WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) on Thursday urged Democrats to stop blocking President Bush's federal court nominees and hinted that he may try to change Senate rules to thwart their delaying tactics.
"One way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominees must end," Frist, R-Tenn., said in a speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
The Democrats' ability to stall White House picks for the federal bench was one of the most contentious issues of Bush's first term. Despite the GOP majority in the Senate, Democrats used the threat of a filibuster (search) to block 10 of Bush's nominees to federal appeals courts. The Senate did confirm more than 200 of the president's choices.
Republicans hope their gain of four seats on Election Day will discourage Democrats from using filibusters again. But in a Senate next year with 45 Republicans, 44 Democrats and a Democrat-leaning independent, Democrats still will have the 40 votes necessary to uphold a filibuster.
Frist said filibustering judicial nominees is "radical. It is dangerous and it must be overcome. The Senate must be allowed to confirm judges who fairly, justly and independently interpret the law."
"The Senate cannot allow the filibuster of circuit court nominees to continue." Frist said. "Nor can we allow the filibuster to extend to potential Supreme Court nominees."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search), 80, is seriously ill with thyroid cancer, and three other justices have had cancer. The average age of the nine court members is 70. Speculation on a Supreme Court retirement has grown in part because there has been no vacancy in more than 10 years.
The Bush's administration's former chief lawyer at the high court told the organization earlier Thursday that "any attempted new appointment to the court, especially that of a chief justice, will set off a political firestorm."
Theodore Olson added, "The presidential election was merely about the next four years. A Supreme Court justice is for life. It will not be pretty." Olson, who represented Bush before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore four years ago and then became solicitor general after Bush took office, predicted that the president would get to name as many as three justices during his second term.
Frist previously has advocated changing Senate rules to make it more difficult to continue a filibuster. While the idea went nowhere in the current Congress, Frist raised it again in his speech, saying that judicial filibusters were "nothing less than a formula for tyranny by the minority."
"The Senate now faces a choice: Either we accept a new and destructive practice or we act to restore constitutional balance," he said.
To block some of Bush's nominees, Democrats have used procedures that required Republicans to come up with 60 votes to advance the president's choices. It takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to break a filibuster, meaning some Democrats would have to side with Republicans.
Olson reminded the group of what he called malicious attacks on previous conservative nominees Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork. Thomas, named by Bush's father, was narrowly approved. Bork, a Reagan choice, was rejected.
"It could easily be worse next time around," Olson said.
Olson has been mentioned as a possible high court pick, but his confirmation for solicitor general was rocky.