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President looks on positive side of Senate's compromise on judges

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - President Bush put a positive face yesterday on a Senate compromise on his judicial nominees, while conservative groups that form the core of his base condemned it as a bitter defeat that undermines his authority and could weaken his hand in choosing the next Supreme Court justice.

Bush focused on the immediate fruits of the deal: a guarantee that three of his judges will receive yes-or-no votes.

"It's about time," Bush said, adding that he was "pleased that the Senate is moving forward on my judicial nominees who were previously being blocked."

In the fight over judges, Bush finds himself, as he has throughout his tenure, buffeted by a determined conservative base on one side and a coalition of lawmakers seeking to moderate his policies on the other.

Some of Bush's strongest supporters said they fear the deal had solidified the power of a coalition of independent-minded senators, which could try to make its influence felt on other parts of Bush's agenda.

"The Republicans who lent their names to this travesty have undercut their president as well as millions of their most loyal voters," said conservative activist Gary L. Bauer.

Some analysts said Monday's deal might have weakened Bush's sway over the Republican-led Congress.

"Essentially the message to President Bush is that he does not have a free ride if he wants to push the envelope with appeals court nominees and with Supreme Court nominees. He will have to use up a lot of political capital, and that political capital is already being expended on Social Security, the war in Iraq" and the rest of his agenda, said political scientist Sheldon Goldman of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a specialist on the federal judiciary.

"It's a wake-up call to the president that he and his advisers cannot continue the way they have been."

Paul M. Weyrich, of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, predicted the deal would give Bush less latitude in filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court that could come as early as this summer.

He said Bush might have to scale back his stated desire to nominate a judge in the mold of Justices Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia - two of the court's staunchest conservatives - and instead choose someone who could win the three-fifths Senate majority required to break a filibuster.

"Now he has to worry about getting 60 votes," Weyrich said. "It's a major disappointment, but we're not going away, and we intend to be there for the Supreme Court battle, or any other battle that [Democrats] decide to initiate."

Others who back Bush's nominees, however, argued that the president won't be swayed by potential Democratic stonewalling.

"If Democrats don't think there's going to be a tough conservative put forward, they're dreaming," said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, which has spearheaded the effort to win votes for Bush's nominees.

Many of the 14 senators who teamed to defuse the judicial conflict said they had done so to spare the Senate a painful episode that could damage its traditions and hamper its ability to act on measures such as Bush's energy plan and a new highway bill.

But interest groups supporting Bush's effort to win approval of all of his judicial nominees said the president had lost in the deal.

"We don't think that a 14-person cabal running the United States Senate was exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Constitution, so we're pretty disappointed," said Jim Backlin, top lobbyist for the Christian Coalition of America.

"A deal like that is not good for any president - it doesn't matter if it's George Bush or his successor," he said.

Backlin and other conservatives argued that Bush should have weighed in more forcefully on the rules change.

Throughout the debate, Bush demanded that each of his nominees get an up-or-down vote - something that could be guaranteed only by banning filibusters - and Vice President Dick Cheney said he supported the ban.

But Bush never weighed in directly, and he and his advisers were careful not to lobby senators on the issue.

Others argued that by keeping away from the rules-change debate, Bush avoided looking power-hungry and distanced himself from a compromise that some said yielded too much.

Former Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican who now lobbies, said the deal had freed Bush from filibusters that had "handcuffed" him and his administration, strengthening the president's hand while preserving an important tool in Senate procedures.

But Nickles said the compromise shouldn't be read to give centrist senators more input into choosing federal judges.

"That's really extra-constitutional - 'advise and consent' is not a pre-clearance," Nickles said.

Some moderates who helped forge the deal said it should prompt Bush to nominate candidates who could appeal to a broader portion of the Senate.

"If you make a controversial, divisive nomination, you're going to reap what you sow," Sen. Lincoln L. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, told Fox News. "And let's hope that doesn't take place."

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