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With only a few months left on the legislative calendar, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has decided to abandon any efforts at bipartisanship in favor of using his chamber to hold a series of highly partisan, mostly symbolic votes on conservative causes, including amendments banning gay marriage and flag burning, and fully repealing the estate tax.
Although Frist has peppered the Senate schedule with a handful of substantive issues — including likely votes this week on a new U.S. trade representative, a Native Hawaiian-rights bill and a new mine-safety czar — the chamber
will put off work on major legislation such as the fiscal 2007 Defense authorization bill in order for Frist to pursue items of special interest to his party’s conservative base.
Many observers say Frist’s decision appears to be driven by electoral interests, particularly the 2008 Republican presidential primary race, which may include Frist as a candidate.
Like others in the GOP leadership, Frist will use the gay-marriage vote to try to make inroads with black and Latino voters. Senate aides also said he’s expected to hold several events with conservative black and Latino religious leaders this week to condemn gay marriage.
As was the case during the Senate’s 2004 gay-marriage fight, Frist also will seek to use these minority voices to blunt charges that banning gay unions is a violation of civil rights.
But at its heart, Frist’s strategy appears aimed squarely at the GOP’s conservative Christian base. While Frist has long been a champion of the party’s business supporters and has enacted a number of their key legislative priorities, he has been unable to make significant headway on issues key to social conservatives.
If he is to challenge Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the party’s nomination in 2008, marshaling these voters will be key to his presidential ambitions.
Regardless of Frist’s public rhetoric supporting these conservative agenda items, none of them stand a chance of passage — and Frist has done little to marshal a majority in the Senate to back either of the constitutional amendments.
Rather, he’s settled on a course of action that will turn the chamber into a political Kabuki theater in which Republicans and Democrats will perform short, highly stylized dances with predictable outcomes.
As in the case of the gay marriage debate — on which Frist was expected to file cloture on by the end of the day Monday — a GOP leadership aide said Frist will likely file cloture on these hot-button issues at the beginning of the debate to limit the face-off to only two days. This maneuver could all but ensure the defeat of these proposals.
As a result, culture warriors outside the Capitol who have trumpeted the gay- marriage debate as the official resumption of their long-running grudge match could find their causes mothballed again much quicker than they’d hoped.