Wasting No Time

Posted July 22, 2005 at 5:31pm

Though the early running toward a Supreme Court seat has been smooth for D.C. Circuit Court Judge John Roberts, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill aren’t taking any chances.

Last week, just one day after President Bush announced Roberts as his pick to succeed retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an elite group of GOP lobbyists gathered in the downtown offices of Ford Motor Co. to discuss strategy.

The meeting, which lasted less than an hour, gathered some of the relatively small number of veteran Republican loyalists with experience in Supreme Court confirmation fights, participants said.

“They were not there in the capacity of representing their firm or their company or their association,” said one source familiar with the meeting, “but rather because they’re independent, with longtime, deep and active ties to things Republican and this administration.”

The gathering was hosted by Ziad Ojakli, who earlier this year finished up three years as the administration’s top lobbyist in the Senate to take a job in Ford’s Washington office. Helping Ojakli lead the meeting were Candi Wolff, Bush’s top Congressional liaison and Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman tapped by the White House to help win Senate confirmation for Roberts.

The invite list was short because not many senior GOP lobbyists were around the last time a Republican president faced a battle over a high court pick.

That was in 1991, when George H.W. Bush’s selection of Clarence Thomas touched off sexual harassment charges by Anita Hill, and Congressional hearings to examine the claims.

Observers from both parties expect a significantly quieter path to confirmation for Roberts, given the warm reception the D.C. Circuit judge has received, at least so far.

Nevertheless, participants in the Wednesday skull session were urged to secrecy.

Several sources familiar with the meeting, speaking privately, said it focused on information sharing. Organizers opened by trying to put a more personal face on a man whose public and private histories are now being scoured by hundreds on the Hill and in the media and special interest groups.

“Many of us do not know him personally and only knew what we knew about him from the newspapers,” one source explained.

Organizers asked participants to share any information they gather in the course of their daily work on potential obstacles to Roberts’ confirmation. But no fundraising pitches were made, and organizers never asked for specific advice on how to shepherd the nominee through the process.

“To some extent, the origins of [the meeting] were contemplated before the nominee was selected,” another source said. “The fact is that it looks like its going to be an easier lift than people thought.” Participants said while no plans were made to reconvene, they could huddle again soon, in person or on a conference call.

While most of the lobbyists at the meeting work for private firms, some representatives from corporate offices were included, as were two major trade associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, a participant said.

Both those groups have pledged to get involved backing Bush’s nominee. So far this week, however, both have been quiet about their plans.

While Chamber officials review Roberts’ credentials, they said they are deferring to a statement chamber president Tom Donohue released minutes after Bush’s announcement.

In it, Donohue praised Roberts as “highly regarded and well respected by the legal and business communities.” He added: “The Chamber looks forward to the exchange between the judge and the Senate and will participate in the process as appropriate.”

NAM assembled a committee of 10 general counsels from member companies to deliberate on the nominee and make a recommendation to NAM leadership about whether to back him. They met for the first time Thursday but made no decision.

“At first blush, Roberts looks like a positive, but there’s no rush to judgment,” NAM spokesman Hank Cox said. “This committee is setting a precedent, so they want to take their time, go through everything, and make sure they get it right.”

Cox said the panel would likely issue a recommendation in August.

The Wednesday meeting followed a conference call with GOP lobbyists organized by the Republican National Committee. People on that call said its focus was on messaging, with Republican officials distributing talking points so lobbyists talking to lawmakers, staff and media could fill the Beltway echo chamber with similar points.

For example, lobbyists on the call were asked to help correct erroneous early reports that Roberts belonged to the Federalist Society. The clarification was important because membership in the conservative group could have prompted hostile reaction from some Senate Democrats.

Despite the early flurry of activity, Roberts’ nomination seemed to be on sure footing in the first few days after it was made. As a result, combined with Congress’ need to rush to finish business before heading home for the August recess, many Republican lobbyists reported not focusing much of their attention on the nomination. Instead, they are focusing on client matters.

On the Democratic side, with lawmakers largely holding their fire on Roberts this week, party officials have not yet called their K Street allies to action.

They are set to meet for the first time today at the Monday Group, a bimonthly gathering of Democratic staffers and lobbyists held at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

A Democratic lobbyist who planned to attend the meeting called the Republican efforts overkill.

“It’s like a belt and suspenders,” he said. “The lobbying campaign is a bit ahead of the cause.”