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Southwick May Stymie Senate

GOP Eyes Plan To Block Bills

Barring an unlikely confirmation of Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the Judiciary Committee this week, Senate GOP leaders have privately mapped out a retaliatory plan that involves blocking passage of Democratic legislation from now until the August recess.

Republican Senators have been in discussions for weeks about how to get political mileage out of President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees, but sources say talks in recent days have honed in specifically on the possibility of shutting down Senate business if Southwick fails to make his way out of committee to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote this month. And with the clock ticking toward the August break, Republican leaders are growing increasingly impatient and ready to force the battle, GOP sources say.

“We can either prevent really bad legislation from passing or we can get a well-qualified judge,” offered one GOP leadership aide. “One of those two things will likely happen.”

Republican Senators say they are still hopeful they can avert such a showdown with Democrats but said late last week it is increasingly likely that their best counter looks to be to hold Democratic legislation hostage in exchange for a floor vote on Southwick. GOP leaders last week armed their Senators with message documents touting Southwick’s credentials, and several prominent Senators, including Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are expected to take to the floor this week to try to build pressure for the stalled nominee.

“This very situation goes beyond Southwick, it goes to the Democratic approach to the confirmation process generally,” Specter said Friday.

And while Specter is reluctant to ask for a Judiciary Committee vote until after he’s had the early part of this week to try to change some minds, many GOP Senators are far less patient. Republican Senate sources say the leadership — led by McConnell and Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) — is angling for a committee vote to occur this Thursday, a tally that’s been pushed off for several weeks to give the GOP more time to lobby for support for Southwick.

“Mitch really wants this,” noted one senior GOP Senate aide. “Not only is he intellectually pure on this, but the fringe benefit is that it’s exactly the kind of issue that gets us to unite and it energizes our base, which is badly fractured in the aftermath of the immigration debate.”

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he is ready to bring back the Southwick nomination whenever the Republicans who initially sought the delay ask for it to be reinstated. Sources have indicated that it was Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) who first asked Leahy to postpone the vote in hopes of winning over waffling Democrats.

“I told the two Mississippi Senators that anytime they want it back, we’d put it back on,” Leahy reiterated last week.

Even if the Judiciary Committee vote fails, Republicans still feel the issue will be politically advantageous since they believe Southwick is an untarnished, well-qualified judge whose record is far closer to the center than many earlier nominees to the southern 5th U.S. Circuit Court. What’s more, GOP Senators believe the Democrats’ arguments — that his record is blemished with unsettling anti-civil rights rulings — ring hollow.

Cochran said Friday that “obviously [the nomination] has hit a partisan roadblock,” but he said he still thinks there’s a small chance a Judiciary Committee Democrat or two would consider advancing Southwick to the floor. But even if that doesn’t happen, Cochran insisted that “it’s decision time.”

“The Senate should consider this,” Cochran said. “It’s a question that ought to be decided by the Senate, not by a few members of one committee.”

“Let the full Senate vote on it,” Specter added. “That’s what the Constitution says — the Senate, not the committee, has the power to confirm or reject. If he loses, I’ll abide by the will of the body, but I’m not going to sit still and allow him to be bottled up in committee.”

Specter and Cochran already have made appeals to several Judiciary Democrats, as has Southwick, who has met personally with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Herb Kohl (Wis.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). Feinstein, for one, said Friday she continues to wrestle with her vote, calling it “a very difficult issue” and saying that she needs time “to think more about it.”

Feinstein said she hopes that, despite Republican requests to the contrary, Leahy will hold off on a vote this week. Feinstein added that she wants to treat Southwick and the process fairly but has reservations about ensuring diversity on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court and that judicial nominees ultimately practice on the bench what they preach to Senators behind closed doors.

“This is a particularly sensitive appointment,” Feinstein said.

An unfavorable Judiciary Committee vote would mean Republicans could get Southwick to the full Senate for consideration only with the agreement of Leahy and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). And while Reid won’t rule out allowing for an up-or-down floor vote, he has publicly denounced Southwick as unfit for that bench.

“Sen. Reid will make a decision after the committee acts [this] week,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley, adding that “the more Sen. Reid looks into his background and qualifications, the more concerned he has become.”

Southwick so far has few Democratic allies, especially as left-leaning groups launch a public assault on his candidacy. In particular, Democrats and those organizations point to two cases that they argue fly in the face of homosexual and minority rights.

Democrats say Republican threats aside, they are just as willing to do battle over judicial nominees, even if it means their agenda is put in the crossfire. Key base organizations are equally as emotional about the Southwick nomination, they say.

“We have more to lose because we have the rest of our agenda to pass, but if they want to pick a fight over this judge we are more than willing to do so,” argued one senior Democratic aide. “Sen. Reid is anxious to move judges as quickly as possible, but that doesn’t extend to judges whose rulings are outside the mainstream of traditional jurisprudence.”