House Prepares for Aftermath

Posted May 2, 2005 at 6:20pm

With Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) seemingly prepared to push the “nuclear” button, House GOP aides are actively working with their Senate counterparts to create a coordinated agenda and message campaign to be implemented during the expected “nuclear winter” that Democrats have threatened to impose if Frist drops the bomb.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) brought up the issue of harmonizing with the Senate last week at a House-Senate Republican leadership meeting, hoping to head off whatever negative publicity could come if Frist uses the controversial parliamentary maneuver to end Democratic filibusters of all judicial nominees.[IMGCAP(1)]

“We’re in the initial steps of putting together a plan to keep showing the American people that we’re getting their work done,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Hastert.

Not much progress has been made on the planning yet, because the Senate is in recess this week, Bonjean said. Indeed, the House feels it needs more information from Frist on just how and when he plans to force the issue of judicial filibusters on the Senate floor.

Greg Crist, spokesman for House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), said House leaders hope to give rank-and-file Members an update this week on “where things stand” with the nuclear option.

“Then we’ll begin to sit down and map out a strategy of how we can employ House Members in an effective way,” Crist said.

Under the nuclear option, Frist would seek a ruling from the chair that filibusters of judicial nominees are unconstitutional. Republicans would only need 51 votes to sustain such a ruling, rather than the 60 that is needed to end a filibuster. Though rumors abounded that Frist would go nuclear last week, it appears more likely that he will move forward with the tactic sometime this month.

But one thing is clear: The House will be in charge of keeping up the pace of legislative activity in a post-nuclear world, because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is threatening to bring most Senate action to a standstill following implementation of the nuclear option.

By pushing out legislation at a robust pace, House Republicans would be giving their Senate counterparts a longer list of bills that Democrats could be blamed for obstructing.

Crist likened the expected strategy to the House GOP’s 2002 campaign against then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). The “Free the Daschle 50” media offensive charged that Democrats in the Senate were blocking key bills, including much of the president’s agenda. GOP strategists deemed that campaign a rousing success, considering that Republicans reclaimed the Senate majority that year.

“That doesn’t mean we’ll go hard right in terms of our message, though,” cautioned Crist. He added, “No matter how that plays out [in the Senate], we in the House will be able to tout legislation.”

Indeed, Crist acknowledged that Republicans are currently thinking more about highlighting measures that have either enjoyed bipartisan support in the past or have broad implications for the entire country.

Depending on when Frist triggers what Republicans call the “constitutional” option, the Senate GOP might be unable to pass an energy bill amid a summer of high gas prices. That could be prime fodder for the GOP’s message blitz. Ditto for a highway funding conference report, should one materialize.

Notably, Republicans will likely continue their relatively successful strategy of targeting regional media outlets for their message on Democratic obstruction, rather than the national media.

“There are multiple ways in which we can address [judicial filibusters and Democratic obstruction], and we intend to explore all of them,” Crist said.

Of course, Senate Democrats have reframed their post-nuclear strategy as well, indicating that they’ll be pushing the Senate to take up legislation on the Democratic agenda, not just blocking bills from coming to the floor.

“In the weeks ahead, our Senators will be out there presenting an agenda that addresses the concerns of regular Americans throughout the nation — fighting for relief at the gas pump, stronger schools and lower health care costs for America’s families,” said Rebecca Kirszner, spokeswoman for Reid. “If the Republicans choose to bicker over seven radical judges, instead of working on the people’s business, then the American people will see to it that the Republicans pay a political price for abusing power.”

And while the House has the Congressional news media all to itself this week, GOP leaders will be hawking their agenda on jobs and the economy to the maximum and moving away somewhat from red-meat conservative issues like abortion.

Bonjean said the House’s action this week on a vocational education bill is partly the impetus for the jobs message. The hope is that passage of the bill to reauthorize vocational job-training grants will highlight the Republicans’ desire to stimulate job growth.

Oddly, the GOP-sponsored bill bucks President Bush’s proposed budget, which sought to eliminate the program this year because administration officials determined its $1.3 billion cost was not creating enough bang for the government’s buck.

House Republicans will also be holding a press event Wednesday to highlight their 100 days in office during the 109th Congress. The theme will be “100 days, 100 ways House Republicans have worked to boost the economy,” said Crist.

Meanwhile, the House could vote as early as Wednesday on an $80 billion-plus supplemental war spending bill. A Senate GOP Appropriations aide said the House-Senate conference committee on the bill could wrap up as early Monday night. As of press time, it was unclear what immigration-related provisions might be included in the bill.

Though Democrats largely oppose the House-passed provisions — which would make it more difficult for immigration judges to grant political asylum and would require states to enact more stringent driver’s license requirements — Senate Democratic operatives last week said a filibuster of the spending bill was untenable, given that it will provide much-needed funds to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.