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Hatch: Judiciary Will Reconsider Pickering

Amid small signs of a softening opposition, Senate Republicans are once again talking about bringing up the embattled circuit court nomination of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering.

Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) renewed his pledge Wednesday to bring up Pickering for a hearing on his nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In March 2002 the committee, at the time controlled by Democrats, rejected Pickering on a party-line vote.

“We’re going to put him on the agenda,” Hatch said.

He said the precise timing had not been determined yet, but a decision is at hand. “That’s being determined right now. It’ll be within a few weeks.”

Regardless of the timing, Democrats plan to do everything possible to block the nomination, including launching another filibuster on top of the two they are currently maintaining on circuit court nominees. A third nominee facing a filibuster, Miguel Estrada, withdrew his nomination last week.

“I think there’s no doubt — very little doubt — that Democrats would filibuster Pickering,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the leading proponents of the filibusters of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and Alabama Attorney General William Pryor.

There have been some signs, however, that a below-the-radar, nine-month lobbying bid by Pickering’s supporters, in particular his son, Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), has begun to pay some dividends — although it’s still unclear if Republicans will have the 60 votes needed to defeat the filibuster.

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) recently said he is considering changing his opposition to the nomination and may at least vote to defeat a filibuster, if not support the nomination altogether.

“I’m re-evaluating Pickering,” Jeffords said after a pre-August recess meeting with the judge. “I’m taking an honest look.”

A show of support for the judge by Jeffords would be the latest in a nearly two-year nomination battle that has had all sorts of political twists and turns, almost all tinged with allegations of racial misdeeds in the Deep South. Winning over Jeffords would be a particularly key victory for Pickering’s main Senate supporter, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose hold on the Republican leader post was nearly lost after Jeffords bolted the GOP stable in the spring of 2001.

By the end of 2002, Lott was tossed out of leadership because of his remarks at the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 100th birthday party, and the Pickering nomination was considered dead by many because of an assumption that the Bush administration was afraid a renomination would dredge up the same race-sensitive issues.

The younger Pickering almost left Congress in July because of a lobbying job offer that was worth nearly $1 million, but he decided to stay in the House and, at a minimum, serve out his term.

Now Republicans say they think they can secure the 60 votes to approve Judge Pickering’s nomination. “I expect him to be reported out [of Judiciary], hopefully even by a bipartisan vote,” Lott predicted Wednesday.

And the man who replaced Lott, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), called Judge Pickering a “good man” and said he looked forward to the floor fight over his nomination. “When Judiciary moves him, I look forward to it,” Frist said.

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