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Surprise Retiree Raises the Stakes of Battle to Come

Activists on both sides will closely watch the seven Senate Democrats and seven Republicans who crafted a deal in May that ended Democratic filibusters of several appellate court nominees and thwarted a bid by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to outlaw such filibusters. The Democrats have promised not to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee except in "extraordinary circumstances." The seven Republicans have promised to block any effort to ban such filibusters as long as the Democrats keep their bargain.

The pact has prompted widespread debate on the meaning of "extraordinary circumstances," with liberals defining it loosely in hopes of giving themselves maximum leeway to combat a staunchly conservative nominee.

Sen. Ben. Nelson (D-Neb.), who helped to shape the agreement, said in a statement: "Once a nominee is put forward, I'm sure the 'Gang of Fourteen' senators will meet and begin discussions about the nominee to ensure that the agreement we reached will remain intact. Any speculation on potential nominees is obviously premature."

Another member of the group, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), told reporters in a conference call that the 14 senators knew their pact would be sternly tested. "If President Bush wants to test the agreement by sending a very, very conservative nominee without consulting with senators," he may do so, Pryor said. But he added: "We do not want to see 'extraordinary circumstances.' "

Activists in both camps maintained a frantic pace of conference calls, e-mails and meetings to frame their messages and coordinate their campaigns. Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, met with conservative interest groups in a Senate office building and laid out the Republicans' strategy and proposed timetable, which anticipates committee hearings this month and floor debate in September.

Conservatives, saying they have been cowed at times in the past by the left's tactics and rhetoric, vowed to be immediately aggressive. Sean Rushton, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, said that a victory in the battle to succeed O'Connor "would really buck up the movement and thrill and enhance our base."

The Independent Women's Forum, which is conservative but does not take a position on abortion, announced that it will work closely with the pro-Bush coalition to put women on television who will portray the president's choice as mainstream. "We know NOW [the National Organization for Women] will be everywhere," said Barbara Comstock, a consultant and legal strategist for the group. "They have been crying wolf for 20 years, and we're going to counter them."

All the time and money spent on campaigns may have little influence on the outcome, said several senators, because they and their colleagues see a Supreme Court vote as a deeply personal and principled decision. When a reporter asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) how public expectations might influence the battle, he replied: "There are so many publics, and so many expectations."

Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.


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