Bush demands vote on judges
Bipartisan group works on Senate filibuster deal
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With a showdown over his judicial nominees looming in the Senate, President Bush demanded Tuesday that senators approve those picks without further delay.
"In the last two elections, the American people made clear they want judges who will faithfully interpret the law, not legislate from the bench," Bush told a Republican Party event Tuesday evening.
"I have a duty to nominate well-qualified men and women to the federal judiciary. I have done just that, and I will continue to do so," he said.
"The Senate also has a duty -- to promptly consider each of these nominations on the Senate floor, discuss and debate their qualifications and then give them the up or down vote they deserve."
During Bush's first term, Senate Democrats used filibusters to block 10 of his 218 court nominees. Bush renominated seven of them this year, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is threatening to force a confrontation over the issue this week.
The filibuster, a form of extended debate that dates to the 1850s, can be overcome only by a three-fifths majority of 60 votes, a move known as invoking cloture.
With Democrats holding 44 seats in the 100-member Senate, they could hold up a vote on a nominee indefinitely. So usually only their threat of a filibuster has been sufficient to keep Republicans from bringing a nomination to the floor for a vote.
Frist says he will bring the nominations of Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen to the Senate floor this week.
If Democrats try to block them by refusing to end debate, Frist has said he will move to change Senate rules by a simple majority to prevent filibusters of judicial nominees -- a step dubbed the "nuclear option."
"I've made it clear what the principle is, a fair up-or-down vote," Frist told reporters Tuesday. "And we will have whatever debate is required to really exhaust the discussion on these candidates."
Trying for a deal
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators was scrambling for a compromise to avert a showdown.
Under a compromise draft known as a "memorandum of understanding" six Democrats would commit their votes to cut off debate on five Bush nominees, allowing them to clear the Senate.
In exchange, six Republicans would agree to vote against the threatened "nuclear option," all but guaranteeing its failure.
The plan was being brokered by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and would reserve the filibustering of court nominees -- including Supreme Court candidates -- for "the most extreme cases," McCain said.
"This has brought us to the brink, and if we can step back from it, I think it would improve the atmosphere around here," McCain told CNN.
"But the environment in the country is very bitter and very partisan today, and it certainly is reflected here on Capitol Hill."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said he would back the proposal. But Sen. Mark Pryor, his Democratic colleague from Arkansas, cautioned, "There is no agreement at this point."
Pryor noted that Republicans blocked more than 60 of President Clinton's judicial nominations, but added, "We don't need to get into all of that right now."
"What we need to try to do is move forward, have senators that want to see the Senate operate the way it should, try to come up with some sort of agreement and try to move this forward," he said.
But Frist insists that all of Bush's nominees must receive up-or-down votes.
As written, the draft memorandum effectively would kill the nominations of three of Bush's most controversial picks -- Owen, William Myers and Henry Saad.
Confirmation votes would go forward on five others: Brown, William Pryor, Richard Griffin, David McKeague and Susan Neilson.
But the list of judges who would be approved and those who would not clear the Senate was a work in progress and already may have changed, a Democratic source said.
Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrat from Nevada, announced Monday they had given up trying to avert a showdown.
In a signal of support, White House counsel Harriet Miers had lunch with Brown and Owen Tuesday afternoon, and the two also met briefly with Bush in the Oval Office.
White House officials have nonetheless expressed grave concern about how a Senate stalled by bitter Democrats would affect Bush's second-term agenda.
The "nuclear option" has little public support in recent polls, and some Republicans among the 55 in the chamber have expressed doubts about the move.
"We certainly are not about to declare victory," Reid said. "These votes will be determined at the last minute.
"It's going to take some Republicans of good will to be courageous and break from their leadership. They're getting tremendous pressure, and I understand that. But we feel good."
CNN's Ed Henry contributed to this report.