Senate veteran returns to action as Supreme Court Sherpa

In this July 11, 2018, photo, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is escorted by former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. Kyl is back in the Senate, this time as Kavanaugh’s confirmation Sherpa. The former senator from Arizona retired in 2013 to become a lobbyist. But the White House and Senate Republicans named him as the guide for President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court even before Trump had nominated Kavanaugh.(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — Jon Kyl trekked back to the Capitol with a name tag hanging around his neck, but he didn't need one.

Kyl was a Republican senator from Arizona for three terms, which is why Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the White House wanted him to guide President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee through the confirmation process. Even before Trump named Brett Kavanaugh, setting off what's expected to be one of the most contentious battles for a high court seat in years, they had decided upon Kyl as the nominee's chief Sherpa.

"He knows everybody, everybody knows him," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Sherpas are members of a Tibetan people living on the slopes of the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal, known for their endurance at high elevations and often serving as guides for foreign mountain climbers.

In Washington, a Sherpa is an informal but widely known term for a nominee's guide to the political tundra in the Senate. White House and Senate aides said McConnell suggested Kyl for the role, and White House counsel Don McGahn offered Kyl the job last Friday. Turns out the name tag Kyl wore to the Capitol on Wednesday was a blue White House security badge, reserved for staff, which he had forgotten to take off.

Kyl, 76, knows the confirmation process first-hand. He was on the Senate Judiciary Committee for the confirmation proceedings of four Supreme Court justices — John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He retired as the Senate's vote-marshalling GOP whip, a critical skill this year with the chamber split 51-49.

The latest tour of duty has put Kyl back in familiar rooms around Capitol Hill. This week, he's been at Kavanaugh's side as the nominee traveled to courtesy meetings with some of Kyl's former colleagues. On Tuesday, Kavanaugh met with Kyl's successor, Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas, in Kyl's former office just off the Senate floor. Later, Kyl could be heard saying that being back in the Senate again brought back a lot of memories.

Sometimes, Kyl has stayed in the background, as he did in Sen. Rob Portman's office Wednesday. The former senator sat on a couch behind the cameras during the "spray," his hands templed as he listened to Ohio's Portman praise the nominee.

Other times, he's been accidentally on-camera. Early Wednesday, Kyl he got a hearty, on-camera handshake from the Senate's most senior Republican.

"Good to see ya, Jon," Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said to Kyl within moments of meeting with Kavanaugh, who stood nearby. Turning to McGahn, Hatch added, "You've got a good Sherpa here."

Chief confirmation Sherpa is an apt role for Kyl, a second-generation member of Congress after his namesake father represented Iowa in the House. A lawyer and lobbyist, Kyl was elected to the House from Arizona in 1986 and the Senate in 2004. He retired from the Senate in 2013 and has worked as a lobbyist at Covington & Burling since.

He knows his Senate colleagues and the process better than the nominee. When Trump announced Kavanaugh as his choice in the White House East Room Monday night, Kyl was there, seated next to Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who will lead the confirmation proceedings. Neither the former senator nor Grassley knew much about Kavanaugh beyond the judge's 2006 hearing on his nomination to the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia.

Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearings are expected to be far more contentious. Democrats are howling that Kavanaugh would vote with the court's conservative majority to roll back national health care and women's reproductive rights. Republicans say he's the most qualified and, as Vice President Mike Pence said, "deserving" candidate for the seat held by retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Behind the scenes Kavanaugh's record is being scrutinized by every lawyer on the Judiciary Committee and many more in the legal community. Kyl is in prime position to find out what they are uncovering, even as he's gauging senators' body language and feelings about Kavanaugh during visits to the Hill. Eventually, Kyl is expected to help the judge prepare for hostile questioning during rehearsals that are sometimes called "murder boards."

But don't expect Kyl to reveal much publicly. As Kavanaugh climbed into a silver SUV after his first day of meetings, Kyl told The Associated Press that Day One went "pretty well," but demurred otherwise.

"I'm asked not to disclose our secret schedule," he said, adding that the plan is for Kavanaugh to "meet with as many senators as possible."


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