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No budges on judges

National | Or education, for that matter: Whatever happened to bipartisanship in the nation's capital?

Issue: "Homeland insecurity," Nov. 10, 2001

in Washington-In the newly darkened early evening of Oct. 30, a small group of legislators met in Room SB-6 in the basement of the heavily guarded Capitol on a fairly secret mission. But they weren't discussing the war on terrorism; the House-Senate conference committee was working on the education bill, and they were doing so in complete media silence. "They operate under a shroud of secrecy," U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer told WORLD. "Not even members of Congress are getting updated information." Even though he's a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, the Colorado Republican says he has to call friends on the Senate side to receive updates and offer advice on the proceedings. Despite calls from governors and their aides with the persistence of telemarketers objecting to the bill's weak reforms, Mr. Schaffer says the legislation is moving "even further from the president's original plan." (See WORLD, Sept. 8, 2001.) The process reflects the TeamBush style. The White House likes to bargain in private and appear above the fray in public, and it counsels Capitol Hill's GOP leaders to do the same. This strategy has produced some Republican-pleasing results, especially the first wave of tax cuts. It has also helped the president unite the country behind the war on terrorism, which obviously would have been much more difficult if party leaders had spent the year knocking heads and throwing spitballs. But underneath the urge to rally around the president in the war on terrorism, patience is wearing thin, and gloom is setting in around Washington's conservative circles. While Republican heartburn on the education bill has been an affliction all year, stomachs are really sour over the Senate's failure to approve Mr. Bush's judicial nominations. Republicans on the Hill circulated data from the Congressional Research Service showing that the Senate had seated just one in five of the president's picks for the federal bench. Compare that to the records of his predecessors: 91 percent of President Reagan's nominations were confirmed in his first year, as were 62 percent of the first President Bush's and 57 percent of President Clinton's. So far, the Senate has confirmed only 12 of this president's 60 nominations, and two-thirds of the nominees haven't even had a hearing. Senate Republicans retaliated by holding up the foreign-aid bill. After a few weeks, President Bush asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle about the delay at a White House breakfast, and Mr. Daschle bluntly told him that he didn't need to pass the spending bills as much as the president did, and he wasn't budging on the judges. Hours later, Republicans gave up on holding spending bills, which led to grumbling that "bipartisanship" in Washington means Republicans giving in to Democrats. Tom Jipping of the Free Congress Foundation, a leading conservative expert on the judiciary, has been telling White House aides for months that a solely private strategy won't work. He says the president needs to follow his predecessors and make a case for his judges and against a growing judicial vacancy crisis, with the number of vacancies on the federal bench jumping this year from 68 to 110. "Reagan went to the American people," said Mr. Jipping. "Clinton took every opportunity to keep up the pressure. But they've chosen not to do it, despite a Democratic Senate that is unbelievably unified on this issue." Mr. Daschle hasn't suffered any public criticism for suggesting that the public's business can wait until the Republicans buckle. The only Washington group objecting with any vigor is the Family Research Council, which plans to run newspaper ads in South Dakota, Mr. Daschle's home state. The White House legal team, led by Mr. Bush's Texas buddy Al Gonzales, earned praise for the quality of their judicial nominations, but conservatives now criticize that team for its confirmation strategy. This administration has no "war room" for judicial battles. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have also gone quiet. They have no Plan B to push the Bush nominees before the end of the year. In private, Republicans are stewing over how Democratic committee chairman Patrick Leahy has rewarded long-time GOP chairman Orrin Hatch's collegiality (including his vote for every Clinton judicial nominee from 1994 to 1999) with gridlock and personal attacks. "These aren't the Texas Democrats who wanted to get along and get things done," grumbled one Senate aide, referring to Mr. Bush's storied bipartisanship as governor of Texas. "These are the Democrats who want to destroy this presidency just as George Mitchell destroyed his father's presidency." Stymied Republicans now are placing their hopes on Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who releases a report on the state of the judiciary at the start of every year. Elected officials will be leaning on an appointed official to create a public outcry they can't risk coming out of the basement to make.

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