Republicans might try to disrupt the planned Democratic takeover of the Senate unless they are given assurances that President Bush's judicial nominees will not be rejected outright or indefinitely delayed in committee.
Control of the Senate changes this week in the wake of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' decision to abandon the GOP and become an independent voting with the Democrats. In the 50-50 Senate, Republican control relied on Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., appearing on Fox News Sunday, would not rule out the possibility of a GOP filibuster to stop Democratic reassignment of committees.
Filibusters take advantage of Senate rules allowing members to speak without time limits, thereby indefinitely holding up all activity on the chamber's floor.
Santorum, a member of the Rules and Administration Committee, said Democrats should guarantee that Bush's nominees for the federal bench get automatic floor votes by the full Senate, rather than face rejection by the Judiciary Committee along party lines.
That deal, he said, is "the price of admission."
"We're willing to give them a one-seat majority ... but what we want in exchange for that is really some protection that government can continue to function here," Santorum said. "If we don't get that assurance or some assurance in this vein, then I think we're going to have some hard times organizing."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., seemed ready to call the Republicans' bluff and also implied that Bush's nominees would be treated fairly.
"You will not see us do what was done to us," Dorgan said, referring to stalling tactics used by GOP lawmakers with regard to former President Clinton's judicial nominees.
Democrats also criticized Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who will lose his post as majority leader, for telling fellow Republicans they must now "wage war" with Democrats. Lott has characterized Jeffords' switch as a "coup of one" that "trumped the will of the American people."
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will become the majority whip, described Lott's language as "a little pounding on his chest." He pointed out that Bush won the Electoral College vote but that Democrat Al Gore captured the popular vote in the presidential election.
"I think it's time that President Bush realize that he doesn't have a mandate. He is the president. I support him as being the president, but I think it's time that we really start being bipartisan," Reid told CNN's Late Edition.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who will be the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the panel has a duty to review lifetime appointments to the judiciary. "These judges are going to be there long after I'm gone, long after President Bush is gone," he said on CBS' Face the Nation.
One committee member, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats will not try to delay Bush's judicial nominees but will give the American Bar Association the chance to rate them.
Bush has decided to deny the ABA a role in advising the White House on its nominees, breaking a half-century tradition.
"All we want to do is carefully examine the nominees' records," Schumer said on ABC's This Week.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whom Leahy is replacing as chairman, said the ABA should have no more say than any other group.
There are 101 judicial vacancies, nearly 12 percent of the authorized appellate and district court judgeships. In addition, 11 current judges have said they will leave full-time status or retire in the next five months.
The last time judicial vacancies topped 100 was in July 1997.
The Associated Press contributed to this report