A political battle is under way in the U.S. Senate over President Bush's judicial nominees. Republican leaders, frustrated that opposition Democrats have blocked some nominees from getting a full Senate vote of approval, are threatening to change the chamber's rules to prevent such action. But Democrats are vowing to retaliate if Republicans move forward with the plan.
It is expected to be a top issue when Congress returns from Easter recess next week.
Republicans want to put an end to what they see as Democratic obstructionism on judicial nominations. They argue that Democrats have unfairly used stalling tactics - known as filibusters - to block qualified nominees in order to placate liberal interest groups.
But Democrats note they helped confirm more than 200 of President Bush's judicial nominees. They say they blocked only 10 nominees, who they consider so conservative to be outside the political mainstream. But Mr. Bush rejects the Democrats' criticism, and has renominated seven of the 10 judges.
Senate rules call for 60 of the 100 Senate members to vote to end a filibuster and bring a nomination to a simple-majority vote.
But Republicans hold only 55 seats.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who argues the Democrats have abused the process to block nominees who deserve confirmation, is considering allowing a simple majority vote to change the rules. "My goal, and I have stated it again and again, is to restore 200 years of Senate tradition, which was taken away in the last Congress, and that is that a President's judicial nominee who has majority support get an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate," he said.
The proposed rule change has come to be known as the nuclear option, because Senate Democrats are threatening retaliation that could result in a halt to legislative activity.
Senate Democrats, including Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, say the Republicans are acting on the desire for absolute power.
"Without the filibuster or the threat of extended debate, there exists no leverage with which to bargain for the offering of an amendment, all efforts to affect compromise between the two political parties will be lost, demands for hearings will be lost, the president can simply rule," stated Senator Byrd. "The President of the United States can simply rule by executive order if his party controls both house of Congress and majority rule reigns supreme. In such a world, the minority will be crushed. The power of dissenting views will be diminished and freedom of speech will be attenuated."
But it is not clear whether Republican leaders have the 51 votes needed to prevail in changing the rules.
Although some Republicans agree that Democrats cannot be allowed to block President Bush's nominees, others are concerned that changing the rules could prevent action on other legislation, and could hurt their party in a future Democrat-led Senate.
"I am going to exercise every last ounce of my energy to solve this problem without the nuclear option," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter. "If we have the nuclear option, the Senate will be in turmoil, and the Judiciary Committee will be hell."
Two liberal advocacy groups have launched television and internet campaigns denouncing the plan to ban filibusters of judicial nominees, hoping to influence other Republican Senators.