April 26, 2005
WASHINGTON - Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is quietly talking to the Senate's chief Republican about confirming at least two of President Bush's blocked judicial nominees but only as part of a compromise that would require the GOP to end its threat to eliminate judicial filibusters, officials say.
Reid also wants a concession from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, officials said speaking on condition of anonymity: the replacement of a third Michigan nominee with one approved by that state's two Democratic senators.
At the same time, these officials say Reid remains opposed to four conservative candidates for other appellate circuits, Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown, William G. Myers III and William H. Pryor Jr.
Senators would not confirm details Monday, but Reid said that he has had had numerous conversations with senators in both parties in hopes of avoiding a showdown. "As part of any resolution, the nuclear option must be off the table," Reid said in a statement referring to the GOP threat to change filibuster rules.
The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity, citing the confidential nature of the conversations between the two leaders.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Sunday there had been a "a lot of negotiations to try to get three judges from Michigan" confirmed. Other senators have referred vaguely in recent days to discussions surrounding Bush's nominations to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Michigan.
This comes as senators try to negotiate their way out of a looming confrontation over whether Democrats can block Bush's judicial nominees through filibuster threats.
Republicans have threatened to use their majority to change long-standing senatorial rules that Democrats used to block 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominations. They fear a Democratic blockade could affect a Supreme Court vacancy if a high court seat opens in Bush's second term.
Democrats, who argue the nominees are too conservative to warrant lifetime appointments to the nation's highest courts, have threatened to block the seven nominees Bush sent back after winning re-election and any others they consider out of the mainstream.
Officials said as part of an overall deal, Reid has indicated he is willing to allow the confirmation of Richard Griffin and David McKeague, both of whom Bush has twice nominated for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At the same time, the Democratic leader wants the nomination of Henry Saad scuttled. Democrats succeeded in blocking all three men from coming to a vote in 2004 in a struggle that turned on issues of senatorial prerogatives as well as ideology.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has led the opposition to all three men. He said Republicans had refused even to hold hearings on two of former President Bill Clinton's nominees to the 6th Circuit.
Democrats drew criticism when they threatened to stop or slow the Senate's business if Republicans eliminate judicial filibusters. Democratic leaders began stressing an alternative approach during the day, attempting to force debate on their own agenda rather than the president's.
"I've always said that we'd make sure the Senate went forward, but we're going to do it on our agenda, not their agenda," Reid said.
Republicans can essentially eliminate judicial filibusters by majority vote, and Democrats concede Frist may be only one or two votes shy of the necessary total. At the same time, internal GOP polling shows lagging public support for such a move, and no showdown is expected until next month at the earliest.
Senate Republicans have been warning Reid that Democrats could face a backlash if they stopped routine Senate business, noting that House Republicans and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich suffered politically after forcing a government shutdown in a 1995 budget fight with Clinton.
But Reid and other Democrats say they will let vital legislation out of the Senate. "I'm not Newt Gingrich," Reid said. "I understand how the body works. We're not going to close down the Senate. Far from it, we're going to have a very active Senate."
"Anything that's vital, we will continue to move forward on: money for our troops or a highway bill or a transportation bill," added Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in a conference call. "But on other issues, what we are going to try to do is utilize the Senate rules to start focusing on issues that we think matter to the American people, whether it's gas prices or education or health care."