Frist, the lonely leader

Sen. Arlen Specter thinks most senators want to back away from the filibuster showdown, but Bill Frist won't let them speak their minds.

Published May 20, 2005 6:15PM (EDT)

When Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, walked out of a meeting aimed at averting the nuclear option Thursday, he was plainly frustrated about the state of the proceedings. He refused to say much of anything to reporters who followed him through the hallways of the Russell Senate office building, referring them instead to John McCain for information about any compromise deal.

This morning on the Senate floor, Specter made his views more clear. While he's opposed to the complete elimination of the right to filibuster judicial nominees -- he said that right should be "retained" for use in egregious cases -- he made it clear that he's not happy about the notion that the future of stalled judicial nominees and the Senate itself may be determined by a small group of senators working toward a nuclear-aversion deal.

"I cannot subscribe to the idea that a group of 12, however they may be ultimately constituted, ought to make the decision on who is to be confirmed," Specter said. "It is my view that this is really a decision for this body."

Specter called on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to conduct a Whip count among Republicans to see whether, freed from marching orders from their leaders, Republican senators would support or oppose the nuclear option and how they'd vote on the various stalled judges. Specter's suspicion: If Democrats and Republicans in the Senate were allowed to vote their consciences, "most Democrats would reject the obstructive tactics of the unprecedented pattern of filibusters, and most Republicans would reject the constitutional or nuclear option."

With so much at stake and so much still in flux, it's unlikely that Bill Frist will accept that invitation. As matters now stand, Frist will force a cloture vote on the nomination of Priscilla Owen and then a vote on the nuclear option itself early next week.

By Tim Grieve

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

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