WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats threatened Tuesday to block virtually all business in that chamber if the Republican majority carried out a plan to unilaterally impose rule changes that would ensure confirmation of President Bush's most controversial judicial nominations.
The threat, issued by Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), sharply escalated a partisan disagreement that could put the brakes on an array of legislative business in the upper chamber, where Democrats used the threat of a filibuster to block votes on 10 appellate court nominees last year.
The showdown, which could come as early as next month, looms because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), reflecting the frustrations among most of his 54 Republican colleagues, has said he might seek to break the logjam over Bush's court appointments by abolishing the use of the filibuster to block nominations. Instead, he would force through a rule that enables a simple majority of 51 to bring nominations to a vote.
Such a ploy is considered so politically explosive within the Senate that when it was first proposed in 2003, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a former majority leader, described it as the "nuclear option."
Reid and his fellow Democrats, in effect, called Frist's bluff on Tuesday by issuing a preemptive strike, saying that Democrats would respond to any Frist action by continuing to work with Republicans only on matters that affected U.S. troops or that ensured the continuity of government operations.
"Beyond that, we will be reluctant to enter into any consent agreement that facilitates Senate activities, even on routine matters," Reid said in a letter to Frist. Nearly all Senate business requires unanimous consent; for example, one senator can prevent committee meetings from taking place simply by objecting.
Republicans reacted heatedly to Reid's letter, issuing a flood of statements denouncing the Democratic threat. "To shut down the Senate would be irresponsible and partisan," Frist said.
The partisan exchange marked the opening salvos in a high-stakes struggle for public opinion in what analysts said would be an acrimonious fight -- mired in arcane Senate rules and procedures -- that could elevate to new heights the intensely partisan atmosphere in Washington.
"I think this is very serious," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution.
The underpinnings of the controversy are mathematical. The Senate has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who usually sides with Democrats. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, a time-honored maneuver to prevent a vote. Republicans now are talking about changing the rules so that 51 senators could cut off debate and force a vote.
Although the Senate has confirmed most of Bush's judicial nominees, 10 of his most controversial appointments stalled in the chamber last year, even though it was widely acknowledged that they would have commanded a majority vote for confirmation. They have since been renominated.
Senate Republicans and the president have argued vociferously that judges deserve a simple "up-or-down" vote.
"Senators ought to have the backbone and the gumption to get off their hind quarters and vote yes or vote no and be responsible for that vote with their constituents," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
Ken Mehlman, who managed the president's reelection campaign and now leads the Republican National Committee, said Reid's "unprecedented threat to shut down the Senate ... would put partisan obstruction ahead of the people's business."
Reid, however, said it was the Democrats' duty to defend against efforts to weaken the constitutional system of checks and balances "so that no one person in power -- so that no one political party -- can hold total control over the course of our nation."
"The fact is that this president has a better record of having his judicial nominees approved than any president in the past 25 years," Reid said Tuesday afternoon. "Only 10 of 214 nominations have been turned down."
Most of his Democratic colleagues stood behind him on the wind-swept Senate steps in a show of solidarity.
Reid said the Republican plan amounted to an "arrogant abuse of power."
Democrats said that from 1995 to 2000, the GOP-controlled Congress defeated 60 of President Clinton's judicial nominations through "calculated delay," rather than up-or-down votes.
Also weighing in on Tuesday were two former Republican senators, James A. McClure of Idaho and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, they urged their fellow Republicans to shun the "nuclear option," saying that it would be "too high a price to pay," in part because the rule changes, if adopted, also could be used against all executive branch nominations and "even military promotions."
Although Republicans command a Senate majority, they are far from assured of a victory on the issue, analysts said Tuesday.
"I'm still not sure [Frist] has the 50 votes to prevail," Mann said.
The two parties are "eyeball-to-eyeball, and nobody seems to be blinking," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been working across the aisle in hopes of producing a Social Security overhaul bill that would gain bipartisan support, said he was deeply concerned that the rules fight would derail his efforts.
"I'm worried about that," he said. "I'm also worried about unnecessarily dividing the country. This is a dark chapter in the history of the Senate."