Judge Deal Got Boost From Lott

Posted May 27, 2005 at 5:32pm

After abandoning the negotiations with a declaration that he wanted to see up-or-down votes for all judges, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) quietly made a late, brief re-entry into the talks that resulted in a bipartisan deal short-circuiting the “nuclear” option efforts.

On Thursday evening, May 19 — 10 days after he said he had given up on the talks — Lott trotted down from his fourth floor offices in the Russell Senate Office Building and dropped in to the second floor offices of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). With most of the group set to leave town within hours for a weekend away from the District and the negotiations, the talks had come to a head and some participants thought the deal would fall through if there was no deal that night.

A source familiar with the talks spotted Lott entering the talks and later said his role in the meeting was to encourage the negotiators and prod them toward a compromise.

But he also told them he couldn’t be a part of any deal, the source said.

In an interview last week, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) confirmed the Mississippi Republican’s role. “Lott snuck in at one point,” said Pryor, who helped lead the Democratic effort to secure the deal.

Lott at first denied entering McCain’s office, then admitted with a smile that he had been asked to come down by the Arizona Republican to go over some details of the latest offers. Lott claimed he didn’t even know the Senators were all meeting at the time.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come down here?’ I made a few comments and left,” Lott recalled. “Pretty innocent, huh?”

Lott also said he didn’t “sneak in,” blaming reporters for not noticing his entrance.

Lott’s re-emergence was not detected by the media because he entered into one of the doors to McCain’s office suites at the northwest end of the corridor, while a horde of reporters, photographers and TV cameramen were gathered at the other end just outside the room where more than a dozen Senators were trying to hammer out a deal.

Lott declined to say how much he and McCain talked throughout the final days of the negotiation or how much he talked to other dealmakers. But his influence in the deal, which seriously undercut Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) effort to thwart filibusters on a party-line parliamentary vote, is undeniable.

The earliest seeds of the deal, which was announced May 23, on the eve of the nuclear showdown, were planted in talks that Lott initiated shortly after New Years Day with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). Lott and Nelson talked in private for months, exchanging ideas about how to avert the showdown. Once Pryor joined the talks, they settled on the “six-by-six” format, getting six Republicans to pledge opposition to the nuclear option and six Democrats to foreswear filibusters on future judicial nominees of President Bush.

They also agreed that there would be a certain number of the seven already filibustered circuit court nominees who would get confirmed and a few who wouldn’t. According to Nelson, Lott was sure right away he could line up six Republicans.

“I can get six votes over here, can you get six over there?” Nelson recalled Lott asking.

Lott began working closely with McCain in trying to round up those votes, as Pryor and Nelson served as Democratic emissaries to the six votes on their side.

But Lott’s role in the talks ended shortly after Roll Call reported the basic outline of the proposal on May 9, prompting outrage from conservative activists who lit up Lott’s office phone lines demanding he support an end to all filibusters and bare-majority votes for all nominees.

Lott has offered a variety of reasons for pulling out of the talks. One was his assertion that he would never support a deal that didn’t allow for up-or-down votes on every nominee. Another was that his efforts at compromise were secretly designed to show the wavering Republicans that Frist and Lott had done all they could to reach a compromise, so that when the time came for a vote they would side with the leadership.

Nelson offered another reason for Lott’s withdrawal: fear that his effort at compromise appeared to undercut Frist, who assumed Lott’s old post as Majority Leader after his fall from leadership in December 2002.

“Neither of us wanted that to become the issue,” Nelson suggested.

But, even after bailing from the talks, Lott still found a way to help out when McCain needed his help. It was only a few days after Lott gave them encouragement that the bipartisan group convened one last time in McCain’s office and inked their historic deal.