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In Judicial Twist, Republicans Seen Stalling Bush Pick

After months of Republicans crying foul over Democratic efforts to filibuster conservative judicial nominees, Democrats are accusing GOP leaders of delaying a vote on one of President Bush’s most controversial picks.

Democrats are ready to debate and vote on the district court nomination of James Leon Holmes, but Senate Republican leaders are stalling, said two Senate Democratic staffers who asked not to be identified. According to these sources, the Senate’s GOP leadership has not moved the nomination to the floor because leaders fear they don’t have the votes on their side of the aisle for Holmes, a leader of the anti-abortion movement in Arkansas who has written several inflammatory articles.

Holmes argued in a 1997 article co-written with his wife for a Catholic publication that “the wife is to subordinate herself to her husband.” In another article, he incorrectly claimed that “concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.” Holmes also wrote, in a response to a 1987 article, that abortion-rights activists were pushing the country to abandon “what little morality our society recognizes. This was attempted by one highly sophisticated, historically Christian nation in our century — Nazi Germany.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist claimed that though no vote has been scheduled on the nomination, one could take place later this month. But Democrats dismissed this suggestion as an attempt to deflect attention from what could mark the first time that a GOP-controlled Senate ends up sinking a Bush judicial nominee.

“They don’t have the votes,” a Democratic staffer said, referring to the Republicans.

With the two Democratic senators from Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, pledging support for Holmes, it would take at least four Republican votes to defeat his nomination.

Abortion-rights activists and Democratic leaders believe a high-profile debate over Holmes would damage Bush and highlight what they describe as his pattern of putting forward extremist nominees. They are also hoping that any Republican attempts to delay the vote could end up undermining GOP efforts to discredit Democratic filibusters of two other controversial Bush nominees, Priscilla Owen and Miguel Estrada.

In response to Democratic criticisms of Holmes, who served as president of Arkansas Right to Life and has represented pro-life organizations, Republican senators are touting the bipartisan support that the nominee has received in his home state, where he is a widely respected attorney. Pro-life activists are taking a more aggressive stand, responding to liberal criticism of Holmes with claims of religious discrimination, arguing that Democrats are essentially working to deny Holmes a seat on the bench for publicly voicing his traditionalist Catholic views in nonlegal writings.

A highly charged debate and vote on Holmes could create political problems for pro-choice GOP moderates, including Senator Arlen Specter. The senior Jewish Republican in Congress, Specter faces a tough primary challenge in Pennsylvania from Pat Toomey, a pro-life member of the House of Representatives who backs the Holmes nomination.

Specter previously supplied the deciding vote to advance the Holmes nomination out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, paving the way for a full Senate vote, but only on the condition that Holmes not be formally endorsed by the panel. Toomey condemned the unusual maneuver, which was widely interpreted as Specter’s attempt to avoid having to choose between upsetting conservative primary voters and alienating moderates who have often supported him in general elections.

Specter did not return several calls to inquire whether he planned to vote for Holmes, who received a “well qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. Calls to the offices of Maine’s moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, were also not returned. A spokesman for a fourth moderate Republican, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, said his boss had yet to decide on the issue.

Specter had been expected to endorse Holmes in the Judiciary Committee, as he has backed Bush’s other pro-life picks. But Specter and other Republican committee members were surprised at an April 10 meeting, when Democrats showed up armed with several of Holmes’s most controversial writings. With Republicans clinging to a one-vote majority in the committee, Specter was able to force a delay on the vote. He later agreed to move the nomination along, but without endorsing Holmes.

Immediately following the April 10 meeting, Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat, appeared to be wavering in her support for Holmes, announcing that she had been unaware of the controversial writings. But Holmes quickly sent her a letter in which he expressed regret for his inflammatory rhetoric, prompting Lincoln to reiterate her support. Pryor also continues to support the nomination, which was first suggested to Bush by Pryor’s Republican predecessor, former senator Tim Hutchinson.

“Senator Pryor knows Leon Holmes back from their days in Little Rock,” a spokesperson for Pryor said. “He knows Leon Holmes to be a capable lawyer, a man of full integrity.”

Several observers said that while the support of Lincoln and Pryor is not expected to stop Democrats from waging a fierce fight against the Holmes nomination on the Senate floor, it all but rules out any attempt at a filibuster.

It is unclear if other Democratic senators or wavering Republicans were swayed by the April 11 letter that Holmes sent to Lincoln, in which he noted that many of the passages cited by critics were at least 15 years old or taken out of context. “I certainly was not ready to [serve as a federal judge] in 1980, not for many years thereafter, and I do not claim that I was,” Holmes wrote. “My impression is that my colleagues in the Arkansas bar — those who know me well and who represent clients in federal court — believe that my legal career as a whole manifests a readiness to assume the responsibilities of a district court judge, and I hope that you believe so as well.”

Holmes has repeatedly apologized for his published letter, written in 1980, comparing the pregnancy rate of rape victims to the frequency of snow fall in Miami. He also insisted in his letter to Lincoln that he never meant to compare pro-choice activists to Nazis. His wife, Susan Holmes, wrote a letter to the Judiciary Committee rejecting the claim that the couple had argued that “women should be subservient to their husbands.”

Several Democrats and self-identified pro-choice lawyers in Arkansas have also voiced support for Holmes, arguing that he would be able to put aside his religious and political views while serving as a federal judge.

Liberal critics, however, rejected such arguments, citing Holmes’s staunch activism on the issue and his refusal to promise to recuse himself from cases involving pro-life organizations that he previously represented.

“Generally speaking, members of the bar tend to support their colleagues; sometimes collegiality trumps objective good judgment,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of 60 organizations opposing the nomination of Holmes. “We know from experience that individuals with very radical ideas on women’s rights, civil rights, choice, church-state separation are often not able to put aside those views in carrying out their decision-making duties.”

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