WASHINGTON – Setting the stage for a politically charged showdown, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) announced Friday he will press for confirmation beginning next week of President Bush's long-stalled appeals court nominees, seeking to strip Democrats of their ability to block final votes.
"It is time for 100 senators to decide the issue of fair up-or-down votes for judicial nominees after over two years of unprecedented obstructionism," Frist's office said in a statement. Two women, Priscilla Owen (search) and Janice Rogers Brown (search), will be "nominees of focus," it said.
After weeks of jockeying, Democratic Leader Harry Reid (search) of Nevada said he was ready. "The time has come for Republican senators to decide whether they will abide by the rules of the Senate, or break those rules for the first time in 217 years," he said in a written statement.
The announcement cleared the way for a momentous showdown that blends constitutional and political issues — the meaning of Congress' power to advise and consent in a president's nominees and the ability of a political minority to influence the outcome. And while the clash nominally applies only to appeals court judges that Democrats oppose, Republicans hope to use it to eliminate their ability to block a vote on any future Supreme Court (search) nominee.
At the same time, the GOP timetable leaves ample room for continued negotiations. Frist, R-Tenn., and Reid have been engaged in talks to avert a showdown, searching for a compromise that could allow the blocked nominees the yes-or-note votes Republicans want while preserving the right of Democrats to block action on future nominees. For his part, Reid has publicly offered to permit confirmation of two of three 6th Circuit nominees who have been filibustered, as well as one from a group of four others similarly stalled.
One Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in the last day or so, the Democratic leader has indicated a willingness to consider an additional concession — the confirmation of a second candidate from that group of four.
In a reflection of the importance attached to the confirmation battles, interest groups on both sides of the issue have aired television advertisements, conducted polling and targeted wavering senators with grass-roots lobbying efforts.
Frist said the focus of GOP efforts beginning next Tuesday or Wednesday will be on two women. Owen was first nominated in 2001 to serve as a judge for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Rogers Brown was tapped in 2003 to serve on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Democrats refused to allow a yes-or-no vote on 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominees. The president renominated seven of them this year, including Owen and Brown, and Democrats vowed to block their confirmation once again.
Republicans then said they would attempt to eliminate the Democrats' ability to filibuster, a parliamentary technique that requires 60 votes to overcome. Officials said that while debate would begin Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, two weeks could elapse before the fate of Owen's or Brown's nomination is known.
Barring an agreement, Frist said he plans to seek a ruling to limit the amount of time Democrats could debate the contested nominees.
"After the ruling, he will ensure that every senator has the opportunity to decide whether to restore the 214-year practice of fair up-or-down votes on judicial nominees, or to enshrine a new veto by filibuster," the statement said.
Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, and can afford five defections and still prevail in the showdown on the strength of Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote. So far, GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have announced they will break ranks, and many vote-counters say they expect GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe (news, bio, voting record) of Maine to vote with the Democrats.
Several other Republicans — enough to tip the outcome — remain publicly uncommitted.
"Justice Owen has also been a leader for providing free legal services to the poor. And she has worked to soften the impact of legal proceedings on children of divorcing parents," Frist said recently in remarks to a rally of conservatives opposing what they called a "filibuster against people of faith."
Democrats have a different view, arguing that she is an ultraconservative activist who uses the bench to rule against consumers, working people and minors who want abortions.
Brown, the 54-year-old daughter of an Alabama sharecropper, was nominated by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as the first black woman to sit on the California Supreme Court. Regarded as one of the most conservative of that bench's seven members, she is prolific, authoring more opinions and dissents last term than any of her colleagues.
But a Democratic review of her record depicts her as "bringing her extreme ideological agenda to the bench."
Frist made no mention of five other nominees whom Democrats have blocked.
One senior Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, outlined a complicated scenario likely to play out over as much as a week or two.
Initially, this aide said, Frist will inaugurate a lengthy period of debate over Owen and Brown without seeking a confirmation vote. After perhaps a few days, he intends to seek a test vote on one of the two women that Republicans hope will demonstrate majority support.
If Democrats then refuse to allow a final yes or no vote, this aide said Frist is prepared to seek a parliamentary ruling to establish a new procedure to cover confirmation of all appeals court and Supreme Court nominees — a fixed amount of time for debate followed by a vote, no filibuster permitted.
The fate of that proposal will determine which side prevails — whether Bush's nominees will be guaranteed a yes or no vote, or whether Democrats will retain the right to block them.