WASHINGTON -- The countdown to a showdown over Democratic filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominees has begun. It's a confrontation that will determine whether a Senate minority can stop him from placing his choices on the nation's highest courts.
The clock "is in a countdown, second by second, to the appointed hour and minute when a nuclear explosion may render the Senate inoperative, or at least do substantial damage to this institution," Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Friday.
Unless compromise-minded centrists can strike a deal before Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will force a test vote on Texas judge Priscilla Owen's nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
If Owen doesn't get the 60 votes allowing her to overcome a Democratic filibuster, Frist will have the presiding officer, expected to be Vice President Dick Cheney in his role as Senate president, declare that filibusters are illegal for Supreme Court and federal appellate court nominees.
The Republican majority presumably would then vote to uphold that ruling, a procedure that has become known as the "nuclear option" because senators say it would blow up relations between the two parties.
The Senate is tentatively expected to remain in session throughout the night on Monday leading up to the vote. Democrats made plans to show in a side room "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the classic 1939 film in which Jimmy Stewart's character stages a 24-hour filibuster.
GOP Sen. John Cornyn, a former judge who served with Owen on the Texas Supreme Court, started the countdown Friday by demanding a vote on her nomination. When Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada blocked that vote, Cornyn called for the test vote that would lead to a decision on the filibusters of all seven of Bush's blocked judicial nominees.
"If we were just permitted to cast a vote, a bipartisan majority would confirm these nominees today," Cornyn said. "This really amounts to a veto. A partisan minority has attempted to cast a veto of majority rights, bipartisan majority rights."
Democrats argue they are within their rights to filibuster judicial nominees and Republicans are overstepping the bounds by trying to stop them. They threaten to block Bush's legislative agenda if Frist is successful at eliminating judicial filibusters.
"This extralegal changing of the Senate rules will cause a permanent tear in the Senate fabric because it violates a deeply held American value -- playing by the rules," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
While it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, Republicans intend to supersede the rule by a simple majority vote. With 55 seats, Republicans could afford five defections if all 100 members vote and still prevail on the strength of Cheney's ability to break ties.
Reid told a group of columnists during the day he was within two votes of having the strength to prevail in a showdown, indicating that four Republicans have agreed to break ranks and side with the Democrats.
Senate centrists are trying to avert Tuesday's showdown, but three days of backroom negotiations have yet to produce a deal that would allow some nominees to be confirmed while leaving others behind.
The Senate has approved 208 Bush judicial nominees, including 35 appeals court judges.
Democrats have prevented final votes on 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominees and have threatened to do the same this year to seven the president has renominated.
AP Special Correspondent David Espo contributed to this report.