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Nominations Ensnare Senate

Following a nearly daylong standoff between Senate Democrats and Republicans over President Bush’s judicial nominations, the two sides appeared close to a deal late Wednesday that would move some of his picks for the executive branch while freeing up a climate change measure that had been caught in the crossfire.

Senate Democratic aides familiar with the talks between Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at press time that Republicans were reviewing a Democratic proposal.

According to these sources, the deal, if finalized, would allow resumption of work on the climate change bill as well as begin the long-stalled nominations process for at least some of Bush’s executive branch picks. It was unclear how many nominees would be affected, but sources said action could occur as soon as week’s end.

In addition, the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up the nomination of two Michigan circuit court judges.

Action on the climate change bill grounded to a halt Wednesday afternoon when McConnell forced the Senate clerk to read aloud the bill’s entire 491-page substitute amendment.

It’s a process that is normally waived by unanimous consent, but McConnell objected to Reid’s request to do so.

McConnell later explained that he employed the tactic because Reid broke his word to bring up three circuit court nominees for a vote before Memorial Day. The reading of the bill, McConnell said, was intended “to give them time to contemplate and consider the importance of keeping your word in this body.”

Though they remained vague about exactly what they would do to further gum up the works in the Senate, McConnell and other Republican Senators had warned that they would continue to selectively employ delaying tactics throughout the rest of this year if Reid did not achieve his stated goal to confirm at least 17 new circuit court judges. However, McConnell on Wednesday reduced that aim to a total of 15 — seven more than have already been confirmed.

“This is really going to slow this place down, if not grind it to a halt, if we don’t get this resolved,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said.

Earlier in the day, Democrats flatly rejected GOP entreaties to reach another compromise on judicial nominees and laughed at the notion that Republicans would use the issue to further hold up Senate consideration of all manner of legislation.

Saying that Republicans have already engaged in 73 filibusters of Democratic bills and that there aren’t many other delaying methods left, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) quipped, “What are they going to do? Interrupt the prayer?”

Democrats also dismissed GOP arguments that the majority has been slow-walking Bush’s judicial nominations, noting that Republicans blocked two of the three nominees Reid attempted to bring up prior to Memorial Day.

“Democrats are trying to deal with global warming, gas prices, housing, other things important to the American people, and Republicans feel none of that’s as important as shutting down the Senate over a handful of ideological judges,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

In an attempt to satisfy his agreement with McConnell, Reid attempted in late May to expedite consideration of two new Bush circuit court nominees that came forward after years of negotiation between the two Democratic Michigan Senators and the Bush administration. That compromise resulted in a Democratic pick and a GOP pick.

But conservative Republicans on the Judiciary Committee objected to confirming those nominees when several other more conservative picks had been languishing for months, if not years. They also noted that neither nominee had been properly vetted by the FBI or the American Bar Association.

One nominee, Steven Agee, was confirmed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Because the judicial fight caused a nearly daylong delay on the climate change bill, Democrats accused Republicans of trying to change the subject from an issue they largely oppose.

“I put this all as part of the Republican plan to defend and protect Big Oil,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) charged.

However, Republicans said they were eager to engage in both fights, considering they have argued the measure will increase both gas prices and taxes.

“We actually hate to hold up the climate bill,” McConnell said. ‘We think it’s a great debate.”

Along with the grueling reading of the amendment, GOP resistance earlier this week to removing procedural barriers to debate on the bill will likely cause Reid to effectively shut down the Senate’s consideration of the bill, Democratic aides said.

As of press time, Reid was expected to ask Republicans for an agreement to limit amendments and debate time on the bill, a request that they are likely to oppose. If no deal can be reached, Reid may move to restrict GOP amendments entirely by using a procedural maneuver known as “filling the amendment tree.” He then would likely file a motion to close debate, which would require 60 votes to prevail.

Those moves would most likely only further inflame partisan tensions over both the bill and judicial nominations. Additionally, Democrats acknowledge that they are far short of the 60 needed to keep debate open on the legislation.

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