Thursday, June 7, 2007

Republican leaders yesterday threatened a “total shutdown” of Senate business if Democrats keep holding up President Bush’s appointments to the federal bench.

“It could cause major meltdown,” Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said after Democrats postponed a committee vote on the nomination of Leslie H. Southwick to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Mr. Lott said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, was “very mad” about judicial appointments and could bring the narrowly divided chamber to a standstill if Democrats don’t speed up the confirmation process.

“It could be total shutdown here pretty soon.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said the delay on Mr. Southwick, a former Mississippi state appellate judge, was par for the course.

“It is clear that the Democrats intend to slow walk judicial nominations and throw up as many roadblocks as they possibly can,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Southwick deserved more scrutiny due to his potentially racist and homophobic rulings.

Mr. Leahy bristled at the Republican threat of shutdown.

“They should say that to me if they feel that way,” he said. “Look at the record. I’ve moved the nominees much faster … than either of the two [previous] Republican chairmen. Numbers are pesky little things. It is a fact.”

Mr. Leahy was referring to the 20 circuit court nominations confirmed by the Senate during his tenure as chairman for roughly two years, counting the five months of the current session and the combined 17 months from the 108th Congress and part of the 107th Congress when control switched midsession.

The former chairman, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, presided during two years in which 16 circuit court judges were confirmed, according to tallies provided by Mr. Leahy’s office.

At the time, Republicans struggled as the majority to pass Mr. Bush’s appointments over Democratic filibusters.

Since Democrats took control of Congress in January, the Senate has confirmed three of Mr. Bush’s nine circuit court nominations and 15 of his 38 district court nominees, according to the Justice Department.

Mr. Leahy’s office counted eight circuit court nominees handed up by Mr. Bush, since the president nominated Norman Randy Smith to two different posts on the U.S. Circuit Court for the 9th District before he was confirmed.

The Senate confirms an average of 17 circuit court judges in a session, moving at a rate of about one per month when in session.

With just three confirmed in the first five months of this year and Mr. Southwick’s nomination possibly put off until July, the Senate is on a schedule to confirm about half the usual number of circuit court judges.

“We will continue to process judicial nominations in due course and in good faith,” said a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

Mr. Southwick, an Iraq war veteran who was unanimously rated “well qualified” by the American Bar Association, has come under attack from liberal groups and the Congressional Black Caucus for his rulings during 11 years on the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

He is criticized for joining a decision that reinstated a state worker fired for using a racial epithet and a decision granting custody of a child to the father rather than the lesbian mother. He is also criticized for favoring an employer’s right to fire employees over workers’ rights.

The Congressional Black Caucus objected to the nomination of Mr. Southwick, who is white, instead of a black judge to the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Republicans said Mr. Southwick’s opponents were distorting his record and the lawmakers vowed to fight for the nomination.

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