WASHINGTON — Democrats do not say outright that they are now blocking all GOP judicial nominees in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Chairman Orrin Hatch says they are — after they vanished late last week and took a voting quorum with them.

"Some on the other side will do anything to stop President Bush's judges from being confirmed," the Utah Republican said Thursday after Democrats disappeared one by one as others talked long, dismantling a quorum needed to vote on 13 nominees on the agenda.

"This sort of thing usually doesn't happen in an election year until August — but it's happening early this year," Hatch said, noting the committee has been unable to pass any nominees this year amid Democratic stalling.

The disappearing Tuesday came after Democrats complained for two hours about "hackergate" — GOP aides raiding Democratic computer files — and about President Bush using "recess appointments" to temporarily put on the bench two controversial nominees who had been blocked for a year by Democratic maneuvering.

"Most of this comes because they are upset about the computer files," Hatch said. "We have to resolve that before we can move forward. I understand why they are upset, so I am accommodating them for now. But at some point, we will have votes."

Hatch has acknowledged that at least two former GOP committee aides downloaded Democratic files on a shared computer system — some of which were leaked to the press. The aides contend it was not a crime because files were left unprotected and accessible to anyone on the computer system. Both later resigned under pressure.

Senate Sergeant at Arms William Pickle is investigating the extent of the raids and whether crimes were committed. He is expected to issue a final report next week, and Hatch said the committee may have a closed-door meeting to discuss findings. It will then decide how much of it to make public.

Conservative groups have blasted Hatch for investigating his own aides but not investigating Democrats for the content of those memos. They showed, for example, that Democrats and liberal groups worked closely together to target Hispanic nominee Miguel Estrada because they did not want Republicans to make gains with Hispanics.

Another memo showed that Democrats sought to delay confirmation of two nominees to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure that court would still have a liberal majority when it heard a key Michigan affirmative action case.

At the committee meeting Thursday, Hatch blasted the "inside-the-beltway conservative community" that has been attacking him, saying, "It's time for them to grow up and realize that there is a right and there is a wrong."

He added, "I do not believe that what happened is right, and I have acted accordingly and am going to continue to act accordingly. But I don't want this agenda screwed up because people are irritated."

Meanwhile, committee ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was among committee Democrats howling about the file raiding — and called for more information.

"Democrats on this committee were victims of wrongdoing by calculation and stealth. It was intentional, repeated, long-standing, systematic and malicious. This shameful misconduct cannot be swept under the rug," he said.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said he wants to know if the "stolen" documents were given to judicial nominees to help them prepare for questioning, which might lead him and other Democrats to oppose all their confirmations.

Meanwhile, Democrats also howled about Bush's recent "recess appointments" of William Pryor and Charles Pickering to appeals courts after Democratic maneuvering had blocked votes on them in the full Senate for a year.

When the Senate is in recess, the president may appoint judges to fill a vacancy without confirmation until the next Congress. Leahy complained that happened while Congress was in recess only a few days — and that power was granted back in days when Congress would be out of session for months. "It's an abuse," he said.

Leahy recalled that some Republicans vowed to block all nominees of former President Bill Clinton after he used a recess appointment to install a controversial ambassador. He suggested that Republicans should not be surprised if Democrats do likewise now.

But Hatch said Bush was merely responding to a first-in-history filibuster by Democrats preventing votes on appeals court judges — which many Republicans say is unconstitutional by forcing a three-fifths majority (to break the filibuster and allow a final vote) instead of a simple majority required by the Constitution itself.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com