The U.S. Senate's molasses-slow confirmation of presidential nominees is all part of the game of political partisanship, according to some seasoned Washington observers.

But others see a more disturbing pattern of Machiavellian maneuvers behind the battle over President George W. Bush's picks, and wonder if the process has become victim to something much worse.

Senate Republicans just last week forced Democrats to send back all 164 unconfirmed nominations to the White House rather than ask the president to offer new nominations for the chairmanship of the Consumer Protection Commission and the head of the State Department's Western Hemisphere affairs bureau.

The original nominees for these agencies, Mary Sheila Gall and Otto Reich, respectively, were waylaid by senators bent on keeping the two from reaching a floor vote. So Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., forced the entire slate back for re-nomination, according to reports.

While Bush is expected to re-nominate the 164 pro forma, the development underscores that what has been a nasty process in the last 10 years has become even more hostile, critics say.

"It's typical one-upmanship," says Rich Galen, former executive director of GOPAC and political communications director for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

While he doesn't think Lott's latest maneuver will have any impact on the process as a whole, Galen says it is reflective of the 50-50 split between the two parties and the "testosterone" level amongst the country's biggest powerbrokers.

Bones of Contention

"The whole thing has gotten uglier and uglier," he said, referring to the attacks on Gall. First appointed by President George Bush Sr., Gall had voted with her Democratic commissioners 90 percent of the time in the last decade, and was re-appointed by Clinton. Yet Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., led the charge against the Buffalo native, blasting Gall's oft-expressed hesitation to overextend government regulation.

"Hillary was trying to get a scalp on her belt," says Michael Barone, senior editor of U.S. News and World Report. So far, the first-lady-turned-senator has voted "no" to more Bush appointees than any of her colleagues. But Gall was the first in which she led a vocal opposition.

Gall may not be the last notch on Clinton's belt. Reports Thursday said the senator was determined to defeat the nomination of Eugene Scalia, the son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to the top consul position at the Labor Department.

Reich's nomination, on the other hand, appeared dead before he even reached a hearing. He is the target of opposition led by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is criticizing the anti-Castro Cuban-American's nomination because of his work in the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy under the Reagan administration.

The future appears stormy for Bush's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency as well. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who has said publicly that nominations to federal judgeships ought to pass liberal "litmus tests," is joining fellow Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to wage war against nominee Donald Schregardus.

Democrats charge the former Ohio EPA director with being too friendly with big business, often at the expense of environmental protections.

Political Payback?

Observers say the aforementioned battles are in part a payback for nominees held up during the tumultuous Clinton years, which of course came after the ugliness of the now-infamous hearings for Judge Robert Bork in his failed nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.

The term "Borking" when describing liberal attacks on a conservative nominee originated there, and was used plenty of times by pundits during the successful nomination of former Sen. John Ashcroft to the head of the Justice Department several months ago.

"When Clinton was president there were Republicans who held up many of his nominations or were late in confirming them," said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "It's a vicious circle and those who hope government can be effective hope that the cycle can be broken. It certainly hasn't been broken yet."

He said that one "can understand vengeance but it doesn't make it productive. The phrase 'two wrongs don't make a right' certainly comes to mind."

Republican pollster Ed Goeas says it's all politics as usual. Overall, he points out, Bush has nominated more people in the first six months of his presidency than any other administration in modern times. In fact, the Bush administration has been "very pleased" that it has seen 299 out of its 463 nominations confirmed, a spokesman said recently.

"The process has moved slower because of politics, but I think there is politics on both sides. It's the age we are in, if you will," offered Goeas.

Bureaucratic Nightmare?

In 1978, Congress codified ethics standards in which executive and judicial appointees are put through a more rigorous screening process than ever before. This entails lie detector tests, massive background checks and tons of paperwork. It has also naturally slowed the process, and has even led people to turn down the most uncontroversial job offers.

"The process is so onerous," said Richard Semiatin, a professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C. "Lives are scrutinized. If you are in the public sector today, you have to face the fact that you no longer have a private life. It is a question of whether people are deterred from serving in government."

But Semiatin said the process, save for the ethical standards passed in 1978, is no different from the past. In fact, except for a period between World War II and Watergate, the fight over presidential appointments has always been this partisan, if not more so.

"[Bipartisanship] is a myth," Semiatin said. "This behavior, historically, is quite similar to what it's been through the course of American history."