President Bush yesterday laid out an accelerated method for getting the judges he wants onto the federal bench, brushing aside longstanding traditions by trying to fill vacancies before they occur and demanding that the full Senate vote on all nominees.
Bush said his plan would correct "a lousy record" in which vacancies have mounted and nominees have languished as the selection of judges has become highly politicized. The proposal gives him new ammunition on a favorite issue for conservatives as he begins a five-day campaign swing before Tuesday's elections.
The Democrats who control the Senate are unlikely to approve such a plan, but for Bush, that is largely beside the point. Republican officials said the timing was designed to dramatize the stakes going into the elections, when just a few races will decide whether Democrats keep their majority. The strategy, drafting proposals for major changes in the way judges are chosen without consulting senators of either political party, suggested an eagerness by the White House to expand its powers rather than to broker compromise on a delicate issue.
"Nominees are too often mistreated, votes are delayed, hearings are denied, and dozens of federal judgeships sit empty," Bush said at an East Room ceremony filled with conservatives. "The judicial crisis is the result of a broken system, and we have a duty to repair it."
Republicans and conservative interest groups praised the proposals. But Democratic leaders reacted angrily, saying the White House did not tell them about the plan until after it had been announced to reporters. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said his party had made a good-faith effort to reduce the backlog of nominations during 15 months in control.
"The timing and handling of this unilateral White House proposal, a week before the elections, and after ignoring all previous invitations to consult with the Senate, cannot help but raise questions," Leahy said.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) was told by aides after they heard about it from reporters. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime Judiciary Committee member who has played a prominent role in confirmation battles, said, "This is a campaign tactic, not a realistic proposal."
Democrats said the episode could worsen their sour relations with Bush. The deterioration of relations was exacerbated when the administration did not brief leaders on Capitol Hill before telling reporters that North Korea had admitted to operating a nuclear weapons program.
Richard A. Baker, the Senate historian for 28 years, said the proposal was an unusual case of one branch of government trying to dictate reforms to another. "Committing in advance to a certain timetable would rob the Senate of its independence and its responsibility to consider these issues as long as it needs to," Baker said. "The framers of the Constitution expected the Senate to slow things down, and that has annoyed a lot of presidents over two centuries."
Bush's plan asks senators to give up the power to delay or kill nominations by ignoring them. The White House asked senators to make the plan part of their rules, meaning it could be changed by future lawmakers. Nevertheless, Bush said the change should be permanent. "This procedure should apply now and in the future, no matter who lives in this house or who controls the Senate," he said.
Bush is attempting to redefine the Constitution's balance of power between the White House and the Senate for deciding who becomes a federal judge. He does not seek to rewrite the basic responsibilities -- the president selecting candidates and the Senate confirming them. But Bush wants to change when the president could make nominations and to reduce the role of the Senate's committee system.
The White House is recommending that judges give at least one year's notice when they plan to retire. Currently, judges tend to give notice of a few days to a few months, the White House said. Under the proposal, the White House then would forward a nomination to the Senate within six months. The effect would be that, for the first time, presidents routinely would make judicial nominations months before a vacancy has materialized.
Other parts of the proposal seek to control how the Senate behaves once a nomination is made. It would compel the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on every nomination within three months. "A strict deadline is the best way to ensure that judicial nominations are promptly and fairly considered," Bush said. He added that 90 days was "plenty of time" for the committee to research a nominee's background and qualifications.
In the most significant change, the full Senate would promise to hold a vote within six months, regardless of whether the committee had approved a candidate.
Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, accused Bush of trying to undermine basic Senate workings. Requiring the full Senate to vote on all nominees "is contrary to about 220 years of Senate history and Senate precedent," he said.
Whether the Senate is holding up Bush's judicial selections is a matter of considerable partisan dispute. Republicans cite figures intended to illustrate mounting delays.
Democrats and their sympathizers say that since Democrats took over the Senate in June 2001, the Judiciary panel under Leahy has moved more briskly than their GOP counterparts had during most of the Clinton presidency. Democrats also contend that, where hearings have been delayed, the fault lies with the White House, which they say has recommended men and women whose backgrounds are too conservative and polarizing.
The president of the American Bar Association, Alfred P. Carlton Jr., said the nation's largest legal organization "appreciates the fact he's put it out there" because "there is a general recognition the process is in need of a push." The ABA had its own difficulties with the Bush administration, which last year stopped a longstanding practice of allowing the legal group to help rate prospective nominees.
Carlton said the group was not endorsing the specific changes the White House proposed. He said the idea that a president would nominate a new judge before a sitting one had retired "probably would be a departure."