In the battle raging over President Bush's judicial nominees, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is ratcheting up the rhetoric, stopping just short of calling Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch a hypocrite.
Instead, the Nevada Democrat said Friday, "He's been a terribly big disappointment to me."
In Salt Lake City to speak to Utah Democrats the night before their annual convention today, Reid let loose his frustration with his Republican colleagues - particularly Hatch, former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where many Democratic judges were stalled or blocked. Reid takes issue with conservative senators who claim Democrats are obstructing the judicial nominating process.
Reid called Utah Sen. Bob Bennett "totally rational" in their discussions of the issue, but said Hatch is another matter. Hatch claims the minority party has created a crisis in the courts by refusing to vote on the president's nominees.
"I can't imagine how Orrin Hatch can keep a straight face," Reid toldThe Salt Lake Tribune editorial board. "I don't know how, within the framework of intellectual honesty, he can say the things he does."
The U.S. Senate is locked nose to nose over the issue. Republican leaders have threatened a "nuclear option," changing Senate rules to allow a simple majority vote to end a filibuster and confirm a judge. Democrats have countered with threats to bring Senate business to an impasse.
Reid says Hatch is "disingenuous" in his recollections of history, pointing out that Democrats have approved 207 of the president's judicial candidates and rejected just 10.
He calls five judges Democrats have blocked - including Texas Supreme Court Justice Patricia Owen and California Supreme Court Associate Justice Janice Rogers Brown - the "worst of the worst." Reid notes that under Hatch, 69 of former President Clinton's judicial nominations "never saw the light of day" because Utah's senior senator stopped them from proceeding to the Senate floor for a vote. Republicans delayed approval of Richard Paez, a Brigham Young University graduate. In 1999, Hatch refused to sign off on any nominees until Clinton nominated Republican Ted Stewart, former Gov. Mike Leavitt's chief of staff.
Even before Hatch was in charge of nominations, Reid said, senators used the filibuster or other procedural technicalities to block approval of judges or stop adoption of controversial legislation. The practice dates to 1881, Reid said. In 1968, Republican senators filibustered President Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice of the United States.
"What they did was much worse," Reid said.
Hatch countered that Reid is flouting 214 years of Senate tradition. "I'm disappointed that he would allow the far left to influence him to distort the actual facts this way," Hatch said. "What is wrong with giving circuit court nominees a vote up and down? Instead the Democrats, led by Senator Reid, have said they will blow up the Senate and cause nuclear warfare. Those are the facts and no amount of Democratic rationalization or nasty comments can overcome them."
Reid says the fight over Senate rules and the filibuster is the "most important" issue he has worked on. "There have always been filibusters. If they do this, it will change our basic framework," he said. "It will make the Senate an extension of the House of Representatives.
"I will never give up the right for extended debate," Reid said. "I'd rather they try the nuclear option and show what a real abuse of power is."
A barbecue dinner Friday night featuring Reid's take on "How the West Will Be Won" sold out.
In a feisty speech to a boisterous crowd of nearly 900 at the downtown Salt Lake City Marriott, Reid told Utah Democrats to take heart. Despite winning congressional seats in Colorado and state offices in Montana, Democrats failed to gain seats in the U.S. House and Senate and lost the race for the White House. At the same time, he noted, Democrats won 76 state legislative seats and now outnumber Republican state lawmakers by 64 nationwide.
Legislative seats are considered a barometer of grassroots political sentiment across the country.
Besides the filibuster fight, Reid said Republicans' overreaching to privatize Social Security and protect their own from ethics investigations will turn voters off.
In Utah, where Republican state lawmakers outnumber Democrats three to one, Reid says minority party leaders need to be more aggressive, challenging conservative characterizations of liberals as purveyors of abortion, gay marriage and secularism.
"You can't run from those issues. Democrats have to take them on. We have to let people know who we are," Reid said. "Where can you go, but up?"