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Democrats may change the rules

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


WASHINGTON -- With all the moral posturing on display in the nation's capital, it may surprise you to learn that American politicians still find it hard to turn the other cheek.

Politics, you see, is conducted by very different rules, even among the most morally upright folks in Washington. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for example, is both a high-profile churchgoer and a skillful practitioner of bare-knuckles politics who admits he has trouble with the Golden Rule.

You can love your enemy, the politicians reason, but never let him see your back. You can complain your adversary is breaking all the rules of common decency, even when you know you would do the same thing in his shoes.

Because everyone understands these rules, it is odd that Senate Democrats now find themselves in the throes of an ethical dilemma. They seem unusually conflicted on the question of whether they will follow the old rules by blocking President Bush's judicial appointees or heed the president's appeal for "a new tone in Washington" by voting to confirm them.

It's easy to understand why Democrats would be inclined to use the 50-50 split in the Senate to frustrate Bush's judicial appointees. During the eight years that President Clinton occupied the White House, Senate Republicans did everything they possibly could to prevent the Democrats' court appointees from being confirmed.

Under the rules by which this game has been played in recent years, Democrats could be expected to seek revenge with the appointees of a Republican president.

But Democrats were remarkably conciliatory last week when Bush's named his first 11 federal court nominees -- a list dominated by die-hard judicial conservatives. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who has been railing against Bush's proposed budget and tax cut for weeks, said he hoped to work closely with the Republicans to get the judicial nominations through the Senate.

Daschle's attitude surprised and perhaps angered liberal special interest groups that are gearing up to oppose Bush's nominees.

Judith L. Lichtman, a longtime liberal activist in Washington and president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, complained that Bush's nominees, some of them members of the ultraconservative Federalist Society, "signaled that satisfying right-wing conservatives is more important to him than protecting the rights and freedoms of women, minorities, working people and others who rely on the courts for justice."

If liberal activists hate Bush's judicial nominees as much as Lichtman says, then why are Senate Democrats sounding so reasonable? The answer is that Bush has carefully crafted his list of nominees to satisfy his conservative supporters while offering some small concessions to the Democrats.

Six of the eleven nominees are minorities; seven are already sitting judges, and two were originally appointed to the bench by Clinton. Bush expected Democrats to see these factors as positive.

When the nominations were announced, White House officials were quick to note that Bush's choice of Roger Gregory to sit on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals represented an act of bipartisanship. Clinton appointed Gregory, an African-American, during a congressional recess last year because Republicans were holding up his nomination.

In short, Bush wants to give Democrats at least two nominees they could gladly support in exchange for the approval of the other nine highly conservative appointees on this list.

But Lichtman warns that the Senate Democrats' polite response should not be misunderstood as a decision to confirm Bush's nominees without close scrutiny. She said she expects Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to point out where these conservative nominees have veered away from the mainstream in their previous judicial advocacy.

In other words, Democrats are planning to challenge some of Bush's appointees whom they deem to be too conservative, but they are not planning to employ the same kinds of ad hominem attacks they used so successfully against Robert Bork when he was nominated to the Supreme Court 14 years ago.

In the cases of Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas, Democratic senators who opposed the nominees for ideological reasons focused more on their perceived personal faults. If Democrats are prepared to discuss the opinions of these nominees instead of their foibles, that would certainly represent a fresh approach to the judicial confirmation process.

It also might be consistent with the "new tone" that Bush has been so proud of championing since he got to Washington.

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