Senate Bids to Avert Filibuster on Judicial Pick

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The Senate Judiciary Committee agrees to a rare second hearing a Bush appeals court nominee. White House aide Brett Kavanaugh was vetted two years ago, before questions arose on his role in domestic wiretapping and terror policy.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's been nearly a year since a bipartisan group known as the Gang of 14 helped avert a legislative meltdown in the Senate over filibustering judicial nominees. Now, another fight is brewing.

Majority Leader Bill Frist wants a full Senate vote this month on Brett Kavanaugh. He's the White House aide whose nomination to the D.C. Federal Court of Appeals was to have been put to a committee vote yesterday. Instead, in a move that's angered conservatives, he will have to go through a second confirmation hearing next week.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Judiciary Committee Democrats, backed by all seven Gang of 14 Democrats, say Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing two years ago is seriously outdated. That's because since then, Kavanaugh's worked in the same White House counsel's office that's dealt with warrantless wiretapping, with detainee treatment, and possibly with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

What's more, as ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy noted, the American Bar Association's lowered its rating of Kavanaugh. A minority now, rather than a majority, finds him well qualified.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I mean, out of thousands of nominees, I've only seen this once or twice, where a nominee has been downgraded in his rating. And it's usually been such a red flag that the person hasn't gone forward.

WELNA: Minority Leader Harry Reid warned, earlier this week, that Kavanaugh's nomination might be blocked by a filibuster. And yesterday, Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter called off a vote that could have sent Kavanaugh's nomination to the full Senate.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Republican, Pennsylvania): What I do not want to have happen is to have a filibuster on the Kavanaugh nomination. I do not want to place the Senate in the position where we were a year ago this time. I want to avoid that.

WELNA: So Specter agreed to hold another confirmation hearing for Kavanaugh next Tuesday, with a vote on his nomination two days later.

Texas Republican John Cornyn, a strong White House ally who's also on the panel, questioned the need for a second hearing.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): If there was any reasonable chance that any minds would be changed by what happened during a second hearing, I would be all for it; but I don't expect there to be. I think the battle lines have hardened, and I think we need to bring the nomination to the floor, debate it, and then have an up or down vote.

WELNA: But Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, a member of the Gang of 14, said a second hearing is no guarantee for that up or down vote.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): Well, I think you have to wait and see what the hearing reveals. I mean, that's the whole point. That's why we're asking for the hearing, to see if there would be anything that would rise to the level and the grounds for a filibuster.

WELNA: Conservative activists say they'd welcome a filibuster. Jan LaRue is Chief Counsel for Concerned Women of America.

Ms. JAN LARUE (Chief Counsel, Concerned Women of America): I think that the Democrats continuing to rattle the filibuster saber is going to continue until the Republicans finally stand up and do what they promised to do. And that's put an end to it by engaging the constitutional option.

WELNA: Or the nuclear option, as others call it, of elimination judicial filibusters, altogether.

South Dakota Republican John Thune says showdowns over judges could prove crucial for his party this election year.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): So I think people want to see us act on that. And if they see us act on that it'll give them a reason then to say having a majority in the United States Senate matters. And so I think, from the standpoint of energizing and motivating and getting people fired up going into November, these are important votes to have.

WELNA: And the first one is likely to be on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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