Prospects are dim for Bush nominees

Times Staff Writer

With barely 11 months left in office, President Bush plans to make a new push to win Senate confirmation of nearly 200 nominees to federal judgeships and other government positions.

Seeking to put his stamp on federal courts and to demonstrate to conservatives his readiness to take on the Democratic congressional majority, Bush is expected to demand today that the Senate act on his nominations.

But senior Senate Democrats and others who have studied the appointments process say the president is not likely to see much action. They blame the White House for repeatedly refusing to consult with senators before making nominations, abusing the recess appointments process that allows an administration to circumvent the Senate, and using the nominations to score points with its most conservative allies.


At the center of the dispute are nominations for appellate and district court judgeships -- which have lifetime tenure -- as well as several dozen other appointments, including positions on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the Federal Election Commission, that would continue beyond the expiration of his administration on Jan. 20.

“Some of these nominees are in critical positions to the government,” said Deputy White House Press Secretary Tony Fratto.

“Bush’s problems with appointments are of his own making,” said Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. He has studied the history of presidential appointments going back to the Kennedy administration. “This is a natural consequence of a long list of insults to the Senate over five or six years. The process has just completely broken down,” Light said, adding that relations between the White House and the Senate over presidential appointments were the worst he had encountered or studied over the past half-century.

Bush agrees that the situation is its lowest point, Fratto said, even if he places the blame elsewhere.

There have been angry disputes over nominations in the past, he said, but “we are at probably the worst point in our history, in terms of the Senate’s reluctance to process the president’s appointments.”

Perhaps the most contentious nomination is that of Steven G. Bradbury as an assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the administration on major legal questions.

His nomination has been pending for two years. Democrats have balked at approving him, citing the legal justification that he provided to administration officials who defended the National Security Agency’s use of warrantless electronic surveillance after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Objecting to Bush’s repeated insistence on placing Bradbury in the sensitive position, the Senate has refused to act on dozens of other nominations, including that of U.S. District Judge Mark Filip of Chicago as deputy attorney general, the Justice Department’s No. 2 post.

Bush will argue, Fratto said, that “this isn’t functioning government when the executive can’t have his people in place.”

Anticipating Bush’s complaint, three senior Democratic senators -- Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Charles E. Schumer of New York -- lashed out at Bush on Wednesday in a conference call with reporters, and several liberal interest groups dispatched e-mails blaming Bush for the dispute.

Tanya Clay House, director of public policy for People for the American Way, a liberal public-policy group, said Bush had nominated “some of the most extreme ideologues possible to these powerful positions” and then acted shocked that the Senate wouldn’t confirm them.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took time on the Senate floor Wednesday to rehash what he said was an offer made to the White House in December: to approve more than 84 nominees, including one for the Council of Economic Advisors, if Bush agreed not to give Bradbury a recess appointment, which would have allowed him to serve during the final year of the administration without Senate confirmation.

Reid complained that the administration had rejected his recommendations to fill seats allotted to Democrats on more than a half-dozen commissions and boards, including the Federal Election Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

The White House said that such a deal would force Bush to give up the president’s constitutional right to make recess appointments.