When it comes to filling vacancies on the federal bench, the Bush administration needs to get a move on.

So far, with 45 posts to be filled, the White House has sent to the Senate only five nominations.Yet it should not be hard to come up with enough nominees acceptable to President Bush since a number have been left over from the Reagan administration.

If the White House doesn't show a greater sense of urgency, the process of filling these important jobs will slow from a walk to a crawl.

Before last November's elections, the Senate Judiciary Committee was taking an average of 123 days to act on each presidential nomination to the federal courts. That's three times longer than it usually takes. The reason for the delay clearly was Democratic hopes that a Republican would no longer occupy the Oval Office and Michael Dukakis could fill those vacancies.

Though the Judiciary Committee is said to be operating under new procedures this year, don't count on the Senate's acting any faster. A new source of delay could be just around the corner.

This week the Supreme Court has been hearing a case that could force the American Bar Association to cut back or stop the screening it does on nominees to the federal bench. If that happens, a bigger burden will be placed on the Senate Judiciary Committee and it will have another excuse to go slow.

Let's hope such a situation can be avoided. It's useful to have a nominee's professional peers evaluate his competence and professional ethics. But the Bar Association needs to be more open about the way it does this job - and more even-handed. The ABA got into trouble when it was learned that its Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary was sharing information on potential nominees with liberal groups while freezing out conservative organizations.

By acting slowly on sending along nominations, the White House is providing the Senate with an excuse for its own tardiness. What the country needs is a judicial nominating process that is both more expeditious and less partisan. That evidently won't happen without more vigorous leadership from the Oval Office.