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In what may have been his last day as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, noted Wednesday that a Department of Justice nominee facing a confirmation vote had the glowing endorsement of Sen. Edward Kennedy. That’s high praise, Hatch added, considering Kennedy had chaired the committee “in the good old days.” “Soon to return,” quipped Kennedy. The line prompted laughs all around the room. But Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords’ plan to defect from the GOP is no laughing matter for President George W. Bush, his nominees for the federal bench, or the members of the Judiciary Committee. Jeffords’ move would tip control of the Senate to Democrats, and could result in the derailment of Solicitor General-designate Theodore Olson. It would also put the heat on the president’s most controversial choices for the federal circuit courts. Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, Jeffords’ colleague from Vermont, is now poised to take over as chairman of the committee, the gateway for all of Bush’s judicial and Justice Department picks. Hatch would be the ranking minority member. For the past two months, Leahy has led the Democrats’ fight for more influence in the Senate confirmation process. As chairman, Leahy would undoubtedly enforce his interpretation of Senate tradition: No judicial nominee may move forward without the approval of both senators from the nominee’s home state. Republicans have argued that the policy goes against tradition and gives too much power to individual senators, and the debate over it has raged for the past several weeks without resolution. Should the Democrats gain a majority in the committee, that debate would effectively end. And that could spell doom for Judge Terrence Boyle, nominated for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month, or for the prospective 9th Circuit nomination of California Rep. Christopher Cox. It could also revive the role of the American Bar Association in the Senate confirmation process. Speaking to a group of reporters on Wednesday, Hatch said he hoped a Democratic majority would treat Bush’s judicial nominees as well as he treated President Bill Clinton’s. Hatch was quick to note that Clinton succeeded in getting 374 picks confirmed, even though Republicans controlled the Senate for Clinton’s final six years in office. Clinton fell just four short of President Ronald Reagan’s all-time record of naming 378 new judges, which occurred while his own party held the Senate for six of his eight years. Bush has 16 nominees pending: 14 for federal appeals courts and two for district courts. Boyle is the only current nominee with a home-state senator opposing him. The most immediate impact of a power shift could be felt by Theodore Olson, Bush’s pick to be solicitor general. Last week the Judiciary Committee split 9-9 on his nomination. On Wednesday several news organizations quoted Delaware Democrat Sen. Joe Biden as saying Olson’s nomination would die if the Democrats regained control of the Senate. Hatch said he didn’t think Olson’s nomination would be doomed. So far, he said, Democratic critics of Olson, a fierce partisan who advised a conservative magazine that investigated President Clinton’s life in Arkansas, “haven’t laid a glove on him.” While the immediate result of the shift may be warfare over a few existing nominees, in the long run the process might run more smoothly than it has during this period of power-sharing between the parties. An administration source acknowledged that the confirmation process was already very difficult with the Senate divided 50-50. “Everything was a muscle-flexing exercise,” said the source, noting that now life could be a bit more predictable. Now fully in control, the Democrats would be held more accountable for their actions and won’t be able to be completely obstructionist, the administration source added. If Jeffords makes his announcement today as expected, the Judiciary Committee would reconfigure its membership. It is likely that one or more of the most recent members would be removed to create a one-vote Democratic majority.

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