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Deal on Judges Is Elusive

Despite more than a dozen meetings, conversations and phone calls in the past two weeks, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remained at odds late last week over how to avert the final confrontation on filibusters.

Neither side will discuss how close the two leaders have ever come to a deal, but the intensity and volume of the meetings have increased in recent weeks as the showdown has drawn closer and closer.

The Reid-Frist talks reached a critical enough juncture that late Thursday afternoon, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined the two leaders in a more than 50-minute meeting in Reid’s suite on the second floor of the Capitol. Aides to both Frist and Reid said McConnell joined the talks because, with Frist retiring after 2006 and McConnell the presumptive new GOP leader, the Kentucky Republican would need to be involved in any final compromise because he will have to deal with the long-term ramifications.

Exiting the meeting, Frist looked at two reporters and proceeded to zip his mouth shut with his right hand. He declined to say how the meeting went or when the next serious face-to-face meeting would occur.

“Both sides are working hard at bringing it to an appropriate conclusion,” he said.

While the so-called nuclear option was not on the agenda, Frist and Reid were expected to have dinner Sunday night at Frist’s home in Upper Northwest Washington, part of a small party Frist and his wife, Karen, were having for some Senators and their wives. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was bringing the main course, a bounty of duck from a recent hunting trip, according to aides.

But the impasse continues, and no one involved in the discussions would say whether there is a real compromise at hand or if these are merely the standard last-minute talks that could be expected before such a momentous event takes place.

“We’re going to continue to talk,” McConnell said Friday, declining all other comment on the matter.

With no deal sealed by Friday afternoon, Frist’s office issued a statement that set up the parameters for debate in the judicial showdown, set to begin Wednesday morning with the nominations of previously filibustered Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown.

Those two nominees are expected to be on Capitol Hill early this week, with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) organizing meetings of undecided Senators with Owen on Tuesday, aides said. Frist plans to hold a lengthy debate this week on the two nominees and at some point file cloture to kill off any attempt at a filibuster. The actual nuclear option — Frist getting a ruling from the chair that filibusters on judicial nominations are dilatory and not permitted — might not occur until early next week.

If all Democrats cast votes on the nominees exactly as they did in the 108th Congress, neither has a chance of reaching the 60-vote threshold to invoke cloture. Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) is the only current member of the Democratic Caucus who previously voted for cloture on Brown and Owen, meaning both should fall four votes shy of killing the filibuster.

Leadership aides on both sides were organizing a series of message events for this week designed to be the final push in the effort to secure enough votes to win the battle, assuming Frist and Reid don’t reach a deal.

Most of the meetings between Frist and Reid have taken place in the most non-secret location possible: the Senate floor. Aides to both leaders said the two have increasingly used votes and floor time as their chance to talk and go over different ideas about the pending judicial showdown.

In one strange instance, the Senate was gaveled into session Thursday morning and the first few minutes of the session were dead air time, with the camera focused on the chair. Instead of opening floor deliberations, Frist was huddled with Reid talking about the contentious nomination issue, according to one aide. After a long discussion Wednesday evening during a vote, Frist said that he and Reid had been exchanging “multiple offers and ideas, back and forth.”

But he said he was afraid to describe anything about their discussions — even if they were closer or further to a deal — because that might disrupt the flow.

“I don’t want to characterize it one way or the other,” he said.

Senate centrists, led by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Nelson, have also been pushing for a compromise but have not been able to reach a deal of their own. The key sticking point has been over how to handle Owen, Brown and the five other already filibustered nominees whose names have been resubmitted by President Bush.

With no deal at hand, from Frist and Reid or McCain and Nelson, both sides girded for this week’s battle. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) on Friday suggested that Reid might have broken Senate rules by mentioning potentially damaging information in the sealed FBI report on one of the contested nominees, Henry Saad, who is bidding for a seat on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Citing Senate Rule 29 against disclosing such information, Allen said, “It’s against Senate rules to reveal anything. … It is hitting below the belt.”

Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, said that Saad’s credentials have been debated at length and in public and that Reid was merely pointing Senators to that information when he made his comment on the floor Thursday.

“Sen. Reid simply referred his colleagues to the source of those questions. That is Sen. Reid’s right and responsibility,” Manley said.

Democrats were preparing to have hundreds of their supporters swarming the Capitol all week, kicking off today with an event with labor leaders. Aides said they plan to try to pack the Senate galleries with liberal activists. In addition, Reid’s office will be converted into a TV and radio studio for Senators to do interviews with their local media.

Also, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will lead an event with House and Senate Democratic women in opposition to Brown and Owen, hoping for a bit of a replay of the dramatic walkout that female Democrats staged in the fall of 1991 during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, calling attention to Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment.

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