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Senators Rolling Up Sleeves -- With an Uncertain Agenda

Members of both parties want to get work done, but tempers are raw after the battle over Bush's selection for U.N. ambassador.

When senators reconvene today after a week's recess, they will be returning to a chamber with much of its agenda in disarray.

The first item of business, and probably the most orderly, will be the confirmation of federal judges — ironically, the issue that has tied the Senate in knots for much of the year. But though senators will appear on the floor in a decorous fashion to debate the two judges on the schedule, behind the scenes they will be tussling madly over what comes next.

In theory, Republicans want to proceed with the controversial nomination of former Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations. But it is uncertain how quickly Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will be able to move it to the floor again.

Just before the recess, Democrats pulled together to block a vote on Bolton. Republicans denounced the move as a filibuster; Democrats insisted it was designed to pressure the White House to release classified information that, according to Bolton's critics, could help them make their case that he was unsuited for the U.N. post.

The dispute over Bolton ended a week that had begun with a surprise compromise over a push by Republicans to strip Democrats of their right to filibuster nominees to the federal bench. Seven Democrats and seven Republicans defused the issue — at least for the time being — by making a pact among themselves under which the Democrats agreed not to filibuster judicial nominees except in "extraordinary circumstances."

That cleared the way for the confirmation of three of President Bush's long-stalled picks for federal appellate courts. The first, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen, was confirmed before the recess. The second, California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, is expected to be confirmed Wednesday. The vote on the third, former Alabama Atty. Gen. William H. Pryor Jr., could come as early as Thursday.

Some senators had speculated that the deal on judges might lead to a more collegial, bipartisan atmosphere in the chamber. Instead, as a result of the dispute over Bolton, many lawmakers left town seething — Republicans over what they considered Democratic bad faith, Democrats over what they considered Republican high-handedness.

As they return this week, that bad feeling is expected to linger. Republicans believe that they are only two votes short of the 60 they need to end debate on Bolton, and they are working to find them. Frist is unlikely to put the nomination back on the agenda until he is certain he has all the votes.

Those votes might not be difficult to find, though, according to one of the leaders of the Democrats' opposition to Bolton, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

Asked Sunday on ABC's "This Week" whether the Democrats had the numbers needed to continue blocking consideration of Bolton's nomination, Biden replied: "I'm going to be completely straight with you. I'm not at all certain we do."

Democrats must decide how hard to press the White House for the classified information they seek. The White House had said it did not intend to provide any more information, but Democrats haven't conceded.

"John Bolton would probably have the votes for confirmation if we can get beyond this request for additional information," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), another Foreign Relations Committee member, acknowledged on CNN's "Late Edition."

The filibuster issue also could still generate fireworks. Senators on both sides have said the centrists' agreement was more of a cease-fire in the long-running conflict over federal judges, not a resolution.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Friday that the administration was preparing to make more judicial nominations. He disputed the suggestion that the process had been accelerated after the centrist compromise.

"Those nominees to the bench typically take some time," McClellan told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where Bush spent the weekend at his ranch.

What kind of nominees the president proposes, especially if there is a Supreme Court vacancy, will be a central factor in whether the agreement survives the summer.

The seven Democrats who signed the pact did not define what sort of "extraordinary circumstances" would cause them to join a filibuster. And all 14 signers called for the president to consult more with senators of both parties in advance of new nominations, a proposal the Bush administration has given no sign it is likely to accept.

"It remains to be seen how these 14 senators want to proceed in the future," said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group that has opposed many of Bush's judicial nominees.

In terms of legislation, Republicans intend to move as quickly as possible to consider a long-sought energy bill.

The bill has been a priority for Bush since he took office in 2001, and lawmakers from both parties are eager to pass the measure to display their concern for high fuel prices, even though the legislation would do little to provide immediate relief.

he bill includes measures to promote domestic production of oil, gas, coal and nuclear power, and to encourage conservation, establish rules to ensure the reliability of the electricity grids, and a provision that is popular among farm-state lawmakers from both parties that would mandate greater use of corn-based ethanol in the nation's gasoline supply.

The measure cleared the Senate energy committee with strong bipartisan support. Nonetheless, a number of fights are expected when it reaches the Senate floor. A provision that would give federal regulators final say over the placement of liquefied natural gas terminals has drawn opposition from a number of coastal states, including California.

Energy legislation died in 2003 after falling two votes short of overcoming a Senate filibuster, and it's unclear whether House and Senate leaders will be able to agree on a compromise bill. Bush has asked Congress to send him an energy bill by August.

House and Senate negotiators are expected this week to try to complete work on a highway bill. Their main challenge: reaching a compromise on the price tag.

While the House approved a $284-billion measure that falls within the White House's spending limit, the Senate approved a $295-billion bill that administration officials had said Bush would make the first veto of his presidency.

Aspects of the energy and highway bills tend to divide lawmakers by region as much as party. On the highway bill, for example, one of the thorny problems facing congressional negotiators will be determining how highway funds should be divvied up among the states...

Times staff writer Warren Vieth contributed to this report from Crawford.

By Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times, Jun 6, 2005 

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