Bush Defends Pickering at White House

The final White House push started Wednesday for President Bush's embattled nominee to the U.S. Appeals Court with a defense by the president himself of District Judge Charles Pickering.

Bush hosted Pickering and some of his supporters in the Oval Office Wednesday, including several Mississippi Democratic elected officials who support Pickering's elevation to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Thursday on whether to confirm Pickering, who has been criticized by congressional Democrats for his civil and reproductive rights record.

By hosting Pickering at the White House, Bush hoped to send a message about his strong support for the District court judge.

"I think the country is tired of people playing politics all the time in Washington. I believe they are holding this man's nomination up for political purposes," Bush told reporters.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that Pickering's civil rights record is "superb," listing accomplishments dating to the mid-1960s, which include his testimony against a Ku Klux Klan leader in 1967.

He suggested that the past civil rights records of some senators could come up if Democrats persist on branding Pickering a civil rights opponent. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a staunch civil rights reformer, is a former Ku Klux Klan member.

But when it comes to elevating Pickering to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the 10 majority Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee will have the final say. A unanimous vote against Pickering could quash his nomination. Committee Democrats have so far said they will vote en masse to oppose him.

During his two confirmation hearings — already an extraordinary measure since most nominees only have one hearing — Democrats grilled Pickering on civil and reproductive rights. They apparently weren't impressed with his answers despite the backing of local civil rights groups, and Charles Evers, brother of slain 1960's civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Evers attended the White House meeting Wednesday and denounced "Yankees" in Washington for politicizing the nomination.

The committee votes Thursday, but the White House is looking for a way around that, and have asked Democrats to let the nomination go to the full Senate for a vote regardless of the committee outcome, a process Senate rules allow.

Both Democratic Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina have said they would vote "yes" if Pickering's nomination came to the full Senate, which would give unanimous Republicans a 51-49 victory.

"There have been some Democrats who have said on the floor of the Senate that they will vote for Judge Pickering. It appears that he will have the votes to succeed," Fleischer said Tuesday.

But Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he would not allow any maneuvers to circumvent the committee.

"We'll follow the normal procedure. We'll have the vote in the committee," Leahy said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Wednesday that he also would not allow a vote on the floor if the committee does not vote favorably for Pickering.

Democrats admit that this has been the toughest nomination fight of the Bush administration, but deny that Pickering is being treated badly.

"He's had as fair a hearing as any Republican or Democrat I've seen get," Leahy said.

But supporters disagree and say Pickering, who received a unanimous confirmation to the District Court bench in 1990, has been slandered by liberal special interests.

"I think what has happened to Judge Pickering has been a very unfair characterization," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who brought Pickering to Bush's attention.

If he were confirmed, Pickering, a former prosecutor and state lawmaker, would preside in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which serves Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.

Fox News' Carl Cameron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.