Negotiations on Filibuster ‘Over’

Collapse of Frist-Reid Talks Leaves Centrist Plan Still on Table

Posted May 16, 2005 at 6:53pm

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared negotiations on the fate of the judicial filibuster “over” after a late-Monday meeting with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), leaving a handful of centrists as the only Senators trying to secure a compromise over the “nuclear” option.

“The negotiations are over. I’ve tried to compromise, and they want all or nothing,” Reid said after the meeting, adding, “It’ll have to be decided on the Senate floor.”

Reid had not been optimistic about his last-gasp negotiation with Frist, saying earlier in the day that the two leaders had made “very little” progress in their talks over the last few weeks.

“I don’t think Sen. Frist is capable of working something out on this,” he told reporters after a rally with labor activists. “I think he’s going to try to satisfy the radical right.”

Frist said he and Reid mutually agreed that a compromise could not be reached between the two leaders and that a floor showdown was the only solution.

“We’ve been unable to come to a negotiated position where the president’s nominees get a fair up-or-down vote,” Frist told reporters Monday evening.

A Frist aide later contended that Reid was the one who essentially cut off negotiations.

Democrats contended that the fate of the showdown rested with a few Republicans who have remained publicly undeclared about where they stand if push comes to shove on the issue, with Frist within reach of securing the 50 votes he needs to win on his parliamentary procedure to end filibusters.

“It’s up to some very courageous Republicans,” Reid said.

With the Frist-Reid talks over, the only avenue left for averting the showdown this week is a potential compromise worked on by centrists, led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

One Democratic aide suggested that ending the Frist-Reid talks Monday would strengthen the hand of Nelson and McCain to reach a compromise, while Frist’s office put out a statement that suggested he was open to further talks with McCain, Nelson and others.

“I hope Sen. Reid and others know our door is always open to reasonable proposals for fair up or down votes for judicial nominees,” the statement said.

Dubbed the “six-by-six” deal, McCain and Nelson have been trying to secure at least six Senators on each side, with the Republicans vowing to oppose the nuclear option and Democrats pledging to oppose future filibusters. But no one involved in the centrist effort has found a formula for how to deal with the seven judicial nominees who were filibustered by Democrats last Congress and renominated by President Bush this year.

And even the leading roles in the centrist effort have changed as the talks have progressed. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had been playing a prominent role, but has since backed away from those discussions as he now said that he would never agree to a deal that didn’t guarantee an up-or-down vote for all seven of the filibustered nominees.

McCain took over as the lead Republican in the effort, and in the past few days Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) has joined Nelson as co-director of the effort to line up Democrats to support a compromise, an aide familiar with the talks said. Pryor and Nelson have begun reaching out directly to Republicans themselves this week, the aide said.

While the rhetoric continued to crescendo, the two leaders have toned down their language toward each other.

In his remarks at the labor rally Monday, Reid avoided criticizing Frist directly, saving his punchiest shots for Bush, whom he accused of forcing the issue on Senate Republicans.

“The White House appears to be pulling the strings,” Reid said.

The duo also were part of a small dinner party that the Frist family threw Sunday night for a few Senators and their wives. The main course was duck that Frist and one of his sons had bagged on a recent hunting trip organized for the leader by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

And Frist and Reid are slated to be the guest speakers at today’s meeting of the Centrist Coalition, the official caucus of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

But any détente in their personal relationship could not alleviate the gapping chasm in their professional negotiations.

On Wednesday, after the expected conclusion today of the highway bill, Frist is expected to call up the nominations of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, both nominated to circuit courts and both already filibustered by Democrats.

After some lengthy debate, Frist expects to hold a cloture vote to demonstrate that the two nominees have a majority support, but not the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and end a filibuster.

At that, the nuclear showdown will be on, with Frist expecting to get a ruling from Vice President Cheney, acting as President of the Senate, that filibusters are not allowable. That sets up a final vote on Cheney’s motion, with Frist needing 50 votes and Cheney’s tie-breaking vote to win.