- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Republicans and Democrats are bracing for what they say could be the most bitter partisan fight in more than 25 years on the Senate Judiciary Committee, already the scene of some of the Senate’s most acrimonious showdowns and stalemates.

Judiciary staffers and senators are preparing to hold hearings for a new attorney general and possibly a new Supreme Court justice and chief justice. Normally contentious under any circumstances, these confirmation hearings could be poisoned by the continued fighting between Democrats and Republicans over nine of President Bush’s nominees to lower courts, which the Democrats are filibustering.

“It’s an opportunity for Democrats to show whether they learned anything from the last two elections and whether they’re now prepared to work with Republicans on behalf of the American people or if they want to continue obstructing,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee.

“It’s going to be huge,” Mr. Stewart added, comparing it to the bitter confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “It has the potential to be a perfect storm if the Democrats want to obstruct. It’s Clarence Thomas cubed.”

Although some Democrats privately expressed concern that obstruction on Mr. Bush’s judge picks and legislative agenda may have contributed to their loss of four Senate seats, other Democrats remain defiant.

Republicans “don’t have a mandate,” said Barry Piatt, spokesman for Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota. “This was a very close election, and many of the Senate seats they picked up were won very narrowly.”

Republicans hope that Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s loss to former Rep. John Thune in South Dakota — a state that Mr. Bush won by 21 percentage points — will be a warning to Democrats from other conservative states who are thinking of blocking Mr. Bush’s nominees.

“Democrats, especially those from red states who know they’re in the crosshairs, are going to have to reconsider the promiscuous use of the filibuster,” said Sean Rushton, director of the conservative Committee for Justice.

North Dakota voted for Mr. Bush by a margin of 27 percentage points, but Mr. Dorgan’s spokesman called the idea that Democrats are misusing the filibuster “baloney.”

“There have been a few extreme right-wing judges who have been rejected,” Mr. Piatt said. “Ninety percent have been confirmed. What more do they want?”

Nine Bush nominees have been approved by the Judiciary Committee and then blocked by Democrats from a final vote on the floor of the Senate.

With 51 Republicans in the Senate, the party needed to pick up nine Democrats to garner the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and force a final vote on a nominee being filibustered by Democrats. After last week’s wins, however, Republicans will have 55 senators starting in January and will need to peel off just five Democrats — several of whom have voted with Republicans on nominees in the past.

The most pressing matter now facing the Senate Judiciary Committee is last night’s announcement that Attorney General John Ashcroft will resign. His replacement must be approved by the committee and confirmed by the full Senate.

Also facing the Senate Judiciary Committee is the expected retirement of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who recently announced that he suffers from thyroid cancer. As Chief Justice Rehnquist undergoes treatment for his illness, Senate Republicans are preparing for the vacancy.

His retirement would leave the White House facing possibly two separate hearings: one to replace Chief Justice Rehnquist and a second to elevate a sitting justice to chief justice.

Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is likely to become the minority whip and is a member of the Judiciary Committee, sounded a note of caution, but also indicated a willingness to fight the White House over nominations.

“With diminished numbers on the Democratic side, we need to carefully pick our battles, and we have to look for common ground with the administration when we can find it,” he said. “But no one should think my Democratic colleagues and I are going to back off when we believe that the president is advocating something that might not be in the best interest of the country.”

Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, said her boss will consider each nominee individually.

“Senator Bingaman feels strongly that any nominee ought to be within the mainstream,” she said. “He makes no decisions before the hearing. He’s got no litmus test other than that the nominee ought to be within the mainstream.”

Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana — where Mr. Bush got 60 percent of the vote — isn’t paying the matter much attention, his spokeswoman said.

“We’re just trying to recover from the election,” Meg Keck said. “It seems kind of early to be focusing on this.”

A primary question swirling around Judiciary Committee circles during the past week has been whether Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, will assume the committee gavel in January as scheduled. Conservatives were outraged by comments that Mr. Specter made last week, which they interpreted as a warning to Mr. Bush not to put forth pro-life nominees for the Supreme Court.

Mr. Specter denied any such warning, and calls for Mr. Specter’s scalp appear to have ebbed.

“I think he will be the next chairman of the committee, and I think he’s been duly warned,” said one Republican staffer on the Judiciary Committee.

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