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Political Notebook

Senate strikes deal on some judicial picks

The nomination of professor Goodwin Liu, which was not part of the deal, has been blocked by the GOP. The nomination of professor Goodwin Liu, which was not part of the deal, has been blocked by the GOP. (Charles Dharapak/ Associated Press)
Associated Press / December 21, 2010

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WASHINGTON — After a monthslong blockade, Senate Republicans have agreed to let at least 19 of President Obama’s noncontroversial judicial nominees win confirmation in the waning days of the congressional session in exchange for a commitment by Democrats not to seek votes on four others, according to officials familiar with the deal.

Among the four is Goodwin Liu, a law school dean seen as a potential future Supreme Court pick, whose nomination to the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has sparked strong criticism from Republicans.

As part of the arrangement, the Senate has approved 10 judges in the past few days without a single dissenting vote. One of them, Albert Diaz, had been awaiting confirmation to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond since clearing the Judiciary Committee in January.

The agreement was worked out between Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, with the knowledge of the White House, officials said. Spokesmen for the two Senate leaders declined to comment.

In the talks, Reid also pushed for confirmation for James Cole, whom Obama picked last spring for the number two post in the Justice Department. His nomination to be deputy attorney general is opposed by Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and its fate is unclear.

Officials described the maneuvering on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.

Judicial nominations have become intensely political in recent years as presidents seek approval for nominees who frequently spark opposition from outside interest groups aligned with the opposing party as well as from senators themselves.

Democrats filibustered several of President George W. Bush’s conservative nominees, refusing to allow a vote on some for years. The logjam was broken in spring 2005 in a compromise that allowed some to be confirmed while a smaller number were jettisoned.

More recently, Democrats have accused Republicans of delaying confirmation of even noncontroversial nominees advanced by Obama by refusing to permit them to come to a vote without a time-consuming process than can take three days on the Senate floor.

In remarks during the weekend, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said 49 circuit and district court nominations made by Obama had been approved so far, “less than half the number confirmed during the first Congress of the Bush administration.’’

In addition to the 10 nominees confirmed since Thursday, the Senate is expected to approve at least nine more before lawmakers adjourn for the year. All have been pending in the Senate since Sept. 23 or before. Another 15 have been awaiting a vote for less than a month.

Among the list of those recently confirmed is Denise J. Casper, who was nominated to fill an open seat in the US District Court of Massachusetts. Casper is deputy district attorney in Middlesex County.

The unconfirmed nominations will expire when Congress adjourns for the year. Obama is free to reappoint them, but Republicans will have more seats in the Senate in 2011, and there is no assurance the most controversial among them would be approved quickly, if at all.

Apart from Liu, they include Edward Chen, Louis B. Butler Jr., and John J. McConnell Jr., all nominated to become US District Court judges.

Liu is a dean at the University of California law school at Berkeley and the best-known of the four. Supporters and critics alike speak of him as a potential future selection for the Supreme Court by a Democratic president. He also could be the first Supreme Court nominee of Asian-American descent.

Republicans have attacked his nomination. At his committee confirmation hearing, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona noted Liu’s criticism when Samuel Alito was nominated to the Supreme Court by Bush. At the time, Liu said Alito’s vision was an America “where police may shoot and kill an unarmed boy . . . where federal agents may point guns at ordinary citizens during a raid, even after no sign of resistance . . . where the FBI may install a camera where you sleep . . . where a black man may be sentenced to death by an all-white jury for killing a white man, absent . . . analysis showing discrimination.’’

Kyl called those comments “vicious and emotionally and racially charged.’’

Liu said he used “unnecessarily colorful language’’ and added, “I have the highest regard for Justice Alito’s career.’’ He said those remarks followed a 14-page analysis of Alito’s rulings. — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Oregon senator doing OK after having cancer surgery
PORTLAND, Ore. — Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is recovering from prostate cancer surgery yesterday.

His staff quoted the surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore as saying “everything went perfect. The patient is recovering well.’’

Wyden expects to be released today and will recuperate at his home in Washington.

Wyden said last week that the early-stage cancer was discovered after a physical in November.

The Democrat worked through the weekend, voting on the winning side for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy. He was on the losing side of an effort to advance a bill to give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

It is unlikely he would be able to vote for two key issues before the Senate, ratification of the New START nuclear arms deal and a spending bill to keep the government in business. — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kerry’s bill to protect sharks approved by Senate
The Senate has backed a bill sponsored by Senator John F. Kerry targeting the practice of catching sharks solely to remove their fins and dumping the rest of the fish overboard.

The Massachusetts Democrat said the bill is needed to protect sharks from massive population declines by outlawing the practice known as “shark finning.’’

The bill would prohibit any vessel from possessing shark fins without the corresponding carcass and requires that all sharks be landed with their fins attached.

The House passed the bill last year, but needs to take another vote because of what Kerry’s office described as technical changes made by the Senate.

A spokeswoman said Kerry is hopeful the House will give the bill a final vote. — ASSOCIATED PRESS

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