WASHINGTON – President Bush sent a letter to the Senate Tuesday calling on the body to permanently ban judicial filibusters.
In the president's letter, read by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Bush called for a permanent Senate rule "to ensure timely up or down votes on judicial nominations both now and in the future, no matter who is president or which party controls the Senate. This is the only way to ensure our judiciary works and that good people remain willing to be nominated to the federal bench."
The letter was accompanied by the rare appearance of Vice President Dick Cheney, who presided over the Senate debate Tuesday on the nomination of Bush's embattled judicial nominee Miguel Estrada. The vice president usually only attends Senate debates when he is expected to cast a tie-breaking vote.
Estrada, Bush's choice to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, has been beset by a Democratic attempt to prevent his joining the bench. Estrada has 55 votes of support, the simple majority needed to be confirmed, but Democrats have set up procedural hurdles to ensure that the Senate get 60 votes to end debate and give him a straight vote.
Frist said Monday that Republicans hope to emphasize that Democrats aren't following the constitutional principle of providing "advice and consent" on judicial nominees. He said Tuesday's debate was going to focus on more than just Estrada, but the broader issue of balance of powers.
Frist, who intends to file a motion to end debate a second time, the first having failed last week to get the required 60 votes, added that the fight over Estrada is not finished yet.
"I'm not going to give up. I'm going to continue to pursue [the nomination] until we can get an up or down vote," Frist said, without saying when he would file the motion.
On Tuesday, Frist offered to hold a second Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Estrada in exchange for a promise of a vote.
"We're trying to reach out and do everything possible to go that extra mile," Frist said.
But Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate Minority Whip, said just making Estrada available wasn't enough. Democrats want memos Estrada wrote while deputy solicitor general in the Clinton Justice Department. All seven living former solicitor generals have opposed distributing Justice Department internal memos.
"Until he supplies the memorandum from the solicitor's office, it is not going to change the position of the people on this side of the aisle," Reid said.
And Democrats say their using the filibuster isn't so different from measures GOP senators have taken in the past to block Democratic judicial nominees.
"Because that precedent stands in the way of their political ends, Republicans now seek to deny their own words and their own actions," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "They're here today to claim that the Constitution is threatened by the very same procedures that they themselves have employed. They're here today to claim the Constitution is going to be threatened by the very same powers that it grants."
On Tuesday, Republicans also turned their attention to other Bush nominees, including Ohio appellate lawyer Jeff Sutton and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Deborah Cook. Both have been approved in committee and are awaiting confirmation.
Republicans also plan to return to the nominations of Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen, who was rejected last year when Democrats controlled the Senate, and U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pickering, who was rejected for a 5th Circuit Court seat last year after Democrats claimed he was racist for seeking to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracially mixed couple.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has planned a Thursday hearing for Owen and said Pickering will get another chance later.
Fox News' Julie Asher and Anne McGinn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.