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Bipartisan Group Pursuing Compromise on Filibuster

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate today enters its third day of debate on judicial nominations. A group of centrist senators is working on a compromise. However, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist today may file a motion to cut off debate and that would set up a vote early next week on what's being called the nuclear option. NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

One by one, senators made their way to the chamber where they debated Senate rules and occasionally the nomination of Priscilla Owen to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The theme for Democrats was that Republican threats to change the rules and stop filibusters for judicial nominees was really about something bigger. As Minority Leader Harry Reid put it, it was about, quote, "clearing the trees for the confirmation of an unacceptable nominee to the Supreme Court." Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry said Republicans were being disingenuous when they accused his party of interfering with the president's right to appoint judges.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): This debate is not fueled by an effort to protect the Constitution; it's fueled by ideology. It's not fueled by a shortage of judges on the bench because, as the ranking member of the judiciary's made clear, we got the best record of appointing them and the lowest vacancies in years.

NAYLOR: Republicans charge Democrats with, in the words of Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, "unprecedented obstruction." There was strong language, too, from Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): We can no longer live with a minority trying to cheat those nominated by the president of the United States from a fair up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate. We cannot tolerate that.

NAYLOR: Despite his harsh tone, Santorum said he hopes a compromise on the issue can be reached. To that end, about a dozen Republican and Democratic senators met off and on throughout the day in the office of Arizona Republican John McCain. They're trying to come to terms on an agreement whereby Democrats would allow votes on most but not all of the president's nominees in return for Republicans agreeing not to change the rules, the so-called nuclear option. Democrats would also agree to restrain from filibustering judicial nominees in all but the most exceptional circumstances. Defining those circumstances is one of the big sticking points. The effort to reach a compromise has outraged some conservative groups who've been pushing for Majority Leader Bill Frist to invoke the nuclear option and insist on up-or-down votes for all the nominees. Jan LaRue is legislative counsel for Concerned Women for America.

Ms. JAN LaRUE (Concerned Women for America): Any compromise they talk about, whether it's `OK, we'll give you an up-or-down on three or five or seven nominees but not--you know, hold back on others, but we get to keep the filibuster,' there's a loophole that you could drive a truck through.

NAYLOR: Another organization pushing for a vote on all the nominees is USA Next, a conservative seniors group. It's accused those seeking a middle ground of wanting to compromise the Constitution and is urging its members to fax wavering senators. But there's pressure coming from the left, too. A group of black clergy aligned with People For the American Way wants its members to call their senators and express their support for judicial filibusters. The most controversial lobbying effort comes from the liberal group moveon.org, which has placed this ad, a parody of the new "Star Wars" movie, on its Web site.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: One senator, seduced by a dark vision of absolute power, seeks to destroy this fabled order, replacing fair judges with far-right clones. To do this, he's ready to use a nightmare weapon known as the nuclear option.

NAYLOR: The spot shows a hooded figure, presumably meant to be Frist, ready to push a button with a picture of a gun sight locked on the Capitol dome. The Republican National Committee denounced the ad as vulgar and beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.