With the surprise, last-minute support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee today narrowly advanced to the full Senate the controversial nomination of Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The 10-9 vote, which otherwise fell along party lines, marked a major turning point in Southwick’s previously stalled appointment, one that many Senators believed was all but dead just days ago. Feinstein’s backing of the appellate court hopeful means the Senate is poised to consider the nomination sometime after the August recess, and boosts his chances for confirmation to the New Orleans-based federal bench.
“If I believed he was a racist I would not vote for him. But I actually don’t,” Feinstein said, explaining her vote despite Democratic criticisms that Southwick supported a racist court ruling. “It is hard for me to put that appellation on someone if I don’t believe it’s true.”
With Southwick’s fate now heading to the Senate floor, the pressure may be even more intense to shore up the lines of support and opposition. Even without Feinstein, the Mississippian possibly could draw a couple of moderate Democratic votes in Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and possibly Mark Pryor (Ark.), both of whom have met with him and given favorable feedback.
Nelson, for one, said Thursday that despite concerns in his party over Southwick’s nomination, he doesn’t share those worries. Nelson said he “met with him and went over the issues” and “his responses were adequate for me.”
Southwick’s appointment has been on hold in the Judiciary Committee for weeks amid strong opposition from Democrats over his human and civil rights record. Senate Republicans have employed virtually every tool at their disposal to try to persuade Democrats to come on board, including personal appeals, pressure from outside groups and Senate floor maneuvers.
The nomination is expected to come to the floor sometime after Congress returns in September, though it ultimately will be up to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) determine when — or if — Southwick is considered.
“That’s a decision of the Majority Leader,” said Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
On Tuesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) brought a Sense of the Senate resolution to the floor to put Senators on record supporting Southwick’s confirmation and urging a floor vote. That resolution likely is moot with the Judiciary Committee action, as is a counter-motion offered by Reid to table it.
But Democrats have dug in, particularly Reid, who has raised serious concerns about placing Southwick in that lifetime federal appointment. Reid has joined other Senate Democrats and left-leaning organizations who fear Southwick’s role in two court rulings in particular that they argue fly in the face of minority and homosexual rights.
But Republicans have countered forcefully that Southwick’s reputation has been maligned, and the veteran Mississippi judge has an exemplary record with unmatched qualifications. They argued that Democrats are looking to “manufacture” a reason to oppose Southwick because he is not a minority, and prior to the committee vote sought to force consideration by the full Senate — irrespective of the Judiciary Committee outcome.
Sources noted that Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), long known for his deal-making prowess, deserves credit for convincing Feinstein to agree to forward Southwick’s confirmation to the full Senate. Lott has helped lead the Republican efforts to move his home-state nominee through the chamber.
Before Thursday’s vote, Lott refused to get ahead of himself, but didn’t deny his optimism that the Judiciary Committee vote may come out his way.
“I think we have a chance,” Lott said. “There’s a lot at stake for the institution.”
Reid, however, was in no mood for the Republicans’ questions about the possible precedent of Southwick’s vote, nor was he accepting of arguments that Democrats were preventing fair treatment of President Bush’s nominees.
Before the committee vote Reid argued that GOP Senators — by arguing that all judgeships deserve up-or-down floor votes — have sought to undermine the committee process and establish new rules to the Senate’s consideration of judges. He said it is laughable for Republicans to have “the audacity” to lob charges that Democrats haven’t given fair consideration of judicial nominations, noting that Southwick has had a hearing and Leahy had promised a vote whenever the Republicans wanted it.
“They think the committee is meaningless,” Reid argued. “The standard Republicans have come up with should be written about in the latest Harry Potter book.”