WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans formally asked the Senate on Friday to hold a vote on the confirmation of Priscilla Owen (search), one of a handful of President Bush's judicial nominees who have been caught up in a procedural firestorm.
Sen. John Cornyn (search), R-Texas, filed what's called a cloture petition, a procedural move intended to force the end of debate on an issue. The Senate will vote on the matter Tuesday.
Two-thirds of the 100 senators must vote in favor of ending debate on the Owen nomination in order for the move to succeed. The move is an effort by Republicans to push through up-or-down votes on some of the judicial nominees that Democrats have been fighting against.
Democrats may not have the votes to outright vote against these controversial nominees. The minority party in the Senate is arguing it has to preserve the right to filibuster — or argue endlessly — in an effort to keep judges like Owen, who has been recommended for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, off the bench.
"If the Senate invokes cloture on the nomination, the Senate will be required under its rules to give the Owen nomination a fair up or down vote,' Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in a statement Friday.
If the test vote on Owen fails on Tuesday and if she doesn't garner 60 votes, Frist said he will move to have the Senate declare filibusters out of order for Supreme Court and federal appellate court nominees — a change that has been labeled the "nuclear option" (search).
Owen is one of 10 appeals court nominees whom Democrats blocked during Bush's first term. The president has since renominated seven of them, and Democrats have again vowed to filibuster.
"If we were just permitted to cast a vote, a bipartisan majority would confirm these nominees today," Cornyn said Friday. "This really amounts to a veto. A partisan minority has attempted to cast a veto of majority rights, bipartisan majority rights."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., countered: "This extralegal changing of the Senate rules will cause a permanent tear in the Senate fabric because it violates a deeply held American value — playing by the rules.
"Using an arbitrary way — presiding officer ruling by fiat — will produce a deeply embittered and divided Senate because it tears at the heart of the way we operate," Levin said.
The Republican-controlled Senate has been debating Owen's nomination since Wednesday. "We will continue that debate," Frist said. "Ten hours, 20 hours, 30 hours, as many hours as it takes for senators to air their views. But at some point, that debate should end and there should be a vote."
While it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, Republicans intend to supersede the rule by a simple majority vote. With 55 seats, Republicans could afford five defections if all 100 members vote and still prevail on the strength of Vice President Dick Cheney's ability to break ties.
Democrats have threatened to slow the Senate's business to a crawl if Republicans prevail, and they served up a preview this week by invoking a rule that prevented some committees from meeting.
"The attempt to do away with the filibuster is nothing short of clearing the trees for the confirmation of an unacceptable nominee to the Supreme Court," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said. He accused the president of an attempt to "rewrite the Constitution and reinvent reality" with his demand for a yes-or-no vote on all nominees.
A group of Senate centrists have been trying to come up with an alternative to the nuclear option that would also block Reid from filibustering all of Bush's most controversial nominees at the same time. But as of Friday afternoon, a compromise had not yet been reached.
Santorum: 'I Meant No Offense'
Meanwhile, Sen. Rick Santorum said Friday he "meant no offense" by referring to Adolf Hitler while defending the GOP's right to ban judicial filibusters (search).
"Referencing Hitler was meant to dramatize the principle of an argument, not to characterize my Democratic colleagues," Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the GOP leadership in the Senate, said of his remarks Thursday.
Passions have been running high as senators argue over whether Republicans should allow the out-of-power Democrats to use Senate filibusters to effectively thwart President Bush from reshaping the nation's courts to his liking.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., came under fire in March for comparing Hitler's Nazis and the Senate GOP plan to block Democrats from filibustering. Santorum, a Pennsylvanian, criticized Byrd's remarks at the time, saying the Nazi references "lessen the credibility of the senator and the decorum of the Senate."
But on Thursday, Santorum said that Democratic protests over Republican efforts to ensure confirmation votes would be like the Nazi dictator seizing Paris and then saying: "I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me? How dare you bomb my city? It's mine."
Santorum later said in a release that his remark "was a mistake and I meant no offense."
The Republican Jewish Coalition applauded the statement. "Sen. Santorum is sensitive to the effect of his words and the inappropriateness of the analogy," Executive Director Matthew Brooks said.
If senators are forced to vote next week on Owen's nomination, centrists say a historic confrontation is sure to follow over whether filibusters of appellate and Supreme Court nominees should be prohibited during the rest of the Bush presidency.
"Once you start into the procedural votes, the real procedural votes on the first judge, then it's going to be very difficult to put the genie back into the bottle," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. "I think most of us look at that as once you have that first vote, it's going to be very difficult to get a deal done."
FOX News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.