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Cheney vows to unlock Senate Democrats' filibusters on federal judgeships

WASHINGTON—In a warning to Democrats and a nudge to Republicans, Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday stepped into a Senate fray over judicial nominations and vowed to use his position as president of the Senate to help fill federal judgeships that Democrats have blocked.

Cheney's entry into the dispute signals a stepped-up campaign by the White House to give Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist the political support he needs to limit the use of the filibuster, the parliamentary tactic that Democrats have used to block 10 of Bush's appellate court nominees.

While pressure has been building on Frist to end the stalemate, he doesn't appear ready to put the matter to a vote. Frist needs 51 votes to strip Democrats of their use of the filibuster on judicial nominations. The filibuster has been an effective tool for Democrats because it requires 60 votes to overcome.

"There is no justification for allowing the blocking of nominees who are well qualified and broadly supported. The tactics of the last few years, I believe, are inexcusable," Cheney said to the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Cheney has the right to break tie votes in the Senate by virtue of his dual role as vice president and president of Congress' upper chamber.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada reacted sharply to Cheney's planned intervention, accusing the vice president of wanting to "put radical judges on the bench." He also said that President Bush assured him last week that he wouldn't inject himself into Frist's attempts to change the Senate rules. "Now, it appears he was not being honest and that the White House is encouraging this raw abuse of power," he said.

Senate fights over judicial nominees are normally inside-Washington struggles largely ignored by the American public. But this one looms as a potentially destructive clash that's dividing religious leaders, energizing liberal and conservative interest groups and threatening the remaining legislative work in the Senate.

Doing away with the judicial filibuster is considered such an extraordinary and explosive move that both sides call it the "nuclear option."

Frist has been warning Democrats that he intended to do away with judicial filibusters since November, when he issued the threat in a speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative lawyers' group.

Over the past few days, speculation mounted that Frist would pull the trigger next week because the Senate Judiciary Committee has now sent three previously filibustered nominees to the Senate for action. But by week's end, Republican senators said it was unlikely to come up next week because the Senate would be working on complicated highway legislation. With a Senate recess coming the first week of May, any action on judges would have to wait at least two weeks.

Though the public shows little interest in arcane maneuvers like filibusters, polls show that Democrats have been effective at casting the debate as one about sustaining checks and balances.

"People are confused, as they are generally, about the whole issue of what checks and balances mean," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., an advocate for doing away with the judicial filibuster. "Most people think checks and balances mean checks between Republicans and Democrats and obviously it means between the different branches of government. They (Democrats) have effectively clouded that issue by using that term."

So far, Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have said they would vote against Frist's anti-filibuster proposal. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine has said she's leaning against it. Others who are mulling a decision are Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Sen. John Warner of Virginia. It would take six Republicans to doom the proposal.

Warner illustrates Frist's uphill fight.

In his 27 years in the Senate, Warner has helped select scores of men and women to federal courts. He's especially proud of his role in winning a seat for the first female federal judge and first African-American federal judge in Virginia.

"I was able to achieve those things because of the prerogatives of a United States senator as it relates to the district courts and to a lesser extent the circuit court. I want to preserve that," he said in an interview.

"If a president came along, not this one, but another one and said, `Well, John, I appreciate your recommendation, but I'm going to take X and I have 51 votes and I don't need yours.' Well?" Warner said, shaking his head. "This system has worked well. It's the minority rights, it's what we've done with the federal judiciary."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Dick Cheney

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050422 JUDGES filibuster

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