The 5-Minute Briefing: US courts showdown

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The Independent US

Senate Republicans are furious with Democrats who are blocking several nominations by President Bush of judges to federal appeal courts. The Democrats claim the nominees are dangerous conservatives whose rulings would turn the clock back. Republicans say Mr Bush has the right to choose who he pleases and - with 55 Republican votes in the 100-seat Senate - have them approved.

What is the crisis about?

Senate Republicans are furious with Democrats who are blocking several nominations by President Bush of judges to federal appeal courts. The Democrats claim the nominees are dangerous conservatives whose rulings would turn the clock back. Republicans say Mr Bush has the right to choose who he pleases and - with 55 Republican votes in the 100-seat Senate - have them approved.

So what's the problem?

An ancient Senate custom known as the filibuster. Opposition Senators can talk a proposal to death, unless supporters gain a super-majority of 60 votes to cut off debate. The Republicans do not have 60 votes, and Democrats vow to filibuster at least three nominations of which they especially disapprove. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, threatens a rule change so that a simple majority will suffice to confirm a judicial candidate.

How will Democrats react?

Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate accuses Republicans of going for a legislative "nuclear option". He says he will use every available procedural device to bring the Senate to a standstill. This would kill Mr Bush's entire legislative agenda.

Isn't this a bit excessive, for a few federal judges?

The stakes are much higher than that. The judiciary has become the main battleground in the culture wars that have taken over US politics. Many Republicans and their Christian conservative allies say the federal bench, where appointments are for life, has become the last redoubt of liberals seeking to rewrite laws to their taste, and denying the will of the country's conservative majority. As the intervention of Congress in the Terry Schiavo case shows, many Republicans want to bring the judiciary to heel. Raising tensions are up to three impending vacancies on the Supreme Court. This could give Mr Bush a chance to shape the high court's philosophy for a generation.

Is peace still possible?

Talks are continuing to secure a compromise. It is not clear that Republicans have the required 50 votes (vice-President Dick Cheney has said he would cast his decisive vote to end filibusters in the event of a tie.) Several moderates have expressed unease over a rule change that could hurt them if Republicans are in the minority again. Democrats have to weigh the consequences of bringing Capitol Hill to a standstill. The Republican majority shut down Congress in 1995 over a budget dispute with the Clinton White House, and paid a price in elections the following year.

So what are the odds of a deal?

Touch and go at best. Mr Frist almost certainly plans a Presidential run in 2008, and may resign his seat when it comes up in 2006. His top priority is the backing of Christian conservatives, not the smooth functioning of the Senate. Also, Congress is more partisan - and Republican/Democratic relations worse - than in recent memory.

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