- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) — Many people in Washington, like many in New York, have developed a case of the orange-alert heebie jeebies.

News reports of possible terrorism hang like a funky cloud over the nation's capital, changing the way we conduct ourselves.

Schools are teaching elementary students how to react to an attack by a weapon of mass destruction. Shoppers are emptying store shelves of bottled water, plastic sheeting and duct tape.

Most poignantly, members of Congress have been told to keep a low profile, and to remove the vanity license plates from their cars.

We've all had to make sacrifices in such an atmosphere.

But life — and politics — goes on.

Over in the Senate, Democrats are still subjecting President Bush's judicial nominees to a kind of confirmation water torture.

Delay follows delay.

Though they are in the minority, Democrats have used the Senate's byzantine set of rules to forestall votes on three of Bush's nominees for federal appeals court judgeships.

The most high-profile nomination before the Senate, that of Miguel Estrada for the D.C. Circuit appeals court, is actually the target of an old-fashioned filibuster.

Democrats say they intend to talk the nomination to death, unless the White House hands over legal memos written by Estada when he was in the Justice Department.

Estrada was particularly coy and uncommunicative during his confirmation hearing. The theory is that Estrada's memos are so beyond the pale that making them public would reveal him as too radical for a spot on one of the most important appeals courts in the country.

Republicans respond with outrage.

If all of this seems achingly familiar — and achingly boring — it should.

For six years of the Clinton administration, when Republicans also controlled Congress, many GOP senators did everthing possible to block the Democratic president's judicial nominees.

Federal judges serve for life. Judicial apppointments are perhaps the most important power a president can exercise.

The federal courts affect the social issues we most care about — abortion, school prayer, drug use, discrimination, homosexuality.

Federal also courts oversee the relationship between business and consumers. They compel the executive branch to enforce environmental laws.

They define the limits of our civil liberties.

Federal judges, particularly the justices of the Supreme Court, have more influence over how we live our lives than Congress, or even the presidency itself.

If you can limit a president's ability to populate the federal bench, you can severely limit a president's historical legacy.

Republicans understood this deeply when Bill Clinton was president. They sabotaged as many of his judicial nominees as they decently could, and sometimes their tactics went beyond the bonds of decency.

So perhaps you can make the case that the Democrats deserve the chance to exact their own pound of political flesh, now that George W. Bush is making the nominations.

You can make that case, but it would be a bad one.

The only thing fortunate about the current state of affairs is that the public doesn't seem to give a damn. Otherwise, the voters might be tempted to declare a plague on both their houses.

The truly unfortunate aspect of this battle is that judicial seats remain unfilled, court dockets back up to intolerable levels and nominees put their lives on hold for years.

Whatever happened to the civilized custom of allowing a president to pick his own nominees, as long as those nominees were swimming somewhere in the extraordinarily broad mainstream of American politics?

That sense of courtesy died in the 1990s, when the politics of personal destruction became a form of high art in this town.

The time has come for a return to civility and compromise.

It's expecting too much to ask the Democrats to ease up now. But what's to keep each side from reaching an historic agreement for the future?

Each side could agree to continue the present unpleasantness only through the next election cycle.

Then whoever is president on Jan. 20, 2005, would regain the traditional prerogatives of the job, including the right to place his or her own people in positions of power, as long as those nominees are not demonstrably unfit.

That attitude would apply no matter who controlled the Senate or who occupied the Oval Office.

Such a compromise would allow Democrats to get some of their own back before calling a truce in this war.

Republicans pledging to such a compromise now would have the satisfaction of knowing that the president in 2005 will probably remain a certain former Yale cheerleader turned cowpoke.

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