WASHINGTON – White House aide Brett Kavanaugh won Senate confirmation as an appeals judge Friday after a wait of nearly three years, yet another victory in President Bush's drive to place a more conservative stamp on the nation's courts.
Kavanaugh was confirmed on a vote of 57-36, warmly praised by Republicans but widely opposed by Democrats who said he is ill-suited to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
In a statement, Bush said Kavanaugh will be "a brilliant, thoughtful and fair-minded judge."
The vote marked the latest in a string of confirmations for conservative appeallate court nominees in the year since a centrist group of senators agreed on terms designed to prevent a meltdown over Bush's conservative picks.
Kavanaugh was not mentioned by name in an agreement announced by the so-called Gang of 14, but his nomination was pending at the time and he figured in the discussions. More recently, the seven Democrats who were members of the group had intervened in his case, calling for a second Judiciary Committee hearing into his appointment. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the panel, agreed, defusing any threat of a filibuster designed to block a vote.
Still, Democrats highlighted the American Bar Association's recent downgrading of their rating of Kavanaugh from "highly qualified" to "qualified."
"It's clear that he is a political pick being pushed for political reasons," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This is not a court that needs another rubber stamp for this president's exertion of executive power."
The White House and Specter said Kavanaugh's Ivy League education, a Supreme Court clerkship and other work have prepared him well to become a federal judge. Specter's committee approved the nomination along party lines.
"It is hardly a surprise that Brett Kavanaugh would be close to the president because the president selects people in whom he has confidence," Specter said. "Brett M. Kavanaugh must be confirmed."
The filibuster threat softened after Specter granted Democrats' request for a new hearing at which Kavanaugh testified. The nominee told Democrats he played no role in the White House formulation of policies on detainees, domestic wiretapping or any relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Kavanaugh, the White House staff secretary, was an assistant to independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the impeachment probe of President Clinton and he worked on behalf of the Bush campaign during the election recount in 2000.
Ralph Neas, president of the liberal-oriented lobbying group People for the American Way, said that Bush and Senate Republicans "have succeeded today in putting a partisan lapdog into a powerful, lifetime position on the federal bench. Brett Kavanaugh has spent his career as a partisan operative, carrying out the will of the Bush administration and twisting legal arguments to benefit his political ideology. "