Bill Frist's New Headache: How to Make the Democrats Hush

Majority leader could can the filibuster, but business types quake over nightmare revenge

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Politicians here are concentrating on who gets to go to Rome for the pope's funeral. President Bush, with Laura in tow, is preparing to head out, replete with a press corps under instruction to dress themselves decently and not appear like a bunch of slobs. But who from Congress will make the trip remains unclear.

The funeral provides the GOP with a brief respite from a growing debate over whether Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist should take away Democrats' main tactic for blocking confirmation of Bush judicial appointees, by applying the so-called nuclear option and ending the right to filibuster.

Forcing the Democrats to sit down and shut up might seem like an easy decision for Capitol Hill's leading Republican, but instead Frist finds himself caught, again, between warring factions of the party. On one side, the Christian right wants the right-wing judges to go through, but the business community isn't so sure.

Nominally, outfits like the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the various trade associations want "to get good, decent, neutral judges," as Grover Norquist, the influential lobbyist for conservative causes, put it in the Hill newspaper. But even if they truly believe the Bush picks would provide exactly that, they're not ready for the payback that would come with achieving the nominations by canning the filibuster. Vengeful Democrats, they fear, could wreck corporate America's legislative goals in areas such as Social Security and energy—spoiling a term where things have been going nicely for business, with changes in the bankruptcy law an especially big victory.

Under the nuclear option, Republican leaders would ask the Senate chair to declare the filibuster of judge appointees to be unconstitutional. The Senate then would vote on the ruling, and the GOP majority would uphold it. If the Republicans do that, the Democrats could respond with down-and-dirty disruption tactics, such as the mind-numbing ploy of insisting all legislation be read aloud.

Furious Dems could also up the ante. Instead of applying the filibuster solely to judges, they could use it against a variety of other measures—such things as highway legislation and an energy bill incorporating the Bush demand to start drilling for more oil in Alaska. The minority party would likely have plenty of interesting items to home in on, to the dismay of big business. The list starts with the president's proposed overhaul of Social Security, which could mean billions to the financial industry, and moves on through tort reform to a planned trade agreement that involves the U.S., five Central American countries, and the Dominican Republic.

Last week, the Christian right and its Congressional hero Tom DeLay were duking it out with the more traditional Reagan-era conservatives over so-called "end of life" values. Congressman DeLay ranted and raved against the federal judiciary for allowing Terri Schiavo to die, while former Missouri senator and Episcopalian minister John Danforth, the former U.N. ambassador, publicly charged that the GOP was now in the hands of religious kooks. As in many disputes among conservatives, that one pit the small-government libertarian crowd against the fundamentalists, who are all for using the power of the central state to effect social change.

 
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