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Nuclear Debate Gets Personal

The battle over ending the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for confirming judges continued to take a personal turn Monday, despite continued efforts by Senate centrists to push a compromise on filibusters.

Both Republicans and Democrats attacked each other’s party leaders and motives in the long-running judicial nomination feud, which is expected to come to a final showdown some time this month.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is e-mailing a 30-second online advertisement this week to its 1.5 million supporters, singling out comments by Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) regarding President Bush and the so-called “nuclear option.”

Invoking Reid’s phrase that he’d “rather dance than fight” Republicans, the ad ends with Reid’s head superimposed on the body of a ballerina wearing a black unitard and white tutu, mocking Reid’s attempts at compromise on the judicial issue.

“For Republicans, it’s about principle,” the ad declares. “For Harry Reid, it’s just another political two-step.”

In the meantime, Reid and Democrats pounded at the motives of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in pushing to end judicial filibusters by invoking a rarely used maneuver to change Senate precedent via a straight party-line vote. In a floor speech Monday, Reid said Frist was caving to conservative interest groups, some of whom have put the issue at the top of their agenda and have said Frist’s national political ambitions rest with his performance on the nuclear option.

“There is great concern among both Democrats and Republicans about the path Senator Frist is leading the Senate down,” Reid said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that Senator Frist is under enormous pressure from right- wing groups to trigger the nuclear option this week.”

Democrats continued to plan out a new message event for every day this week, including one Thursday with students from Frist’s alma mater, Princeton University, who have been staging a filibuster-style protest outside a campus center funded by and named for Frist’s family. The students are slated to come to Washington, D.C., Wednesday in what they have dubbed the “fili-bus.”

The heightened rhetoric came on the first day Senators returned from a week-long recess, and as Reid and Frist sat down for a face-to-face meeting late Monday afternoon — now part of their weekly routine. Aides reported no sign of a thaw in the two leaders’ positions on the issue.

Before meeting with Reid, Frist said that he had already made his compromise offer before the recess began and that he didn’t expect to make another offer. “We keep talking back and forth,” Frist said.

His office later issued a statement rejecting Reid’s offer to have a vote on Thomas Griffith, a less controversial circuit court nominee than the seven already filibustered nominees whom President Bush is still pushing for confirmation.

And Frist’s spokesman, Bob Stevenson, said that the push is for the same result. “We need to see that all nominees get a fair up-or-down vote,” he said.

Frist’s reliance on pushing for a vote on all nominees comes as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is leading an effort to round up enough Democrats to promise that they will not support filibusters on Bush’s judicial nominees except in “extraordinary cases.”

Nelson confirmed for reporters a report in Monday’s Roll Call about his negotiations with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), but he cautioned that he and Lott first want to give Reid and Frist as much room as possible to negotiate a deal on their own.

“Everyone wants to give the two leaders every opportunity to solve this on their own,” he said.

But if those talks completely break down, Nelson said he wants to be prepared. “Several of us felt that having a back-up plan is advisable,” Nelson said.

The thrust of their deal, which is still not finalized, would be that in exchange for giving up future filibusters in almost all cases, Lott would gather up at least six Republicans who would pledge to reject the nuclear option.

Sources have indicated that the final piece of the deal would involve four of the seven already filibustered nominees getting confirmed.

But Nelson said Monday that those details are not final, indicating that the nature of how many of the filibustered seven will get a vote, and which of the seven, is still in flux.

Because Lott would have enough votes to reject the nuclear option and Nelson would have enough votes to invoke cloture on nominees, there would be no need for any votes on rule changes or a nuclear option showdown.

Avoiding any characterization of the number of Republicans Lott has lined up, Nelson said he had a “strong commitment” from “at least six” Democrats to support his deal if all else failed.

Lott’s office issued a statement making the point that there was no deal, but he noted that the two Senators have been trying to find “common ground” on the issue. Susan Irby, Lott’s spokeswoman, said in the statement that Lott had not told her “that he has changed his contention that all judicial nominees should have an up or down vote.”

Leadership aides to both Democrats and Republicans dismissed the Lott-Nelson talks, doubting that either Senator would be able to get six on each side to sign their memorandum of understanding.

Privately, Republicans contended that the parameters of their deal were too similar to an offer made by Reid two weeks ago, which was summarily rejected for being, in the GOP’s view, overly vague and unprincipled.

Democrats said that Nelson and Lott were nowhere near close enough to having the requisite numbers to reach their deal.

But Nelson said that ultimately each side would have to take some lumps in a compromise, and that there were enough Senators willing to buck each of their leadership team’s on this if they are forced into it.

Of the Democrats on his side, Nelson declined to name them but said that they span the Caucus’ political spectrum. “You’d be surprised,” he said.

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