WASHINGTON – After nearly 40 hours of straight debate over several of President Bush's judicial nominees, the Senate reached a stalemate Friday after Democrats won their attempt to block the three female nominees they say are too conservative for the American mainstream.
Senate Republicans tried to stop debate and end a Democratic filibuster in order to bring the names to the full Senate floor for an up or down vote. But Republicans didn't have enough votes to end debate, a procedure known as getting cloture (search). They need 60 to end it and advance the nominations.
Republicans, who hold 51 seats in the Senate, have failed to advance other controversial appeals court nominees in a dozen previous votes.
"Over the past year the minority has used the filibuster to deny a bipartisan majority an opportunity to vote up or down, to give advice or consent," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in frustration at the end of two straight nights of often droning, sometimes angry debate arranged by the Republicans as a protest.
Republicans later held a press conference, denouncing Democrats' block of the nominees.
"What we've seen for the first time in history … a minority, in this case 42 votes, a minority using the filibuster to deny the bipartisan majority, 53 votes today, the opportunity to say 'yes, I am for' or 'no, I am against' — a simple up and down vote," Frist said. "We simply cannot tolerate it."
"This filibuster that was continued today is disappointing but I would say to you that I am glad that there was pain in their ability to continue this," added Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
"I'm glad people had to stay up at night — I hope it has seared on our souls the bad decisions we have made" to require a "supermajority" of the Senate to approve the nominees, he continued.
Democrats say they warned the GOP that the round-the-clock debate — launched at 6 p.m. Wednesday and continued nonstop through 9:30 a.m. Friday — wouldn't work.
"I'm terribly disappointed that we are spending the time of this institution on something like this when we need to be spending what little time we have on so many other questions," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (search), D-Conn.
The Senate voted Friday on whether to break the filibuster on Texas judge Priscilla Owen (search), as well as new filibusters on California judges Carolyn Kuhl (search) and Janice Rogers Brown (search).
The GOP failed to invoke cloture for Owen's nomination with a 53-42 vote. Kuhl's nomination was stalled by a vote of 53-43 and Brown's was held up by a vote of 53-42.
"I don't see a way out," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (search), R-S.C., who called for an extra nine hours of debate Thursday night and was considering suing the Senate to ban judicial filibusters, before the final vote. "Nobody is going to change their votes."
Owen, who wants a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans (search), has already lost three filibuster votes, while Friday's votes were the first scheduled for Brown and Kuhl. Brown wants a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (search) and Kuhl a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. (search)
It was the fourth time Republicans have failed to advance the Owen nomination. They failed to win a single new Democratic vote. As in past votes, only two Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Zell Miller of Georgia, voted with the Republicans. The three votes Friday were nearly identical.
Following the cloture votes, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota thanked his fellow Democratic senators for their steadfastness. He particularly thanked Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, for his "remarkable effort."
During the filibuster, Democrats brandished posters saying "168-4," to emphasize their confirmation record. Leahy had a T-shirt saying "we confirmed 98 percent of President Bush's judges" on the front, while the back said, "and all we got was this lousy T-shirt."
"We would not have succeeded were it not for his powerful demonstration of leadership," Daschle said during a press conference.
Added Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also on the Judiciary Committee: "I deeply believe that the closeness of this [2000 presidential] election and the fact that right-wing judges never really were a part of this president's candidacy indicates to me that there is no mandate out there to skew the courts … to the right."
Bush brought all three women to the White House Thursday to demand their confirmation.
"I have told these three ladies I will stand with them to the bitter end because they're the absolute right pick for their respective positions," Bush said. "The senators who are playing politics with their nominations are acting shamefully."
With the blocking of Kuhl and Brown, Democrats will have stopped six Bush nominees: Owen, Brown, Kuhl, Mississippi judge Charles Pickering, Alabama Attorney General William Pryor and Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada. Estrada dropped his nomination after losing nine filibuster votes.
The Senate has confirmed 168 Bush judicial nominees.
The GOP considered the nonstop debate a victory, saying Americans now are focused on what they called the Democrats' "unconstitutional filibusters" of judicial nominees.
Instead of allowing the Republicans to use their 51 votes to confirm nominees, Democrats have used procedures that required Republicans to come up with 60 votes to advance the president's choices.
Republicans have yet to hit the 60-vote mark on controversial nominations.
"For the first time, people are paying attention to an issue that a lot of people feel passionate about," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., adding that his office has been flooded with calls from supporters. "Now the general public is becoming aware of it and I think it will become much more of a discussion point and an important one."
Democrats also said they won the debate by showing the GOP is focused on the wrong issues, spending two legislative days talking about judicial nominees instead of finishing bills revamping Medicare and energy policy, not to mention eight overdue spending bills, in time to adjourn by Nov. 21.
"I think people are amused and wondering why the Senate isn't working on more important things," Daschle said.
Fox News' Jim Mills and The Associated Press contributed to this report.