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Judicial hearing hints at gridlock

Published March 2, 2005

WASHINGTON - Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee was an early skirmish of sorts, a sign of whether either side in the traditionally collegial Senate would give a little ground to avoid legislative Armageddon.

The early banter was pleasant enough. Until Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the would-be judge at the witness table, William G. Myers III, not to take personally what would happen next.

"It did not have to be this way. But the president has left us with no choice," said Schumer, who cast Myers as an extremist who would unravel environmental regulation. "He has effectively said, "Let's have another fight.' "

At issue now is how the Senate will handle the Democrats' continued refusal to support a handful of the president's most conservative nominees to the federal bench, including Myers, and whether the Republicans' answer will involve dramatic changes to the longstanding Senate tradition of giving the minority party a powerful voice.

Myers, formerly the top lawyer at the Interior Department, is one of seven judicial nominees that Senate Democrats blocked in the last Congress, who were then renominated last month by President Bush. The first to come up for a new hearing, his reception by the committee was seen as emblematic of the tone the ensuing debate would take.

Under longstanding rules of the Senate, the minority party can filibuster to keep a nominee from getting a full vote on the Senate floor, unless the majority can muster 60 votes. Republican leaders are threatening to change the rules so they could end filibusters on judicial nominees with a simple majority of 51 votes.

The nominees then would face up-or-down votes by the Senate. With Republicans holding 55 of the Senate's 100 seats, their confirmation would be all but ensured.

Republicans call it the "constitutional option," because they say the Democrats shouldn't block nominees from getting a floor vote.

Democrats call it the "nuclear option," and they have threatened to retaliate by bringing Senate business to a halt, hurting the Republicans' ability to advance President Bush's agenda on Social Security, tort reform, energy, and other issues.

"I'm trying to show restraint, and I'm asking the Democrats to show restraint, and saying let's sit back, let's try to come together and simply commit to go through whatever process it takes, but ultimately give these nominees who now have majority support, an up-or-down vote," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

But his Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said his party would continue to block Myers and the other nominees, which prompted several Senate Republicans to warn that their patience is wearing thin.

"I think we're probably heading to a rules change," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Judiciary Committee. "I think it's getting close to time to pull the trigger."

Some Republicans aren't so eager. Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the Senate should seek other options, including forming a bipartisan committee of senators to discuss potential nominees with the president. Democratic Sen. John Warner of Virginia said he fears limiting the minority's power will erode the system of checks and balances.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., scoffed at concerns the Democrats would retaliate with gridlock.

"You're telling me because we have a disagreement over what I consider a constitutional problem and their obstructionism, that they're not going to let us take up an energy bill, or a highway bill?" he asked. "Democrats want that, that's the sort of stuff they gobble up. They love that."

If Senate Republicans tried the constitutional option, Lott said, they could pass it. "When you have the vote, you will have the votes."

He pulled a black notebook from his jacket pocket and opened it. "I've got the whip count right here."

As reporters leaned in to see, he snapped it shut.

[Last modified March 2, 2005, 00:48:07]

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