WASHINGTON – Republicans failed Thursday for a second time in as many weeks to break a Democratic filibuster against President Bush's judicial nominee Miguel Estrada.
GOP leaders vowed to fight on after the 55-42 vote, even as it became clear that other Bush court nominees might also face floor filibusters.
The unprecedented degree of judicial gridlock coaxed Sen. Trent Lott out of self-imposed exile.
"I really do think we're setting a dangerous precedent here. One that we didn't set in the past. We haven't filibustered federal judicial nominees," Lott, R-Miss., said after months of near silence following his ouster from the Senate majority leadership post following charges that he was racially biased.
But emerging in a nomination fight heavy with racial overtones, Lott said he understood that Democrats are still smoldering over GOP treatment of former President Clinton's judicial nominees, many denied a vote while Lott was in charge of the Senate.
"So look, I accept part of the blame. I acknowledge that Republicans have not always handled judges in the right way," he said.
Apologies aside, Lott drew the line at filibusters, something he opposed as Republican leader.
"I ask the question again -- what next? We're gonna kill them in committee? We're gonna kill them by filibuster? Maybe we're just going to go out and shoot him, get it over with? This is wrong, my colleagues," Lott said.
But Lott's words fell on deaf ears.
The Democratic filibuster gained another supporter -- Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, whom Republicans had hoped might defect. Graham, who was out recovering from heart surgery during the last vote, later said that he was undecided about his support for Estrada, who would be the first Hispanic seated on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Graham called for Estrada to provide senators more information to evaluate his nomination, drawing criticism from one House Republican who wants to replace him in the 2004 election.
"Senator Graham has a lot of explaining to do to the people of Florida and America's ever-growing Hispanic community," Rep. Mark Foley said in a statement issued Thursday. "Senator Graham isn't only voting against a qualified nominee, he's voting against inclusion."
Foley called Graham's vote "a slap in the face to the Hispanic community," joining a chorus of Republicans who have enlisted several Hispanic organizations to defend the Honduran-born Estrada.
Estrada has the 50 votes needed for confirmation, but needs five more votes to invoke what senators call "cloture," an end to a filibuster.
"We're going to have another cloture vote, another cloture vote and we are not going to let this die," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who earlier in the day had a victory with the passage of a ban on partial birth abortions that he and other Republicans had been pushing for eight years. "Estrada is a patient man and so are we."
But Democrats who grilled Estrada last year say they won't budge until they receive memos Estrada wrote as a top lawyer in the Clinton Justice Department.
"We're down to a point where the White House says we know what he wrote but we don't want you to know. Reagan said trust but verify. They said trust us. We want to verify," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans labeled the issue a diversion to hide partisanship, calling the demand for the documents -- a request opposed by several former solicitors general -- a "red herring."
Meanwhile, Republicans revived the nomination of Priscilla Owen for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats in committee defeated Owen last year in part because Republicans had earlier blocked two Clinton appointees to the same court.
Fox News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.