A new hearing yesterday on a recycled nomination did nothing to lessen the likelihood of a dramatic Senate showdown this spring over President Bush's judicial appointees, key senators said.
Appellate court nominee William G. Myers III's second hearing in two years largely echoed the first: Democrats attacked his environmental record and Republicans defended it. When it ended, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said nothing had changed. He said he counts 58 Senate votes favoring Myers's confirmation, putting supporters within "hailing distance" of the 60 needed to overcome Democrats' stalling tactics.
Instead of gaining ground, however, Myers's backers appeared to be struggling not to lose it. Sen. Ken Salazar (Colo.), one of the Democrats Specter is banking on, sent a letter to Bush urging him to withdraw Myers's nomination and those of other judicial appointees whom Democrats blocked last year.
In January 2004, when Salazar was Colorado's attorney general, he signed a letter "strongly" supporting Myers's confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco. A spokesman yesterday said Salazar "remains undecided" on Myers and other judicial nominations working their way toward the Senate floor.
Specter also told reporters he once had hoped Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) might back Myers. But after Schumer ripped into Myers's environmental record at yesterday's hearing, Specter dropped that hope, saying Schumer's speech was "as tough an indictment as I've heard in that room in 24 years."
By mid-afternoon, Senate leaders talked as though a partisan collision over the nomination of Myers and other contested conservatives is as likely as ever. Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said nothing has changed regarding Myers and six other renominated appellate court appointees blocked by filibusters in Bush's first term. "We're going to treat them just the same as we have in the past," he told reporters.
Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said filibusters of judicial nominees "can't be tolerated by the American people." He again held out the possibility of ruling such filibusters unconstitutional -- the so-called nuclear option -- which would trigger a fierce retaliation, Democrats say. But for now, Frist said, "I'm trying to show restraint."
Moments later, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) delivered a floor speech denouncing any strategy that would "curtail the right of extended debate in this hallowed chamber. . . . The claim that no right exists to filibuster judges aims an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate. . . . We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws."
Myers, an Idaho lawyer, is a former Interior Department solicitor and lobbyist for mining and grazing interests. Democrats say his environmental philosophies -- outlined in a number of speeches and articles over the years -- place him outside the political mainstream. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, said Myers was "perhaps the most anti-environmental judicial nominee sent to the Senate in my 30 years" in office.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called Myers "a very honest, decent competent man" who would make a good judge. Committee Republicans did not draw out the hearing, knowing the showdown will occur when the nomination reaches the full Senate -- perhaps next month.
Myers told the committee he would not let his personal and political leanings interfere with fair interpretations of the law. "It is the paramount responsibility of a judge to dispassionately review the law," he said.
Last July, 53 senators -- seven short of the necessary 60 -- voted to end a filibuster and let Myers's confirmation come to a roll call. The only incumbent Democrats who voted to end debate were Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.). With Republicans now holding 55 seats, they need five Democratic supporters to end such a filibuster this year. Biden said yesterday, "My inclination is to vote the way I did last year" on Myers, and Democratic leaders say they assume Nelson will do the same.