Senate Republicans on Thursday failed to break a Democratic filibuster of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering's promotion to the federal appeals court, continuing a two-year standoff tinged with accusations of racial, religious and regional politics.
Pickering, a Mississippi federal judge who wants a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, has been accused by Democrats of supporting segregation. He also has been accused of pushing anti-abortion and anti-voting rights views during his time as a state lawmaker.
Republicans have countered that Pickering advocated voting rights for blacks in the 1960s and led integration efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. His supporters charged that his nomination has become a victim of an anti-Baptist, anti-Southern prejudice among many Democrats.
The GOP needed 60 votes to break the filibuster, but the final vote was 54-43. The Republicans have yet to break a Democratic filibuster this year.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Pickering is unqualified for the promotion.
Pickering's opponents complain that he supported segregation as a young man in Mississippi. They also point to his votes as a Mississippi state lawmaker against abortion and voting rights, and his judicial decisions, including efforts to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handles appeals from Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, and the federal judges on that circuit were known to be trailblazers on desegregation and voting rights in the past.
"The fork in the road we come to here is this," Schumer said. "On this nomination, in this important circuit, which has indeed done so much to move us forward, do we nominate a man who as I say on racial issues, is at best mixed, who recently showed in my judgment, at the very minimum showed an insensitivity on the cross-burning case."
Pickering's supporters say he is the victim of a liberal smear campaign.
"Pickering has been the victim by inaccurate race baiting and political trash talk by the news media, members of Congress and Washington's liberal elite," said Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga. "Judge Pickering's critics continue to unfairly label him a racist and segregationist. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the former Republican leader who has been Pickering's greatest supporter in the Senate, called Pickering "one of the smartest individuals, one of the best judges I've known in my life."
Lott was forced out of his leadership position last year after a hail of criticism followed his public praise of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond, a man who ran for president in 1948 as a segregationist.
Pickering's supporters, including his son, U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., have lauded the judge for his courage in testifying against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1967 and have noted that Pickering won Senate confirmation in 1990 to be a U.S. District judge.
Pickering "had his reputation besmirched a couple of years ago, and he's been willing to continue to see this through," Lott said. "He deserves to have his story told and a vote on his nomination."
Democrats say the unwinnable Pickering vote could be timed for Mississippi GOP gubernatorial challenger Haley Barbour to use against Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in the state's Nov. 4 election.
Both men have supported Pickering, but Southern Republicans periodically accuse their Democratic rivals — no matter how conservative — of being beholden to a party that is too liberal and out of touch with southern beliefs.
"I would hope we're not using the U.S. Senate to get involved in a gubernatorial election in Mississippi," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Four Bush judicial nominees have now been blocked by Democrats: Pickering, Texas judge Priscilla Owen, Alabama Attorney General William Pryor and Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada.
Estrada asked that his name be withdrawn as a candidate for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia after Republicans failed seven times to break the Democratic filibuster.
The Senate has approved 167 U.S. federal judgeships for Bush since his inauguration in January 2001.
Pickering was the first of Bush's nominees to fall to the Democrats, who voted down his nomination last year when they controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster and move a nominee to confirmation. Republicans control the chamber by a two-vote margin, with 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who usually sides with Democrats.