Senate Democrats expressed what their leader described as "overwhelming opposition" to the nomination of conservative Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada to the appellate court in Washington, but appeared undecided on whether to block the judicial nomination through delaying tactics.
Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), flanked by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other Latino groups, drew battle lines for the year's first major judicial controversy as the Senate opened debate on Estrada's nomination -- a debate that could stretch into next week or longer.
But Daschle said Democrats would probably not decide until "sometime next week" how far they are willing to go to defeat the nomination of the Harvard-educated immigrant from Honduras. Estrada is viewed by many as a possible first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court.
In a hearing last year on his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Estrada, 42, declined to answer questions about his views or provide legal memoranda he wrote as a Justice Department official, giving the Senate no basis for judgment, Daschle said.
"If he cannot provide informed consent, I do not see how we can provide our consent at all," Daschle said. Either Estrada "knows nothing or he feels he needs to hide something," he said, and "neither is acceptable when it comes to a lifetime position on the second highest court in the land."
Republicans, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), have said Democrats are upset because they can't find ammunition to use against a conservative nominee.
Daschle's comments at a news conference with the anti-Estrada Hispanic groups came after the Democrats' weekly luncheon, which was devoted in large part to discussing the nomination.
Only Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) spoke in favor of confirming Estrada. But senators said a significant number of Democrats appeared to have some reservations about trying to kill the nomination by invoking rules allowing unlimited debate, which can be cut off only by a vote of 60 of the 100 senators. Democrats, who have 48 seats and the support of one independent, would have to produce 41 votes to sustain a filibuster.
Daschle said he did not know whether there are 41 votes against Estrada, noting that the issue was not familiar to many members of the caucus.
Meanwhile, Republicans have indicated they will make it as difficult as possible for Democrats if they try to kill the Estrada nomination. They have served notice that Democrats must be prepared for vote after vote on whether to cut off a filibuster, along with a series of speeches accusing Democrats of trying to kill a high-profile nomination of a successful young Hispanic lawyer with a conservative outlook. At the same time, they appeared in no hurry to begin the voting, preferring to let the Democrats "stew awhile," as a GOP strategist put it.
The way was cleared for action by the full Senate last week when the Judiciary Committee, in its first action on a judicial nomination since Republicans took control of the Senate last month, approved Estrada's nomination by a party-line vote of 10 to 9.
In their criticism of Estrada, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) and two other members of the Hispanic Caucus, all of them Democrats, said Estrada lacks judicial experience and has demonstrated no concern for the Hispanic community.
"He simply shares a surname," Menendez said.