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A bipartisan group of Senators reached an eleventh hour deal Monday night averting a showdown on President Bush’s nominations for the federal bench and keeping intact the minority party’s ability to block controversial judicial nominees with a filibuster in “extraordinary circumstances.”
With seven Senators from each party on board, the deal allows for votes on three controversial nominees who had been previously filibustered and essentially casts aside two others. The deal short circuited what had been months of preparations for the invocation of the so-called “nuclear option,” which was set to be come to a head with a noon cloture vote today and a mid-afternoon vote on the parliamentary move to end filibusters on judges.
Now, that vote has been neutralized and the Senators have signed a document pledging to not support the rule change on filibusters as long as all signatories act in “good faith,” leaving Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) without enough votes to execute the measure.
“This agreement is entered into in the finest traditions of the Senate,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leader of the 14 Senators, declared at a 7:30 p.m. press conference.
Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledged that some portions of the “memorandum of understanding” signed by the Senators was vague, particularly about what will happen should any of the Democrats in the next 18 months support a filibuster of a Bush judicial nominee.
“This agreement is based on trust,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who along with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) led the Democratic side of the negotiations. “We do know that we trust each other.”
The deal came in a four-part, two-page memo that assured the confirmation of Texas Supreme Court Priscilla Owen, California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown and 11th U.S. Circuit Court Judge William Pryor. The two nominees who will not receive Democratic support — and therefore remain filibustered — are William Myers, who was nominated to the 9th Circuit, and Henry Saad, a 6th Circuit nominee. Several other 6th Circuit nominees who had been a point of contention will all be approved and were not even included in the deal.
A vote on Owen is expected around noon today.
“It fall short. It has some good news and it has some disappointing news,” Frist said in a floor speech after 8 p.m., distancing himself slightly from the deal.
“I look forward to swift action on the identified nominees,” he added later.
Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) embraced the deal as a rejection of Republican efforts at grabbing power.
“I say this is a victory for the American people,” Reid said in his floor speech.
The deal came after a 6 p.m. meeting was convened in McCain’s Russell Building office, the 10th and final gathering in less than a week of the negotiators. A stunning power grab by a group of moderates and centrists and sometime mavericks, it marks a major victory for a group of Senators who in the last decade have often found themselves squeezed out in the final hours of past major negotiations.
The Republicans who signed onto the deal are: McCain, Sens. John Warner (Va.), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Susan Collins (Maine), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).
The Democrats were: Nelson, Pryor, and Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Ken Salazar (Colo.), Dan Inouye (Hawaii) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.).
Some Republicans, including DeWine and Graham, said they were willing to support Frist on the nuclear option but decided the fall-out in the Senate would destroy work on too many important issues. “The Senate is back in business,” Graham said.
The deal is certain to aggravate many liberal and conservative activists, who had been pressuring each side to stand fast. Graham, from one of the most conservative states, said he expected a stark reaction from many of his constituents. “People at home are going to be very upset with me for a while,” he said.
In the run-up to the final day before the showdown, each side staged message events on the eve of the vote, with Republicans and Democrats planning to hold rallies throughout Monday night and into the early hours of Tuesday morning as the chamber was set to hold its second round-the-clock session in 18 months on the judicial nomination process.
Frist rallied the entire 55-member GOP Conference in a rare Monday caucus leading up to the 5:30 p.m. procedural vote which served as the unofficial kick-start to the marathon session.
Reid, meanwhile, continued his own public relations blitz, attending rallies, including a event with Latino lawmakers and activists, and also taking to the airwaves in an unusual 90-second television advertisement in which Reid attacked the so-called nuclear option. The Alliance for Justice, a liberal activist group working closely with the Democratic leadership on the issue, paid $250,000 for the one-time national advertisement airing on various national cable networks around 8 p.m. Monday.
The ad ended up running just moments after the deal was announced.
Frist continued pushing the theme that the principle of a straight up-or-down vote on judicial nominees was both a constitutional requirement and would also serve as a simple political message that the public at large would embrace.
“The American people expect us to act, not just debate. They expect results, not just rhetoric,” Frist said on the floor Monday. “We may not agree on every judicial nominee. But we can agree on the principle that every qualified judicial nominee deserves an up-or-down vote.”
Frist reiterated this premise late Monday afternoon immediately following the meeting with his fellow Republicans. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) stood at Frist’s left elbow and other GOP colleagues lined up behind the Majority Leader as he announced that the first vote in the nuclear option process would occur at noon on Tuesday.
Reid continued to hammer away at the nuclear option as part of a broader abuse by the Bush White House and Congressional Republicans, charging that it was an attempt to complete its hold on power by securing an easier confirmation route for conservative judges to take hold of the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary.
“Unfortunately, some Senate Republicans are trying to give President Bush power no president has ever had — the ability to personally hand out lifetime jobs to judges including the Supreme Court — without consensus from the other party,? Reid was set to say in the Alliance for Justice ad.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) said he urged his fellow GOP leaders Monday that they needed to pivot to legislative issues once the nuclear option is triggered. Specifically, the Pennsylvania Senator said the GOP could focus its efforts on passing the Defense authorization bill as well as legislation to overhaul the nation’s energy policy and the highway bill.
“Three things: bing, bing, bing that we need to move to once we get through the issue of judges,” Santorum said.
“This so called nuclear option is off the table,” Reid said at a news conference flanked by four of his leadership deputies. He would later add, “The checks and balances have been protected.”
Reid referenced the Supreme Court in his remarks suggesting it had been protected from the “radical right wing.” Democrats were especially fearful that if Frist had successfully triggered the nuclear option then it would be easy for Republicans to stack the nation’s highest court with conservatives.