As the last traces of post-September 11 bipartisanship and amity disappear from Washington, President Bush could face the abandonment of one of his most cherished hopes: creating a conservative supreme court that might set the tone of US politics for a generation.
After a vindictive and racially charged battle, the Senate judiciary committee decided late on Thursday to reject Charles Pickering, the president's nominee to fill a vacancy on the federal appeals court, the most senior judicial body below the supreme court.
The vote was on party lines: 10-9. The Democrats, who control the Senate, said Judge Pickering's record in Mississippi showed he was incapable of interpreting civil rights laws fairly. Republicans said he had been the victim of "a lynching".
But Judge Pickering is merely a symbol of the increasing bitterness between the Senate and the White House - and the vote was a conscious dress rehearsal for the far more important showdowns that will come when the president starts appointing new supreme court justices.
That moment may not be far away: the present chief justice, William Rehnquist, is 77 and one of his colleagues, John Paul Stevens, is 81.
It is now certain that the kind of right-wing judge Mr Bush is likely to appoint will never be approved by the Senate as it is now constituted. The consequences of that could affect American politics long after Saddam Hussein might have died of old age.
One Senate judiciary committee member, Charles Schumer, said the battle was not about Judge Pickering - "a decent and honorable man" - but about keeping a balance and stopping the president from stacking courts with right-wingers.
"We don't elevate a person to the second highest court in the land just because he's not a racist. We must have higher standards than that," Mr Schumer said.
The defection last May of Senator Jim Jeffords, the former Republican, which handed control of the Senate to the Democrats, has been overshadowed by the events of September 11. But the consequences of Mr Jeffords' action are a constant frustration to the White House, and will remain so unless the governing party can break precedent and actually gain seats at November's midterm elections.
If the Democrats hold the Senate, the president will be unable to appoint the kind of supreme court justice he wants before he comes up for re-election in 2004.
The Senate has been making life tough for the president on several issues lately - further tax cuts for the wealthy, campaign finance, and oil drilling in Alaska. With such a small majority, the Democrats cannot initiate much themselves, especially as the Republicans run the House of Representatives. But the Senate has a mandate to approve the appointment of judges, and party leaders have shown their determination to exercise their rights.
Analysis of recent appointments to lower courts suggests the Bush administration has been far more concerned about seeking out politically sympathetic judges than any other recent presidency, including those of George Bush Sr and Ronald Reagan.
Republicans contend that the Democrats have been deliberately obstructive and are endangering the workings of the legal system: there are 96 vacancies for federal judges out of 842, a historically high figure, which means US justice grinds even more slowly than usual.
Some of the Democrats' intransigence is a hangover from the Clinton era, when a Republican majority in the Senate adopted similar tactics towards his nominees.
Elements of this go beyond the appointment of judges. Despite the pressures of war, the White House is losing friends on Capitol Hill through its secretiveness and its determination to accrue power.
"The administration has a thinly concealed contempt of Congress," said Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution. "They'll deal with them when they have to do so, but basically they consider them a pain in the ass. You're beginning to see a reaction to this from Republicans as well."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002