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'Nuclear Option' Overshadows Senate Judicial Nomination Debate


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The Senate has taken the first step in the battle over judicial filibusters that could end in what's being called the nuclear option. Today Majority Leader Bill Frist brought up President Bush's nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to serve on the Circuit Court of Appeals. Frist argues that she deserves an up-or-down vote. Democrats who've blocked Owen in the past are preparing once again to hold up the nomination, calling her extreme and out of the judicial mainstream.

BLOCK: Barring any compromise, Frist could then force a vote to eliminate the right of the minority to filibuster judicial nominees, and nobody knows what that would lead to. In a moment, we'll hear more about the history of the filibuster and where the word comes from. First, NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

A debate that could go on for days began in the Senate chamber today with Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader, suggesting to Republican Leader Frist that he bring up four Circuit Court nominees for whom Democrats are ready to give up-or-down votes on confirmation. But in the first clash of the day, Frist declined.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): We have given careful consideration of which would be the most appropriate person to begin with, and it is Priscilla Owen, so we'll proceed with Priscilla Owen.

WELNA: Reid promptly retaliated with a move that sharply curtails the Senate's other activities.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): My friend and distinguished majority leader should be advised that we will not agree to committees meeting during the time that we're doing a debate on Priscilla Owen.

WELNA: An aide to Reid called his refusal to allow committees to meet, quote, "a sign of things to come" of what Democrats plan to do if the nuclear option does away with judicial filibusters. But Majority Leader Frist made it clear he has every intention of moving to get rid of those filibusters.

Sen. FRIST: The consequences of this debate are not lost on any member of this body. Soon we, 100 United States senators, will decide the question at hand: Should we allow a minority of senators to deny votes on judicial nominees that have the support of a majority of this body, or should we restore the 214-year practice of voting up or down on all judicial nominees that come to this floor?

WELNA: At that point New York Democrat Charles Schumer reminded Frist of his own voting record.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): When I came on the floor, my colleague was talking about the 214 years of tradition of no filibusters. Isn't it correct that on March 8th of 2000, my friend from Tennessee voted to uphold a filibuster of Judge Richard--of Richard Paez?

WELNA: Frist insisted that's not what this debate is about.

Sen. FRIST: The issue is not cloture votes per se. It's the partisan leadership-led use of cloture vote to kill, to defeat, to assassinate these nominees.

WELNA: Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin reminded Frist that the Judiciary Committee had only this morning heard from US District Court Judge Joan Lefkow, whose mother and husband were slain in Chicago by a disgruntled litigant. Durbin told Frist to watch his language.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): When words are expressed during the course of the debate that those of us who oppose these nominees are setting out to kill, to defeat or to assassinate these nominees, those words should be taken from this record.

WELNA: Democrats themselves used harsh words. Vermont's Patrick Leahy called the threat to eliminate judicial filibusters `an abuse of power by Republicans that endangers the Senate.'

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): But this is a setting in which Democratic senators alone will not be able to rescue the Senate and our system of checks and balances from the breaking of the Senate rules being planned. If the rights of the minority are to be preserved, if the Senate is to be preserved as the greatest of parliamentary bodies, it'll take at least six Republicans standing up for fairness and for checks and balances.

WELNA: Negotiations continued today between centrist Democrats and Republicans to reach a deal that might avert a showdown in the Senate. But Texas Republican John Cornyn derided Democrats' efforts to win over Republicans by offering to vote on just some of the filibustered nominees.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): The Democrat leader announced that Senate Democrats would give Justice Owen an up-or-down vote, albeit only if other nominees were defeated or withdrawn. So obviously, Mr. President, with these kind of offers being made based on cutting deals and pure politics, this debate is not about principle. It's all about politics, and it's shameful.

WELNA: Republicans warned Democrats that they would have to pay a political price if they continued to try to block jurists such as Owen. Here's Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): You can look around the country and say, `Well, why are people fired up about the judiciary?' Why during the last election cycle was the lead applause lines for President Bush's rallies about appointing judges that will stay within the laws rather than rewriting them? That was a lead applause line the last election for President Bush. And the reason is that people have this deep-felt frustration that: How is the court coming at all of these opinions so contrary to the vast majority of people in the United States?

WELNA: But Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, warned members of both parties that the nuclear option would be perilous for the Senate and urged that a compromise be found.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Judiciary Committee Chair): In my opinion, the outcome of a prospective vote on the constitutional nuclear option is uncertain. I have not rendered a decision because I believe I can be most helpful on brokering a compromise by remaining silent. When neither side is confident of success--and I think that is the case today--the chances for compromise are far greater.

WELNA: Debate on the Owen nomination is likely to continue until early next week when a vote on doing away with the judicial filibuster could indeed occur. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.