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Crunch Time for ‘Nuke’ Deal

Talks Continue as Centrists Seek Accord

After roughly six hours of meetings in just over a day, Senate centrists headed for what could be a make-or-break moment in their effort to craft a compromise to avert the so-called nuclear showdown on President Bush’s judicial nominees.

Exiting the last of the meetings Wednesday, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said the group’s chances of nailing down a deal continued to be difficult.

“I really don’t know. It’s just wait-and-see at this point right now,” said Snowe, who earlier in the week voiced greater optimism for a deal.

Snowe said that the bipartisan group was reaching its limit in its ability to negotiate. She suggested that today’s meetings — another is expected in the late morning — might be the last chance at a compromise.

“Most people would prefer to get it done one way or the other,” she said.

However, several Democrats involved in the discussions held out hope that there would be more time to finalize an agreement, with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) refusing to set any “artificial deadline.”

“There’s time,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

With the year’s first judicial-nomination battle reaching the Senate floor, the centrist group held a series of talks Tuesday and Wednesday that moved among four different offices and involved a rotating cast of Senators.

Lead negotiators busily tweaked the plan’s language to try to appease at least six Republicans and six Democrats — the minimum number needed to block the GOP leadership’s threatened rules change to end Senate filibusters on judicial nominees.

“We continue to make progress,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said after emerging from a 55-minute meeting in Sen. Mike DeWine’s (R-Ohio) office in mid-afternoon.

At least two different draft memorandums of understanding had been circulated to interested Senators Tuesday and early Wednesday, and by late Wednesday, the group was still working on another plan that would determine which contested judicial nominees would get a confirmation vote, an aide said.

The draft circulated Wednesday morning contained a pair of major concessions by each side. Under that four-point plan, enough Democrats would support cloture that would allow a vote on four of the seven already filibustered nominees.

More importantly, three of the four would be nominees that Democratic leaders have labeled “red hot” because of their views.

Those expected to be confirmed would include California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Pryor, according to the draft.

A copy of the draft memo was reviewed by Roll Call.

However, in exchange for allowing confirmation of three controversial nominees, Democrats appeared to gain more favorable language in the third point of the four-point draft plan.

While that point includes a reference to future filibusters only “under extraordinary circumstances,” it also provides what amounts to an instruction to Bush about consulting all Senators on making judicial nominations — a major point of contention by Democrats about this White House.

“Nominations that are the product of meaningful consultation with the Senate, including home-state Senators, are much less likely to be filibustered,” the draft reads.

The fourth point would commit each side to opposing the parliamentary move to change Senate precedents to forbid filibusters — commonly known as the nuclear option — for the rest of the 109th Congress.

But the wording of the final points of the plan may have been a major stumbling block at the midday meetings, and one aide suggested that issue prompted a possible re-write that would make the document shorter but similarly worded.

Democratic aides suggested that a deal that would allow the confirmations of Brown, Owen and Pryor would be unacceptable to Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid — who met with centrist-plan leaders Nelson and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) early Wednesday for a discussion of the latest offers — has so far not been working against Nelson and Pryor. It remains unclear if he would seek to actively unravel support for a deal that allowed three of those judges through.

At a briefing with reporters last month, Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) labeled Brown, Owen and Pryor “red hot”, along with lawyer William Myers, who would be one of the three already filibustered nominees not receive a floor vote under the latest plan.

Durbin and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, attended the meeting with Reid, Nelson and Pryor.

“It was not contentious at all from my standpoint,” Nelson said of that meeting, saying it was an effort at “keeping the leaders up to date.”

Each side continued to assert that they felt there was enough of a critical mass to reach a deal.

“It’s the goal to get it done as soon as possible,” Nelson said after the DeWine office meeting.

The negotiations have been long and tense. Entering the meeting in DeWine’s office, Warner barely smiled and just waved a stack of paper. “Latest draft,” he said.

Each of the meetings Wednesday had a larger turnout among Republicans than Democrats, and six Republicans attended all three meetings of the centrist group.

Those six Republicans are Snowe, DeWine, McCain and Sens. John Warner (Va.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Susan Collins (Maine). Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) attended the first meeting in Warner’s office.

If a deal is ultimately reached and those Senators hold together, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would not have the 50 votes he needs to end judicial filibusters.

Pryor, Nelson and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) attended all meetings Wednesday of the entire group, while Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) attended one meeting. Lieberman attended two meetings, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has indicated support for at least the general outline of the proposed deal, which would provide enough Democratic Senators to invoke cloture on the contentious nominees.

Pryor emphasized that the lower attendance among Democrats was in no way an indication of waning support for the proposed deal. A deal that allows several of the most controversial nominees to be approved is sure to infuriate liberal activist groups who for more than two years have led the push for filibusters of Brown, Owen and Pryor.

The group held six meetings of its coalition from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon — three in Warner’s office, one in DeWine’s and one in a second-floor Capitol suite that included Reid and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). A sixth meeting of the group was convened Wednesday evening in Pryor’s office.

In addition, many smaller meetings — such as the one in Reid’s office with Nelson and Pryor — have been held as well, just as the official judicial debate kicked off Wednesday with debate officially focusing on Owen.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said there was no deal that Nelson and the centrists could craft that would be acceptable to him unless it included an up-or-down vote on all seven judges in dispute.

“As long as there is an up-or-down vote on all seven, I can accept that,”said the Pennsylvania Republican. “I can accept that some Republicans would vote against some of these nominees. I would have no problem if they don’t have the votes. Fine — vote against them. But they all deserve a vote.”

In a preview of the message he would be delivering this week, Santorum also lashed at the “incivility” of Democrats in threatening to bring the Senate to a halt if GOP leaders seek to employ the nuclear option. “I find a very sad commentary that Senate Democrats shut down the committees simply because we began debate on a judicial nomination,” Santorum said.

After an objection by Democrats, all Senate committees had to shut down at midday Wednesday, and Republicans reacted angrily to the maneuver.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) called the Democratic tactics illogical. “I don’t know what the Democratic leaders gain by this,” said Kyl. “That makes no sense.”

Kyl said an important security briefing for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was postponed following the Democratic objection, and that the Energy and Natural Resources Committee had to delay a markup of an wide-ranging energy bill as well.

On the floor Thursday, Santorum was expected to continue to hit on Democrats for alleged incivility, part of a broad GOP effort to constantly hit the floor with the themes and message they want.

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and David Vitter (R-La.), from the 5th Circuit region that Owen has been nominated to, are expected to her main defenders.

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