WASHINGTON – Averting a showdown, moderates on both sides of the aisle in the Senate reached a compromise late Monday clearing the way for the confirmation of many of President Bush's stalled judicial nominees, leaving others in limbo and preserving filibuster rules.
"We have reached an agreement to try to avert a crisis in the United States Senate and pull the institution back from a precipice," said Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., standing with a group of 13 other senators, seven from each party. McCain added that the deal was based on "trust, respect and mutual desire to .... protect the rights of the minority."
"We have lifted ourselves above politics," agreed Sen. Robert C. Byrd (search), D-W.Va., "And we have signed this document ... in the interest of freedom of speech, freedom of debate and freedom to dissent in the United States Senate."
Under the terms, Democrats agreed to allow final confirmation votes for Priscilla Owen (search), Janice Rogers Brown (search) and William Pryor (search), named to appeals court seats. There is "no commitment to vote for or against" the filibuster against two other conservatives named to the appeals court, Henry Saad (search) and William Myers (search).
The agreement said future judicial nominees should "only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances," with each Democratic senator holding the discretion to decide when those conditions had been met.
"In light of the spirit and continuing commitments made in this agreement," Republicans said they would oppose any attempt to make changes in the application of filibuster rules — a pledge that Sen. Mike DeWine (search), R-Ohio said at the news conference was conditional on Democrats upholding their end of the deal.
While the agreement was signed by only 14 senators, they held the balance of power in a sharply divided Senate.
And Republicans said they would seek to confirm Owen as early as Tuesday, with other cleared nominees to follow quickly.
Even so, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., noted he had not been a party to the deal, which fell short of his stated goal of winning yes-or-no votes on each of Bush's nominees. "It has some good news and it has some disappointing news and it will require careful monitoring," he said.
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada seemed more receptive — although he hastened to say he remains opposed to some of the nominees who will now likely take seats on federal appeals courts.
"Checks and balances have been protected. The integrity of the Supreme Court has been protected from the undue influence of the vocal, radical right wing," Reid said.
The White House said the agreement was a positive development.
"Many of these nominees have waited for quite some time to have an up-or-down vote and now they are going to get one. That's progress," press secretary Scott McClellan said. "We will continue working to push for up-or-down votes for all the nominees."
Earlier Monday, Bush repeated his demand that his judicial nominees get an up-or-down vote by the full Senate.
"My job is to pick people who will interpret the Constitution, not use the bench from which to write laws," Bush said from the White House. "And I expect them to get an up-or-down vote, that's what I expect. And I think the American people expect that as well — people ought to have a fair hearing and they ought to get an up-or-down vote on the floor."
The deal was sealed around the table in McCain's office, across the street from the Capitol where senators had expected an all-night session of speech-making, prelude to Tuesday's anticipated showdown.
Nominally, the issue at hand was Bush's selection of Owen, a member of the Texas Supreme Court, to a seat on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
In fact, as the rhetoric suggested, the stakes were far broader, with Republicans maneuvering to strip Democrats of their right to filibuster and thus block current and future nominees to the appeals court and Supreme Court.
There currently is no vacancy on the high court, although one or more is widely expected in Bush's term. Chief Justice William Rehnquist's coincidental presence in the Capitol during the day was a reminder of that. At age 80 and battling thyroid cancer, he entered the building in a wheelchair on his way to the doctor's office.
Under a complicated situation in effect on the Senate floor, an agreement among six senators of each party was sufficient to avert the showdown. Six Democrats agreeing not to filibuster assured judicial nominees of a yes-or-no vote. Six Republicans signing the accord meant Frist and other GOP leaders would not have the votes to strip Democrats of their ability to filibuster.
The agreement came as Frist, R-Tenn. and Reid, D-Nev., steered the Senate toward a showdown on Bush's nominees and historic filibuster rules, under which a minority can prevent action unless the majority gains 60 votes.
For decades, Senate rules have permitted opponents to block votes on judicial nominees by mounting a filibuster, a parliamentary device that can be stopped only by a 60-vote majority.
But Republicans, frustrated by Democratic filibusters that thwarted 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominees and prepared to block seven of them again, threatened to supersede that rule by simple majority vote.
In classic Senate style, the agreement was followed by a rush of self-congratulatory speeches — and disagreement over what it meant.
Democrats, pointing to a slight change in wording from an earlier draft, said the deal would preclude Republicans from attempting to deny them the right to filibuster. Republicans said that was not ironclad, but valid only as long as Democrats did not go back on their word to filibuster only in extraordinary circumstances.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the issue had been discussed at the meeting in McCain's office, and was "clearly understood" by those in attendance.
Apart from the judicial nominees named in the agreement, Reid said Democrats would clear the way for votes on David McKeague, Richard Griffin and Susan Neilson, all named to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Democratic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that two other appeals court nominees whose names were omitted — White House staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes — would be jettisoned. Republicans said they knew of no such understanding.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who had supported invoking the so-called "nuclear" or "constitutional" option — by which filibusters on nominees would have been banned for good — told FOX News early Monday: "The Senate does not require 60 votes to become a judge, only 51 votes. ... We're talking about keeping a supermajority from overriding the will of a constitutional majority that has been that way for 214 years."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.