Irritated by Democratic chiding, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) on Thursday defended the "fairness and principle" of pressing a confrontation over judicial filibusters.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent one of President Bush's most controversial appointments to the full Senate, recommending former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor (search) for an appeals court seat by a party-line vote.
During an hourlong exchange on the floor of the chamber, Senate dean Robert Byrd (search), D-W.Va., told Frist, "Don't leave this as your legacy." That was a reference to a Republican plan to eliminate minority Democrats' ability to block Bush's judicial choices with just 41 votes in the 100-member Senate.
"You have a shirttail full of nominees, and you're going to wreck Senate tradition," Byrd said.
Annoyed, Frist pointed out that Byrd had promised to support holding confirmation votes.
"Didn't you also say as the other part of that statement to the president of the United States, being critical of the potential legacy I might have to leave in order to stand up for fairness and principle, didn't you also say you would give all of these nominees up-or-down votes?" asked Frist, who is expected to leave the Senate in 2006.
"I don't remember what I said," Byrd replied, "a few or all or three or four, I don't remember."
Bush has repeatedly called for yes-or-no votes requiring a simple majority of 51 on his choices to fill appeals court vacancies instead of making them first garner 60 votes.
Frist has been looking for two years at doing away with the 60-vote requirement to cut off debate in what members of both parties call "the nuclear option." Democrats have promised to retaliate by thwarting Bush's legislative agenda.
"Don't travel that path because the leader of his party may some day be executed on the same gallows," Byrd said.
Republicans have argued that the Constitution requires confirmation votes, though Frist conceded Thursday there's no language in the document that specifies that.
"But when you have a nominee that comes over, all you can do is shine the light, you examine him, unlimited debate," Frist said. "And then to give advice and consent — which is in that Constitution — how do you do it? Vote yes, no. Confirm, reject."
Byrd noted that the Senate has rejected dozens of nominees over the years by simply never voting on them. "Now to give consent, we may vote. But to deny consent doesn't require a vote," he said.
The West Virginia senator kept talking, but Frist eventually walked out of the chamber, leaving Byrd surprised. "Where's my adversary?" he asked.
The tense debate may be only a precursor of the battle next week, when Frist is expected to turn to the first of the White House's blocked nominees.
Democrats blocked 10 of Bush's first-term nominees through filibuster threats and have threatened to do the same to seven of them Bush renominated after winning re-election in November.
Frist has threatened to disallow future filibusters and force a confirmation vote on Pryor, Idaho lawyer William Myers, Texas judge Priscilla Owen, California judge Janice Rogers Brown and other nominees Democrats oppose.
The Judiciary Committee approved Pryor's nomination 10-8, with all Republicans supporting and all Democrats opposing him. Pryor holds a temporary seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta because Bush circumvented the Senate last year and placed him on the court while lawmakers were out of town. That term expires at the end of the year.
Abortion rights advocates have criticized Pryor for not supporting the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which found that women had a constitutional right to terminate pregnancy. He also has come under fire for comparing homosexual acts to "prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography and even incest and pedophilia."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has been offering Frist deals on less controversial nominees to try to avoid the showdown.
Reid on Thursday promised that Democrats would not block confirmation votes on Michigan nominees Richard Griffin, David McKeague and Susan Neilson to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals if Frist didn't force a showdown. He made the same offer on former Senate lawyer Thomas Griffith, who wants a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
"Do you want to confirm judges or do you want to provoke a fight?" Reid said.
Democrats have blocked the Michigan nominees' approval because of the objections of Sens. Carl Levin (search) and Debbie Stabenow (search) of Michigan, who were upset because President Clinton's nominees to that court were never given a confirmation hearing by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Levin and Stabenow said they hoped that withdrawing their objection to most of Bush's Michigan nominees would help resolve the filibuster impasse.
Reid also said Democrats would likely filibuster a fourth Michigan nominee, Henry Saad. "All you need to do is have a member go upstairs and look at his confidential report from the FBI and I think you would all agree that there's a problem there," Reid told the Senate.
Reid did not say what was in the report, and he was criticized by conservatives for mentioning it. "With his unsubstantiated charges, Senator Reid unfairly and irresponsibly defames Judge Saad," said Jeffrey Mazzella, president of the Center For Individual Freedom.