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Pickering Vote Sends A Message

In rejecting President Bush's promotion of a Mississippi judge to a federal appeals court, Senate Democrats put the White House on notice they intend to block strict conservatives from key judicial positions, including the Supreme Court.

"If the White House persists in sending us nominees who threaten to throw the courts out of whack with the country, we have no choice but to vote no," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Democrats used their one-vote majority in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday to kill Mr. Bush's nomination of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering to the U.S. Appeals Court in New Orleans, one step below the Supreme Court.

"This cannot continue," said Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, Pickering's friend of 40 years. "We cannot let stand a plan to deny President Bush his nominees to the court."

Lott called the committee's racially charged proceedings and its 10-9 party-line vote a "slap at Mississippi." The NAACP and other liberal rights groups, a core constituency of the Democrats, strongly disapproved the nomination because they said Pickering supported segregation as a young man and had an ultraconservative voting record as a Mississippi lawmaker.

"This is people trying to use the ghost of the past to try to prevent us from rising up and going forward in a positive way," Lott said. He cited what he called Pickering's close ties to black leaders in Mississippi, some of whom supported his nomination.

Describing himself as "deeply disappointed," President Bush was quick to denounce the committee vote on Pickering, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller. In a written statement, the president said Pickering "deserves better than to be blocked by a party line vote of 10 senators on one committee."

Mr. Bush wanted the Judiciary Committee to let the full Senate vote on the nomination. Pickering probably would have won a majority there, because at least three Democrats in the 50-49 Senate had said they would vote for him. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has said repeatedly he would block any attempt to vote on Pickering without committee approval.

One Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, attacked his colleagues. "This action may very well elect a Republican governor in Mississippi," he said.

Senate Judiciary Democrats, however, were united against Pickering. They repeatedly accused Republicans of mistreating many of the nominations made by former President Clinton, to the point of denying hearings for months at a time.

In addition, the committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, said Pickering "repeatedly injects his own opinions into his decisions on issues ranging from employment discrimination to voting rights."

Other Democrats referred to a case in which Pickering had sought a lighter sentence for a defendant on a cross-burning case, which Republicans contend was misinterpreted by the judge's critics.

Pickering simply does not have "the temperament, the moderation or the commitment to core constitutional ... protections that is required for a life tenure position" on the appeals court, said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Republicans were equally united in their support of the judge. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that Mr. Bush's nominee had been victimized by a smear campaign by groups seeking to impose "an ideological litmus test" on abortion, civil rights and other issues.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also praised Pickering for "moral courage on the issue of race," demonstrated in 1967 when he testified against a Ku Klux Klan leader in Mississippi.

Pickering was not present, but his son, Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss., had a seat in the front row of the spectators section. "What is happening to your father today is a great injustice," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., addressing his remarks to the young congressman.

"For those who opposed my father, who distorted his record or tried to use the process to extort political gain, I am deeply disappointed and saddened at their lack of character and their use of race to try to reopen old wounds," the younger Pickering said.

The committee's actions left the nomination all but dead. Lott could seek a vote by the full Senate, but Daschle insisted Thursday that he has enough votes to keep that from happening.