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Date set: Senate scheduled to vote on rule change Tuesday, Republican leaders say

WASHINGTON (BP)–Barring a last-minute compromise, an historic vote to eliminate the filibustering of judicial nominees will take place sometime Tuesday in the U.S. Senate, Republican leaders said Friday afternoon.

GOP leaders May 20 filed a motion seeking to limit debate on appeals court nominee Priscilla Owen, who has been filibustered by Senate Democrats. The motion — called a cloture motion — will come to a vote Tuesday at a yet-to-be-announced time. The cloture vote is expected to fall short of the 60 required votes to end a filibuster, setting up a subsequent procedural tactic rule change — dubbed by some the “nuclear option” — that would ban judicial filibusters with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Senate Democrats have filibustered 10 of President Bush’s 52 appeals court nominees since he was sworn into office in 2001. All of them had enough votes for confirmation but not enough to overcome a filibuster. Owen has been awaiting Senate confirmation for four years.

“After four years, patience ceases to be a virtue,” Sen. John Cornyn, R.-Texas, said on the floor Friday. “… Now is the time to resolve this issue once and for all.”

If Majority Leader Bill Frist is successful with the rule change, the makeup of the federal court could change significantly for years to come. Undoubtedly, conservative judges would be confirmed more easily. As of now, Bush’s most conservative nominees must clear the 60-vote hurdle to break the filibuster. A rule change would lower that confirmation bar to 51 votes.

Republicans say judicial filibusters are unconstitutional. Democrats say the filibusters are part of Senate tradition and provide a way to block controversial judges.

Federal judges receive lifetime appointments, and Christian conservatives hope Bush’s judges will issue friendlier rulings on such issues as abortion, religious freedom and “gay marriage.”

“We respect minority rights in the Senate — always have, always will,” Cornyn said. “But the fact is that the American people sent a majority to the United States Senate that stands ready to confirm these nominees.”

A group of moderate senators hope to avoid a rule change vote by compromising, but so far they have failed to reach an agreement.

It is not known if Republicans have the votes for the rule change. Although they have 55 seats, they are expected to lose the votes of three GOP senators — Lincoln Chafee, John McCain and Olympia Snowe. Republicans could afford to lose the support of two more in their ranks and still pass the rule change, with Vice President Richard Cheney breaking the 50-50 tie.

Democrats Friday said a rule change would forever damage the Senate.

“This nuclear option is so destructive,” Byron Dorgan, D.-N.D. said. “… This will indeed be a great mistake if those who attempt this will not turn back.”

Dorgan added that the Senate should be debating other matters.

“There are so many other things we ought to be working on — so many other things that we ought to do to put this country back on track,” he said.

For its part, Cornyn’s office sent out a press release stating that, from 1789 to 1806 — during the first several Congresses — a majority of senators “always had the power to bring debate to a close through majority vote.” The press release even had a statement from Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia acknowledging as such.

Responding to Dorgan, Cornyn said, “If we could simply get the up or down vote that was recognized as the Senate tradition for 214 years — before the last Congress — we would be addressing those other issues.”

The Senate ended Friday’s session having debated Owen’s nomination more than 24 hours over three days. Cornyn asserted that over four years, Owen’s nomination had been debated 19 days.

“Interestingly … that’s two more days than the nominations [hearings] of all nine sitting members of the United States Supreme Court took,” he said.

Christian conservative leaders have called on citizens to call their senators at the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121, and ask them to vote for a rule change to end filibusters.

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