WASHINGTON — A long-simmering fight over appellate court nominee Goodwin Liu will boil over Thursday as the Senate considers the fate of the University of California at Berkeley law professor.
Democrats may be calculating that they'll win whichever way the Senate moves.
If the 40-year-old Liu secures the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, he's well on his way to confirmation on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If he falls short, Democrats can highlight Republican intransigence and spotlight GOP opposition to a highly accomplished Asian-American.
"I think it's very tight," California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Wednesday. "I think it's kind of a jump ball."
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With 51 Senate Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada apparently will have to lure at least seven Republicans to overcome the possibility of a filibuster. That's a high hurdle in the best of times, which these are not on Capitol Hill.
Liu, moreover, has incited stiff opposition from GOP lawmakers and conservative interest groups, which have sought to make his nomination the most controversial of the Obama presidency. The odds appear to be tilted against him, so long as Democrats need to clear the 60-vote filibuster level.
"If confirmed, Mr. Liu would advance his progressive philosophy for years to come," Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa declared Wednesday.
Grassley and other Republicans cite Liu's lack of judicial experience, his occasionally provocative academic commentary and his sharply worded opposition to conservative Supreme Court nominees.
The scheduling of the vote appears contrary to the general practice that the Senate majority takes up confirmations once they're certain to win. Sometimes, though, leaders schedule votes to make a point, smoke out senators, apply pressure or discomfit the opposition. This happened Tuesday, for instance, when Democrats scheduled a bound-to-lose oil tax loophole-closing measure.
"It's designed to score political points," Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said of the oil-tax vote.
First nominated in February 2010, Liu has emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee on a strict party-line vote three times. The Stanford and Yale Law School graduate was renominated this year after his original nomination withered.
Reid orchestrated the Thursday showdown by filing a so-called cloture petition that started a vote clock ticking. He then drew further attention by summoning Liu, four other senators and White House Counsel Bob Bauer to a meeting and photo opportunity Wednesday.
Driving home the point, Reid invited Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who are Asian-American but not often involved in judicial politics. Liu is a first-generation Taiwanese-American
"This is a nomination that our community cares about," Tina Matsuoka, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said Wednesday. "If senators refuse to support an up-or-down vote for him, I think that our community is going to remember that."
If confirmed, Liu would be the only Asian-American on the 9th Circuit Court. The circuit spans Western states, which together are home to some 40 percent of the nation's Asian-Americans.
Feinstein said Vice President Joe Biden had been making phone calls on Liu's behalf, and Matsuoka said her organization and others had been targeting senators from states that include Illinois, Ohio and Massachusetts. Supporters are stressing the point that Liu deserves an up-or-down vote.
But Senate Democrats, too, have previously filibustered highly regarded minorities who were nominated for the bench. The Bush administration, notably, failed for more than two years to get an appellate court confirmation vote for Miguel Estrada, a Honduras native and Harvard Law School graduate. Democrats feared that Estrada eventually would end up as the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Estrada withdrew his nomination after waiting 29 months.
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Democratic hopes rest on persuading a handful of Republicans that Liu deserves a straight majority vote, even if the GOP lawmakers end up voting against Liu once the filibuster ends.
On May 5, for instance, 11 Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined Democrats in ending a filibuster against Rhode Island district court nominee John J. McConnell Jr. None of those Republicans subsequently voted for McConnell.
"This is a good man to put on the court," Reid said Wednesday of Liu.
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