Senate Republicans Renew Judicial Fight

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) has settled on D.C. Circuit Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as the first judicial nominee to get a floor vote this year, Frist aides announced today.

Kavanaugh, the current White House staff secretary, will be ushered through the Judiciary Committee within the next few weeks and then proceed to a vote on the Senate floor. A final confirmation vote will come before the Memorial Day recess, Frist aides said.

Frist formulated the strategy after meetings with several Republican senators, his aides said. Talks with Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell took place yesterday. Specter has spoken favorably of Kavanaugh, and is inclined to forego a second hearing, as Democrats have requested, according to the staffers.

Frist’s decision to move forward with Kavanaugh is a clear indication that he’s ready to engage Democrats in a fight over President Bush’s judicial nominees. Kavanaugh has waited since 2003 to be confirmed. Conservative groups that have been itching for action on judicial nominees are expected to rally around Kavanaugh immediately.

Meanwhile, all eyes will turn to Democrats, who could choose to filibuster Kavanaugh on the Senate floor or delay his confirmation vote by demanding another Judiciary Committee hearing. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) had no immediate reaction to the announcement.

Democrats have built their case against Kavanaugh around three assertions, which Republicans said they can and will rebut:

  1. Kavanaugh is young and inexperienced. Republicans believe this argument will fall apart when Americans look at Kavanaugh’s résumé. Kavanaugh is only 41-years-old, but he has been White House staff secretary since 2003 and prior to that served as associate White House counsel.
  2. Kavanaugh worked for Ken Starr. It’s true that Kavanaugh assisted Starr during his Independent Counsel investigation of President Bill Clinton, but that alone is no basis for disqualifying him. The two also worked together when Starr was U.S. solicitor general.
  3. Kavanaugh was involved in policy for terrorist detainees. Democrats are sure to bring up the issue of “torture” and use it as their rationale for having a second hearing before the Judiciary Committee. But Kavanaugh doesn’t set White House policy, and Frist aides believe the charge carries little merit.

“The Democrats have demanded a second hearing in the Judiciary Committee to examine these and other reckless allegations against Brett Kavanaugh,” according to a Frist staffer. “Chairman Specter is not inclined to grant that request unless Democrats can guarantee that they are going to be open-minded. Open-mindedness certainly is in the eye of the beholder, but it does not appear that Democrats are willing to guarantee they’re going to be open-minded.”

If all goes as planned, Kavanaugh will be reported out of the Judiciary Committee within two weeks on May 4. That would set the stage for a floor vote before the Senate’s Memorial Day recess.

UPDATE — 4:20 p.m.: I just returned from the Capitol, where I ran into Senators Mark Pryor (D.-Ark.) and Barack Obama (D.-Ill.). Pryor is a member of the notorious Gang of 14—seven Republicans and seven Democrats—that brokered a deal last year to confirm three of President Bush’s appellate court nominees who Democrats had filibustered.

My questions about Kavanaugh seemed to catch both senators off guard. Neither had heard the news I reported shortly after 1 p.m. and neither could tell me where they stood on the Kavanaugh confirmation. But both had plenty of questions for me about him. His age, White House job, whether he’s been a judge, status in the Judiciary Committee—all of it came up.

Pryor told me the Gang of 14 hadn’t met recently and said he simply didn’t have enough information to say definitively whether Kavanaugh would pass muster with the group. Given that Democrats appear ill-prepared for today’s announcement, it would seem to suggest that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has the upper hand.

UPDATE — 6:29 p.m.: I heard back from Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s office. Spokesman Jim Manley called Kavanaugh a “divisive nominee,” but wouldn’t go into detail because Kavanaugh has not yet been reported out of the Judiciary Committee.

“There are a number of Democrats that have concerns about his background and qualifications for this job,” Manley said.

(One more thing from my earlier update: Pryor acknowledged that Democrats had little chance of stopping Kavanaugh in committee, although it looks as though it will probably turn out to be a party-line vote.)