Judicial Picks Unify Senate GOP

Posted June 10, 2008 at 6:33pm

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) decision to invest significant time and political capital into picking a fight with Senate Democrats over President Bush’s judicial nominees could provide his fractured Conference with a rare, sustainable political issue to rally around.

Unlike immigration, global warming, children’s health care and drilling in Alaska, the issue of judicial nominations is one of the few in McConnell’s arsenal that not only has the support of his entire Conference but in the past has driven the GOP’s base to the polls. The need for a unifying issue is particularly acute this year because Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, is at odds with many of his colleagues on big-ticket policy issues, ranging from his support for comprehensive immigration reform to opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) acknowledged that lawmakers see the political benefit of waging the war, though support for Bush’s judicial nominations is based on principle. Thune said that if GOP Senators “just sweep this one away, we do it with great risk” of alienating their base in an election year.

Plus, GOP Senators argue they have little to lose if Democrats push back and deny them confirmations since they’ve already had little success persuading them to advance President Bush’s judicial nominees this Congress. “This is an issue that brings our people out and it’s an issue our people care about passionately,” Thune said. “They expect we are going to fight for it.”

Democrats, however, rejected the argument that the judicial nominations fight is anything more than politics. Following McConnell’s use of obscure and rarely invoked rules to block the Judiciary Committee from resuming a hearing on torture Tuesday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) angrily accused Republicans of infusing their activities in the chamber with presidential politics.

Noting GOP opposition to taking up a Democratic energy bill, Reid in a floor speech contended that the maneuvers are “framed, Mr. President, with the picture of a presidential election going on.”

Judges have long been a central issue for conservative activists, and the GOP put Democratic opposition to Bush’s nominees to great use in previous election cycles.

The volume in the battle over judges is no louder these days, but Senate Republicans see an electoral payoff in spending what little capital they have in the fight.

Not only does the issue ignite base voters, but it serves as a rare unifier for Senate Republicans and McCain.

Republicans said that since McConnell launched his offensive on judges at the beginning of June, there have been virtually no complaints from his Conference members, even among those who have advocated highlighting economic or energy issues.

“I don’t think we’ve heard a single complaint,” one GOP leadership aide said. “It’s something moderates and conservatives can agree on.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) agreed, noting that nominations touch all party members.

“If you can’t stand up on judges, what can you stand up on?” asked Hatch, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. “There’s not much that we do around here that’s more important than federal judges.”

Hatch said there’s “a lot of bitterness” in the GOP for how the Democratic majority has handled Bush’s lifetime appointments to the bench. With that in mind, Republicans don’t mind leveraging what little muscle they have left this year trying to force Democrats’ hands.

“The fact is, people understand — to a degree — how important judges are,” he argued.

The Senate has confirmed eight of Bush’s appointees to the federal circuit courts in the 110th Congress, shy of the 15 Republicans have sought. That’s the same number of federal appeals court nominees approved by the GOP-controlled Senate during the final two years of President Bill Clinton’s term.

The Senate is likely to take up the nominations of Helene White and Raymond Kethledge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in the coming days or weeks, and Senators in both parties predict votes on one or two more before the chamber wraps up business later this summer. But that speculation might be optimistic, some concede, especially since Republicans began employing a new set of tactics to try to force confirmations.

Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), one of the GOP’s most conservative members, said no matter the result, the fight is worthwhile. “It’s something the Senate needs to do and hasn’t done, and it’s something the public is with us on, and it’s one of the most productive things that we spend time on in the Senate.”

Brownback added that the issue also has a presidential payoff since it highlights McCain’s allegiance to conservative Republicans. Brownback argued that the GOP Senators willingness to trip up the Democratic agenda over judicial nominees only serves to boost McCain’s chances this fall.

“The public wants a court to be a court,” Brownback said.