Will Terri Schiavo kill the nuclear option?

The Schiavo case makes it both more likely and less likely that Republicans will move to end the filibuster of judicial nominees.

Published April 8, 2005 11:51AM (EDT)

Republicans in Washington are already paying a high price for their intervention in the Terri Schiavo case. The president's approval ratings are tanking, public perception of Senate Republicans is slipping, and the sorts of ethics problems that always seemed to slide off of Tom DeLay are beginning to stick in the minds of voters repulsed by his macabre political machinations and post-mortem threats.

But the biggest casualty may be yet to come: Will fallout from the Terri Schiavo case kill the Republicans' plan to eliminate the right to filibuster judicial nominees?

The Schiavo case makes the "nuclear option" more likely and less likely all at once. Religious conservatives, outraged that the courts did not step lively to the tune they called in the Schiavo case, will push Republicans even harder than before to find ways to confirm Bush's judicial nominees over Democratic opposition. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council ramped up the rhetoric this week, saying that judge currently conduct themselves as "an occupying force of liberal elitists who answer to no one." And David Limbaugh warns in his column today that Republican leaders "will pay a price" if they "even think about caving" on the "nuclear option."

But Republican senators, stung by the negative public reaction to their intervention in the Schiavo case, are likely to be twice-shy about being seen, once again, as the tools of the religious right. With one-third of all Republicans saying Democrats in Congress should prevent Republican leaders from "going too far in pushing their agenda," and 41% of Republicans opposing the "nuclear option," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is going to have a hard time convincing the half-dozen Senate Republicans who are either opposed to or wary of the nuclear plan that they'll face major political consequences if they don't get on board.

The push-me, pull-me tension created by the Schiavo case may explain the contradictory messages coming out of the Republican leadership this week. According to The Hill, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum met with conservative activists Tuesday to assuage their concerns that the Republican leadership might be going soft on the nuclear option. Activists who attended the meeting left feeling assured that Frist was fully committed to going nuclear and that he would move forward on the plan within four to six weeks. But a Senate aide who attended the meeting walked away with a different message: The Republican leadership is ready to go nuclear only if it's necessary -- that is, only if the parties can't strike a compromise.

As The Hill explains, the dueling recollections of the meeting probably mean that Santorum did his job: "motivate conservative groups for a showdown over the filibuster" but simultaneously appear "ready to compromise while negotiating with the Democrats." While Democrats have been predicting that the "nuclear option" would explode in April, an aide for Frist told The Hill Thursday that the Senate majority leader will try to get a supplemental appropriations bill and a budget resolution through the Senate before risking a blow-out over judicial nominees -- and that he'll pitch some sort of compromise proposal to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid before he pulls the trigger. That "compromise" may be in the form of poison-pill window dressing -- like Santorum's disingenuous proposal last month to raise the minimum wage -- but it also could be serious. As much as the Senate's Republicans are aligned with the religious right, they've also got debts to pay to big business: Note the early passage of class action reform and the bankruptcy bill. And as the Washington Post has reported, business interests are worried that if the Republicans go nuclear, Democrats will follow through on their threat to shut down the work of the Senate. When that work is as business-friendly as it has been of late, the business interests to whom the Republicans are beholden don't want to see it lost in the chill of a nuclear winter.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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