Senate Republicans failed on Thursday to overcome a Democratic filibuster blocking the vote on Charles W. Pickering's nomination to a federal appeals court seat.
Pickering, who is a trial judge in Hattiesburg, Miss., is the fourth of President Bush's judicial candidates to be blocked by Democrats. The filibuster, a threat of an extended debate, prevents Republicans from using their slim majority to confirm the nominee.
A 60-vote majority is required to break a filibuster, so Republicans, who number 51 in the Senate, needed to get at least nine other votes. They got only three.
Voting with the Republicans were Democrats John Breaux of Louisiana and Zell Miller of Georgia and James Jeffords of Vermont, a former Republican who is now an independent.
Besides adding a new episode to the monthslong political battle between Senate Democrats and the White House over judicial nominees, the vote might have some political significance in a more immediate example of electoral politics, next week's gubernatorial election in Mississippi.
Senate Democrats said they believed the vote was timed to help Haley Barbour, a former Republican national chairman, prevail in his effort to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Ronnie Musgrove. Republicans called the defeat of Pickering's nomination an insult to Mississippi and the South.
"We're going to do everything we can to dramatize" the unfairness with which Pickering was treated, said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who has been Pickering's principal sponsor.
The nomination of Pickering, who is 66 years old and has served 12 years as a trial judge, was aimed at giving him a few years on a higher court as a capstone to his career, Republican senators said. But his nomination became the stage for a difficult and painful debate over the degree of responsibility that attaches to older white political figures from the South who had taken racial positions earlier in their careers that were no longer respectable.
As a student, Pickering wrote a law review article that appeared to suggest ways to remedy problems in Mississippi's anti-miscegenation laws. He left the Democratic Party in 1964, the year that a credentials challenge by a largely black group from Mississippi ultimately led most of the state's all-white delegation to walk out of the party's national convention.
Republicans said it was unfair to talk about the past when Pickering had demonstrated his commitment to racial reconciliation in recent years. Pickering, they noted, testified against members of the Ku Klux Klan at a murder trial in the 1960s, a time when that could have been dangerous.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats' real motive was to please advocacy groups that opposed Pickering because of his opposition to abortion.