Interest Groups Intensify Ad War Over Filibuster, Judicial Nominees

Times Staff Writer

The fight over federal judicial nominees shifts this week from Capitol Hill to America’s living rooms, with interest groups escalating an ad war in an effort to swing senators their way.

Progress for America, a conservative advocacy group, launched an ad Monday in the states of five Republican and five Democratic senators considered pivotal to whether the Senate changed its rules to prevent filibusters over some of President Bush’s conservative nominees to the federal bench.

People for the American Way, a liberal group, is responding with an ad scheduled to begin running today in the same states. It portrays the filibuster -- a parliamentary tactic in which senators talk as long as they want to prevent a vote -- as an effective check against one party having too much power.


The group earlier this year sponsored an ad that featured perhaps the most famous, albeit fictional, filibuster -- the one led by Jimmy Stewart in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

The blitz comes as it becomes more likely that the Senate’s GOP majority will try to bar use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees -- a rule change that has been dubbed by some the “nuclear option” because of the political rancor it would cause.

Senate Republican leaders say Democrats have abused the filibuster to unfairly deny votes on 10 of Bush’s nominees to federal appellate courts. Democrats respond that they have allowed for votes on 215 of Bush’s judicial nominees, blocking only those they regarded as extremists.

It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster; under the rule change, Bush’s judicial nominees would need 51 votes to win confirmation. Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate.

The issue has gained importance because of the possibility that one or more Supreme Court seats might soon become vacant.

The Progress for America ad is running in Alaska, Arkansas, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota and Rhode Island.

It features two Bush judicial nominees filibustered by Democrats but resubmitted by the president for confirmation: California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen. The ad praises Brown as the “daughter of Alabama sharecroppers” who “put herself through school and rose to become the first African American woman on the California Supreme Court.”

The ad declares that “Senate Democrats have abused the rules and refused to even allow a vote” on the nominees. The ad urges the public to ask their senators to support barring the filibuster.

The ad is part of a $3.3-million campaign that includes hiring workers in 15 states to rally the public behind the anti-filibuster effort. The group will air a TV ad nationally next week.

The People for the American Way ad that will run in the same states also features Brown and Owen. It calls the California justice a “radical” whose appointment to the federal bench is opposed by the NAACP.

“What’s this filibuster talk really all about?” the ad asks. “Power. And too much power’s a dangerous thing.”

The ad shows pictures of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and says they are “bent out of shape” because of filibusters over a few of Bush’s nominees.

People for the American Way and the People for the American Way Foundation plan to spend more than $1 million on the ads, which during the next two weeks also will be broadcast on radio and appear in newspapers.

The GOP senators targeted by the ad campaigns have expressed opposition to banning the filibuster or have yet to announce their positions.

The Democratic senators targeted by the ads represented states won by Bush in last year’s presidential election.

A spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who has supported one filibuster of a Bush judicial nominee but opposes the rule change, called the ads “a waste of money.”

“The senator doesn’t feel that kind of political pressure,” said spokesman David DiMartino. “He’s only going to do what’s right for Nebraska.”

Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, accused proponents of the filibuster change of “working with the same masters of deception and distraction that brought us the Swift boat smears.”

Neas was referring to Benjamin Ginsberg, an advisor to Progress for America who was among those at the unveiling of its ad Monday. Ginsberg resigned as the president’s top outside counsel last summer after he was identified as a legal advisor to a veterans group that sponsored ads challenging Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry’s account of his service in Vietnam as a Swift boat commander.

Laura Braden Dlugacz, a Progress for America spokeswoman, said Neas’ criticism was “as distorted as [his group’s] take on the Constitution,” and said Neas had a right to say “whatever he wants, no matter how wrong he may be.”