In the first significant setback for the Bush Administration in the 108th Congress, Senate Democrats blocked a move Thursday by Republicans to force a vote on controversial judicial nominee Miguel Estrada.
After weeks of on-and-off debate regarding Estrada’s nomination to the powerful US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, attempted to break what has evolved into a filibuster against the man who many legal observers believe the Bush Administration is grooming for an eventual Supreme Court nomination. To break the filibuster, Frist needed 60 votes. But he could only muster 55 — from 51 Republicans and 4 Democrats — as 44 Democratic senators held firm despite intense pressure from the Administration and its conservative allies.
“This vote was tremendously important for the future of thefederal judiciary and for the rights and freedoms Americans count on the courts to protect, argued People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas, whose group has been a key player in the campaign to block Estrada’s nomination as part of a broader effort to prevent the Administration from packing the federal courts with rightwing judicial activists. “It is a major loss for the Bush Administration and its political allies, who have tried to bully senators into submission with outrageous threats and accusations.”
When Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, announced in February that his caucus had the votes to block a vote on the Estrada nomination unless the nominee and the White House responded to unanswered questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members, Congressional observers were skeptical. The last time a Senate filibuster succeeded in preventing a president from advancing a judicial nominee was in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson was forced to withdraw the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to be chief justice.
Thursday’s vote was a clear win for Daschle, and for legal, civil rights, labor and women’s groups that have campaigned for months to convince Democrats that Estrada has not met the basic standards for confirmation. Only four Senate Democrats — Georgia’s Zell Miller, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, Florida’s Bill Nelson of Florida and Louisiana’s John Breaux — voted to break the filibuster. (Florida Democrat Bob Graham, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who is recovering from surgery, did not vote.)
Conservative groups worked hard to break Democratic senators loose prior to Thursday’s vote, ramping up a campaign that suggested Democrats who voted to block Estrada were thwarting the aspirations of the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic population. Estrada, a Honduran immigrant, would be the first Latino to sit on the DC Circuit bench and, if confirmed, could eventually become the first Latino on the Supreme Court.
In the days before the vote, Neas said, he was troubled by “intimidation tactics employed by the Bush White House and Senate Republican leaders. Especially disturbing were the repugnant efforts of a number of Republicans to characterize opponents of Mr. Estrada’s confirmation as anti-Hispanic.Groups such as People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice countered fierce lobbying — which even involved radio ads in the states of key senators — by noting that the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project had joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in urging rejection of Estrada’s nomination.
Ultimately, however, Daschle has been successful in holding the majority of Democrats together in large part because of concerns about Estrada’s failure to answer questions posed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the refusal of the White House to release working papers that Estrada produced while working in the Solicitor General’s office.
The White House has stonewalled the request for the papers, and has refused to allow Estrada to participate in a public hearing where he could be asked further questions. Those hardball tactics have upset enough Democratic senators, say Hill aides, that even moderate and conservative members who might be inclined to support Estrada are sticking with the strategy initiated by Daschle, Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy and Vermont’s Pat Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
While Frist says he will keep pushing for a vote on the nomination, Daschle says, “The vote will not change regardless of how many votes are cast. We feel strongly as a caucus and will continue to hold our position as a caucus.”