Senate on Cusp of Grand Showdown ; Floor Debate Begins Wednesday That Could Lead to a Vote on Shutting Down Filibusters, a Centuries-Old Tool of Minority Parties

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It begins. Barring an 11th-hour compromise, the Senate launches a debate Wednesday on whether to limit the right of senators to speak on judicial nominations - a key decision point in its 216-year history.

In an unvetted moment, GOP Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi dubbed the proposed change in Senate rules "the nuclear option." Later, GOP leaders tried, without success, to redub the change "the constitutional option." It never stuck.

One reason: Total war fits the tone of this conflict. In the run- up to Wednesday's debate, groups on both sides of the issue, from conservative religious activists to hip-hoppers, waged rhetorical war outside the Capitol, over the Internet, and in rallies and ad campaigns in targeted states across the nation.

Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, lawmakers below the leadership level pursued intense negotiations of their own to avert a showdown over judges and a rule change that

could change Senate procedure and culture well into the future.

"We had majorities, both Democrat and Republican, try to muzzle a minority before, but we've never had a minority willing to retaliate to this extent," says Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report.

In the closing hours toward Wednesday's showdown, the mantra of both sides has been fairness. Republicans say that the president's judicial nominees deserve a fair, up-or-down vote and that Democrats are violating the Constitution and more than 200 years of Senate precedent by denying it. Ten of President Bush's nominees were blocked in the last Congress, seven of whom have been renominated in the 109th.

What Democrats want

Democrats say they want fair treatment for the views of minorities, also enshrined in more than 200 years of Senate precedent. "I'm sorry about their feelings," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia in an exchange with Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee on the floor of the Senate last week, referring to the blocked Bush nominees. "But senators have a right to speak."

He added, "Killing freedom of speech in the Senate.... You don't want that legacy."

If a compromise is not reached before Wednesday, the script for the nuclear option plays out something like this: The majority leader brings to the floor a contested nomination, most likely that of Texas judge Priscilla Owen and/or California judge Janice Rogers Brown. At some point, either before or during debate, he or a designee will raise a point of order that a simple majority, rather than the current 60-vote "supermajority," is needed to end a filibuster on the nomination.

Then, it gets murky. The point of order, effectively a rule change, will be decided by the chair, Vice President Dick Cheney, who also serves as Senate president. Mr. Cheney has already signaled he will support the rule change. (In an unusual leak, Senate Democrats say that the parliamentarian will not.) When Democrats appeal the ruling, the matter will be settled by majority vote, with the vice president breaking a tie.

At press time, both sides claimed they had the votes to support their side, but many senators were still not declaring a public position.

Republicans say this rule change will apply only to the president's judicial nominations, but Democrats and some outside experts say that an empowered majority may expand the change to other areas. "Once you go down that road, there will inevitably be a lot of pressure on the majority to expand the filibuster ban," says Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. …