WASHINGTON – In a dramatic reach across party lines, Senate centrists sealed a compromise Monday night that cleared the way for confirmation of many of President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees, left others in limbo and preserved venerable filibuster rules.

“We have reached an agreement to try to avert a crisis in the United States Senate and pull the institution back from a precipice,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., adding the deal was based on “trust, respect and mutual desire to …. protect the rights of the minority.

“We have lifted ourselves above politics,” agreed Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., “And we have signed this document….in the interest of freedom of speech, freedom of debate and freedom to dissent in the United States Senate.

Under the terms, Democrats agreed to allow final confirmation votes for Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor, appeals court nominees they have long blocked. There is “no commitment to vote for or against” the filibuster against two other conservatives named to the appeals court, Henry Saad and William Myers.

The agreement said future judicial nominees should “only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances,” with each senator – presumably the Democrats – holding the discretion to decide when those conditions had been met.

“In light of the spirit and continuing commitments made in this agreement,” Republicans joined Democrats in pledging to oppose any attempt to make changes in the application of filibuster rules – a commitment that Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said at the news conference was conditional on Democrats upholding their end of the deal.

While the agreement was signed by only 14 senators, they held the balance of power in a sharply divided Senate – able to thwart continued Democratic filibusters, on the one hand, and block GOP attempts to alter filibuster practices on the other.

Republicans, moving quickly, said they would seek to confirm Owen as early as Tuesday, with other cleared nominees to follow quickly.

Even so, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., noted he had not been a party to the deal, which fell short of his stated goal of winning yes-or-no votes on each of Bush’s nominees. “It has some good news and it has some disappointing news and it will require careful monitoring,” he said.

Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada seemed more receptive – although he hastened to say he remains opposed to some of the nominees who will now likely take seats on federal appeals courts.

“Checks and balances have been protected. The integrity of the Supreme Court has been protected from the undue influence of the vocal, radical right wing,” Reid said.

The White House said the agreement was a positive development.

“Many of these nominees have waited for quite some time to have an up-or-down vote and now they are going to get one. That’s progress,” presidential press secretary Scott McClellan said. “We will continue working to push for up or down votes for all the nominees.”

At the same time, even Republicans said the agreement would force a change on the White House.

“Judges are going to get a vote that wouldn’t have gotten a vote otherwise. We’re going to start talking about who would be a good judge and who wouldn’t. And the White House is going to get more involved and they are going to listen to us more,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the bargainers.

The deal was sealed around the table in McCain’s office, across the street from the Capitol where senators had expected an all-night session of speech-making, prelude to Tuesday’s anticipated showdown.

Nominally, the issue at hand on the Senate floor was Bush’s selection of Owen to a seat on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

In fact, as the rhetoric suggested, the stakes were far broader, with Republicans maneuvering to strip Democrats of their right to filibuster and thus block current and future nominees to the appeals court and Supreme Court.

There currently is no vacancy on the high court, although one or more is widely expected in Bush’s term. Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s coincidental presence in the Capitol during the day was a reminder of that. At age 80 and battling thyroid cancer, he entered the building in a wheelchair on his way to the doctor’s office.

The agreement came as Frist and Reid steered the Senate toward a showdown on Bush’s nominees and historic filibuster rules, under which a minority can prevent action unless the majority gains 60 votes.

For decades, Senate rules have permitted opponents to block votes on judicial nominees by mounting a filibuster, a parliamentary device that can be stopped only by a 60-vote majority.

But Republicans, frustrated by Democratic filibusters that thwarted 10 of Bush’s first-term appeals court nominees and prepared to block seven of them again, threatened to supersede that rule by simple majority vote.

In classic Senate style, the agreement was followed by a rush of self-congratulatory speeches – and disagreement over what it meant.

Democrats, pointing to a slight change in wording from an earlier draft, said the deal would preclude Republicans from attempting to deny them the right to filibuster. Republicans said that was not ironclad, but valid only as long as Democrats did not go back on their word to filibuster only in extraordinary circumstances.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the issue had been discussed at the meeting in McCain’s office, and was “clearly understood” by those in attendance.

Apart from the judicial nominees named in the agreement, Reid said Democrats would clear the way for votes on David McKeague, Richard Griffin and Susan Neilson, all named to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Democratic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that two other appeals court nominees whose named were omitted from the written agreement – White House staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes – might be jettisoned. Republicans said they knew of no such understanding.

Some Democrats dissented.

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., issued a statement saying that “Confirming unacceptable judicial nominations is simply a green light for the Bush administration to send more nominees who lack the judicial temperament or record to serve in these lifetime positions.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called the agreement “legislative castor oil. It averts the showdown vote tomorrow, but I doubt it’s over,” he said.

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