Partisan Battle Over Judicial Nominees Brings Gridlock to Senate Floor

A brief show of bipartisanship in the Senate Wednesday quickly and at length gave way to a partisan feud over judicial nominees that in turn further damaged an already struggling bill on climate change.

In a rare concession, two Republican senators basically forfeited their votes on a budget blueprint to offset absences by two ailing Democrats unable to appear for the vote.

But for the next several hours, the Senate grinded to a dead halt as a series of clerks read a 500-page global warming bill after Republicans chose to enforce a rule requiring the reading of any new bills.

Normally the rule is bypassed by a unanimous voice vote, but Republicans opposed the vote, forcing the reading of an entire substitute bill Democrats introduced as part of the climate change package on the chamber floor this week. That bill, reviled by anti-tax groups, is now expected to fail as early as Thursday.

Why do this? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, said his Democratic counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., broke a promise to try to confirm 15 federal circuit judges by the end of the year, a rate that matches that of the last two years of President Clinton's administration. McConnell and Reid actually agreed to shoot for 17 confirmations, the average of the last three administrations' final two years in office, but McConnell has said he would "settle for 15."

Democrats have surpassed the rate of federal district judge nominees, but to date, the Senate has confirmed only eight of President Bush's circuit court nominees.

McConnell told reporters Wednesday, "There is a solution to this problem: Seven (nominees) by the end of this year." McConnell further added that "commitments were made and commitments were broken," referring to the broader commitment between him and Reid, and a more particular one from Reid that three nominees would receive votes by the full Senate before the Memorial Day recess.

The Senate only took one vote, however, to confirm Steven Agee to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the agreement broke down in a bigger struggle over President Bush's nominees to other federal agencies.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., tried to hold a committee vote on two circuit court nominees before the Memorial Day recess, but Republicans objected.

One senior GOP Senate aide told FOX News that Republicans are opposed to Helene White, a Clinton nominee from 1997 who never received a vote. Technically, by committee vote time, the American Bar Association score on White had not been returned to the committee, so Republicans objected to moving forward. With the "well-qualified" rating now in, Leahy has scheduled a vote for White, as well as for Raymond Kethledge on June 12.

McConnell promised more disruptions, unless he gets what he wants.

"There will be further efforts to help see to it that this goal by the majority leader is kept," McConnell said. And in a further warning to Democrats, should they win the White House in November, McConnell said, "What goes around comes around."

Just what Reid can do to placate Republicans is unclear, with one McConnell aide saying, "I don't know what will cause the leader (McConnell) to stop moving forward on this, but (the Democrats have) to do more than what they are doing now, which is nothing. ...They haven't even tried."

One thing is clear: McConnell has the support of a majority of his caucus over the issue of nominees, according to numerous GOP aides. Republicans feel this is a strong campaign issue for them that always rouses the party base.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., implored Reid to deal with at least three pending nominees to the Fourth Circuit: Peter Keissler, Robert Conrad, and Steve Matthews. In February, Bush brought Conrad and Matthews to the White House to highlight the need for more judicial confirmations.

"Until we get these things resolved, you will see more of this (obstruction)," Brownback said. "We're going to be looking for clarity on this (from Reid). ... This is really going to slow this place down, if not grind it to a halt."

Bush nominated Keissler in June 2006 and again in January 2007; his confirmation hearing was in June 2006. Stevens was nominated in September 2007. Conrad was nominated July 2007.

According to Judiciary Committee documents, "The Senate has confirmed 46 judicial nominations during this Congress, including eight nominations to fill circuit court vacancies, and 30 nominations to fill high ranking, executive positions.

"Vacancy rates on the federal bench are the lowest in over a decade, and circuit court vacancies have been reduced by 65.7 percent during the Bush administration, from 32 to 11. There are fewer vacancies on 10 of the 13 federal circuit benches, and seven circuits are without a single vacancy."