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PR Skills May Decide Filibuster Showdown

Times Staff Writer

When the curtain goes up on the Senate’s filibuster battle Wednesday, there will be plenty of verbal swordplay between the two main antagonists -- Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) But just as on a theater stage, the central figures won’t be dueling between themselves as much as they will be playing to the audience.

After months of haggling within the Senate, polls suggest that a significant slice of the public hasn’t taken sides in the battle over whether Democrats have the right to filibuster President Bush’s nominees for the federal bench. And as the confrontation plays out, each side will carefully target its message for maximum advantage with the public.

Frist and Reid met Monday to discuss compromises before Reid left and said there was no point to further talks.

“The negotiations are over,” Reid said. “I have tried to compromise, but they want all or nothing.”

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Frist reiterated his bottom line -- an end to all judicial filibusters -- but said his “door is always open.”

The end of talks between Reid and Frist meant that the only chance to avert a showdown appeared to be an effort by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a centrist, to forge a compromise. But he acknowledged that chances were diminishing.

“To try to bring people together is a major challenge, even though they want to be brought together,” Nelson said.

A survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that a significant section of the public -- 35% -- had not decided whether to side with Democrats or Republicans on the issue.

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Among those who have made up their minds, more side with Democrats: Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they opposed changing the filibuster rules, and 28% favored it.

Andrew Kohut, the poll’s director, said that with so many undecided, it was too soon to judge how the issue would play with the public.

“Both arguments sell well. The Democrats seem to have a bit of an edge at the moment,” Kohut said. “But the advantage the Republicans have is that the public hasn’t really made up their minds on this yet, and they still have a chance to bring the middle over to their side.”

The survey of 1,502 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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Both sides have used polling data to hone their messages. Setting the terms of debate is crucial, said Republican pollster David Winston.

“Whoever wins the framing wins the issue,” Winston said.

Under Senate rules, 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber are needed to end a filibuster. Under Frist’s proposed change, the threshold for ending debate on judicial nominations would be a simple majority -- a relatively easy target for the Republicans, who have 55 Senate seats. Ending a filibuster would clear the way for a confirmation vote, which also is decided by a simple majority.

Republicans have defined the controversy as a matter of fair play -- that nominees have the right to an “up or down vote.”

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They are also expected to spotlight the character of the two nominees they plan to list first for a floor debate.

Although there are three other candidates eligible and more waiting in the wings, Republicans have decided to focus on California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen.

A pro-Republican ad campaign launched over the weekend encapsulated the message. For instance, Brown is praised as a “daughter of sharecroppers” and “the first African American woman on the California Supreme Court.”

The ad concludes: “The job of a U.S. senator is to vote.” The word “vote” is then underlined in red.

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Democrats, in their arguments and ads, say Republicans are launching a power grab that breaks with tradition.

“The time has come for Republican senators to decide where they stand,” Reid said on the Senate floor Monday. “Will they abide by the rules of the Senate or break those rules for the first time in 217 years of American history? Will they support the checks and balances established by the founding fathers or vote to give the president unaccountable power to pick lifetime judges?”

The polls suggest that the public is leery about changing precedents. Each side is accusing the other of trying to do that.

Republicans have put out reams of documents trying to make the case that the Democrats’ filibusters of Bush’s judicial nominees are unprecedented; Democrats keep referring to a more-than-200-year-old tradition of filibusters.

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Neither version tells the whole story.

Republicans gloss over the filibuster of Abe Fortas, President Johnson’s nominee for chief justice, saying he had no chance of confirmation because he lacked majority support. They contend that the vote that kept debate open on Fortas was not a real filibuster because it was designed to put pressure on Johnson to withdraw the nomination, which he did.

Democrats gloss over the fact that the filibuster has not been an unchanging part of Senate procedure and that its rules have been modified several times, often by their party.

Until 1917, there was no way to end a filibuster. That year, at the urging of President Wilson, the Senate added a rule allowing filibusters to be broken by a two-thirds vote.

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In 1975, under Democratic leadership, the threshold was lowered to 60 votes.

Although they might be slight underdogs in public opinion, Republicans have advantages in the filibuster debate. As leader of the majority, Frist can orchestrate the proceedings to highlight the GOP message.

Winston said he believed that the Republican up-or-down-vote message might be easier to sell to undecided Americans.

“There’s a basic premise that people deserve an up or down vote, and that’s where Republicans might have an advantage,” he said. “Trying to explain the arcane rules of the Senate is difficult in a classroom, let alone on television.”

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Democrats are far from conceding the public relations battle.

“We believe we have an argument that’s winning with the American people, the argument that the Republicans are breaking the rules to change the rules,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s communications director. “The key for Democrats is to paint this as an arrogant, out-of-touch Republican Party marching in lock step with right-wing conservative lobbying groups that’s trying to overturn our system of checks and balances.”

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Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.

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