Reid Asks K Street For Filibuster Help

Posted May 20, 2005 at 6:11pm

Heading into the final days before a possible showdown on judicial nominees, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week reached out to about 50 Democratic lobbyists for help.

In brief remarks to a packed room at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Reid asked lobbyists to do what they could to stop Republicans from voting to end filibusters on judicial nominees.

The message, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said, was, “We’ve got a big debate next week, Republicans are pulling out all the stops, and we could use your help.”

While no specific assignments were handed out at the meeting, several Democratic lobbyists in attendance said they were asked to use any contacts they have with five Republicans considered open to voting against the rules change. Mentioned were Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Susan Collins (Maine), John Sununu (N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

According to Democratic aides, Sununu and Murkowski had been winnowed off that target list by late last week.

Reid’s “specific ask was for those people who have contacts with moderate Republicans, to see if there’s a way to get them to stick with the Senate process that’s in place,” said David Castagnetti, an attendee at the meeting and partner with the firm Mehlman, Vogel Castagnetti.

Speaking privately, however, several lobbyists said there is little they can do to impact the course of the debate.

“This is an internal junkyard-dog fight that people don’t want to touch,” said one lobbyist familiar with the discussion.

Meddling in a fight over Senate rules is considered taboo. What’s more, said many lobbyists who attended Monday’s meeting, Republican Senators on the fence are hardly eager to hear arguments from Democratic lobbyists.

Nevertheless, Manley said Democrats did not want to miss a chance to shore up their position.

“This is part of an aggressive effort to defeat this thing,” he said. “We’re working every avenue available.”

In part, Manley added, the Minority Leader asked Democrats at firms to reach out to their Republican colleagues and make the case that a nuclear meltdown would torpedo the business agenda in Congress.

Castagnetti said he has frequent talks with his Republican partner, Alex Vogel, about the issue. But he conceded that Vogel, a former chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is unlikely to reverse his support for his former boss.

“I don’t think Alex can change me and I don’t think I can change Alex,” he said.

Senate staffers made no formal effort last week to follow up on Reid’s request, according to several of those in attendance.

While lobbyists may hold private opinions about the best outcome in the fight, few on either side are expressing those views to Senators.

Business groups and trade associations, likewise, have largely stayed on the sidelines, though a Senate freeze would likely derail such business priorities as the passage of asbestos and energy bills.

Both Reid and Frist met with about 50 top business executives on the issue earlier this month. The Business Roundtable, which hosted the meetings, so far has decided to “defer to Senate leadership on this issue,” a spokeswoman said.

One lobbyist close to the issue said business interests should oppose the so-called nuclear option but are refraining due to fear of retribution from Republicans.

On the contrary, said Jonathon Jones, chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and a planner of the Monday meeting, K Street’s neutrality has benefited Democrats.

“Frankly, to have the support of some in the business community, to the extent we’ve had it, has been gratifying,” Jones said. “And in general, to have the business community not engaged at all in this has been helpful.”

Reid’s visit with the Monday Group, as the informal, bimonthly meeting of lobbyists and staffers at the DSCC is known, was his first since he visited with the group in January after rising to Minority Leader. Attendance last week consequently doubled, according to several estimates.

The lobbyists gave Reid a rousing round of applause when he entered the room, but those in attendance said the prevailing mood was one of sadness and frustration.

“It was sadness that it had come to this, and that they hadn’t been able to work anything out,” said one lobbyist. “It wasn’t anger.”

Meanwhile, Frist is making his own efforts to keep the business community looped in on the latest developments in the impending showdown.

In a Thursday conference call, Frist updated lobbyists on the issue but stopped short of issuing a call to arms, according to a Republican lobbyist on the call.

“He didn’t break any new ground,” the lobbyist said. “Basically, it was a courtesy. It was not an effort to proselytize.”