WASHINGTON – The White House is urging the Senate to stop stalling and confirm Miguel Estrada for a federal court position, but the GOP may not have the votes it needs to cut off a Democratic filibuster.
The Senate approved their first three U.S. District judges of the Congress without dissent on Monday: John Adams of Ohio, by a 91-0 vote; Robert Junell of Texas, 91-0; and S. James Otero of California, 94-0.
But senators continued debate Tuesday on the controversial judicial nomination of Estrada, President Bush's most favored pick for Washington's U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Bush, meeting with members of the House from both parties on pending welfare reform legislation, said "I expect him to get fairer treatment than he's getting" and urged a vote by the full Senate.
"Miguel Estrada is highly qualified, extremely intelligent," Bush said. "He has the votes necessary to be confirmed. Yet a handful of Democrats in the Senate are playing politics with his nomination, and it's shameful politics."
"This is not the time to go down a partisan dead-end road," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Estrada "enjoys bi-partisan support ... and the president urges the Senate to act quickly."
Democrats are expected to filibuster the nomination. They're likely to make a final decision whether to try to block Estrada's nomination at their weekly conference Tuesday.
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.
But Republicans only have the 51 votes to confirm Estrada to become the first Hispanic judge on that court.
During a rally of Senate Republicans Tuesday in support of Estrada, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania refused to say whether Republicans had enough votes for "cloture," the parliamentary method for ending a filibuster, but said Republicans are content -- for now -- to let Democrats continue the nearly week-long debate on Estrada's nomination.
"We are not going to set a precedent where we are raising the bar on what it takes to nominate and confirm a nominee," Santorum said. "By filing cloture, that's what we would be doing, raising the bar to 60 votes for this man and that, frankly, he does not deserve."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said at the rally that Democrats are setting a dangerous precedent if they filibuster.
"There are always people on both sides who are more radical … and I'm worried about the radicals taking over this institution," he said.
Senate GOP leaders say they're willing to stay in session long hours, and even during the weekend and the scheduled President's Day recess, to get a vote.
"What will happen if we do allow a filibuster ... is we're going to allow [the Democrats] to change the Constitution," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
So far, Democrats have neither voluntarily agreed to limit floor debate nor set a time for a vote.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., released a letter Tuesday they sent to Bush. The letter said that the Democrats "will not be in a position to allow a vote on the Senate floor" until they get answers to the "basic" questions posed by Judiciary Committee members to Estrada.
Daschle and Leahy also demanded they receive documents written by Estrada while he was at the Justice Department.
However, Daschle wouldn't come out and say that Democrats plan to filibuster, although he indicated that he has "more than enough votes" to sustain such a move.
"We will continue to debate the issue ... and will make a decision when we get more information," Daschle said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who said Tuesday that Estrada "embodies the American dream," hopes to get a final vote on Estrada's nomination before the end of the week.
Frist said Monday he would allow Democrats the chance to speak in length on the nomination, but warned, "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.
Senators from both sides of the aisle threw political jabs at each other Monday during the start of what's expected to be a long debate on the nomination.
Leahy repeated Democrats' main concern that Estrada has not provided Congress with enough information on his views or his judicial record.
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.
"It's not Senate Democrats that are creating a confrontation over the Estrada nomination. It begins at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue … 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 "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."
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani wrote an editorial in The New York Post Monday, urging Estrada's confirmation.
"Despite all the racket, the knocks against Estrada are so easily dismissed that it is difficult to see them as anything other than a thin veil disguising his detractors' true motives," Giuliani wrote, dismissing Democrats' criticisms, point by point.
"If senators who feel it's their right to let special-interest agendas derail Estrada, the judiciary will lose a wonderful opportunity," he said. "Far worse, the entire system will have fallen victim to narrow and misguided attempts to thwart the Constitution."
Other groups are also blasted Democrats for stalling the process.
"The left's real problem with Estrada is that he appears to be a Hispanic who isn't a liberal," John Nowacki, director of legal policy at the Free Congress Foundation, said Tuesday. "However, the Senate has a constitutional duty to vote him up or down, and the bigotry of some on the left who say he's not a 'real' Hispanic does nothing to change that."
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Honduran-born Estrada, 41, last Thursday on a 10-9 party-line vote. If 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.
Fox News' Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.