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After ‘Nuclear’ Scare, Lobbyists Sense Fresh Momentum

A day after the specter of a “nuclear winter” was lifted from the Senate, most lobbyists with business before the chamber breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Long-sought and heavily lobbied bills on asbestos litigation reform and energy, which were expected to languish if Senate negotiators failed to reach a compromise on the confirmation of judicial nominees, were suddenly given new life.

The interests seeking progress on Social Security reform, a free trade agreement for Central America, permanent repeal of the estate tax and a host of other measures also expressed hope that the debate over judges would remain quiet.

“This is very much a one-issue town,” said Tita Freeman, spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable. “I think the business community was eager for the Senate to resolve its differences” over judicial nominees and return to other legislative business.

At least publicly, most lobbyists tiptoed around the debate itself, wary of angering Senators by inserting themselves into a debate over internal procedures. But they watched developments on the issue closely and now are busy trying to discern what the compromise means and how long it will last.

“It clears the skies, particularly for asbestos and other things that are immediately pending in the Senate,” said Mike Johnson, a Republican lobbyist with the OB-C Group. “But it does not clear away the animosity that grew out of the debate. That’s going to linger like a bad smell, and there isn’t going to be that inclination toward compromise that is absolutely essential to the functioning of the Senate.”

But he added wounds can heal quickly, pointing to the asbestos bill which appears to be back on track. The Senate Judiciary Committee convenes today to continue its markup of the measure, and Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who co-sponsored the bill with ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), expressed cautious optimism that a deal would be struck. “We’ve got to see,” he told Roll Call.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) last week said he had concerns about the $140 billion trust fund the bill would create to limit liabilities for the defendant companies and insurers funding it. He said Tuesday he expects a compromise to be reached this year.

“We are just still working — I can’t be anymore explicit than that” he said.

After dispatching about 50 amendments, the committee still has about 90 to sort through, according to a Specter spokesman.

“We’re going to go by seniority and work our way down the list,” the spokesman said, adding Specter has told committee members that he will make today’s markup “an all-day affair, if need be.” That would mark a departure from the previous markup session held last week, which Democrats cut short after two hours as a sign of rising tensions over the debate on judges.

Lobbyists working the asbestos bill, and other K Street measures, said they did not hedge their bets on the outcome of a showdown on judges by scaling back their lobbying efforts in the Senate. Instead, they said they proceeded apace, watching developments on the issue while continuing to reach out to Senators on key but unrelated measures.

Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, which supports Specter’s bill, said that while his group was “certainly cognizant of a potential delay,” it did not change plans for lobbying on any of its priorities.

Likewise, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which is pushing for a repeal of the estate tax, has maintained its efforts on the issue.

“There hasn’t been a dialing down of activity until this week, and that was just giving deference to the fact people were going to be distracted,” said Laurie Knight, a lobbyist with the group. The group resumed outreach to Senators on Tuesday and set up meetings with staff over recess.

Meanwhile, the energy bill, which could have withered after a vote to end judicial filibusters, now could make it out of committee as early as this week, said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

He acknowledged it will be difficult to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, but he predicted that it will be successful.

“We have a lot of time to do some different things,” Domenici said.

An energy lobbyist who hopes to see the bill pass said the fight over judges actually encouraged progress on the measure.

“With the impending train wreck, there was a lot of pressure on Sen. Domenici and Sen. (Jeff) Bingaman [D-N.M.] to put something together quickly and find the points of agreement,” said the lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous.

For lobbyists looking beyond committee votes, the bigger question was whether the compromise over judicial nominees heralded a new governing dynamic in the Senate.

Republicans so far have been frustrated in their efforts to add private accounts to Social Security because Democrats have drawn a line in the sand and held fast to it.

But at least one proponent of President Bush’s plan for Social Security reform sees a ray of hope in the emergence of a centrist coalition of seven Democratic and seven Republican Senators on judicial filibusters.

“The hope is that their ability to work together and find common ground on the filibuster will translate to Social Security,” said Derrick Max, who heads the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, a business-backed group that promotes reform of the federal retirement program. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. I’m encouraged by all of this.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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