Republicans' talk-athon fails to budge Democrats

Senate in wordy standoff over Bush's nominees for federal judgeships

November 14, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush unleashed harsh criticism at Senate Democrats yesterday for holding up his judicial nominees as the last hours ticked down on a theatrical 39-hour marathon debate on judges that seemed to leave the two parties as deeply divided as ever.

Little has changed since Republicans marched to the Senate chamber Wednesday evening to protest Democrats' use of procedural tactics this year to prevent a handful of Bush's conservative judicial choices from getting confirmation votes. To neither party's surprise, Democrats are set today to block votes on three federal appellate court nominees.

In a hastily called White House appearance yesterday morning, Bush, flanked by the three nominees, decried Democratic tactics as "shameful," saying that his choices "are being denied a chance to serve on the bench because of ugly politics in the United States Senate."

Senators talked into the night - as they had the night before - as bleary-eyed aides and activists who had come to witness the historic event, the first Senate all-nighter in nearly a decade, wandered the Capitol's hallways. The talk-athon was originally slated to last 30 hours and end at midnight, but Republicans extended it to 9 this morning.

The dispute reaches far beyond the three judges who Republicans are trying to get confirmed today, or the others who Democrats are opposing, and focuses instead on a fundamental disagreement between the two parties over the Senate's role in approving nominations.

Democrats say Bush has chosen right-wing extremists who do not belong on the federal bench and that it is their obligation to oppose such candidates. Republicans, accuse Democrats of subverting the Constitution to block the judges for political gain.

The three would-be judges that senators will vote on today are all women appointed to federal appellate courts: Janice Rogers Brown of California for the D.C. court, Carolyn B. Kuhl of California for the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit, and Priscilla R. Owen of Texas to the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit.

Bush said the three would be confirmed if Democrats would stop blocking votes on their nominations: "and yet a few senators are playing politics. And it's wrong, and it's shameful, and it's hurting the system."

But Democrats, who blasted Republicans for taking up the better part of a week on the judicial debate, nonetheless argued that they had a right to use Senate procedures to block judges they consider unfit to serve on the federal bench.

"The founders did not intend for the Senate to roll over and play dead whenever the president tells them to," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "They said that we should make our own independent judgment and decisions."

Several Republicans spent their minutes and hours recounting in meticulous detail the professional and judicial records of the jurists Democrats have blocked from confirmation votes. Along with the three women, the list includes D.C. appeals court nominee Miguel A. Estrada, who withdrew his name from consideration in September after being blocked for two years by Democrats; Fifth Circuit nominee Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi; and Eleventh Circuit nominee William J. Pryor Jr.

The problem is particularly acute among Bush's federal appellate court nominees, Republicans say. Of 46, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday, only 29 have been confirmed.

"It's important, as the president has repeatedly said, for these nominees to receive a timely up or down vote," McClellan said.

Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes took the Senate floor yesterday afternoon to argue - as had many of their fellow Democrats - that the Senate should be focusing on jobs and other pressing national issues, not judges. But Mikulski and Sarbanes have not backed down from their threat to block the nomination of another federal appeals court nominee who was not part of the talk-fest: Claude A. Allen, a Virginian tapped for a Fifth Circuit seat formerly held by a Marylander.

"It is by tradition that there are geographic seats on the court of appeals," Mikulski said, "and we want ours."

The Judiciary Committee could vote on Allen's nomination as early as next week. Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, has scheduled action on Allen for today, but objections by Democrats are expected to postpone the vote for a week.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, cited Bush's selection of Allen - announced after Sarbanes and Mikulski had objected to a Washington attorney who lives in Maryland, Peter D. Keisler, for the slot - as an example of what she called the president's abuse of the judicial nomination process. Allen has the support of both of his home state senators, Republicans George F. Allen and John W. Warner.

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