Lott Comments Harden Opposition to Pickering Renomination

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott's recanted remarks that appeared to endorse race separation views of a half-century ago may derail Mississippi jurist Charles Pickering's second chance for the federal appeals court seat, Democrats and liberal groups said Thursday.

They said they hope to use the flap over Lott's praise for Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign to dissuade President Bush from renominating Pickering, one of Lott's personal friends, to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"That Pickering's chief Senate sponsor is now praising the `Dixiecrat' platform places the Pickering nomination in an even dimmer light," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said Thursday.

Pickering, a U.S. district judge in Hattiesburg, faced the same accusations of racial insensitivity during a heated, racially charged party-line defeat of his promotion this year.

When Republicans regained control of the Senate in last month's election, Lott said Pickering's confirmation would be the first thing he pushed through Senate next year when he becomes majority leader.

But liberal groups say renominating Pickering would reopen a battle over Southern politicians' past on the Senate floor, a battle Republicans might not want to face to start off the congressional year.

"What has happened has reinforced my belief that the Senate will reject Charles Pickering, whether by a majority vote or through a filibuster," said Ralph Neas of the liberal People for the American Way, who led the opposition against Pickering this year.

Lott said at a party last week celebrating Thurmond's 100th birthday that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Thurmond in 1948, when the South Carolina politician ran for president on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either," Lott added.

Lott has apologized, saying he regretted making the comment and President Bush called the remarks offensive.

Bush would have to renominate Pickering. Calls Thursday to Lott's office about a possible renomination were not immediately returned. The White House refused to comment.

Pickering, when reached at his Mississippi office, said it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment because Bush may resubmit his name to the Senate.

Pickering's other patron, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said he expects Bush to renominate Pickering, and the nomination to make it through the Judiciary Committee this time despite Lott's controversy. "He deserves to be considered by the Senate," Cochran said.

Republicans appeared intent on maintaining a wall between Lott's remarks and Bush's judicial nominations.

"We don't see the relevance of those comments to Judge Pickering's confirmation and we are hopeful that opponents of President Bush's judges will not continue to use the race card as an issue to obstruct the confirmation process," said Margarita Tapia, spokeswoman for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who will take over as the Judiciary Committee's chairman next month.

At least one liberal group agreed. Pickering's "record alone is sufficient to justify his defeat, quite separate and apart from his nominator," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice.

Pickering was defeated on a 10-9 party-line vote by the Judiciary Committee in March after civil rights groups said Pickering supported segregation as a young man in Mississippi. Pickering's opponents also point to his conservative voting record as a Mississippi state lawmaker and decisions as a judge.

Pickering's supporters, including some Mississippi Democrats and black leaders, say Pickering supported civil rights efforts as far back as the mid-1960s.