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Senators Float Ideas to Avert Filibuster Fight


Senators in both parties are floating new ideas for getting out of what some consider a jam. Republicans face pressure from conservative groups to win the passage of a small number of judicial nominees. To do that, they're threatening to take away the Democrats' power to filibuster, talking the nominations to death. It's called the nuclear option, and some lawmakers want to avoid it, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

For Senate Republicans, May is the month of truth for making good on threats to use the nuclear option. They now have on their executive calendar and ready for Senate floor votes several circuit court nominees who were blocked by filibusters in the last Congress and then renominated by President Bush. The clock is ticking because there could be a vacancy next month on the Supreme Court, and Republicans want to resolve the impasse over filibusters before that happens.

Yesterday Republicans ranging from President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, all noted it's been four years since the president sent his first 11 circuit court nominees to the Senate, and as Frist noted on the Senate floor, the Senate never did have an up or down vote on three of those nominees, two of whom have been renominated.

Senator BILL FRIST (Majority Leader; Republican, Tennessee): All of this obstruction must stop. It is hurting the nominees. It is hurting the Senate. It is hurting the American people.

WELNA: Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid reminded Frist that the Senate has approved 208 of President Bush's federal court nominees and that despite dozens of court vacancies, the president has nominated only one new candidate for the federal bench since being sworn in for a second term. Still, Reid announced on the Senate floor that Democrats would show good faith by allowing a vote with no threat of a filibuster for DC Circuit Court nominee Thomas Griffith, who's been faulted with practicing law without a license here in Washington and in Utah.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Let's take a step away from the precedent. Let's arrive at this step, let's have a decision made on Griffith and then move on. Let's try cooperation rather than confrontation, which seems to be the hallmark of what we've been doing here lately.

WELNA: Republican leader Frist responded calling the offer to let Griffith have a vote `a good first step.' But he reminded his Democratic counterpart that there are seven renominated court candidates who still face the threat of a filibuster. Both Frist and Reid had previously voted other offers that went nowhere. Those efforts were scornfully dismissed yesterday by Arlen Specter, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Senate Judiciary Committee): So far, the offers by both sides have been public relation maneuvers to appear reasonable, to avoid blame and place it elsewhere. Meanwhile, the far left and far right are urging each side to shun compromise.

WELNA: At least a few senators have been seeking a separate compromise. One effort under way would forestall the nuclear option by getting six Republicans to pledge to preserve the filibuster and as many Democrats to approve at least some of the controversial nominees. Such an ad hoc group would have enough votes to do both. Judiciary Committee Chairman Specter said that a failure to reach compromise could bring dire consequences.

Sen. SPECTER: The United States Senate today stands on the edge of an abyss. Institutions like our Senate are immortal but not invulnerable.

WELNA: A Senate showdown over filibusters is now expected before Memorial Day.

David Welna, NPR News.

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

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.