Frist Urges End to Nominee Filibusters
Monday, April 25, 2005
LOUISVILLE, April 24 -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist delivered a taped speech Sunday to a nationwide broadcast in which Christian conservatives, during other segments, attacked Democratic senators for blocking judicial nominees described in the program as "people of faith."
Frist (R-Tenn.) avoided religious references in his six-minute video for "Justice Sunday," which sponsors said reached 61 million households. The hour-long telecast drew criticism from Democrats and some religious groups who said its theme inappropriately injected religion into a heated debate over the filibustering of some of President Bush's most conservative court nominees.
Frist urged Democrats to end the delaying tactics and allow up-or-down votes on the stalled nominees.
"Emotions are running high on both sides, and it reveals once again our country's desperate need for more civility in political life," he said in his taped message, part of the program simulcast to churches, homes and organizations from a 6,000-member Baptist church east of Louisville.
Tensions are rising in the Senate over filibusters of judicial nominees, and a showdown seems imminent. Frist has called the filibusters intolerable, saying they prevent senators from giving the president the "advice and consent" called for in the Constitution. Frist, who is considering a 2008 presidential bid, is threatening to change Senate rules to ban filibusters of judicial nominees. Democrats say they would retaliate by bringing most Senate business to a halt.
In his speech, Frist said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) "calls me a radical Republican. I don't think it's radical to ask senators to vote."
Alluding indirectly to some Republicans' talk of punishing judges whose decisions they strongly dislike, Frist said: "The balance of power among all three branches requires respect, not retaliation. I won't go along with that."
Democrats and liberal religious groups said Frist should have played no role in the heavily promoted broadcast.
"Senator Frist's words today were less important than his giving the imprimatur to this conference, which clearly argues that people of one viewpoint have God on their side and all others are faithless," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "This will only make his job as Senate leader more difficult."
Frist's comments were more moderate than those of several religious leaders headlining "Justice Sunday: Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith."
Charles W. Colson, head of Prison Fellowship Ministries, also appeared by videotape. He said Senate Democrats are trying to use the filibuster "to seize what they lost at the ballot box and to prevent the appointment of judges, holding the judiciary hostage." Their actions, he said, "are destroying the balance of power, which was a vital Christian contribution to the founding of our nation."
James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, spoke from the church's pulpit and criticized the Supreme Court, seven of whose nine members were named by Republican presidents. The court's majority, Dobson said, "are unelected and unaccountable and arrogant and imperious and determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values, and they're out of control."
The court's majority does not care "about the sanctity of life," he said. Pornography is a growing problem, he said, "plus this matter of judicial tyranny to people of faith, and that has to stop."
Dobson said the Senate has "six or eight very squishy Republicans" who have not committed to helping change the filibuster rule. Throughout the program, the names and phone numbers of senators scrolled across the screen, and speakers urged listeners to call and demand that the filibusters be stopped. Among the senators whose photos were shown were Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).
Frist's role in the broadcast drew criticism.
"I think Senator Frist may have made as big a strategic political blunder in embracing Justice Sunday as he did in the Terri Schiavo case," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He was referring to Congress's effort to intercede in a brain-damaged Florida woman's case, which polls showed to be unpopular.
"The people he's dealing with are not going to rest until there's a constitutional Armageddon in which the religious right controls all three branches of government," Lynn said.
Democrats have used the filibuster -- which can be stopped with 60 votes in the 100-member Senate -- to block confirmation votes for 10 of Bush's appellate court nominees. Democrats say the 10 are outside the political mainstream. Bush renominated seven of them this year; Democrats have vowed to filibuster them again, and Frist's party, which holds 55 Senate seats, does not have the votes to stop them.
The philosophies and inclinations of federal judges have become increasingly vital to activist groups on the left and right. They see the courts as crucial arbiters in topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, school prayer, gun rights and scores of other matters.
The Senate has been at the center of the fight for years. Republicans acknowledge that they blocked several of Bill Clinton's nominees when they controlled the Senate for most of his presidency, doing so mainly by bottling up nominations in committee. Republicans say that was a less drastic strategy than a filibuster on the Senate floor, but many Democrats disagree.
Before hundreds of congregants gathered at Highview Baptist Church for Justice Sunday, religious groups opposed to the conservatives' actions held an afternoon rally at Central Presbyterian Church here.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he is distraught to see groups such as the Family Research Council "fan the flames of religious discord." Cleaver, a practicing Methodist minister, said, "We believe it is a biblical and theological obscenity" to engage in the debate "by exploiting God."
In his speech, Frist singled out appellate court nominee Priscilla R. Owen of Texas for special praise, suggesting she may become the contested nominee at the focus of the looming showdown. Democratic opponents say Owen went beyond the law in her opinion dealing with abortions for minors. Owen, whose portrait was prominently displayed on the church stage here along with a few other blocked nominees, has disputed the accusation.
Meanwhile Sunday, there were hints of a possible compromise. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, told ABC News's "This Week": "I think we should compromise and say to them that we're willing to -- of the seven judges -- we'll let a number of them go through, the two most extreme not go through, and put off this [rule-change] vote."