WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) said yesterday he plans to offer a compromise for dealing with contested judicial nominations to defuse rising partisan tensions.
In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), Mr. Frist gave few specifics of his compromise, which he will offer when Congress returns to work after a two-week Easter break that begins this weekend.
Mr. Frist said his proposal would "protect the Constitution, validate our duties as senators, and restore fairness to a process gone awry."
Mr. Frist sent the letter to Mr. Reid just hours after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of William Myers III to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
The 10-8 party-line vote sent Mr. Myers' nomination to the Senate floor, setting the stage for a potentially explosive showdown between Senate Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) voted for Mr. Myers.
Republicans, led by committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), say Mr. Myers is a highly qualified nominee who would make a good appeals court judge.
Democrats, however, contend Mr. Myers' close connection with mining and grazing interests would make it impossible for him to make fair judgments in environmental cases.
Mr. Myers is the first of President Bush's seven contested judicial nominees to be voted out of committee this year.
Mr. Frist has threatened to to change Senate rules to end Democrats' ability to use a filibuster to block judicial nominees.
Such a parliamentary rule change to end a minority party's ability to block a confirmation vote has been called the "nuclear option" because it could detonate the working relationship between Senate Democrats and Republicans.
Earlier this week, Mr. Reid sent a letter to Mr. Frist in which he vowed that Democrats will cripple Senate operations if Republicans exercise the "nuclear option."
In his response, Mr. Frist asked for the Democrat's help in putting together a compromise.
"Reform of the confirmation process is sorely needed and should precede Senate consideration in this Congress of any of President Bush's judicial nominees," Mr. Frist wrote.
Mr. Frist said there is a precedent for such an effort, citing a 1979 agreement between Senate Republicans and then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.), which avoided a showdown on debate rules.
There has been some talk recently in the Senate about a possible compromise that would ensure that all judicial nominees get a prompt vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then be assured of an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
At yesterday's judiciary committee meeting, however, Democrats indicated they are prepared to do battle against Mr. Myers on the Senate floor.
"I'm saddened to say that the Myers nomination is likely to be used as the trigger for the nuclear option," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.).
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