Senators Pull An All-Nighter

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
President Bush delivered a wake-up call to the Senate on Thursday, punctuating an all-night talkathon with a demand for an "up or down" vote on four of his appellate court nominees blocked by Democrats.

Standing in the Oval Office with three women whose nominations have been stalled, Mr. Bush launched his broadside as Democrats and Republicans took turns at the microphone during a marathon session organized by majority Republicans to protest Democratic filibusters.

"These people deserve an up or down vote on the Senate floor," Mr. Bush told reporters. "And yet a few senators are playing politics and it's wrong and it's shameful. ... I will stand with them to the bitter end."

"The senators who are playing politics with their nominations are acting shamefully," said the president, flanked by Texas judge Priscilla Owen and California judges Carolyn Kuhl and Janice Rogers Brown. Mr. Bush called it "ugly politics."

The Senate turned the Capitol into insomniac central in the wee hours Thursday as lawmakers went throughout the night arguing the merits and drawbacks of Democrats blocking some nominees.

With their cots and coffee set up near the Senate chamber, senators made clear they were willing to talk themselves hoarse through the night to make their points on the judicial nomination process.

"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.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, almost talked himself out of a voice. After speaking at several different events Wednesday and talking several times during the floor debate, Hatch's voice was reduced to a croak. "I apologize for my voice," he said sheepishly in the wee hours of the morning.

Those who expected scintillating debate were disappointed, as the marathon turned into a legislative pillowfight among colleagues. 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."

About 2:45 a.m., Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., even started reading from Robert Caro's "Master of the Senate," which examines former President Lyndon Johnson's career in the Senate.

Pryor read slowly but surely — sometimes adding his own editorial comments. The Constitution "was agreed to by the convention with almost no debate or dissent,'" Pryor read. "'And to ensure that the Senate could protects the people against themselves, the Framers armored the Senate against the people.' This is a very interesting statement and observation that Mr. Caro makes."

Republicans scheduled the talkathon — called "Justice for Judges" — in hopes of rallying Americans against Democrats, who 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.

But Democrats also are rallying their supporters, and plan to criticize 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.

"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.

The Democrats named their half of the talkathon "Justice for the Jobless" and criticized President Bush and the GOP on the economy and the president's conservative nominees.

"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."

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.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has scheduled more votes on Friday for Brown, Kuhl and Owen, but the GOP has yet to win one of these votes this year.