Filibuster Fight Going National

Posted April 1, 2005 at 6:01pm

Senate Democrats continued to ready themselves for the anticipated battle over judicial filibusters during the spring recess, planning high-profile press events and beefing up the staff in their “war room” operation.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Senate Democrats plan to host the coalition of liberal activists opposed to President Bush’s nominees at an event Wednesday, where the groups will present as many as 1 million signatures they gathered online to show opposition to the GOP effort to unilaterally eliminate filibusters on judicial nominations.

Three of those groups — MoveOn.org, People For the American Way and Alliance for Justice — are airing radio and TV ads targeting what critics call the “nuclear option” against filibusters. In an effort to better coordinate his operation with the outside groups and the policy experts on Capitol Hill, Reid is temporarily bringing aboard Stephanie Cutter, a top adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential campaign.

Cutter, who will work out of one of Reid’s Capitol Hill offices, will become the point person for Democrats on the issue, operating in much the same way Jim Messina, chief of staff for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), has been the top aide coordinating efforts to defeat President Bush’s proposals on Social Security.

“Stephanie’s an extraordinarily talented individual. She’ll serve as the nexus between outside groups downtown and policy people here on the Hill,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, noting Reid views the effort against the nuclear option to be as important as the Social Security fight. “There is as much of a need to engage on this upcoming debate on the nuclear option as there is on Social Security.”

At the same time, a pair of party elders stepped into the “nuclear” battle over the weekend. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) gave the Democratic response to Saturday’s nationally broadcast presidential radio address. Kerry sent out an e-mail targeted toward supporters in states with Republican Senators, asking them to call their elected Members and voice their opposition to the nuclear option.

“Senator Frist, the Republican Majority Leader, has a plan to make President Bush’s judicial nominations immune to a Senate filibuster,” Kerry wrote. “If he can convince enough Republican Senators to go along, the nomination and confirmation of judges will become a tightly controlled, one-party affair.”

Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has given no formal pronouncement about when the battle will move to the Senate floor, although most indications are that it would come later this month at the earliest. The Judiciary Committee expects to move three more contentious appellate court nominees by April 14, giving Frist at least four to choose from in kicking off the showdown later this month or in May.

There is also the potential for Frist to put off the judicial debate until even later this spring in an effort to get more legislative accomplishments, such as the highway and energy bills, before the showdown over judges throws the chamber into a deep freeze.

But Frist has no intention of yielding on the issue, with his reputation as a national GOP leader hinging on how he handles it. Some Democrats and media reports have mistakenly given the impression that Frist’s letter to Reid on March 17 — saying he would move to end filibusters by a bare majority vote only if “reasonable alternatives” failed — was an attempt to back away from the issue.

Several GOP aides and conservative strategists said that letter was much more of a warning shot, designed to impress on Reid that he needs to agree to some sort of compromise measure ending filibusters or else face the consequences.

As Democrats increasingly have ramped up their inside and outside efforts on the issue, the GOP’s conservative allies have taken an increasingly confident approach to the issue, keeping their powder dry on advertising campaigns and husbanding their financial resources instead for a potential Supreme Court battle this summer.

A coalition of conservative groups, ranging from the Committee for Justice to the Americans for Tax Reform, is unveiling a roster of interest groups today that supports changing Senate rules to end judicial filibusters, urging Frist to make the move before there is an actual fight over a Supreme Court nominee.

None of the groups on the right has yet joined the liberal groups on the air, and some conservative activists say they think the 51 votes are in place for changing the rules and the liberal groups are simply wasting their resources.

“We’re fairly hopeful about this,” said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, the group formed two years ago to lead the GOP media efforts on the issue. “I think they’re in an absolute panic.”

Democrats and their allies are targeting anywhere from a dozen to 18 GOP Senators, hoping to pick off the minimum of six they need to block the measure. The selection of Mitchell for the radio address was intended specifically to increase pressure on Maine’s Republican Senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to oppose the change.

Kerry’s second e-mail went to backers in states with two Democratic Senators — and the District of Columbia — seeking to raise funds for a newspaper ad that will run in Tuesday’s USA Today.

Democrats have decided that the issue fits snugly with their broad theme of allegations of Republican abuses of power at the executive, legislative and judicial levels.

“These e-mails are designed to talk about part of this problem and empower voters to express their concerns about how Washington Republicans are trying to suppress their votes,” said Katharine Lister, spokeswoman for Kerry’s Keeping America’s Promise political action committee.

Kerry is also expected to heighten his Capitol Hill profile on the issue when Congress reconvenes Tuesday. His strategists see it as a chance to further cast himself as the leading Democratic voice on high-profile national matters.

“Look for him to be framing how this is symptomatic in American politics,” a Kerry source said.

And financially, the issue appears to be resonating. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent out two e-mails to donors in a single week in late March, one from its chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and the other from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Each message talked about the nuclear option, and MoveOn also sent out an e-mail message to donors on behalf of Byrd, highlighting his opposition to the nuclear option — written by freshman Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

In one week MoveOn raised more than $800,000 for the Senator’s re-election committee.