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Senate Showdown Looms Over Judges

Majority Republicans and opposition Democrats appear headed on a collision course in the Senate over several of President Bush's judicial nominees. The political dispute that could have a lasting impact on relations between the two parties and between the presidency and the legislative branch of government.

President Bush
Beginning in President Bush's first term, opposition Democrats blocked 10 of the president's nominees for federal judgeships. More than 200 other nominees have been approved.

Following his re-election last November, the president and his Republican allies in the Senate decided to push hard for confirmation votes for several of the judicial nominees.

"The Senate also has a duty to promptly consider each of these nominees on the Senate floor, discuss and debate their qualifications and then give them the up or down vote they deserve," Mr. Bush said.

Democrats oppose the nominees because they regard them as extreme conservatives and have urged the president to nominate moderates. In order to block the nominations, Democrats have used a parliamentary delaying tactic known as the filibuster to prevent confirmation votes.

Under the filibuster, 60 of the 100 senators would have to agree to end debate and move to a vote on the nominations. Since Republicans only control 55 of the 100 seats, they would need Democratic support to end a filibuster, and for the moment, Democrats appear to be united.

Harry Reid of Nevada is the Senate Democratic leader.

"The filibuster is the last check we have against the abuse of power in Washington," Senator Reid said.

Majority Republicans are threatening to change Senate rules so that filibusters could be ended by a simple majority vote. Democrats say that would weaken the right of the minority party to act as a check on the majority and vow to bring the Senate to a standstill if the Republicans press the rules change.

Sarah Binder is a professor of political science at George Washington University. She told the public affairs television network C-SPAN that any rules changes that would affect the power of the minority party in the Senate to slow down the majority party could have enormous consequences.

"Senators and House members, legislators, they understand the impact of rules on outcomes, on what is going to occur," Ms. Binder said. "And thus, they fight hard over the rules, as they should, if we have elected them to pursue policy agendas."

Thomas Mann is a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a recent guest on VOA's "Talk To America" program. He says that changing the Senate rules to weaken the ability of the minority party to filibuster nominees would shift the balance between the executive and legislative branches of government in the president's favor.

"It is much, much more important than the particular matter at stake, namely the fate of a half dozen or so judicial appointments to the [federal] circuit courts. What is at stake here is the standing of the Senate in the American political system."

Activist groups on both sides of the issue have also become energized over the filibuster fight and are trying to whip up grass-roots support.

Sean Rushton is with a conservative group called the Committee for Justice that supports the president's judicial nominees. He says a rules change is needed because Democrats have been abusing the filibuster.

"And the permanent use of it to kill nominees is new and I think it has been used promiscuously as well. It has been used 10 times. I think that is why the Senate is at a crisis point and why this significant change is being contemplated. It is not Republicans who provoke this."

Liberal groups have also been active in support of maintaining the filibuster on behalf of opposition Democrats.

Perry Lange is with the liberal group People for the American Way. He told "Talk To America" that the fight over judges is a preview of what could be an even more important battle should President Bush get an opportunity to appoint a new justice to the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court.

"Well, clearly the Supreme Court does loom large and I think that as the stakes get higher for the nation in terms of the importance of the position, then tools to ensure that a nominee has a broad base of support, not just in the Senate but in the country as a whole and represents a broad range of values and ideals that are important to Americans," Mr. Lange said.

Both parties believe the Supreme Court fight could come sooner rather than later. Chief Justice William Rehnquist is battling thyroid cancer and was forced to miss several months of oral arguments at the high court while he underwent medical treatment.