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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Challenges await Congress

Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – When senators reconvene today after a week’s recess, they will return to a chamber with much of its agenda in disarray.

First item of business will be confirmation of federal judges, an issue that has tied the Senate in knots. And behind the scenes, senators will be tussling madly over what comes next.

Republicans want to proceed with the nomination of former Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations. But it is uncertain how quickly Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., can move that issue to the floor again.

Just before the recess, Democrats pulled together to block a vote on Bolton. Republicans denounced the move as a filibuster; Democrats insisted it was designed to pressure the White House to release classified data that, according to Bolton’s critics, could help them make their case that he is unsuited for the U.N. post.

The dispute over Bolton ended a week that began with a surprise compromise over a push by Republicans to strip Democrats of their right to filibuster nominees to the federal bench. Seven Democrats and seven Republicans defused the issue – for the time being – by making a pact under which the Democrats agreed not to filibuster judicial nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances.”

That cleared the way for confirmation of three of President Bush’s long-stalled picks for federal appellate courts. The first, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen, was confirmed before the recess. The second, California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, is expected to be confirmed Wednesday. A vote on the third, former Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr., could come as early as Thursday.

Some senators speculated the deal on judges might lead to a more collegial atmosphere. Instead, after the Bolton dispute, many lawmakers left town seething – Republicans over what they considered Democratic bad faith, Democrats over what they considered GOP high-handedness.

Bad feelings may linger. Republicans believe they are only two votes short of the 60 they need to end debate on Bolton. Democrats must decide how hard to press the White House for the data they seek. The White House has said it does not intend to provide more information, but Democrats haven’t conceded.

The filibuster issue also may spark fireworks. Senators on both sides have said the centrists’ accord was only a cease-fire over federal judges.