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Fourth Democratic senator backs Estrada

Bush now needs five more senators to force a vote

Estrada appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a September confirmation hearing.
Estrada appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a September confirmation hearing.

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- President Bush picked up a fourth Senate Democrat on Tuesday, Bill Nelson of Florida, in support of his embattled nomination of Miguel Estrada to a federal appeals court.

Bush now needs five more senators to force a vote on his bid to make Estrada the first Hispanic judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Democratic foes insisted they had at least 44 lawmakers in the 100-member Senate lined up against the nominee, three more than needed to prevent a confirmation vote. All 51 Senate Republicans back the conservative Washington attorney.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said Tuesday he expected to eventually win over enough Democrats to force a confirmation vote. But top Democratic aides said they did not anticipate any defections and still expected to be able to block Estrada.

The fight is seen as a possible dress rehearsal for Bush's first U.S. Supreme Court nominee, who could be Estrada, provided he first wins the appeals court seat.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is considered the nation's second most powerful court since it often resolves disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government and rules on the constitutionality of federal laws and regulations.

As the Senate engaged in a third week of debate on the nomination, Nelson announced his backing of Estrada a day after a Hispanic group began airing radio ads in Florida and a handful of other states in support of the nominee.

"I am troubled by those who have suggested that some senators are anti-Hispanic because they seek additional information about this nominee," Nelson said in a statement. "Poisoning the debate with baseless, accusations demeans the nomination process."

Credentials reviewed

Yet, Nelson said, "After reviewing Mr. Estrada's personal and professional credentials, including personally interviewing the nominee, I believe he is qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court and, I will vote in favor of his nomination."

An aide said Nelson told Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, two weeks ago he was leaning in favor of Estrada and informed Daschle Tuesday of his decision to back him.

In addition to Nelson, other Democrats who have announced their support for Estrada include: Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, John Breaux of Louisiana and Zell Miller of Georgia.

Earlier Tuesday, Daschle urged the Republican-led Senate to set aside the nomination and begin consideration of competing plans to stimulate the economy. Republicans refused and instead tried to build pressure on Democrats to permit a vote on Estrada.

The only uncommitted senator on the nomination appears to be Democrat Bob Graham of Florida. His office said Tuesday he was reviewing materials and watching the televised Senate debate as he recovers from recent heart surgery.

Bush and fellow Republicans argue that the Honduran-born, Harvard-educated Estrada deserves to be confirmed, noting that the American Bar Association gave him its highest rating.

Democrats complain Estrada failed to answer a number of questions at his confirmation hearing last year, making him a "stealth candidate."

Critics also charge that Estrada, whose nomination has drawn a split response from the Hispanic community, is part of Bush's effort to pack the court with right-wing ideologues.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, sought to end the stalemate by suggesting Democrats and Republicans draft a "reasonable list" of additional questions for Estrada to answer, and then vote on him on Friday.

But the possible deal fell through when Democrats again unsuccessfully demanded confidential memos Estrada wrote as an assistant U.S. solicitor general. The office represents the White House before the Supreme Court.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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