Talkfest on the Hill

GOP's 30-hour marathon may not get new judges on the bench but will help shore up political base.

For readers who might miss the 30-hour marathon talkfest scheduled to begin Wednesday night in the US Senate, here's the plot line:

Republicans will charge that Democrats are unfairly blocking President Bush's judicial nominations and violating the Constitution. Democrats will complain that President Bush is nominating extremists, and that President Clinton's nominees were treated even worse.

But what's really at issue is better observed by looking behind the scenes: home-baked cookies rushed to the Senate floor by GOP activists, conservative talkshow hosts roaming the halls, and all-night briefings with senators and conservative groups. It's a fight to secure the political base. And both parties have a lot at stake.

"This is the opening salvo in the battle for the Supreme Court," says C. Lawrence Evans, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary. "Republicans are having a hard time moving their judicial nominations, and this is an attempt to demonstrate to their base that they're doing something about it."

Barring some procedural surprise - and all-night sessions can produce many of them - Republicans will lose the three votes they are planning on judicial nominees, all women. They will also lose a final vote to lower the hurdle for ending a filibuster from 60 votes to a simple majority.

Nonetheless, conservative activists plan to fill the Senate galleries and send "millions" of e-mails to supporters around the country - as well as to voters who may not yet be focused on the issue.

"This is what we've been waiting for for three years, ever since the obstruction began," says Kay Daley, president of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, representing 75 groups who say they want to make sure that "constitutionalist" nominees are confirmed.

"It could have an impact on the 2004 elections. It did this year in Mississippi," she adds, noting how Republican candidate Haley Barbour used the Democrats' filibuster of Mississippi nominee Charles Pickering in his successful campaign to win that state's gubernatorial race last week.

Even before Republicans plunge into their "Justice for Judges" marathon Wednesday night, comity in the branch of Congress most known for it was melting down.

Take Sen. Harry Reid's 8.5-hour surprise demonstration of how one senator can hold the floor as long as he wants, even if it means reading aloud from his 1998 book on how a Nevada mining town got its name.

"We can't be treated the way we continue to be treated," said the second-highest ranking Senate Democrat on Monday, before returning to his book, "Searchlight: The Camp that Didn't Fail."

Democrats resent being largely excluded from negotiations on the final shape of important energy and Medicare bills. They don't like not knowing the timing of votes. And they particularly bristle at GOP plans to clear the schedule for most of the week to focus public attention on charges that Democrats have been unfair to President Bush's judicial nominees.

In fact, the Senate has approved 168 Bush nominees, but Democrats have used the right of senators to speak without limit (the filibuster) to prevent a floor vote on four nominations, and have indicated they will block several more.

Republicans will force the issue this week by calling for up-or-down votes on nominees Carolyn Kuhl for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Priscilla Owen for the Fifth Circuit, and Janice Rogers Brown for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Democratic activists who oppose the nominations say it's a waste of time. "There's a reason these nominees aren't getting through, and another 30 hours won't make any difference," says Judy Appelbaum, vice president and legal director of the National Women's Law Center.

What's less clear is whether voters not already focused on judicial nominations or arcane Senate procedure will be tuning in. "The objective is to try to get the attention of the American electorate and possibly test the waters of this as a campaign issue," says Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an expert on the politics of judicial nominations.

"The lower court appointments have largely not resonated as a campaign issue in presidential elections and only on certain occasions has it resonated at the statewide level," Mr. Goldman says, citing then GOP Sen. John Ashcroft's loss for reelection after opposing a Clinton nominee, Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White. "At the very least, parties can energize their base, and the best possible scenario is that they will persuade independents and those not part of their core constituency to accept their spin on it," he adds.

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