On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was urging the Senate's GOP majority to cut a deal with Democrats.
Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that McCain told fellow GOP senators at their closed-door weekly lunch that he believes Democrats will agree to a deal allowing confirmation votes on nearly all of the seven judicial candidates they blocked during Mr. Bush's first term. Democrats want their right to filibuster judicial appointees as part of any compromise.
McCain said Republicans should trust assurances from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., regarding Supreme Court appointments. Privately, Reid has told Republicans he will not filibuster any Supreme Court nominees, except in extreme circumstances, according to officials familiar with the conversations.
Some Republicans claim Reid has offered to make sure that even if there is a filibuster against a high court nominee, it will fail. His aides vehemently deny he has made such a proposal.
Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was also floating a plan in which senators would pledge to use filibusters only in "extreme or extraordinary cases."
Nelson told the Washington Post in an interview that his proposal would allow for the confirmation of some or all of the president's controversial nominees. He said the biggest challenge he faced was crafting a compromise "without undermining the leaders in both caucuses."
Frist, R-Tenn., was pushing ahead with Mr. Bush's seven filibustered court nominations and trying to end the Democratic blockade on them. "We need to look to the 100 United States senators and see what their will is," Frist told reporters.
Reid, who needs Republican help if he wants to preserve his minority's ability to block judicial nominees from the White House, sounded like he isn't worried about the showdown ahead if Frist doesn't accept a deal with Democrats. He proposed two compromises that he says offer "a path away from the precipice."
"But if neither of these options are acceptable, let's vote," Reid said defiantly.
McCain's remarks at the luncheon drew no response until Frist spoke, according to the GOP officials who talked about the meeting. He said that as a matter of principle all nominees — not just most of them — deserve a vote. He said Reid has never offered a proposal to ensure votes for all seven stalled nominees, and rhetorically asked fellow Republicans which of them should be discarded, these officials added.
McCain is one of three Republicans who have publicly announced they will vote to retain the right to filibuster judicial nominees. The GOP can afford two more defections and still prevail.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate, has said he would vote to ban the judicial filibusters if there is a 50-50 tie.
Frist and Reid are still negotiating to find a solution, talking privately twice during the day. There was no indication of progress toward an agreement.
Publicly, both staked their ground for a political showdown.
Reid said he's ready. "I want to be clear: We are prepared for a vote on the nuclear option," he said, referring to the GOP threat of banning judicial filibusters. "Democrats will join responsible Republicans in a vote to uphold the constitutional principle of checks and balances."
Frist continued to insist that all Mr. Bush's nominees deserve a confirmation vote.
"We have seven nominees, each of whom deserve an up-or-down vote, and some of whom have waited four years for the fairness of that vote," Frist said. "We also have to look to the future, to see that nominees for that appellate or circuit court level and the Supreme Court have that opportunity for an up-or-down vote."