In Session : Congress

Clash Over Judicial Filibusters Nears Boiling Point

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 9, 2005

As the Senate returns from a week-long recess, Republicans are reminding everyone that four years ago today, President Bush nominated Priscilla R. Owen and Miguel A. Estrada to federal appellate courts. Neither received a Senate confirmation vote, Republicans note, because of Democratic filibusters.

The issue has simmered ever since, and many lawmakers say they believe it will reach a full boil this month, as conservative activists press Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to try to change Senate rules to bar filibusters of judicial nominees. Groups on the left and right are spending millions on broadcast ads and holding dozens of rallies, telethons, news conferences and other events to argue for and against Frist's effort.

The ads and rallies have targeted at least 10 states with 20 senators. But insiders agree that only a few GOP senators -- perhaps four or five -- might truly be undecided and crucial to the outcome.

Senators hope to resolve a major transportation bill and other legislation before the chamber is consumed by what could be a bitterly partisan confrontation. That is why numerous aides say a filibuster showdown is most likely in about two weeks, shortly before the Memorial Day recess. But Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said Friday the issue "could come up at any time."

Today's schedule is typical of the dueling events that have framed the debate for weeks. At 11 a.m., Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) will hold a Capitol Hill news conference with Hispanic leaders to mark the fourth anniversary of Estrada's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Owen's nomination to the 5th Circuit. Both were among the 10 nominees thwarted by Democratic filibusters in Bush's first term. Owen, a Texas Supreme Court justice, is one of seven that the president renominated this year. Estrada and two others withdrew.

At noon at the National Press Club, groups including the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters will announce new "coast-to-coast activity to demand an immediate vote" to change the Senate rules. And in the afternoon, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- who opposed Republican efforts to change the filibuster rules in a national radio address Saturday and on "Fox News Sunday" -- will hold a Capitol news conference with Texas officials critical of Owen's record.

Republicans hold 55 of the Senate's 100 seats. They have been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to stop filibusters of conservative nominees that Democrats say are too extreme to be granted lifetime appointments. Frist is threatening to change the rule but, with every Democrat opposing him and several Republicans deeply wary, it is unclear whether he can round up the 51 votes he needs.

Frist may not have helped himself last week when he sent an e-mail to all 54 GOP colleagues praising a new anti-filibuster radio and TV ad airing in Maine and five other states. Maine's two Republican senators -- Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins -- have criticized the notion of changing the filibuster rule, and Collins told the New York Times the e-mail surprised her. Stevenson said Frist, who was in the Middle East, simply wanted to apprise his caucus of recent events and was not trying to needle Collins or Snowe.

The radio and TV ads are also airing in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Rhode Island. They are financed by Progress for America, which poured millions of dollars into Bush's 2004 reelection bid. The group bills itself as "an issue advocacy/grassroots organization committed to representing a diverse coalition of concerned citizens, businesses, nonprofit organizations and community leaders." But the liberal Alliance for Justice said the group "is funded and staffed by Washington insiders, political players and big money donors with strong ties to the Bush administration."

Another liberal group, People for the American Way, is countering the Progress for America campaign with TV ads criticizing Owen's record and saying Republicans want "too much power."

A HEAVY DAY: Thursday should be a doozy of a day in Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee could spend hours discussing the latest allegations against John R. Bolton before voting on his nomination to be U.N. ambassador. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled debate, and possibly votes, on three appellate court nominees whom Democrats may filibuster: William H. Pryor Jr. (tapped for the 11th Circuit); Terrence W. Boyle (4th Circuit); and Brett M. Kavanaugh (D.C. Circuit).

And Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter is scheduled to meet privately with House members in a follow-up to last year's session held by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. House leaders say the goal is to establish better relations between the legislative and judicial branches -- a timely topic these days.

THE WEEK AHEAD : The Senate will debate the transportation authorization bill (HR 3) and vote on the $82 billion supplemental spending bill for the war in Iraq and other purposes. The House will take up the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act (HR 1279) and the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act (HR 1544).

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