Republicans were working desperately Wednesday to secure the vote of the one Judiciary Committee Democrat they need to dislodge the stalled appointment of Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a coup that — if successful — would move the nominee to the full Senate for consideration and potentially defuse the chamber’s biggest battle over the federal bench in two years.
Sources in both parties suggested late in the day that at least one Democratic Senator may be prepared to back Southwick’s nomination when the Judiciary Committee votes at long last this morning. Those sources were unwilling to disclose the name of the Democrat in question, but Republicans — and Southwick himself — have made personal appeals in recent weeks and days to several Senators, including Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Herb Kohl (Wis.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).
Feinstein in particular has said publicly she was undecided on Southwick’s nomination and last month said she continued to weigh it very carefully.
“We’re still talking to people,” said a senior GOP Senate aide. “We’re hoping the Democrats look beyond tomorrow and to the future.”
Southwick’s controversy stems in large part from his civil and human rights record, which most Democrats charge make him unfit for a lifetime appointment to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit. Republicans, however, have argued that Southwick has an exemplary record and that Democrats are fabricating excuses to oppose him because they would rather name a minority judge to the southern bench.
Asked Wednesday whether he believed Southwick had enough support in the committee, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was unsure: “I have no idea. I’ve never done a whip count. It may have changed, I just don’t know. It will have to be up to them.”
With that in mind, several prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.), weren’t ready to give up. Southwick hails from Mississippi and thus has seen his biggest support from Lott and fellow Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran.
“I’m hoping there will be some give there,” Lott said Wednesday.
In the GOP’s latest attempt to pressure Democrats to forward his nomination out of the Judiciary Committee to the floor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought to force a vote Wednesday on a resolution supporting his confirmation. The symbolic resolution — which may die if the committee votes for Southwick today or if Democrats table it first — calls for the full Senate to consider Southwick.
Speaking on the floor, McConnell cautioned Senators to weigh their votes carefully, suggesting that blocking Southwick could spell a bad precedent for the chamber. The Senate successfully has averted a showdown over President Bush’s judicial nominations for the better part of two years since a band of 14 Senators were forced to come together to strike a deal to allow for votes on certain controversial nominations.
“Think long and hard about whether you want to deny this good man an opportunity for a vote,” McConnell warned.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Leahy stopped McConnell short, threatening to table the motion within minutes of its offering. Reid repeatedly has called Southwick’s record into question and said he is unfit for a lifetime appointment to the 5th Circuit. Sources have said Reid remains disinclined to bring Southwick before the full Senate if the Judiciary Committee opposes him at today’s expected vote.
Senate Democrats weren’t betting on numbers, but one senior Senate staffer offered a cautious outlook to today’s Judiciary tally, saying: “We’re hopeful the Democrats have the votes necessary to defeat his nomination in committee.”
Leahy has held off on holding the committee vote on Southwick for several weeks at the request of Cochran, who wanted more time to try to appeal to waffling Democrats on the nomination. But Leahy said he decided to reschedule the vote for Thursday after Republicans began engaging in certain political tactics — both in and outside the chamber — to pressure Democrats into supporting him to the appellate court.
“I’m doing because I’m getting tired of how they are playing this,” Leahy said. “They need to stop playing games on it. So, I put it back on.”