Senators Broke Bread Before Impasse Was Broken

Times Staff Writer

An informal dinner conversation in March between two senators -- one a Southern Republican, the other a Midwestern Democrat -- was the impetus for the deal that averted a Senate showdown over judicial nominees.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) had invited Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to his Capitol Hill home. And as they chatted about the Republican threat to end judicial filibusters by changing Senate rules, the two found they agreed that such a move would cause grave harm to the institution.

But what to do?

Initially, the pair just “talked in the hallways” of the Senate, Nelson said. Then they began quietly feeling out their colleagues to see who else might be interested in finding a way to avoid a confrontation.


Their partnership, however, came to an abrupt end after the Hill, a newspaper that focuses on Congress, reported their efforts early this month. Outraged conservatives jammed Lott’s office switchboard, protesting his involvement.

Lott abandoned his efforts.

His communications director, Susan Irby, said Tuesday that the senator did so not because of what she described as “threats,” sometimes made in “foul, foul language,” that he would never be reelected, but because Lott disagreed with the compromise that was taking shape.

Still, the organized attack on Lott served as a sober warning to lawmakers that political careers, not just Senate traditions, were at stake.

At that point, Nelson’s chances of finding enough senators from each party to achieve a compromise looked grim.

The pressures to confront the filibuster issue seemed too strong, the partisanship dividing the Senate too intense, the moderate center seemingly too weak and small.

That made the unveiling Monday night of the two-page agreement signed by seven Republicans and seven Democrats on the eve of the expected showdown a stunning development.

It was the product of delicate, painstaking negotiations that required at least 25 drafts by senators defying their party leaders. And for the negotiators, the timing of its release was impeccable -- special-interest groups on both sides of the issue were caught flat-footed, unable to mount assaults on the compromise.

Overnight, Senate moderates went from being described as beleaguered and ineffective to being portrayed as power brokers extraordinaire.

As Nelson observed Tuesday, he and his allies now were being viewed as a “rump group that might try to take control in some ways of the Senate from the leadership.”

As he was seeking a deal, the Democrat turned for help to a core group of senators from both parties who, like him, were either serving or recently had served on one of the chamber’s least partisan panels -- the Armed Services Committee.

Some senators, such as Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) and one of the panel’s senior Democrats, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, were veteran “institutionalists” who instinctively opposed eliminating the filibuster -- one of the rules that distinguishes the Senate from the House.

Others, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), were pragmatists who had forged a close relationship in their successful, bipartisan effort last year to produce legislation overhauling the nation’s intelligence community.

Ultimately, half the senators who signed the agreement were former or current members of the Armed Services Committee: Nelson, Byrd, Warner, Collins, Lieberman, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Pryor became the group’s unofficial clerk.

The carefully worded language of the compromise allows for an up-or-down vote on three controversial judicial nominees. It essentially requires Republicans to drop the nominations of two other judges.

And though the deal preserves the minority party’s ability to use the filibuster to stymie judicial nominees, Democrats agreed to use the tactic only in “extraordinary circumstances.”

Pryor said the wording was hammered out in informal conversations on the Senate floor and in hallways, and in more formal meetings in senators’ offices -- with staff members kept out.

For weeks, Pryor said, “nothing was ever written down.”

It was only after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) abandoned their efforts to achieve a compromise that the group began to meet intensively and exchange drafts.

On Monday, Pryor said, he got to his Senate office at 9:30 a.m. -- “and I don’t think I sat down until after the press conference that night.”

The day was spent ferrying draft agreements among Senate offices, quibbling over words, striking some, adding others.

Finally, at 6 p.m., the senators gathered for a last session -- and signed the agreement.

Through it all, Pryor said, “there were definitely times where we shared our frustrations, our fears, maybe even a little bit our anger. But there were also times where we shared our hopes and our dreams and our thoughts about what was right about the Senate.”