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GOP Backs Off Nominations

Packed Schedule Leaves Little Room for Political Maneuvers

Senate Republicans will convene their second policy forum next week to focus on the judicial confirmation process, but aides say the GOP is unlikely to express its disapproval with parliamentary maneuvers in the face of myriad must-pass bills of national concern.

With must-pass bills on the agenda for the rest of the work period, the GOP is not planning to tie up the floor to protest Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) handling of President Bush’s judicial nominations before the August recess, leadership aides said.

Earlier this year, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began using Senate rules to stall legislation and committee hearings following months of largely fruitless negotiations between Republicans, the White House, Reid and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Republican demands that the Senate approve as many of Bush’s nominees as it did in President Bill Clinton’s last year in office.

McConnell, often with little warning even to his own Conference members, used these tactics through much of May and June to tie the chamber in knots, often targeting legislation that was high on the Democratic agenda but had either limited GOP support or was unlikely to be altered enough to attract bipartisan support.

Although Reid and Senate Democrats eventually agreed to move several stalled nominations through the chamber — and Democrats have treated Republican anger as a fabricated partisan talking point — Republicans have shown few signs of lessening their desire to hammer Democrats with the issue, which resonates among the conservative base. But with Congress entering the legislative homestretch for the year and the public’s attention on policy issues such as gas prices, Republicans said the agenda Reid has laid out will limit their options.

Specifically, leadership aides pointed to Reid’s decision to put intelligence reform, housing, Medicare and energy issues on the agenda for this five-week work period, saying that at this point, there appear to be few chances to fight the nomination fight.

Republicans credited Reid for limiting the terrain from which to launch their attacks. Reid has “structured the floor … to have as much insulation from that kind of activity” as possible, a senior Republican aide said.

Republicans, however, said McConnell is not simply disarming, and that he will continue to look for avenues where he can make the GOP’s case on nominations. “It’s still a big issue and it’s certainly something leadership is going to keep an eye on,” the aide said, adding that McConnell’s “commitment to it has not waned at all.”

Democrats said they welcomed a break in the floor battles that have stalled much of their agenda.

“Before the July Fourth recess, Republicans repeatedly ran away from the energy debate, blocked a bipartisan bill to prevent Medicare payment cuts and keep other key protections from expiring, and blocked a bill to help families facing foreclosure,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

“Hopefully, this signals that they are ready to drop their silly games and are ready work together to pass legislation important to the American people,” h e added.

Next Monday, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (Pa.) will hold a GOP policy forum on the issue of judicial confirmations.

Tentatively titled “Protecting American Justice: Ensuring Confirmation of Qualified Judicial Nominations,” the forum is based on a similar one conducted by the Conference earlier this year on energy issues.

Although the energy forum received modest attention, a Conference aide said they have had surprising success at the local level and that they believe the events have resonated with the public.

According to a GOP aide familiar with the planning for the forum, witnesses will include people who know the nominees who remain stalled in the Senate, including Peter Keisler. Keisler’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has been stalled in the Senate for over a year.

The forum will also include testimony from experts on the confirmation process from the Congressional Research Service and outside groups.

The hearing will focus heavily on the increasing politicization of the confirmation process over the past several years, according to this aide, as well as the “Strom Thurmond Rule,” which prevents the Senate from considering judicial nominees after the presidential nominating conventions. This year, that will be early September. The rule is named after former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who chaired the Judiciary Committee in the 1980s.

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