KWAME HOLMAN: Without fanfare, the White House yesterday sent the names of 20 judicial nominees to the Senate, 12 of whom previously were blocked by Democrats. The president, who repeatedly had promised to resubmit the candidates, said his nominees are well-qualified and deserve a Senate vote.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States Senate must also live up to its constitutional responsibility. Every judicial nominee deserves a prompt hearing and an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats, however, say some of the president's nominees are extreme conservatives. Minority Leader Harry Reid:
SEN. HARRY REID: Unless there's something that is new, that I'm not aware of, with each of these men and women, we will vote the same way we did in the past.
KWAME HOLMAN: Among those re-nominated for district and appeals court judgeships: Terrence W. Boyle, a federal district judge in North Carolina; Democrats have criticized his opinions in civil rights cases.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen; questions have been raised about her rulings in civil rights, abortion, and environmental cases.
California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown; Democrats complained that she referred to the New Deal as a "socialist revolution."
And William Haynes II, who served as Pentagon counsel when policies were created that allowed the U.S. to hold so-called enemy combatants without charges or access to attorneys.
Republicans have maintained the Democrats' objections are about politics, not policy.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: It seems as though our colleagues just seem to hate President Bush, and they're not being fair to him. They're not being fair to his nominees.
SEN. DICK DURBIN: 98 percent of this president's nominees have been approved. By any reasonable standard, this president is doing very well.
KWAME HOLMAN: In his second term, the president renews his fight over judicial nominations with a critical advantage: a larger Republican majority in the Senate. Republicans, who held 51 seats in the last Senate, never could muster the 60 votes needed to end the Democrats' filibusters of court nominees.
Now they hold 55 seats, and believe they are within striking distance. And if that doesn't work, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has warned he may seek to outlaw filibusters entirely.
JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.
GWEN IFILL: For more on the brewing fight over the president's court choices we are joined by two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Jeff Sessions, Republican from Alabama; and Charles Schumer, Democrat from New York.
Sen. Sessions, obviously, there's a political calculus involved in this on the president's part as well as members of the Senate. What has changed this time from the last time, many of these same nominees were sent to the Senate?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, there are four more Republican votes in the Senate, but more importantly it was a big issue in this past election. President Bush never made a speech that he didn't talk about it. The American people are very concerned that un-elected lifetime appointed federal judges are setting social policy and really imposing a view of America that they're not comfortable with.
I think it's a big deal. Perhaps Harry Reid should call Tom Daschle and ask his opinion about whether he should continue to block these highly qualified nominees. I think they are mainstream lawyers who believe in the rule of law, who believe a judge should show restraint, and therefore I think they should be confirmed and I think we're going to see some improvement in that area.
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Schumer, it seems that Sen. Sessions stopped just short just now of calling you obstructionists; the term that was used to apply to Sen. Daschle, and of course, he's now former Sen. Daschle. What exactly are your objections this time? Are they any different than last time?
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Well, the seven judges who we blocked, nothing has changed about them and we're going to try to block them. I mean, the charge of obstructionist is laughable. It seems like, you know, President Bush and his Republican colleagues want one-party rule.
The rules of the Senate have always been that you have to get some bipartisan support unless you have such a large majority that you can roll over the minority. And the president got ten judges blocked of 214. Is that obstructionist or is that what the founding fathers wanted? If they didn't want the Senate to block any judges at all, they wouldn't have had the Senate as part of the process. They just would have said the president can pick them.
So, you know, the term obstructionist - and, by the way, I've talked to Tom Daschle, he's encouraging us to do the same thing. He said he didn't lose on judges, he didn't lose on any issue on the merits; he lost on a low, dastardly campaign that attacked him in ways that he had never seen before.
So we can ask -- I guess Harry Reid has asked Tom Daschle and Tom Daschle said "do the right thing." We believe we're protecting the future of America from extremists, not all the judges the president nominates, not 90 percent of the judges or 10 percent of the judges the president nominates, but the 2 or 3 percent that he nominates that are so extreme it's laughable.
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Sessions, is there any possibility that this time as opposed to past times we might see a solution reached by reaching across the aisle, by perhaps getting some Democrats to change their minds?
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I hope so. I know Bill Pryor, who I have such tremendous admiration for, and such a magnificent lawyer, such a decent person --
GWEN IFILL: The nominee from Alabama?
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: From Alabama, he's being filibustered and did not get an up or down vote. So I'm hopeful that people would reconsider on that. He's been appointed now, he's served; he's got some cases that he can show that demonstrate his skill.
But you know, just yesterday, Harry Reid indicated that they were not giving an inch, they intend to continue to filibuster all the judges that have been filibustered before and presumably new ones will be added to that list. And this is unprecedented in American history, this systematic filibustering of judges, which basically raises the vote requirement for confirmation from fifty-one to sixty is something that Bill Frist and I think a majority of American people do not believe should continue. And I think will end one way or the other.
GWEN IFILL: Before I ask you, Sen. Schumer, about the filibuster -- which I do want to do -- I do also want to clarify that Sen. Pryor, who Sen. Sessions was talking about did get a recess appointment which has since expired, so when you say he's actually served, it was without Senate confirmation.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Right. But it hasn't expired yet.
GWEN IFILL: Right. Sen. Schumer, let's talk about that filibuster question. Sen. Frist and others have talked about the "nuclear option," which is changing the Senate rules to basically outlaw filibusters.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Yeah. Well, let me just say first, Jeff has a short memory. The Republicans, when they controlled the Senate, blocked 61 judges. Now they didn't filibuster. They didn't have to. They had control. They wouldn't bring them up for a hearing. Some judges sat four and five years.
And Jeff himself tried, although unsuccessfully, to filibuster a few of the judges he considered extreme at the far left. That's part of the process. It is -- when a Democratic president is there and he chooses to nominate people who are way over to one extreme, the Republicans try to block him by whatever means they have available.
GWEN IFILL: But is all that about to end, Sen. Schumer, with this rule to change the filibuster?
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: No. Let me say this. This is the highest hypocrisy. Here we are, Jeff sessions and all the Republicans, saying, "We need strict constructionism on the courts," and they are using this nuclear option. They're saying they're just going to have a ruling. It's like a third world dictator, the vice president and the chair just ruling by himself and saying it's unconstitutional when there's not a word in the Constitution that says it should be a majority vote in the Senate on judges or anything else.
In fact, the only thing in the Constitution says that the Senate should make its own rules. So what they're doing is they are so interpreting the law, making -- they are so being activist by making their own interpretation of the Constitution to defend themselves against so-called activist judges. It's the highest hypocrisy.
GWEN IFILL: Let's let Sen. Sessions respond to that.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I need to respond to that. First of all, judges came up under President Clinton that I objected to, but when a cloture motion was filed, every single time I voted for cloture to give them an up and down vote because I never believed they should be filibustered.
Sen. Schumer, on the other hand, when President Clinton was there said it made a mockery of the Constitution not to allow judges to have an up or down vote.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: I didn't say that.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Yes, you did, I've got the quote.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: No.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: And I want to say this further... that the rules are within the prerogative of the Senate. The Senate has the power to change the rules. Robert Byrd has changed them on a number of occasions. The issue has been discussed and researched quite in-depth. I think the more it's been studied, the more comfortable people feel with the power of the majority to set rules that will work for them in these circumstances.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: The Senate rules, wait, I have to answer that. The Senate rules say you need a two-thirds vote to change the Senate rules. That wasn't just an arbitrary number. It's because the Senate is supposed to work by comity. You're supposed to have Democrats and Republicans working together; that's why the two-thirds was chosen.
They hope, unilaterally, to have Vice President Cheney say he can change the rules, and then a 51 vote can back it up. That's overruling the Senate rules, overruling hundreds of years of tradition. The founding fathers wanted the Senate to be bipartisan and to slow things down.
GWEN IFILL: Allow me to step back a moment from the question of whose rules should apply here because most Americans watching this probably think to themselves we've been here before. We've seen this kind of gridlock. Those two guys are never going to agree.
Today, we heard Pat Robertson say what happens on the judgeships is going to be the ultimate test, and we heard the opposite from the other side from Planned Parenthood and People for the American Way and others. So why should any of this matter? What is the actual practical effect of these judgeship nominations and these fights that happen?
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Let me give you a couple of examples...
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Sessions, if you don't mind, I'd like to start with you.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I would say it has a significant practical impact. Judges too often with lifetime appointments unaccountable to the American people are doing things like striking down three strikes and you're out laws in California, striking down the Pledge of Allegiance, redefining marriage in this country.
The American people do not appreciate that. I do not believe it's consistent with their position on the bench. And there are a lot of other issues of that kind that are of concern. We simply want judges who will follow the law. I believe that the left desire judges who will impose their agenda on the people and the people have no recourse through a vote to remove them from office.
So it's more than Republicans and Democrats. It is a discussion and a battle over the rule of -- the role of judges in our legal system, and I believe a judge should show restraint. President Bush believes that. He's taken his case to the American people. I believe he's been affirmed in that opinion.
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Schumer, your chance to respond.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Yeah. The bottom line is the judges we have blocked want to turn the clock back. They don't want to be narrow interpretation of the law. Their view of narrow interpretation of the law is to turn the clock back to the 1890s.
One of the judges that they nominated said, "God's gift to white people was slavery." A judge they nominated said the purpose of a man is to be subjugated to a woman. A judge we blocked, we blocked those two. A judge they nominated said there should be no zoning laws. If someone wanted to build a factory right next to your home, that's a taking of property. And a final one said there should be no labor laws, no minimum wage, no wages and hours, no worker protection laws, because those were all takings, unconstitutional takings.
The people we have blocked are extremists, and if they were to go forward, the America we know, the changes we have made to making America a more fair and humane place, would be gone; and we'd go back to the 1890s where those who had the power got their way completely. They can't do it in the Congress. They can't even do it when they elect a president. So they're trying in the courts. It's our job to block them.
GWEN IFILL: All right. The first nominations come to the floor Terrence Boyle and William Myers on March 1. Sen. Schumer and Sen. Sessions, thank you both very much.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Thank you.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Thank you.