By Eamon Javers The battle on Capitol Hill over filling one, possibly two, U.S. Supreme Court vacancies is heating up fast. Faced with a high-powered lineup of GOP tacticians and advisers, Senate Democrats are now working to assemble their own team.
One key person under consideration to lead the effort, several Democratic sources tell BusinessWeek Online, is former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, chairman of the board at Walt Disney (DIS) and chairman of law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. He has offices in New York and Washington, D.C. Mitchell also serves on Staples' (SPLS) board of directors.
Mitchell is traveling and was unavailable for comment for this story, a spokesperson said. Through an aide, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is coordinating Democratic efforts, declined to comment.
FIERCELY PARTISAN, TOO. Mitchell's recent history makes him an interesting choice, given the stakes. Since he left the Senate in 1995, Mitchell has developed a role as a global player in conflict resolution. In the late 1990s he led the negotiations that ultimately resulted in a historic peace accord in Northern Ireland. He also served as chairman of an international fact-finding panel on ending violence in the Middle East. And more recently, he shepherded efforts to win board support for Rober Iger to succeed Michael Eisner as CEO of Disney in a contentious corporate battle.
Still, as Senate Democratic Leader during the '80s and early '90s, Mitchell was a fiercely partisan warrior who often prevailed in legislative battles with a GOP White House led by President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.
Whoever leads the Democratic team will face formidable competition. Last week, the White House appointed former Tennessee senator and actor Fred Thompson to shepherd the President's nominee through the Senate confirmation process. President Bush also named former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie to serve as a kind of campaign manager for the Supreme Court fight. Gillespie will temporarily leave his lobbying firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
DEFINING MOMENTS? Bush is expected to soon nominate a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In addition, Chief Justice William Rehnquist is believed to be considering retirement, and rumors have been flying that his departure is imminent. With the high court's future direction in the balance, partisans from both sides of the aisle say these choices could be the defining moments for Bush's second term.
Senate Democratic aides say they're also trying to pull together an "advisory group" of top operatives to work the Supreme Court fight in much the same way Gillespie is coordinating efforts at the White House. No names are final yet, but Reid spokesman Jim Manley says one person under consideration is Thomas E. Donilon, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and now a partner at the law firm O'Melveny & Myers.
"NO FIGHT, NO MONEY." Sources say the Democrats are interested in other prominent figures. Among them: Thurgood Marshall Jr., an attorney at the law firm Swidler Berlin and a former staffer in the Clinton Administration. He's the son of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
One campaign vet already on board for the battle is Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary under Bill Clinton. Lockhart has signed on with People for the American Way, one of the many liberal activist groups poised to try to block nominees they deem to be too conservative.
While Bush has already chided some conservatives publicly for criticizing potential nominee Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, some Democrats worry about their own activist groups trying to exert pressure on Senate leaders. "The groups on both sides have agendas other than trying to win this fight," says Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic political adviser and lobbyist. He points to the e-mail fund-raising requests pouring forth from the liberal groups: "They're all trying to raise money. The groups have an interest in having a fight. If there's no fight, there's no money."
PLENTY OF HIGH PROFILES. Still uncertain is how the Democrats would benefit from having a counterpart on their team to Thompson, who in addition to being an ex-senator is a professional actor. "The knee-jerk response is they have one [elder statesman], so we should have one," says a Democratic source. But what a grey beard could bring to this battle for the Democrats is an open question -- after all Thompson will be squiring an actual nominee on Capitol Hill. Democrats will be trying only to shape the battle. "I don't know what a Thompson equivalent would do on our side," says Elmendorf.
Also factoring into the decision is that Democrats have some of the Senate's most visible players on the Judiciary Committee -- possibly obviating the need for a media-friendly face for their effort. The Judiciary panel that will consider the nominee includes Senators Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), all high-profile, media-savvy figures. It's also unclear whether Mitchell, should he accept the role, would take time off from his other corporate duties. Still, the interest alone indicates that the stakes in this high court drama couldn't be higher.
Javers is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau