Talks by the Senate’s top two leaders to try to avert a showdown over President Bush’s judicial nominees broke down on Monday.
But other lawmakers, largely moderates, pushed to try to find an elusive compromise to prevent a battle that could shift the balance of power between Congress and the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, declared their talks done after a private meeting, the latest in a series of conversations dating back several months.
“The negotiations are over,” Reid said. “I’ve tried to compromise (but) they want all or nothing, and I can’t do that.”
“We’ve been unable to come to a negotiated position,” Frist said. He added in a statement, “I hope Senator Reid and others know our door is always open to reasonable proposals.”
Frist plans to begin several days of debate on Wednesday on two of the seven appeals court candidates blocked by Democrats during the last Congress and renominated by Bush after he won re-election in November.
If Democrats again stop any of them with procedural hurdles known as filibusters, Republicans threaten to move to ban such tactics on appeals court as well as U.S. Supreme Court nominees.
Republican leaders insist they will have the 51 votes needed to ban such filibusters. But Democrats argue it is too close to call.
With the stakes so high and the vote uncertain, efforts to find common ground persisted despite the breakdown in talks between Frist and Reid.
Sens. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have had conversations of their own in recent days, reaching out to members on both sides of the political aisle.
Nelson and a handful of other Democrats on Monday circulated “a draft proposal” that would clear the way for confirmation of some of Bush’s stalled judicial nominees, but block others, aides said.
Under this proposal, Republicans would promise not to eliminate judicial filibusters through the end of next year, and Democrats would vow not to use such tactics against any circuit-court or Supreme Court nominee except in “extreme circumstances,” aides said.
Republicans hold 55 of 100 Senate seats. A simple majority is needed to confirm a nominee, but 60 votes are required to end a filibuster.
The aim by Nelson and McCain has been to provide six Democratic votes to win confirmation of some of the disputed nominees and six Republican votes to preserve the judicial filibuster.
Nelson was confident he had enough Democrats on board, but was still working to attract a total of six Republicans, an aide said.
Earlier on Monday, Reid called on Republicans to break ranks. He said if a handful of Republicans side with Democrats, they could preserve Senate rules that help check the powers of the White House by permitting judicial filibusters.
“I’m confident and hopeful that there will be six Republican senators who will be profiles in courage,” Reid said in a Senate speech.
Reid told reporters: “I don’t think Senator Frist is capable of working something out on this. I think he is going to try to satisfy the radical right.”
Special interest groups from the political right and left have weighed into the battle since the federal courts decide such issues as civil rights, abortion rights and gay rights.
Frist said in his statement: “Republicans believe in the regular order of fair up and down votes and letting the Senate decide yes or no on judicial confirmations free from procedural gimmicks like the filibuster.”