Frist Initiative Creates Rift in GOP Base

Times Staff Writers

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will draw a chorus of amens tonight when thousands of evangelicals across the nation hear his call to put more conservative judges on the federal bench.

But even as the Tennessee Republican addresses “Justice Sunday” -- a 90-minute simulcast to conservative churches that enthusiastically backs a Senate rule change to speed judicial confirmations -- the leader faces apprehension from another key GOP constituency.

The country’s leading business lobbying associations, close GOP allies in recent legislative efforts and political campaigns, have told senior Republicans that they would not back the Frist initiative to force votes on President Bush’s judicial nominees.

Business leaders say they fear the move would lead to a shutdown of Senate action on long-awaited priorities -- as Democrats have threatened if Frist moves ahead with a rule change that they say would drastically alter the traditions of a body designed to respect the rights of the minority party.


“If we do that, then all else is going to stop,” Thomas J. Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said during a meeting with reporters Friday.

He then reeled off a list of business priorities that could be delayed for months in the resulting partisan uproar. He expressed the same concerns directly to Frist’s office in recent days.

The lack of support from business presents a dilemma for Frist, who wants to build ties with the Republican base ahead of his likely 2008 presidential bid but now must balance competing demands from two pillars of Republican politics: evangelicals, who can marshal millions of voters, and businesses, which donate millions of dollars. Both groups played pivotal roles in securing Bush’s reelection last year and expanding the GOP majority in Congress -- and both have made clear that they expect to be rewarded.

But though business groups can already point to several victories -- such as passage of laws on class action lawsuits and bankruptcy -- evangelicals look to the judicial fight as the signal moment to exert newfound influence.

Party officials concede that the tension between business leaders and social conservatives could foreshadow problems for Republican candidates in 2006 and 2008 who, like Bush, will rely on an energized and unified base to win closely fought contests.

“Every day that this does not get resolved there could be increased tension or pressure put on the situation,” said one GOP strategist, who requested anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the rift. “Depending on how artfully or inartfully this is resolved, there is some fence-mending that needs to be done.”

The business leaders’ consternation stands in contrast with the fervor among evangelicals, who are pressuring Frist and the Republicans to move swiftly on judges no matter what the consequences.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the group sponsoring “Justice Sunday,” drew applause during a recent private meeting of activists by mentioning the potential for a Senate shutdown.


“That might be the best thing,” said Perkins, according to an audio recording of the March meeting provided by the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“As I’ve sat in this city, been here in this city, you know, gridlock is not a bad thing,” he said. “Rarely do they do things for us. Usually it’s against us.”

Evangelicals view Frist’s appearance on tonight’s telecast as a sign of their pending victory. The leader’s remarks, taped Friday, will be beamed to more than 90 churches and over Christian radio and television networks as part of a program that will include speeches by Perkins and James C. Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

“For four years [GOP leaders] did nothing. They hardly even talked about the things that matter to us,” Dobson said at the March activists’ meeting. “Now we’ve come out to vote for them, and they need to get on with it.”


The evangelical leaders have expressed frustration with delays in seeing the judicial issue pressed. Frist and his staff say that despite strategic delays, they are determined to put an end to Democrats’ tactics that blocked 10 judicial nominees from an up-or-down vote by the full Senate. A vote on changing the rules to allow a simple majority of 51 votes to end debate -- rather than 60 -- could come after senators return from an upcoming recess.

The proposed rule change is considered so explosive for bipartisan relations in the Senate that it is being called the nuclear option.

The risks were brought home to business leaders late last week when two moderate Democrats known for close ties to the corporate community sent a sharply worded letter to Donohue, as well as to his counterparts at the National Assn. of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable.

Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin wrote that Republicans were “trying to erase the ‘checks and balances’ that exist in our representative democracy, turning the Senate into a rubber stamp for the president.”


The day after the letter was sent, representatives from the three business organizations -- the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Assn. of Manufacturers -- and several others met in Frist’s office for a briefing on the filibuster rule from the senator’s chief of staff. The three groups have declined to back Frist’s filibuster initiative, issuing statements of neutrality.

Another group invited into the room, Americans for Tax Reform, was alone in expressing enthusiasm for the Frist initiative and in offering to build support for it, according to one person who was present. The tax group, led by Grover Norquist, favors the change as a way to improve the judiciary.

The three business groups are concerned that the filibuster fight is emerging just as the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on a long-awaited bill to resolve asbestos litigation claims, which affect a vast number of industries that have used the insulating material in manufacturing.

Other issues on the business legislative agenda include energy, trade, transportation and healthcare.


Frist and his staff are already assigning blame to the Democrats for threatening to shut down Senate business, predicting it is Democrats who will suffer. “A vote to shut down the Senate in fit of pique would be irresponsible, and the American people, I believe, would let the Democrats know that in no small voice,” said Frist’s spokesman, Robert Stevenson.

Despite the confident and aggressive statements from the majority leader’s office, Republicans were confronted with new polling data showing that their plans were not popular.

Internal GOP polling compiled by the Winston Group and presented late last week to Senate staffers showed that 51% of registered voters opposed the idea of changing the rules -- compared with 37% who backed it. Even among voters who identify themselves as conservative Republicans, opinion is divided enough to pose concerns for party leaders, with more than a quarter in that category opposed to the rule change and two-thirds supportive.

The question could come to a head soon. Last week, the Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to approve the nominations of state Supreme Court Justices Janice Rogers Brown of California and Priscilla R. Owen of Texas to the federal appellate bench.


Democrats describe the judges as extremists whose legal decisions are based more on conservative ideology than legal merits. They have said they would filibuster the nominations. Frist has said he would respond by moving to change the filibuster rules to the simple majority standard.

Several Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, have balked at supporting the rule change. Frist has stressed the change would ban filibusters of only judicial nominations, not legislative issues, and that the rule would provide a basic level of fairness, allowing the nominees to have an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

With their 55-vote majority in the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday that Republicans would have the votes to rewrite rules prohibiting filibusters of judicial nominees. If that happens, Democrats say, they will use other parliamentary tactics to bring the Senate to a standstill.

The brinksmanship has put extraordinary strains on the Senate and on some of the business groups. In January, the president of the National Assn. of Manufacturers, former Michigan Gov. John Engler, announced plans to expand the voice of his organization to include the federal confirmation fights.


Engler said judicial branch decisions had a big effect on business and it was a natural issue for business engagement. Conservative activists, notably Washington lawyer C. Boyden Gray, had long advocated business involvement in the cause but, until Engler’s involvement, it hadn’t happened on a large scale.

The issue of judicial nominees also gained visibility from the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose death last month after her feeding tube was removed ended a years-long legal battle that included interventions by Bush and the GOP-led Congress.

The Schiavo case propelled judicial confirmations to the top of the evangelical agenda as well as the top of priority lists for liberal activist groups. The People for the American Way organization has opened a filibuster war room and launched national television ads decrying the proposed rule change. Conservative groups plan their own advertising campaigns.

Conservatives such as Gray said they understood the business community’s neutrality, particularly in light of its obligation to stockholders. But Gray maintained in an interview that shareholders’ long-term interests lay in ending the filibuster delays and building a judiciary that was friendlier to business. He called Democrats’ threats to tie up the Senate a bluff.


A former Frist aide, Manuel Miranda, was less sympathetic, arguing that Congress has already rewarded business for its support by passing the class action and bankruptcy measures.

“You already got your payback,” he said, framing the argument he and others will make to business leaders. Besides, he said, business ultimately “won’t be affected much at all” by Democratic threats to shut down Senate actions.

For now, it appears the GOP leadership is moving closer to the evangelical side of the debate.

Vice President Dick Cheney -- offering the White House’s firmest words of support yet for the effort to stop filibusters on judicial nominees -- pledged Friday that, as the Constitution provides, he would vote to break a tie in favor of the rule change if needed.


And the Republican National Committee, headed by Bush’s handpicked chairman, Kenneth Mehlman, is holding weekly strategy sessions among the key conservative interest groups pushing for the end to judicial filibusters.

Those include the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Federalist Society and the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Another group, the Judicial Confirmation Network, is headed by a former Bush campaign grass-roots organizer and lists as its counsel a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Jay Sekulow, counsel for Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, called the judicial battle “the most organized effort on our side in our history.”