Senate to begin debating judicial filibusters Wednesday

WASHINGTON (BP)--The Senate will take up one of President Bush's more contentious judicial nominees Wednesday, beginning a process that could result in a ban on judicial filibusters and a considerably more conservative federal court.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., announced Tuesday that the Senate would debate Wednesday either the appeals court nomination of Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen. Both have enough votes for confirmation but have been filibustered by Senate Democrats, who say the two women -- along with eight other nominees who have been blocked -- are out of the judicial mainstream. Abortion rights groups have led the opposition.

Frist did not say which nominee he would bring to the floor first.

A possible rule change figures to be the focus of debate. Barring a compromise, at some point in the coming days Republican leaders are expected to try to change the rules to block the filibustering of judicial nominees. The filibustering of legislation would not be impacted. Although it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, only 51 votes will be needed for a rule change. It is not known when a possible rule change vote would take place, and the debate could extend into next week.

Republicans call the rule change the "constitutional option," Democrats call it the "nuclear option."

Democrats have blocked nearly one-fifth of President Bush's nominees to the appeals court level.

"Some of them, like Priscilla Owen, have been waiting four years -- four years for a position that right now is vacant," Frist said.

Republicans have 55 seats and likely will lose at least three votes -- those of Sens. John McCain, Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe, all of whom have said they oppose changing the rules. The GOP could lose two more votes and still pass the rule change, with Vice President Richard Cheney breaking the tie.

Some senators -- such as McCain and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson -- hope to reach a compromise to avoid a rule change vote.

A rule change would make it easier to confirm Bush's most conservative nominees, which pro-family groups hope would result in friendlier rulings on cases related to abortion, religious freedom and "gay marriage." The rule change could lead to decades of liberal rulings being rolled back.

Abortion rights groups have led the charge against the nominees. Homosexual activist organizations also have opposed them.

"The only thing I've ever heard from the other side of the aisle about Priscilla Owen is an argument on parental consent -- that she believes that parents should be involved if children get abortions," Frist said.

Democrats say a rule change would change two centuries of Senate tradition, preventing controversial nominees from being blocked.

"The goal of the Republican leadership and their allies in the White House is to pave the way for a Supreme Court nominee who would only need 50 votes for confirmation rather than 60," Minority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., said Tuesday.

Republicans say the filibusters are unconstitutional and that the rule change would restore Senate tradition. They say that a judicial nominee with majority support has never been blocked from receiving a vote in the history of the Senate.

"One of the priorities for this president is to put people on the bench that are highly qualified and that have a conservative judicial philosophy -- people that show judicial restraint when it comes to the bench," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday. "... In terms of the Constitution, the role of the president is to appoint qualified individuals to the bench. The role of the Senate is to provide their advice and consent. It's not to provide advice and block. And what we have seen is that Senate Democrats are taking this to an unprecedented level, something we have not seen in ... 214 years."

Pro-family leaders have called on citizens to call their senators at the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121, and ask them to vote for a rule change to end filibusters.

Brown currently serves on the California Supreme Court, Owen on the Texas Supreme Court. Brown was retained on the court in her last election by 76 percent of the vote, Owen was retained in her last election by 84 percent of the vote.

Download Story