WASHINGTON – The lobs from the two Senate party leaders have been coming fast and furious, but Minority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) have apparently been working on a truce behind the scenes.
In public, however, Frist said Tuesday he's not interested in any deal that fails to ensure Senate confirmation for all of Bush's judicial nominees that have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Are we going to step back from that principle? The answer to that is no," the Tennessee Republican said in a news conference conducted on the Senate floor.
In private talks, Reid said he was willing to allow two of Bush's seven contested appeals court nominees — Thomas Griffith and William Myers — pass through the confirmation process but only if Republicans drop threats to ban judicial filibusters, officials said Monday.
Democrats want Republicans to abandon the confirmations of Janice Rogers Brown (search), Priscilla Owen and William Pryor. Pryor has already been serving on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals through a presidential recess appointment.
Reid of Nevada said he also wants a third appointee to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (search) to be replaced by one chosen by Michigan's two Democratic senators, on top of the two Bush nominees to that court.
According to officials refusing attribution, Richard Griffin and David McKeague would both get a vote for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Michigan, while Henry Saad's nomination would be scuttled in favor of a selection by Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats. Democrats succeeded in blocking all three of Bush's nominees from coming to a vote in 2004.
On Tuesday, Reid suggested that his proposal "strikes the right balance, protects our democracy, protects the American people [and] lets us do our business."
"Many of us understand who elected us to this body: The people sent us here, not Karl Rove, not James Dobson and not radical elements of our society," Reid said, referring to the president's deputy chief of staff and the head of the conservative group Focus on the Family, which supports a straight majority vote.
"We have a responsibility to protect checks and balances, not violate them. My offer protects those checks and balances," Reid continued.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, traveling in Texas with Bush, said "our view is that Senate Democrats need to stop playing politics and give all judicial nominees an up or down vote."
"It's unprecedented, the steps they've gone to to prevent highly qualified judges from receiving simply an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate," he said.
Frist on Tuesday said that while he's "optimistic about the direction" of discussions focused on ways to avert a Senate shutdown over judicial nominees, he remains committed to the principle of an up or down vote for all nominees before the Senate, as well as ones that may be sent to the chamber for future consideration.
"My goal is to have fair up or down votes," he said. "When people say compromise, [you may wonder], is there going to be a shift [from the principle of fairness for all nominees]? ... No ... but am I engaged in direct discussions everyday on how we can accomplish that? The answer is yes," he told reporters.
Frist said he was "pleased" that Democrats have begun to back away from their threat to stop all action in the Senate over the nominees but did not indicate whether negotiations on a compromise have in any way changed the likelihood that the Senate is headed for a showdown over judges.
Frist said he would not advocate the withdrawal of any judicial nominee.
As for the Democratic strategy to "shift the focus" on the floor to Democratic priorities if Republicans trigger the so-called "nuclear option," Frist said, "the idea of retribution and retaliation doesn't appeal to me —- if the intent is some kind of retribution or retaliation — it's wrong, it's a disservice to the American people."
With 55 Republicans in the Senate, the GOP has enough for a simple majority to push through Bush's nominees. Democrats have been using filibusters to prevent votes. Filibusters require 60 votes to overcome the procedural block and move to a simple majority vote.
Republicans counter Democratic arguments that the 60-vote threshold is a long-standing protection of the minority's advise and consent role. But Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., said Tuesday that the framers of the Constitution never mentioned a 60-vote majority to confirm a circuit court nominee, much less a two-thirds vote needed for other activities such as amending the Constitution or impeaching a president.
"Now, if the framers meant that a super-majority vote was required to approve a nominee, they would have clearly stated so. A super-majority is something the Constitution rejects for nominees," Bunning said.
Democrats contend the remaining nominees the president wants confirmed are too conservative for the federal bench. But Republicans are concerned that Democrats are trying to think up a compromise that would prevent approval of a Bush nominee to the Supreme Court, which is likely to have at least one vacancy during the president's second term.
Democrats drew criticism when they threatened to slow the Senate's business if Republicans eliminate judicial filibusters. Democratic leaders began stressing an alternative approach Monday, attempting to force debate on their own agenda rather than the president's.
Republicans say they nearly have all the votes needed to eliminate judicial filibusters, which would take a majority vote. But internal GOP polling shows lagging public support for such a move, and no showdown is expected until next month at the earliest.
FOX News' Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.