WASHINGTON – The Justice Department (search) is edging into the Senate controversy over judicial nominees, writing key lawmakers after Democratic Leader Harry Reid (search) publicly referred to an FBI file on one of President Bush's controversial appointees.
"The letter expressed concern about recent remarks on the floor of the Senate which alluded to an FBI background investigation file provided by the Department of Justice to the Senate Judiciary Committee on a confidential basis in connection with a judicial nomination," a department official said Friday night.
The official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the letter did not refer specifically to Reid, or to 6th Circuit Court nominee Henry Saad.
At the same time, it was dispatched one day after Reid alluded publicly to a confidential FBI report prepared on Saad, a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (search) nominee whose confirmation Democrats have sought to block.
"The fact that there are questions about this nominee's suitability to be a federal judge has been discussed in public for over a year," said Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley. "Sen. Reid simply referred his colleagues to the source of those questions. That is Sen. Reid's right and responsibility.
"Any statements or implications to the contrary are baseless and desperate partisan attacks aimed to distract Americans from the outrageous records of a handful of radical, out-of-touch judicial nominees," he added.
No copy of the letter was immediately available. The Justice Department official said it had been sent to Reid and Majority Leader Bill Frist, as well as the chairman and senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
The developments occurred as Frist served notice he intends to use two of Bush's favorite nominees — Texas judge Priscilla Owen (search) and California judge Janice Rogers Brown (search) — to force a confrontation next week that could end Democrats' ability to block court appointments.
Frist, R-Tenn., said Friday that the nominations of the two women will be brought up next week as part of his plan to end filibusters of White House judicial nominees.
"It is time for 100 senators to decide the issue of fair up-or-down votes for judicial nominees after over two years of unprecedented obstructionism," Frist said in a statement.
Reid said he was ready. "The time has come for Republican senators to decide whether they will abide by the rules of the Senate or break those rules for the first time in 217 years," he said in a statement.
Frist's announcement cleared the way for a momentous showdown that blends constitutional and political issues — the meaning of Congress' power to advise and consent in a president's nominees and the ability of a political minority to influence the outcome.
Democrats have refused to allow a yes-or-no vote on 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominees, arguing they are too conservative to warrant lifetime appointments. The president renominated seven of them this year, Owen and Brown among them, and Democrats vowed to block their confirmation again.
Republicans then said they would try to eliminate the Democrats' ability to filibuster, a parliamentary technique that establishes a 60-vote threshold.
Republicans, who hold 55 Senate seats, can afford five defections and still prevail in the showdown on the strength of Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote. So far, GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have announced they will break ranks, and many vote-counters say they expect Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe to vote with the Democrats.
Democrats also are particularly optimistic that Sen. John Warner, R-Va., will side with them, and they continue court enough wavering Republicans to tip the balance.
Saad is one of seven nominees whom Democratic filibustered during Bush's first term who have been renominated.
Speaking on Thursday, Reid said Democrats would likely filibuster Saad again, adding, "All you need to do is have a member go upstairs and look at his confidential report from the FBI and I think you would all agree that there's a problem there."
Reid did not say what was in the report, but drew criticism from Sen. George Allen, R-Va. and others for the remark.
Frist had said earlier that the showdown would come next week, but he refused to say which nominees would be the test candidates. Conservatives have been clamoring all year for him to call up Owen or Brown as the test votes.
Owen was first nominated in 2001 to serve as a judge for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Brown was tapped in 2003 to serve on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Officials said that while debate would begin Tuesday or Wednesday, two weeks could elapse before the fate of either Owen or Brown's nomination is known.