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Charges Fly as Debate Opens

Senate Democrats and Republicans traded charges Wednesday over whether the marathon debate on President Bush’s judicial nominees is a waste of taxpayer dollars, as both political parties sought to milk every ounce of political advantage from the history-making event.

Democrats accused the GOP of unnecessarily spending more than $100,000 to conduct the 30-hour debate — a figure they arrived at after computing the cost of printing additional pages of the Congressional Record and keeping extra Capitol Police officers on duty while the Senate is in session.

“I think it is a waste of money,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said. “I am told it is going to cost over $100,000 and I think that money could be better spent.”

“It cannot be justified,” added Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “Frankly, if the Republicans want to make their point on the floor they could do it in a manner that would not inconvenience so many employees and families here and cost the taxpayers so much money.”

Republicans fired back at their Democratic counterparts, accusing them of preventing the Senate from doing its constitutional duty of confirming qualified jurists to the federal bench.

“This is about the judiciary of the United States of America,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “It is very important and it is the nation’s business and our responsibility.”

A senior GOP aide countered that Democrats should put their money where their mouths are and cede back the 15 hours they have been allotted for this debate, noting that using their logic, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wasted taxpayers’ dollars when he spoke on the floor for almost nine straight hours earlier this week.

“If they are truly concerned about the cost they could save [nearly] $30,000 by not using the time they have asked for to speak and save the printing expense,” said Bob Stevenson, Frist’s spokesman. “That would, in part, make up for the $25,380 that it costs the taxpayers to print the 47 pages of the Congressional Record that were devoted to printing Senator Reid’s filibuster on Monday.

“I would suggest it would be a better use of the money to discuss the judicial nomination process than the history of Searchlight, Nevada,” added Stevenson, referencing Reid’s decision to read directly from his book about his hometown on the Senate floor.

Tessa Hafen, a Reid spokeswoman, argued that the Nevada Democrat was using his time on the floor to “talk about issues that actually matter to the American public, such as jobs and education.”

Democrats estimated that printing extra pages of the Congressional Record cost $58,300, while police expenses were more than $70,000.

By 9:01 a.m. Thursday, the Senate will have completed half of the scheduled debate, but the fight over federal judges is expected to push into Friday morning, with GOP leaders scheduling three votes on nominees as well as a vote on a proposal to amend the chamber’s rules to prevent filibusters on future judicial nominees. Upon hearing about the planned votes, Democrats vowed to continue blocking nominees they view as unfit for the federal bench, and efforts to end the practice of filibustering judges through a rules change appeared unlikely to be approved.

The discussion over the cost of the 30 hour session, or at least the 18 hours identified as unusual hours of Senate operation, was just one issue the parties sparred over Wednesday as Republicans and Democrats held competing news conferences, complete with props, to exemplify the severity of the issue. Republicans set up cots in a room off the Senate floor to show how serious they were about working around the clock to try and break the Democratic filibusters on a handful of Bush’s nominees.

After holding a news conference to preview their strategy, Republicans were scheduled to hold additional press briefings throughout the early hours of Thursday morning.

“We have some folks who are pretty fired up and are not real happy with the way things are proceeding here and see this as one of the great challenges of their time here in Congress to set this back right again,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Santorum would not rule out that the debate would continue into early Friday morning, hours after the debate is expected to expire. “I would suspect there may be more than 30 hours of debate before we are all said and done,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

Meanwhile, Democrats opened up a communication’s room in Daschle’s office decorated with several pictures of former President Bill Clinton’s judicial nominees, who never received a hearing or a vote when Republicans controlled the Senate. A large sign with “jobs” plastered across it was also prominently displayed on an easel as Democrats tried to steer the debate away from judges and back towards domestic issues including unemployment, education and healthcare.

While most Senators spoke gravely in the hours leading up to the judicial debate, there were moments of levity between Members of the two parties.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) poked his head into Daschle’s press conference just off the Senate floor to say a quick hello. Daschle later joked that he didn’t think Democrats would use the cots.

“We’re tougher than they are and we sleep on the floor oftentimes, and we’re prepared to do that as well,” he said.

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