Senate sets marathon debate on judge picks

GOP allocates 30 hours to spotlight Democrats' blocking of Bush nominees

November 11, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Cots have been ordered set up in the heart of the Capitol. Senators are lining up for television and radio interviews all night long. Both parties are designing "war rooms" just off the Senate floor.

The preparations have nothing to do with the handful of major items - including a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, a national energy plan and the budget - that remain undone as Congress rushes to adjourn for the year as early as next week. They are just the most visible chapter in a rancorous debate over federal judges.

Senate Republican leaders are preparing to stage a 30-hour marathon debate, running all night tomorrow and Thursday - to highlight Democrats' efforts to block President Bush's nominees to fill judicial vacancies. As Congress wraps up its work, the leaders plan to take time out to focus attention on Democrats' use of procedural tactics to stonewall a handful of the nominations.

Maryland's two Senate Democrats have threatened to use similar tactics if Republicans try to push through the nomination of Claude A. Allen, a Virginian picked for an appellate court seat that has traditionally gone to a Marylander. Republicans hope to approve Allen's nomination in a committee next week.

This week's war of words is to begin tomorrow evening and stretch into Friday, with votes expected on up to four judicial nominees opposed by Democrats and on a plan by Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, to prevent open-ended filibusters of nominees.

It is the culmination of a year of bickering between the two parties over the federal bench. Democrats contend that Bush has nominated ultraconservatives outside the mainstream, and Republicans say Democrats are overstepping the Constitution and blocking qualified nominees.

The Senate spectacle promises to be a divisive proceeding in which both parties jockey for a political edge with an eye toward next year's elections. Both parties are playing to their hard-core base supporters, who might be the only ones who care deeply about the judicial fight.

Republicans hope to spark public outrage about Democrats' refusal to allow votes on Bush's choices for the bench.

"We're going to highlight this obstructionism by staying on the floor and making the arguments that we can," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said last week. "We want to let the American people know how pitiful this process has gotten and how it has devolved into the current partisanship that we now have in the United States Senate."

Democrats say they will use their half of the time to spotlight Bush's handling of the economy, which they contend is responsible for the loss of 3 million jobs during his presidency. Bush's is the first administration since Herbert Hoover's in which the economy has lost jobs.

"The contrast in our messages is going to be very clear: They're going to be talking about four job promotions, and we're going to be talking about 3 million jobs lost during this administration," said Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. "We'll answer their bogus criticism on judges, but people out there are more concerned about jobs."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, is expected to mention Allen and the broader issue of judges during her contribution to the talk-a-thon, scheduled for Thursday evening. But Mikulski, who will share a slot with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, will focus mainly on education and jobs. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the other Maryland Democrat, is also expected to speak, but a spokeswoman could not say yesterday when or what his main topic would be.

Democrats have ridiculed Frist for what they call a waste of time on the judicial issue, which they say does not resonate with most Americans. Daschle accused GOP leaders last week of "mismanagement." And Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the No. 2 Democrat, said they were making a "carnival" out of the Senate and accused them of "rank amateur leadership."

Reid apologized yesterday for those comments. But in what appeared to be a sign that the bitterness of the judicial dispute is hindering other legislative business, Reid seized the floor for nearly nine hours yesterday during debate on the spending bill that funds the Departments of Commerce, Justice and State. His speech delayed votes on that measure, as he criticized Republicans and Bush for ignoring and worsening problems ranging from unemployment to global warming.

"What are we going to spend 30 hours on?" Reid asked, pounding a pointer on a chart for emphasis. "Not on the national debt, not on the budget deficit, not on the unemployed, not on poor people, not on the uninsured. But on four judges that we've turned down."

By last night, Reid had moved on to reading page after page aloud from his book about his hometown of Searchlight, Nev.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.