The headline from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s news conference Wednesday was his threat to filibuster the appeals-court nomination of Miguel Estrada. “There is overwhelming opposition within our caucus to Mr. Estrada,” Daschle said. “Because we’re in the minority, we have no other option in some cases…than to filibuster nominations. We don’t take that responsibility lightly, but we hold it to be an important tool that we will use.” Daschle said he will make the filibuster decision next week.
But the more interesting story from Daschle’s appearance was the strange disconnect between the reasons he gave to oppose Estrada and the reasons cited by a number of Hispanic interest-group leaders who appeared with Daschle.
To hear Daschle tell it, Estrada’s alleged refusal to answer questions at his confirmation hearing had virtually forced Democrats to vote against him, and perhaps to filibuster the nomination. Democratic senators take their advise-and-consent role very seriously, Daschle said, and, “In our view, we have been thwarted from fulfilling our constitutional obligation.”
But to hear representatives from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and others tell it, the Estrada nomination should be killed not because of Estrada’s alleged refusal to answer questions or because of constitutional obligations but because Estrada, who was born and raised in Honduras before coming to the United States and learning English at the age of 17, is simply not authentically Hispanic.
“Being Hispanic for us means much more than having a surname,” said New Jersey Rep. Bob Menendez, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “It means having some relationship with the reality of what it is to live in this country as a Hispanic American.” Even though Estrada is of Hispanic origin, and even though he lives in this country, Menendez argued, he falls short of being a true Hispanic. “Mr. Estrada told us that him being Hispanic he sees having absolutely nothing to do with his experience or his role as a federal court judge. That’s what he said to us.” Menendez found that deeply troubling.
But Menendez was relatively kind to Estrada compared to the representatives of Hispanic interest groups. Angelo Falcon, an official of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, railed about the “Latino Horatio Alger story that’s been concocted” about Estrada’s success and, more generally, about the “concocted, invented Latino imagery” of Estrada’s life.
“As the Latino community becomes larger and larger in the country, as we gain more political influence, as we become more diverse, the issue of what is a Hispanic becomes more problematic,” Falcon explained. “It’s not good enough to simply say that because of someone’s genetics or surname that they should be considered Hispanic.”
Marisa Demeo from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund went even farther. Not only is Estrada not authentically Hispanic, Demeo argued, but his elevation to the federal bench would “crush” the American dream for millions of genuine Hispanics in the United States.
Demeo was particularly angry at Republican Judiciary Committee member Sen. Charles Grassley, who last week said that, “If we deny Mr. Estrada a position on the D.C. Circuit, it will be to shut the door on the American dream of Hispanic Americans everywhere.” “Actually, the reverse is true,” Demeo said. “If the Senate confirms Mr. Estrada, his own personal American dream will come true, but the American dreams of the majority of Hispanics living in this country will come to an end through his future legal decisions.”
Through it all, Daschle stood by impassively. He couldn’t very well cite Estrada’s alleged lack of authentic Hispanic-ness as a reason to filibuster and kill the nomination; even the most partisan Democratic senator would have a hard time making that argument. Yet he remained quiet while his allies bashed Estrada in the most personal terms.
It made some observers question just why Democrats are opposing Estrada. Do they really believe their words about their “constitutional obligations,” or are they going along with the angry interest groups who are pushing them to do it?