Let the slowdown begin…

With a panel that meets Thursday poised to recommend three of President Bush’s controversial picks for confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans are preparing for a partisan showdown over the president’s judicial nominees that could bring the wheels of government to a halt.

Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, defended Democrats’ recent pattern of using threats of filibusters to block votes on 10 judicial nominees they consider ideologically extreme. Seven of those nominees are back this year and face opposition from Democratic leaders.

Nominees seeking lifetime appointments should be required to demonstrate “not only honesty and competency but the fact that they are in tune with the values and the needs of the American people,” Durbin said. “Unfortunately in the case of 10 judges, many of us believe that the nominees sent by the White House do not meet that test.”

He also noted Democrats had not used the tactic on 95 percent of the president’s nominees.

In response, Republican senators called judicial filibusters a politically motivated practice that the majority party should use its rulemaking powers to stop. That’s something Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has threatened to do in a procedural move dubbed the “nuclear option,” by which Republicans would change the threshold needed to stop such filibusters from a three-fifths vote to a simple majority. Republicans control 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

“It is inexcusable that we allow judicial vacancies to linger for six years or longer in some cases,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. “We need to end this judicial crisis and we need to vote on our judges.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Democrats throw around the word “extremist” loosely but that pinning down what they mean is “like trying to nail Jell-O to a cactus in the Utah desert.” Deciding a candidate is extremist is “no argument for refusing to vote in the first place,” Hatch said. “If senators believe such highly qualified nominees . . . are extremists, then they should vote against them. But these people should be given the opportunity of getting an up or down vote.”

When the Senate Judiciary Committee meets Thursday, a majority of its members could sign off on three nominees in question _ California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and North Carolina Federal District Court Judge Terrence Boyle _ setting up the fight.

If Frist has enough support within his party to attempt a rule change, he could make his move as soon as next week.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill now predict Frist will wait until mid-May, partly because of an unrelated snag in confirmation hearings for John Bolton, the president’s pick for United Nations ambassador. Frist may decide he wants Bolton approved and more progress accomplished on energy legislation and other substantive matters before pursuing a course Democrats are likely to fight by slowing action on just about everything short of national security matters.

“Democrats can think that,” said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call. “I don’t think that factors into our thinking at all. Senator Frist is going to more forward with this if all other options are exhausted.”

On Sunday, Frist is scheduled appear on a conservative religious telecast that suggests Democrats who block judicial nominees are lacking in faith. Several Democrats who identify themselves as religious are balking at that characterization.

Democrats and Republicans traded barbs over the course of Wednesday’s floor exchange. Durbin chided House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, already targeted by Democrats for a series of ethics controversies, for a Fox News radio interview this week in which DeLay criticized Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for using the Internet as a research tool.

“Has the Internet becomes the devil’s workshop? Is it some infernal machine now that needs to be avoided by all right-thinking Americans?” Durbin said. “What is Mr. DeLay trying to say as he is stretching to lash out at judges who happen to disagree with his political point of view?”

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, shot back that Democrats were looking for ways to manipulate the judiciary because they have no prospects for winning a political majority in Congress.

“Is it a religious test? Is it an environmental test? Is it a right-to-life test? Is it a racial test? No, now it’s a Tom DeLay test,” Craig said. “Doesn’t the other side have anything to talk about nowadays? Don’t they have a policy that they can take to the American people that will grasp the majority of the American people’s minds? Or is it simply targeting around the edges?”