WASHINGTON – The lobs from the two Senate party leaders have been coming fast and furious, but Minority Leader Harry Reid (search) and Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) have apparently been working on a truce behind the scenes.
But Frist said Tuesday that 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 pass through the confirmation process, but only if Republicans drop threats to ban judicial filibusters (search), officials said Monday. He also wants a third nominee's name withdrawn.
The Nevada Democrat 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.
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 currently 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 ... 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 that negotiations on a compromise have in any way changed the likelihood that the Senate is headed for a showdown over judges.
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."
Reid issued a statement Monday saying he has had numerous conversations with senators in both parties in hopes of avoiding a showdown. "As part of any resolution, the nuclear option must be off the table," the statement concluded, referring to the Republican Party threat of banning judicial filibusters.
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 and Reid have been discussing the overall issue privately for weeks, each man publicly stressing a willingness to seek a compromise while maneuvering for political advantage in the event of a showdown.
The bickering continued into Monday, as a spokesman for Frist accused Reid of threatening to shut down the Senate.
"A threat to shut down the Senate by any other name is still a threat to shut down the Senate," spokesman Bob Stevenson said Monday.
"Democratic senators should abandon their unprecedented judicial filibusters, give the nominees a fair up or down vote and move quickly to approve an Energy Bill, Highway Bill and other critical items on America's agenda. Obstruction doesn't advance anyone's agenda," Stevenson said.
On Sunday, Frist came down hard on filibusters in a videotaped message to a conference aiming to accuse Democrats who oppose Bush's nominees of being anti-faith.
"I don't think it's radical to ask senators to vote. I don't think it's radical to expect senators to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities," Frist said.
"Either confirm the nominees or reject them," Frist said. "Don't leave them hanging."
Frist, who is said to be jockeying for the Republican Party's nod in 2008, did not mention religion directly. About 5,000 people attended the Louisville event, "Justice Sunday: Stop the Filibuster Against People of Faith," which was held in a church and sponsored by the Family Research Council.
Majority Republicans have threatened for weeks to unilaterally change long-standing senatorial practices that Democrats used to block 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominations. The president has renominated seven of the 10 since winning re-election.
Democrats, who argue the judges are too conservative to warrant lifetime appointments, have threatened to block them again with a tactic that requires supporters to post 60 votes before proceeding to a final roll call.
Apart from the seven controversial appeals court nominees, the issue is also seen as a proxy of sorts over future vacancies on an aging Supreme Court. Democrats fear Bush could have a second-term opportunity to shift the court rightward, possibly even ushering in a new era of hostility to abortion rights.
Officials said as part of an overall deal, Reid has indicated he is willing to allow the confirmation of Richard Griffin and David McKeague, both of whom Bush has twice nominated for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. At the same time, the Democratic leader wants the nomination of Henry Saad scuttled.
Democrats succeeded in blocking all three men from coming to a vote in 2004 in a struggle that turned on issues of senatorial prerogatives as well as ideology.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan has led the opposition to all three men. In remarks on the Senate floor in 2004, he noted that Republicans had refused even to hold hearings on two nominees that former President Bill Clinton made to the 6th Circuit.
Spokesmen for Frist and Reid declined to comment on their private discussions, and no further details were available.
Other senators have referred vaguely in recent days to discussions surrounding Bush's 6th Circuit nominations.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Sunday there had been "a lot of negotiations to try to get three judges from Michigan" confirmed.
Democrats drew criticism when they threatened to stop or slow the Senate's business if Republicans ban judicial filibusters. Party leaders began stressing an alternative approach during the day, attempting to force debate on their own agenda rather than the president's.
"I've always said that we'd make sure the Senate went forward, but we're going to do it on our agenda, not their agenda," Reid said.
Republicans can ban judicial filibusters by majority vote, and Democrats concede Frist may be only one or two votes shy of the necessary total. At the same time, internal Republican polling shows lagging public support, and no showdown is expected until next month at the earliest.
Senate Republicans have been warning Reid that Democrats could face a backlash if they stopped routine Senate business, noting that House Republicans and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich suffered politically after forcing a government shutdown in a 1995 budget fight with Clinton.
But Reid and other Democrats say they will let vital legislation out of the Senate. "I'm not Newt Gingrich," Reid said. "I understand how the body works. We're not going to close down the Senate. Far from it, we're going to have a very active Senate."
Reid on Monday also repeated his assertion that Bush promised him that the White House would stay out of the Senate's fight over the filibuster rule. "He either misspoke or was not being honest with me a week ago last Wednesday when he said they would not be getting involved," Reid said.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Friday he would vote to ban the judicial filibuster if the Senate deadlocks, and called the Democrats' filibuster threats "inexcusable."
FOX News' Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.