- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) — President George W. Bush on Wednesday again urged Senate Democrats to allow an up-or-down vote on his nominee for the D.C. Court of Appeals, Miguel Estrada, who would be the first Hispanic-American to serve on the court.

"His nomination is being delayed and stalled by Democratic senators. His nomination has been stalled for two years. They're blocking the vote on this good man for purely political reasons," Bush said. "The senators are applying a double standard to Miguel Estrada by requiring him to answer questions that other judicial nominees over time have not been forced to answer."

Bush used a meeting with The Latino Coalition, a public policy group, to argue that Estrada deserves a vote on his nomination. Bush picked Estrada last year to sit on the nation's second-highest court, but Democrats say they want more information about Estrada's legal philosophies.

Members of The Latino Coalition were wrapping a small business economic conference in Washington. Bush tapped into the event to promote his economic stimulus plan with Hispanic business owners. But he also thanked the group for its support of Estrada's nomination.

"The partisans in the Senate are subjecting Miguel Estrada to an unfair, double standard. Failing to allow an up-or-down vote, a vote which will pass, on Miguel Estrada's nomination is a travesty, an injustice, being carried about by those responsible for helping to uphold justice in this country," Bush said.

The Hispanic vote will be an important factor in Bush's bid for re-election. He failed to secure any substantial support in the black community, garnering less than 8 percent of the vote in the 2000 presidential election, and has since the start of his administration been heavily courting Latinos, the largest minority group in the United States.

The Council of La Raza, a Hispanic social justice group, reported in a study of election trends, that Hispanics are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats. The Pew Hispanic Center in a poll found that in voters age 19 to 24, 34 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 21 percent as Republicans, and 26 percent as Independents. Hispanic voters, the poll found, were more likely to vote for issues over party affiliation. Analysts say that could be problematic for Bush in 2004 if the economy has not rebounded.

Democrats vowed a filibuster of Estrada's nomination until they received answers to the questions they had about the Washington attorney. They said Estrada refused to answer questions on the death penalty, a woman's right to choose and environmental protection.

Senate rules dictate a nomination cannot be brought to vote if the Democrats can provide at least 41 votes to sustain their filibuster.

While that margin has held, Estrada gained supported from another Senate Democrat late Tuesday after a private meeting. Estrada met with Florida's Bill Nelson, who subsequently decided to vote for the nomination and said he would not vote to continue a filibuster.

"I believe Mr. Estrada possesses the knowledge and skills needed to be a successful court of appeals judge. Few would argue with his academic credentials, litigation experience or intelligence," Nelson said on the floor of the Senate. "And based on my conversation with him, and those who know him well, I believe he respects — and will honor — his moral and legal obligation to uphold the law impartially."

But Nelson did warn that a nomination of Estrada for the Supreme Court would be a different matter.

"However, should Mr. Estrada someday be considered for a position on the Supreme Court — as some have suggested he could be — I believe further inquiry not only will be justified, but necessary," he said.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., took a swipe at Bush's contention that Democrats are causing the problem with Estrada's nomination while rebuking the GOP for what he called Republican inaction on the economy.

"The claim that the Senate can't do anything else until the Estrada nomination is resolved is wrong. We passed the Omnibus Appropriations bill while we're debating the Estrada nomination. We confirmed other judges," Daschle said.

"We certainly can vote to strengthen the economy and protect Americans from terrorism while we wait for the answers of Mr. Estrada to the questions that we posed. What we can't afford is any more Republican indifference or inaction to these urgent issues."

The dispute has worsened an already contentious relationship between the White House and Senate Democrats over judicial nominations. Democrats accused Estrada of having too little experience to serve on the circuit court. Bush called Estrada, a Honduran immigrant and graduate of Harvard Law School, an example of what makes the United States "so profound and so hopeful and so promising."

"I want to thank you for your work on Miguel's nomination. I will stand by that man's side until he is sworn in as a judge," Bush said.

The White House says regional appeals courts have a 15 percent judicial vacancy rate. Since taking office Bush says he has sent 34 "qualified, mainstream" federal courts of appeals nominees to the Senate, but only half of them have received a vote in the Senate and 12 of the 17 remaining nominees have been waiting more than a year for a floor vote.

Last year, Bush called on federal judges to give the president one year's notice of their intention to retire, whenever possible. He proposed that presidents submit a nomination to the U.S. Senate within 180 days of receiving notice of a federal court vacancy or a judge's intention to retire.

He called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to commit to holding a hearing within 90 days of receiving a nomination to ensure that nominees are promptly considered. And he asked the full Senate to commit to an up-or-down floor vote on each nominee no later than 180 days after the nomination is submitted.

So far, no action has been taken on his proposal.


(With additional reporting by P. Mitch Prothero at the Capitol)

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