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Frist Plans July Push On Judges

Anticipating a Supreme Court vacancy, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) plans to stage two partisan skirmishes over judges in July as a way of reigniting the fight over Democratic filibusters of two of President Bush’s circuit court nominees.

Frist and other Senate GOP leaders are eager to highlight what they see as the Democrats’ “obstructionism” in preventing Bush from filling the two key spots on federal courts, especially since some prominent Democrats, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), have threatened to filibuster any Supreme Court nominee they view as too conservative.

“We’ll probably have a few surprises,” said one senior GOP Senate aide. “So stay tuned.”

Frist said last week he was not quite ready to use the so-called “nuclear option” of having the Senate’s presiding officer — presumably Vice President Cheney who serves as Senate President — declare filibusters of judicial nominees unconstitutional, thereby allowing 51 Senators to end debate on a nominee rather than the current 60-vote threshold used by Democrats to filibuster.

Democrats have threatened to retaliate by effectively shutting down legislative action in the chamber if Frist were to use such a tactic.

Frist left open the possibility of calling up a measure, approved by the Rules and Administration Committee last week, to gradually decrease, over a series of votes to limit debate time, the number of supporters needed to break a filibuster from 60 to 51. Under traditional Senate rules, that proposal would need 67 votes to prevail, a prospect considered unlikely.

“We’ll talk about the rules change and address the filibusters in some way,” said Frist, who indicated that the decision on what to do has not yet been made.

Senate GOP aides said it is likely that Frist will call for a new series of votes during the weeks of July 7 and July 14 to end debate on the controversial nominations of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Priscilla Owen to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Democrats sustained their filibuster of Estrada in six votes between March 6 and May 8. Owen’s nomination was blocked twice in May.

Both nominees have attracted opposition from Democrats who fear their judicial decisions would too closely mirror their reputed conservative ideology.

Senate Republican leaders could also decide to bring up other contentious nominees, such as Carolyn Kuhl to serve on the 9th Circuit or Charles W. Pickering to serve on the 5th Circuit. Democrats have threatened to filibuster both nominees if they are brought to the floor. The Judiciary Committee approved Kuhl’s nomination on a party-line vote May 8. The panel has not yet considered Pickering’s nomination, but Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the committee may consider him “relatively soon, probably in July.”

It has been almost two months since the chamber last voted on the filibustered nominations of Estrada and Owen, but the prospect of the Senate having to consider one or more Supreme Court vacancies has dominated discussions among Senate leaders of both parties for months.

The notion of a Supreme Court retirement became more pressing last week, because the court’s 2002-03 term ended. Any potential retirement announcements are expected this summer.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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