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Senate Judiciary Panel Rejects Nomination for Appeals Judge

By Helen Dewar and Amy Goldstein

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday rejected the nomination of U.S. Judge Charles W. Pickering to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, handing President Bush his first defeat on a judicial appointment and putting the White House on notice to expect trouble over other conservative nominees.

In three party-line votes of 10-9, the Democratic-controlled panel spurned Bush’s plea to endorse Pickering or to let the full Senate decide the issue.

Arguing for four hours before a standing-room-only crowd of Pickering supporters and opponents, senators portrayed the struggle as involving more than one judge’s fate. Republicans accused Democrats of contributing to a vacancy “crisis” on the federal bench by delaying or blocking Bush’s nominees. Democrats said the White House was hindering the process by seeking to “stack the courts” with conservative extremists.

The vote was a blow to both Bush and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who considers Pickering a friend and who led the fight on his behalf. After the vote, Lott said from the Senate floor that he took the judge’s defeat “personally” and described it as a “slap at Mississippi.”

Bush called the committee’s action “unfortunate for democracy and unfortunate for America.” He said Pickering “deserves better than to be blocked by a party-line vote of 10 senators on one committee.”

The votes appeared to kill the nomination, although Republicans could try to revive it on the Senate floor. That would require 60 votes, however, and Democrats expressed confidence they could prevent it.

Faced with the inevitability of the committee vote, Bush had appealed to Democrats to let the full Senate decide Pickering’s fate. At Wednesday’s news conference he said “a few senators are standing in the way of justice” by blocking the nomination in committee.