The White House intervened in Congress's bitterly partisan debate over federal judges yesterday, as Vice President Cheney vowed to break a tie vote if necessary to change Senate rules and ban filibusters of judicial nominees.
Until now, President Bush has avoided being drawn into the fracas by signaling it was up to Senate GOP leaders to find the votes needed to change the rule despite vehement Democratic opposition.
Democratic senators, meantime, criticized Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) for his role this weekend in a national religious telecast whose sponsors say the Democratic-led filibusters are aimed at "people of faith." Frist defended his participation, rejecting calls from some church leaders to distance himself from the telecast and its denunciations of various federal judges.
The already-heated debate over judges grew notably hotter. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) suggested that Cheney's comments amounted to a broken promise from Bush.
"Last week, I met with the president and was encouraged when he told me he would not become involved in Republican efforts to break the Senate rules," Reid said in a statement. "Now it appears he was not being honest, and that the White House is encouraging this raw abuse of power." Reid said his exchange with Bush took place at a regularly scheduled breakfast with congressional leaders.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said, "The president has been very clear this is a matter for the Senate to handle." The vice president is the Senate's president and is authorized to break tie votes.
Frist has often said Cheney's tie-breaking powers might be needed if Republicans try to change the Senate's filibuster rules, but the vice president's comments -- in a speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association in Washington -- marked the first time the White House has explicitly outlined the role it is willing to play.
"If the issue is presented to me in my elected office as president of the Senate and presiding officer, I will support bringing those nominations to the floor for an up-or-down vote," Cheney said, winning applause for explaining how the rule change could occur. He noted that Democrats used the filibuster to block confirmation votes for 10 of Bush's appellate court nominees in the previous Congress. "These nominations were held up strictly for partisan political reasons, in an astounding departure from historical precedent," Cheney said.
Democrats say the 10 judges -- seven of whom Bush has renominated -- are so conservative they lie outside the political mainstream. Democrats have every right, they say, to employ the filibuster, an unlimited debate that can be stopped with 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. Republicans hold 55 seats.
Frist is threatening to change the rules to bar filibusters only for judicial nominees. Senators say it is unclear whether he can line up the 50 votes needed to make the controversial rule change, assuming Cheney is on hand to break the 50-50 tie. Democrats say they will bring the Senate to a virtual standstill if the rule is changed.
Frist came under renewed criticism yesterday from Democrats and five religious leaders over his planned participation in a Sunday telecast sponsored by religious conservatives who favor eliminating the judicial filibuster. In a conference call with reporters, the religious leaders urged Frist either to withdraw from the event or repudiate the sponsors, who have labeled the program "Justice Sunday: Stop the Filibuster Against People of Faith."
Calling the rhetoric around the event "damaging and divisive," the Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, warned that the fight over judges and the filibuster threatens irreparable harm to the country and the role of religion in public discourse. "All of us are concerned that we are crossing a line here," he said.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said none of the participants was calling on Frist to change his views on the filibuster issue. But he said Frist should not give his stamp of legitimacy to the event. "For the Senate majority leader to support such an event is demagogic, dangerous and divisive," he said.
Frist plans to deliver a short, videotaped message during the event, which is sponsored by the Family Research Council. The event, to be held in Louisville, Ky., will be aired on selected stations and the Internet. Opponents plan a counter-demonstration Sunday afternoon in Louisville.
The telecast's supporters have accused Democrats of hypocrisy, noting that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) campaigned in churches during last fall's presidential campaign and sometimes criticized Bush's policies from the pulpit.
In a Senate floor speech yesterday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) decried "the alarming rise of religious McCarthyism," stemming from the debate on judges. He urged Frist to divorce himself from the telecast, which he said is intended "to incite congregants by the false charge that those who oppose judicial activists are 'anti-Christian' or 'anti-faith.' "
Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said: "Senator Leahy knows this is not about faith, but fairness. . . . He should lay aside the overheated rhetoric and give these nominees -- many who have been waiting three or four years -- a fair up-or-down vote."