Senate Republicans yesterday pushed through the confirmation of Theodore B. Olson as solicitor general, in anticipation of gridlock over conservative judge nominees when Democrats take control of committees.
The Senate voted 51-47 to confirm Mr. Olson, with Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Zell Miller of Georgia voting with Republicans.
The Senate also approved the assistant attorneys general nominations of Viet D. Dinh, 96-1, and Michael Chertoff, 95-1.
The power shift is the result of Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords decision to defect from the Republican Party, which will put all committees under Democratic control within two weeks.
Democrats agreed to move Mr. Olsons nomination to a vote, but they threaten to block future judicial nominees whose politics they deem to be too conservative.
Democrats will be “more aggressive and hostile” and “more personal in their attacks on Mr. Bushs judicial nominees,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican.
Democrats wasted little time yesterday in setting the Judiciary Committee agenda.
“The idea of having just one slate of right-wing judges is gone,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and incoming chairman of the Judiciary courts subcommittee.
“There will be some conservative judges, but we will exert moderation,” Mr. Schumer said.
Mr. Olsons nomination remained bottled up in committee for weeks by Democrats, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott tried to reach consensus to move forward.
However, just hours after Mr. Jeffords announced that he would become an independent, Mr. Lott used a Senate procedure to force the nomination from committee and onto the floor for brief debate and a vote.
“We could have bottled this up for some time, but I dont want to do that; there should be a vote,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
Mr. Leahy is the ranking Democrat in line to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, but he could face a challenge from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Biden will inherit the Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship from Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, but Democratic sources say Mr. Biden wants to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a position he held from 1987 to 1995.
The Delaware Democrat has been a leading critic of conservative judicial nominations. Mr. Leahy is also cautious of conservative ideologues, but he appears more willing to let the administration choose its judges and executive agency nominees.
Democrats say they will reinstitute the “blue slip” policy, which gives senators single veto power over judicial nominees from their home state.
That policy puts at risk the nomination to the judiciary of Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, who is opposed by his home state senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat.
Earlier this year, the White House eliminated the American Bar Association from the vetting process of judges. This angered Democrats, who vowed yesterday to reinstate the organization to vet all nominees before moving forward with the confirmation process.
Mr. Lott said the change of power will occur after President Bush signs the $1.35 trillion tax cut undergoing final negotiations in the House and Senate, or June 5, whichever comes later.
“Any delay would be unfair” in changing committee leadership positions, said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.
Ranking committee Democrats will automatically be elevated to chairman status, but subcommittee chairmanships and freshman committee seats must be agreed upon by the whole Senate in an organizational resolution.
The resolution can be filibustered, and Republicans yesterday said they may insist on some sort of protection for judges before agreeing to the resolution, which requires 60 votes to pass. The makeup of the Senate is now 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and Mr. Jeffords, the lone independent.
“This will clearly change a lot of things,” said Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald, Illinois Republican.
A Democratic leadership aide said they have no intention of replacing the chaplain, parliamentarian, clerks or secretary of the senate. Committee staff are retained under the power-sharing agreement reached earlier this year.
The committee ratio of Democrats to Republicans has not been decided. It is currently equally split between the two parties.
Democrats will hold a one-seat majority in each committee, and committee staffs and budgets will remain equal through 2002, said Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, the Senates second-ranking Democrat. The committees will decide whether to add a Democrat or subtract a Republican, although Mr. Reid said he and others opposed expansions because they thought many of the committees were getting too big.
Mr. Lott said yesterday he was designating five Republican senators to work with Democrats on organizational changes.
“We bent over backward in my opinion to come up with a power-sharing agreement in January, and we are going to expect the same in return,” he said.
Along with Mr. Leahy and Mr. Biden, some of the incoming chairmen are the most liberal members of the Democratic Party: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, in line for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and Tom Harkin of Iowa, who takes over Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Mr. Jeffords reward for bolting the Republican Party is expected to be chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, of which he is not a member.
However, Mr. Reid is the ranking member on that committee and said such a decision has not been made. He said it will be his decision whether he will demand the chairmanship of the committee. Mr. Reid is also the ranking member on the Ethics Committee, and he may choose to be its chairman instead.
The environment committee is less prestigious than Mr. Jeffords current position as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Asked if he was surprised Mr. Jeffords sought the chairmanship of his environment committee, Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican, said: “I had no idea.”