WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans yesterday failed to break a filibuster blocking the nomination of a Hispanic 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 month-long debate and move to a final vote on Miguel 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 face-off 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 Estrada 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 Hispanic voters, who 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 Hispanics by showcasing their support - and the Democratic effort to block - a nominee who would become the first Hispanic person on the court that is considered second only in importance to the Supreme Court.
"The fight for justice has just begun," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, 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 would 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, a Vermont Democrat.
The vote cleared the way for the Senate to turn to other matters, including a bill to ban "partial-birth abortions." The measure, which has come close to becoming law in recent years, is expected to come before the Senate next week.
Yesterday'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, a Florida Democrat, a presidential candidate from a state with a large Hispanic population, missed the vote because he is recovering from recent heart surgery. Graham would not say how he would have voted.
Yesterday's tally showed that Estrada's confirmation is a virtual certainty if the filibuster can be overcome.
Hispanic activists appear divided over the Estrada nomination. Groups supporting Estrada include the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Hispanic National Bar Association. 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.
Estrada is a Honduran-born lawyer who came to the United States when he was a teen-ager. He graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for a Supreme Court justice and worked in the Solicitor General's office under the administrations former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. The American Bar Association gave him its highest rating after reviewing his qualifications for the bench.
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. Without such elaboration of his legal views, Democrats said, the Senate would be no more than a rubber stamp for the president.
Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.