Debate Marathon Over Judges Ends, but the Battle Goes On

Times Staff Writers

After nearly 40 hours of nonstop and often acrimonious debate of President Bush's nominees to federal judgeships, a weary Senate on Friday found itself back where it started. Democrats blocked confirmation of three nominees, including two Californians, and Republicans accused the Democrats of thwarting the will of the majority.

There was no sign to the end of the discord, which could spill into other issues and threaten approval of the two top bills on Congress' remaining 2003 agenda: a Medicare prescription drug benefit and a comprehensive energy bill.

The votes to delay action on two California nominees to the federal appeals court -- Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl and California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown -- raised to six the number of judicial nominees the Democrats have blocked this year. Democrats also turned back the latest in a series of Republican attempts to force confirmation of another controversial appellate court nominee, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen.

In a statement issued by the White House, Bush assailed the "obstructionist tactics" as "shameful."

"At a time when the American people have important issues backlogged in the courts, partisan senators are playing politics with the judicial process at the expense of timely justice for the American people," the statement said.

The GOP-organized talkathon, which kept the Senate in session all night Wednesday and Thursday, was as much political theater as a serious debate.

Cots were placed near the chamber, and sometimes no more than four senators were on the floor during the late-night and early-morning hours. Each party kept two senators on the floor at all times in case one nodded off and the second was needed to block the other party from seeking "unanimous" approval of a nominee or of a resolution rejecting a nominee.

The last time the Senate remained in session so long without interruption was in 1988, when the subject was campaign finance legislation and the time consumed was 57 hours and 24 minutes.

This week's debate, which was closely followed by each party's core constituencies, also underscored the high political stakes of judicial nominations.

Republicans have sought to portray Democrats as obstructionists who have used the filibuster to deny judicial nominees an up-or-down vote. Republican hold 51 seats in the 100-member Senate, but it takes 60 votes to cut off debate and force an issue to a vote.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) accused Democrats of distorting the records of some of Bush's judicial appointees for political gain. "This is an important constitutional battle," Hatch said.

Democrats contend that they have approved most of Bush's judicial nominations but oppose the lifetime appointment of conservative judges who they say would undermine environmental protections, abortion rights and civil rights. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said the debate was all about "grinding red meat for their conservative wing."

Friday's proposals to cut off debate and bring the nominations of Kuhl and Brown to a vote received 53 yes votes against 43 no votes, seven short of the number needed to break the filibuster. California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, voted no.

For Kuhl and Brown, the votes marked their first tests before the full Senate.

Kuhl, 51, was nominated to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Brown, 54, was chosen for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Bush, in a show of support for Kuhl, Brown and Owen, brought them to the White House this week for a meeting in the Oval Office. During the Senate's 40-hour debate, Kuhl's and Brown's backers said they were outraged that Democratic leaders would deny them an up-or-down vote.

"Surely in the name of all that is fair and reasonable, surely in the name of James Madison, surely in the United States of America in

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.

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