WASHINGTON – The White House sharply criticized Senate Democrats on Wednesday for blocking an appeals court nominee, as President Bush summoned Republican senators to discuss how to break the logjam.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., is trying to get a federal appeals court seat for a former aide, U.S. District Judge Dennis Shedd. It hit a serious bump Tuesday when the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a vote in what might have been its last meeting of the year.
"I took you at your word," an angry Thurmond told the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who GOP senators said had promised to let the Shedd nomination come before the committee.
"In 48 years in the Senate," he said, "I have never been treated in such a manner."
Leahy "failed to uphold his commitment to Senator Strom Thurmond, the longest-serving member of the United States Senate, for a vote on Dennis Shedd before the end of the year," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "This promise had been made to Senator Thurmond on several occasions."
Bush invited GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to the White House for a chat on how to move the nomination forward. No Democrats were invited.
Fleischer sidestepped a question on why Bush didn't invite Leahy, whom he blames for the problem.
"I don't think this is a question of the president talking to the chairman of the committee. This is a question of the chairman of the committee doing what he told Senator Thurmond he would do."
Leahy delayed the Shedd vote, saying it was too contentious to get done quickly. Had the committee begun debating Shedd's nomination to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., Leahy said, nominations of 17 district court judges that were cleared and sent to the Senate would not have moved.
Thurmond's anger over the delay was echoed by other Senate Republicans, who fear that Tuesday's voting session was the last of the legislative year. If it was, the rest of President Bush's nominees will be stuck in legislative limbo until a new Congress convenes next year.
Besides Shedd, one of those stranded would be Miguel Estrada, Bush's choice for the U.S. Appeals Court in the District of Columbia and a rumored choice for a Supreme Court seat if a vacancy should open.
Bush also blasted the Senate over Estrada.
"There are senators who are playing politics with this good man's nomination," Bush said, receiving a standing ovation at a White House celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. "There are senators who would rather not give him the benefit of the doubt, senators looking for a reason to defeat him as opposed to looking for a reason to herald his intelligence, his capabilities his talent. I strongly object to the way this man is going to be treated in the United States Senate."
"I hope that the Senate will change hands next year so we can correct some of these terrible injustices," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., fumed.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., defended the work of the Democratic-led committee. "I defy anyone to come up with a better record," Daschle said.
Bush has nominated 126 U.S. Appeals Court and U.S. District Court nominees, and the Senate has confirmed 80: 14 judges to appeals courts and 66 to district courts.
The committee also has rejected two nominees, Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen and U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi, denying them votes in the full Senate, and has not voted on Estrada and other controversial nominees.
Republicans say they consider the refusal to vote on Shedd an insult to Thurmond, the oldest person ever to serve in Congress. Thurmond ends his 48-year career in the Senate in January, and Shedd's nomination is among the last outstanding pieces of business South Carolina's senior senator has left.
"It's his last request in the Senate," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said. "I don't believe we should treat Senator Thurmond this way, and I don't believe we should treat this eminent judge this way."
Thurmond, along with Sens. Hatch and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, want to force Leahy to hold one more voting session to consider Shedd's nomination and that of University of Utah professor Michael McConnell to the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The senators insist Leahy promised votes this year on both judges.
When asked later whether he would consider having another voting session this year, Leahy said he didn't know.
Shedd, supported by both Thurmond and Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., has stirred up controversy in South Carolina with his rulings as a judge. Officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say Shedd has shown a pattern of ruling against plaintiffs in civil rights cases. The Dale City, Va.-based Disabled Action Committee also has objected to Shedd's nomination, contending his opinions show a "disregard for laws protecting the disabled" and "a high level of insensitivity on issues of race."