Call Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell old-fashioned. When someone promises him something, the Kentucky conservative expects the promise to be kept. But that is too much to expect of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
In President Clinton’s last two years in office, the Republican majority in the Senate confirmed fifteen circuit court nominations, including two controversial ones – Richard Paez and Marsha Berzon – to the already too-liberal Ninth Circuit. Republicans are demanding that the Democratic Senate move to a vote the same number of Bush nominations as Clinton was allowed by a Republican-controlled Senate in his last two years.
Last month, Reid finally agreed to do something about the Senate’s abysmal progress in moving President Bush’s US circuit court judge nominations to an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
Given the current Democrat-dominated Senate’s snail’s pace on circuit court confirmations (only eight circuit court nominees have been confirmed so far in this Congress), Reid promised McConnell that at least three nominations would be brought to a vote before the Memorial Day recess began.
Reid broke that promise. Only one circuit court nomination has been brought to a vote. In an interview last Friday, Sen. McConnell told me the deal was that, “We would get three, maybe even more, circuit judges in this past work period which lasted eight weeks. It’s clear now not only was that commitment not kept, but it’s pretty clear to me they didn’t intend to keep it.”
Reid had told McConnell that the promise had been cleared with Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt). In a Thursday speech on the Senate floor, McConnell said “To that end, [Reid] committed to do his ‘utmost’; ‘to do everything’ possible; to ‘do everything within [his] power to get three [more] judges approved to our circuit [courts] before the Memorial Day recess.’ ‘Who knows,’ [Reid] even suggested, ‘we may even get lucky and get more than that [because] we have a number of people from whom to choose’.”
Reid is busy making excuses for failing to keep the promise, indicating that Leahy didn’t move fast enough. McConnell told me, “The easy thing to do, as you notice from my remarks, is to blame it on the chairman of the committee. But the point is that the commitment was from the majority leader and was not kept.”
And, McConnell told me on Friday, “I will be responding appropriately.”
“Well, I don’t want to lay out exactly what the reprisals will be but there will be reprisals and they will begin after the recess.”
“Reprisal” is a very strong word. McConnell is no hothead, not given to outbursts of temper or idle threats. And Reid’s failure to live up to his promise has McConnell pretty riled. His anger is aggravated by the fact that the Democrats apparently never intended to live up to Reid’s promise.
At the moment Reid made the promise, there were several judges whose nominations could have been brought to a floor vote before Memorial Day. Peter Keisler’s nomination had already been subjected to a Judiciary Committee hearing, and had received a unanimous “well qualified” rating from the ABA’s judicial nominations committee, their highest rating. His nomination has been pending for over 700 days.
And then there is U.S District Court Chief Judge Robert Conrad, of North Carolina’s Western District. His nomination has been pending for over 300 days. As McConnell said, the Senate has already confirmed Conrad twice, first as the chief federal law enforcement officer in North Carolina and then to a lifetime position on the federal trial bench. Conrad, like Keisler, received the ABA’s highest rating. His nomination is ready for a Senate vote, but the Democrats chose to pass him by.
Instead of going ahead with nominations that were possible to push through before Memorial Day, the Democrats attempted to give the appearance of living up to Reid’s promise without really doing so. Even in that, they failed.
The Democrats sought to move other nominations that hadn’t gone through the process that they, the Democrats, insist on. One nomination the Democrats chose to push ahead of Keisler and Conrad — that of Judge Helene White — hadn’t even been received by the Senate when Reid made his promise. There were only about 35 days to get her vetted through the ABA and the Judiciary Committee. (White had rendered about 2800 decisions since her last confirmation. Each had to be examined by the Judiciary Committee before it would approve her nomination, an impossible task in 35 days).
White’s ABA review hadn’t been received by the Senate before the Memorial Day recess began.
Promises are the currency of American politics. When one side cannot take the word of the other, the system breaks down. McConnell made clear that this broken promise is being taken very seriously.
As Sen. McConnell put it, Republicans and Democrats are still in a “push and shove” situation on judicial nominations. The Democrats have shoved aside their promise, and Republicans are about to push back.
I asked McConnell how the Democrats could avoid Republican reprisals. He said, “What would satisfy me is 15 circuit judges, which is what President Clinton got in the last two years of his term. We have eight: we [need] seven more in a very short period of time. Anything short of that I think will not be meeting the goal that the Democratic Leader and myself set out at the beginning of this Congress, and is completely unacceptable.”
Harry Reid has been outmaneuvered and outclassed by McConnell since this Congress convened in January 2007. What will McConnell and the Republicans do when the Senate returns next Monday?
Reid is filling the Senate schedule with bills aimed at benefiting the Democrats in the national election. When the Senate returns next week to the “push and shove” environment the Democrats created, the first order of business isn’t judicial nominations. Reid has scheduled the Lieberman-Warner global warming “cap and trade” bill for a cloture vote. Republicans are going to have a lot of fun with a bill that would raise the price of a gallon of gasoline by another 50 cents to a dollar.
In the days before the recess ends, Reid might do well to reflect upon the Congress’ current 18% approval ratings, and the 75% disapproval rating that comes with it. Judicial nominations will be an important issue in November. And not only for presidential candidates.