WASHINGTON – The 39-hour debate on the Senate floor was supposed to have decided the fate of three of President Bush's picks to the judicial bench. Yet when the talkathon was over Friday morning, all three remained in limbo and both parties sought to spin the outcome to their advantage.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., said that despite losing the votes, just by holding the debate his party communicated "to people around the world that we today cannot accept the unprecedented" filibustering of judicial nominations.
It was no surprise Republicans, who hold 51 seats in the Senate, couldn't get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and ward off a filibuster on the nominations of Janice Rogers Brown (search), Carolyn Kuhl (search) and Priscilla Owen (search).
But many experts and lawmakers agreed that the event was simply a PR stunt.
"This is the most shamelessly hypocritical stunt I've seen in a long time," Jack Quinn, former White House counsel and chief of staff to former Vice President Al Gore, told Fox News.
The appellate courts can be a stepping-stone to a Supreme Court seat, increasing Democratic scrutiny of controversial nominations.
Even a member of the Republican majority acknowledged before the votes Friday morning that the GOP recognized they were going to lose. Asked if the whole ordeal was merely to create the appearance that Democrats are stonewalling the nominees, Chafee told Fox News, "oh yes, absolutely."
It's similar "to someone when they go on hunger strike you think, how stupid that may be but in the end they have their publicity ... so it doesn't accomplish anything in the long run but does get publicity on the issue and I think, from the Republican point of view, that is an accomplishment," Chafee said.
And the debate may just be a warm-up for a bigger showdown.
"What it really is is just a warm-up for the big Supreme Court fight that might come — that's how I look at it," Chafee continued, referring to the expected fight over confirming the next justice. "It all boils down to Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court case under fire for legalizing abortions.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said some Republicans already are plotting revenge for the day when a Democratic president tries to get his judges approved. His colleagues have said, "We'll have our opportunity someday, and we'll make sure there's not another liberal judge. Ever," Santorum said.
Owen, tapped to fill a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, has already lost three filibuster votes, while Friday's votes were the first for Brown and Kuhl. Brown is up for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and Kuhl is being considered for a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Still, Republicans think they made a strong case that Democrats were subverting the advice and consent role spelled out in the Constitution by the country's founding fathers.
"Liberals have sought with increasing intensity to politicize not just the confirmation process but the courts themselves," Frist said. "In pursuing this course, they are threatening the legitimacy of America's courts. 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."
But Democrats pointed out that they've approved 98 percent of Bush's judicial picks — a better record than when Republicans held up many of President Clinton's nominees.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, 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."
But Democrats vowed to never give a nominee a free ride if they believe a contender is too conservative — or too ideological.
"What has not ended is resolution and determination of members of the U.S. Senate to continue to resist any Neanderthal that is nominated by this president of the United States for any court," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Experts said the whole ordeal is embarrassing, at the least.
"No one is going to tell you that either party has completely clean hands. I think it's undeniable though, we've reached a new low," said Brad Berenson, former associate White House counsel to Bush, told Fox News. "What is going on now is unprecedented -- never been a matter of party policy to block judges of a president."
The Senate has confirmed 168 Bush judicial nominees; Democrats have now stopped six others: 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 names of Kuhl, Owen and Brown can be resubmitted time and time again; some nominees, like Pickering, have been in limbo for more than two years now.
Bush said in a statement released by the White House Friday that the "partisan action" on the vote "is inconsistent with the Senate's Constitutional responsibility and is just plain wrong."
"These obstructionist tactics are shameful, unfair, and have become all too common," Bush added. "At a time when the American people have important issues backlogged in the courts, partisan senators are playing politics with the judicial process at the expense of timely justice for the American people."
The extended debate and ballyhoo was, in large part, an attempt to sway the judges in the court of public opinion — the voters. But it's questionable whether even that worked.
"I haven't had the chance to read up on that," said one person when Fox News interviewed people in Los Angeles and Washington on the issue.
"No, I'm not aware of that," said another person. "All I know is one side is trying to make sure a vote goes in place. The other side, they're trying to stop it," said one man interviewed.
Added another man: "Republicans got their cots out and they're having this 30-hour marathon, talkathon, nonsense-a-thon."
But some lawmakers said constituents were keeping their antennas up.
"For the first time, people are paying attention to an issue that a lot of people feel passionate about," said Santorum, who added 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."
"The average American is unaware what is happening on this and it's hard to make folks care," Berenson added. "If this is designed to do that, it's probably helping somewhat.
"It's probably not going to get anybody confirmed who wasn't going to be confirmed before."
Fox News' Greg Kelly, Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.