Republicans are moving the Senate toward a final confrontation with Democrats over the blocking of President Bush's judicial nominations, even as internal polling shows that most Americans don't support their plan to ban judicial filibusters.
Now that Texas judge Priscilla Owen and California judge Janice Rogers Brown have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has two nominees to push forward in his battle against Democratic filibusters that conservatives hope their allies will rally around.
"We have now the vehicle. We have two qualified women. They have met every test," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
An internal Republican poll showed that Frist's plan to ban judicial filibusters might not be as popular as they had hoped.
Frist, strongly backed by conservatives in and out of the Senate, has threatened to employ a parliamentary tactic — requiring only a majority vote — to change Senate practices on judicial filibusters. Republicans hold 55 seats in the 100-member Senate, and Vice President Dick Cheney would be available to break a tie if necessary.
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada commands a solid block of 45 votes against the proposal, and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have publicly stated their opposition as well. A few GOP lawmakers are uncommitted, and Reid said this week that if Frist calls a vote, "it's going to be very close."
GOP polling shows 37 percent support for the GOP plan to deny Democrats the ability to filibuster judicial nominees, while 51 percent oppose, officials said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several officials who attended the polling briefing said the survey also contained encouraging news for Republicans. The poll found more than 80 percent of those surveyed believed all judicial nominees deserve a yes-or-no vote.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, noting the survey data has not been made public.
Republicans say negative polling numbers wouldn't deter them. "Polling on this issue is not going to make a difference. We are going to try to do what's right," Hutchison said.
GOP Conference chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said he was just as strongly behind the plan to push through Mr. Bush's nominees, despite a report that he was urging Republicans to slow down. "As far as the timing, that's up to the majority leader," he said.
Republicans want a resolution before a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court because they worry that having to get support from 60 senators would affect who Mr. Bush picks for that seat. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, is fighting thyroid cancer.
One judicial nominee, Idaho lawyer William Myers, already is waiting for a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. But conservatives would rather see the final showdown come over Brown, Owen or U.S. Appeals Judge William Pryor, who was given a temporary appointment by Mr. Bush after he was blocked by Democrats.
Conservatives during the last Congress accused Democrats of acting out of racial, religious and gender prejudice in blocking Brown, Owen and Pryor. Brown is black, and Pryor is a Catholic.
The Family Research Council, a conservative organization, has arranged a rally for this weekend in Tennessee to build support for the GOP plan. It accuses Democrats of waging filibusters based on faith. Frist is scheduled to appear by videotape.
Democrats have condemned those attacks and countered that their opposition is based solely on the conservative views of the nominees.
"The nomination of Janice Rogers Brown is a prime example of a nominee who sees the federal bench as a platform to advance her own extremist views," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Republicans defended Owen and Brown, saying they were fine judges and that Democrats broke with Senate tradition by threatening to filibuster their nominations.
Owen "deserves to be confirmed and she deserves the professional courtesy of an up-or-down vote," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who served with Owen on the Texas Supreme Court.