WASHINGTON - Signaling that the highly partisan battle over judges will continue next year, the White House announced yesterday that President Bush will renominate 20 unconfirmed judicial candidates, including six filibustered by Senate Democrats.
The unexpected holiday announcement disappointed Democrats and even dismayed moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, who recently became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which vets judicial nominees.
"I would have preferred to have had some time in the 109th Congress to try to cool the climate to avoid a judicial gridlock and future filibusters," said Specter, whose comments that a Supreme Court nominee must back abortion rights nearly cost him the chairmanship.
"But the president has a right to send over names and I respect that," Specter said. "We will move ahead on his nominees with hearings and appropriate consideration."
Absent from the list were the names of four nominees whom Democrats had blocked, including Claude Allen of Virginia. His nomination, which could still resurface, upset Maryland's two senators because the seat to which he was nominated on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals typically is held by a Marylander.
Last summer, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes argued that Allen's selection to the bench would upset that tradition. A vote on the nomination was postponed.
A spokeswoman for Mikulski said the senator could not be reached for comment yesterday. Calls to Sarbanes' office were not returned.
The president's action yesterday sets the stage for a likely showdown over the filling of an expected vacancy on the Supreme Court and fuels speculation over whether Republicans will take the drastic step of changing Senate rules to ban filibusters on judicial nominees.
Though the Republicans in the election expanded their majority in the Senate to 55, they still lack the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster, which Democrats have used to block 10 judicial nominees they consider unsuitable or too extreme.
A rule change that would require only a simple majority of 51 votes to stop a filibuster has been dubbed the "nuclear option," because Democrats have vowed to block Bush's legislative agenda and to paralyze the work of the Senate with procedural delays and obstacles.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan complained the Senate failed to vote on many Bush nominations of "highly qualified individuals" to the courts and asserted it has "a constitutional obligation to vote up or down" on them.
Democrats dismissed that assertion as untrue and accused the White House of abandoning the president's post-election pledge of bipartisanship.
"The Bush administration is ending the year as they began it, choosing confrontation over compromise, ideology over moderation and defiance over cooperation," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and a key player in the judge fight, said, "This is a sad day for America, because we have approved 204 out of 214 nominations and have only rejected the most extreme nominees."
Bruce Fein, a consultant on filibusters to Republicans, said Bush is "daring" Senate Democrats to filibuster again. "This looks like a dress rehearsal for ensuring a filibuster is not a weapon against a Supreme Court nominee," he said.
With the illness of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, many say Bush will have one or more vacancies to fill on the Supreme Court.
"It's a gratuitous slap in the face," said Nan Aron, executive director of the liberal coalition Alliance for Justice that has opposed many of Bush's nominees because they are against abortion rights, federal regulation and traditional civil rights.
Besides Allen, the other three nominees Democrats blocked and who are missing from Bush's list included Charles Pickering Sr., whose bruising battle for a seat on a federal appeals court abruptly ended when Bush, in a recess appointment, elevated him without congressional approval. Pickering announced his retirement earlier this month.
Miguel A. Estrada, a native of Honduras and former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, withdrew his name. Bush also did not retap California Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl.
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. A Sun staff writer contributed to this article.