WASHINGTON — Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) propelled the Senate toward a long-awaited confrontation over judges Wednesday, taking up the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen to the federal bench and declaring that she and other judicial nominees deserved an up-or-down vote.
The move was an important first step in the battle over the fate of the filibuster, which Democrats have used to block some of President Bush's judicial appointments. But the outcome also will carry serious implications for the future appointment of Supreme Court justices, as well as for Frist's political ambitions.
The chamber was sparsely filled -- with just half a dozen senators -- as Frist convened the session on Owen in his usual calm voice. But after months of escalating rhetoric on both sides, his words effectively rang the opening bell in the showdown between Senate Republicans and Democrats.
"I rise today as the leader of the majority party of the Senate," Frist said. "But I do not rise for party. I rise for principle. I rise for the principle that judicial nominees with the support of a majority of senators deserve up-or-down votes on this floor."
During Bush's first term, Democrats relied on the filibuster to block votes on 10 of his nominees to federal appellate courts, while allowing votes on about two dozen others. Earlier this year, Bush resubmitted seven of the blocked nominees, including Owen.
The fight over the filibuster is expected to last into next week, when Frist says he will launch a series of parliamentary maneuvers that Republicans hope will wrest the tactic away from the minority party.
The Democrats argue that though the filibuster is not mentioned in the Constitution, it is a long-established part of Senate tradition.
"Some in this chamber want to throw out 217 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power," Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said during Wednesday's debate. "They think they are wiser than our founding fathers. I doubt that's true."
The confrontation, long the focus of furious lobbying campaigns on both sides, played out through the day and into the night on the Senate floor as Republicans and Democrats took turns making their arguments on the filibuster.
Behind the scenes, a group of senators seeking to avert the showdown held a series of meetings aimed at finding a compromise.
After one session, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) emerged looking tense. He said the senators were making "some progress" but declined to comment further.
After a second meeting, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said, "We're not there yet, and we may never get there."
After a third closed-door gathering, the senators said they would meet again today.
"We're still working," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). "There's time."
Democrats had vowed to protest any attempt to change the filibuster rules by slowing the Senate's business, and they began to follow through on the threat.
In the session's opening minutes, Reid declined to agree to the usual courtesy of waiving a Senate rule requiring committees to limit meetings to two hours while the chamber is in session.
As a result, several panels had to adjourn hearings after two hours. The Banking Committee was forced to postpone the confirmation hearing of Ben S. Bernanke as a member of the president's Council of Economic Advisors, and the Homeland Security Committee had to postpone a confirmation hearing for Linda M. Springer as director of the Office of Personnel Management.
While the debate centered on Owen's nomination, the stakes went far beyond her proposed seat on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. And it went beyond a second pending nomination, that of California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. At the heart of the debate was the filibuster, the use of extended debate to stall a vote. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. Republicans, who hold 55 seats, say that all judicial nominees have a right to an up-or-down vote, in which they would win confirmation with a simple majority.
"Should we allow a minority of senators to deny votes on judicial nominees that have the support of a majority of senators?" Frist asked in his opening remarks.
At stake was an even larger issue: who would serve on the third branch of the federal government -- the judiciary, including the Supreme Court.
Republicans, angry over federal court decisions on social issues like abortion, want a freer hand in appointing conservatives to the bench. And they especially want the filibuster abolished as the prospect looms of impending vacancies to the Supreme Court.
Democrats, upset by what they see as the nomination of increasingly ideological judges, say they should be permitted to use all parliamentary tactics -- including the filibuster -- to derail "extremist" nominees.