Senate Talks Round The Clock

Senate Republicans hold a news conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003, to discuss a scheduled 30-hour debate on judicial nominations. Left to right are; Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader; Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
AP
It's called a debate but don't be fooled: the Senators talking round the clock in a historic, 30-hour-long marathon aren't really debating.

The Republicans and Democrats taking their turns on the Senate floor, beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday, at times are barely even talking about the same subject.

The Senate's GOP leaders scheduled what is formally called debate - a talkathon, really - to protest the fact that Democratic filibusters have blocked confirmation of four of President Bush's 172 judicial nominees.

The two parties have different names for the talkathon. The GOP is calling it "Justice for Judges," and the Democrats say "Justice for Jobless" is the right name, reflecting the topic of their own rhetoric.

The Republicans claim the Democrats are guilty of overly partisan behavior. The GOP leaders also argue that Democratic tactics have violated Senate rules, and they contend that other presidents haven't run into this kind of opposition on federal judicial nominations.

The Democrats, who say their opposition to the nominees is on the merits, have blocked four U.S. Appeals Court nominees so far: Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, Texas judge Priscilla Owen, Mississippi judge Charles Pickering and lawyer Miguel Estrada. Others, including California judges Carolyn Kuhl and Janice Rogers Brown, are expected to be blocked by Democrats as well.

Frustrated at the delays, Estrada withdrew his nomination in September.

As Senators settled in for the long night of speeches - and the long day that would follow - cots and pots of coffee turned up all over, to help lawmakers keep going.

"Frankly, there would not be much else going on here at 11:15 at night in the United States Senate, so we wanted to raise this issue and bring the message to people across America so they can tell the people who are obstructing, 'OK, think about it,"' said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, at a Republican rally just off the floor of the Senate.

Instead of questioning and challenging each other, Republicans talked for 30 minutes, and then Democrats talked for 30 minutes, over and over. The plan was for each side to get 15 hours of the 30-hour "debate."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., opened the debate by condemning the filibusters.

"We will be considering the meaning of our constitutional responsibilities to advise and consent on nominations," said Frist. "We will discuss whether there is a need to enact filibuster reform so that nominations taken to the floor can get a vote."

Democrats took turns giving speeches lambasting the Republicans for using two legislative days to talk about judicial nominees instead of finishing bills revamping Medicare and energy policy, plus eight overdue spending bills, in time to adjourn by Nov. 21.

Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's number two Democratic leader, scolded GOP leaders, saying the Senate's time would be better spent considering the problem of "the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer and we are squeezing the middle class so it's getting smaller and smaller."

"Wouldn't it be nice to talk about poor people? I recognize they don't have lobbyists, they don't have Gucci shoes and limousines, but they still deserve our time," said Reid, pointing to a blank chart he said represented President Bush's efforts to create jobs.

"Thirty hours on judges?" said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., at the Democrats' late-night rally. "There are 13 million hungry children in America tonight but Republicans don't have time to debate that."

"I'm not participating in this, this marathon, talkathon, blameathon, whatever you want to call this. I'm not interested in that right now. I'm interested in the appropriations bill," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who ironically is the owner of the No. 8 spot on the list of longest Senate speeches at 14 hours and 13 minutes. That was long ago against a civil rights bill.

Republicans and Democrats - entering the winter fund-raising season - want to draw attention to the blockades, with the GOP having failed multiple times to get the 60 votes to force a vote on the confirmations in a Senate split with 51 GOP senators, 48 Democrats and one independent. It takes only a bare majority in the 100-member Senate to confirm a judge, but 60 votes to force a vote if there are objections.

The Senate has scheduled more votes on Friday for Brown, Kuhl and Owen, but the GOP has yet to win one of these votes this year.

The debate is scheduled to continue right through the very last minute of Thursday night, with at least one senator from each party having been on the Senate floor from that time on back to 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The Senate made at least one new fan with its all-night talkathon on President Bush's blocked judicial nominees: 11-year-old Nick Taylor of Charlottesville, Va.

Instead of being at home in bed, Nick and his family waited out in the rain Wednesday night to get inside the Capitol to watch the extraordinary overnight session. Nick didn't mind, though. "That's one of the reasons why I came, we get to stay up late," he said happily.

There were more spectators in the Senate gallery than senators on the floor, with the Capitol staying open throughout the night to accommodate the Senate talkathon. Some people, like 21-year old Kiersten Murray, found the sometimes rambling, sometime desk-pounding speeches fascinating.

"This is totally the way to spend a Wednesday night," she said "It's history. I've never seen one and who knows when the next will be to see another one. It's not like they do this every Wednesday night."