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Fight Is On at the Grass Roots
An Age-Old Procedural Maneuver Inspires Modern Activism

By Dana Milbank and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

You know the filibuster fight has reached the public consciousness when the Hip Hop Caucus gets involved.

The group, dedicated to "a comprehensive agenda for the Hip-Hop community," will hold a "Save the Filibuster" event this morning in the Capitol -- one small piece of a mass mobilization by both sides in the Senate's squabble over President Bush's judicial nominees.

Liberal groups are having "filibuster-athons" across the country and using text messaging to coordinate a telephonic siege of fence-sitting lawmakers. Conservative groups have wheeled out anti-filibuster blogs and joined the other side in millions of dollars of television advertising.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have called off talks, preferring to prepare for a showdown on the Senate floor sometime in the next eight days. While a dozen moderates hunt for a solution, they are being overwhelmed by petitions, leaflets, phone calls, e-mails, faxes, visits and dueling news conferences by their colleagues on both sides.

Reid's Shermanesque "negotiations are over" remark yesterday, and Democrats' growing confidence that they can turn back the effort to ban judicial filibusters, came after the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that among those paying attention, Americans leaned against a rule change to ban filibusters of judicial nominees.

Pew found that 35 percent of Americans still did not have an opinion -- but both sides seem determined to change that. The lobbying and pressure campaigns have the energy of the closing weeks of an election, and employ many of the same techniques.

On the left, People for the American Way, along with MoveOn.org, has collected 1.5 million signatures on petitions. It also has created a "war room" with dozens of telephone lines that are being used constantly to generate calls to Congress. The group has three new ads to target wavering Republicans and will send text messages to some 10,000 people, allowing them to contact their senators by pressing one or two digits.

On the right, Sean Rushton, executive director of the anti-filibuster Committee for Justice, will be blogging at the National Review Web site under the label "Bench Memos." He and C. Boyden Gray, the group's chairman, will be busy on talk radio. And another group, Progress for America, is beginning its fourth weekly infusion of $850,000 into advertising.

One powerful group largely sitting out the fight is corporate America, disinclined to turn against the Republicans but wary of a strife-torn Senate killing pro-business items, such as an asbestos settlement. "We have been decidedly staying out of it and hoping that leveler heads will prevail," said a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers.

There were few signs of that yesterday. On the Democratic side, Reid joined a labor rally outside the Capitol and accused the GOP of "abusing their power and putting the interests of the right wing ahead of the American people." Reid's office has scheduled half a dozen more filibuster events for the week, starting this morning with a "Moment of Truth" event with a quartet of moderate Democratic senators.

On the Republican side, Frist wrote an op-ed article in USA Today repeatedly arguing for an "up-or-down vote" and asserting that Democrats had imposed "an unprecedented 60-vote requirement." Republican senators will host various Texas officials this morning to praise Priscilla Owen, one of the nominees at the center of the controversy.

Democrats, though hopeful of finding the six GOP votes they need to thwart the "nuclear" option, are preparing a doomsday scenario under which they will disrupt Senate activities for months if Frist prevails. Their plan is to avoid high-profile delaying methods in favor of less visible methods: blocking committees from meeting, refusing to appoint legislative conferees and forcing an endless stream of quorum calls.

Norman J. Ornstein, a longtime Congress watcher at the American Enterprise Institute, predicted a "guerrilla war" by Democrats in response to the nuclear option. "You can stretch something done in 30 seconds to eight hours, easily," he said. "It's very easy to do."

To rebut the expected Republican charge that they are "obstructing," the Democrats have introduced nine pieces of legislation that they will seek to bring to the Senate floor, including increased benefits for veterans, releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and raising the minimum wage.

"The war room is ready for battle," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company