WASHINGTON – The Republican takeover of Congress in January means more of President Bush's judicial nominees that have been stuck in committee limbo will get Senate consideration.
But a closely divided Senate means the GOP still won't be able to get all the nominees it wants on the federal judiciary, observers say.
"All this means is that President Bush's nominees are going to have hearings, be voted on in committee and go to the floor of the Senate,'' said Sheldon Goldman, a University of Massachusetts professor and author of "Picking Federal Judges: Lower Court Selection From Roosevelt Through Reagan.''
Once the nomination is on the Senate floor, Democrats could try to block a confirmation vote by using holds, filibusters and other procedural tactics that Republicans would have a hard time overcoming, Goldman said.
The battle between Republicans and Democrats over Bush's judicial nominees continues Thursday, with the Senate Judiciary Committee considering two U.S. Appeals Court nominees: University of Utah law professor Michael McConnell and Dennis Shedd, former aide to retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.
The two nominees have powerful sponsors in the 99-year-old Thurmond, who has asked the Senate for Shedd's confirmation before he retires in January; and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is to be Senate Judiciary Committee chairman next year.
But while Democrats controlled the committee this year, they held hearings but delayed votes on the two nominees, saying the Bush selections were too contentious.
Shedd has been criticized by the South Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which accused him of having a "deep and abiding hostility toward civil rights cases'' as a U.S. District Court judge.
Liberal groups also have denounced McConnell, an outspoken anti-abortion advocate, saying his lifetime of work for conservative causes makes him too biased to be an impartial judge.
Republicans say the two men would make fine judges on the U.S. Appeals Courts, the regional bodies that are one step below the U.S. Supreme Court. But Democrats still control the Senate during this week's lame duck session and hold a 10-9 advantage on the Judiciary Committee.
Senators also say they expect to clear the 18 outstanding judicial nominations that were left on the Senate calendar when lawmakers left to campaign for last week's midterm elections. Seventeen U.S. District Court nominees are waiting for a Senate vote, as well as one appeals court candidate, Kentucky law professor John Rogers.
The White House and the GOP made the pace of Senate judicial confirmations a campaign issue in the midterm elections, which gave the GOP control of the White House, the Senate and the House.
During Bush's term in office, the Democratic-controlled Senate has confirmed 80 of 130 U.S. Appeals and District Court nominees up to the midterm elections but rejected or delayed the ones Republicans want most.
Republicans plan to revive two U.S. Appeals Court nominations that the Democrats rejected: Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi.
The Democratic-controlled Judiciary committee voted along party lines to reject the nominations, saying they two were too conservative. But with Republicans taking over in January, Owen and Pickering will get a second chance.
"Charles Pickering will be one of the first, if not the first, judge confirmed next year,'' said incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a Pickering friend.
But the Republican takeover doesn't necessarily mean Owen and Pickering will be confirmed, Goldman said.
"I think we can expect a filibuster by the Democrats, and Republicans don't have enough votes'' to shut down the tactic, Goldman said.
Republicans will hold at least 51 seats in the Senate next year, but it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster and force a final vote on a nomination.
Democrats aren't saying what they plan to do next year. "We will support the president when he's right, we're going to oppose him when he's wrong,'' Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader, said Sunday. "That includes judges.''