Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist does not have firm support among his caucus to employ the so-called “nuclear option” for dislodging the Democratic filibusters against President Bush’s judicial nominees.

Of the 55 Republicans in the chamber, at least six are undecided or adamantly opposed to the plan of using the rare parliamentary procedure to end the filibusters with a simple majority vote, rather than the 60 votes normally required.

“I am very concerned about the overuse of the filibuster,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who said she remains undecided. “But I am also concerned that a rule change will further charge the partisan atmosphere to the point that we will not be able to conduct business.”

Mr. Frist said in an interview with The Washington Times last month that he was “confident” he has the votes to put an end to the filibusters against seven of Mr. Bush’s nominees to the federal appeals courts.

In addition to Miss Collins, three other Republicans say they are undecided but have serious reservations. They are Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

“I have not reached a firm view on the matter,” Mr. Warner said. “However, I tend to be a traditionalist, and the right of unlimited debate has been a hallmark of the Senate since its inception.”

Hagel spokesman Mike Buttry said his boss “wants to see how the debate plays out.”

“He is very frustrated with the treatment of the judges,” Mr. Buttry said. “At the same time, he was here in the ‘70s, when there was a Democrat in the White House and the filibuster was a very important tool for Republicans.”

Firmly opposed to the measure are Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who cite concerns about protecting the minority party and avoiding a Democratic promise to halt most Senate business.

Assuming that no Democrats support Mr. Frist, that brings support for the measure to just 49 senators, one shy of the number he needs.

He would have to change at least one mind to win with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Dick Cheney, who would likely preside over the chamber during the rare parliamentary maneuver.

During the past two years, a minority group of Democrats has lodged filibusters against 10 of Mr. Bush’s nominees to the federal bench, three of whom withdrew their names from consideration as the partisan struggle dragged on.

After the last Congress adjourned and the nominations lapsed, Mr. Bush resubmitted the nominees and promised to fight for their confirmation.

Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada vowed to maintain the filibusters against each one, even though the issue contributed to the electoral defeat last year of his predecessor as minority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Both sides view the battle as a precursor to the fight over the one or more vacancies expected this summer on the Supreme Court.

In his quest for the votes needed for the nuclear option — referred to as the “constitutional option” by supporters who maintain that the Democrat filibusters are an unconstitutional requirement that judge nominations have supermajority support — Mr. Frist also has encountered some good news.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority whip who had long cautioned his caucus against the option, announced his full support.

“Even if one strongly disagrees with a nomination, the proper course of action is not to obstruct a potential judge through the filibuster but to vote against him or her,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this obstruction necessitates that we restore these norms and traditions, and that includes through the use of the so-called ‘constitutional’ option.”

Sen. Ted Stevens, the influential Alaska Republican who had long been a question mark on the issue, also recently said he favors Mr. Frist’s approach.

“The Democrats are the ones who changed the rules,” spokeswoman Courtney Boone said. “We’re just changing them back.”

But other Republican senators have not said whether they are for the option, against it or undecided. Much of that attention centers on Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, and George V. Voinovich of Ohio.

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