WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats threatened Wednesday to filibuster appellate court nominee Charles Pickering of Mississippi, warning the Bush administration they would turn any vote on the friend of former Majority Leader Trent Lott into a fresh discussion of race and the Republican Party.
"It is surprising to me that the administration, given all the problems the Republican Party has had the last few weeks, would act so irresponsibly," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "There will be a rich debate on the Senate floor, I can tell you that."
Pickering, a U.S. District judge in Hattiesburg, Miss., and a friend of Lott, was blocked by Senate Democrats last year after civil rights groups questioned his race-relations record.
The White House -- which has a Republican-controlled Senate this year but doesn't have the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster without Democratic help -- quickly came to Pickering's defense.
"This has nothing, nothing to do with race and everything to do with the ideology of a few liberal Democrats who oppose a man who has bipartisan support," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Pickering's nomination was returned to the Senate on Tuesday along with 30 other judicial nominations who were not considered by the full Senate last year. Pickering, however, was one of the only two nominations that were specifically rejected last year by the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. The other was Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, who also was nominated for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Democrats complained that Owen's rulings were overly influenced by her personal beliefs.
The Senate's new majority leader, Bill Frist, R-Tenn., seemed reluctant to talk about Pickering's chances and the Democratic threat in the second day of his new job. If the nomination makes it to the Senate floor, Frist would be responsible for trying to find at least nine Democrats or eight Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont to vote for Pickering to overcome any Democratic filibuster in the 51-48-1 Senate.
Frist called Pickering "extraordinarily qualified, based on what I've heard."
Frist is in his new job because Republicans forced out Lott, one of Pickering's patrons after the Mississippi senator made what critics said were racially insensitive remarks.
Other Republicans enthusiastically supported Pickering. "It was my view he was given a raw deal by the committee," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Pickering was defeated 10-9 in the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee last March after civil rights groups said he supported segregation as a young man in Mississippi. Pickering's opponents also pointed to his conservative voting record as a Mississippi state lawmaker and decisions as a judge.
"To me, this is a moral issue," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who along with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., called a news conference Wednesday to advocate against Pickering.
Schumer said Pickering showed "glaring racial insensitivity" in his handling of a 1994 cross-burning case. Pickering had sought a lighter sentence for a defendant in a case in which a cross was burned on the lawn of an interracial couple.
"It is breathtaking to think that just days and weeks after this painful debate over civil rights in the year 2002 and 2003 that this White House would send us the name of Charles Pickering again," Durbin said.
Fleischer said Pickering had "expressed his record of disdain for this heinous crime," and had acted because of what he saw as "disparate sentences." "The person he deemed most guilty was given no jail time, while the person he believed less culpable faced what even the prosecutor agreed was a draconian sentence," Fleischer said.
On the Net:
Justice Department list of nominees: http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/nominations.htm