WASHINGTON – Tempers flared repeatedly Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee (search) voted 10-9 to approve the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor (search ) for an appellate court judgeship.
Committee members sparred over whether Democratic inquiries into the pro-life views of the Catholic nominee crossed a line into religious persecution.
"If anybody who sits at that table and professes a belief, we're now going to have to ask, 'Well, is this religiously motivated? Or politically motivated? And are you a Catholic, a Baptist or a Jew?' Is that what we want to have as our standard procedure in the Senate Judiciary Committee?" asked Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
"Well, certainly not. But that's what it seems like we were getting to," responded Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
The debate arose after Pryor's nomination had encountered opposition for his anti-abortion views. Those views led the conservative group Committee for Social Justice (search), which is dedicated to helping secure confirmation for President Bush's judicial nominees, to run print ads in heavily Catholic Maine and Rhode Island last weekend, depicting an ornate wooden door, labeled "Judicial Chambers," with a sign hanging on it reading: "Catholics Need Not Apply."
The ads were co-sponsored by the Ave Maria List, a lay Catholic organization that promotes the election of pro-life candidates to Congress. The ad only fanned the flames of Democratic unrest in the committee.
"This slander, and the ads recently run by a group for which the president's father and Republican senators have helped raise money, are personally offensive," said ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Also at issue in the committee hearing was whether Pryor misled the committee when he denied that a campaign group he once led, the Republican Attorneys General Association, had solicited funds from companies facing legal action by his office.
Documents allegedly stolen from RAGA's files and supplied to committee Democrats reportedly showed Pryor had personally solicited campaign money from two tobacco companies his office had sued.
Democrats pleaded in vain for more time to probe the documents' significance, while Republicans pleaded in vain for a probe of the documents' handling.
"If it's true that members of the staff on the other side of the aisle had stolen documents and used that to lay a perjury trap for Mr. Pryor ... that's a very serious matter," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also a former state attorney general. Cornyn declined a request to recuse himself from the vote because of his connection to RAGA.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who had remained undecided until Wednesday's vote -- already postponed four times by the bitterly divided committee -- announced shortly before the vote that he would support Pryor's nomination moving to a full Senate vote, but was reserving his options on how he would vote once the nomination came up for full Senate debate.
Specter said he wanted to talk more with Pryor, and inquire into "areas of concern," including the nominee's views on abortion and the fund-raising controversy.
"This issue is far from over," Specter said.
In voting against the nominee, all nine Democrats said they were lodging a vote "in protest" of an alleged violation of procedural rules that Hatch supposedly committed when he forced Wednesday's vote. They also delayed by an hour and a half a rare appearance by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who had been scheduled for an oversight hearing.
Republican sources told Fox News that they hope for a vote on Pryor's nomination to the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit next week. But Democratic sources said they would be surprised if their party did not mount a filibuster against Pryor, as they have against two other Bush appellate court nominees.
Fox News' James Rosen contributed to this report.