WASHINGTON—The Senate on Thursday confirmed three appellate court judges, ending years of Democratic maneuvers against some of President Bush's judicial nominees that had threatened the Senate with institutional breakdown.
All told, the Senate in the past three weeks confirmed five previously blocked judges, including three of Bush's most controversial nominees. Those confirmations end, for now, the Senate's preoccupation with federal judicial nominees.
It also turns the page on a remarkable chapter in the Senate's handling of such nominees—a chapter that featured 14 bipartisan dealmakers who short-circuited a looming showdown over Senate rules and the powers of the Senate and the president.
The five judicial confirmations, however, represent the first and easiest stage of the 11th-hour agreement forged last month by seven Republicans and seven Democrats. Pending nominations—or, more likely, a Supreme Court vacancy—could seriously test their unity and put the Senate on a confrontational path again.
"We all understand that the agreement will be tested and shaken to see how strong it is," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., one of the group's Democratic ringleaders.
Under that agreement, the seven Democrats agreed not to use the rules of extended debate, or filibuster, to block a confirmation vote on three of the most contentious nominees—Priscilla Owen of Texas, Janice Rogers Brown of California and William H. Pryor of Alabama. A filibuster requires 60 votes to end debate, a difficult threshold for Republicans, who control 55 of the Senate's 100 seats.
Pryor won confirmation Thursday to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta by a 53-45 vote that didn't break strictly along party lines. Brown won confirmation on Wednesday to the District of Columbia Circuit Court, and Owen late last month was confirmed to the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.
The Senate on Thursday also confirmed David McKeague and Richard A. Griffin to the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati. Both had faced Democratic filibusters, but Senate leaders assured their confirmation under a separate agreement last month.
Some Democrats were left holding their noses, but had little choice. Without the deal by the bipartisan 14, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was planning to use a procedural move to eliminate judicial filibusters. That move, dubbed the "nuclear option," would have assured Bush an easier confirmation for his nominees, but it also would have triggered a Democratic rebellion that would have threatened to shut down Senate operations.
"I think these are three bad judges," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said of Brown, Pryor and Owen. "Janice Rogers Brown is the worst ever nominated by the Bush administration. In order to preserve the right of filibuster and extended debate for future judicial nominees, Janice Rogers Brown will now sit on the D.C. Circuit for a lifetime."
The deal permits Democratic filibusters of two other previously filibustered nominees. Frist has been under pressure from conservative groups and some senators to bring one of them—William Myers for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—up for a vote. But Frist indicated this week that the Senate would be too preoccupied with other business over the next several weeks to return soon to a fight over judges.
Two significant components of the 14 members' agreement remain untested.
The seven Democrats said they would agree to filibuster future judicial nominees only in "extraordinary circumstances." They left the term undefined, to be interpreted by each participant as he or she saw fit.
Republicans argued that by allowing votes on judges such as Pryor, Brown and Owen, Democrats had set a high standard for what "extraordinary circumstances" means. But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada issued a direct warning to Bush and his Republican colleagues: The agreement, he said, didn't "establish Janice Rogers Brown as the benchmark for what is acceptable as far as judicial nominees go."
The agreement also calls on Bush to consult the Senate in determining whom his future nominees should be. Not all Republicans agree. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said that on Supreme Court vacancies, the president should rely on his own counsel.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the seven Republicans who signed the agreement, said the president must cooperate with the Senate.
"I'm hopeful that we can get a Supreme Court nominee—it may come soon—through a collaborative process who would be a solid conservative," Graham said. "The next test for the body is the potential Supreme Court opening."
But conservatives want Frist to use the nuclear option as quickly as possible to remove filibusters from the judicial nomination process before a Supreme Court vacancy occurs.
"By the time we get to a Supreme Court nominee it will be too late," said Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, an advocacy group for cultural conservatives. "There will be screams and hollers about changing the rules (for a Supreme Court nominee). People would sympathize with Democrats."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050608 JUDGES Pryor
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): William Pryor
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