Gillespie to Help Sell ‘Nuke’ Plan

Posted April 13, 2005 at 6:51pm

Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been tapped to help Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wage a communications effort on behalf of changing chamber rules to end judicial filibusters.

Gillespie, a close ally of the White House, will serve as a consultant to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sharpening the Senate GOP’s message and communications strategy on judicial nominations. Frist and NRSC Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) are “close to finalizing” the deal with Gillespie, sources close to the Majority Leader said.

Gillespie is expected to “start as soon as possible,” one source said. Gillespie will continue to lobby for Quinn Gillespie, the firm he founded, but he has voluntarily given up lobbying any member of the Senate GOP leadership while he works on a temporary basis for Dole and Frist, said Jim Morrell, a Quinn Gillespie spokesman.

As the battle over the so-called “nuclear option” looms ever larger over the chamber, Gillespie would add major heft to the GOP’s message operation.

Gillespie, one of the premier Republican communicators, will work solely on the message for the judicial showdown. Although he will be working out of the political operation at the NRSC, Gillespie will cooperate closely with Frist’s top advisers, including Communications Director Bob Stevenson and Chief of Staff Eric Ueland.

The source close to Frist described Gillespie’s role as “to coordinate and develop the strategy and message for returning Senators to their constitutional duties.” The source’s phrasing alludes to GOP arguments that filibustering judicial nominees runs counter to the Constitution.

Gillespie declined to comment for this article.

While Gillespie has no direct connections to the Senate — his roots on Capitol Hill are on the House side, as an aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) — he was a consultant on Dole’s 2002 campaign and has remained a close outside adviser to her.

In addition, during the 2004 cycle as chairman of the RNC, Gillespie regularly attended the weekly Senate luncheons — a tradition that his successor, Ken Mehlman, continues.

Gillespie’s addition to the message team is Frist’s latest bid to take the offensive on the judicial fight. At Tuesday’s weekly press briefing, Frist acknowledged that he had tried to steer clear of the issue the past few weeks. Frist said he was now ready to pivot into a more offensive orientation on judges.

Calling it a matter of restoring constitutional principles, Frist told reporters, “You’ll hear over the next several weeks much more of that.”

The operation will also receive another staff boost later this month when Gary Feld, research director at the NRSC, joins Frist’s staff in the Capitol. While Feld will serve as a researcher on all issues, his initial task will be to generate large volumes of information from Frist’s office on the judicial battle.

Feld, who served as deputy research director in the 2002 cycle when Frist chaired the NRSC, joins a line of top advisers from that committee to join Frist’s brain trust, including Mitch Bainwol, who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America; Linus Catignanni, who is Frist’s top fundraiser; and Alex Vogel, a partner at the lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti.

Frist’s press operation has begun a new Advise and Consent Working Group, which lines up speakers on the judicial issue to take to the Senate floor every day. On Tuesday, Frist’s office began issuing memos several times a day highlighting the issue — including research on statements by Senate Democrats. Feld is expected to supplement that line of attack along with Amy Call, Frist’s press secretary.

A source close to Frist emphasized that Gillespie’s NRSC tenure would be strictly for the duration of the filibuster fight. “It will only be for … a short, determined period of time,” the source said.

Advisers to Frist acknowledge that Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), have ratcheted up their attacks with near-daily press conferences and fundraising pitches from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In addition, a trio of outside liberal groups — People For the American Way, MoveOn.org and the Alliance for Justice — are on the air with ads targeting Senate Republicans on the issue, hoping to keep Frist from gaining the 50 votes he needs to overturn rules allowing filibusters.

To coordinate the campaign with the outside groups, Reid has added Stephanie Cutter to his staff, working on a temporary basis for Reid much as Gillespie is for Republicans. Cutter served as the communications director for Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign and had returned as a top adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) before moving into Reid’s office.

On Wednesday, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) debuted their new, interlocking message campaign that links Frist’s attempts to change the rules with ethical questions surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as part of an “abuse of power” among Republicans.

“You’ve seen a well-coordinated, well-funded effort by Democrats and their interest groups to confuse the facts,” said a source close to Frist.

Another Frist adviser said he has remained quiet on the potential rule change recently, allowing the Democrats, their interest groups and even conservative interest groups to fill the void. Ultimately, however, the issue is one that has become entirely identified with Frist, who as the Majority Leader is in charge of deciding when to make the move.

“There’s a recognition we have to engage,” the adviser said. “This is no one’s problem but his.”

But Senate Republicans remain confident that they have not lost any votes among Senators on the issue in recent weeks, even though liberal groups have dominated the message during that time. And they feel they remain in a strong position if Frist decides to make the move.

The guessing game on when Frist goes “nuclear” has become one of the Capitol’s favorite parlor games, with Frist and his closest advisers remaining coy about one of Washington’s top secrets. In public, Frist has continually suggested that he is searching for a compromise solution to avert a showdown.

But Reid and Senate Democrats have shown no signs that they would agree to any compromise that gives up their right to a 60-vote threshold for confirming nominees. And with Republicans generally unwilling to accept any deal that doesn’t guarantee an ultimate bare-majority vote, there appears to be little room for compromise.