WASHINGTON – Weary of Senate Democrats' continued efforts to block President Bush's judicial nominees, Republicans have planned a 30-hour, all-night session Wednesday to force a marathon debate about Democratic stalling tactics that have left several nominations in limbo.
The talkathon, supported by the entire 51-member GOP caucus, would freeze the business of the Senate, preventing further work on the nine unfinished fiscal year 2004 spending bills, a comprehensive energy measure and Medicare legislation. It also endangers the target recess date of Nov. 21.
"The objective is to get an up or a down vote. These nominees deserve their day in court," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., architect of the GOP strategy.
"We want to let the American people know how pitiful this process has become," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
GOP senators are enraged that Democrats have blocked four Bush judicial nominees by threatening a tactical procedure known as a filibuster. Two other nominees — California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown and California State Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl — have not yet been blocked by Democrats, but Democrats say they would try to prevent confirmation votes on the two.
A filibuster is any attempt to block or delay a Senate action by debating it at length, offering procedural motions or employing any other delaying or obstructive tactic. Democrats have not actually filibustered any judicial nominees, but the threat to do so has prevented votes from taking place.
Republicans plan to debate throughout Wednesday night and possibly Thursday, and if a window opens in which all 51 GOP senators are present but no Democrat is available to object to a unanimous consent motion, Brown, Kuhl and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen could be confirmed.
"One of the reasons you do it at night is you may have a situation where someone doesn’t drink enough coffee and you have the opportunity to put a vote and if we have that opportunity, we're going to take it," Santorum said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Senate Republicans are ready for the marathon. They have already prepared to have cots and food present. GOP senators even joked about making it more comfortable for lawmakers to sleep by dividing up the room between members who snore and those who don't.
Republican leaders have told the minority that they will not be permitted any time to speak during the session. But now that Democrats are well aware of the 30-hour plan, the likelihood that none would be present during the session is very small.
"We are going to set up our action room just off the Senate floor as we have done on other good debates such as this. We'll have a presence on the floor for the full 30 hours," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Calling the Republican effort a "carnival," Daschle also complained about the timing of the debate.
"This is a critical envelope of time, you've got two weeks that we were told the Senate would make its best effort to finish all its work and you know there are a lot of other bills out there. It's a misuse of time," Daschle said.
Republicans say they are taking the time because Democratic efforts to undermine the president's nominees are "unprecedented" and intolerable.
"It can't be tolerated. It won't be tolerated. The goal is to break these partisan filibusters," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Filibusters, made famous in the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," are rarely employed.
The last filibuster was conducted in 1992 by then-Sen. Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., who spoke for more than 14 hours to block a tax bill that would have harmed the New York-based typewriter company Smith Corona.
The longest and perhaps most memorable filibuster was conducted in 1957 by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (search), R-S.C. Armed with throat lozenges and malted milk tablets, Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to oppose a civil rights bill. To fill the time, he recited the voting rights laws of every state and the Declaration of Independence, and he offered a history of Anglo-Saxon juries. Thurmond even visited a steam room beforehand in an attempt to prevent him from having to take a bathroom break.
The GOP plan is not a filibuster on its own since it does not attempt to delay a vote, but the talkfest does share similar traits because it attempts to wear down the opposition and draw attention to the issue.
However, Wednesday's marathon is not expected to change the fate of the three nominees. After all is said and done, Bush's choices will likely face another cloture vote on Friday, the procedure Democrats have used to perpetuate the debate and prevent straight majority votes on the candidates.
In the end, Republicans would still face the 60-vote threshold necessary to cut off debate.
"I don't see it as having an outcome that would be any different than it otherwise would be," Ilona Nickles, a congressional scholar at Indiana University's Center on Congress (search), said of the GOP strategy. "I don’t think this is a mechanism to break through the gridlock on this issue."
Nonetheless, Republicans hope they will have brought more attention to what they say is Democratic obstruction of Bush's nominees, an issue they suggest will resonate with their base as the Senate wraps up for the year.
But Norman J. Ornstein, political expert at the American Enterprise Institute (search), said he is skeptical the tactic will inspire public outrage.
Because voters are unlikely to get excited about judicial nominees, "I have serious doubts as to whether this will cause a substantial public uprising," he said.
Even if the public pays little attention, that may not condemn the GOP strategy, said Douglas Koopman, professor of political science at Calvin College (search).
"I think in the long term, actually, it's really not a bad strategy. There's no chance for victory in the short term, but the more instances the Republicans can display the Democrats as obstructionists, over time it will erode the Democratic Party electorally," Koopman said, adding that the strategy's success will not be clear until Election Day 2004.
Fox News' Julie Asher contributed to this report.