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Deal Struck on Southwick Vote

A hands-off posture by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and promises from key Republicans to help smooth the way for deals on outstanding appropriations bills appear to be the right recipe for the Senate confirmation this week of controversial appellate court nominee Leslie Southwick.

Southwick’s installment to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is still not guaranteed, but his supporters were increasingly confident Tuesday that they had shored up enough votes to clear him through the Senate. Backers need to corral 60 votes for a critical procedural test this morning to stave off a filibuster and advance Southwick’s confirmation through the chamber.

“I think we got it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

To get there, a bloc of Senators led by Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) have been meeting for weeks to try to round up 11 Democrats to oppose a filibuster and allow for an up-or-down majority vote on Southwick’s nomination.

That Senate duo held another session on Tuesday morning, after which they expressed optimism that they had convinced enough waffling Senators to support a vote on Southwick, and in exchange, suggested that Republicans would be willing to help Democrats negotiate deals with the Bush administration over federal spending.

“The goal is to get up-or-down votes on judges,” Nelson said. “Also, it’s to set a spirit of compromise as we move through the appropriations process.”

Details were vague, but Senators and aides suggested that negotiations involve helping bring the White House to the table and avert vetoes on future appropriations bills. The deal also was designed to ensure that enough Republicans would vote with Democrats to block a possible filibuster of an omnibus spending package later this year — should Democrats decide to wrap the appropriations bills into one catchall measure.

Beyond the spending bills, Nelson and Lott appealed to Senators to keep the judicial process from falling into gridlock by supporting today’s procedural motion to bring Southwick’s confirmation to the floor for an up-or-down vote on the merits. That was the argument made in 2005 when both Nelson and Lott were involved in the creation of the bipartisan “Gang of 14,” which brokered a deal to stave off filibusters of stalled Bush administration judicial nominees except under “extraordinary circumstances.”

Those familiar with the bargaining on Southwick said Lott was at the heart of the discussions, but on Tuesday the Minority Whip offered little detail beyond acknowledging that Democratic support for Southwick likely would be returned in kind. He added that bipartisan cooperation on the confirmation could serve as the catalyst to stop the Senate from “continuing to spiral into partisan political bickering.”

“Good-faith efforts on one side begets good faith efforts on the other side,” said Lott, a home-state ally of Southwick.

Meanwhile, tepid resistance from Reid — who has long stated his public opposition to Southwick — raised questions in both parties over how ardently the Democratic leadership actually was working to filibuster the federal appeals nomination. Sources said Reid has shown a “diplomatic” approach to pressing ahead with a Southwick vote and has quietly sought to keep the rhetoric on his side to a minimum.

While Reid said Tuesday that he’s “doing everything I can to oppose Southwick,” he also made clear that Senators’ votes will be their own.

“I don’t know where the votes are on this,” Reid said. “I am personally opposed to him. It’s a decision Senators are going to have to make individual decisions on.”

While Reid appeared to step back from a fight, other opponents were acting anything but complacent. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus were lobbying Democratic Senators against the nomination, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who participated in the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon.

“I think it did have an impact,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said of the lobbying.

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped lead the fight against the Southwick nomination when it moved through the Judiciary Committee, acknowledged the thin margins of today’s cloture vote.

“It’s going to be close,” Schumer said, but quickly added, “I’m voting against — very strongly against.”

Clearly, discussions of deals on the appropriations measures in exchange for Southwick support didn’t include all Senators. And several key Republicans wondered whether they need to play ball with Democrats on a deserving judicial appointment.

“If they want to vote him down, let them vote him down,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). “On something like this, I don’t see a need to reach an accommodation on anything.”

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the ranking member on the Appropriations panel and another one of Southwick’s staunchest Senate allies, said if a deal is in the works on spending, it’s news to him.

“I haven’t heard that from anybody,” Cochran said. “That probably means it isn’t true.”

Cochran joins other Republicans and some Democrats in arguing that Southwick is a moderate, well-qualified jurist who should win confirmation on the merits. Opponents, however, have raised serious concerns over his record, specifically on his past rulings related to civil and human rights. They also have questioned whether Southwick adds necessary diversity to the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit.

The controversy has been bubbling for most of the year, and his confirmation will be the first major judicial contest of the 110th Congress. With that in mind, several Senators were unwilling to publicly declare their positions, while others said they were still weighing their vote.

“I’m going to talk to some other people to see where I go with it,” said moderate Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.).