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GOP Still Hunting for Southwick Votes

While it appears increasingly likely that the Senate will punt a vote on the controversial appellate court nomination of Leslie Southwick until at least after the October recess, Republican leaders are still eyeing the possibility of a roll call this week and are igniting a wholesale lobbying campaign to try to come up with 60 votes to win his confirmation.

As part of the effort, a key group of GOP Senators and at least one Democrat will huddle today to talk strategy and gauge support for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hopeful. At the same time, Southwick himself has begun holding a series of private meetings with a handful of Democratic Senators whom the White House has targeted as possible swing votes.

“We are preparing for a vote this week based on the things [Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] has said,” noted one senior Republican Senate aide. “We’re still working, but confident.”

Reid earlier had indicated he would hold a confirmation vote on the divisive nominee before the brief October recess, which begins Friday. But Democrats close to Reid said Monday the Majority Leader has no plans to add the nomination to the calendar unless and until GOP Senators ask for it.

“From everything we can see, Republican Senators are still trying to shore up their votes,” said a high-level Democratic Senate staffer. “The fact is, the Republicans aren’t pressing for a vote. They need more time and we understand they are looking for more time to work on improving their vote total.”

Republicans acknowledge they still are trying to corral the votes they need to avert a filibuster and install Southwick, a former Mississippi appeals court judge, to a lifetime appointment on the New Orleans-based federal bench. But GOP sources also pointed out Monday that Reid, as the Majority Leader, controls the calendar and ultimately will decide when votes are cast.

“We’re going forward, assuming that it would be [this week],” the Republican Senate aide said.

Southwick has significant Democratic opposition working against him, including from Reid, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

That power quartet holds significant sway, and sources within the Conference suggested Monday that they wouldn’t be surprised if the leadership mounts an opposing lobbying campaign in its own ranks. Democrats are openly wary of a lifetime appointment for Southwick, who is the third of three controversial Bush picks to fill that slot on the 5th Circuit.

“We’re outnumbered,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who along with home-state colleague and Minority Whip Trent Lott (R) are Southwick’s most forceful advocates.

Schumer, in particular, may be looking to help lead the opposition given he’s often among the party’s most vocal White House aggressors and was a leading Southwick critic when the nomination came before the Judiciary Committee in July.

What’s more, Schumer could be looking to flex his muscle against the administration’s pick in Southwick since he has all but given the green light to Bush’s selection to be the next attorney general, Michael Mukasey. Mukasey is a fellow New Yorker who is likely to enjoy widespread, bipartisan Senate backing — with Schumer’s blessing.

Cochran said Monday that the hurdles to confirming Southwick remain great, but he continues to work with other GOP Senate supporters to try to convince enough Democrats to come on board. He added that he believes if Democratic Senators approach the Southwick nomination with an open mind, then he may eke through.

“The party with the most votes wins,” Cochran said. “And if it’s on a partisan basis, he won’t be confirmed and it would be a tragedy because he is a man of outstanding character who would be an outstanding addition to the court.”

But not everyone thinks so. While Republicans universally support Southwick as a qualified and moderate jurist, Democratic Senators and left-leaning organizations largely oppose him based on his civil and human rights record and because they believe that as a white male he does little to broaden the diversity of the Southern 5th Circuit Court.

Just one Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), supported Southwick’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee earlier this summer. Other Democratic support remains unclear, although moderate Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) have suggested they too would back the nomination.

Republicans aren’t taking any chances. Sources familiar with the lobbying tactics said Monday that wavering Democrats are being told privately that it would be a bad precedent-setter to oppose a seemingly suitable pick for the federal bench, as it is possible a Democrat will control the White House in 2009 and need GOP support for their circuit court selections.

Republican Senators are expected to vet the nomination at today’s policy luncheon, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may take to the floor as early as today to discuss the status of the vote.

Also, Southwick will continue meetings with Democratic Senators throughout the week, and Republican leaders are reaching out to moderates from both parties — including from the original Gang of 14, which helped avert a standoff over Bush’s judicial nominations two years ago.

Even with those efforts, Cochran said he’s not sure if Republicans ever will be able to ascertain a firm head count for Southwick before the Senate votes. He added that given the strength of the Democratic leadership, a lot of potential backers may just keep their powder dry until the vote is called.

“Those who intend to vote for him, will vote for him,” Cochran said. “At some point, you just have to have the votes.”

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