WASHINGTON - With Republicans failing again yesterday to stop a filibuster of judicial nominee Miguel Estrada, the Senate has embarked on an unprecedented and largely unexpected struggle over a federal appeals court nominee that has no visible end.
Touching on issues of Senate prerogative, White House power and judicial independence, the battle has gone far beyond the nominee to encompass other Senate business.
That was evident yesterday during a contentious Judiciary Committee hearing for appeals court nominee Priscilla R. Owen, whom the committee rejected last year when it was run by Democrats.
Democrats blasted the White House for immediately renominating Owen after Republicans won control of Congress in November, saying it was the first time in Senate history that a nominee had been raised again for the same vacancy.
More than once, the word filibuster came up in yesterday's hearing for Owen, raising the prospect that Democrats will also use that tactic when her nomination to a New Orleans-based federal appeals court is sent to the Senate floor.
After introducing Owen to the committee, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, urged Democrats not to take that approach.
Hours later, Senate Republicans fell five votes short of the 60 needed to stop the Democrats' filibuster of Estrada, whom opponents have described as an extreme conservative, saying they don't know enough about him.
Although Estrada, in an attempt to address those concerns, met last Friday with Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, and responded Monday to questions from Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, they and other Democrats held firm in opposition. Republicans also failed to win the support of Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, who had not taken a position on Estrada until yesterday.
President Bush called yesterday's vote further proof that the "judicial confirmation process is broken."
That senators are mired in a filibuster of one federal appeals court nominee and expecting another is an extraordinary situation, unknown in the history of the chamber. Leaders on both sides say they are ready for the long haul and vow to hold strong, even as the Senate considers other Bush picks for the bench - possibly including those to fill Supreme Court vacancies this summer.
The battle over Estrada is one neither side in the Senate fully expected - and one that has been fueled, at least in part, by what some called a number of miscalculations by Republicans.
Despite years of brewing resentment and rising tension over the fate of judicial nominees, Republicans underestimated the Democrats' deep anger at perceived arrogance by the White House, and the party's willingness to go to extreme lengths to block a highly qualified Hispanic nominee, observers said.
Even former Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi publicly questioned how Senate Republicans have handled the filibuster, implying that it should have been resolved quickly. In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday, Lott acknowledged that "Republicans have not always handled judges in the right way" and urged colleagues to find a way out of the impasse.
Jan C. Greenburg writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.