Senators spar over judicial nominee
Kavanaugh denies involvement in wiretapping, detainee policies
From Bill Mears
Brett Kavanaugh, right, with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove during a 2004 campaign trip.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee laid out sharp partisan lines Tuesday in debating the qualifications of a top White House aide nominated for a prestigious judicial post.
It was the second time since 2003 that Brett Kavanaugh has appeared before the committee, where his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has languished.
The D.C. venue is considered by many to be second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in prestige among judicial panels in the country. Four of the high court's current members served on the D.C. Circuit. (Watch how the politics of judicial nominees works -- 2:30)
'A political foot soldier'
Democrats pressed for a new hearing to question Kavanaugh over what role he might have played in the administration's secret wiretapping program of Americans suspected of terrorist ties.
They also wanted to know about any dealings he might have had with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Several lawmakers attacked Kavanaugh's experience, temperament and political ties.
"I have deep concerns about this nominee," said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.
"If there was a political fight that needed a political foot soldier in the last decade, Brett Kavanaugh was probably there," Schumer said.
Schumer cited the nominee's work as a lawyer for independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton, and the 2000 Florida ballot recount.
The nominee told the committee Tuesday he dealt neither with Abramoff nor with the wiretap issue.
He also denied developing legal policy on the physical treatment of Iraqi and other Muslim detainees held in U.S. military custody, which critics said amounted to torture.
Kavanaugh worked at the White House when those polices were developed, which came to light after his initial appearance before the committee in 2004.
"I am not, and have not been involved in rules about [enemy] combatants," Kavanaugh said Tuesday.
'I will call them as a I see them'
He vowed to be an independent judge who would not be swayed by his ties to the White House.
"If confirmed, I will call them as a I see them," Kavanaugh testified. "My record shows I was fair."
He met privately in recent days with several Democratic senators, seeking to allay their concerns.
Kavanaugh, 41, staff secretary at the White House, handles a wide range of legal issues that come before President Bush. The D.C. native was first nominated to the federal appeals seat in 2003.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee's chairman, said a vote on Kavanaugh would happen Thursday.
If approved, the full Senate would consider the nomination. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, vowed a final vote would take place before Memorial Day, May 29.
Republicans accused the other side of trying to score political points by delaying a vote on Kavanaugh. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said Democrats were engaging in "partisan sniping."
Bar association lowers rating
In an unusual move, the American Bar Association recently downgraded its rating of Kavanaugh from "well-qualified" to "qualified" after a new round of interviews with colleagues raised concerns over "the breadth of his professional experience." (Full story)
The ABA's peer review panel, which rates all federal court nominees, said its new evaluation "raised additional concern over whether this nominee is so insulated that he will be unable to judge fairly in the future."
The report cited his lack of courtroom experience trying cases to a verdict, especially in criminal maters.
One judge cited by the panel expressed concern over Kavanaugh's shaky oral presentation in court, labeling it "less than adequate."
Specter dismissed the ABA report, saying it would make "no difference" with him. "He's qualified," said Specter.
"If he reflects the views consistent with the president, that's entirely consistent with the president's nomination of judges," Specter said. "That's our system, decided by an election."
Democratic senators -- including Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada -- have threatened filibusters over the nominations of Kavanaugh and Terrence Boyle, a U.S. district judge from North Carolina being considered for a seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
"The answer is yes, a possible filibuster, of course," Reid said last week about the Kavanaugh nomination. Those remarks came before Specter agreed to hold another committee hearing. Since then some Democrats have urged caution.
"I think they're [Republicans] trying to bring up the battle that went on over the filibuster," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. "The issue of filibusters, quite candidly, and I'm a member of the Judiciary Committee, hasn't been discussed."
Boyle's nomination has also foundered for years, and recent media reports suggested he improperly ruled on cases in which he had a financial interest. The White House denies Boyle used his office for private gain.
Frist said he would push for Boyle's confirmation after any vote on Kavanaugh. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat, used Kavanaugh's hearing to urge Bush to withdraw Boyle's nomination.
A conservative strategy
The fights over Kavanaugh and Boyle are part of a broader election-year strategy by Republicans to fortify their voter base by tying judicial nominations to an ideological struggle over issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
"Social conservatives that make up the majority of the Republican base are very excited about judges," said GOP political strategist Scott Reed.
"It energizes the Republican base and that's something we need to do before we get into this election cycle."
In a year when lobbying scandals, the war in Iraq and gas prices have eroded public confidence in the Bush administration, the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court were considered success stories for the GOP.
Some conservatives have privately grumbled the White House and Senate Republicans have not fought hard enough for Kavanaugh and Boyle, and have been slow to put forward names of about 20 pending nominations on the federal bench.
Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and a top Republican strategist, assured GOP lawmakers Monday those names would soon be sent to Congress for consideration.
Kavanaugh's chances for confirmation appear stronger than Boyle's.
Specter agreed to the Kavanaugh hearing after Democrats on the so-called "Gang of 14" made the request, in an apparent effort to avoid a prolonged showdown.
That group of Senate moderate Democrats and Republicans last year brokered another standoff over judicial nominees, allowing a number of controversial pending nominees to receive confirmation.
The Gang of 14 meets Wednesday to discuss whether to support Kavanaugh, the day before the Senate Judiciary committee plans to vote.
CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.
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