Image: Pryor
William Pryor Jr., testifying on Capitol Hill. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

A Senate confirmation battle over President Bush’s appeals court nominee William Pryor has turned into a high-stakes gamble for Catholic voters in the 2004 election. Some Republicans are trying to paint the opposition to Pryor, who is a Catholic, as religious bigotry. Furious that the GOP is insinuating that bias is behind the opposition to Pryor, Democrats are nearly certain to filibuster his nomination.

After an angry debate Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Pryor’s nomination to the federal appeals court for the 11th Circuit by a party-line 10-to-9 vote.

Senate floor debate on Pryor is likely to begin Friday. Pryor, who has served as Alabama attorney general since 1997, had rankled Judiciary Committee Democrats with his staunchly conservative views.

GOING AFTER CATHOLICS

A top GOP aide told MSNBC.com that church-going Catholics are a crucial group of swing voters in the 2004 elections.

He said polling had indicated that Catholics who go to Mass at least three times a month can be a decisive group. “That swing vote can determine an election,” he said.

Republicans plan to tell voters that Democrats either have delayed or plan to delay confirmation votes on Bush judicial nominees who are Catholics: Pryor, Carolyn Kuhl of California, Leon Holmes of Arkansas and Henry Saad of Michigan.

While some Judiciary Committee Democrats, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are Catholic, the GOP aide said, “the church-going Catholics are more like Pryor,” who has called the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision “the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law” leading to “the slaughter of millions of unborn children.”

Republicans are confident the Democrats’ opposition to Bush judicial nominees who are Catholic will work to bring Catholic voters to Bush. The controversy may have a decisive effect, especially in states with large Catholic populations such as Pennsylvania and Iowa.

CONTROVERSIAL AD

A group called Committee for Justice, headed by Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush, has run newspaper advertisements in Rhode Island and Maine, charging that “some in the Senate” have opposed Pryor because he is Catholic. The ad featured a photo with a sign reading “Catholics need not apply” hanging on a courthouse door.

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Prior to Thursday’s vote, senior committee Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., denounced the ad as “despicable.”

Calling the ad “diabolical,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said its intent was to create “a wedge,” presumably to divide Catholic voters from the Democratic Party.

Democrats called on GOP senators to disavow the ad. One, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., did so. “I wish they’d cease running it because it is simply not correct when it comes to members of this committee,” he said.

At Pryor’s confirmation hearing on June 11, committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah accused the Democrats of opposing Pryor because of his deeply held anti-abortion views, which he said were rooted in his Catholicism. Hatch made a point of asking Pryor what his religion was.

Reminding Thursday’s audience once again of Pryor’s Catholicism, Sen. Jeff Sessions R-Ala., called him a “solid Catholic individual who believes in the rule of law.”

Sessions, who is a Methodist, said Catholic doctrine holds that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape and incest — a teaching that Pryor follows. But Sessions also argued that Pryor’s record proved that he would not allow his religious beliefs to skew his rulings as a judge.

The stress on Catholicism enraged Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said “as a Catholic I sit here and resent what I’m hearing. People who... are not Catholic are speaking for a religion they do not belong to. There are many Catholics who see this nomination much differently than those who support Mr. Pryor.”

If the Democrats do filibuster the Pryor nomination it will be the third they have launched. Democrats already have stymied confirmation votes on the appellate court nominations of Priscilla Owen and Miguel Estrada.

CHARGES AGAINST PRYOR

Leahy detailed a bill of particulars against Pryor at Thursday’s committee meeting:

Pryor harshly criticized the death penalty moratorium imposed by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, saying it would “cost innocent lives.” Leahy said, “You wonder how anyone who can be so sure of his position can be relied on to hear these (death penalty) cases fairly.”

Pryor is “committed to reversing Roe v. Wade, no matter how well established that is as a law of the United States.”

Pryor has shown “condescension and disrespect” to the U.S. Supreme Court when the court questioned the constitutionality of Alabama’s method of executing death penalty convicts.

The super-heated rhetoric over religious bias largely drowned out last week’s controversy over whether Pryor had lied to the Judiciary Committee about his fund-raising activities as a member of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

At Pryor’s confirmation hearing, he said that in his role as a member of RAGA, he had not raised money from Alabama-based companies, from tobacco companies or from firms under investigation by his office.

Documents leaked to the committee, by a former employee of RAGA’s fund-raising consultant, indicate that Pryor was assigned to ask for contributions from executives at Boeing and several other firms.

Among those firms were three tobacco companies: R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson Tobacco and Phillip Morris. It wasn’t clear from the documents whether Pryor had made the calls he was assigned to make. Three of the tobacco executives told committee investigators that Pryor did not solicit them for contributions.

SEARCH FOR ‘SMOKING GUN’

“Democrats failed to find the smoking gun that continues to elude them,” said Hatch.

Democrats on the committee said they needed more time to investigate the charges. Kennedy said the charges that Pryor may not have testified truthfully about his work for RAGA amounted to “a ticking ethical time bomb ready to go off at any moment.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has charged that the RAGA documents were stolen by a disgruntled employee, said both Pryor and he had been the target of a “smear.”

Cornyn, as Texas attorney general, also took part in RAGA fund-raising efforts in 1999 and 2000.

On Tuesday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) called on Cornyn to recuse himself from the vote on Pryor.

“Does John Cornyn Have ANY Integrity? John Cornyn Lied to the Voters of Texas About His Involvement in RAGA,” the DSCC said in a press release.

“This has really all gotten very ugly,” Cornyn said at Thursday’s committee meeting. “The vitriol, the poison, the toxic level of this judicial confirmation process has come home to roost.”

At Thursday’s meeting Kennedy and Leahy apologized to Cornyn for the DSCC attack, with Kennedy calling the press release “shoddy” and “completely uncalled for.”

The Senate has confirmed 141 of Bush’s nominees to the federal court since he became president; 57 are still awaiting a vote.

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