WASHINGTON – The Senate is expected to vote on the controversial judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada on Monday, but a Democratic filibuster may hold the entire process up.
Senators from both sides of the aisle began throwing political jabs at each other before noon Monday during the start of what's expected to be a long debate on the nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said no votes will be held before 5:15 p.m. Monday, but that he hopes to complete votes on Estrada and two other of President Bush's judicial nominees later in the evening.
"Senators should expect a busy session this week ... late nights are possible," Frist said on the Senate floor.
Democrats are expected to filibuster the nomination of Estrada for Washington's U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 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.
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.
Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Monday morning pleaded with Frist to ensure that Democrats got their fair chance to speak on the Estrada issue.
Frist said he would accommodate that request "as long as we're having good participation that is important … and not just listening to people who get up and talk for an hour, which looks like a filibuster to the American people."
But he also issued a stern warning: "At the end of the day, though, we expect no filibuster … because the American people deserve better," adding, "we will use everything in our power" to defeat filibuster.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight on judicial nominations, said the Senate has to stop its "game playing" over Estrada.
"Nobody on this side wants to play any games," shot back Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah. "This is an important step."
Hatch also refuted Democratic charges that the Hispanic community is up in arms over Estrada, saying that "nothing could be further from the truth." Hispanics "consider Miguel's success as their success," Hatch added.
Hatch noted that should a filibuster take place, it would be the first filibuster in history for an interior court nominee.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, called Estrada "a bright and shining light for the Latin-American community."
But Leahy repeated Democrats' main concern that Estrada has not provided Congress with enough information on his views or his judicial record to give them an accurate estimate as to what his performance would be if approved for the federal bench.
And he pointed a finger at the White House for aiding Estrada in his attempts to keep federal lawmakers at a distance.
The White House "has made absolutely no effort to try to work out any kind of a bipartisan understanding on these judges and in fact, has done just the opposite - they've stonewalled any requests for information," Leahy said. "I am sorry that my friends on the other side of the aisle are willing to accept this with absolutely no information."
Leahy said he has received a "deafening silence from the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue" during his attempts to persuade the White House to work with Democrats on the judicial nominations.
"It's not Senate Democrats that are creating a confrontation over the Estrada nomination. It begins at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue," Leahy said. "I think they see the court packing as the answer to right-wing ideologues."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and others on Monday blasted the GOP for playing "the race card" on the Estrada issue.
"Republicans, and Senator Hatch in particular, can't have it both ways. They can't blatantly call for the end of affirmative action by characterizing it as a quota system while, at the same time, demanding that we support all Hispanic nominees simply because they are Hispanic, Menendez said in a statement.
"Mr. Hatch and the Republicans are the ones using a quota system. They accuse Democrats of being racists and anti-Hispanic, when we simply make informed decisions on judicial nominees like Miguel Estrada. They are the ones who play the race card."
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus called for a formal apology from Hatch for what they considered allegations made by him that groups like the CHC are opposing Estrada because of an "anti-Hispanic bias."
"Your statement that our opposition is '...akin to the lioness eating her cubs — Democratic Latino community leaders turning on one of their own because he doesn't fit their definition of 'Latino'...' is misguided."
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Honduran-born Estrada, 41, 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.
In his 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.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said last week that Democrats hoped to make a decision sometime this week as to what direction to take. He said he didn't know if he has the support of 40 of the 48 Democrats in the Senate needed to stop the vote.
Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee met with Daschle and Reid last week to come up with the Democratic strategy for the upcoming floor battle.
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.
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. They say that by allowing the nomination to go through, it would set a precedent permitting Republicans to "force through all future controversial nominees" without answering senators' questions or providing important information.
They also argue Estrada is too conservative for the bench and that it would be much harder to defeat Estrada for a Supreme Court seat if his confirmation goes smoothly now.
Fox News' James Rosen contributed to this report.