Senate Republicans on Thursday failed to break a filibuster blocking the nomination of a Latino lawyer to one of the nation's most powerful federal courts, a setback for President Bush's efforts to leave a conservative stamp on the judicial system.
In a showdown roll call, the Republicans fell five votes short of the 60 they needed to cut off the Senate's monthlong debate and move to a final vote on Miguel A. Estrada's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
President Bush called the vote a "disgrace" and refused to concede defeat. "I will stand by Miguel Estrada's side until he is sworn in as a judge," Bush said.
The vote was the first major faceoff between Bush and Senate Democrats since Republicans took control of the chamber this year.
It showed that even as Bush confronts the momentous decision about whether to go to war with Iraq, Democrats are in no mood to cooperate with him on issues closer to home.
Estrada's nomination also has become a cause celebre among liberal and conservative activists, increasing the pressure on Democratic and Republican Senate leaders to lock horns over the issue. The activists view the nomination as a trial run for a future fight: a possible vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Adding to the stakes, Republicans have sought to turn the battle over Estrada, 41, into a proxy war for the political loyalty of Latino voters, whom Bush has made a point of courting.
Senate GOP leaders vowed to try again to overcome the filibuster and force an up-or-down vote on Estrada's nomination, which requires only a simple majority for approval.
In the meantime, they hope to gain political favor among Latinos by showcasing their support -- and the Democratic effort to block -- a nominee who would become the first Latino on the court, which is considered second only in importance to the Supreme Court.
"The fight for justice has just begun," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who may schedule another vote to break the filibuster as early as next week.
Democrats, who complain that Estrada was not sufficiently forthcoming at his confirmation hearing, said the outcome will not change unless their demands for more documents and information about his legal views are met.
"No one should have a lifetime appointment as a gift because he stonewalled the United States Senate," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
The vote cleared the way for the Senate to turn to other matters, including a bill to ban a second-trimester abortion procedure, which critics call "partial-birth" abortion. That measure, a priority for social conservatives that has come close to becoming law in recent years, is expected to come before the Senate next week.
Thursday's vote to cut off the Estrada filibuster was 55 to 44. Four Democrats -- John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida -- joined all 51 Republicans in support of ending debate. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a presidential candidate from a state with a large Latino population, missed the vote because he is recovering from heart surgery. Graham would not say how he would have voted.
Thursday's tally showed that Estrada's confirmation is a virtual certainty if the filibuster can be overcome.
Latino activists appear divided over the Estrada nomination. Groups supporting Estrada include the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Hispanic National Bar Assn. Estrada opponents include the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.
Republicans have directed much of their pro-Estrada message to Spanish-speaking audiences. As part of their effort to break the filibuster, they are expected to step up pressure on moderate Democrats who represent states with large Latino populations, such as Graham, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas.
California's two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, support the filibuster and are not expected to change their position.
Estrada is a Honduran-born lawyer who came to the United States when he was a teenager. He graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for a Supreme Court justice and worked in the solicitor general's office under the administrations of Bush's father and President Clinton. The American Bar Assn. gave him its highest rating after reviewing his qualifications for the bench.
Republicans contend that Democrats are blocking a well-qualified nominee for a purely political reason: to prevent a conservative Latino from ascending to a court that is often a steppingstone to the Supreme Court.
Democrats respond that they were not opposing Estrada for ideological reasons, but because they think he is a "stealth nominee" who has deliberately withheld information about his own legal philosophy. Democrats have called on Estrada to answer more questions and asked the White House to turn over internal memoranda he wrote while working in the solicitor general's office.
"The vote today boils down to one issue more than any other: Should the Senate have any role in the selection of judges to the federal bench?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The Bush administration has refused to turn over the memos, saying their confidentiality is crucial to the office's functioning. But the White House offered to have Estrada meet with any senator who wants to ask him more questions. The Senate's senior Democrat, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, has agreed to meet with Estrada today.
But Republicans also contend the Democratic effort to get more information was a mere pretext for denying Bush a key presidential prerogative -- the power to appoint the judges of his choice.
"Elections have consequences," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). "This is not about the memoranda; this is about political ideology."
Democrats acknowledged the fight was intended to send a message to the White House about its judicial nominees.
"I, like many of my colleagues, believe that we ought to try to encourage the administration to nominate judges in the mainstream," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "There is a prism within the administration through which all nominees must go, and that prism requires virtually a conservative judicial philosophy."
Estrada, a Washington-based partner for the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, first lived in New York when he came to the United States. Sandy Treadwell, chairman of the New York Republican State Committee, contended Estrada was denied a confirmation vote because of "partisan political reasons" and urged him to take on one of his Democratic critics in the 2004 election.
"I'm going to ask Miguel Estrada to return home to New York to run against Chuck Schumer for the United States Senate," Treadwell said.
Times staff writer John Goldman in New York contributed to this report.