Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, on Thursday warned of “bedlam” in the Senate if some in his Republican party followed through on threats to use a controversial parliamentary manoeuvre to win approval of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.
Mr Specter's comments came as his committee prepared for hearings next week on two appeals court judges Mr Bush nominated last year but whose approval was blocked by Democrats.
They were among the 12 judges Mr Bush renominated this month, and leaders from both parties have been preparing for a showdown on the issue.
Emboldened by the enhanced majority they won in November increasing their caucus from 51 to 55 seats some Senate Republicans have threatened to use the so-called “nuclear option” to change rules on the use of a filibuster against judicial nominations.
Under long-standing Senate procedure, just 40 votes of the 100-member body are required to block action on most measures. But Republicans say Democrats have improperly used the filibuster against would-be judges, denying a yes-or-no vote on the president's picks. Democrats insist they used the filibuster sparingly, blocking votes on 10 of more than 200 court nominations Mr Bush made during his first term.
Republicans, led by Trent Lott, the former majority leader, have proposed using a simple majority to change the rules that govern court appointments and in effect eliminating the filibuster as a tool of the minority.
“The Senate will be in turmoil and the judiciary committee will be hell” if that happened, Mr Specter said. He declined to say whether he would support such a rule change, insisting he was working hard to avoid the situation.
The issue again throws a spotlight on Mr Specter, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania who became a target of conservatives late last year when he said judges who opposed abortion would have a hard time winning Senate confirmation. He was forced to pledge quick action on Mr Bush's court nominees before being named committee chairman.
The 75-year old Mr Specter, who announced last week that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease after bouts with a brain tumour and heart-bypass surgery used a news conference to show his stamina and determination to pursue a busy committee agenda.
A measure to reform US bankruptcy laws is scheduled to be on the Senate floor beginning Monday, with Mr Specter managing the debate. On Tuesday he will meet Bill Frist, Senate majority leader, and Republicans on his committee to try to hammer out an agreement on the establishment of a fund to compensate victims of asbestos.
Mr Specter also said his panel, or its antitrust subcommittee, would hold hearings on recently proposed mergers in the telecommunications industry.
Mr Specter faulted both parties for the stand-off over judicial nominations, tracing its roots to the last years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Now, he said: “No one wants to back down and no one wants to lose face.”