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Senators Defuse Filibuster Feud

In a dramatic reach across party lines, Senate centrists sealed a compromise Monday night to clear the way for confirmation of many of President Bush's stalled judicial nominees, leave others in limbo and preserve venerable filibuster rules.

"In a Senate that has become increasingly partisan and polarized, the bipartisan center held," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of 14 senators seven from each party - to pledge their "mutual trust and confidence" on the deal.

"The Senate is back in business," exulted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., reflecting the view that a showdown would have had a long-term detrimental impact on Congress' ability to conduct the nation's business.

It was that kind of language from both sides that signaled the depth of relief that a deal had been struck, reports CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras.

CBS News National Political Correspondent Gloria Borger reports that the agreement is extraordinary because the senators did this on their own outside their leadership and special interest groups.

"I think everyone would probably say the Senate wins here," said Borger. "These 14 senators are not only moderates, some of them are quite conservative politically. But they were all traditionalists and they believe they had to preserve the right to filibuster."

Under the terms, Democrats agreed to allow final confirmation votes for Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor, named to appeals court seats. 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 two-page agreement came after Democrats had cots ceremonially delivered to the capitol in anticipation of an overnight debate, reports Assuras.

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

Borger notes that it's significant that the senators did not define exactly what "extraordinary circumstances" means, because it shows how the agreement is based on the trust between the senators.

"In light of the spirit and continuing commitments made in this agreement," Republicans said they would oppose any attempt to make changes in the application of filibuster rules.

While the agreement was signed by only 14 senators, they held the balance of power in a sharply divided Senate.

And Republicans 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 Mr. 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.

Apart from the judicial nominees named in the agreement, Reid also 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.

Assuras added that although the White House called the deal a positive development, the real question is whether it will hold when there is a Supreme court position to fill perhaps in the near future.

"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."

The deal was sealed around the table in Sen. John 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.

"We tried to avert a crisis in the United States Senate and pull the institution back from a precipice," said McCain, who led the compromise effort with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

Nominally, the issue at hand was Mr. Bush's selection of Owen, a member of the Texas Supreme Court, 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 Mr. 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.

"I think this sends a very direct signal to the president that you need to consult with congress a little bit more before you send up judicial nominees," reports Borger.

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

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 threatened to supersede that rule by simple majority vote.

A CBS News poll had found that by a 2-1 margin, respondents still favored needing 60 votes to confirm court nominees. But only ten percent of the public was paying very close attention to the debate.

Dr. James C. Dobson, head of the Focus on the Family, one of the conservative groups that had made an end to judicial filibusters a top priority, said the agreement "represents a complete bailout and a betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats."