The Republican Party-led U.S. Senate Tuesday, barring any last minute bipartisan compromises, is expected to decide whether to end the ability of minority Democrats to block President Bush's judicial nominees from getting a vote on the Senate floor. The move could have far-reaching consequences.
Republicans say Democrats have unfairly used delaying tactics, known as filibusters, to block Mr. Bush's nominees to the federal bench.
Democrats argue the nominees they have blocked are so conservative as to be out of the mainstream.
Earlier this year, Mr. Bush resubmitted many of those nominees, saying they are well-qualified for the bench. Among them is Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, whose nomination the Senate has been debating over the past week.
The Senate Tuesday is to vote to end debate and move to an up-or-down vote on Justice Owen. If, as expected, Democrats block the nomination, the Senate is to vote on whether to ban filibusters against nominees to the federal bench, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The moment draws closer when all 100 of the United States Senators must decide the basic question of principle: whether to restore the precedent of a fair up-or-down vote for judicial nominees on this floor, or to enshrine a new "tyranny of the minority" into the Senate rules forever," said Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican Majority Leader.
At the White House, President Bush urged the Senate to act on his nominees. "I expect them to get an up-or-down vote. That is what I expect. I think the American people expect that as well," he said.
Under current Senate rules, it takes 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to end extended debate, or a filibuster. Republicans hold 55 seats. But Republican leaders believe they have found a way to use Senate rules so that a simple majority, or 51 votes, is required to force an up-or-down vote on nominees.
If Republican leaders move ahead with the action, it would make it much easier for President Bush to put judges on the federal bench, and justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, without the threat of Democratic procedural roadblocks.
Democrats, including Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, are furious with Republican leaders' plans. "It is a fundamental power grab by the majority party, propelled by its extreme right and designed to change the reading of the Constitution," he said.
Mr. Biden says the vote he is expected to cast Tuesday in opposition to the filibuster ban will be, in his words, the single most important vote of his 32-year career in the Senate.
Democrats say the filibuster is an important tool for the minority to check the power of the majority.
They are threatening to slow the work of the Senate if Republican leaders make good on their threat to ban the filibuster, a move that some call 'the nuclear option' because of its potential disruptive effect on the Senate.
Senator Pat Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, says it is ironic that at a time when the United States is seeking to ensure the protection of minority rights in Iraq and other countries, Republican Senate leaders are seeking to erode minority rights in their own chamber.
"How ironic that at the same time we are undertaking these efforts [in Iraq], not just with the money but the lives of our wonderful men and women, and a great cost of so many American families, the Republican majority in the United States Senate is seeking to undermine the protection of minority rights and checks and balances. [At the same time that] our men and women are dying, our treasuries are spending money to bring the checks and balances to Iraq, we are getting rid of it here," he said.
Republicans who support banning filibusters for judicial nominees say it is not about curbing the power of the minority. They argue that filibusters should be used to reach compromises on legislation, not nominations.
Senator Charles Grassley is a Republican from Iowa. "You cannot redraft a person like you can redraft legislation," he said.
Meanwhile, a group of moderate Republicans and Democrats are trying to head off Tuesday's showdown by forging a compromise that would call for, among other things, the right of Democrats to block some nominees while allowing others to receive up-or-down votes.
The battle over banning the filibuster for judicial nominees carries risks for both parties, and for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who may consider a run for President in 2008.
If Senator Frist succeeds in changing Senate rules, President Bush's legislative agenda may become bogged down in partisan battles if Democrats make good on their threat to slow the work of the Senate. That would raise questions about Senator Frist's leadership qualities. It could also paint Democrats as obstructionists.
If Senator Frist fails to get the votes to change the rules, he risks angering the conservative base of the Republican Party, whose support he will need during the presidential primary battles. It would also empower Democrats to step up their challenges to President Bush's agenda.