Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is all but certain to press for a rule change in the next few weeks that would ban filibusters of judicial nominations, despite misgivings by some of his fellow Republicans and a possible Democratic backlash that could paralyze the chamber, close associates said Thursday.
The strategy carries significant risks for the Tennessee Republican, who is weighing a 2008 presidential bid. It could embroil the Senate in a bitter stalemate that would complicate passage of President Bush's agenda and raise questions about Frist's leadership capabilities. Should he fail to make the move or to get the necessary votes, however, Frist risks the ire of key conservative groups that will play big roles in the 2008 GOP primaries.
Frist thinks that he has no acceptable options to seeking the rule change unless there is a last-minute compromise, which neither party considers plausible, according to senators and aides close to the situation. "I think it's going to happen," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said this week, though he would prefer that Frist wait to allow more legislation to pass before the Senate explodes in partisan recriminations. Aides privy to senior Republicans' thinking concur with Thune.
In response to the rising stakes and sense of an inevitable showdown, Frist and his allies are churning out speeches, articles and talking points, and enlisting the aid of Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the National Republican Committee. Frist said he is trying to catch up to Democrats and their allies, who set up a Capitol "war room" and are spending millions of dollars on television ads denouncing the proposed rule change -- or "nuclear option" -- as a power grab.
Frist aides said he still hopes to offer a compromise that Democrats might accept, but Democrats who have spoken with him say they would be astonished if he presents something with which they could go along.
Democrats have used the filibuster to prevent confirmation votes this year for seven of President Bush's appellate court nominees whom the Democrats say are too conservative. Filibusters can be stopped only by at least 60 votes in the 100-member Senate. Republicans, who hold 55 seats, say the filibusters thwart the Senate's constitutional duty to approve or reject a president's appointees. Democrats say the Founders wanted to empower the Senate's minority members to slow or stop controversial legislation and nominees.
While Democrats and Republicans alike say the filibuster issue is a matter of high principles and constitutional rights, Frist's choice is inextricably linked to presidential politics. At least two GOP colleagues who are pressing him to seek the rule change -- Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- also are weighing presidential bids. Both of them are wooing key conservatives clamoring for the filibuster ban.
Some independent analysts say that Frist -- a comparative newcomer to politics who unexpectedly gained the majority leader's post in early 2003 -- has created his own dilemma and that his handling of it will be a sign of whether he has the skills to seriously vie for the White House.