Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Frist begins to squeeze the trigger
The Hill

Frist begins to squeeze the trigger
By Alexander Bolton

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) chief of staff has told conservative activist leaders and business-community representatives that Frist will soon trigger the so-called “nuclear option” to end threatened Democratic filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominees this month.

The chief of staff, Eric Ueland, said the event will take place in “less than a month,” according to several people who attended a closed-door meeting late last week.

But social conservatives are anticipating from conversations with Frist’s staff that the controversial move will take place next week and are predicting a conservative backlash if Senate Republicans delay any longer.

A conservative lobbyist came away from a separate conversation with Frist’s staff convinced that the disaffected Republicans will make their move in “a matter of days.”

Socially conservative groups would be important potential allies for Frist should he decide to run for president in 2008.

The leader of a broad coalition of conservative groups fighting to end the Democratic filibuster of judicial nominees, Manuel Miranda, chairman of the National Coalition to End the Judicial Filibuster, said: “We all believe that it will be next week.”

“I believe it’s concrete,” Miranda said. “It must happen next week. It would be considered intolerable to delay any further than next week.” He added, “Were it to be delayed beyond the next week, the Senate GOP should expect tens of thousands of angry phone calls and faxes to tie up their lines.”

Next Monday is four years from the day when President Bush first introduced his slate of appellate-court nominees, several of whom Democrats blocked.

But a Senate source familiar with Ueland’s thinking strongly disputed that conservatives had been told in any way that the rare parliamentary maneuver, also known as the constitutional option, would take place next week.

“The day is fast approaching,” the source said. “But no member or staffer has said this will happen next week.”

The source said conservatives had predicted inaccurately that Frist would act before this week’s recess.

One GOP aide familiar with discussions on timing and strategy said that the drawback of executing the nuclear option before the congressional recess was that it would have denied Republican senators an optimal platform for responding to expected media criticism, as they would have been dispersed among their home states, away from the Capitol’s spotlight.

The conservative lobbyist who said that Frist’s staff had indicated that Republicans would act in the coming days agreed that conservative activists would respond critically if that did not happen.

“They’ve been kind of dragging us along for months,” the source said. “If it doesn’t happen next week, I’m going to be shocked.”

The lobbyist added that Frist’s staff has been cautious about revealing the timing because “they know that eventually the word gets out there and they don’t want to give the other side an absolute heads up.”

Frist aides who attended last week’s meeting with conservatives heard frustration expressed over the protracted timing of the nuclear option, participants said. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) also attended the meeting.

“We’ve made it clear that patience is running out,” said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union.

“Pretty soon the steam starts to go out of it,” Lessner said of grassroots conservative support if lawmakers do not act soon. “In terms of maintaining grassroots intensity, people have to see progress being made, more than press conference after press conference with just the threat [of the constitutional option] being made.”

Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, recently sent Santorum a strongly worded e-mail urging quick action on ending the filibuster, said two sources familiar with its content.

Conservative groups have provided significant impetus to Senate Republicans’ decision to move to end the judicial filibuster. Dr. Gary Cass, executive director of Reclaiming America, said that he had presented to Frist a petition with more than 170,000 signatories in favor of ending the judicial filibuster.

Many conservatives had thought that Frist would call up either Janice Rogers Brown, a filibustered nominee to the D.C. Circuit, or Priscilla Owen, a blocked nominee to the 5th Circuit, last week. Conservative activists said they were told earlier last month to ramp up their public communication effort to peak the week before the Senate left for its recess.

“We were not angry that it did not happen on April 28 because we were led to believe it would happen the first week the Senate came back” from this week’s recess, said Miranda, who used to handle judicial nominees as a senior aide to Frist.

Some Republican strategists said delaying the constitutional or nuclear option has provided a political benefit. The continued filibuster of judges along with staunch opposition to the president’s plans to reform Social Security makes it easier for Republicans to argue that Democrats are obstructionist.

Last week, Frist and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) exchanged compromise proposals to avoid a triggering of the nuclear option, but both the proposals fell flat as Democrats insisted they be able to filibuster nominees and Republicans clung tightly to their position that filibusters are unacceptable.

The final effort to reach a compromise was viewed as delaying the decision to end the judicial filibuster through a ruling of the Senate chair.

Some observers, particularly Democrats, have expressed doubts that Republicans have enough votes to sustain such a controversial ruling — only a simple majority would be needed. GOP lawmakers such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) said they were leaning against supporting it.

But Republican Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared last month that the Republican leadership has the support it needs.