Deft game of "name that judge"

Two Senate warriors square off over Bush's nominees to US courts.

During a particularly tense moment on the Senate Judiciary Committee four years ago, the two men at the top sent each other neckties.

Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat and Grateful Dead fan, sent his Republican colleague a Jerry Garcia tie. In turn, Orrin Hatch, a conservative whose picture won a place as a dart board on the TV show "Murphy Brown," sent Mr. Leahy a Rush Limbaugh tie.

It was a sartorial effort to introduce a little levity to their committee, which was deadlocked over one of President Clinton's Justice Department nominees.

Now, if the two men still put any stock in necktie diplomacy, each may need 101 of them to get through the storm gathering at the Senate's most volatile committee. That's the number of vacancies on the federal judiciary - enough to shift the balance on every important or contentious social issue in the United States.

Mr. Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Leahy, the committee's ranking Democrat, are the pair whose political savvy will be on display - and severely tested - as the Bush administration tries to fill these lifetime appointments to the bench.

The nominees who come before the committee over the next several months will help settle issues for the generation to come - including civil rights, abortion, public education, taxes, and environmental protection.

While Judiciary has always been a hot seat in the Senate, the stakes are now considered to be so high that some say Hatch and Leahy risk being scorched by the heat. Both parties are fully engaged over these appointments, as are national interest groups, who are telling their troops it's about to be Armageddon.

"Although they have a very cordial relationship, the stakes are very high in this ideological clash," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst for the Hudson Institute. "You have to view these judiciary fights as you would court cases. Both Hatch and Leahy have their respective clients: Hatch has the administration, [and] Leahy has the Democratic base."

Hatch has scheduled a hearing for tomorrow, but in an indication of how contentious relations are becoming, Leahy said late last week he has no idea what the hearing is about or which nominee's name is likely to come up.

The key sticking point, at least for the moment, is a partisan fight over the authority of senators to approve or stall a judicial nominee from their home states. Democrats insist they have such sign-off authority - and note that GOP senators routinely held up President Clinton's nominees by failing to give their OK. Hatch now says he'll proceed if only one senator, say, a Republican, gives the thumbs up.

Still, Hatch and Leahy are among the most seasoned lawmakers on Capitol Hill - and they have a record of reaching across the aisle to get things done.

When deciding how to proceed with Mr. Clinton's impeachment trial, both quietly emphasized the need to go forward without tearing the Senate apart along partisan lines. Hatch was a strong supporter of special prosecutor Ken Starr, but he also spoke early and often of forgiveness for Clinton. Leahy supported Clinton in public, but had sharp words with him in private on the need to be more forthcoming.

Then, during the Florida "long count" in December - another event with potential for institutional crisis - the two made a point of walking together to the US Supreme Court to watch oral arguments and the verdict on Bush v. Gore.

"We agree to disagree. And we try to keep up our relationship," says Hatch. "That's why, year after year, we still get a lot done in this committee."

Yet on most issues, Leahy and Hatch are ideological bookends.

Many of Hatch's positions - strong national defense, tough on crime, balanced federal budgets - define conservative politics. He fought hard to win confirmation for conservative nominees to the Supreme Court Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. On the other hand, in 1997, he also cosponsored legislation with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) to extend health insurance to poor children not covered by Medicare - a move that sent shock waves through conservative circles.

Leahy, the first Democrat ever elected to the US Senate from Vermont, takes a dim view of big increases in defense budgets, and led the opposition to the B-2 stealth bomber. Even as a senator from a state where farmers count, he urged strong new pesticide regulations on agriculture. And he took a leading role in the effort to defeat the Thomas appointment.

Both are also men with well-defined interests outside the halls of the Senate. A devout Mormon, Hatch writes lyrics for inspirational Christian music and has coproduced seven CDs of his own work.

Leahy is a first-class photographer, who has trained his lens on a range of subjects from US presidents to landmine victims. The "cyber-senator" was also an early convert to the possibilities of the Internet, and only the second senator to post a homepage on the Web.

While making a case for a strong role by Democrats in the confirmation process, Leahy has not shut down contacts with the White House or with his "good friend" Hatch. Last week, he attended events at the White House, including the announcement of judicial nominations - an event other Democrats conspicuously avoided.

"He went because he is serious about finding a constructive way to proceed," says Luke Albee, Leahy's chief of staff.

But so far, proceedings have been less than smooth. Last week, Democrats walked out of a committee meeting to confirm the US deputy attorney general and solicitor general. After four months, the only confirmation out of this committee has been for Attorney General John Ashcroft - and that only after an epic struggle, days of hearings, and staged protests.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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