Fragile Agreement on Judges to Be Tested Anew

Posted June 6, 2005 at 6:56pm

With the House and Senate able to catch their breath during the week-long Memorial Day recess, it’s time to return to everybody’s favorite, never-ending Congressional saga — the fight over judicial nominees.

The fact that 14 Senators decided to shun orthodoxy and take the wind out of the partisans’ sails by brokering a deal on judicial nominations doesn’t mean it’s still not topic A for the Senate floor this week.[IMGCAP(1)]

It just means that instead of being filibustered, judicial nominees Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor will likely be confirmed. Ditto for previous judicial filibuster targets David McKeague, Richard Griffin, and Tom Griffith.

While Brown and Pryor have to suffer through votes to end debate — otherwise known as cloture — the other three should sail through after predetermined time limits on floor chatter.

But lest anyone think the Senate is done with its fight over whether Democrats should be allowed to filibuster judicial nominations or whether Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) should use the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option to stop them, think again.

After all, the White House appears to be gearing up to send as many as 30 new judicial nominees to the Senate for its famed advice and consent, a move that, given this White House’s general refusal to back down from any fight once it’s started, can only be interpreted as a shot across the Democrats’ collective bow.

Democrats, it appears, won’t have much choice but to take the bait. Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), acknowledged that Democrats would be going over all new judicial nominees with a fine-toothed comb — no doubt looking for a few “extraordinary circumstances” in which they might be moved to filibuster.

“What you may be seeing is the White House pushing the outer limits of the deal” between the 14 Senators, Manley speculated. “They’ll be probing for signs of weakness [among the 14] and trying to see exactly how united the [Democratic] Caucus is.”

But never fear, Manley said: Democrats haven’t been broken yet.

“The president should be picking judges and not a fight,” Manley added.

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson, meanwhile, refused to rule out more confrontations over judges and would not comment on whether Senate Republican leaders are still spoiling for a fight.

“We have a responsibility to move forward on nominations,” said Stevenson. “Sen. Frist has indicated he will continue to push for up-or-down votes on all of President Bush’s nominees.”

Stevenson also held out the possibility that Frist would still seek a vote this month on the nomination of William Myers to be a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, even though the gang of 14 agreed Democrats could continue to block him.

Although it may largely be an exercise in futility, the move might satisfy those in the GOP’s conservative base who have been pushing all along for Frist to employ the nuclear option. Some conservatives are still pushing Frist to bring up Myers simply so he can call for a vote on the nuclear option, which would force the seven Republican Senators who signed onto the judicial nomination agreement to put their money where their mouths are.

Still, word on the street is that Frist will likely not move on Myers, if at all, until after the July Fourth recess.

Meanwhile, Frist has another filibuster fight on his hands with the nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations. While Stevenson said Frist might bring the nomination, which Democrats successfully filibustered before the Memorial Day break, back to the Senate floor this week, debate on judicial nominees may push that fight into next week.

Either way, House Republicans will be providing their Senate counterparts with some helpful legislation that could bolster Bush’s claim that Bolton is needed to help reform the United Nations, which has been plagued by scandal recently. House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) will mark up this week his bill to prevent the United States from paying U.N. dues until the world body “reforms” itself.

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the bill could be on the House floor as early as next week.

Speaking of legislation, some might be wondering just when the Senate will move past the judicial debate and get back to its own legislative calendar. Stevenson said Frist is in talks with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) about when to bring the energy policy bill to the floor and how much time Domenici will need once it gets there.

And with Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) beginning to get on a roll with the 2006 annual spending bills, expect a few of those to make an appearance on the Senate floor over the next month.

Bonjean predicted that the House would be done with its 11 spending bills before the July Fourth recess.