The Fallout

For GOP, Deeper Fissures and a Looming Power Struggle

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The fallout from the Senate compromise that averted a showdown over judicial filibusters fell most heavily on the Republican Party yesterday, signaling intraparty warfare that is likely to shape the battle for the party's 2008 presidential nomination and further strain the unity the GOP has enjoyed under President Bush.

Monday's surprise deal left two of the party's most prominent potential 2008 candidates, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), on opposite sides of an ideological and strategic divide that is likely to widen as the party begins in earnest to hunt for a successor to Bush. Perhaps mindful of the power of social and religious conservatives, other GOP senators with presidential aspirations, including George Allen (Va.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), condemned the deal.

The compromise forged by 14 Democratic and Republican senators represented a rare, if temporary, rebuff to religious and social conservatives. Their condemnations, whether from James Dobson's Focus on the Family, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh or conservative bloggers, were quick and strong. Dobson labeled it a "complete bailout and betrayal," and Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, branded the GOP negotiators "seven dwarves" who had given Democrats the right to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee.

Outside analysts took a more measured view of the terms of the agreement that blocked for now the use of the "nuclear option" to bar judicial filibusters; they contended that social and religious conservatives may have done better than they are willing to acknowledge, including the likely approval of three of Bush's most controversial appellate court nominees. The agreement, they said, may look much better to the right in a month or two.

"If they think more incrementally and realistically about what can be achieved, they managed to get a lot of the people [judicial nominees] they wanted without blowing up the United States Senate and without slowing down other elements of the president's agenda," said James L. Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University.

But leading voices among social conservatives sharply disagreed. "It's a rebuff of both the president, Senator Frist and the socially conservative base of the party by a handful of senators," said Gary L. Bauer, a former presidential candidate and president of American Values. "The heart of the Republican Party is as unhappy as I can recall."

That unhappiness stems in part from the huge investment that conservative groups put into the fight to kill the use of the filibuster in judicial nominations. Much of the energy came from religious conservatives, and Frist even appeared in a telecast last month sponsored such groups that was designed to drum up support for up-or-down votes for all judicial nominees.

But Frist's inability or unwillingness to strike a deal with Harry M. Reid (Nev.), the Senate Democratic leader, empowered McCain and his allies to seize control of the debate. The body language of the two GOP senators -- McCain ebullient in announcing the deal, and Frist taut and drawn in interpreting it moments later on the Senate floor -- spoke volumes about the immediate reading of who won and who lost.

That could change as the two-page agreement is played out on the Senate floor and more of Bush's nominees win confirmation. Frist drew no direct criticism from social conservatives, and he could claim a measure of credit if Bush succeeds in placing more conservatives on the appellate courts and on the Supreme Court.

By leaving open the option for Democrats in the Gang of 14 to filibuster future nominations and for Republicans in the group to support the nuclear option, the agreement may only heighten the stakes over any Supreme Court vacancies.

McCain is at odds with the bulk of his party by challenging the religious right, as he did in his 2000 presidential campaign. His presidential aspirations depend more than ever on mobilizing and attracting independents and moderate Republicans. Others interested in running in 2008 will battle for religious and social conservatives' support.

The biggest surprise in that group was Hagel, who was quoted a month ago in the Omaha World-Herald as saying that although judicial nominees deserve a Senate vote, protection of minority rights in the Senate is important as well. "I would hope that these differences can be resolved without eroding the protection of minority rights in this institution," he said then. Yesterday, he criticized the agreement for not assuring up-or-down votes.

As Republicans squabbled loudly, Democrats, led by Reid, tried to put up a united front in support of the agreement. But with three of Bush's long-delayed nominees ticketed for approval under the compromise, cracks began to show within the Democratic ranks as well.

The Congressional Black Caucus blasted the agreement as "more of a capitulation than a compromise" for allowing those votes. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said it would encourage the White House "to send more nominees who lack the judicial temperament or record to serve in these lifetime positions."

Some Democrats privately fretted that others in their party had been too quick to claim victory, and even the party chairman, Howard Dean, questioned whether the compromise is good for Democrats. "We don't know if this is a victory in the long run or not," he said on CNN's "Inside Politics."

That could leave Democrats in a different posture a few months from now, depending on what happens when Bush is presented with a Supreme Court vacancy. But for now, the compromise struck on Monday night has done more to highlight the coming power struggle within the Republican Party.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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