WASHINGTON – Arizona Sen. John McCain (search) privately urged fellow Republicans Tuesday to compromise with Democrats over President Bush's stalled judicial nominees, but Majority Leader Bill Frist countered by asking which of the controversial appeals court candidates should be jettisoned as part of a deal, according to officials familiar with the meeting.
With a Senate showdown looming, possibly as early as next week, Democratic leader Harry Reid (search) publicly challenged Frist to allow GOP senators to "follow their consciences" when voting on a streamlined procedure for certain judicial nominations. "Senators should be bound by Senate loyalty rather than party loyalty on a question of this magnitude," he wrote.
Frist, however, told reporters: "To me, it's common sense, and it has to do with principle, and that is that each of these nominees deserve an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate. Confirm them or reject them, vote yes or no, but allow them the courtesy of a vote."
Republicans (search) have threatened to use their majority to abolish judicial filibusters — a technique that establishes a 60-vote threshold and which Democrats used to block votes on 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominees.
Bush has renominated seven of the 10, triggering a confrontation in the early months of a new Congress more securely in Republican hands.
Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said McCain told fellow GOP senators at their closed-door weekly lunch he believes Democrats will agree to a yes or no vote on nearly all of the seven judicial candidates they blocked during Bush's first term. In addition, he described Reid as a man of his word and said Republicans should trust reassurances he's made about any future Supreme Court appointments. Democrats want their right to filibuster judicial appointees as part of any compromise.
Reid has privately told Republicans he will not filibuster any Supreme Court nominees, except in extreme circumstances, according to officials familiar with the conversations.
In addition, some Republicans claim Reid has offered to make sure that even if there is a filibuster against a high court nominee, it will fail. His aides vehemently deny he has made such a proposal.
McCain's remarks drew no response until Frist spoke near the end of the meeting. He said that as a matter of principle all nominees — not just most of them — deserve a vote. He said Reid has never offered a proposal to ensure votes for all seven stalled nominees, and rhetorically asked fellow Republicans which of them should be discarded, these officials added.
Frist and McCain continued to discuss the issue as fellow Republicans filed out of the meeting.
The officials who described the remarks spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that the weekly meetings are considered private.
McCain is one of three Republicans who has publicly announced they will vote to retain the right to filibuster judicial nominees. The GOP can afford two more defections and still prevail on the issue.
The seven stalled nominees fall into two groups.
Democrats say William Myers, Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor are outside the judicial mainstream, too conservative to warrant lifetime appointments to the federal bench. Reid has offered to allow a yes or no vote on one of them.
In addition, Democrats blocked votes on three appointees to the 6th Circuit, Henry Saad, Richard Griffin and David McKeague, retaliation for Republicans having stymied President Clinton's nominees to the same circuit.
Reid has offered to allow votes on Griffin and McKeague as part of a deal in which Saad is replaced by an alternative agreeable to the two Democratic senators from Michigan. Some Republicans concede it's not clear Saad can win confirmation on a yes or no vote, though, suggesting that Democrats could allow that nomination to come to a vote. Additionally, Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said recently he believes the administration might be amenable to consulting with Democrats about future appointments to the 6th Circuit.
For his part, Frist scaled back his initial proposal by proposing that filibusters remain permitted for district court nominees.
Frist and Reid talked privately twice during the day. There was no indication of progress toward an agreement.
Instead, both staked their ground for a political showdown that Frist said could come as early as next week.
Reid accused Bush of trying to steamroll the Senate in preparation for a Supreme Court vacancy.
"George Bush wants to (turn) the Senate into a second House of Representatives, a rubber stamp for his right-wing agenda and radical judges. That's not how America works," Reid said.
Reid said he's ready. "I want to be clear: We are prepared for a vote on the nuclear option," he said, referring to the GOP threat to change the filibuster rules. "Democrats will join responsible Republicans in a vote to uphold the constitutional principle of checks and balances."
There currently are no vacancies on the high court, but two justices are in their 80s, and one of them, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is battling thyroid cancer.