Friday, April 29, 2005

Majority Leader Bill Frist publicly offered a compromise to Democrats yesterday in a last-ditch effort to avoid a “nuclear” showdown in the Senate over judicial nominees.

However, the Senate’s top Democrat immediately expressed doubt about the proposal, calling it “a big wet kiss to the far right.”

Mr. Frist’s proposal would end the current blockade of nominees by Democrats but also prevent future nominations from being stymied in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans once blocked some of President Clinton’s nominees.

“Whether on the floor or in committee, judicial obstruction is judicial obstruction,” he said. “It’s time for judicial obstruction to end, no matter which party controls the White House or the Senate.”

When Mr. Frist finished offering his proposal, Minority Leader Harry Reid expressed doubt that it would be acceptable to Democrats.

“I don’t really like the proposal given, but I’m not going to throw it away,” Mr. Reid said. “I’m going to work on it.”

Mr. Frist’s proposal, which Republicans are calling the “fairness rule,” would allow for up to 100 hours of floor debate on any nominee and require that the Judiciary Committee act on every nominee submitted by a president within a given period of time. It would do nothing to curtail filibusters against legislation.

From the outset, Mr. Reid and other Democrats have said they won’t entertain any offer that doesn’t begin by removing the so-called “nuclear option” from the table. That option — now termed the “constitutional option” by Republicans — is a rare parliamentary procedure that would thwart filibusters against judicial nominees.

Democrats have threatened to shut down the Senate for all nonessential business if Republicans employ the option, which is likely to come sometime next month if a deal is not struck before then.

Republicans have been adamant they want to resolve the issue before any vacancies arise on the Supreme Court, at least one of which is expected this summer.

“I sincerely hope the Senate minority does not intend to escalate its judicial obstruction to potential Supreme Court nominees,” Mr. Frist warned yesterday. “That would be a terrible blow to constitutional principles and to political civility in America.”

In his floor speech, Mr. Reid called Mr. Frist’s proposal a “slow-motion nuclear option.”

“After 100 hours, the rights of the minority are extinguished,” he said, acknowledging that the purpose of the filibusters hasn’t been to continue debate on nominees, but simply to stop them.

“This has never been about the length of debate,” Mr. Reid said. Rather, it’s about constitutional principle of sharing power with the minority in the Senate, he said.

Although Democrats have been unshakable about continuing the filibusters against the currently blocked nominees, Mr. Reid appeared to suggest that Democrats would not filibuster any new nominees if Republicans don’t thwart the filibusters.

“I say to everyone within the sound of my voice: ‘Test us,’ “he said. “Let’s see how we can do in the future. I can’t say there won’t be any filibusters, but I think we’re going to have a much better situation.”

During his presentation of the deal on the Senate floor, Mr. Frist also signaled that he has decided whose nomination would be used to employ the nuclear option.

“Priscilla Owen has served 10 years as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, she won re-election with 84 percent of the vote in Texas,” he said. “Yet, she can’t get the courtesy of a vote to be confirmed by the Senate.”

Ultimately, a deal appears unlikely given the immovable positions taken by the leaders of both sides.

“Resolving the judicial obstruction debate, for me, isn’t about politics; it’s about constitutional principles,” Mr. Frist said. “It’s about fairness to nominees. It’s about senators doing their duty and doing what’s right for our country.”

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