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Lott Looking to Form New ‘Gang’

In what could be a new incarnation of the successful bipartisan “Gang of 14,” Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) hosted a meeting this week with a handful of the Senate’s most notable compromisers to figure out how to unclog the gridlock that has slowed the chamber’s progress this year.

About half a dozen moderate and independent-minded Republicans and at least one Democrat — Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) — participated in the Members-only huddle, which was held quietly in Lott’s Capitol office Tuesday morning. Afterward, few Senators offered much detail, but several said there’s a feeling among them that the narrowly divided chamber no longer can operate at an impasse and they want to find ways to avoid the growing number of filibusters sidelining Senate legislation this year.

“We’re seeing if there’s a way to bring some people together to bring some more comity to this place,” Nelson said.

Lott declined to discuss the meeting or its goals, saying only: “I think I ought not say anything. Others are going to say too much, so I am not going to say anything.”

According to other Senators, however, the discussion focused on how the deal-minded group could help avert the growing number of standoffs in trying to clear bills through the Senate this Congress. Most particularly, Senators said they vetted ways to work through upcoming fights on such issues as appropriations bills and stalled judicial nominations such as that of Leslie Southwick, Lott’s home-state pick for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Southwick narrowly cleared the Judiciary Committee last summer but has yet to come up for full Senate consideration. The White House and Republican Senators have been trying to corral 60 votes to advance his confirmation, but are still shy of meeting that mark against powerful Democratic opposition.

“It’s about creating a better environment to get things done for the country,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who participated in the meeting. “We need to get back to being a deliberative body.”

“We’re going to see if we can work beyond the logjam,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who also was there and described it as the “beginning of a process.”

Graham, Nelson and Snowe were members of the previous Congress’ bipartisan Gang of 14, a group of seven Democrats and seven Republicans who assembled in the face of a bitter partisan Senate standoff over movement of President Bush’s judicial nominees. The group brokered a historic deal to allow for votes on certain stalled Bush picks in exchange for keeping the minority’s option to use the filibuster intact.

That group didn’t formally involve Lott as one of its members, but the then-rank-and-file Mississippi Senator was a primary force behind the scenes leading to its creation. Lott stepped away after the gang officially formed.

Nelson wouldn’t say this week whether Tuesday’s meeting was a step toward re-creating a similar bipartisan coalition, calling the Gang of 14 “unique.” But the Nebraska Democrat did suggest there are clear parallels in terms of the two groups’ goals.

“It’s just a conversation at this point,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to see if there’s an interest in building support for moving legislation and to avoid having as many cloture votes as we’ve had and moving legislation along.”

So far this year, the Democratic majority has called to invoke cloture, a lengthy procedural roadblock that has markedly slowed down Senate action on a whole host of bills, some 56 times. Democrats have argued they are forced to do so against an intransigent 49-seat GOP minority, while Republicans have insisted it shows that Democrats are trying to ram through legislation without their input.

Although not all showed up, sources indicated that about 10 Senators were asked to take part in Tuesday’s meeting. In addition to Lott, Nelson, Graham and Snowe, GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), John Warner (Va.), John McCain (Ariz.), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) were invitees.

Although not in attendance Tuesday, Coleman said discussions abound among rank-and-file Senators about how to “fix things” and break some of the legislative stalemate. He added that it’s not a surprise that Lott — one of the Senate’s most notorious deal-makers — would lead the charge.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Coleman said of the gridlock. “We’re all impacted by the failure of being able to do the things that people sent us here to do.”

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