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Senate showdown nears on filibusters

Both parties say they will prevail in nominee battle

WASHINGTON -- Amid talk of a possible compromise, the Senate's second-most powerful Republican and Democrat both contended yesterday that they have enough support for their side's position in the battle over President Bush's judicial nominees.

The chamber is nearing a showdown this week over the minority party's right to use a filibuster to block the nominees.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said he would call for a vote on the first two of the blocked nominees -- Texas Judge Priscilla Owen and California Judge Janice Rogers Brown. Bush nominated them for federal judgeships during his first term, but they and five others were blocked by Democrats.

Should Democrats move this week to block either Brown or Owen, and Republicans do not break the filibuster, Frist then would call for the Senate to vote on whether to ban the use of filibusters against judicial nominees.

Both sides said yesterday that they have the votes to prevail, even as they acknowledged that several middle-of-the-road Republicans had yet to say publicly how they would vote.

''I haven't given up on the possibility that we might have 60 votes, including some Democrats who have been whispering in our ears that they believe that this ought to be defused," Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chief Republican vote-counter, said on ''Fox News Sunday."

Republicans hold 55 seats in the 100-member Senate. Democrats have 44, and there is one Democratic-leaning Independent.

Frist needs at least 50 votes to abolish judicial filibusters. Vice President Dick Cheney would provide the tiebreaking vote in his constitutional role as president of the Senate.

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats' vote-counter, said his party was united. He said he also expected to pick up GOP support from some of those who have not yet signaled how they would vote.

''We feel that there are at least four Republican senators who feel as we do, and we feel that there are several who are making up their minds at the last moment," Durbin said.

But McConnell said that if negotiations fail and the vote to break the filibuster falls short, ''I believe we will have the votes" to ban the use of filibusters against nominees for judgeships.

Others seemed to be holding out hope for an 11th-hour compromise.

''I believe that as reasonable people, as we have in the past in the Senate, we should sit down together and work this out," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who has broken with his party on the issue, told ABC's ''This Week."

But Senator Edward M. Kennedy said on CBS's ''Face the Nation" that Democrats ''should not accept a compromise that's going to silence and muzzle and gag a member of the United States Senate to express their conscience on an issue of a lifetime judge."

Kennedy said changing the filibuster rule would represent an unprecedented shift of power in the Senate for the benefit of a majority leader who is considering a run for the presidency in 2008 and for the benefit of a president who will be out of office in 3Æ years.

The Massachusetts Democrat said the Senate had approved 96 percent of the president's judicial nominees. ''All we're talking about is a handful of the most . . . right-wing extremist judges," he said.

The Senate's Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is spearheading the Democrats' effort to protect the power to block nominees for the federal courts whom they view as outside the legal mainstream.

Seven Republican senators could determine the outcome of the showdown. Barring any unforeseen developments, they are the only Republicans who have not committed publicly to supporting either Frist's position or Reid's.

The senators are Susan M. Collins of Maine, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Warner of Virginia, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John Sununu of New Hampshire.

For Democrats to prevail, they need the support of three of the seven undecided Republicans. Frist needs votes from five of those Republicans so that Cheney could have the chance to break a tie in favor of Bush's position.

Bush and First say they believe it should take only a simple majority -- 51 votes, rather than the 60 needed now -- for a nominee to win confirmation for a lifetime appointment to a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court.

All 44 Senate Democrats, joined by independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont and three Republicans, have said they oppose curtailing a Senate minority's ability to block nominees with just 41 votes.

Frist has 45 Republicans on his side. So far, only McCain and Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have broken party ranks, expressing concern about a change that could permanently reduce minority rights in the Senate. Vote-counters say Republican Olympia J. Snowe of Maine also is likely to side with the Democrats.

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