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GOP works on confirmation backlog

After being pummeled for weeks by the White House over their pace in approving nominations, Senate Republicans have started moving quickly to confirm a backlog of sub-Cabinet-level officers, ambassadors and judges.

With time running out on this year's legislative calendar, the Republican majority has scheduled floor votes in the next few weeks to consider a wide range of nominees. Senate Republican majority leader Trent Lott insisted this week that there had been no slowdown and promised a rapid-fire series of votes on Clinton administration nominees."These candidates are just coming on to our calendar now," Lott said, "and it's my intention to clear them as soon as possible."

At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings to deal with as many as a dozen nominees for judgeships in each of the next few weeks.

But the question of how the Senate has treated Clinton's nominees to the federal bench - how speedily the Senate considers them and which ones get approved - remains a volatile issue. The White House recently mounted a campaign to demonstrate that the Republicans' reluctance to approve judges had resulted in backlogs in courthouses across the nation, affecting the quality of justice.

"The issue of judicial confirmations has gotten wrapped up in unseemly political haggling," said Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser to Clinton. "The real consequences of this political gamesmanship is that people are being denied justice."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a recent interview that he objected to White House complaints of a slowdown.

Hatch argued that Clinton was largely responsible for the situation in which nearly 1 in 10 federal judgeships has remained unfilled for several months. Indeed, Clinton has let some judgeships remain without nominees for three or more years.

"I'm pretty experienced on these things, but I've never been able to solve the problem of getting people confirmed who aren't nominated," Hatch said.

President Clinton will soon begin the second year of his final term, entering what is traditionally a time of declining influence, especially in his ability to see his choices fill the federal bench. At one time it seemed likely that Clinton would leave office having named a majority of the more than 1,000 federal judges, but that now seems less certain.