four years.

In a March 15 letter to Mr. Frist, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said that if Republicans banned the judicial filibusters, Democrats would “be reluctant to enter into any consent agreement that facilitates Senate activities, even on routine matters.”

Several weeks of comparisons between the Democratic plan and the 1995 government shutdown that hurt House Speaker Newt Gingrich politically put Mr. Reid on the defensive.

“I’m not Newt Gingrich,” Mr. Reid said.

By last week, Democrats had surrendered their promise of such retaliation.

“We are not going to attempt to shut down the Senate,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and early architect of the filibusters. “We are not going to attempt to slow down the Senate.”

The new Democratic plan for retaliation, Mr. Schumer said, will be to “implement our strategy of basically trying to use the Senate rules to put items on the agenda that the American people care about.”

“We are going to attempt to use the rules — as well as outside pressure — to force the Senate to take up agenda items that we haven’t done before,” said Mr. Schumer, who now heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Some lawmakers were holding out hope for a compromise before tomorrow’s vote. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told “Fox News Sunday” that the nuclear option will “hurt the Senate in the long run.”

“We’re talking about changing the rules of the Senate with 51 votes, which has never happened in the history of the United States Senate,” Mr. McCain said, adding that he was worried that eliminating the filibuster for judicial nominees would lead to the elimination of the 214-year-old parliamentary tactic altogether.

“If you have 51 votes changing the rules of the Senate, nominations of the president is next, and then legislation follows that, and we will now become an institution exactly like the House of Representatives,” Mr. McCain sad.

Mr. McConnell dismissed any notion of extending tomorrow’s deadline for hatching a compromise and said the rule change is necessary because Democrats have abused the Senate tradition of comity.

“It was possible to filibuster judges for 214 years that had majority support in the Senate, but it was never done,” Mr. McConnell said. “We restrained ourselves, and I think this is a good opportunity for the Senate to restrain itself, to get back to a tradition and a pattern and the norm that prevailed in the Senate until the last Congress.”

Mr. Schumer acknowledged that the Senate would slow down only if Republicans insist upon advancing their agenda and that Senate tradition of consensus and bipartisanship was gone forever.

“The comity of the Senate, which is deference of the majority to set the agenda, will not be there anymore, period,” Mr. Schumer said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, appeared with Mr. Allen on “This Week” and said he was optimistic that a compromise could be reached.

“In the end, like most accomplishments in the Senate, it’s not going to be perfect for anybody,” Mr. Lieberman said. “You’ve got six or seven Democrats, six or seven Republicans, moderate, centrist mavericks, independents. They don’t want the place to blow up.”

Mr. Reid last week offered a promise to drop the filibuster except in “extraordinary circumstances” and allow to pass all but two or three of Mr. Bush’s nearly one dozen high-level court appointees in exchange for the Republicans’ abandoning their threat to change the rules.

Republicans have rejected that compromise on the principle that all of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees are qualified and say they don’t trust the Democrats to narrowly define “extraordinary circumstances.”

“My own hope had been that the Republicans promise not to go to the nuclear option,” Mr. Lieberman said. “I’m an optimist by nature. So you can discount for this … but I think the bipartisan compromise is going to be agreed to.”

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