Democrats show muscle in blocking Bush nominee

Friday, March 7, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats won a showdown vote Thursday blocking Miguel Estrada's nomination for a federal appeals court, dealing President Bush a major loss in the battle over the nation's courts.

Bush called the Senate filibuster of Estrada a disgrace, and Senate Republicans pledged not to give up.

"This is just the beginning," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. "We will not be satisfied until we get what the American people want, what this nominee deserves and what I believe our Constitution intended" -- a vote by the full Senate.

Democrats said sustaining the filibuster strengthens their call for Bush to consider their views when nominating conservatives for the federal bench, and sends a message to future nominees to be completely forthcoming in answering questions about their judicial philosophies.

"This issue transcends any one person," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of Estrada's most outspoken opponents. "It goes to the heart of the Constitution, and that is whether the Senate is going to play any meaningful role whatsoever in the selection of judges."

Republicans fell five votes short of the 60 they needed to end the Democratic filibuster on Estrada, who was nominated by Bush two years ago to become the first Hispanic on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Only four Democrats broke ranks in the 55-44 vote -- Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida and John Breaux of Louisiana -- while Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a Democratic presidential nominee, was the only senator to miss the vote.

"The decision today by 44 Senators to continue to filibuster and block a vote on this nomination is a disgrace," Bush said. "I will stand by Miguel Estrada's side until he is sworn in as a judge."

Democrats say they fear that Estrada would be an extreme right-wing judge if placed on the court, and want more information about him. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said Estrada did not answer questions completely from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the White House has refused to release memos Estrada wrote while working for the Justice Department.

Republicans say Estrada has answered enough questions but have offered to let Democrats meet with Estrada privately or to question his past employers.

"We have asked for two things: that he answer the questions, preferably before the Judiciary Committee; and that he turn over the documents," Daschle said. "Anything short of that simply does not suffice."

But the president said requiring anything more of Estrada would be a double standard. "Their tactics are an injustice and unfair to the good man I have nominated," Bush said.

Republicans hope Thursday's vote will bring a groundswell of opposition to Democrats from Hispanics in their home states and win new votes for Republicans. In New York, the state Republican chairman even urged Estrada -- a 41-year-old Honduran immigrant who graduated from Harvard Law School, served in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration and practices law -- to challenge Schumer for his Senate seat next year.

Hispanics are the nation's largest minority, at 37 million, and make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, Census Bureau estimates showed in January.

"For those who are opposed, they can explain to their constituents," said Sen. George Allen of Virginia, chairman of the GOP senatorial committee. "And they will have to explain to their people back home, whether that's in Little Rock, ... in Baton Rouge, Sacramento or Orlando."

Many Democrats reject claims that the Estrada battle would cost them votes, saying they support policies on education, immigration and other issues that Hispanics favor.

Frist said the Senate will turn to other business, but promised to try again to break the filibuster. Other votes are likely in the next two weeks, Republicans said.

Daschle said Democrats would be able to beat back future challenges as well.

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