WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans kicked off a 30-hour marathon debate last night about President Bush's conservative judicial nominees, orchestrated to highlight Democrats' efforts to block the court picks.
The talk-a-thon is set to continue throughout the day today and until midnight, the first such all-nighter in nearly a decade, and the most dramatic confrontation to date in an increasingly partisan debate between Republicans and Democrats about Bush's judicial choices.
It is expected to be followed tomorrow with votes on three nominees that Democrats oppose as ultraconservative and outside the mainstream, and on a Republican-drafted measure that would essentially prevent senators from indefinitely stalling judicial picks, which the GOP contends violates the Constitution.
But Republicans do not expect to win any of those votes. They will just be a part of a made-for-television spectacle, which began yesterday with a staged event in which cots were wheeled into the Capitol, Republicans choreographed a march to the Senate floor, and both parities held multiple news conferences day and night to get the debate onto round-the-clock newscasts.
"The debate we undertake tonight," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, "is fundamental to restoring fairness to our confirmation process, and reaffirming two centuries of Senate tradition."
The rare all-night session unfolded as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, laid the groundwork for a vote as early as next week on the nomination of Claude A. Allen, a Virginia attorney Bush has picked for a 4th Circuit appeals court seat that was previously held by a Marylander.
Maryland's two senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, argue that the slot should go to a high-caliber jurist from their state, and say they will make sure that Allen faces the same fate as the handful of other federal judicial nominees Democrats have blocked from a confirmation vote.
Hatch has scheduled the vote on Allen for a committee meeting today, but will almost certainly postpone it until next week because of Democratic objections.
The 30-hour session comes as both parties are appealing to their hard-core base supporters on the issue of the federal judiciary in advance of next year's elections.
`Waste of time'
Democrats have blocked action on some of Bush's nominees this year, arguing that they are conservative activists who do not belong on the federal bench. They paint this week's events as "a colossal waste of time," in the words of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, saying senators should instead address critical issues such as jobs, health care and education.
Republicans, who have been unable to garner the 60 votes they would need to overcome the delaying tactics, charge that Democrats have hijacked the Senate in an unconstitutional bid to thwart Bush's attempts to fill vacancies on the federal courts with well-qualified, distinguished jurists.
In blocking the nominees, Democrats "have decided to corrupt this great institution," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican. "It is worth talking about, it is worth fighting for, it is worth spending a few sleepless nights."
Republican leaders say they aim to break the logjam that has held up three federal appellate court nominees: Janice Rogers Brown of California for the District of Columbia court, Carolyn B. Kuhl of California for the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit and Priscilla R. Owen of Texas to the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit.
Democrats contend that they have no obligation to support votes on those candidates, who they portray as conservative ideologues.
"This election provided no mandate to skew the courts to the right," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
Stalling and opposing the judicial nominees chosen by the other party's president is a tradition almost as old as the Senate itself, but Republican leaders charge that this year is the first in which the minority has used parliamentary tactics to block votes on would-be judges.
"The Democrats are subverting this whole process," Hatch said. "This is a constitutional disaster waiting to happen, unless we stand up and do what has to be done."
Democrats have ridiculed the process. As Republicans filed into the chamber two-by-two to launch the marathon debate, flanked by dozens of television and still cameras, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, held up a sign reading, "I'll be home watching The Bachelor."
Republicans argue that the debate is a crucial one. Still, it spawned a somewhat zoo-like atmosphere in the Senate last night, as lawmakers and aides braced for a sleepless and rancorous night.
One senior Republican aide dubbed it "Judgefest 2003" or "Judgeapalooza" -a reference to the annual rock festival.