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Vote to Test Senate Estrada Filibuster

Republicans seek to put the Democrats on record opposing the appeals court nominee.

March 05, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senate Republican leaders have scheduled a test vote for Thursday on the high-profile nomination of Miguel A. Estrada to the federal appeals court, even though they are expected to fall short of the support needed to break a Democratic filibuster.

It could be the first of several votes that could extend the debate on Estrada into next week. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday that he and fellow Republicans want to put Democrats on record opposing Estrada, who would be one of the highest-ranking Latinos on the federal bench.

The standoff, already a month old, threatens to slow down action on President Bush's legislative agenda, including his economic stimulus package and government aid to faith-based charities. It also could hold up a vote GOP conservatives want on a bill that would ban a form of late-term abortions.

"This is not going to go away," Frist said of the fight over Estrada.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was equally defiant, expressing confidence that a solid bloc of Democrats will remain committed to the filibuster that is blocking a direct vote on Estrada's appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Both sides argue that the fight is an important test of how far Democrats will go to fight Republican efforts to reshape the judiciary for years to come.

Republican leaders, frustrated by the delay caused by the filibuster, are hoping that Thursday's vote to limit debate will put pressure on some Democrats to break ranks with party leaders. Four Democrats already have announced their support for ending the filibuster; five more are needed to give the Republicans the 60 votes required to close the debate.

Republicans said they are prepared for a long battle. "It may take five weeks, it may take eight weeks, it may take two months, it may take three or four months," Frist said.

What the standoff has demonstrated is that despite the Republican takeover of Congress in November's election, Senate Democrats still wield power, through filibusters and other parliamentary devices, to slow the GOP agenda.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, warned Democrats that their stance could set a dangerous precedent.

"We are in danger of, really, a constitutional crisis, a broken system that literally may make it very difficult for anybody who one side or the other does not like ... of getting on the bench in this country," he said.

"We're not going to give up," he added.

Democrats have said they intend to block a straight up-or-down vote on Estrada until the Washington lawyer gives more complete answers about his legal views and the White House turns over internal memos he wrote while serving in the solicitor general's office of the Justice Department during the administrations of Bush's father and President Clinton.

"Our caucus feels justifiably that this is a simple issue of fulfilling the obligations that any nominee must make," Daschle said. "It's like somebody filing an application for a job. This job happens to be one of the most important courts in the land. And to refuse to fill out pages 3, 4 and 5 in that job application would cause any employer to wonder."

Analysts say that Republicans are seeking to push the Estrada debate to a new level. Pro-Estrada forces already have sought to galvanize Latino support for him, running ads on his behalf on Spanish-language television in California, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

"There's a level on which losing [Thursday's vote] could have political benefits [for the GOP]," said Elliot E. Slotnick, associate dean of the Graduate School at Ohio State University who has followed judicial nominations.

The continuing Democratic filibuster would allow the Republicans "to further paint the Democrats into an obstructionist corner and, in specific instances, perhaps harm individual Democrats down the road with that label," Slotnick said.

Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), an Estrada supporter who is trying to broker a compromise, said he remains confident that "eventually, we'll work out an agreement."

Breaux said that Estrada may be willing to answer additional questions from Democrats. "Maybe, not as much as some want, but certainly a sufficient number to give people a reason to stop the filibuster and go ahead and proceed to a vote."

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