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It’s official: Partisan bickering over how much power Democrats will have in shaping President George W. Bush’s judicial picks brought the Senate confirmation process to a halt Thursday. The victims were Larry Thompson and Theodore Olson, President Bush’s picks to be deputy attorney general and solicitor general, respectively. The two were up for votes at the Senate Judiciary Committee when Democrats walked out of the meeting, leaving the panel short of a quorum. Reflecting the 50-50 split in the Senate, the Judiciary Committee has nine Republicans and nine Democrats. Since 10 members must be present for a vote to occur, a solid Democratic caucus can cause lots of trouble for Bush’s nominees. That’s what happened on Thursday morning, when the committee attempted, for the second week in a row, a vote on Thompson and Olson, who would become the second- and third-highest officials at the Justice Department. Last week, the panel canceled voting on Thompson and Olson after spending two hours behind closed doors arguing over how much power home-state senators will have in the process. The focus is on the committee’s policy on “blue slips,” named for the sheets of paper that senators sign to indicate approval or disapproval of a home-state judicial nominee. Negative blue slips have in the past sunk judicial nominations, but Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on whether the veto effect should be official. On Thursday, the controversy — which has simmered since Bush in March removed the American Bar Association from its traditional vetting role — boiled over. “I really don’t know what the ground rules are,” complained Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel’s ranking Democrat. For weeks, he has maintained that a single home-state Democrat should be able to stop a judicial nomination he or she does not like — just as Republicans stymied several of President Bill Clinton’s picks from 1995 through last year. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, the Judiciary Committee chairman, repeated his argument over the past weeks: Following a practice started in 1989, he says, by former Democratic Chairman Joe Biden, he will give negative blue slips “great weight” but will not allow them to work as an automatic veto. Hatch and Leahy agreed the blue slips ensure that any president consult home-state senators before making nominations. The so-called Biden policy states that nominations not first discussed with home-state senators may be stopped automatically. If the Bush White House does not consult with home-state Democrats, Hatch added, “I’ll apply that rule.” After 90 minutes of arguing, Hatch announced he was through discussing blue slips. “I’m going to call a vote right now — unless you walk out,” he said, looking at New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who was already standing. Moments later, the room was empty of Democrats, leaving Republicans angry and frustrated. “If they don’t get a veto, they are going to hold up all judges?” said an exasperated Hatch. “Give me a break.” Spats like this tend to get resolved as senators huddle between votes on the Senate floor — which could happen before President Bush sends his first batch of judicial nominations to the Senate. The president is expected to take that step any day.

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