WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans began on Tuesday a weeklong confrontation with filibustering Democrats over the White House's most contentious judicial nominees, hoping to gain political capital back home before leaving for a summer break.
By pushing the Democrats into blocking President Bush's nominees for four days in a row, Republicans hope to paint Democrats as obstructionist and unreasonable about the White House's appeals court nominees.
"Over the next four days, we'll see just how far the minority in this body is willing to go to block well-qualified nominees and parrot the talking points of special interest groups," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Democrats counter that they are ready to defend their record of helping confirm nominees they think should be confirmed and blocking nominees they say are too far out of the American mainstream.
"We're willing to stand by our record," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, noting that Democrats have helped confirm 140 federal district and appeals court judges since Bush took office.
The GOP, as expected, lost its first attempt to push through a Bush nominee, falling seven votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed to stop debate so the senators could vote on the confirmation of Priscilla Owen (search).
Owen, a Texas state judge, wants a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) based in New Orleans. But with 43 Democrats voting against immediate confirmation, her promotion was stalled for the third time since September.
While in control of the Senate last year, Democrats blocked Owen at committee level, and then blocked her twice more with a filibuster on the Senate floor this year.
Only two Democrats voted for Owen, Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
"We have debated long enough," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "She has been on the Senate floor four months. I think it is time for Justice Owen to be given the courtesy of an up or down vote."
Hatch said Democrats and liberal advocacy groups use "distort, smear and profile" tactics to demonize Owen, who Republicans contend would be a fair and impartial judge if confirmed.
Democrats assert that Owen is an anti-abortion, pro-business judicial activist whose opinions and rulings are overly influenced by her personal beliefs. They say Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is wasting time by forcing confirmation votes on her and other blocked judicial nominees.
"What has changed since the last Senate vote?" said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Well, all that has changed since the Senate last voted is that the administration and Republicans have ratcheted up their unprecedented partisanship and the use of judicial nominees for partisan political purposes."
Tuesday's vote was the third for Owen. On Wednesday, the Senate will vote for a sixth time on Washington, D.C., appellate lawyer Miguel Estrada's candidacy for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Pryor and Kuhl, who respectively want seats on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, have not been scheduled for votes in the full Senate before this week.
Democrats have not said officially that they will filibuster those two, although most people expect them to.