Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrats on the Judiciary Committee worked to scuttle Judge Charles W. Pickering's nomination to the appeals court on Thursday, lining up to defy President Bush's call for a vote in the full Senate.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said Pickering had failed in more than a decade as a federal judge "to meet the kind of criteria in his core commitment" to civil rights and other principles needed from an appeals court nominee.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, countered that Pickering had been victimized by a smear campaign by liberal interest groups seeking to impose "an ideological litmus test" involving issues such as abortion rights and civil rights.
Kennedy and Hatch were the first two lawmakers to speak in a crowded committee hearing, the climax of a racially charged confirmation battle for the Mississippi jurist who has been a federal judge for more than a decade.
Bush made a few late calls on behalf of his beleaguered nominee in the run-up to the committee meeting, but there was no indication that Democrats were wavering in their plan to deny Pickering a floor vote regardless of the committee's verdict.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told reporters the president was "asking us to break a 200-year tradition" of Senate committees holding jurisdiction and responsibility for approving nominations. "I don't know that we can do that," he said.
"By failing to allow full Senate votes on judicial nominees, a few senators are standing in the way of justice," Bush said Wednesday.
Rejection of Pickering would be a setback for Bush in what is seen as a possible preview of Supreme Court confirmation battles.
Democrats "seek to undermine the nominations of candidates who agree with my philosophy that judges should interpret the law and not try to make law from the bench," the president said at his news conference a little less than 24 hours before the committee met.
The committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, said Pickering's nomination "fails the president's own standard of wanting nominees who will enforce instead of interpret the law." Leahy, D-Vt., said Pickering "repeatedly injects his own opinions into his decisions on issues ranging from employment discrimination to voting rights."
The debate Thursday unfolded predictably along party lines, and it seemed at times as though there were two nominees up for confirmation.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said Pickering's nomination was "divisive" and confirmation was unwarranted.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, moments later praised Pickering for "moral courage on the issue of race," demonstrated in 1967 when he testified against a Ku Klux Klan leader in Mississippi.
Much of the opposition to Pickering, 64, has come from civil rights groups, which say he supported segregation as a young man in Mississippi. Pickering's opponents also point to his conservative voting record as a Mississippi state lawmaker and decisions as a judge.
Supporters, including some Mississippi Democrats and black leaders, cite numerous examples of support for civil rights as far back as the middle 1960s and note that Pickering won Senate confirmation in 1990 to be a U.S. District Court judge.
The committee vote might not be the last gasp for Pickering. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., one of Pickering's biggest boosters, could try to force the full Senate to vote, but Democrats could block that with 41 votes.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer refused to say if Bush is considering using a recess appointment after Congress begins a two-week vacation on March 23.
Former President Clinton put Richmond, Va., attorney Roger Gregory on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with a recess appointment in 2000, and the Senate confirmed him the following year for a permanent position.
Pickering, who would keep his lifetime appointment as a District judge if rejected by the committee, is not the first Bush nominee to face defeat in the Senate since the Democrats took over last year.
Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., was under serious consideration by Bush last year as a candidate for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
But California's two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, came out against the nomination, so the staunch conservative congressman asked the president not to nominate him and force him to go through a long, possibly unwinnable, battle in the Senate.
Forty of the 92 Bush judicial nominations have been confirmed by the Senate, most of them District court judges. Seven of Bush's 29 nominees to the U.S. Appeals Court, the regional courts one step below the Supreme Court, have been confirmed.
------On the Net:
Senate Judiciary Committee: http://judiciary.senate.gov
Justice Department: http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/judicialnominat...
White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov