Miguel Estrada’s surprise decision, announced today, to withdraw his name as a nominee for the federal court of appeals was not a surprise to those involved in the ongoing battle over President Bush’s judicial nominations.
“It’s been long in coming,” says one associate. Insiders say Estrada — whose nomination was stalled by an unprecedented filibuster by Senate Democrats — made his intentions known a few weeks ago but agreed not to go public until Congress returned from its August recess.
Sources say Estrada was concerned about both his family and his career. For one thing, the nomination limbo had affected his law practice. “There were certain cases that were not coming to him because of his situation,” says one Republican. “Long-term cases, and also cases in which clients didn’t want such a high-profile person involved.”
Estrada had also suffered personal repercussions. “He has expressed concerns about his family,” says one source. “He couldn’t make any plans.” And being the target of Democratic denunciations had made life difficult for the formerly low-profile lawyer. “He had to change his phone number because he was getting crank calls,” says the Republican. “His wife was upset.”
Some of the accusations thrown at Estrada during the filibuster fight were distressingly personal. For example, opponents went so far as to charge that Estrada, who as a teenager emigrated to the U.S. from his native Honduras, was insufficiently Hispanic to merit the support of Hispanic groups.
New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer once said that Estrada “is like a stealth missile — with a nose cone — coming out of the right wing’s deepest silo.” At Estrada’s confirmation hearing, Schumer called him “a stealth candidate, flying under the radar, heading for landing” on the D.C. Circuit court. “I’m scared of what will happen if he is confirmed.”
“This wasn’t what he bargained for,” says one Republican of Estrada’s dilemma. “He thought he was going to be a federal judge, and he ended up being a political football.”
At the White House today, President Bush expressed anger at the way the Estrada nomination was handled. “Mr. Estrada received disgraceful treatment at the hands of 45 United States senators during the more than two years his nomination was pending,” the president said in a statement, referring to the 45 Democratic senators who supported the filibuster. “Despite his superb qualifications and wide bipartisan support for his nomination, these Democrat senators repeatedly blocked an up-or-down vote that would have led to Mr. Estrada’s confirmation. The treatment of this fine man is an unfortunate chapter in the Senate’s history.”
On Capitol Hill, some Republicans worry that they will be blamed for not fighting harder for Estrada’s confirmation. Over the last several months, the Senate GOP leadership has pursued an on-and-off strategy on Estrada, sometimes pressing Democrats for repeated votes to end the filibuster and sometimes letting the issue fade from the spotlight for weeks at a time. In all, Republicans held seven cloture votes, never drawing more than 55 of the 60 votes required to end the Democratic filibuster of Estrada.
“There’s going to be a lot of blame going around, saying the Republican senators should have done more,” says one insider. “But there are many factors to be weighed in the balance. The leadership realizes there’s an agenda to get through, and it’s our agenda — we’ve got the president in the White House right now — and what do you sacrifice to make Miguel Estrada a federal judge?”
Estrada’s withdrawal does not affect Democratic filibusters of fellow Bush nominees Priscilla Owen and William Pryor.
In the end, some Republicans believe that Estrada’s decision will hurt Democrats politically. Republicans point to recent GOP polling in which just ten percent of the general public said they followed the judicial-nomination controversy, but 34 percent of Hispanics said they followed the Estrada nomination. And of that 34 percent, 87 percent said it was important to them that Estrada receive an up-or-down vote.
That won’t happen now. Democrats have won, at least for the moment. But perhaps not in the long run. “If it is a victory, it is a Pyrrhic victory,” says one Republican. “The ultimate pain to Democrats will come in November 2004.”