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President Bush on Wednesday accused Senate Democrats of playing politics in a racially tinged judicial nomination fight, and his spokesman said the civil rights records of senators could “come into play.” Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering’s nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, given little chance of approval, is viewed by the White House and Democrats as a harbinger of clashes to come if Bush is given Supreme Court seats to fill. “I think the country is tired of people playing politics all the time in Washington, and I believe that they’re holding this man’s nomination up for political purposes,” the president said in an Oval Office meeting with Pickering. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer raised the roughness of the rhetoric as he shrugged off questions about Pickering’s views on race in the 1950s and 1960s. “You’re referring to something that took place over 40 years ago when he was a law student. If actions taken by people 40 years ago were the criteria, there’d be some senators who are voting on this nomination whose very history would come into play,” Fleischer said. “So I think what you’ve seen is a nation that has changed.” He declined to single out any senator or explain how past histories might come into play. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was a member of the Ku Klux Klan briefly before he came to Congress in the 1950s; he has been a strong supporter of civil rights. One of the Republicans who supports Pickering’s nomination is Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who waged the longest filibuster in Senate history while opposing a 1957 civil rights bill; several years later he became the first member of the South Carolina delegation to hire a black staff member. Thurmond is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which plans to vote today on the nomination. Byrd is not. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the panel, was rejected for the federal court bench in 1986 because of racially tinged remarks attributed to him. Bush’s last-minute political offensive could blunt criticism that he did not do enough for Pickering, and could also signal to the Senate that he won’t roll over on his judicial nominees. Pickering, currently a federal district judge, would serve on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which serves Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana. He has faced criticism from women’s, civil rights and liberal groups — some of the same factions likely to line up against a Bush pick to the Supreme Court. Warming up for future fights, the White House surrounded Pickering with Democrats, civil rights leaders and other backers to dispute his critics. “You won’t see elected officials stand up for a man if he’s a racist,” Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat, said after the Oval Office session. Democrats, in opposing the nomination, said Pickering wrote an article while in law school in 1959 that sought to close a loophole in Mississippi’s statute banning interracial marriage. Senate Democrats also have questioned him about efforts to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross on an interracial couple’s lawn. They questioned Pickering about his actions on abortion and voting rights as a state senator and federal judge. Bush shrugged off the criticism, noting that the former Mississippi prosecutor easily won Senate confirmation in 1990 as a U.S. District Court judge. He called Pickering a man who “respects the rights of all citizens.” Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, turned aside questions about Pickering’s past. “Whatever he was then, he’s not that now,” Evers said. All 10 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, a majority of the panel, have pledged to vote against the nomination. He likely has enough votes for confirmation in the full Senate, but Democratic leaders are blocking the vote. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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