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‘Gang’ Courted for Southwick

GOP Senate leaders are looking to re-enlist members of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” to help break the impasse over the stalled appellate court nomination of Leslie Southwick, a move that has temporarily delayed Republican plans to make the appointee ground zero for a major Senate rematch over the federal bench.

Republican leaders have renewed hopes that the 12 remaining Senators in the gang may play a role in persuading key Senate Democrats to allow for a Senate confirmation vote on Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Southwick, whose nomination remains on hold in the Judiciary Committee, has been meeting privately this week with some of the group’s Democratic members to make a personal appeal for his appointment to the New Orleans-based federal bench.

“I believe that there is going to be an effort to get that group put together to talk about it,” Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) confirmed Wednesday. “We’re going to try to build some pressure from that group into the Democratic leadership. … We’re hoping that group — the Gang of 14 — would take a look at it.”

“The Gang of 14 has been successful in the past making sure cooler heads prevail,” added a Senate Republican leadership aide. “We came to the realization that we are not going to get him out of committee, so we had to go another avenue.”

Democratic leaders have not masked their opposition to Southwick’s nomination, deeming him unfit for a lifetime installment to the 5th Circuit. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in particular has made public his concerns over Southwick’s civil and human rights record, and sources say the Nevadan remains disinclined to bring him to the full Senate for a vote if the nomination fails to win the support of the Judiciary Committee.

“The members of the Judiciary Committee will decide whether or not to report this nomination to the full Senate,” Reid said on the floor Friday. “If they choose to report the nomination, I will schedule a prompt and full debate on it. If they reject the nomination, that action will be on the merits.”

With that in mind, it is unclear whether and to what degree the Gang of 14 or its individual members could convince Reid or the Judiciary Democrats to change their minds about Southwick’s pending federal installment.

The original seven Democrats and seven Republicans came together two years ago and struck a deal that averted a major partisan showdown over President Bush’s picks for the federal bench. The group brokered a deal whereby the Senators agreed to oppose a proposed Senate rule change that would have ended the minority’s right to filibuster judges in exchange for supporting votes on certain outstanding nominees.

The group previously has wielded significant sway in the Senate over unlocking stalled judicial nominations, but only 12 of the founding Senators remain and it has been all but dormant for months.

Several Gang of 14 members said Wednesday they don’t believe the group would get together in the immediate term to discuss playing a role in the Southwick nomination, especially as the Mississippian awaits a vote in the Judiciary Committee. But even without a formal meeting of the remaining Senators, Senate Republicans are hoping Southwick — and his allies — can help convince the group’s members to support him as a qualified, well-respected judge who at least deserves the full Senate’s consideration.

At least one Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a leading member of the original 14 who met with Southwick on Tuesday, may already be on board.

Nelson spokesman David DiMartino said Wednesday that while his boss has yet to fully review Southwick’s record, he is “leaning toward” supporting the nomination.

“Sen. Nelson came out of the meeting without any open concerns with the nomination, but he didn’t think the gang would have a role until the Judiciary Committee takes action,” DiMartino said. “The Gang of 14 was very specific about not becoming a de-facto Judiciary Committee. Sen. Nelson prefers that any meeting with the Gang take place after the Judiciary Committee takes action.”

Sen. Ken Salazar (Colo.), another of the group’s founding Democrats, agreed, saying he was disinclined to reconstitute the group while the Judiciary Committee is still weighing the appointment. Salazar said he also met with Southwick this week but has yet to make any determination about whether he would ultimately back his confirmation.

“I told him that the matter was in the hands of the Judiciary Committee and they need, ultimately, to have a vote on him,” Salazar said. “That’s really where he needs to spend his time.”

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) repeatedly has said he is prepared to hold a vote on Southwick whenever Mississippi Sens. Lott and Thad Cochran (R) ask for it. Cochran previously asked Leahy to pull the nomination from the calendar to give him more time to lobby committee Democrats to support him.

At this point, however, the highly partisan Judiciary panel appears to have dug in its heels, and there appears to be little movement in sight. While Republicans have argued Southwick’s record is impeccable and includes more than a dozen years of appellate court experience, Democrats have taken issue with two rulings in particular that have raised questions about his views on the rights of minorities and homosexuals.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that despite Republican efforts to the contrary, he sees little wiggle room on his side of the aisle for Southwick.

“How do you negotiate if you think someone shouldn’t be on the bench?” Schumer asked. “We’ve voted for other court of appeals judges. We’re trying to cooperate with them in every way we can, but this is one we don’t think should be on. We’re willing to go through the process. He just doesn’t have the votes in the committee.”

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an original Gang of 14 member who is helping organize Southwick’s meetings with Senators, said he’s still hopeful Southwick’s credentials will win out, especially among key members of the group. Although the group no longer formally meets, Graham said its legacy of ensuring up-or-down Senate votes on qualified judges remains.

“I am confident a majority in the Senate would vote for him if we got him to the floor,” Graham insisted. “This is not something we need to blow the Senate up over.”

Senate Republican leaders seem to be taking that view as well in recent days, having decided to temporarily hold their fire on a previously mapped out strategy to hold hostage any pending Democratic legislation as leverage for a floor vote on Southwick. That offensive was expected to begin as early as two weeks ago, but sources say GOP Senators opted to push it off as they looked for an opening to win approval for the controversial appellate nomination.

In the meantime, Republicans have been privately working their lobbying effort with moderate Democratic Senators while engaging in more diplomatic pressure tactics such as floor speeches and press releases. GOP leadership sources said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is working with Lott and Cochran, the latter of whom has expressed worries that an overly strident approach could sink any chance of a Senate floor vote in the coming weeks.

“Many people are itching for a fight,” said a Senate GOP leadership aide. “But we’re also itching for a confirmation. This is a new approach.”

Helping push the GOP’s cause from the outside are a band of conservative judicial organizations, 60 of whom sent a letter Wednesday to the 19 Judiciary Committee Senators to urge support for Southwick. In it, the groups argue that Southwick is the target of “an ugly campaign of character assassination by liberal special interest groups” and that the panel is “not living up to its responsibilities” to allow for fair consideration of judges.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the moderate Judiciary ranking member, recently met with representatives from some of those same outside groups and is leading internal efforts to persuade his fellow Judiciary members to support Southwick’s nomination. In a brief interview Wednesday, Specter wouldn’t detail his next move but said he’s going to exhaust every avenue to win the confirmation.

“We are asking Senators to review his record very carefully,” Specter said.

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