Bush, Senate leader push for rules to end deadlock over judge

WASHINGTON -- Unable to break Democratic filibusters against a pair of President Bush's judicial choices, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on Friday proposed changing Senate rules to restrict the use of parliamentary tactics to block nominations.

President Bush, in a Rose Garden appearance at the White House, deplored the delays in seating his choices for the federal bench, saying the current Senate process was "a disgrace."

But Democrats defended their right to oppose nominations they feel stray too far from the American mainstream and made clear that they would not allow a change in rules that would weaken that right.

It takes two-thirds of voting senators to change the rules of the Senate, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said there was "not a snowball's chance in Hades" that Frist would get that many.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Democratic leader Tom Daschle, noting that the Senate had approved 124 of Bush's 126 judicial nominations that have reached the Senate floor.

Frist, R-Tenn., said changes in the rules that have governed the Senate the past 28 years were the only way to resolve an issue that has disrupted other Senate business. His proposals would gradually reduce the number of votes needed to break a filibuster.

Democrats, Frist said, were "breaking with Senate traditions that we have had the last 200 years. We are witnessing unprecedented obstructionism." Other Republicans have suggested more drastic steps, including lawsuits, to contest the use of filibusters on nominees.

The dispute has come to a head over the Democrats' thus-far successful efforts to block the nominations of Michael Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and of Priscilla Owen to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Under current Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster blocking final action on legislation or a nomination. Republicans have failed to reach that number in six cloture votes on Estrada and two on Owen, both opposed by Democrats.

Republicans and their allies argued that the Constitution only mentions a few cases requiring more than a simple majority for passage, including treaty ratifications, overriding presidential vetoes, the impeachment of a president, constitutional amendments or expulsion of a member.

The 60-vote hurdle on nominations, said C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel under the first President Bush, "is an abuse, and effectively rewrites the Constitution to establish a super-majority requirement on court nominees."

Bush gathered supportive senators, administration figures and legal community representatives to mark the second anniversary of his nomination of 11 appeals court judges. Three of those judges, including Estrada and Owen, have not been confirmed.

"More appeals court nominees have had to wait for over a year in my presidency than in the last 50 years combined," the president said. "This is not just business as usual. This is an abdication of constitutional responsibility and it is hurting our country," he said.

Democrats countered that they were exercising their constitutional duty of "advice and consent" in opposing nominees they believe are not qualified. Leahy said that while the Senate has confirmed 124 of 126 Bush nominees, Republicans prevented 60 Clinton nominees from ever coming to a vote.

Many were stalled by either by the failure of the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee to act or by "holds," in which a single senator can anonymously delay action on a nominee.

Daschle reminded the Senate of the battle over Richard Paez, a Clinton nominee who was confirmed to a seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000 after a four-year wait and only after it became obvious that Democrats had the 60 votes to end a looming filibuster.

Under the Frist plan, it would take 60 votes to stop a filibuster on the first try, 57 on the second, 54 on the third, 51 on the fourth and finally, a simple majority of those voting. The entire process would take about 13 days, he said.

He said his proposal was modeled after a broader plan, made by Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Tom Harkin of Iowa in 1995.

The Senate in 1917 approved Rule 22, under which a two-thirds vote of those present would end a filibuster. In 1949 that was changed to two-thirds of the Senate membership and in 1975 -- after several decades of filibusters aimed at stopping civil rights legislation -- it was changed again to three-fifths of the membership, or 60 votes.