WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats blamed the White House Thursday for the Senate's failure to confirm judicial nominee Miguel Estrada (search), nominated 28 months ago to a seat on the federal bench.
Estrada sent a letter to President Bush on Thursday, and wrote that he was taking his name out of the ring for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals (search) in Washington, D.C., to return his focus to his legal career and his family.
Republicans, on the other hand, said Democrats were biased against Estrada, who is a Hispanic conservative, with one House leader calling the seven filibusters of his nomination a "political hate crime."
Bush, in a statement issued on Air Force One as the president flew to a speech in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, said he accepted the resignation "with regret."
"Mr. Estrada received disgraceful treatment at the hands of 45 United States senators during the more than two years his nomination was pending," Bush said.
"Despite his superb qualifications and the wide bipartisan support for his nomination, these Democrat senators repeatedly blocked an up-or-down vote that would have led to Mr. Estrada's confirmation. The treatment of this fine man is an unfortunate chapter in the Senate's history."
Estrada was never able to get more than 55 votes from the Senate, which has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent. The GOP needed 60 votes to end the Democratic filibuster and get the nomination to a Senate vote that would have required a similar majority for confirmation.
Democrats say the White House's stonewalling tactics, refusing to hand over information requested about Estrada's past work at the Justice Department or provide details about controversial topics such as abortion, prevented them from being able to perform their advise and consent function.
"Mr. Estrada is an unfortunate victim of a White House process of not cooperating with the Senate and stonewalling the appointment of judges," Sen. Charles Schumer (search), said during a press conference Thursday.
The New York Democrat said Estrada said publicly he was willing to give the wanted documents from his time at the Justice Department to the Senate.
"This has all been done by those in charge of judicial selection in the White House and the Justice Department, and had they acceded to Miguel Estrada's wish and let those documents go, maybe the outcome could have been different," Schumer said.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., added that the White House's decision to withhold papers that could have revealed Estrada's political philosophy revealed its attempt to influence the judicial branch of government.
"The Republicans control the House of Representatives, the Senate of the United States and the executive, but the judiciary is an independent body. We are firmly committed not to ... let this president and this administration co-opt the judiciary and make it an extension of the administration," he said.
Kennedy called Estrada's withdrawal a "victory for the Constitution and the nation's judicial system and the American people."
"This should serve as a wake-up call for the White House that it cannot expect the Senate to simply rubber-stamp judicial nominees," Kennedy said, particularly ones considered by some to be "extreme ideologues," like Estrada.
Schumer vowed that Senate Democrats will continue to block nominees they consider "not in the mainstream."
Sen. John Corzine, D-N.J., told Fox News that his biggest problem with the process was the "lack of responsiveness" from the Bush administration and Estrada to questions asked.
"I think that those were perfectly fair questions," he said.
When asked if he agreed with the idea that Estrada is an "extreme ideologue," Corzine replied: "Frankly, I don't think we have enough information to know."
However, "I do think we ought to be careful about having extremes, from either the left or the right, on courts," he added.
Republicans countered that Estrada's nomination was held up by partisan politics, which they said have sunk to a new low in the Senate.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, called the Senate Democrats' campaign against Estrada "dishonest and vicious."
"The Democrats' character assassination of Miguel Estrada was a political hate crime," DeLay said. "We have witnessed the Democrats at their ugliest."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) of Tennessee said Estrada "was turned away because of the rankest partisan politics ... this battle with regard to the president's nominees is not over."
Orrin Hatch, who led the charge against Democrats' filibustering efforts, said: "I have never seen such shabby treatment of a nominee ... I decry this shabby treatment ... and I decry anybody who calls this a victory ... it's not a victory, it's a tragedy."
Estrada, who immigrated when he was 17, graduated from Harvard Law School, served in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. He now practices law in the nation's capitol.
Republicans sought to make political use of Estrada's Hispanic heritage during the battle for his nomination, and one conservative supporter suggested he was rejected because he was not the "right kind" of Hispanic.
"At root, base politics drove the Democrats' decision to deny the president the chance to someday name the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court. That is what it was all about," C. Boyden Gray, a former White House legal counsel and now chairman of the Committee for Justice (search), a conservative organization that worked for Estrada's confirmation, told The Associated Press.
"They did not oppose Estrada because he was Hispanic. They opposed him because he was President Bush's Hispanic," Gray said.
Asked whether Democrats rejected Estrada because he is an Hispanic conservative, Frist said: "I don't think it's rank bigotry that brought this man down... [but] I do believe the fact that the president has basically been a proponent of [elevating] Hispanics and minorities ... is resented by the other side of the aisle."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the Democrats' move was a "systematic plan" to "alter the rules of confirmation."
"In the history of this Republic we have never killed a nominee by filibuster," Sessions said. "It's an unprecedented obstructionist tactic that has really caused hard feelings in this body."
Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., called it a "shameful day for the Senate."
Former federal prosecutor Bob Bittman told Fox News that Democrats went above and beyond the normal requests made of judicial nominees.
"They asked him things they've never asked anyone before," Bittman said. "It was unprecedented in the history of the Senate to request documents Mr. Estrada prepared when he was at the Justice Department … this is absolutely a red herring, this is not advise and consent, this is an outrage."
But another former federal prosecutor, John Flannery, agreed with many Democrats that "the problem wasn't so much that he was ideologically radical but that we didn't know enough about him."
"He decided to remain silent rather than tell us what he thought or how he thought," Flannery added. "I say good riddance."
Fox News' Julie Asher contributed to this report.