Washington President Bush accused Senate Democrats on Friday of "endangering the administration of justice in America" by balking at many of his judicial nominees.
Declaring a vacancy crisis on the federal bench, Bush said, "Justice is at risk in America and the Senate must act for the good of the country."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, responded that Democrats in control of the Senate are committed to an independent judiciary and disinclined to "rubber stamp" the president's conservative nominees "who would undermine its independence and fairness."
Bush's sharp challenge to Senate Democrats reflected a mounting fight between the White House and Democrats over the shape of the federal judiciary. Democrats have objected to the nominees on many grounds, including their contention that Bush's candidates tend to be conservative.
The standoff is a warm-up for what both sides predict will be an enormous fight if Bush gets a chance to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
Bush said he has nominated 100 candidates to the federal bench and the Senate has confirmed half. In fact, the Senate has acted on 52.
Nine of Bush's 30 nominees to federal appeals courts have been confirmed and of his first 11 nominees, announced a year ago, only three have been confirmed, Bush said.
"Controversial nominations take longer and the president can help by choosing nominees primarily for their ability instead of for their ideology," Leahy said in a written statement.
Bush called his nominees "in the solid mainstream of American legal opinion."
He said more than 10 percent of federal judgeships are vacant. He did not mention that the shortage is partially due to Republican senators who derailed many nominees of former Democratic President Clinton a point that Leahy stressed in his rebuttal to the president's speech.
"The surge in vacancies created on the Republicans' watch is being cleaned up under Democratic leadership in the Senate," Leahy said.