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Courting Lobbyists

K Street Help Is Sought In High Court Battle

When it comes to the battle over President Bush’s Supreme Court selections, the draft is just beginning.

The GOP and like-minded organizations are mounting what is likely to be the most coordinated effort yet to enlist rank-and-file lobbyists to help win confirmation for the president’s picks, numerous sources on K Street said.

Sean Rushton, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, said that while most GOP lobbyists will get involved because they believe in the cause, Republican officials will also be taking note of who is helping.

“This is one of those things where I think it is noted who is on board and who is playing, who is supporting the president,” Rushton said.

He added that “some degree of incentivizing” has gone on, “from Karl Rove on down” — that is, reminding lobbyists that “this is something that matters to this president and we’re going to appreciate your supporting his judges.”

Of course, Ed Gillespie, a prominent GOP lobbyist, has already been tapped as the point person for message outreach on the confirmation fight. And former Sen. and “Law and Order” star Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), whom the White House chose to serve as a Senate liaison on the confirmation fight, is a registered lobbyist who received roughly $280,000 last year for work on behalf of Equitas Ltd., a reinsurance company with a stake in asbestos litigation reform.

In the meantime, several large trade groups have pledged to back the president’s choices.

But Republican insiders say individual GOP lobbyists, too, can play a crucial role, even if it’s to write checks or drum up support from clients.

Grover Norquist, executive director of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, said that business groups that failed to weigh in when Senators were considering the “nuclear” option now have a chance to do the right thing.

“You had a big mistake on the part of the business community not to weigh in then,” Norquist said. “You should weigh in because the Supreme Court is going to make a decision about whether your client is going to be able to stay in business. These are make-or-break decisions.”

Senate aides remain tight lipped about their strategy, but several lobbyists report that they have been contacted for a variety of roles in support of whomever the president picks.

Kevin McMahon, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, served as a counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork and David Souter. Fresh out of law school, McMahon helped prepare questions for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) to ask Bork, who did not make it on the Court.

He said that Senate leaders have inquired about his availability over the summer and fall. What McMahon could do, he said, is speak out on public affairs programs about the process.

“As a lobbyist, my clients have no dog in the fight,” he said. “Clearly they have interests, but it’s not typically a situation where individual companies get involved and try to insert themselves into the process. The key thing is, this process and this decision is really between the president and 100 U.S. Senators.”

Sources on K Street and Capitol Hill said privately that Senate leaders and the White House have expressed their intentions to tap Cassidy and Associates’ Senior Vice President Juan Carlos Benitez, a former Justice Department special counsel, to help Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should he be nominated.

Benitez, who did not return a call seeking comment, is a former associate general counsel and legislative director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

But beyond the lobbyists who take active roles shepherding and preparing nominees, most private-sector advocates say the real key is to use their skills and connections to energize the grass roots of the business community.

“By alerting their clients, they can be helpful,” Rushton said. “If your client is company X that has been interested in certain aspects of tort reform, that would be an area of overlap where those lobbyists could say to their client, ‘listen, another way to support this issue is to support the president’s nominee.’”

Stan Anderson, who heads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s legal reform effort, said his group has spent several years analyzing possible Supreme Court nominees from a business perspective and has supplied that information to the White House.

Anderson said the chamber hasn’t yet committed a specific dollar amount to the effort, but plans to take a role. “I can’t say we’re going to commit the entire field operation of the chamber,” he said. “We’ll make that judgment when we know who that nominee is.”

Anderson added that the chamber’s interest in the Supreme Court nomination fight is about more than just getting a business-minded justice onto the court. The group has a host of issues it is pursing with this Congress and doesn’t want the combat over nominations to clog up the system.

To be sure, some lobbyists on the GOP side say it will be difficult to energize business leaders and their K Street colleagues to weigh in on the matter if it focuses, as expected, on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage that corporations tend to avoid taking sides on.

But Norquist added that the recent Supreme Court term served as a “wake-up call” when it made important business-related decisions on eminent domain and file-sharing.

Rushton said his group is now drafting an op-ed that it hopes to place in a major publication that would discuss what’s at stake for business. And, he said, his group is emboldened by this year’s court decisions on matters involving property rights. In the eminent domain case, in which the court held that private property could be taken by the government for use by private development, Rushton said, “that was such a bad decision that it’s good, because it makes clear that property rights have been slowly eroding over the past 50 years, and this was the final nail in the coffin.”

Juanita Duggan, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, recently saw her group take an important issue to the Supreme Court. That experience made some of the lofty and ordinarily esoteric principals that come up during a nomination skirmish all the more concrete.

“It was a huge policy matter that we spent millions and millions of dollars on,” she said.

Even so, she said, “our issues are very, very specific and don’t naturally fall within the spectrum of more liberal versus more conservative. The interesting thing about our case was it split conservatives down the middle.”

Duggan said her group doesn’t plan to activate its grass roots, but it could if the association’s board felt it was necessary.

“Our charter doesn’t really put us in the middle of judicial fights,” she said. But she added, “I do think the choice is very important on a larger scale for business. For many businesses, their entire future is in the balance of the courts.”

The biggest lobbies like the National Association of Manufacturers and the chamber, Rushton said, can help by raising money and by lining up their dues-paying members to put in calls with Senators. In addition, the lobbying groups can work their executives onto talk shows to discuss “why the court issue matters to them and why it matters to American jobs and the American economy.”

Labor unions and other left-leaning groups, Rushton said, are effective at organizing their members, and the business leaders are trying to counter that.

C. Boyden Gray, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, founded the Committee for Justice in 2002 to battle against left-leaning groups in the judicial nomination wars. Gray, a former counsel to then-President George H.W. Bush and himself a clerk to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, said conservatives have an uphill battle. Still, he added, “I think I’ve had some success in getting the business community more involved. The business community has a stake in this.”

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