RAY SUAREZ: The United States Senate shut down for the summer today, one week after the House of Representatives did. The annual rush to recess was the first for Tennessee's Bill Frist as the Senate's majority leader, and it's one he probably won't soon forget. Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: As this last legislative week before the August recess got under way, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist made clear his number one priority was to finally pass a wide-ranging energy bill.
SEN. BILL FRIST: We are going to finish this bill this week. We need to stay focused with it, and we really can't tolerate the sort of delays we have seen to date.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Frist also announced he wanted to see movement toward confirming several controversial judicial nominees repeatedly blocked by Democrats, however, those two issues, energy and judges, weren't able to coexist on the Senate's daily agenda, and in the end, they collided.
SPOKESMAN: Mr. Coal, no.
KWAME HOLMAN: Debate and votes on the judicial nominations scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday constantly interrupted debate on the energy bill despite the pleading of Energy Committee chairman Pete Domenici.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Let's put that off and see if we can't stay on electricity for a few minutes... I beg you, if you don't mind!
KWAME HOLMAN: North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan was one of many senators to argue this was the wrong time to be talking about judges.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: My colleague, Senator Cantwell from the state of Washington, sat here for two hours last night wanting to offer an amendment to go back to the electricity title of the energy bill, but couldn't because we were on a judgeship that we didn't have to do. We shouldn't have had to do that now.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday, it was Priscilla Owen, nominated by President Bush to the fifth circuit court of appeals in New Orleans by President Bush. Republicans spoke glowingly of her. Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchison:
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: This is the nicest, gentleperson one could ever meet, and she also happens to be smart as a whip.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats argued Owen wasn't fit for the job because of her staunch pro-business and anti-abortion beliefs. Patrick Leahy was chairman of the Judiciary Committee last year, when Owen's nomination was rejected.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Never, ever in our nation's history has a president re-nominated somebody to the same judicial vacancy after rejection by the judiciary committee-- never. In this case, of course, they did, to create a political point.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Wednesday, it was Miguel Estrada, the president's nominee to the U.S. Court of appeals for the District of Columbia. Democrats already had blocked his nomination six times. And on Thursday it was William Pryor, nominated to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Senators angrily accused each other of inserting the candidate's religion into the debate. Judiciary committee chairman Orrin Hatch:
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I don't think my colleagues are against the catholic church, but it sure seems as if they are against a traditional pro-life conservative Catholic-- on a selective basis, of course, because they cannot do this to everybody.
KWAME HOLMAN: Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin responded.
SEN. DICK DURBIN: What the Republicans are trying to do is to divert our attention from the radical political beliefs of William Pryor by saying that the real issue isn't politics, it is his Catholic faith. Frankly, that is not only an unfair argument, it is inaccurate.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats once again prevailed, blocking all three nominees, and New York's Chuck Schumer vowed it would continue.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: We believe we are following the will of the American people who don't want judges either too far left or too far right. And I assure you, Mr. President, I assure President Bush, and I assure my colleagues in the Senate that we will continue to do this.
KWAME HOLMAN: As the arguments over judges consumed the Senate, Majority Leader Frist's hopes of passing an energy bill, he conceded, were dimming.
SEN. BILL FRIST: In spite of that commitment on my part to plow ahead, it appears to me now, Wednesday night at 10:00, that the writing is on the wall: That we are not going to be able to complete the bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: By Thursday morning, with scores of Democratic amendments still pending, the energy bill, at least for the summer, was going nowhere.
SEN. BILL FRIST: It comes down to obstruction, and I do think at this point in time that the Democrats are bringing progress on this critically important issue of energy to a screeching halt.
KWAME HOLMAN: Frist's patience also was tested by a newspaper article quoting Republican senators criticizing of Frist's handling of the energy and judicial issues. Former majority leader Trent Lott went to the Senate floor to air his feelings.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I'm not going to affix blame, but the way this energy bill is being handled is I think a huge problem for our country. I admit that I made some mistakes when I was majority leader in how I handled them, too, but it has gotten worse since then. I don't think anybody can deny that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic leader Tom Daschle then stood and suggested the energy bill passed last year when he was majority leader was better.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: If our Republican colleagues really wanted to get a bill, what would have been wrong with taking a bill that 88 of us voted for last year and starting with that?
KWAME HOLMAN: For Frist, it was the low point of the week. He quietly acknowledged the advice from his predecessor.
SEN. BILL FRIST: As we all know, we have heard from three majority leaders -- with the former majority leader, Senator Lott, commenting on the schedule, and myself, and the distinguished Democratic leader.
KWAME HOLMAN: And then, unexpectedly, he took the advice of his Democratic counterpart.
SEN. BILL FRIST: The Democratic leader mentioned last year's bill was passed with a bipartisan vote and suggested bringing that up. And, let's do that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Suddenly, Frist had what he wanted all week long: An energy bill before the August recess. The Senate approved it overwhelmingly last night. This morning Frist said, the particular details of the Senate energy bill aren't important. He expected the entire energy bill would be rewritten in a conference with House Republicans.
SEN. BILL FRIST: The Democrats know that, we know that, and we're going to write it.
KWAME HOLMAN: The two Houses will have to find common ground on ethanol subsidies, electricity market reforms, and the contentious issue of whether to permit oil exploration in Alaska's arctic national wildlife refuge. And the battle over judicial nominations will resume as well when Congress returns on the first Tuesday in September.