Key Senate Democrats are pushing -- so far without success -- to reopen hearings on a top Pentagon official whose judicial nomination has become entangled in the scandal over abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces.
The nomination of Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee two months ago -- well before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke into the open.
Haynes's nomination has since been pending before the full Senate, caught in a political deadlock that is holding up action on nearly 100 nominations by President Bush, including more than 30 for circuit and district court positions. Negotiations are underway to break the logjam.
Over the past week, Judiciary Committee members Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) each have written committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) to request new hearings to explore Haynes's role in developing policy on detention and interrogation of prisoners.
As the Pentagon's top lawyer, Haynes "clearly was -- or should have been -- involved in many of the issues now in controversy" and should be asked about them before the Senate votes on his nomination, Kennedy said in his letter to Hatch.
Although Hatch has not responded, according to aides to the two Democrats, a Hatch spokeswoman has told reporters that Hatch will not order new hearings. "Senator Hatch has stated that the committee has completed its work on Mr. Haynes's nomination . . . and Mr. Haynes will not be recalled to the committee," said Margarita Tapia.
Kennedy will continue to press Hatch on the issue and, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, will seek to question Haynes as part of that committee's probe of prison abuses, according to Kennedy aide David Smith.
Separately from the request for a hearing, Kennedy fired off a letter May 7 to Haynes with 21 specific questions about his role in the "establishment and oversight of legal standards of conduct in U.S. military prisons and detention facilities." Kennedy asked Haynes to describe the "full extent" of his role in the prison investigations, when he became aware of conditions at Abu Ghraib, what steps he took in response to Maj. Gen. Anthony M. Taguba's report on the abuses, and whether he approved sleep deprivation and "stress positions" for use in military interrogations.
Even before these questions arose, Kennedy and other Democrats complained that Haynes was not adequately forthcoming in response to their questions, especially on the constitutional rights of people detained as terrorist suspects. As a result, all nine Democrats voted "no" or "present" when the Judiciary Committee voted on Haynes in March. All 10 Republicans voted to approve his confirmation to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit bench.
Meanwhile, Democrats continued negotiations with the White House in hopes of reaching an agreement on thorny, politically charged issues that have held up action on Bush nominees for weeks. Republicans are angry at Democrats for blocking some of Bush's most controversial nominees, and Democrats are angry at the White House for using its power to put two of those nominees -- Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi and William H. Pryor Jr. of Alabama -- in office during congressional recesses.
If no deal is struck by today, Republicans plan to force a vote on limiting debate on a noncontroversial district court nominee -- Marcia G. Cooke, an African American lawyer from Florida -- to put Democrats on the spot. But Democrats have fended off similar attempts to break their filibusters against other nominees and have indicated they are likely to do so again unless a compromise is reached before the vote.
One possible outcome is a limited agreement to allay Democrats' concerns over recess appointments in exchange for confirmation of at least some of the stalled nominees, according to sources in both parties. Democrats also complain that the White House is ignoring their choices for bipartisan boards and commissions, and a compromise on this point is considered likely to be part of any agreement.