The leaders stop talking

Frist and Reid are done negotiating over the nuclear option. Can centrists senators avert a showdown over Bush's judicial nominees?

Published May 17, 2005 1:07PM (EDT)

The nuclear option negotiations between Harry Reid and Bill Frist have come to a close, but it's hard to say that there were really negotiations in the first place. While Reid offered up-or-down votes on some of the seven blocked Bush judges in exchange for Frist's promise not to kill the filibuster, Frist made virtually no movement at all. His offer: Forsake the filibuster for Supreme Court and appellate judges, and you can keep it for lower court judges who aren't being filibustered anyway.

In a way, you can't blame Frist -- and on Monday Reid made it clear, sort of, that he doesn't: Having decided to kowtow to the religious right on judges, the Senate majority leader doesn't have a whole lot of room to maneuver. "I dont think Sen. Frist is capable of working something out on this," Reid told reporters Monday. "I think hes going to try to satisfy the radical right."

With talks between the Senate leaders done for now, the future of the filibuster -- and, in some ways, the Senate itself -- now lies in the hands of the centrist senators working on what Roll Call calls the "six-by-six" deal. Under that plan, a half-dozen Democrats would agree to allow votes on most of the stalled nominees and to refrain from filibustering future nominees except in extreme circumstances. In exchange, a half-dozen Republicans would promise to vote against the nuclear option if it comes up. It's a workable soluton in principle; getting six Republicans to sign on to it is another matter entirely. One Democratic aide tells Roll Call that the collapse of the Reid-Frist talks actually makes the centrists' work a little easier: If Reid and Frist aren't talking to each other, there's little need for others to refrain from deal making out of fear that they'll undercut their leaders.

But the six-by-six plan isn't a deal yet, and it's not clear whether it ever will be. What is clear is this: Frist plans to bring the nominations of Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown to the Senate floor this week as soon as work is done on a transportation bill. When he makes that move, the nuclear clock will begin ticking for real.

By Tim Grieve

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

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