Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist urged Democrats yesterday to stop blocking President Bush's federal court nominees and hinted that he might try to change Senate rules to thwart their tactics.
"One way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominees must end," Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
The Democrats' ability to stall White House picks for the federal bench was one of the most contentious issues of Bush's first term. Despite the GOP majority in the Senate, Democrats used the threat of a filibuster to block 10 of Bush's nominees to federal appeals courts. The Senate did confirm more than 200 of the president's choices.
Republicans hope that gaining four Senate seats will discourage Democrats from using filibusters again. But in a Senate next year with 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and a Democratic-leaning independent, Democrats still will have the 40 votes for a filibuster.
Frist said filibustering judicial nominees is "radical."
"It is dangerous, and it must be overcome. The Senate must be allowed to confirm judges who fairly, justly and independently interpret the law," he said.
"The Senate cannot allow the filibuster of circuit court nominees to continue. Nor can we allow the filibuster to extend to potential Supreme Court nominees."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, is seriously ill with thyroid cancer, and three other justices have had cancer. The average age of the nine court members is 70. Speculation on a high court retirement has grown in part because there has been no vacancy in more than 10 years.
Theodore B. Olson, former solicitor general in the Bush administration, told the Federalist Society that "any attempted new appointment to the court, especially that of a chief justice, will set off a political firestorm."