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A long-winded night for the Senate

By Associated Press
Published November 13, 2003

WASHINGTON - With humor, anger and a show of GOP unity, the Senate on Wednesday launched 30 hours of uninterrupted debate on President Bush's political nominees not making it to the federal appeals bench, setting up cots and preparing to cast blame throughout the night.

Most of Republicans marched into the Senate together just before 6 p.m., sat down and listened to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., open the debate by condemning the filibusters.

"Tonight we embark upon an extraordinary session," Frist said. "For the next 30 hours Republicans and Democrats will debate the merits of three judicial nominees. We will be considering the meaning of our constitutional responsibilities to advise and consent on nominations. We will discuss whether there is a need to enact filibuster reform so that nominations taken to the floor can get a vote."

Democrats, some appearing amused by the pomp and circumstance, were already in the Senate chamber waiting for the beginning of the debates. The Senate had just finished a vote, and many of the GOP senators had to leave the chamber just to be in the group marching back in.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, held a sign he displayed for television cameras and passing Republicans as they entered the chamber: "I'll be home watching The Bachelor."

Another Democratic sign, a big purple sign with gold "168 to 4" written on it - the number of judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate as opposed to the number blocked by Democrats - upset Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. "That is clearly against the Senate rules," said Gregg, who had Democrats remove it until their turn to speak.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., condemned the Republicans for leaving an appropriations bill to launch the debate. "I'm sorry that we can't finish this bill," she said.

As the night grew late, fewer than 10 lawmakers were left on the floor as senators started preparing for the late-night shifts.

Democrats have used the threat of a filibuster to block 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.

In turn, Republicans scheduled the 30-hour debate despite their effort to finish bills revamping Medicare and energy policy, plus eight overdue spending bills, in time to adjourn by Nov. 21.

"We only wish they would devote the kind of attention they are to these 30 hours to the matters that the American people care most about," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "They care a lot about the fact that 3-million of them don't have jobs. They care a lot about the fact that their health insurance is rising by more than 15 percent a year."

But Republicans want to draw attention to the blockades, having failed multiple times to get the 60 votes to force the confirmations in a Senate split with 51 GOP senators, 48 Democrats and one independent.

Not since 1994 has the Senate been in session past 4 a.m., Senate observers said.

Both sides set up strategy rooms right off the Senate floor with large screen televisions and props. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for example, had a T-shirt saying "We confirmed 98 percent of President Bush's judges" on the front while the back said "and all we got was this lousy T-shirt."

Just in case someone gets sleepy, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader, said 12 to 15 senators have asked for cots to be set up so they can nap near the Senate floor.

Advocates of civil and abortion rights that have led the opposition against the four Bush nominees distributed to Senate offices care packages that included coffee, analgesics and breath mints.

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