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Get Ready for a Senate Kabuki Show

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.

Giving the gay-marriage and flag-burning amendments short debates could end up hurting Frist, however. Conservatives have long complained that Frist has done little more than give their priorities lip service, and they have warned he must make a serious push for legislation they back in order to win over the millions of conservative Christians the GOP relies on.

Although Frist has personally appeared awkward at times when advocating conservative social issues — for instance, when Frist, a physician, made a public “diagnosis” of Terri Schiavo by viewing an old video of the brain-damaged woman — he will need conservatives if he is to challenge McCain in 2008.

The focus on a socially conservative agenda could be good news for House GOP leaders, who have spent much of the past several weeks in the ethics spotlight. This week, the House will churn through at least two appropriations bills while also tackling telecommunications, energy and mine-safety measures.

After dealing with suspension bills Tuesday night, the chamber will vote Wednesday on a bill that changes the permit process for oil refineries, as well as the legislative branch appropriations bill and mine-safety legislation.

On Thursday, the House will debate the foreign operations spending bill before moving Friday to a vote on a telecommunications reform bill sponsored by Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas).

That measure has been the subject of intense lobbying and a turf war between Barton’s panel and the Judiciary Committee over “net neutrality” — the question of whether big telecom companies can charge special fees for enhanced Internet access, a stance opposed by most Internet users and Web site operators.

While that issue remains controversial, House GOP leadership aides said Monday that they do expect a vote on final passage to occur this week.

It is also possible that the chamber will vote Friday on a conference report for the supplemental spending bill, though no agreement has been reached between the House and Senate yet.

Ben Pershing and Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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