A nuclear countdown, but dinner first

Bill Frist is still talking tough. But as another Republican seems to defect, will the Senate majority leader be the first to blink?

Published May 16, 2005 1:02PM (EDT)

The Republicans have made all sorts of false statements during the debate over the propriety of filibustering judicial nominees, but this morning it's Harry Reid's turn to utter words that defy credulity. The Democratic Senate minority leader and a handful of other senators had dinner at Bill Frist's place Sunday evening, but Reid says there was no political talk over the duck al'orange.

If Reid is telling the truth, the Frist family dinner table is just about the only place in Washington where people aren't counting votes and reading tea leaves about the nuclear option. Frist said Friday that he'll call for votes this week on two long-stalled nominees, Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown, setting the stage for a Democratic filibuster and the Republicans' nuclear option in response. But will a compromise come first? That's looking at least a little more likely -- not so much because Frist is in the compromising mood, but because he may not have any choice.

On Sunday, another fence-sitting Republican made it pretty clear that he's not on board with Frist's nuclear plans. Appearing on CNN's "Late Edition," Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar said that going nuclear amounts to "skating over very thin ice here with regard to the continuity of life in the Senate as we know it." While he stopped short of saying unequivocally that he would vote against Frist's nuclear option, he came about as close as a person could: "I'm opposed to trying to eliminate filibusters simply because I think they protect minority rights, whether they're Republicans, Democrats or other people," Lugar said.

Frist needs 50 votes -- plus a tie-breaker from Dick Cheney -- to prevail in the unprecedented procedural machinations that would kill the filibuster. The Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, but two Republicans, John McCain and Lincoln Chafee, have already said that they'll vote against the nuclear option. Last weekend, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel suggested pretty strongly that he'll vote no, and both parties think that Maine's Olympia Snowe will side with the Democrats if she's forced to take a stand. If McCain, Chafee, Hagel, Lugar and Snowe are all "no" votes, Frist has 50 votes left and no room to spare. But he's also got five more uncommitted Republicans on this hands, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, who says Frist ought to find a way to compromise.

And what about a compromise? Frist hasn't toned down his rhetoric any -- he's still demanding up-or-down votes on all of Bush's nominees -- but other senators say that a deal may be near. McCain, appearing on ABC's "This Week" Sunday, said: "I think we're close, but whether we'll actually achieve it or not is not clear."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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