Republicans say he is extremely well qualified. Democrats say he is an extreme right-winger, nominated to change the balance on a critical court; some of them have threatened to take the unprecedented step of filibustering the nomination on the Senate floor.
Democrats had argued for more time to consider the nomination, but decided against trying to block Estrada in committee. It was not known when the full Senate will take up the nomination.
"It'll be an intensive debate and they'll fight against him, but I think in the end we'll be able to get Miguel out," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The GOP holds a two-vote advantage in the Senate.
Hatch called Estrada one of the most qualified nominees ever and accused liberals of opposing Estrad simply because of his race and politics.
"One new obstacle that Hispanics face today is the attempt by some Washington political operatives to smear anyone who would be a positive role model for Hispanics and who might be a constitutionalist rather than a liberal judicial activist, or might be conservative or perish the thought, Republican," Hatch said.
Added Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "If we deny Mr. Estrada the position on the D.C. Circuit, it would be to shut the door on the American dream of Hispanic Americans everywhere. Not that that should be the basis for our confirmation, but it's obviously very much a fringe benefit."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Judiciary Democrat, called the accusations "offensive and absurd."
"The fact that a nominee is Latino should not be a shield from full inquiry, especially when a nominee's record is as sparse as is Mr. Estrada's," Leahy said.
Democrats said they needed more time on the nomination, arguing that he lacks judicial experience and refused last year to answer questions about specific cases.
"I have to tell you it was sort of reminiscent of Clarence Thomas telling America that he had never discussed Roe versus Wade and had no views on this case whatsoever," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "It's just not credible. It's not believable that this nominee has no critical views on any Supreme Court case."
"By remaining silent, Mr. Estrada only buttressed the fear that he's a far-right stealth nominee, a sphinxlike candidate who will drive the nation's second most-important court out of the mainstream," Schumer added.
Estrada, in a five-hour confirmation hearing last year, insisted he could set aside any personal or political opinions if confirmed.
"I'm very firmly of the view that although we all have views on a number of subjects from A to Z, the job of a judge is to subconsciously put that aside and look at each case — starting by withholding judgment — with an open mind and listen to the parties," Estrada said at the time.
Estrada, 41, came to the United States as a teenager from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. He quickly learned English, thrived in school and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986. He has since practiced constitutional law and has argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court.
Similar charges of discrimination by the parties have arisen before.
The last disputed Hispanic nominee, Mexican American Richard A. Paez, waited four years — longer than any other nominee in history — before being confirmed for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the Republican-controlled Senate in 2000.
Also in 2000, the Congressional Black Caucus accused Senate Republicans of being sexist and racist for not voting for Clinton's minority judicial candidates, including Roger Gregory, who eventually became the first black judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans denied the charge.
Only after Mr. Bush took office and Democrats took over the Senate Judiciary Committee did Gregory get confirmed.