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Republicans Reject Democrats’ Offer to Settle Judicial Dispute

Times Staff Writer

Senate Republicans on Tuesday rebuffed a Democratic overture aimed at ending a confrontation over federal judges, saying that any agreement must include a pledge not to filibuster future nominees -- especially Supreme Court nominees.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered to back away from Democratic filibusters on three of seven of President Bush’s appellate court nominees if Republicans would pledge not to change Senate rules to end the use of the parliamentary tactic to stall votes on proposed judges.

But Republicans said they were less concerned about current nominees than they were about future ones, especially with an anticipated Supreme Court vacancy this summer.

“Don’t just focus on the past,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said. “All judicial and Supreme Court nominees deserve a fair up-or-down vote.”

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Democrats said they would accept no agreement that restricted future use of the filibuster, leaving the two sides at an impasse.

“It would be a fundamental part of any compromise that the ‘nuclear option’ be off the table,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)

The filibuster rule change has been described as the “nuclear option” because of the political discord it could spark.

Neither side publicly discussed details of the Democrats’ offer. However, a senior Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said Reid offered to allow votes on three of seven nominations -- two judges from Michigan and a third judicial nominee of Republicans’ choice.

In return, the aide said, Reid asked for a Republican commitment not to change the filibuster rules, along with promises to reinstate judiciary committee procedures that would permit senators to block nominations during the committee vetting process. Reid also asked that a bipartisan task force of retired senators be asked to make proposals on improving the judicial confirmation process.

“I believe my proposal strikes the right balance,” Reid said in remarks on the Senate floor. “It protects our democracy and the independence of our federal courts, it protects the American people and lets us do their business, and it breaks a partisan stalemate that is unnecessary and divisive.”

The talk of a compromise led to a Republican counteroffer proposed on the Senate floor by the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

McConnell acknowledged that Republicans had stalled many of President Clinton’s nominees during the committee vetting process. He offered to change committee procedures in return for an end to judicial filibusters.

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“There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on on both sides,” he said. “This is a way to cure that.”

Democrats quickly denounced McConnell’s proposal.

“There would be no filibuster.... That’s not a compromise at all,” Schumer said.

In the background of the debate was an anticipated Supreme Court confirmation battle this summer. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has cancer, raising questions about whether he will retire when the court session ends in June.

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“I think Republicans are concerned that for the first time in history a Supreme Court nominee might not get an up-or-down vote,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “I think that’s in the back of everyone’s mind.”

The two judges specified in Reid’s offer -- Richard A. Griffin and David W. McKeague -- are among three nominees for the 6th Circuit in Michigan, a bench that has been the focus of partisan battles since the Clinton administration.

Under Reid’s proposal, Republicans could have to withdraw the nomination of a third judge, Henry W. Saad, who has been stiffly opposed by Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, both Democrats.

Democrats would also allow Republicans to vote on one of four remaining judicial nominees, all denounced by Democrats as conservative ideologues: Priscilla R. Owen, Janice Rogers Brown, William H. Pryor Jr. and William G. Myers III.

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After being briefed about the compromise, Levin said he was willing to end his opposition to the two Michigan nominees if it would help Reid solve the conflict.

“We’re going to support his proposal,” Levin said.

The filibuster fight has been building for years, driven in part by social conservatives who believe federal judges have been inappropriately interfering in debates over such issues as abortion and whether God should be invoked in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Liberal activists, on the other hand, see the federal court system as the final defender of individual rights that may be unpopular with conservatives but that they believe are protected by the Constitution.

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At least some activists responded with caution to the talk of compromise.

“While we recognize the Senate’s long tradition of deliberation and comity, we cannot sacrifice the independence of our courts for political expediency,” Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, said in a statement. “Alliance for Justice is opposed to any effort that would pack our courts with lifetime appointments who side with big business over individuals and who would roll back critical rights and protections.”

In an interview with USA Today published Tuesday, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove said the White House did not support a compromise on judicial nominees.

“We believe that every judicial nominee deserves an up-or-down vote,” Rove said. “The process is not well-served by these political games.”

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Reid denounced Rove’s comments as an insistence that the Senate become a rubber stamp for the president by providing a “100% confirmation rate.”

“Republican leaders don’t want compromise,” Reid said. “Republican leaders don’t want Democrats to have a voice in this debate. Republican leaders don’t want any check on their quest for absolute power. They want total victory.”

Some polls have suggested that the American public is wary about the GOP’s potential push on federal judges. An ABC/Washington Post survey published Tuesday suggested that two-thirds of Americans opposed Republican plans to change the filibuster rule and 26% supported it.

In response, the Republican National Committee released results of internal polls that it said showed that 81% of Americans believed Democrats should not block confirmation votes for judges even if they didn’t agree with them.

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