The White House pledged yesterday that President Bush will not bypass the Senate in appointing federal judges for the next eight months as part of a bipartisan deal to break a seven-week impasse over votes on Bush's judicial nominees.
Under the agreement, Bush will not use his constitutional power to give temporary appointments to judicial nominees during congressional recesses for the rest of his current term ending Jan. 20 -- a power he exercised twice in recent months, infuriating Democrats.
In return, Democrats, who had been holding up action on all of Bush's judicial choices since March to protest the recess appointments, agreed to allow votes on 25 mostly noncontroversial nominations to district and appeals court posts over the next several weeks.
The agreement amounted to a partial cease-fire in the Senate's grueling fight over Bush's conservative choices for the judiciary.
Democrats refused to include seven appeals court nominees they have been blocking -- or threatening to block -- as too ideologically conservative in their views on abortion, worker rights and other issues likely to confront a federal judge. Democrats will continue to oppose these nominees, Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters.
Other nominees will be considered on a case-by-case basis, Daschle said. It is doubtful that there will be many new nominations sent to the Senate floor for confirmation votes, however, because the Senate traditionally slows and then stops action on judicial nominations by the summer before a presidential election.
"We are very pleased" with the White House concession on recess appointments, Daschle told reporters shortly after White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. officially agreed to the deal in a meeting with Daschle and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Daschle said he was also pleased that "we can move forward on judges that we think deserve confirmation."
In a brief statement, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said: "The president believes it is important to fill judicial vacancies in a timely manner, and this agreement is an important step in meeting that objective."
The impasse over nominations was triggered by Bush's recess appointment of U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in January, followed by a similar appointment for former Alabama attorney general William H. Pryor Jr. to the 11th Circuit Court in February. Pickering's appointment lasts until the end of this year, Pryor's until the end of next year.
Both had been blocked by a Democratic filibuster, along with four others: Judges Priscilla R. Owen of Texas and Carolyn B. Kuhl and Janice Rogers Brown of California, as well as Miguel A. Estrada, who had been nominated for the D.C. appeals court but later withdrew. Democrats are also objecting to the appeals court nominations of Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II and Idaho lawyer William G. Myers III.
The agreement did not affect about 70 nonjudicial appointments to administration posts that are tied up in a separate dispute over the administration's refusal to accept Democratic choices for a number of boards and commissions that are required by law to be bipartisan.
Republicans and Democrats disagreed over who -- if anyone -- won the fight over recess appointments.
"We always felt they violated the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution. . . . I think the president basically admitted he was wrong," said Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Committee member John Cornyn (R-Tex.) disagreed, saying Bush was forced to resort to recess appointments. "It was a constitutional response to an unconstitutional filibuster," said Cornyn, referring to the GOP argument that filibusters against judicial nominations are not constitutional -- a contention disputed by Democrats.
Once the agreement was reached yesterday, the Senate voted unanimously to confirm Marcia G. Cooke, a Florida lawyer, for a district judgeship. The rest are to be voted on by the end of June, according to Frist.
The only seriously controversial nominee on the list of 25 is James Leon Holmes, whose nomination to a district court was sent to the full Senate without recommendation from the judiciary panel. Holmes had been criticized by some senators for his strong antiabortion views and his 1997 comments in a religious publication that a "wife is to subordinate herself to her husband."