Senate Democrats threaten to block judges

Daschle warns against recess appointments by the White House

March 27, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats, turning up the heat in their long-simmering feud with President Bush over judicial nominations, vowed yesterday to block all new federal court appointments unless the White House promises to stop installing judges while Congress is in recess.

"We will be clear," the Democratic leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, told his colleagues yesterday morning in a pointed speech on the Senate floor. "We will continue to cooperate in the confirmation of federal judges, but only if the White House gives the assurance that it will no longer abuse the process."

In effect, the Democrats are retaliating against Bush for his recent decisions to bypass the confirmation process and place two nominees, Charles W. Pickering Sr. and William H. Pryor Jr., on the federal appellate bench while Congress was on vacation. The White House gave no indication yesterday that it would agree to Daschle's demand.

"It's unfortunate, the lengths that Senator Daschle and a minority of Senate Democrats will go to to obstruct the nomination process at a time when we need our government to be at full strength," said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman. "He is suggesting that we leave these critical seats empty, and the American people deserve better."

The exchange marked an escalation of an increasingly hostile battle between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill over Bush's judicial nominees. If the impasse between the White House and the Democrats is not resolved, and Daschle holds true to his threat, dozens of federal judgeships could remain vacant through this November's elections, and possibly longer.

The breakdown, members of both parties said, came after Daschle met with the Senate majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist, a Republican of Tennessee, this week to warn him that Democrats would block all future nominees unless they received assurances from the White House that there would be no more recess appointments. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he conveyed a similar warning to White House officials.

When no assurances were forthcoming, Schumer said, Democrats agreed that Daschle needed to state the Democrats' intentions publicly on the Senate floor.

"A group of us felt very strongly on the Judiciary Committee that the recess appointments were such a finger in the eye of the Constitution that we had to do something about it," Schumer said. "We went to our caucus, and there was almost unanimous acceptance."

The battle is over a relatively small number of judges. Since Bush took office in January 2001, the Senate has confirmed 173 of his judicial nominees. But Democrats have used filibusters to block six nominees, including Pickering and Pryor, to the appeals court, the level just below the Supreme Court.

Republicans, who have been unable to muster the 60 votes they need to break the filibusters, complain that Democrats are also using other tactics to delay consideration of additional nominees.

In January, Bush used a congressional recess to appoint Pickering, a federal circuit judge whose civil rights record as a Mississippi lawyer had generated objections from Democrats. In February, Bush used another recess to appoint Pryor, the Alabama attorney general, who had gained prominence as an outspoken opponent of legalized abortion and an advocate for greater Christian influence in government.

The Constitution gives the president the authority to make temporary recess appointments; lifetime appointments require Senate confirmation.

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