WASHINGTON – Handing President Bush his first defeat of a judicial nominee, Democrats led a 10-9 party-line Senate Judiciary Committee vote opposing the confirmation of District Court Judge Charles Pickering to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a series of roll calls, the panel also snubbed Bush's request to allow a vote in the full Senate on Pickering, a 64-year-old Mississippian with more than a decade on the bench.
Pickering "deserves better than to be blocked by a party-line vote of ten senators on one committee," Bush said in a statement issued moments after the panel voted. "The voice of the entire Senate deserves to be heard."
There was little suspense about the committee's vote, but no shortage of emotion in the four-hour debate.
Pickering does not have "the temperament, the moderation or the commitment to core constitutional ... protections that is required for a life tenure position" on the appeals court, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, one of an unbroken string of committee Democrats to argue against confirmation.
Republicans were equally united in their support of Pickering. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that Bush's nominee had been victimized by a smear campaign by liberal interest groups seeking to impose "an ideological litmus test" on abortion, civil rights and other issues.
The committee's actions left the nomination all but dead. The GOP leader, Sen. Trent Lott — Pickering's friend and Mississippi patron — has authority to seek a vote by the full Senate, but such efforts are customarily settled on party-line votes.
Even so, Lott quickly went to the Senate floor, where he defended his friend of 40 years. "I take it personally," he said of the vote, which he also labeled a "slap at Mississippi."
One Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, attacked the committee. "This action may very well elect a Republican governor in Mississippi," he said, calling Pickering's rejection an example of "the Terry-tail wagging the Democratic donkey." That was a reference to Terry McAuliffe, the party's chairman.
Supporters and opponents of Pickering's confirmation filled the large committee room. Supporters wore pink badges that said "Stop the Bickering Confirm Pickering."
The debate, which stretched over more than four hours, ranged far from Pickering's case. Republicans noted — with dissatisfaction — numerous public predictions that the confirmation battle was a warm-up for any Supreme Court nominations that Bush might make.
Democrats repeatedly accused Republicans of mistreating many of the nominations made by former President Clinton, to the point of denying hearings for months at a time.
Pickering was not present, but his son, Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss., had a seat in the front row of the spectators section. "What is happening to your father today is a great injustice," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., addressing his remarks to the young congressman.
Bush made a few late calls on behalf of his beleaguered nominee in the run-up to the committee meeting, but there was no indication that Democrats were wavering in their plan to deny Pickering a floor vote.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told reporters the president was "asking us to break a 200-year tradition" of Senate committees holding jurisdiction and responsibility for approving nominations. "I don't know that we can do that," he said.
"By failing to allow full Senate votes on judicial nominees, a few senators are standing in the way of justice," Bush had said.
Democrats "seek to undermine the nominations of candidates who agree with my philosophy that judges should interpret the law and not try to make law from the bench," the president said at his news conference a little less than 24 hours before the committee met.
The debate Thursday unfolded along party lines, and it seemed at times as though there were two nominees up for confirmation.
The committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, said Pickering "repeatedly injects his own opinions into his decisions on issues ranging from employment discrimination to voting rights."
Other Democrats referred to a case in which Pickering had sought a lighter sentence for a defendant on a cross-burning case — a case that Republicans said was misinterpreted by the judge's critics.
Democrats said Pickering's ruling in voting rights cases had been overturned by the appeals court. Republicans countered the reversal had to do with attorney fees, not the merits of the case.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, praised Pickering for "moral courage on the issue of race," demonstrated in 1967 when he testified against a Ku Klux Klan leader in Mississippi.
Much of the opposition to Pickering, 64, has come from civil rights groups, which say he supported segregation as a young man in Mississippi. Pickering's opponents also point to his conservative voting record as a Mississippi state lawmaker and decisions as a judge.
Supporters, including some Mississippi Democrats and black leaders, cite numerous examples of support for civil rights as far back as the middle 1960s and note that Pickering won Senate confirmation in 1990 to be a U.S. District Court judge.
Forty of the 92 Bush judicial nominations have been confirmed by the Senate, most of them District court judges. Seven of Bush's 29 nominees to the U.S. Appeals Court, the regional courts one step below the Supreme Court, have been confirmed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.