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Estrada, Owen At Top of List

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he plans to press for quick action on President Bush’s earliest judicial nominees from the last Congress, moving embattled appeals court selections Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen to the front of the queue while pushing back consideration of Charles Pickering, who has drawn heated opposition from liberal groups and faces filibuster threats from Dem-ocrats.

“I’m going to clean up the backlog as quickly as I can,” Hatch said in an interview, citing Bush’s first round of picks from May of 2001 as a priority for confirmation.

Hatch acknowledged that some later nominees are likely to vault over picks that are delayed in the process, but said of Pickering, “He would not be one of the early ones.”

The remarks offered the first glimpse inside Hatch’s planning for the confirmation process, which is shaping up as one the key areas of conflict in the 108th Congress.

The White House set the tone for the session by renominating two judges, Pickering and Owen, who had been rejected by Judiciary’s Democratic majority in the last Congress. Bush’s move outraged Senate Democrats and prompted vows from some that they would block the nominations using every tool available to the minority, including filibuster.

With the GOP now in charge, Hatch said his committee would try to consider nominations in roughly the sequence they were received from the White House. He indicated that he plans to move Estrada at the committee’s first mark-up of the new Congress; it has yet to be scheduled.

And the chairman served notice that opposition from Democratic Senators and allied interest groups — opposition Hatch suggested would be forthcoming regardless of whom the president picked — would not deter him from moving aggressively to bring nominations to the floor.

“Some people are not going to be happy with what I plan to do, but these nominees have been waiting a long time to be considered,” Hatch said.

Hatch has indicated in recent weeks that he may alter the Senate’s traditional “blue slip” system for considering presidential nominations in order to prevent Democrats from stalling the nomination process.

By custom, a chairman will not take action on a judicial nomination until both home-state Senators have returned blue slips indicating their support for the nominee to the committee. But Hatch, setting out an aggressive approach, has signaled that he may not in all circumstances regard the lack of one or both blue slips to be disqualifying for a nominee.

Hatch’s immediate predecessor as Judiciary chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), imposed a strict interpretation on blue slips that enabled Democrats to hold off action on several controversial nominees. Democrats point out that Hatch had taken the same approach during his previous stint as chairman during the Clinton administration.

Judiciary Democrats had asked Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) to get Leahy’s strict interpretation of the blue-slip policy included in the organizing resolution that cleared the Senate last week, but the Leader suggested it wasn’t necessary.

In the end, the entire Democratic Caucus agreed it would back any colleague “to the hilt” if Hatch pushed ahead with a nominee even after receiving a negative blue slip from a Democrat, Daschle said in a brief interview last week.

Daschle declined to say if that meant a filibuster of any nominee who received a negative blue slip yet still saw his or her nomination forwarded to the Senate floor. Democrats would need just 41 votes to sustain a filibuster and block a nomination, though that step has usually been reserved only for Supreme Court justices in the past.

Leahy spokesman David Carle declined to comment on Hatch’s approach to the upcoming battle over nominations, except to say, “The majority has not told the minority of its plans for scheduling action on nominees.”

Thus far, the White House has appeared to place its faith in Hatch to push the nominees through. One White House official connected to the process said the administration has said only that it would like Hatch to act as quickly as possible, and so far was “confident of where [Judiciary] is going on this stuff.”

One person working to win confirmation of Bush’s judges said Hatch has told allies privately that he is committed to getting Bush’s nominees to the floor in spite of the opposition that will inevitably come into play.

But the source also suggested Hatch has a history of talking tough in the confirmation process and then seeking accommodation when his opponents dig in their heels.

“In order to succeed, I think he has to be willing to [brush aside the opposition],” the source said. “I think he’ll try, but I’m not sure he’ll stick with it.”

Besides Estrada and Owen, other judges from May 2001 who have continued to languish at Judiciary include Terrence Boyle, Deborah Cook, John Roberts and Jeffrey Sutton. Only Estrada and Owen received hearings; Hatch indicated that he would move quickly to convene hearings for the others.

While Bush’s decision to renominate Pickering for the bench has stirred considerable protest from the Democrats, some insiders have suggested that the selection may be intended as a decoy to draw attention from other nominees the White House would like to move through the process quickly.

Certainly some Democrats are suspicious now that the initial rancor over the renomination has died down.

“The only reason there could be for treating [Pickering and Owen] differently — because both have had hearings — is a political one,” one senior Democratic aide said.

One GOP source suggested the most likely reason Pickering would be moved back is that Hatch and the GOP don’t know where they are going to find the votes to win Senate confirmation.

“[Pickering] can make it out of a hearing with a Republican majority, but they can’t get him confirmed,” the source said.

Elliot Mincberg, the legal director at People for the American Way, a liberal interest group that has led opposition to Bush’s judicial nominations, said it is too early to know how many of the president’s nominations the group will “formally” oppose.

But he suggested the group also doesn’t see last year’s battles as this year’s major burdens.

“Pickering and Owen have already been rejected,” Mincberg said. “It’s just a question of reaffirming that.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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