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Bush clash with Senate over appeals court nomination could presage future fights over Supreme Court

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans forced a one-week delay Thursday in a racially-charged showdown over U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to the federal appeals court, hoping to stave off an embarrassing defeat for President Bush.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, coupled his request for a delay with a withering attack on ``extreme left Washington special interest groups'' that he said were conducting a ``lynching'' designed to keep Bush's judicial nominees from gaining approval.

``They want activists on the bench who support their views, regardless of the law,'' Hatch said.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration plans to take the time to determine whether any committee members could be swayed.

Much of the opposition to Pickering has come from civil rights groups who say he supported segregation as a young man in Mississippi. Supporters point to numerous examples of support for civil rights as far back as the mid- to late-1960s.

Under Senate Judiciary Committee rules, any senator can gain a one-week delay simply asking for it.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the panel's chairman, said he remains opposed to Pickering's nomination, a decision he said he made based on hearing testimony and not on pressure from outside groups.

Still, in a remarkable disclosure, he said one outside group, which he did not name, had called his office to say that ``because I was Catholic, I was having a religious test, applying a religious test on Charles Pickering.'' He said a Jewish member of the committee also ``got a phone call saying the opposition was on religion.''

Leahy called such tactics ``distasteful.''

It seemed unlikely a delay would change the minds of any of the Democratic senators on the committee who were poised to scuttle Pickering's nomination on a party-line vote.

But Republicans renewed their call to have the nomination be sent to the Senate floor, where all 100 senators could vote, and where Pickering's supporters say they could prevail.

Hatch's remark about a lynching echoed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's angry claim 11 years ago that he was the victim of a ``high tech lynching for uppity blacks.'' Thomas was ultimately confirmed over the objections of liberals, but only after the committee agreed to send his nomination to the floor.

Additionally, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Democrats were using Pickering as a ``warmup'' for any nominees that Bush names to the Supreme Court.

The committee delay came one day after Bush greeted Pickering and supporters at the white House and accused Democrats of playing politics with the nomination.

``I think the country is tired of people playing politics all the time in Washington, and I believe that they're holding this man's nomination up for political purposes,'' the president said in an Oval Office meeting with Pickering.

Pickering would sit on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which serves Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.

He has faced criticism from women's, civil rights and liberal groups, some of the same factions likely to line up against a Bush pick to the Supreme Court.

Senate Democrats have questioned Pickering about efforts to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross on an interracial couple's lawn. They questioned him about his actions on abortion and voting rights as a state senator and federal judge.

``It is very critical that the judicial nominees, especially for the appeals and the Supreme Court positions, are people of moderate philosophical temperament and have an impeccable past,'' Daschle said.

Bush shrugged off the criticism, noting that the former Mississippi prosecutor easily won Senate confirmation in 1990 as a judge in a U.S. District Court. He called Pickering a man who ``respects the rights of all citizens.''

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer shrugged off questions about Pickering's views on race in the 1950s and 1960s. ``If actions taken by people 40 years ago were the criteria, there'd be some senators who are voting on this nomination whose very history would come into play,'' Fleischer said.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was a member of the Ku Klux Klan before coming to Congress in the 1950s; Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina waged the longest filibuster in Senate history to oppose a 1957 civil rights bill and ran for president as a segregationist.

The two men have since supported civil rights and hired black staff members. Thurmond is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Byrd is not.
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