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Senators Seek Bipartisan Compromise on Filibusters


Some members of the US Senate are trying to resolve a confrontation over some of President Bush's nominees to the federal courts. Democrats have been threatening to block a vote on the seven nominees. They can use a filibuster to stop debate. Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist is warning that his party could take away that power in what's called the nuclear option. Lawmakers trying to find some kind of compromise include Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska. He's been seeking out Republicans to approve a deal that would maintain Democrats' rights while letting at least some nominees through.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): Well, it's not clear that Senator Frist would have the 51 votes necessary to suspend, if you will, the filibuster. There are a number of people on his side of the aisle who are opposed to changing this particular rule this way. A handful of us are trying to find a solution that would give more opportunities for up-or-down votes without actually suspending or taking away the right to the filibuster.

INSKEEP: So Democrats would effectively--I know `back down' is probably not a term you want to use, but Democrats would let some of President Bush's judicial nominations through under this proposal.

Sen. NELSON: They would let them through for an up-or-down vote. Now they may and in some cases, I may vote against the judge, but I would vote for cloture or against a filibuster to move forward to get that up-or-down vote at the threshold of 51 votes.

INSKEEP: And what would the compromise be on the Republican side?

Sen. NELSON: Well, that they wouldn't then bring forth the nuclear option, as it's referred to, and if they did, there would be at least six Republicans who would vote against that nuclear option, rendering it inapplicable.

INSKEEP: Six is your important number, because if you get six Republicans, Republicans can't get a majority without your six.

Sen. NELSON: That's correct. They can't get the 50 to get a tie-breaking vote by the vice president. It's also a significant number on the Democratic side, because at least six would be required--or five would be required, but six would be a better number, to move forward for cloture.

INSKEEP: You've been described as working with Trent Lott, well-known Republican senator, on this. Can you describe how, if at all, you guys have been working together?

Sen. NELSON: Well, I think we initially felt that it would be best to avoid having to have a vote on a nuclear option and that it would be best not to have the nuclear option if there were a vote, so what we've looked for is a solution to avoid having a vote on it but also to recognize that in order to do that, that we probably had to have more up-or-down votes.

INSKEEP: Are you and Senator Lott on the same page on this?

Sen. NELSON: Well, we're in the same book. I don't know about the same page, but certainly we've been working together in terms of the language that would be acceptable to six Democrats and would also be acceptable to six Republicans.

INSKEEP: You've said that you think that most of your colleagues want this problem to go away. Why do you think people want the problem to go away?

Sen. NELSON: Well, because I think they don't want to give up the filibuster in case the tables turn, that the majority is held by the other party. Most people are looking not simply at the present situation, but are looking at it and saying, `Should we really have a permanent solution?'

INSKEEP: Are any Republican senators that you know of agreeing with your position, your proposed compromise?

Sen. NELSON: Yes. And to one degree or another. The question is whether we can do it in time to avert having the nuclear option dropped in for a vote.

INSKEEP: Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, good to talk to you again.

Sen. NELSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.