Senate showdown set for Tuesday
Vote on nomination of Priscilla Owen scheduled
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After three days of passionate debate over one of President Bush's controversial judicial nominees, Senate Republicans on Friday called for a procedural vote early next week to cut off debate.
The move would bring the Senate one step closer to a showdown over the ability of Democrats to block nominees they oppose.
The moment of the day came when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the vote over the nomination of Priscilla Owen for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would occur on Tuesday.
Cornyn took the step on behalf of Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was delivering a commencement address in South Carolina.
"Without objection, on behalf of the majority leader, I send a cloture motion to the desk," Cornyn said.
The Senate earlier began the third straight day of heated debate over Owen's nomination.
Behind the scenes, moderates were feverishly working to try to hammer out a compromise to avoid the "nuclear option," which would end Democratic filibusters of Bush's nominees by changing Senate rules rather than mustering 60 votes to end debate.
The face-to-face negotiations between moderates were at an impasse by mid-day and direct talks were put on hold until Monday, although talks by phone were expected to continue throughout the weekend, sources close to the situation told CNN.
The moderates are trying to get six Democrats and six Republicans to allow certain judges through while others get blocked. A floated proposal also would preserve the use of the filibuster, through which a minority of 41 senators can keep debate open indefinitely -- but call for its deployment only in "extraordinary circumstances." (Related story)
Speaking on the Senate floor Friday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he doesn't want the decision to be made by a small group of senators.
"I cannot subscribe to the idea that a group of 12 -- however they may ultimately be constituted -- ought to make the decision on who is to be confirmed and who ought not to be confirmed," he said. "It is my view that ultimately that is really a decision for this body."
Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, said Senate rules must protect the minority: "The Senate's tradition is ruled to protect debate and guarantee that we can't be trampled upon."
But Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, said Owen's nomination should be allowed an up-or-down vote.
"To deny someone the opportunity to which they have been nominated by the president of the United States (and) elected by the majority of electors in the last election is not right," he said.
Supreme Court factor
While the current dispute centers on appointees to the U.S. appellate courts, it comes as Washington faces the prospect of at least one Supreme Court vacancy.
Drawing on their decades of experience, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, and Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, have revived an idea they say could be a shield to the nuclear option.
In the future, they say, the Senate Judiciary Committee should be allowed to set up a pool of candidates for the Supreme Court that the president could use or discard if he so chose -- an idea that the senators hope would improve the consultation process between Congress and the White House.
It was not immediately clear how their proposal was being received by others.
Jack Valenti, former aide to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, told CNN he believes some form of compromise will be reached to avert the looming crisis.
"This is a melancholy moment in Senate history and, if this filibuster is exiled, I think it would be tragic. We have to understand this would be the first time in the history of the Senate that unlimited speech would be prohibited," he said.
Ed Rollins, a long-time GOP strategist, agreed, saying it would "be extremely destructive if for some reason they change the rules and if there is not the opportunity to filibuster."
"I think we're at a very critical stage here," Rollins told CNN. "And I do think if Bill Frist wins this -- the president's side wins -- there will be chaos for the rest of the year."
Rollins also said he believes what created the current problem is that "a lot of these Republicans have never been in the minority and a lot of them have come up through the House and not started as senators, so they don't give it quite the same respect that has been there in the past."
Bush has pushed hard for Owen's nomination for the 5th U.S. District Court of Appeals, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
He renominated her this year after her appointment died in the last Congress. A two-term Texas Supreme Court justice, she was first elected in 1994 in a campaign run by Karl Rove -- now Bush's top political adviser.
Her supporters say she is no-nonsense in her rulings, is highly rated by the American Bar Association and is a strong conservative.
Her opponents say she is on the extreme right, opposing abortion rights and favoring Texas corporations over working families.