KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate's much- anticipated debate over four of the president's troubled judicial nominations got off to an inauspicious start last evening. West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd tried to delay the marathon, pleading for 20 minutes that Majority Leader Bill Frist first allow the Senate to "get some work done"-- specifically, to complete action on the funding bill for veterans affairs, and housing and urban development.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I am not participating in this whatever you call it-- marathon, talkathon, blame- athon, or whatever it is. That is not of my interest right now. I am interested in the appropriations bill. It can be passed in two hours or less.
KWAME HOLMAN: Byrd eventually gave up and gave way to Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. The chairman of the Senate judiciary committee has watched helplessly in recent months as Democrats repeatedly have used a filibuster to block four appellate court nominees.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: The fact of the matter is, is that for the first time in history, they're treating a president of the United States in a ridiculous, unconstitutional fashion in not allowing him to have an up-and-down vote on his nominees. If they can defeat these nominees, that is their right, but they should not be dragging their feet and making it very difficult for these nominees to come up.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrats claim that Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada, Texas supreme court justice Priscilla Owen, Alabama attorney general William Pryor, and Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering all hold conservative legal opinions that fall far outside the mainstream. California Democrat Diane Feinstein also is a member of the Judiciary Committee.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I very deeply believe that this election provided no mandate to skew the courts to the right. I deeply believe that judges should be in the mainstream of American legal thinking, that they should have the temperament and the wisdom and the intellect to represent us well on the highest courts of our land.
KWAME HOLMAN: And committee Democrat Dick Durbin referred to the charts Democrats have continued to display throughout the debate.
SEN. DICK DURBIN: We have approved for this president 168 of his nominees. I think it is a new record. I do not think any president in that brief a period of time has had 168 nominees approved. Then, of course, there were four who were not approved. 168-4. 98 percent of this president's nominees have been approved. By any reasonable standard, this president is doing very well.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Judiciary Committee Republican John Cornyn produced his own charts and his own numbers.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: The real number we ought to be focusing on, and I hope the American people are focusing on, is 0-4, because never, ever, in the history of this republic has a minority in the Senate denied the right of the majority the vote up or down on judicial nominees. It is just not right. It is not fair. It has resulted in the degradation and a downward spiral in the judicial confirmation process that no one -- no one should be proud.
KWAME HOLMAN: The two sides continued to talk past each other for hours, Republicans calling the Democrats' filibuster unprecedented in the history of the republic; Democrats claiming Republicans did the same to dozens of President Clinton's nominees, only in committee, never giving them a chance to reach the Senate floor. Finally, just after midnight, Virginia Republican John Warner stood and urged his colleagues to talk to each other.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: It's remarkable how many people have come from all across this country to be here. And they've asked me in a very straightforward manner, "senator, we've followed this debate, but we can't understand how one side says there's no filibuster and the other side says there is a filibuster." So I'm just wondering if you'd state what your understanding is, and my colleagues on this side would state their understanding.
KWAME HOLMAN: New York Democrat Charles Schumer and Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions obliged. Sessions argued the tactic Republicans used in the committee was called a "hold."
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Holds are placed on legislation by senators. Holds are placed on nominees by senators. One way to break that hold is to file for cloture, which guarantees an up-or-down vote.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: What is a hold? A hold is saying, "I am going to filibuster."
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: That is why the hold is able to hold things. I don't know it to be any different than a filibuster. It certainly wouldn't be any difference that makes a difference.
KWAME HOLMAN: The exchange seemed to do little to clarify things, and shortly thereafter, the primetime players retired for the night. However, the graveyard shifts took over, displaying varying degrees of emotion. Georgia's Zell Miller, one of the few Democrats opposed to the filibuster, came to the floor shortly after 2:00 A.M.
SEN. ZELL MILLER: Where 59 votes out of 100 cannot pass anything because 41 votes out of 100 can defeat anything. Explain that to Joe Six-Pack in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
KWAME HOLMAN: Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum was on the floor during the 3:00 hour.
SEN. RICK SANTORUM: This is a sad time. People ask why we're doing this, because you have a right to tell the public what's going on. This is ugly. This is the worst of our nature.
KWAME HOLMAN: Missouri Republican Jim Talent took the 4:00 shift.
SEN. JIM TALENT: Mr. President, I wish I could say it's a pleasure to be here at 4:00 in the morning. It's always good to see you.
KWAME HOLMAN: And at 4:30, Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed read from a list of President Clinton nominees who never got a vote.
SEN. JACK REED: Elizabeth Gibson, Fourth Circuit, never got a vote. Christine Aguello, 10th Circuit, never got a vote. Bonnie Campbell, Eighth Circuit, never got a vote.
KWAME HOLMAN: New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine followed Reed at 5:00.
SEN. JON CORZINE: We can pick these numbers, any number you want, to try to make cases. But the fact is we're approving more judges. We're dealing with the situation in a more legitimate ongoing basis than the previous administration.
KWAME HOLMAN: On and on the debate went toward its scheduled midnight conclusion. This afternoon, Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd offered these thoughts.
SEN. CHRISOPHER DODD: Had the founders of this great republic sought efficiencies, they never, ever, ever, ever would have set up this system. The last system you'd ever set up if you were trying to get the job done expeditiously is the one that we've lived with for 217 years. This is a terribly frustrating system.
KWAME HOLMAN: And this evening, Senate Republican leaders announced they're extending their marathon judicial debate until 9:00 tomorrow morning.