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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 00:13 GMT
US Senate stages 'talkathon'
BBC News Online's Rachel Clarke
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Washington

With camp beds and coffee to hand, politicians spent a second night debating in the United States Senate.

If talk is cheap, it will be going at bargain-basement prices during the non-stop session, which started at 1800 local time (2300 GMT) on Wednesday.

Senators Orrin Hatch (left) and Patrick Leahy
Senators like Orrin Hatch (left) and Patrick Leahy will take turns
The majority Republicans scheduled the unusual sitting to protest at what they say is unfair blocking of judicial appointments by the opposition Democrats.

But with no resolution expected, the event is being seen as a show, and has been dubbed a "talkathon".

For the Republicans, the move is seeking "Justice for justice".

Majority leader Bill Frist charges that the Democrats are trying to change two centuries of history by using the never-ending debate or filibuster to sabotage legitimate votes.

To minority leader Tom Daschle, the marathon session will be a "colossal waste of time".

Democrats say the four judges who have not faced a vote are "ideologically extreme" and allowing them to advance to higher courts would politicise the judiciary.

They point out that 168 of President Bush's judicial nominees have been confirmed with only the four blocked and say that is a much higher rate of approval than was given to President Bill Clinton's court picks.

Those arguments are likely to be aired when the Democrats take their turn and they say they will also use their time to attack what they see as the failings of the Republicans, asking why they are so concerned about giving new posts to people who already have jobs when there are millions of unemployed.

Penalties for sleep

It is not the debate which is garnering attention, but the length of the sitting and the possibility of some drama.

Capitol Hill workers prepare beds for senators
Some Republicans called for beds, Democrats will use sofas
The Republicans have said they will schedule an immediate vote on the judicial appointments should their opponents in the chamber appear to nod off or stop paying attention.

The Democrats have their own wish list should they suddenly find themselves in charge, perhaps voting to raise the minimum wage or trying to sneak through a tax credit.

About a dozen beds have been requested and brought into the Capitol Building for some senators to take a nap between their appearances, which are being carefully scheduled by both sides to ensure they have alert members in the chamber at all times.

It is not the first time beds have been brought in, though this was the first session to go beyond 0400 in more than a decade.

But the marathon schedule - with senators speaking for about 30 minutes or so each - pales when compared with events of the past.

The late Strom Thurmond holds the Senate filibuster record, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Recipes, songs and Bible

Another civil rights law in 1964 led to the longest filibuster when segregationists spoke one after the other to delay the legislation for 87 days.

The tone of this week was set minutes after the Senate chaplain opened Monday's session asking for God's help so senators could "sidestep the divisive power of contention" when Senator Harry Reid took the floor.

Senator Harry Reid, photographed in 2002
Harry Reid, pictured in 2002, filibustered against the "talkathon"
Angered by the plans for the "talkathon", he launched in to one of his own, standing and talking for more than eight and a half hours.

He criticised the Republicans but later found time to read from a book he wrote about his tiny hometown of Searchlight, Nevada.

Such diversions from usual political business are perfectly permissible, and a common feature of filibusters.

In 1992, Senator Alfonse D'Amato sang Deep in the Heart of Dixie in the chamber at 0500 while in 1935 Senator Huey Long became renowned for a lengthy speech where he read out Shakespeare, the Bible and even recipes for oysters and pot liquor.

But the "talkathon" may have come at the wrong time for the man who ought to be at the heart of it, chairman of the judiciary committee Senator Orrin Hatch. He has laryngitis.

The BBC's Richard Forrest
"The Democrats say some of the proposed judges are too extreme"

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