President Bush on Tuesday called the Democratic plan to block his most-favored judicial nominee "shameful politics," as the Republican and Democratic parties started a high-stakes tug-of-war over the man who could be the first Hispanic on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Estrada is a member of the law firm that represented Bush in his successful Supreme Court fight for the presidency. He came to the United States from Honduras as a teenager and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986. He has practiced constitutional law and argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court.
But Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota accused Estrada of refusing to explain what his judicial philosophy would be if he became a federal judge. The D.C. circuit, which is evenly split between judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents, has been a steppingstone to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Every nominee who comes before the Senate has the obligation to be forthcoming with information about his position, with information about his record," said Daschle. "Until he does, we don't believe that it is in the Senate's best interest to allow this confirmation to go forward."
Senate parliamentary rules allow the minority to use a filibuster to effectively reject a measure or nominee with just 41 votes. The Senate has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent.
"We have enough votes to sustain our position," Daschle said.
Bush said Estrada's nomination should not be held up any longer. The Senate has already debated his qualifications for more than a week.
"Miguel Estrada is highly qualified, extremely intelligent," the president said. "He has the votes necessary to be confirmed. Yet a handful of Democrats in the Senate are playing politics with his nomination, and it's shameful politics."
Republicans promised to keep senators in Washington, if necessary, into a 10-day vacation scheduled to begin Saturday if Democrats don't allow a final vote.
"If they want to stay through the weekend, we'll stay through the weekend," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Since Estrada's nomination in May 2001, Republicans have accused Democrats of treating him unfairly because he is a conservative Hispanic.
During Estrada's five-hour confirmation hearing last year, Democrats repeatedly contended that he lacked judicial experience. Estrada's refusal to answer questions about specific cases, including those on abortion rights, gave them little to review, Democrats complained.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Estrada answered every question the Democrats had. "The truth is he didn't answer questions in a way that could be used against him," he said.
The Justice Department's solicitor general's office, where Estrada used to work, refused to release copies of internal memos and opinions he produced when he worked there. All the living solicitors general for presidents in both parties agreed with that position in a letter last June.
Daschle said Democrats will not allow a vote on the nomination until the White House makes Estrada answer their questions and releases the memos.
"We can expect every single nominee to come forward with the same stonewalling attitude, with the same approach that they don't have to provide us information," Daschle said. "Well, we're not going to do that."