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Democrats to question US court nominee

WASHINGTON -- Arlen Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, yesterday granted Democrats a hearing to question White House aide and judicial nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on whether he played a role in the administration's secret wiretapping program, its policy on torture, and its relationship with convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The move put off, for now, a repeat of last year's parliamentary showdown over President Bush's nominees. Kavanaugh is a nominee to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

''I don't want to place the Senate in the position we were in a year ago at this time," said Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Democrats lauded the decision.

''It's the least that can be done for the nominee to the second highest court in the land and a controversial nominee," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. ''There are a lot of things that have happened since the last hearing, in the administration of which he is a part."

The White House accepted it. ''While we'd prefer to avoid a second hearing, we have a common goal of confirming good, fair judges who share the president's judicial philosophy," said spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Specter said he would bring Kavanaugh before the panel Tuesday and call for a committee vote on Thursday. That would put Kavanaugh on track for a confirmation vote by the full Senate before Memorial Day.

Specter said he made the decision in part because of a letter this week from the seven Democrats in the so-called Gang of 14 that mediated the standoff last year. In the letter, the seven requested that Kavanaugh be called for another hearing. Several Democrats said privately Wednesday that a hearing might elicit answers from Kavanaugh that would avert a filibuster.

Specter also presented recommendations for Kavanaugh by two judges for whom he had clerked, Walter Stapleton and Edward R. Becker of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

In private meetings with Democratic senators this week, Kavanaugh said he played no role in the wiretapping policy or in any White House dealings with Abramoff. Perino said Kavanaugh played no role in developing the White House policy toward detainees.

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