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Background: No Comity Tonight

November 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: It’s must-see TV for C-span insomniacs. At 6:00 this evening, the Senate went into session, and it will stay in session all night tonight, throughout the early morning and all day tomorrow, until midnight — 30 hours in all, nonstop.

The marathon program is a dramatic attempt by Republicans to call attention to what they claim has been an unprecedented display of partisan obstructionism by Democrats in blocking four of the president’s nominees to federal judgeships.

Majority Leader Bill Frist:

SEN. BILL FRIST: We, as United States senators, are being denied the opportunity to give advice and consent to the president’s nominees because we are being denied by a minority in the United States Senate to give an up-or-down vote. It’s as simple as that. We understand it. It’s time for the American people to understand it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering and lawyer Miguel Estrada all were nominated to seats on federal appeals courts.

All four were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, on straight party line votes — ten Republicans voting in favor, nine Democrats voting against.

SENATE SPOKESMAN: The court will call the role.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Republicans, with their 51-seat majority, have the votes to confirm the four judges on the Senate floor. But Democrats have refused to let it come to that. Senate rules require 60 votes to end debate on an issue, or invoke cloture as it’s called, and move to a final vote. To date, on these four judicial nominees, Republicans have not been able to muster more than 55 votes.

SPOKESMAN: Three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn, not having voted and affirmed it, the motion is not agreed to.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Democrats could block two additional judicial nominations on Friday. Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: The advice/consent clause is clearly an up-or-down vote, a majority vote, on the floor of the Senate. The founding fathers knew what a supermajority vote was, because just a couple lines above that in the Constitution is a two-thirds requisite vote for treaties.

So they knew what it was, and if they had wanted it to be a 60-vote margin, they would have said so. But in requiring a 60-vote margin for the first time in history and not allowing the majority to vote on these judges, the Democrats are subverting this whole process.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee repeatedly have pointed to the fact that they’ve allowed the Senate to clear 168 of the president’s judicial nominations.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: What is all the fuss about?

KWAME HOLMAN: That the four they’re holding up are too radically conservative, with views far outside the mainstream of legal opinion. And on the Senate floor on Monday, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin reminded colleagues how Republicans treated some of President Clinton’s judicial nominees.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: There were 60 nominees sent to the Senate by President Clinton who were never even given a hearing before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. And so it leads me to a question of the senator from Nevada, through the chair, why then are we going to take 30 hours to debate the obvious?

KWAME HOLMAN: Nevada’s Harry Reid, the assistant Democratic leader, took the floor on Monday and for eight and a half hours refused to relinquish it, in protest of the scheduled marathon debate.

SEN. HARRY REID: We are going to spend 30 hours on the big four. The big four, they make a total of about a million dollars a year, and we are going to spend 30 hours lamenting how poorly these people have been treated, and we will not spend 30 seconds talking about the unemployed of this country, people who are out of work for an average of five months.

KWAME HOLMAN: And so Democrats say they’ll use their half of the 30 hours of debate to discuss jobs, education and health care.

Republicans however say they’ll look for an opportunity during the debate to slip in an up-or-down vote on one of the judicial nominees.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM: If they do not man the floor, we will put the question. The nominations are pending on the floor. If there’s no further debate on the nomination, the chair has the right to put the question unless there’s an objection.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said that won’t happen.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We’re going to have at least two people in every time block, every hour time block, through the entire 30-hour period. It may be a little easier to have more than two people in the daylight hours than it will at night, but we will have at least two.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Republican senators will be able to retire to a room off the Senate floor to catch a nap on one of the dozen or so cots that were brought in today. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell:

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think there are 12 or 15 senators who have requested them. Senator McCain suggested we have a snoring and non-snoring section.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Democrats will not have cots.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’m not sure why cots are necessary. I haven’t seen a cot used in a long time around here, because senators have sofas. But we’re tougher than they are and we sleep on the floor oftentimes … and we’re prepared to do that as well.