WASHINGTON -- A historic confrontation over the federal courts and the rights of legislative minorities continued to escalate over the weekend, as a key Democrat sharpened his criticism of Republican threats to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations.
Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada charged that barring the use of the filibuster against court nominees would reduce the Senate to ''a rubber stamp for the president."
''When it comes down to it, stripping away these important checks and balances is about the arrogance of those in power who want to rewrite the rules so that they can get their way," Reid said Saturday in the weekly Democratic radio address.
Reid's remarks underscored the growing tension in Washington over judicial nominations.
Frustrated by Democratic use of the filibuster to block 10 of Bush's first-term nominees to the powerful federal appellate courts, GOP leaders are considering changing Senate rules to prohibit the parliamentary tactic for judicial nominations. That would allow Bush's nominees to be confirmed with 51 votes, rather than 60 votes required to break a filibuster.
Because the GOP has 55 senators, that would mean Democrats could block Bush court nominees -- including a potential nomination for a Supreme Court vacancy -- only if they could persuade at least six of the GOP lawmakers to join them. That would be a huge hurdle, given the reluctance of senators to vote against nominees from a president of their own party.
But some Republicans remain uneasy about eliminating the filibuster, which has provided a last line of defense for legislative minorities throughout Senate history. As a result, aides on both sides say neither party appears certain it has enough votes to prevail if the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, brings the rules change to a vote.
In a break with Senate Republican leaders, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said yesterday that he would oppose any ban on filibusters.
Appearing on CBS's ''Face the Nation," McCain said prohibiting filibusters for judicial nominations could spread to other legislative issues, fundamentally changing the Senate, and could harm Republicans in a future Democratic Senate.
Conservatives are pressuring the Senate leadership to implement the rules change. Those demands have grown louder since state and federal courts refused to order the reinsertion of a feeding tube for Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who recently died.
Last week, leading social conservatives denounced the courts at a conference in Washington. But the prospect of exempting judicial nominations from the filibuster has drawn resistance from other parts of the GOP coalition, including the Gun Owners of America.
Senate Republican aides increasingly believe Democrats are bluffing with threats of counterattacks. They argue that if Democrats tried to stall the Senate, the party would face a public backlash like the GOP did in 1995 when it shut down the government during budget battles with then-President Clinton.
Both Frist and Reid have said they are open to a compromise that could avert a showdown over the filibuster. Frist intends to present Democrats a proposal in about two weeks, an aide said.