WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) offered a deal to Democrats Thursday to break the filibuster deadlock over President Bush's judicial nominees but it appeared unlikely that Democrats will accept the plan.
"Resolving the judicial obstruction debate, for me, isn't about politics. This is about constitutional principles. It's about fairness to nominees. It's about senators doing their duty and doing what's right for our country," Frist said on the Senate floor. "This offer will ensure up or down votes on judicial nominees after fair, open, and, some might say, exhaustive debate. It's a compromise that holds to constitutional principles."
But Democrats quickly responded that the majority leader's proposal does not allow them to enjoy their advise and consent function outlined in the Constitution, which permits them to reject the president's nominees.
"I would say for lack of a better description it's a big, wet kiss to the far right, ladies and gentlemen. It's just not appropriate," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), who called it a "slow-motion nuclear option" in reference to the Republican proposal to ban filibusters for judicial nominees.
Seven of Bush's nominees for federal court have been held up from confirmation to the bench through the use of the filibuster (search) tactic, which requires votes of 60 senators to prevent ending debate and moving to a straight majority vote. Since Republicans only have a 55-seat majority and are unable to win over more than a couple Democrats in some cases, they are never able to beat the filibuster and move to a vote.
Republicans say that the use of the filibuster is denying the president his nominees, who have clear majority support. They are also concerned that the filibuster will deny the president an opportunity to appoint his choices to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is likely to have one or more vacancies during the president's term.
"Throughout this debate, we have held firm to a simple principle — judicial nominees deserve up or down votes. Vote for them. Vote against them. But give them the courtesy of a vote," Frist said from the Senate floor.
"Yet judicial nominees have not been given that courtesy. They've gone two, three, even four years without a vote. Now 46 seats on the federal bench are vacant — as case after case and appeal after appeal stack up," he continued.
Frist said his plan would guarantee an up or down vote on nominees to the circuit courts and the Supreme Court. District court nominees would not be affected by the plan. For each nominee, the Senate would permit up to 100 hours of debate to allow every member to have his or her say. The plan would also apply only to judicial nominees and not to legislative matters.
"Resolving the judicial obstruction debate, for me, isn't about politics. This is about constitutional principles. It's about fairness to nominees. It's about senators doing their duty and doing what's right for our country," Frist said. "This offer will ensure up or down votes on judicial nominees after fair, open, and, some might say, exhaustive debate. It's a compromise that holds to constitutional principles."
Democrats say they oppose the president's nominees, including Priscilla Owen (search), a 10-year veteran of the Texas Supreme Court who was first nominated by Bush in May 2001, because they are too out of touch with the mainstream. They add that Frist is merely trying to appease conservatives who put Republicans back into the majority and the White House last November.
"I think what Bill Frist offered us is really nothing, it's just 'You can talk a long time and then it goes back to 51 votes,'" said Sen. Barbara Boxer (search), D-Calif., who called her vote in 1993 to end filibusters a misguided effort by a young lawmaker to get things done in a hurry.
Frist said the length of debate he is offering is the same amount of time that was given to end debates prior to 1986, when cameras entered the Senate. He said his plan would guarantee that reports from the Judiciary Committee — either for or against a candidate — would continue as they have to ensure nominees' names reach the floor.
Frist said his plan would allow for a full and comprehensive debate and an up or down vote on the Senate floor, guaranteeing fairness and the return to longtime Senate practices.
"Whether on the floor or in committee, judicial obstruction is judicial obstruction. It's time for judicial obstruction to end no matter which party controls the White House or the Senate," he said.