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Inside Politics

Showdown looms on Senate filibuster

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A Senate fight nears over judicial filibusters.

Senate considers abolishing filibusters for judicial nominations.
What's behind the filibuster flap?

• Frist warned over filibuster legacy
• McCain urges compromise

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Leading senators gathered Sunday evening at Majority Leader Bill Frist's home for what his Democratic counterpart described as a social occasion -- a get-together held in the shadow of a looming showdown over President Bush's judicial nominees.

Despite ongoing efforts to avert what some lawmakers call a constitutional crisis, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said there was no political talk over a dinner of duck al'orange at Frist's home.

But Reid, D-Nevada, said both parties need to "end the bickering" over Frist's threat to use Senate rules to eliminate filibusters of Bush's court picks.

"It's time this all ended," Reid said.

Frist, R-Tennessee, also played host to Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana; Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico; Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Missouri; fellow Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander; and two Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Nelson has been working with Mississippi Republican Trent Lott in order to broker a compromise that would end both the filibusters of some of Bush's nominees and the prospect of a rule change that would bring an end to all court filibusters -- a move dubbed the "nuclear option."

"There is a way out if people of good will will sit down and try to work toward a reasonable compromise, and yet I see the extremes having, on both sides, an enormous influence over this process," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week."

McCain said a deal was "close, but whether we'll actually achieve it or not is not clear at this time."

Democrats have used filibusters to block a handful of Bush's court picks, arguing they are too conservative to be fair judges. Frist has threatened to push for a change in Senate rules to end filibusters of judicial nominees.

Frist could force the confrontation this week by bringing two of Bush's nominees -- Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen -- to the Senate floor.

Ending a filibuster currently requires 60 votes in the Senate. But Republicans, who have 55 seats in the chamber, could attempt to change Senate rules with a simple majority.

Democrats have threatened to bring Senate business to a halt through procedural moves if Frist takes that step. And it was not clear that Frist had the votes to do so successfully: At least three Republican senators have indicated they would not support such a move.

McCain called Democratic filibusters of Bush's nominees "an abuse." But he told ABC the Senate "was designed to protect the minority."

"I really worry about when a liberal Senate and a liberal president are in power and it takes 51 votes to confirm a liberal judge," he said. "And that's, I think, very serious."

But Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP whip, said the nuclear option was the only way to "get back to the way the Senate operated quite comfortably for 214 years prior to the last Congress."

McConnell told "Fox News Sunday" that while judicial filibusters were possible, "it was never done."

In 1968, a Republican filibuster kept Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas from rising to the chief justice position and eventually forced him to resign from the court.

McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he would accept a compromise if it allows all of Bush's nominees to receive a floor vote, "as was the courtesy during the Clinton years."

Republicans held more than 60 Clinton appointees in the Senate Judiciary Committee, preventing those nominations from reaching the Senate floor.

McConnell said some Democrats have been "whispering in our ears" about switching sides on a cloture vote. But Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democratic whip, said all 44 Democrats and Vermont independent Jim Jeffords "are united."

"We feel that there are at least four Republican senators who feel as we do and we feel that there are several who are making up their minds at the last moment," said Durbin, D-Illinois. "It is a critical question and it's one that goes to constitutional values."

He said senators "come and go," but changing Senate rules would "devalue" a 200-year-old tradition.

"It would be a bitter legacy for those who are involved in it," he said.

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