Senate to Resume Estrada Debate

As the Senate returns from its Presidents Day recess Monday, lawmakers are still at a stalemate over the controversial judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada.

Democrats have objected every time Republicans try to set a vote on the nomination for a federal appeals judgeship. They say they want more information from Estrada, and charge he's been silent about his judicial beliefs. Many Democrats also charge that the White House has not been forthcoming with information about President Bush's handpicked nominee.

If approved, Estrada would be the first Hispanic on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, often called the nation's second-highest court.

Republicans, however, say Estrada is well qualified and deserves a vote, and that he has the support of the Hispanic community - the last argument of which Democrats are disputing. The Hispanic Caucus opposes the nomination.

Republicans spent the past week trying to build public opinion against what they see as the Democrats' "obstructionist" tactics.

GOP leaders have vowed to stay on the nomination until there is a vote. But that promise could further delay the Republicans' legislative agenda, which they outlined before the recess.

Their priorities include cutting taxes, a prescription benefit under Medicare, an energy bill, fighting AIDS, and putting a ceiling on medical malpractice awards.

Senate debate on the nomination is scheduled to begin after noon Monday.

President Bush urged Democratic senators Saturday to end a two-week filibuster of Estrada's nomination, claiming that delays in judicial confirmations "endanger American justice."

"I call on the Senate Democratic leadership to stop playing politics and permit a vote on Miguel Estrada's nomination," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

"Let each senator vote as he or she thinks best, but give the man a vote."

The D.C. Circuit has often decided important government cases involving separation of powers, the role of the federal government, the responsibilities of federal officials and the authority of federal agencies.

Estrada, a Washington lawyer, lacks the judicial experience to serve on that court, Democrats contend. They also complained about his lawyer's refusal to answer questions about specific cases, including abortion rights, during his confirmation hearing.

Democrats also demanded copies of confidential Justice Department memos Estrada wrote while working in the solicitor general's office, which represents the White House before the Supreme Court. They said those writings would reveal how Estrada would think as a judge.

The Bush administration has refused to release those memos, and seven former solicitors general, both Democratic and Republican, have agreed with the White House's decision.

"Democrats are stalling Miguel Estrada's nomination, while they search in vain for a reason to reject him," Bush said.

Republicans have accused Democrats of treating him unfairly because he is a conservative Hispanic. The GOP has the 51 Senate votes needed to confirm him, but not the 60 needed to stop a filibuster.

Estrada was first nominated in May 2001, but the nomination did not move to the Senate floor until Republicans took control in January.

"That's almost two years, and that's a disgrace," Bush said.

Estrada came to the United States from Honduras as a teenager and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986. He has practiced constitutional law, argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court and is a member of the law firm that represented Bush in his successful Supreme Court fight for the presidency.

While they have refused to allow a quick vote, Democrats have not yet tried a traditional filibuster on Estrada, although they say they will if necessary. That means lawmakers take over the Senate floor and refuse to allow the chamber to move on to other business until they get their way.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.