WASHINGTON – A one-week delay in a committee vote to confirm Mississippi District Court Judge Charles Pickering to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is giving Republicans a last chance to win over Democratic support for the embattled nominee.
Pickering, who as a state attorney in 1967 successfully prosecuted a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, has been criticized for statements on racial and reproductive rights issues.
Among other things, critics point to a 1959 law school article in which he proposed strengthening state laws banning interracial marriage. Opponents also question his sentencing of a man convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple.
All 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have said they will vote against Pickering despite support from some Mississippi Democratic officials and African-Americans for the judge.
The delay in Thursday's vote gives Republicans more time to encourage Democratic defections or have Pickering withdraw his name. Under committee rules, any senator can gain a one-week delay simply asking for it.
Republicans are also trying to circumvent the panel by having the nomination sent to the Senate floor, where all 100 senators could vote, and where Pickering's supporters say they could prevail.
The political jockeying caused a rare, semi-public row between Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the panel's ranking Republican, and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and the chairman of the committee.
Leahy volunteered last week to postpone Pickering's vote a week, seemingly not expecting Hatch to ask for another week's delay.
The spat captured by microphones that both men knew were there devolved into complaints about political maneuvering in which Leahy said he took Hatch at his word, and to which Hatch responded, "Oh give me a break, I don't control this thing."
After the hearing officially started, Hatch coupled his request for a delay with a withering attack on "extreme left Washington special interest groups" that he said were conducting a "lynching" designed to keep Bush's judicial nominees from gaining approval.
Hatch's remark about a lynching echoed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's claim 11 years ago that he was the victim of a "high tech lynching for uppity blacks." Thomas was ultimately confirmed over the objections of liberals, but only after the committee agreed to send his nomination to the floor.
The Pickering nomination is seen as a dry run for the battle that would ensue if and when President Bush is required to nominate a Supreme Court Justice.
The committee delay came one day after Bush greeted Pickering and supporters at the White House and accused Democrats of playing politics with the nomination.
"I think the country is tired of people playing politics all the time in Washington, and I believe that they're holding this man's nomination up for political purposes," the president said in an Oval Office meeting with Pickering.
Pickering, who won unanimous confirmation in the Senate for his District bench, would sit on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which serves Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.
Fox News' James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.