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Filibuster ban gets White House nudge

Bush, Gonzales call for Senate to vote on all judicial nominees

WASHINGTON -- Turning up the pressure on Republican leaders, President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales yesterday called on the Senate to allow yes-or-no votes on all judicial nominees, a request that could help force a move to outlaw filibusters of judges.

The White House, marking the fourth anniversary of Bush's nominations of Priscilla Owen and Terrence Boyle to positions on the federal bench, issued the statement from Bush yesterday. Democrats, using the filibuster tactic, have sidetracked both Owen's and Boyle's nominations; while Bush has nominated them again, Democrats have promised to block them again.

''The Senate should give these extraordinarily qualified nominees the up-or-down votes they deserve without further delay," Bush said in the statement, which was released while the president was visiting the Republic of Georgia. ''It is only fair that the Senate promptly consider judicial nominees on the floor, discuss and debate their qualifications, and then vote to confirm or not to confirm them."

Barely an hour later, Gonzales reiterated those remarks at a press conference at Justice Department headquarters. ''My position is that they are entitled to an up-or-down vote in a reasonable period of time, and that time in my judgment has passed," Gonzales said.

The coordinated comments by Bush and his top law-enforcement official reinforced earlier remarks they both have made. But the timing of their statements could make it more difficult for Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, to avoid a ban on filibusters of judges -- the ''nuclear option."

Neither Bush nor Gonzales specifically endorsed the rules change that would outlaw filibusters, but it appears to represent the only way to guarantee yes-or-no votes on all judges. Democrats have said they will continue to deny votes on Owen, Boyle, and five other Bush judicial nominees whom they consider extremists, and the filibuster is the main tactic the minority party has used to achieve that result.

If Republicans vote to ban filibusters of judges, Democrats have threatened to slow Senate business to a crawl. Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has said he wants all the judicial nominations resolved by Memorial Day.

Talk swirled yesterday on Capitol Hill of a potential compromise: Democrats would allow approval of four judges, but continue to block the nominations of three others. The compromise, pursued by a handful of moderate Democratic and Republican senators, would not necessarily extend to future nominees.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Arlen Specter, appealed to his colleagues in both parties to rise above partisanship to avoid a high-stakes showdown. He fretted that the current deadlock could leave the Supreme Court with just eight members after a vacancy arises, raising the possibility of a rash of 4-4 tie decisions by the high court.

''The United States Senate today stands on the edge of an abyss," said Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. ''If one side realistically and sincerely takes the high ground, there will be tremendous pressure on the other side to follow suit."

But aides to GOP and Democratic senators downplayed the possibility of a compromise, and the comments by Bush and Gonzales underscored the entrenchment.

Conservative groups want to outlaw filibusters before the Supreme Court has a vacancy, but Democrats have vowed to fight to preserve their rights as the minority party. Still, Democrats yesterday sought to demonstrate their willingness to work with Republicans by calling on the Senate to vote quickly on Thomas Griffith, a Bush nominee for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said Democrats would allow a vote on Griffith, whose nomination has been held up for a year. Democrats contend that Griffith practiced law without appropriate licenses in both Utah and the District of Columbia.

''We will oppose bad nominees, but we will only block unacceptable nominees," Reid said in a speech on the Senate floor.

The latest compromise on the table requires the support of at least six Democrats and six Republicans to be effective. The Democrats would agree to allow four of the seven controversial nominees to come forward, and the Republicans would promise to oppose the filibuster ban, according to Senate aides on both sides.

Conservative groups condemned that idea. They want Frist to eliminate judicial filibusters quickly, establishing a precedent before Bush has the chance to nominate a judge to the Supreme Court.

''This so-called plan utterly fails to stop future filibusters of judicial nominees," said Jeffrey Mazzella, president of the Center for Individual Freedom. ''It's time to end this obstructionist practice once and for all."

Little room appears to exist for a compromise. A spokeswoman for Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who has been a key broker for a compromise, released a statement yesterday saying that Lott is committed to seeing votes on all nominees.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he could not support a deal that would prevent Democrats from stopping an objectionable nomination. ''I don't see why we would relinquish or give up our independence for [that] kind of proposal," Kennedy said.

Under current rules, 41 senators can execute a filibuster, allowing unlimited debate that stops action on a nomination. Republicans control 55 of the 100 Senate seats.

Frist is considering changing the rules -- which can be done by a majority vote -- to outlaw filibusters of judicial nominees. Bush could then have all of his nominees confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate.

Charlie Savage of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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