WASHINGTON – President Bush held a meeting with Republican Senate Judiciary Committee members Thursday to complain about the slow movement on his judicial nominees just as the Senate voted to confirm four of his nominees to the federal bench.
"For the good of the country, the Senate needs to act and expeditiously on the nominees I sent up. It's important that our judiciary be full," Bush told reporters following a meeting with the senators.
Thursday marks one year since Bush nominated his first 11 judicial nominees. Only three of them have been confirmed and are now on the federal appeals courts, and two of those were holdovers from former President Clinton's era. In all, Bush has nominated 99 candidates to fill federal appeals and district court vacancies and the Senate has confirmed 52, not counting Thursday's additions.
As the White House lamented the slow pace — acknowledging that the trend started prior to the current Senate — the Democratic-led judiciary committee was conducting its own hearing to counter charges that the committee is engaged in a calculated "slow walk" on the president's nominees.
Sen. Charles Schumer, R-N.Y., who led the hearing, invited to testify four Clinton nominees who never got hearings and argued that the "crisis" of vacancies in the circuit courts dates back to Republicans who held off on Clinton nominees in order that the seats "could be filled by a Republican president implementing their right wing agenda."
Schumer maintained the Committee has in fact been moving quickly to confirm the President's nominees but concedes that in some cases, red flags are being raised because of the conservative positions of those nominees, which he said has forced the committee "to slow down — sometimes to a snail's pace — to fully examine their records."
He also warned that the committee will not confirm candidates with conservative ideologies.
"The choice is this: Nominate reasonable, moderate men and women who belong on the bench and we'll confirm them right away. Nominate ideologues willing to sacrifice the interests of many to serve the interests of a narrow few, and you'll have a fight on your hands. It's that simple," he said.
The numbers game was played on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, as Fleischer said the Senate confirmed President Reagan's first 11 nominees approved in an average of 39 days.
The White House also issued a statement noting that the Senate approved most of the appeals court nominations of former Presidents Clinton, Bush and Reagan during their first two years in office.
Democrats countered that the confirmation record is better than when Republicans ran the Senate with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House.
Clinton, in his first two years, nominated 143 candidates — including two Supreme Court nominees — for the federal courts. The Senate, then also controlled by Democrats — confirmed 129 for a 90 percent confirmation rate.
The number dropped substantially after the Republicans took over the Senate in 1995. Clinton's highest number of confirmed judges was 68 in 1998 and his low was 20 in 1996. During the rest of Clinton's eight years, the Republican-controlled Senate never cleared more than 37 judges in a year except for 1995, when it confirmed 53.
Schumer said the Senate will likely have confirmed 70 nominees by the end of this year.
The battle over each nominee has also gotten nastier over time. Since the failure of Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and the tough but ultimately successful battle to get Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, Bush's nominees are facing the most vicious scrutiny.
Mississippi judge Charles Pickering went through an unsuccessful fight in which he was labeled a segregationist and civil rights opponent. Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada's nomination has been held up over arguments that Democrats don't want Republicans to be the first to nominate an Hispanic to the Supreme Court, which Estrada could become if a position on the court opens up during Bush's term.
Fox News' Julie Asher and the Associated Press contributed to this report.