Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is all but certain to press for a rule change that would ban filibusters of judicial nominations in the next few weeks, despite misgivings by some of his fellow Republicans and a possible Democratic backlash that could paralyze the chamber, close associates said yesterday.
The strategy carries significant risks for the Tennessee Republican, who is weighing a 2008 presidential bid. It could embroil the Senate in a bitter stalemate that would complicate passage of President Bush's agenda and raise questions about Frist's leadership capabilities. Should he fail to make the move or to get the necessary votes, however, Frist risks the ire of key conservative groups that will play big roles in the 2008 GOP primaries.
Frist feels he has no acceptable options to seeking the rule change unless there is a last-minute compromise, which neither party considers plausible, according to senators and aides close to the situation. "I think it's going to happen," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said this week, although he would prefer that Frist wait to allow more legislation to pass before the Senate explodes in partisan recriminations. Aides privy to senior Republicans' thinking concur with Thune.
In response to the rising stakes and sense of an inevitable showdown, Frist and his allies are churning out speeches, articles and talking points, and enlisting the aid of Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the National Republican Committee. Frist said he is trying to catch up to Democrats and their allies, who set up a Capitol "war room" and are spending millions of dollars on TV ads denouncing the proposed rule change -- or "nuclear option" -- as a power grab.
Frist aides said he still hopes to offer a compromise Democrats might accept, but Democrats who have spoken with him say they would be astonished if he presents something they could go along with.
Democrats have used the filibuster to prevent confirmation votes this year for seven of President Bush's appellate court nominees, whom the Democrats say are too conservative. Filibusters can be stopped only by 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. Republicans, who hold 55 seats, say the filibusters thwart the Senate's constitutional duty to approve or reject a president's appointees. Democrats say the Founding Fathers wanted to empower the Senate's minority members to slow or stop controversial legislation and nominees.
While Democrats and Republicans alike say the filibuster issue is a matter of high principles and constitutional rights, Frist's choice is inextricably linked to presidential politics. At least two GOP colleagues who are pressing him to seek the rule change -- George Allen (Va.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.) -- also are weighing presidential bids. Both of them are wooing key conservatives clamoring for the filibuster ban.
Some independent analysts say that Frist -- a comparative newcomer to politics who unexpectedly gained the majority leader's post in early 2003 -- has created his own dilemma, and his handling of it will be an sign of whether he has the skills to seriously vie for the White House.
"I think Senator Frist has backed himself into a corner where I don't see how he can avoid pulling the nuclear trigger," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. In terms of a presidential race, Cook said, "it hurts if he doesn't come up with the votes. But it also hurts him if the Senate comes to a grinding halt and can't get anything done. I think the guy's in a real jam."
Conservative activists are giving Frist little wiggle room. "If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hopes to capture the Republican nomination for president in 2008, then he has to see to it that the Bush judicial nominees are confirmed," Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, wrote in a recent article. "If he fails, then he is dead as a presidential wannabe."
Frist says he is basing his decision on constitutional principles, not politics. "I just want a reasonable up-or-down vote on the judicial nominees that come to the floor," he said this week, so that senators can "give advice and consent, which is our constitutional responsibility. It is something that we absolutely must have."
Frist had mixed results yesterday in his scramble to find 50 Republicans who will promise to vote for the rule change (Vice President Cheney could break a 50-50 tie in Frist's favor). Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said he will side with his party's leader, but Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told MSNBC, "I will vote against the nuclear option . . . because we won't always be in the majority."
Some allies say Frist can burnish his image if he wins the judicial nominations fight. "From a political point of view, if he's forced to change the Senate rules to end the filibusters, that will only help him in the Republican primary for president," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former presidential candidate. "It's a top issue among most Republican primary voters."
Alexander said Democrats "are badly misreading this politically" if they think the public would blame Republicans for a Senate breakdown orchestrated by Democrats. GOP aides say Frist has drawn the same conclusion. Nonetheless, Senate Democrats are vowing a scorched-earth response, noting that a single senator can dramatically slow down the chamber's work by insisting on time-consuming procedures that are normally bypassed by "unanimous consent."
They also are portraying Frist as a tool of GOP extremists. Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), asked this week if the radical right is driving Frist and his lieutenants, replied: "If they decide to do this, which it appears they are going to, the answer is unequivocally -- underlined, underscored -- yes."
Santorum and Allen, meanwhile, are pressing Frist to act. "We've got to go for it, call their bluff," Allen said in an interview. In talking with Frist, he said, "I've been prodding, goading, encouraging such action. I think we need to move sooner rather than later."
"If there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court" -- which many senators expect this summer -- "we want the playing field set," said Allen, a former college football player. But only Frist, he said, "can call the snap."