WASHINGTON (AP) - Californians Richard A. Paez and Marsha Berzon today won Senate confirmation to seats on the federal bench, ending years of contention that deeply divided the Senate.
Berzon, a San Francisco judge distrusted by conservatives because of her work with labor groups, was confirmed in a 64-34 vote. Moments later Paez, a judge on the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, was approved to his long-sought seat in a 59-39 vote.
President Clinton nominated both as judges for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which covers a vast area of California and the West. Blocked by conservatives who said they were too liberal and activist, Paez has been waiting four years, and Berzon two, for a Senate confirmation vote.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota asked why ``we would put anybody through the misery and the extraordinary anguish that these two nominees have had to face now for years.''
But Daschle also praised Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who voted against both nominees but lived up to a promise he made last fall to end the boycott and give both nominees a yes-or-no vote.
A final effort to postpone action on the Paez nomination was defeated 67-31.
In an indication of the political importance of the votes, Vice President Al Gore cut short a Midwest campaign swing to be present for the vote. In his role as president of the Senate, the vice president breaks tie votes.
``We've waited far too long,'' White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said today. He said that if Paez is defeated, Republicans will ``have a lot of explaining to do. ... There would be no explanation beyond partisan politics for denying him that seat.''
Senate conservatives have blocked action on the two, claiming they are too liberal and that they would add to overly activist tendencies of the 9th Circuit, which covers California and wide areas of the West.
``I think they are activist judges. I think they are out of the mainstream of American thought and I don't think either one should be on the court,'' said Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H.
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., last year promised the White House that he would give Paez and Berzon a vote by March 15 this year. Clinton and Senate Democrats have been highly critical of the slow pace of the GOP majority in confirming Clinton's judge nominees and have accused the Republicans of taking longer to act on minorities and women, a charge Republicans have denied. Paez is Hispanic and has the strong support of Hispanic groups.
Lott has emphasized that he will vote against both nominees on the grounds that their past rulings have been too activist, but says he will abide by his commitment to give them a vote.
On Wednesday Lott, the Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and most Republicans voted to end a filibuster launched by Smith, setting the stage for today's confirmation vote. The votes to end the filibuster were 85-14 for Paez and 86-13 for Berzon.
Still, Democrats cautioned Wednesday evening that Republicans might offer a motion to indefinitely postpone a final vote. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a leading backer of the nominees, said it was ``shameful'' that opponents of the two would try to avoid going on record for or against them.
``It would be a cowardly and disgraceful step to vote 'maybe' because we do not want to say we are going to close the door to two such extraordinary people,'' Leahy said.
Lott said he was ``certainly not advocating'' such a motion, but that it would be in order.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has urged Lott to delay action on Paez in particular, saying the Senate should first look into Paez's role in agreeing to what he said was a lenient plea bargain worked out between Democratic fund-raiser John Huang and the Justice Department.
Sessions said Huang, accused of making $1 million in illegal contributions that the Democratic National Committee returned after the 1996 presidential election, should have been given jail time.