By Elana Schor - 09/06/05 12:00 AM EDT
Members of the Senate Democrats’ K Street inner circle are predicting that as many as 25 Democrats will vote to confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the United States.
Several attendees of the Monday Group, as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) biweekly lobbyist meetings are known, said the Democrats could suffer politically if their Roberts strategy misfires. Left-wing ideological groups are pressuring Democratic lawmakers to expose Roberts’s conservative record without workable grounds for a fight, Monday Group lobbyists said.
“It’s not a good thing for Democrats to be dragged into a visible, high-profile battle on him for weeks when Congress ought to be dealing with issues the public really cares about,” one key Democratic lobbyist said. “That’s the biggest danger for Democrats, if they get sucked into something like that because of the ideological left.”
Though some Democrats already have called for Congress to focus on aiding the blighted Gulf Coast as the new session begins, planning for the Roberts hearings likely will dominate the Monday Group’s next meeting, on Sept. 12. Informal discussions among some lobbyists and Democratic aides during the recess were said to yield little in the way of cohesive counsel.
“There is no real coordinated effort to enlist K Street in getting involved,” said another well-connected Democrat, one of many who hailed Roberts as an unassailably shrewd selection. “There’s no sense in creating a big dustup now downtown, when what are you going to fight about?”
Democratic lobbyists’ greatest concern about Roberts is not pinning down his positions on federal preemption or civil rights, despite the recent Monday Group guest appearance of Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Many K Street Democrats instead questioned what they characterized as poorly coordinated messaging from liberal groups that has unduly influenced some lawmakers.
“The other dirty little secret the Democrats have to deal with is … there may be some in party who see it as, ‘It would be worthwhile to drag it out a little bit so we can raise some money off the deal’” from left-wing special interests, a Monday Group member said. “That’s shortsighted, and politically dangerous too.”
In particular, Democratic lobbyists singled out the NARAL Pro-Choice Alliance decision to endorse Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who is certain to face a tough reelection fight next year, in a potential bid to sway him on Roberts. If Chafee spurns the pro-abortion-rights group by voting to confirm, his Democratic challenger could be weakened, and Monday Group lobbyists said a Republican voting against Roberts would be highly unlikely.
“I’d advise my clients to stay out of this one,” said another lobbyist with ties to Democratic leadership. “Why would they use up political capital on something they can’t possibly win on or benefit from? … I don’t see a good opening for us.”
One Monday Group regular likened the Roberts confirmation to this spring’s tension over the “nuclear option,” saying that in both cases a swift resolution and moving on to other business would be the best-case scenario.
K Street Democrats agreed that Roberts ultimately would be confirmed with anywhere from 65 to 80 votes, with most centrist and Southern Democrats voting to approve the nomination. Every Democrat who signed the “Gang of 14” agreement to preserve the minority’s right of judicial filibuster will vote for Roberts, they predicted, with several openly forecasting that Reid himself will support the nominee.
Some lobbyists credited Reid with ensuring that no Democrat has declared support for Roberts yet, a stance often phrased by the minority leader as “keeping [our] powder dry.”
One lobbyist said, “The only concerted strategy I’ve seen come out of the caucus has been: Don’t make any commitments to support him. Leadership’s been very successful in keeping everybody on that page.”
But, K Street Democrats said, as soon as the hearings begin, either Thursday or Monday, expect Democratic senators such as Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.) or Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) to reveal quickly their votes in Roberts’s favor.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said that Monday Group lobbyists would be consulted as the hearings progress but that they would not be relied upon for messaging. “We talk to them all the time. Are we planning on using them? No,” Manley said. “It’s up to the members of the Judiciary Committee to carefully review Roberts’s qualifications for the job.”
Asked whether a majority of the Democratic caucus voting for Roberts would concern Reid, Manley declined to comment. “Let’s just wait and see,” he said.