May 18, 2005
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate must vote on Texas jurist Priscilla Owen, Republicans argued Wednesday, opening debate on the Democratic-blocked appeals court nominee and setting events in motion that could bring a historic showdown over filibusters.
As lawmakers clashed on the Senate floor over the Democrats' blockade of Owen, negotiators from both parties worked behind the scenes to craft a deal that would avert a constitutional confrontation.
"If it's going to happen, it's going to happen this afternoon," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of an agreement to defuse the situation. "It's kind of like exams. If you have a date-certain, people tend to react."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, frustrated by the Democrats' success in blocking several of President Bush's nominees, has threatened to call a vote on banning judicial filibusters. If such a move were to succeed, it would give the Republicans full control over which nominees could be confirmed for lifetime judgeships since the party controls the White House and has a 55-44-1 majority in the Senate.
The filibuster, a parliamentary stalling device used by legislative minorities, can be overcome only by a majority of 60 votes or more in the 100-member Senate.
Bush's nominees shouldn't be thwarted that way, Frist has said repeatedly.
"Judicial nominees with the support of a majority of senators deserve up-or-down votes on this floor," Frist, R-Tenn., said as Wednesday's arguments began. "Debate the nominee for five hours. Debate the nominee for 50 hours.Vote for the nominee. Vote against the nominee. Confirm the nominee. Reject the nominee. But, in the end, vote."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said his party would fight to retain what power it still had in a Washington run by a Republican president and GOP houses of Congress.
"Right now, the only check on President Bush is the Democrats' ability to voice their concern in the Senate," said Reid. "If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on their power. The radical right wing will be free to pursue any agenda they want. And not just on judges. Their power will be unchecked on Supreme Court nominees, the president's nominees in general and legislation like Social Security privatization."
Owen is praised as an ideal candidate by conservatives but criticized by liberals as being biased toward business interests and against abortion.
If majority Republicans opt to change the rules to disallow filibusters of judicial nominees - a change labeled the "nuclear option" - parliamentary warfare between Democrats and Republicans could escalate and stall Bush's legislative agenda.
Democrats already have prevented final votes on 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominees, and have threatened to do the same this year to seven the president has renominated, including Owen and California judge Janice Rogers Brown.
Just 51 votes are needed to approve a nominee once a vote is called in the Senate, and only 50 if the vice president, who breaks ties, votes in favor of a nominee.
Frist also could prevail with 50 votes supporting his move to rule filibusters out of order when used to block a confirmation vote because the Republicans have Vice President Dick Cheney to break a tie.
Neither side appears certain it has enough votes to prevail if that issue is put to a test.
Several senators were working furiously to stop the chamber from getting to that vote. Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado had attended at least 13 private meetings over the previous 24 hours with senators trying to craft a deal, a spokesman said.
Graham and Salazar, along with Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., John McCain, R-Ariz., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and others, were working to try and find six Republicans and six Democrats to block Frist from banning judicial filibusters and block Reid from filibustering all of Bush's controversial judicial nominees.
Under their proposal, several of the seven blocked nominees would be confirmed. Senators were negotiating which ones.