McConnell focuses on judges as GOP defines top priorities

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is signaling to colleagues that he will take a personal and leading role in pressuring Democrats to confirm President Bush’s judicial nominees, an issue that has received little attention since the election.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is signaling to colleagues that he will take a personal and leading role in pressuring Democrats to confirm President Bush’s judicial nominees, an issue that has received little attention since the election.

Republican senators agreed to make judicial nominees one of their top priorities at a one-day retreat held Friday at the Library of Congress before a meeting with Bush at the White House. Other key concerns, which senators designated in questionnaires they submitted to the Republican leadership, are fiscal policy, taxes, budget, healthcare, energy security, immigration reform and national security.

While Bush has said he still wants to push Social Security reform, the senators did not include it in their broad agenda for the next two years, indicating a lack of support for the measure.

At the retreat, various committees’ ranking members led discussions on the GOP’s highest priorities for the 110th Congress. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the top Republican on the Budget panel, led the discussion on fiscal policy and the budget. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), ranking Republican on the Health Committee, led the debate on healthcare, and Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) spearheaded the talk on energy security.

McConnell kicked off the private talk on judges and reiterated his expectations of Democrats on judges during a press conference Monday.

“Senate Republicans expect that Bush be treated the same way during the last two years of his presidency as each of the last three presidents were treated in the last two years of theirs when the Senate was controlled by the opposition party,” McConnell said yesterday.

McConnell said that during the last two years of the Reagan, the first Bush, and the Clinton administrations, the Senate confirmed an average of 17 circuit court nominees, adding that conversations with Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-Nev.) have left him optimistic “that standard will be met.”

But that baseline would set a slightly faster pace for judicial confirmations than what the Senate followed in the last Congress when it confirmed 16 circuit nominees, according to the Department of Justice.

“That’s a recognition that the best leverage we have isn’t on the committee but on the floor, the ability to use leverage on the floor to insist on an up-or-down vote for judges,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), vice chairman of the GOP conference and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

With a one-seat advantage on Judiciary, Democrats could slow the pace of judicial nominations to a trickle. But Republicans can pressure the panel to move more quickly by holding up Democratic legislative priorities on the chamber floor.

“I’m very encouraged by Sen. McConnell’s personal interest in the subject,” Cornyn said. “The role of the retreat was to agree on an approach and priorities.”

With the conference priorities in hand, GOP leaders will begin working on specific policies. “The retreat helped us focus on the issues that most concern our constituents,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Senate GOP conference chairman. “The next step is working with the Policy Committee and our ranking members to add legislative detail to the guiding principles the conference crafted at our retreat. This is an ongoing process that will give every member an opportunity to help shape our agenda.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on Judiciary, said he was comfortable with McConnell’s role. Specter worked with McConnell on the presentation before the meeting.

“McConnell started the discussion as to the confirmation process and then he asked me to supplement his views, which I did,” Specter said. “He’s the leader and I’m the ranking member. That sequence gave appropriate consideration to my position.”

Specter said Democrats seem willing to approve Bush’s court picks at an acceptable rate, noting that the committee approved five district court judges for a vote last week.

“Chairman [Patrick] Leahy (D-Vt.) has been entirely cooperative in moving judges,” he said. “The indicators are that Democrats will be responsive to continuing the confirmation of judges. I’m anticipating a cooperative approach.”

Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), the only Hispanic member of the GOP conference, led the discussion on immigration reform, an issue that split Senate Republicans last year. Martinez was careful not to spark another clash, emphasizing Republican consensus on such issues as the need to enhance border security and to ensure “the rule of law,” an allusion to the blind eye that law enforcement sometimes turns to illegal immigration.

Specter, who is known for his outspokenness and independence, said Martinez has special expertise on the issue, but cautioned that all facets of the challenge must be addressed.

“While you have to deal with two subjects appropriately, you have to handle the 11 million and the guest worker program as well,” he said, referring to America’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

On national security, Republican lawmakers have reached a consensus on the need to increase the size of the military, something Bush made a priority in the budget his administration made public Monday. Republicans have also reached a rough consensus on opposing Democratic plans to cut funds for base closings in the continuing funding resolution that will soon reach the floor. A GOP leadership aide said that Republicans will raise the issue repeatedly when the Senate considers that measure. 

On the issue of fiscal discipline and taxes, Republican senators discussed the need to produce legislative proposals that give voters a better understanding of how GOP policies benefit their personal finances.

“One of the big points was that we have to explain our economic policy and how we feel about budgeting and taxes,” a retreat participant said.