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Inside Politics

Fight over judges heats up in Senate

Specter 'hopeful' of deal as debate starts on disputed nominee

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, center, and Minority Leader Harry Reid discuss Priscilla Owen's nomination Wednesday.
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The debate on judicial nominees gets bitter in the Senate.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The showdown over President Bush's judicial nominees took center stage Wednesday in the Senate, with Majority Leader Bill Frist calling on members to move toward a vote on one of the most controversial picks.

But a leading Republican said it was still possible to avert a threatened battle with Democrats over Senate rules governing the filibuster when applied to judicial nominees.

Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said several moderate Republicans and Democrats were trying to hammer out a compromise that might see some of Bush's disputed nominees confirmed.

"What this is really all about is saving face," the Pennsylvania Republican told CNN. "The institution of the Senate and the protection of minority rights is more important than the entire group [of nominees]."

Frist opened debate on one of the nominees, Priscilla Owen, drawing fire from Democrats who have fought her nomination since 2001.

Bush nominated Owen to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"Debate the nominee for five hours, debate the nominee for 50 hours. Vote for the nominee, vote against the nominee," said Frist, a Tennessee Republican. "But in the end, vote. Senators, colleagues, let's do our duty and vote."

Frist said he would move to change Senate rules if Democrats try to block the nominee by launching a filibuster.

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 in theory hold up a vote on a nominee indefinitely.

Thus, they have been able to keep nominations from coming to the floor by only threatening to filibuster them. Rarely is a nomination actually filibustered, in the full sense of the term. (Full story)

Frist's proposal to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominees by requiring a simple majority of 51 to end debate has been dubbed the "nuclear option."

If that happens, Democrats have threatened to respond by slowing Senate business to a crawl and disrupt the GOP's agenda.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said Democrats would do that by using "Senate rules to put items that we believe should be heard by the Senate on the agenda."

"You'll see things like minimum wage, buying prescription drugs in Canada, trying to improve our clean air and clean water," said Schumer, a Judiciary Committee member.

But with test votes on the issue not expected until next week, it remained unclear Wednesday if Frist had the support of enough Republicans to eliminate the filibuster.

"I think a shutdown can be avoided," Specter said. "I'm hopeful. We're still working on it very hard."

Democrats used threats of filibuster to block only 10 of Bush's 218 first term judicial nominees. The president renominated seven of them this year, including Owen.

"We don't want the constitutional option. We didn't ask for the constitutional option," Frist said, referring to the elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominees. "I think what's important now though is to come to the Senate floor; let's shed light on this."

'Payback time'

Specter said Democrats have used filibusters in "an unprecedented way, a pattern of attack" in the previous Congress.

He said that was part of a gradual escalation of partisan battles over court vacancies going back to the Reagan administration and leading to Republicans blocking more than 60 of President Clinton's nominees.

"This is payback time. This is not about these judges or their confirmation," he said.

The battle is being waged with the prospect of an even more contentious fight on the horizon. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist is battling thyroid cancer, raising the possibility that he will step down at some point in the near future.

During floor debate Wednesday, Minority Leader Harry Reid accused the Republican majority of "moving toward breaking the rules to change the rules."

"Right now, the only check on President Bush is the Democrats' ability to voice our concern in this body," said the Nevada Democrat. "If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on this power."

He proposed all 100 senators meet privately in the old Senate chamber to hash out an agreement, but Frist rebuffed the proposal.

Frist also rejected a Reid plan to first move forward with nominees whose consideration would otherwise be delayed during the debate over Owen. In turn, Reid said Democrats would block all committee hearings while the debate is under way.

"If the rights of the minority are to be preserved, if the Senate is to be preserved as the greatest of parliamentary bodies, it would take at least six Republicans standing up for fairness and checks and balances," Reid said.

One of the questions that loomed over the debate was whether a compromise is even possible.

A bipartisan group of senators is scrambling to reach a deal. Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, are brokering the plan, which would eliminate the nuclear option and reserve the filibustering of court nominees -- including Supreme Court candidates -- for "the most extreme cases."

Focus on Owen

At the center of this week Senate's debate is Owen, who has sat on the Texas Supreme Court since being elected in 1994. Karl Rove -- now Bush's top political adviser -- ran her campaign.

Her supporters praise the judge for her no-nonsense rulings, saying she is a strong conservative with a high rating from the American Bar Association.

Opponents accuse her of being an extreme-right activist who favors Texas corporations over working families, opposes abortion rights and is too slow in writing opinions.

Reid noted that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who once sat on the Texas Supreme Court, called Owen's dissent in a 2000 abortion case "an unconscionable act of judicial activism."

Frist said Owen won re-election with wide support, taking 84 percent of the vote in 2000.

At a Republican Party event Tuesday night, Bush demanded that senators approve his picks without further delay. (Full story)

CNN's Joe Johns and Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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