Top Senate Republicans called a press conference Wednesday to hail the confirmation of Judge Leslie Southwick to a federal appeals court seat in Mississippi, but they spent more time hailing a Democrat from California.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had emerged as a linchpin in the controversial nomination. She broke from her party in August to cast the deciding vote in the Judiciary Committee that sent the nomination to the full Senate. And she never retreated, infuriating the two dozen liberal interest groups aligned against Southwick.
By the time Southwick cleared the Senate on Wednesday in a 59-38 vote, following months of debate over judicial diversity, minority rights and racial sensitivity, Feinstein had become the Democrat that Republicans love.
She even showed up at the press conference, where Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) asked her to speak before the Mississippi senators who lined up the votes for Southwick.
“This may be out of precedent,” Specter said, “but if I may, with the concurrence of the home-state senators, yield to the hero — the lady — of the day, Sen. Feinstein.”
“I don’t know about this heroine business,” Feinstein demurred.
Moments later, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) got choked up talking about her.
“She took a tough stand and showed a lot of courage,” Lott said, tears collecting in his eyes and his voice quivering. “It is emotional for me because this is a good man, and he will make a great judge on behalf of my state, which I feel has been maligned in this and other instances.”
He later accepted a congratulatory call from President Bush.
The story of how the contentious nominee of an unpopular president made it through a Democratic-controlled Senate centers on several main characters.
Specter gathered a dozen conservative groups early on and urged them to fight for Southwick. Lott appealed to Republican senators one on one and reached out to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), the Senate’s most conservative Democrat. Nelson, in turn, rallied members of the Gang of 14, the bipartisan group that agreed in 2005 to avoid filibustering judicial nominees except under extraordinary circumstances.
There were discussions about Republican cooperation on appropriations if Democrats agreed to back Southwick.
Lott kept talking with Feinstein, too, whose vocal support proved critical by providing cover to others in her party.
Thirteen Democrats joined a unanimous Republican conference on a key procedural vote, 62-35, averting a filibuster and allowing the nomination to proceed to a final vote. Three Democrats who supported the procedural motion — Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Ken Salazar of Colorado — then voted against the confirmation, which required a simple majority.
Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden voted against Southwick, leading some Republicans to suggest that they might face trouble with nominations if they are elected. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) did not vote.
The nomination took on grander proportions than simply filling a vacancy. It became wrapped up in history and circumstance — the inability of two previous nominees under Bush to win confirmation amid questions about their record on civil rights, and the lack of minority representation on the federal bench in Mississippi.
Southwick’s participation in a 1998 ruling added to his troubles.
As a member of the Mississippi Court of Appeals, he upheld the reinstatement of a social worker who used a racial slur in reference to a co-worker.
The case became a rallying point for civil rights groups. In the hours leading up to Wednesday’s vote, members of the Congressional Black Caucus derided the Senate for even holding a vote.
“Southwick will take us back to the Antebellum South, where blcks can be called [the N-word],” said Rep. Al Green (D-Texas).
Their disgust with Feinstein and other Senate Democrats was thinly veiled.
“I will make sure we publicize the people who turn their back on black people,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.).
Feinstein said she faced the most “flak” from House Democrats and dismissed their vows of political retaliation. “That is ridiculous,” she said. “We did our due diligence. The Senate worked its will.”
Feinstein appeared to spend an inordinate amount of time on the nomination.
Just before the Judiciary Committee meeting in August, she talked with Southwick by phone. She had already met with him once in person, but she was looking for more explanation on his most controversial rulings. He wrote her a letter that became central to her defense of him.
“Is he not a person inclined to protect civil rights? For some, is he a racist? I looked very carefully at him,” Feinstein said. “I really came to the conclusion that he is none of the above.”
Republicans had predicted that a Southwick defeat would create more gridlock on judicial nominations.
“I’m proud of my Democratic friends who aborted a catastrophe,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Feinstein said she was persuaded by that argument, particularly given the possibility that a Democrat could be nominating judges in less than 15 months.
“In this body, what goes around comes around,” she said at the press conference. “I have been on the Judiciary Committee for 15 years, and I have watched it go around and come around, and it has got to end. Somebody has to be part of an effort to step forward and try and see if that can happen.
“We are going to have another president, perhaps a Democratic president, and we want this person to have an opportunity to present their nominees,” Feinstein added.
The Republicans standing behind her didn’t flinch.