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Partisan Battle Over Judicial Nominations Heats Up in US Congress

The U.S. Senate is preparing for a showdown over President Bush's judicial nominees. Majority Republicans are considering changing Senate rules to prevent Democrats from continuing to block a number of nominees from getting a vote on the Senate floor.

The Senate opened for business Monday after a week-long recess with Majority Leader Bill Frist calling on Democrats to stop blocking President Bush's judicial nominees from getting an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. "It is time for judicial obstruction to end," he said.

Republicans argue that Democrats have unfairly used stalling tactics, known as filibusters, to block qualified nominees in order to placate liberal interest groups.

Senate rules call for 60 of the 100 Senators to vote to end a filibuster and bring a nomination to a simple-majority vote.

But Republicans hold only 55 seats.

So Senator Frist is deciding whether to allow a simple majority vote to change the rules and ban the filibuster during consideration of judicial nominations.

Still, it is not clear he has the 51 votes needed to do that, with some moderate Republicans concerned that changing the rules could hurt their party in a future Democrat-led Senate. They also note that public opinion polls show most Americans favor keeping the filibuster.

For their part, Democrats argue they helped confirm more than 200 of Mr. Bush's judicial nominees. They say they blocked 10 nominees who they consider so conservative to be outside the political mainstream.

President Bush rejects the Democrats' criticism, and has renominated a number of those judges.

In a written statement, Mr. Bush noted that Monday marked the fourth anniversary of his first round of judicial nominees, some of whom never received a Senate vote. He urged the Senate to "put aside the partisan practices of the past and work together to ensure that all nominees are treated fairly."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales echoed the call at news conference. "All judicial nominees deserve an up-or-down vote as matter of fairness, fairness to the nominee, fairness to the American people," he said.

The Senate's top Democrat, Senator Harry Reid, questioned why President Bush renominated judges who have been blocked. "Why doesn't the White House test our willingness to be reasonable by sending new nominees who we can consider anew, fresh, instead of old nominees who have run into trouble before? It is clear the White House would rather pick fights than judges," he said.

Democrats had threatened to block all legislative activity in the Senate if Republican leaders made good on their threat of changing Senate rules. They have since pulled back on that threat, and now say they will push their own initiatives, including education and health care.

Meanwhile, the nomination of John Bolton to be United Nations Ambassador is scheduled to go to a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later this week.

The vote was postponed last month after committee members asked for more time to consider allegations that Mr. Bolton mistreated subordinates and pressured analysts to reach certain conclusions on policy and intelligence matters.

The top Democrat on the panel, Senator Joe Biden, is expected to oppose the nomination. "Look, the real issue here is how far did John Bolton stretch the truth or try to stretch the facts relating to intelligence," he said on ABC's This Week program.

But the chairman of the committee, Senator Richard Lugar, says Mr. Bolton has the trust of President Bush to reform the United Nations, and should be confirmed.

Still, speaking on the same program as Mr. Biden, Senator Lugar says the nomination could be delayed in committee again this week: "There are any number of parliamentary ways in which the vote could be prevented and Republicans, I suspect, will vote in favor of John Bolton. Democrats, I suspect, will vote unanimously against him. I think the vote may be 10-to-8, but I have no idea when the vote will happen," he said.

Mr. Lugar has scheduled five hours of debate on the nomination in his committee Thursday before a vote can occur.