Just about the last thing the Senate's 11 freshmen expected to find in their first couple of months in Washington was a long, bitter stalemate over a relatively obscure judicial nominee -- the same kind of infuriating gridlock that many of them had vowed to try to end.
But that is exactly what they experienced less than a month after their arrival when Republicans and Democrats dug in for a long winter's fight over President Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Ideological differences, ethnic politics, institutional prerogatives and old grievances combined to produce a test of wills that preoccupied the Senate -- which was not all that busy anyway -- through most of February and into March.
"Aghast" is how Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) describes his initial reaction to the Estrada fight. "I didn't realize just how partisan and embittered things had become," Cornyn said in a recent interview. "I'm very concerned not only about the broken judicial confirmation process but also how badly it seems to have poisoned relations in the Senate . . . and hurt our ability to do other things as well."
"It's payback on top of payback on top of payback," complains fellow freshman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), speaking of how the two parties have escalated the conflict each time power shifts in Washington.
Although all the freshmen lined up with their respective parties during the Republicans' failed attempt Thursday to break the Democrats' filibuster against the nomination, at least two of them -- Cornyn and Pryor -- are talking about trying to find a more rational confirmation process.
Others have tried and failed, overpowered by more politically militant colleagues. Cornyn and Pryor, who got to know each other as attorneys general of neighboring states before coming to the Senate, do not approach the challenge with starry-eyed innocence. But they say it is worth a try, although probably not until the Estrada fight is over.
Cornyn is talking about the possibility of setting timelines for hearings, committee votes and Senate floor action -- a notion that has also been promoted by longtime Senate Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). The idea is that, although it might help Bush win votes on his nominees now, it would also help a future Democratic president. But, for the Democrats, Bush is here-and-now and a Democratic president is later.
Pryor wants a bipartisan resolution to "break the cycle," but cautions that it would require White House cooperation. "If the White House is not going to agree, I don't see the Senate agreeing to anything," he said.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another freshman and Judiciary Committee member, would also like to do something about the problem but questions whether a new process is the answer.
"This is not generated by a defective process; it's defective politics," Graham said.
ON THE JOB: Bill Pickle, who went from the Alexandria police force to a 26-year career with the Secret Service and a recent assignment overseeing the federal security operations at Denver International Airport, has been chosen as the new Senate sergeant-at-arms.
Pickle was tapped by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and will take office March 17.
The sergeant-at-arms is the Senate's chief law enforcement and protocol officer, with responsibilities for most of the chamber's support services. It is a patronage position, and Pickle succeeds Alfonso E. Lenhardt, a retired general chosen by the Democrats after they took over the Senate in June 2001. Frist retained Lenhardt while he searched for a successor.
SECURITY SHUFFLE: The Senate, which was slow to vote on the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, has finally gotten around to reshuffling its own operations to account for the change.
The Senate Appropriations Committee agreed last week to create a new subcommittee to oversee homeland security funding. The panel will be chaired by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who is the second-ranking majority member on the full committee. In a move that is likely to create heartburn at the White House, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), ranking minority member on Appropriations and a persistent critic of the administration's domestic defense efforts, will also take the ranking minority post on the homeland security panel.
For the time being at least, the Senate is leaving any authorization work for the new department in the hands of the Governmental Affairs Committee headed by Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine).
The House also has created a similar appropriations subcommittee and has set up an authorizing committee for homeland security. The subcommittee is headed by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), and the ranking minority member is Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D-Minn.); the Homeland Security Committee is chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and the ranking minority member is Rep. Jim Turner (D-Tex.)
THE WEEK AHEAD: The House plans to consider legislation to limit damages in medical malpractice cases and create a commission to help avert medical errors. It may make another stab at passing a military tax relief bill, with or without the special-interest tax breaks that bogged it down last week. The Senate is scheduled to take up legislation to ban what critics call "partial birth" abortions.