WASHINGTON – In another sign the bipartisanship that characterized the Senate in the weeks following Sept. 11 terror attacks has cracked, another Senate bill — this time over judicial confirmations — has gotten caught up in partisan fighting.
Senate Republicans Tuesday blocked a foreign aid bill in an effort to force Democrats to speed up the pace of judicial confirmations.
Senator Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Republicans are concerned about the bill but are worried more about getting judges onto the bench.
"We do have the important matter of judges... we have only confirmed eight," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he is disappointed by the Republican tactic, but "there is a strong likelihood that five more judges will be confirmed this week."
"So that will then make it maybe three times as many judges as were confirmed by this day in the past two administrations," Daschle said, adding that he didn't want to make comparisons to past Congresses but the complaints were unfair.
The Senate has 52 nominees still pending. There are 108 vacancies in the federal judiciary system, including 39 positions that have been open so long the courts have classified them as "judicial emergencies."
Republicans said they have no other choice but to hold up other legislative efforts until the nominees are confirmed. "Regretfully, this seems to be the only tool with which we are left to try to advance the President's judicial nominations," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Stressing the urgency of the matter, Lott pointed out that the judges would ultimately be involved in adjudicating some of the prosecutions related to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Law enforcement can't make cases to empty courtrooms," added Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Daschle said he will bring the foreign aid bill to another vote Wednesday and every day afterward until the bill is passed and labeled the Republican tactics as "counterproductive."
Daschle said the Republican holdup of the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill prevents allocation of $175 million to fight infectious diseases, $5 billion in direct military assistance to allies in the Afghan region, and $255 million to assist refugees.
Foreign Operations Appropriations is one of the 13 spending bills that were supposed to be finished by Oct. 1, the beginning of the government's fiscal year, but were not.
The government is operating in the meantime under the same priorities established by former President Clinton and lawmakers a year ago.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.