A powerful business lobby is preparing a multimillion-dollar campaign to aid the White House in its quest to win approval for conservative judges, a move that could transform the ideological battles over the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court.
The new effort on behalf of some of the nation’s biggest manufacturers will increase the cost, visibility and intensity of an already divisive confirmation process, one that has been dominated by social issues.
The shift puts the business lobby on the same side as social conservatives. The corporate world has long shied away from such controversial issues as abortion, but enthusiastically supports the Bush administration’s campaign to rein in what it considers frivolous lawsuits against businesses and physicians.
The strategy’s engineer is former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a longtime friend of President Bush who recently took the helm of the National Assn. of Manufacturers.
Engler said in an interview Wednesday that his organization would make confirmation of judicial nominees a top priority for the first time -- providing money and a recently honed ability to stir grass-roots action nationwide. The group plans to spend millions of dollars on the campaign, but the exact amount has not been decided.
He said federal judicial confirmation debates are important to business, particularly because of judges’ roles in civil liability cases.
“There has been too much of a tendency in the past to cast these judgeship battles as a social debate about abortion or gay rights. In fact, there are very few of those cases in contrast to those dealing with the tort system and the rights of individuals and companies,” Engler said.
Engler’s comments came on a day Bush promoted limits on medical malpractice lawsuits and a week after the president announced he would reappoint judges whose confirmation had been blocked by Democrats during his first term.
Although several of those nominations received wide attention, until now they had generally not been the subject of expensive television and grass-roots lobbying campaigns.
Longtime observers said the involvement of well-heeled organizations such as the manufacturers’ group -- which represents such large, blue-chip firms as General Motors, Boeing and Caterpillar as well as 10,000 small and medium-sized manufacturers -- could increase pressure on moderate senators whose votes helped block confirmation for 10 of the 34 Bush nominees to federal appeals courts in the past two years. Several of those senators face reelection in 2006 and are already facing threats from religious conservative leaders if they try to block conservative jurists.
“It’s certainly going to up the ante and increase the pressure on vulnerable Democratic senators,” said one senior Democratic Senate aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I can’t think of a similar situation where a group so little identified with such a debate is getting involved at this level in this way.”
It was not clear Wednesday to what extent, if any, Engler was coordinating with administration officials. White House spokeswoman Erin Healy declined to comment on that, saying only that the administration “welcomes support of the president’s judicial nominees.”
Engler said he was finalizing plans with the group’s board to establish a new organization, the American Justice Partnership, which would be housed inside the National Assn. of Manufacturers, or NAM. Engler said his initiative would focus on federal nomination fights -- as well as state judicial issues -- and it would be dedicated to grass-roots politics, not policy.
He hopes it will take advantage of the expansion of another NAM-funded group, the Business Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, which operates get-out-the-vote and communications drives on behalf of business-friendly candidates.
During the 2004 campaign, BIPAC received credit for increasing pro-business turnout in battleground states, reaching 19 million employees with more than 40 million tailored messages. BIPAC president and chief executive Greg Casey confirmed recent discussions with Engler that he said could lead to an expansion of BIPAC’s traditional role.
The manufacturers’ initiative came as a surprise to the coalition of civil rights and abortion rights groups that have fought Bush’s nominees.
Ralph Neas, who directs the liberal People for the American Way, said his organization would gear up to match the new effort, particularly on Supreme Court races. Neas predicted the move would backfire on Engler.
“I believe that a sizable percentage of NAM’s membership would be stunned to learn that NAM’s leadership has decided to join the right wing’s effort to eliminate a constitutional right to privacy, to strong civil rights protection and a woman’s right to reproductive freedom,” Neas said.
Engler rejected the analysis.
“That kind of spin trivializes what’s involved in nominations to the courts,” the former governor said. “The whole effort to cast this in terms of a few social issues that Neas and his supporters deem important ignores the fact that much of the work of the courts has to do with America’s ability to compete internationally.”
That argument was made in recent years by another Bush friend, C. Boyden Gray, who established a Washington-based organization that supported conservative judicial nominees. Gray’s organization, the Committee for Justice, has aired ads backing beleaguered Bush nominees. Engler sits on the board of that organization.
At the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, a coalition of public interest groups, spokeswoman Julie Bernstein said the manufacturers’ plans were “payback for all the gifts that Bush has given to the business community.”
Lynn Rhinehart, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO, said the involvement of major corporations meant labor might have to spend more time and money this year blocking those nominees perceived “to be hostile to the interests of working people.” From labor’s point of view, a judicial branch dominated by pro-business judges could close off a last recourse for workers who feel harmed by regulatory and legislative decisions.