Politics & Policy

The Estrada Trap

Democrats talk themselves into a corner over Miguel Estrada.

Here’s the latest on the battle over the nomination of Miguel Estrada to a place on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals: When debate restarts in the Senate today, there will be a filibuster. If Democrats don’t do it, Republicans will — sort of.

Debate began last week. On Wednesday, Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch talked and talked and talked about Estrada. Then ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy talked and talked and talked about Estrada. More debate was set for the next day.

But when Thursday came, Democrat Byron Dorgan went to the floor and asked for unanimous consent to talk about hydrogen-powered cars. Republicans graciously gave it to him. Then Democrat Patty Murray asked for unanimous consent to talk about asbestos. Republicans graciously gave it to her. Then Democrat Joseph Biden asked for unanimous consent to talk about North Korea. Republicans graciously gave it to him. It seemed like Democrats wanted to talk about everything except Miguel Estrada. (The only one who discussed the nomination was Minority Whip Harry Reid, and that was just for a few minutes.)

At the end of the day, the Republican leadership said to Democrats, We’ll offer you six more hours of debate on Estrada, and then we’ll have a vote. Democrats refused. No, no, no, they said, we need more time to talk about Estrada. So there was no agreement to limit debate — and no schedule for a vote.

Now, debate is starting up again. But this time, Republicans say, things will be different. If Democrats want to change the subject to hydrogen cars or asbestos or North Korea — or anything else to delay the matter at hand — Republicans will likely say no. You wanted more time to debate Estrada, they’ll say, so we’re going to debate Estrada. As one Republican puts it, “It’s going to be all Estrada, all the time. We’re not going to turn to anything else. We’re just going to talk about Estrada.”

At some point, Republicans will again ask for a vote. And if Democrats again say, No, no, no, we need more time to talk about Estrada, Republicans will answer: OK, you want to talk, let’s keep talking. Let’s keep talking through the afternoon. And into the night. And into the morning. And into the next afternoon. At some point, Republicans will again demand a vote. If Democrats do not agree, Republicans will suggest more talking.

What the GOP strategy amounts to is, in effect, a preemptive filibuster. Democrats have threatened a real filibuster to block the nomination, but some Republicans believe that threat is mostly bluff — that Democrats will not be able to muster the 41 votes they need to stop Estrada. So Republicans plan to force the issue this week.

If any GOP senators are wavering, they heard words of encouragement over the weekend from President Bush. Speaking at the Republican retreat in West Virginia, Bush thanked senators for “standing strong for this good nominee” and said: “I expect that [Estrada] will be given a fair hearing on the floor of the Senate. I expect the people of the Senate not to hold him up, not to try to talk his nomination into the ground, because Miguel Estrada not only represents the American dream, but will do us proud on the bench….And when the vote comes up, this guy is going to be confirmed.”