WASHINGTON – Democrats fear the outcome of a fair confirmation vote, President Bush said during an impromptu press conference in which he railed on Judiciary Committee members who refuse to let the Senate vote on an embattled Bush nominee for the federal bench.
"By failing to allow full Senate votes on judicial nominees, a few senators are standing in the way of justice. And this is wrong, and the American people deserve better," Bush said.
The president is referring to the nomination of Mississippi District Judge Charles Pickering, whose nomination for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Bush vigorously defended.
In an opening statement, Bush said partisan delays on his judicial nominees have created a "vacancy crisis" in the judicial branch.
"Too often judicial confirmations are being turned into ideological battles that delay justice and hurt our democracy," he said.
In a vote scheduled for Thursday, the panel's one-seat Democratic majority is expected to defeat Pickering, whose civil rights record has been criticized.
The president also defended his administration's refusal to give Congress records of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force's consultations with energy company executives who contributed to the Bush campaign — including officials from bankrupt energy giant Enron.
"I'm not going to let Congress erode the power of the executive branch. We're not going to give them to 'em. These are privileged conversations," Bush said.
"They seek to undermine the nominations of candidates who agree with my philosophy that judges should interpret the law, not try to make law from the bench," Bush said.
He added that 92 people have been nominated to the bench, but only 40 have been confirmed. Of federal appeals court nominees, only 7 of 29 have been confirmed.
"This is unacceptable. It is a bad record for the Senate."
Bush, who called the news conference about three hours prior to appearing in the White House briefing room, also defended a nuclear posture review by the Pentagon that seeks to anticipate threats yet to come.
Reports about the review suggested that the administration was about to develop smaller nuclear weapons with the idea of targeting nations such as Iran and Iraq, a purpose whose time had not yet arrived, but is not a bad idea, according to Bush.
"I view our nuclear arsenal as a deterrent; as a way to say to people that would harm America, that — don't do it. That's a deterrent. That there is a consequence," he said.
The president emphasized that, in concert with the Russians, he is in the process of actually reducing nuclear weapons by two-thirds.
The president is traveling to Russia in May to come up with a formal reduction in stockpiles, which Russians insisted on codifying in print. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has been in Washington this week to arrange such a document.
Bush made clear that a chemical or nuclear attack would have devastating consequences, something he wants any potential attackers to know.
"We've got all the options on the table because we want to make it very clear that you will not threaten the United States or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies or friends."
The president noted that the review is something that every administration does. A senior official said the president has made no decisions on the review, saying it is merely a think piece on future threats.
One attacker Bush did not seem overly worried about is Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Deep in my heart I know the man's on the run — if he's alive at all. Who knows if he's hiding in some cave or not? We haven't heard from him in a long time. The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me that people don't understand the scope of the mission. Terrorism is bigger than one person and he's a person who's now been marginalized," Bush said.
"I don't know where he is. I just don't spend that much time on it. ... I can assure you I am not going to blink."
On the Middle East, where attacks and retaliation have increased, Bush offered his most direct criticism yet of crackdowns on Palestinians by Ariel Sharon's government.
"Frankly, it is not helpful what the Israelis have recently done," Bush said. "I understand somebody trying to defend themselves ... but the recent actions are not helpful."
He urged both Israelis and Palestinians to "work hard to create conditions for a potential settlement" when U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni returns to the region.
"The need for us to get involved in the Middle East is to save lives," he said.
With Cheney in the region this week trying to rally Arab support for a tougher stance against Iraq, Bush said he would not pursue a go-it-alone strategy. "One of the things I've said to our friends is that we will consult. ... In regard to Iraq, we're doing just that."
Fox News' Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.