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Inside Politics

Reid seeks compromise with Frist on judges

Says he is working on ways to avoid 'nuclear option'

Harry Reid, right, said he has spoken with Bill Frist "on a number of occasions."
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Frist rallies religious conservatives behind an anti-filibuster bill.
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Harry Reid
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate's top Democrat said Monday he is still working with his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist, in hopes of defusing a standoff over some of President Bush's judicial nominees.

"I want to do everything I can to avoid this," Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told CNN.

"I have talked to Senator Frist on a number of occasions about what I think would resolve this. Those are private negotiations, but I think that we need to move forward and get away from all the harangue."

Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and other GOP leaders have threatened to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominees -- a move dubbed the "nuclear option."

The Senate has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent. A half-dozen GOP senators have said they oppose or won't support changing the rules.

But all Frist needs to change the rules is a simple majority in the 100-member Senate, and he can achieve that by having Vice President Dick Cheney break a tie in his capacity as president of the Senate.

Democrats have threatened to slow Senate business to a crawl if Republicans take that step.

Reid suggested Monday that Frist may not have the votes he needs to carry out the option.

"I can't count Republican votes," he said. "I'm surprised, though, if they have the votes, why they haven't moved forward at this point."

Cheney said last week he would cast a tie-breaking vote if required.

According to the Senate's Web site, the term filibuster is derived from the Dutch word meaning "pirate." It's applied to the practice of extending debate indefinitely on the Senate floor to prevent action on a measure.

Under Senate rules, at least 60 votes are needed to cut off floor debate -- known as cloture. To keep a filibuster going, Democrats need just 41 senators to vote against a cloture motion.

Most of the time it's merely the Democratic threat of a filibuster that keeps GOP leaders from bringing a judicial nomination to the floor for a vote.

If the filibuster is eliminated for judicial nominees, only 51 votes would be needed for confirmation.

Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's 215 judicial nominees through filibuster threats, contending they were too far to the right to be fair judges; 205 have been confirmed.

Reid addressed that record in a speech Monday morning at the Sperling Breakfast in Washington.

"Apparently, that 95 percent confirmation rate -- better than the last three presidents -- is not enough for George Bush," Reid said in prepared remarks on his Web site.

"They want more ... even if it means shattering the checks and balances in our government in order to put radical, right-wing judges on the bench."

Railing against filibusters

Conservative Christian leaders railed against the filibusters Sunday night at a nationally televised rally in Louisville, Kentucky.

Speakers characterized the filibusters as a Democratic-led campaign to keep "people of faith" off the federal bench.

Frist addressed the conference by videotape, telling supporters he was willing to change Senate rules to prevent court picks from being filibustered.

"My Democratic counterpart, Senator Reid, calls me a radical Republican," said Frist, a possible presidential candidate in 2008. "I don't think it's radical to ask senators to vote."

Frist's participation in the event drew fire from Democrats.

"It's unbelievable that because we've decided not to advance 3 percent of the president's lifetime appointments to the court, that we have this merging of what I consider extremism in American politics," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat.

"My hope is that we can come back to some more centrist policies."

The rally was subtitled "Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith."

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a North Carolina Republican, said Frist "was not talking about faith; he was talking about fairness."

"He was talking about the fact that, as I've mentioned, for 214 years, the Senate has given an up-or-down vote," Dole said in a CNN interview.

"He was talking about the fact that we need to be able to give our advice and consent, which we're prohibited from doing right now. That was a straightforward message."

Dole did admit that "the tag line on the title of that meeting, perhaps, was not the best."

She said Democrats had issued similar calls to bring nominations to the floor for votes during the 1990s, when Republicans had bottled up President Clinton's judicial appointments in the Senate.

Reid recalled those days, too. "I can't justify what the Republicans did to Clinton's nominees; 69 of them never even had a hearing," he said on CNN, noting that Frist himself voted to sustain a filibuster on two other nominees during that period.

Reid said last Wednesday in a statement that the "No. 1 priority for Senate Republicans" is "doing away with the last check on one-party rule in Washington."

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