Senators to resume talks on Bush nominees - East Valley Tribune: News

Senators to resume talks on Bush nominees

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Posted: Thursday, May 19, 2005 12:07 am | Updated: 9:27 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

WASHINGTON - While senators argue over Texas jurist Priscilla Owen's blocked federal appeals court nomination on the Senate floor, the driving force in backroom negotiations in the Capitol is how senators will treat a future Supreme Court nominee if a vacancy opens up in the next two years.

"This whole debate, for me, is about the Supreme Court," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the Senate negotiators who scurried from office to office Wednesday trying to work out a deal that would avoid a showdown over whether to block the use of filibusters against judicial nominees. "What do you do with the next level? Can you get the Senate back to more of a normal working situation?"

Senate negotiators were to get back to work Thursday trying to find a compromise on confirming Owen and the seven other U.S. Appeals Court nominees. But while lower court nominees are at the forefront of the argument, the clear subtext of the debate is how the Senate will treat a future Supreme Court nominee from President Bush.

Republican leaders are concerned that Democrats want to enshrine judicial filibusters in the Senate so they can block a future Bush nominee to the nation's highest court, along with Owen and the six other lower court nominees they already have blocked using the parliamentary tactic that requires 60 votes to overcome.

While there are no current vacancies, Supreme Court watchers expect a retirement before the end of Bush's presidency. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is 80, is fighting thyroid cancer.

"When a Supreme Court position becomes open the issue will be, will it require 60 votes to approve a Supreme Court judge - something that's never required - or will it be a majority vote? Must we have a super majority?" said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

But Democrats worry that Republicans want to get rid of judicial filibusters so the White House can use the Senate's GOP majority to ram through a nominee that Democrats will find extreme and objectionable. If such a move were to succeed, it would give the GOP 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.

"If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on their power," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said. "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."

Senate centrists hope to avoid both options. If they can get 12 senators to agree to a deal - six Republicans and six Democrats - they can prevent Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., from banning judicial filibusters and keep Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada from filibustering Bush appointees.

Under the most recent Republican-crafted offer, Democrats would have to allow the confirmation of six Bush nominees: Owen, California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, as well as Michigan nominees Susan Neilson, David McKeague and Richard Griffin. The Senate would scuttle the nominations of Idaho lawyer William Myers and Michigan nominee Henry Saad, aides said.

But more importantly, both sides would have to operate on "good faith" when it comes to future nominations. Republicans would be bound not to ban judicial filibusters only if Democrats forswear judicial filibusters on court nominees except for extraordinary situations, aides said.

The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are being held behind closed doors.

"If we can get through this week, really, get through these eight, I think calmer heads will prevail down the road and we'll have a better chance of dealing with the Supreme Court nominees in a traditional way," Graham said.

Frist, R-Tenn., who has insisted that all of the White House's nominees get confirmation votes, picked up an additional senator on his side Wednesday, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

Smith said he had decided over the weekend that he would vote with Frist to keep members from blocking nominees by threatening to filibuster. "I think to do otherwise has a chilling effect not only on the meaning of elections, but as to the intellectual vigor of the judicial branch of the government," Smith said.

If a deal isn't reached, Frist needs to get a majority of the senators voting to back him to successfully ban judicial filibusters. If the Senate deadlocks, Frist would prevail because the Republicans have Vice President Dick Cheney to break a tie.

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