The rules of the Senate are in these lawmakers' hands

Centrists yesterday sought a deal to deflect the “nuclear” end to filibusters of judicial nominees. Continued impasse will mean “one of the most important [votes] in the history of this institution,” says Sen. Specter. GOP Sens. McCain, Chafee and Snowe openly oppose the nuclear option.

But Democrats still need three more GOP defectors, more if they lose anyone from their own ranks.

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Graham was a late arrival to negotiations, but on Tuesday he joined a Centrist Coalition meeting with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). He also joined a group in Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) office.

“The idea of losing a whole session when you don’t have to, and when you’re at war, is not attractive,” Graham told The Hill.

He once sued the Senate because of the Democratic judicial filibuster, which he considers illegal. “But if we can get calmer heads to prevail … I’m willing to do that for the good of the country,” he said.

John Warner (R-Va.) 
Warner has been extraordinarily tight-lipped about his views over the past weeks, but he let it be known in interviews that he considers himself a “traditionalist” and was hoping to avert a showdown. Then, on Tuesday, he hosted a group of Republicans and Democrats to discuss compromise offers and put forward a proposal of his own.

When pressed by reporters, Warner has insisted that he is better off not talking. But opponents of the nuclear option are convinced Warner will be with them.

Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)
One of the more intriguing figures in the debate is Specter, the Judiciary Committee chairman. Specter is known as a centrist who also tries to back his party leadership when possible.

He secured his chairmanship this year only after long negotiations with other Judiciary members that resulted in his releasing a letter about how he would act as chair. Soon thereafter, he announced that he had lymphatic cancer, and he has been receiving biweekly chemotherapy treatment.

“Senators, with our leaders, must take charge to craft a way out,” Specter said on the Senate floor yesterday. Specter also said that if the constitutional option were to fail, it would embolden Democrats to undertake other filibusters — such as one of John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“I have not rendered a decision because I believe I can be most helpful on brokering a compromise by remaining silent,” Specter said. But many believe he will not support the option if it comes to a vote.

Susan Collins (R-Maine)
One person who has not been at the center of compromise negotiations is Collins. Although she is to the left of most Senate Republicans on many social issues, she also chairs the Armed Services Committee and tries not to provoke leadership unless she has to.

Collins is considered more likely to vote with Frist than her Maine GOP colleague, Sen. Olympia Snowe, who is up for reelection and who has publicly called for a compromise. “I voted to invoke cloture on Priscilla Owen [one of the filibustered nominees] last year,” Collins told a group of reporters. “I certainly intend to do it again.”

Collins says she has made up her mind on how she will vote on the nuclear option but is hoping a compromise will be reached. “I believe the Democrats have overused and abused the filibuster,” she said.


Mike DeWine (R-Ohio)
DeWine has kept his own counsel on the constitutional option.

Although he is no maverick, DeWine has been known to go his own way on high-profile issues. He was one of only three Republicans to vote against the Senate-passed budget resolution a few weeks ago. He may have been emboldened by his colleague Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who unexpectedly decided to oppose Bolton’s U.N. nomination.

“It’s in the best interest of the country that we work out something here,” DeWine told The Hill. But DeWine has been floating compromise language while negotiating with Warner and others. Asked about how he would vote, he replied, “I just have not said. I haven’t said.”


Gordon Smith (R-Ore.)
One senator whose position is not in doubt is Smith. He has quietly opposed party positions on a constitutional amendment on gay marriage and other issues. But Smith has decided to vote with Frist out of “a recognition that the system is broken.”

Smith said he is concerned that people’s associations with groups such as the conservative Federalist Society will prevent them from serving in the judiciary. The former law clerk for the New Mexico Supreme Court added, “I would rather have Laurence Tribe and Robert Bork on the court than some of the current members.”

Even though he has not been part of negotiations with other centrists, Smith added, “I’d love to see a deal worked out.”

Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)
The Democrat who has been the key figure in negotiations is Nelson, the first-term former governor who is up for reelection. Nelson began his talks with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and then started dealing with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) when Lott backed off.

Nelson, who turned 64 this week, has grown increasingly optimistic as the number of senators participating in negotiations has grown. Tuesday evening, he predicted that a deal would be reached by yesterday. But at press time, senators had yet to resolve the issues that had confounded them: how to decide which nominees would get a vote and how to lock senators into good-faith pledges not to filibuster or execute the nuclear option.

“It’s about trust,” Nelson said Tuesday evening, after meeting with a bipartisan group of centrists. “It’s about comity. It’s about integrity. That’s where we ought to be heading.”

Senator X
With the stakes so high, observers say an unexpected turn of events could make the difference.

“When neither side is confident of success — and I think that is the case today,” Specter said, “the chances for compromise are far greater.”

In the Senate of a few years ago, party leaders probably would have made a deal at the 11th hour, just as the confrontation was approaching.

But with outside groups, presidential politics and changes in the atmosphere of both politics and the institution, predicting the outcome is even more difficult.

Although Frist and Reid are being kept abreast of negotiations, each may have decided he is better off taking his chances on a vote.
Whether Frist or Reid succeeds will depend on whether they can maintain party discipline under considerable outside pressure. Frist’s decision to retire in 2006 and Reid’s recent elevation as leader only add to the uncertainty.

“There’s always a chance of a compromise, right up until you have a vote,” Lott said.