Labor Enters ‘Nuclear’ Fray

Posted March 25, 2005 at 6:17pm

Senate Democrats and their interest-group allies are sharpening their pre-emptive attacks against a GOP effort to end judicial filibusters, launching a series of ad campaigns and expanding the coalition to include big labor.

In a series of moves designed to be their final prelude to a Supreme Court nomination fight, Democrats and their allies hope to duplicate the level of coordination they have brought to bear on President Bush’s effort to revamp Social Security.

Senior Democratic aides will meet today at AFL-CIO headquarters on 16th Street Northwest with top union officials and other interest groups involved in the effort to turn back President Bush’s judicial nominations. Aides and leaders of those groups said the union presence was a big first step forward on an issue labor has been only nominally affiliated with in recent years. Also expected at the meeting are officials from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union.

“We very much want to expand the coalition,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, one of the most active groups in opposing Bush’s nominees.

While the extent of foot soldiers and dollars deployed by labor in the filibuster fight is still undetermined, Aron’s group and another longtime agitator in the nomination battles, People For the American Way, are beginning their own TV ad campaigns designed to gin up opposition to the “nuclear option” Republicans are eyeing to end filibusters.

The Alliance for Justice’s ads, produced by Democratic media consultant Will Robinson, will include a national cable campaign as well as a regional component targeting specific Senators whose votes could prove decisive if Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) makes the push to unilaterally end filibusters of judicial nominees later this spring.

Aron declined to say how much money was going into the group’s campaign or which Senators would be targeted. “That will be in some red and blue states,” she said.

People For the American Way this week is launching a “multimillion-dollar” campaign produced by the Glover Park Group, complete with TV, radio and print ads targeting Republican Senators in 18 states, according to Ralph Neas, the group’s president.

Defeating the nuclear option, Neas said, “is our No. 1 priority.”

He has deployed 75 of the 120 staffers in his downtown Washington office to focus solely on the filibuster battle, creating a “war room” for his group and other members of the coalition in his 2,500-square-foot conference room.

These ads follow a national ad campaign that MoveOn.org recently launched, depicting Vice President Cheney — who would issue the ruling overturning judicial filibusters in his capacity as Senate President Pro Tem — as the force behind an effort to “rubber-stamp” Bush’s judges.

While neither Neas nor Aron would specify which GOP Senators would be targets, other sources indicated that the campaigns would focus on more than a dozen Republicans who have voiced some doubts or pessimism about ending filibusters, according to information compiled by Democratic staff.

The most likely early targets of the ads are Maine’s Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), a trio of moderates who have been outspoken in their displeasure with any attempt to end judicial filibusters.

In addition, Democrats believe there are 11 other possible “no” votes they could obtain, although one internal estimate showed the Republicans ahead at this point 46-45, with nine undecided GOP Senators holding the balance of power on the issue.

All 44 Democrats and Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) are expected to vote against the option, meaning Frist can afford to lose five GOP Senators and still win with 50 votes, plus Cheney’s tie-breaker.

Another Democratic strategist suggested that the campaign would also target Frist and Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), the two GOP leaders who have pushed the move to end filibusters. Santorum, chairman of the Republican Conference, is Democrats’ top target in the 2006 elections.

“We’re going to make leadership pay a price for this,” the strategist said.

Democrats and the interest groups believe the fight over filibusters is crucial to the expected battle this summer over a Supreme Court nomination.

The outcome of the “nuclear” fight determines whether their magic number will be 41 or 51 votes to defeat a Bush Supreme Court nomination. “We know what’s at stake,” Neas said.

To that end, Senate Democrats are hopeful that the inside-outside organization being put in place over the filibuster fight is one that will stay active and ready to pounce once there is a Supreme Court vacancy. All eyes have been on Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose battle with thyroid cancer kept him publicly off the bench for almost five months before returning last week.

“The immediate focus is on the so-called nuclear option,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “There’s a short-term and a long-term strategy here. We also need to start looking ahead at what could be a debate over a Supreme Court vacancy.”

Manley, who heads up what Reid calls his permanent war room to battle Republicans, said the big push on the filibuster fight was “opening a second front in the war room with a focus on judges.”

The effort is mirrored on the current battle dominating attention, the fight over Social Security, in which Reid’s communications shop has worked hand-in-hand with outside interest groups such as labor unions and the AARP. In addition, Reid deputized Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), ranking member of the Finance Committee, to lead the effort to fight Bush on Social Security, and his chief of staff, Jim Messina, has served as a point man for the battle.

Manley left open the option of hiring additional staff to head up the judicial wars.

It’s unclear whether there would be any new outside groups forming in the way Americans United to Protect Social Security debuted in February to serve as the umbrella organization for opposition to privatizing the retirement program. Such a group may not be necessary since Neas and Aron are veterans in the judicial fights, along with NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the NAACP.

Those key players have worked on judicial fights going back to the successful 1987 effort to defeat the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. In that coalition, Neas noted, unions were a key player.

Now, labor appears ready to once again take a big role in the judicial battles, which some activists say is a reaction to the increased role that big business is playing in the nomination fights. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the largest financial backer of the Committee for Justice, a group formed two years ago specifically to promote Bush’s nominees.

And the National Association of Manufacturers, under the new leadership of former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), announced in January plans for a multimillion-dollar push to support Bush’s judges.