Republicans face backlash after Senate deal over Bush's judges

Click to follow
The Independent US

Republican moderates face a backlash from powerful social conservatives following a last-minute compromise in the Senate which averted a devastating showdown vote on filibusters for President George Bush's judicial nominees.

Republican moderates face a backlash from powerful social conservatives following a last-minute compromise in the Senate which averted a devastating showdown vote on filibusters for President George Bush's judicial nominees.

As traditionalists rejoiced that the Senate's stately ways had been at least temporarily preserved, James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, one of the most influential Christian groups, proclaimed his "disappointment, outrage and sense of abandonment" at what had happened.

Mr Dobson and his fellow conservatives had been banking on the so-called "nuclear option" vote. This would have allowed judicial nominations to be approved by a simple majority of 51 of the 100-seat Senate - where there are currently 55 Republicans - instead of the effective super-majority of 60 required to overturn a filibuster.

This in turn would have cleared the way for new federal court and Supreme Court appointments to correct what conservatives claim is a liberal bias in the judiciary.

They point to the Supreme Court's refusal to outlaw abortion, and cases such as that of Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman who was taken off life-support in March.

Instead, the filibuster survives, for now at least, thanks to a compromise worked out by 14 centrists, seven from each party. The bargain offers something for everyone, but could yet have major implications for the 2006 mid-term elections, and for the 2008 presidential race.

Under the deal, Democrats will be spared a filibuster showdown which they might well have lost. In return President Bush is granted a straight vote - and guaranteed confirmation - for three of five contentious nominees, plus a promise that Democrats will only use the filibuster in "extraordinary circumstances".

Also lifted is the threat of a Democratic blockade of Senate business, imperilling Mr Bush's entire legislative agenda. Instead, the first of the embattled candidates, Priscilla Owen, a Texas state judge and evangelical Christian, could be confirmed as early as today to a seat on the 5th Circuit federal appellate court, which is based in New Orleans.

"The Senate is back in business," said Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of the 14, after the deal was struck. But he acknowledged that there could be trouble from Christian conservatives in his home state. "People at home are going to be upset at me for a while," he said. Nor is there any certainty that the deal will hold. The exact definition of "extraordinary circumstances" is unclear, and the real battle, over likely vacancies on the Supreme Court itself, is yet to come.

One or more members of the high court are expected to step down soon, starting with Chief Justice William Rehnquist - 80 years old and suffering from thyroid cancer - who may announce his retirement at the end of the current court term next month. For years liberal and conservative groups have been gearing up for battle over the future of the Supreme Court, lobbying furiously for and against possible candidates. It is hardly conceivable that these hostilities will not spill over into the Senate.

For the White House too, this is a bitter-sweet moment. Mr Bush, in an uphill struggle to save his social security reforms, and with a job approval rating down to 43 per cent, hailed the Senate compromise as "progress" yesterday. But he omitted to mention that two of his nominees may fail. The President is also on a rare collision course with Congress over a Bill which seeks to expand stem-cell research, backed by moderate Republicans, which he is vowing to veto.

Another possible loser is Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader and prime architect of the "nuclear option". Mr Frist is planning a run for the White House in 2008, and is banking on support from social conservatives. The latter, however, are anything but pleased at his failure to break the filibuster.

Comments