Squabbling Over Judges

The White House on Thursday decried as "a bad trend" the Senate's slow process of moving President Bush's judicial nominees to the federal bench — but stopped short of saying political payback is the motive.

A year after Mr. Bush asked senators to rise above the "bitterness of the past" in considering his first 11 judicial nominees, only three of them sit on federal appeals courts.

Those numbers are appalling, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, especially when considered alongside those of some previous presidents; Ronald Reagan, for example, had his first 11 nominees approved in an average of 39 days.

"There's a bad trend happening in the Senate," Fleischer said. He would not attribute the delays to raw politics, saying, "I have not heard the president describe motives. ... The president is not one to point fingers and allege politics."

Democrats counter that the confirmation record is better than when Republicans ran the Senate with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House. They also blame Mr. Bush for sending them staunch conservatives instead of what they call "middle-of-the-road" nominees.

"We are working hard to restore fairness in the confirmation process, which was sorely lacking in the previous six years under Republican control of the Senate," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Controversial nominations take longer, and the president can help by choosing nominees primarily for their ability instead of for their ideology."

And in an apparent effort to undermine the White House argument, the Democratic Senate leadership plans Thursday to confirm four more of Mr. Bush's judicial nominees, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller.

Fleischer did spread some of the blame to both Democrats and Republicans. "It is a problem that both parties have contributed to. The president hopes the Senate can reverse the trend."

Mr. Bush scheduled a meeting Thursday afternoon with Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to talk about the pace of the nominations.

Democrats say the ball is in the president's court.

"The choice is this: nominate reasonable, moderate men and women who belong on the bench and we'll confirm them right away," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "Nominate ideologues willing to sacrifice the interests of many to serve the interests of a narrow few, and you'll have a fight on your hands. It's that simple."

The larger count is this: As of Wednesday, Mr. Bush had nominated 99 candidates to fill federal appeals and district court vacancies since becoming president, and the Senate had confirmed 52.

Whether that is a good or bad number for this point in the president's term is a bone of contention between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bush met with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to push for hearings and a vote on his nominees. The White House issued a statement noting that the Senate approved most of the appeals court nominations of former Presidents Clinton, Bush and Reagan during their first two years in office.

Mr. Bush accused senators Friday of "endangering the administration of justice in America" by balking at his judicial nominees. "Justice is at risk in America, and the Senate must act for the good of the country," he said.

Over the years, the battle has grown more contentious since the failure of Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and the vicious but ultimately successful battle to get Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.

Republicans say Mr. Bush's treatment by Senate Democrats is unprecedented, with most of his first nominees yet to get even a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

Democrats say they're moving as fast as they can, considering they've controlled the Senate for less than a year.

Mr. Clinton, in his first two years, nominated 143 candidates including two Supreme Court nominees — for the federal courts. The Senate, then also controlled by Democrats — confirmed 129 for a 90 percent confirmation rate.

The number dropped substantially after the Republicans took over the Senate in 1995. Mr. Clinton's highest number of confirmed judges was 68 in 1998, his low 20 in 1996. During the rest of Clinton's eight years, the Republican-controlled Senate never cleared more than 37 judges in a year except for 1995, when it confirmed 53.

Republicans have focused their ire on the Democrats' confirmation of only three of Mr. Bush's first 11 U.S. Appeals Court nominees, standard-bearers of his judicial philosophy. Of the three, Judges Roger Gregory and Barrington Parker, were holdover nominees by Clinton; the other one, Judge Edith Brown Clement, stirred no controversy.

The other eight are mostly staunch conservatives, and no action has been taken on them. At least one of them, Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada, has been mentioned repeatedly as possibly the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee if a position comes open on the court during Bush's term.

Mr. Bush has repeatedly demanded that Estrada be confirmed, and Republican senators often invoke the judge's name when complaining about Democratic delays.