Senate shutdown coming over judicial confirmations?

The slow pace of judicial confirmations may become a big issue in the next few weeks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and ranking Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter both have raised the possibility of halting all Senate business unless Harry Reid commits to meeting the number of Clinton appointees confirmed in the last two years of his second term:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday he has not ruled out the option of shutting down the chamber to put fresh pressure on Democrats to confirm President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees. …

His statement came after Republicans brought a Judiciary Committee meeting to a near-standstill to vent their frustrations with what they said was Democratic foot-dragging to confirm 10 pending nominees to federal appeals courts. They complained that there have been no committee hearings on nominees since last September, and say that at least nine more nominees need to be confirmed by the end of Bush’s term in order to match the 15 judges the Republican-controlled Senate approved in the final two years of the Clinton administration.

Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters last month that one of the options to force Democratic action is “shutting down the Senate.” He reiterated that threat this week in an interview with the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

In an interview with The Hill on Thursday, Specter said it was “a possibility” that the GOP would object to motions that allow routine business to proceed on the floor, a move that would stifle Senate action and effectively bring the chamber to a halt.

Democrats argue that they have approved judges at a higher rate in 2007 than the GOP did when they held the majority. However, Democrats fail to mention their obstructionism during that period kept the Senate from getting votes on nominees that had passed the Judiciary Committee. Patrick Leahy and other Democrats accuse the administration of nominating “far right” judges that they know will provoke a fight — a similar charge heard in 2004-2007 while Democrats filibustered.

It sets a bad precedent, and one the Democrats may live to regret. If Barack Obama wins the presidency, every nomination will get microscopic scrutiny and passionate opposition. Having destroyed the precedent of the prerogative of presidents to nominate qualified jurists to the federal bench, the Democrats will find that scrutiny very difficult with someone as left-wing as Obama picking the candidates. And they will have no one but themselves to blame for it.

A fight over judicial nominations probably helps John McCain. It just reminds people that the presidential election has relevance to the direction of the federal judiciary. If people worry about activist courts, a floor fight in the Senate will generate more enthusiasm from the GOP base for a candidate who has not exactly been embraced by that faction until now. Democrats might do better to quietly get through the backlog of nominations rather than give Republicans a chance to fire up conservatives for McCain without forcing him to tack to the right to generate that kind of enthusiasm.