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Senate Showdown on Judicial Filibuster Looms

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate today is expected to begin the long-anticipated debate over the use of filibusters to block President Bush's judicial nominees. Republicans say the tactic thwarts the will of the majority. Democrats defend the filibuster as one of the few tools the minority has in its arsenal. A vote could happen as early as next week. Yesterday, both sides in the dispute held last-minute rallies and news conferences to increase support. NPR's Brian Naylor has our first of two reports on the judicial filibusters.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

In Congress, lawmakers joined together to promote the interests of everything from sportsmen to ethnic groups. Still, the hip-hop caucus would appear to take things in another direction entirely, but there they were yesterday morning, a couple of Democratic members of Congress, jammed into a Capitol hearing room with members of the liberal group People For the American Way and students, getting down for, of all things, the filibuster.

(Soundbite from demonstration)

Unidentified Man: Come on. Let them hear you.

Group: Save our filibuster. Save our filibuster.

Unidentified Man: Let them hear you upstairs. Come on.

Group: Save our filibuster.

Unidentified Man: Let them hear you.

NAYLOR: Meanwhile, across the Capitol, a group of Texas supporters of Priscilla Owen were a bit more reserved. They praised Owen, the Texas jurist who was nominated by President Bush to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (Republican, Texas): Priscilla Owen is one of the nicest people I have ever known in addition to being one of the brightest and one of the best judges ever to have served on the Texas Supreme Court, and yet I think what has happened to her in the United States Senate is unconscionable, it is wrong, and we are going to try to rectify that situation.

NAYLOR: Just how that situation will be rectified will be played out starting today when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist brings up Owen's nomination. She is among the nominees Democrats have blocked for what they say are the jurist's extreme conservative views. Frist wants to end what he calls the obstructionism by the Democrats by changing the rules, a move that's been dubbed `the nuclear option.' Democrats appear ready for the fight. Their leader, one-time amateur boxer Harry Reid, couldn't resist the metaphor.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): If you're involved in an athletic contest, let's say a boxing match, and you've trained, you've done everything you could to be as good as you can be and you go out there and ready to fight, you feel pretty good about yourself. That's how I feel about our caucus.

NAYLOR: Frist, on the other hand, believes many senators don't have the stomach for the kind of heavyweight match that would seem to be in the offing.

Sen. REID: People say they don't want a filibuster today, or that's what I keep hearing, that people say, `It's a new time. We've got new leadership.' We understand that filibustering one out of every three or one out of every four of the president's nominees, filibustering them to where they just can't get a vote, is wrong.

NAYLOR: And while the nuclear clock begins ticking today, some still are seeking a last-minute settlement. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska along with Arizona Republican John McCain have been trying to find a half-dozen senators from each party to renounce the nuclear option while agreeing to vote on most, if not all of the controversial nominees. If they fail, Nelson says no one really can predict the outcome.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): I think it is the unknown that is the most problematic. You don't know what will happen if there isn't a solution.

NAYLOR: The negotiations are expected to continue until a vote on Owen is called early next week.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.