Democrats Plan Filibuster of Estrada Nomination

Democrats will attempt to filibuster the nomination of Miguel Estrada for Washington's U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before the vote on his confirmation.

"I suspect sometime next week we will make a decision as to the direction we take," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who said he doesn't know if he has the support of 40 of the 48 Democrats in the Senate needed to stop the vote.

Either way, Democrats say they don't expect a quick vote. "We will continue this debate over the next couple of weeks," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., called that a virtual declaration of a filibuster.

"Two weeks of debate," Dominici said. "What is that other than a desire ... that this nominee not be approved because we won't have time to vote on him?"

Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- including Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking member, and Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, John Edwards of North Carolina, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Dianne Feinstein of California and Schumer -- met with Daschle and his whip, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, last week to come up with the Democratic strategy for the upcoming floor battle.

Many of the same players met again Tuesday night with Daschle and Reid to firm up the plan.

Sixty votes are needed to end debate and prevent a filibuster, which is a block or delay of Senate action with procedural or otherwise obstructive motions, frequently featuring never-ending speeches.

Democrats say that even if they don't get the votes, they will attempt to filibuster anyway, on the theory that an uncontested loss "would be worse than no contest," sources told Fox News.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Honduran-born Estrada last Thursday on a 10-9 party line vote. If President Bush's nominee is confirmed, making him the first Hispanic on the appeals court, he would also become a top-tier candidate for the Supreme Court, should any of the justices retire. Three of the current justices ascended to the high court from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Estrada, a member of the law firm that represented Bush in his successful Supreme Court fight for the presidency, came to the United States as a teenager from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Now 41, he quickly learned English, thrived in school and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986. He has since practiced constitutional law and has argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court.

In the committee's confirmation hearing last September, 16 months after Estrada's nomination, Democrats complained that they didn't know enough about his legal opinions and did not have a paper trail to which they could refer.

Estrada worked for the Justice Department under the first President Bush, but the department refused to release his briefs, saying it would chill the free exchange of legal thought in the agency.

Democrats argue he is too conservative for the bench.

On Wednesday, Kennedy told his Democratic colleagues, "If we allow a stealth right-winger on this court, we have only ourselves to blame."

"We must filibuster Miguel Estrada's nomination," he told lawmakers at the weekly Democratic policy lunch. "The White House is almost telling us that they plan to nominate him to the Supreme Court. We can't repeat the mistake we made with [Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas."

Democrats say his nomination is one that should be stopped for several reasons, not the least of which is their opinion that the base is "particularly energized" over the issue.

Democrats also argue that not to do so would set a precedent permitting Republicans to "force through all future controversial nominees" without answering senators' questions or providing important information.

They also say it would be much harder to defeat Estrada for a Supreme Court seat if his confirmation goes smoothly now.

Prior to the explosion of space shuttle Columbia, Democrats had expected the nomination to be brought to the floor this past Monday with a motion to end debate expected for Wednesday. The Democrats were not going to oppose a motion to bring the nomination to the floor.

Reid is said to be working hard to mount Democratic opposition to the Estrada nomination, particularly in Southern states with large Hispanic populations, including Florida.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon with various Hispanic organizations, Congressional Democrats, including Daschle, Leahy and Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said it hasn't been easy for the Hispanic community to oppose a Hispanic nominee to the bench.

The key word is "qualified," Menendez said, adding that Estrada has no judicial experience or a "critical understanding" of Latino issues.

One new tactic is Kennedy's assertion that Estrada has "serious temperament problems," a claim that hasn't previously been made. On Wednesday, Kennedy told his Democratic colleagues that members of the Hispanic caucus and other Latino leaders see Estrada as not being "even-tempered" and having a "short fuse."

One influential Hispanic who heard the remarks told Fox News that he found Kennedy's comments "offensive" and "racist." A GOP source, added, "They're trying to make him into Ricky Ricardo."

But two Democratic senators -- John Breaux of Louisiana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota -- have approached GOP Senate Judiciary Committee staff aides and requested information about Estrada that they can use to defend a potential vote in favor of his nomination.

Breaux's state has one of the largest concentrations of Hondurans in the United States.

Republicans say they are prepared to debate Estrada's nomination "as long as it takes, for days, weeks, if necessary," one source told Fox News.

"This is going to be an unprecedented fight over a nominee," the source said.

Fox News' James Rosen contributed to this report.