Democrats made plain yesterday their intention to continue their filibusters against President Bush’s judicial nominations — all but assuring a dramatic parliamentary duel over long-standing Senate practice.
Their intentions became clear after the Senate Judiciary Committee held a new hearing yesterday morning for William G. Myers, whose nomination to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was filibustered last year.
Republicans picked Mr. Myers for the first hearing because they thought he was the most likely to garner the 60 votes needed to break through a Democratic filibuster.
“I think he’s worse off than he was before,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said within hours of Mr. Myers’ hearing. “I don’t think Myers’ vote is going to be any different.”
Mr. Reid also indicated that the filibusters will continue against all seven of Mr. Bush’s resubmitted nominees to the federal appeals bench.
“On the judges that have been brought forward previously, we’re going to treat them just the same as we have in the past,” he told reporters yesterday.
The Democratic promises all but guarantee that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, will have to make good on his promise to employ the so-called “nuclear option” to break the impasse.
That rarely used parliamentary procedure requires just 51 votes to break a filibuster and force a final vote on a judicial nomination. Democrats say using the “nuclear option” would end the Senate tradition of collegiality and paralyze the chamber with partisanship.
Republicans faced another rude awakening yesterday when Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat who has crossed party lines to support Mr. Bush’s nominees, sent a letter to the White House asking Mr. Bush to withdraw his filibustered nominees.
“I am concerned with your decision to re-nominate judicial nominees previously nominated and not confirmed by the Senate in the 108th Congress,” the freshman senator wrote to Mr. Bush.
“The decision reflects a sentiment contrary to the cooperative working relationship we need to develop to confront the many challenges we face. The decision to re-nominate these individuals will undoubtedly create the animosity and divisiveness between the President and the United States Senate as an institution that is not helpful to our Nation and will sidetrack our collective efforts to work on other crucial matters,” Mr. Salazar wrote.
Yesterday’s developments were a slap in the face of the new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who has tried to defuse Democratic filibusters by continuing negotiations and implying that his own party shared the blame for the impasse.
Mr. Specter led with the nomination of Mr. Myers — former Department of Interior solicitor — based on the 58 votes that he told The Washington Times last month that he had counted in favor of the nomination.
With 58 votes in the bank, he said then, finding two more to invoke cloture — or move to a vote for final confirmation — would not be difficult. But the 58 included Mr. Salazar.
Although a spokesman said the Colorado Democrat has not decided how he will vote on the Myers nomination, his letter yesterday to the White House strongly suggests that he will oppose it.
Mr. Specter also hoped to woo support from Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee who opposed Mr. Myers last year.
The Pennsylvanian said last month that Mr. Schumer had indicated a willingness to reconsider Mr. Myers because of his concern for “balance” and the need for a conservative on the liberal San Francisco-based 9th Circuit bench.
But at yesterday’s hearing, Mr. Schumer was in no wooing mood.
“As far as I can tell, little has changed,” he told Mr. Myers. “If anything, your nomination should be in more trouble than it was last year.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said Mr. Myers is the “the most anti-environment nominee sent to the Senate in my lifetime.”
Mr. Myers, a former lobbyist for ranchers and the mining industry, endured more than two hours of questions from Democrats about his conservative views on private property and his concerns about the federal government’s ability to protect the environment and properly run the vast expanses of public land out West.
“What should we cling to should we want to support you?” Mr. Schumer asked at one point. “All of your statements are over the top.”
After the hearing, Mr. Specter departed through a back door and appeared to be less optimistic about working out a solution with Democrats.
“Senator Schumer’s opening statement was as tough an indictment as I’ve heard in that room,” he said in a bleak tone of voice.
Mr. Specter said Mr. Schumer previously had made a statement suggesting a willingness to reconsider Mr. Myers, whose nomination came seven votes short of breaking the filibuster in the 108th Congress.
“He has since totally backed off that,” Mr. Specter said.
But not everything that happened yesterday on judicial nominations was acrimonious.
Just hours after Mr. Reid signaled his party’s intention to continue filibustering Mr. Bush’s nominees, the White House nominated Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval to the federal district court bench for Mr. Reid’s home state.
Because Mr. Reid had recommended Mr. Sandoval for the post, yesterday’s nomination served as a not-so-subtle reminder that the White House is willing to work with Democrats — at least sometimes.
“Brian Sandoval has served Nevada with distinction in a variety of offices and as a private practice attorney. He is a man of character and integrity and will be a fine federal judge,” Mr. Reid said in a statement issued after the nomination. “I would predict that Brian’s nomination will move quickly through the Senate and will be an example of what Democrats and Republicans can achieve on judicial nominations when we work together to advance qualified consensus candidates.”