Going nuclear in the war on the faithful

With his finger on the button and an eye on his presidential hopes, Bill Frist aligns himself with the religious right.

Published April 15, 2005 1:33PM (EDT)

Bill Frist may have distanced himself from some of the most egregious comments about the federal courts coming out of the mouths of the Tom DeLay set, but that doesn't mean that the Senate majority leader is going soft on the judiciary -- or on Democrats who have blocked 10 of George W. Bush's most extreme judicial nominees.

As the New York Times reports this morning, Frist will appear in a telecast organized by the ultra-conservative Family Research Council later this month. The theme: Democrats who oppose Bush's judges are using the filibuster "against people of faith." A Frist spokesman tried to downplay Frist's alliance with the argument that Democrats are at war with the faithful, saying that he speaks to all sorts of groups about the need to confirm Bush's nominees. But a statement about the telecast on the Family Research Council's Web site shows the sort of message with which Frist is apparently comfortable aligning himself. "For years, activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the ACLU, have been quietly working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms," FRC head Tony Perkins says on the site. Perkins says: "Whether it was the legalization of abortion, the banning of school prayer, the expulsion of the 10 Commandments from public spaces, or the starvation of Terri Schiavo, decisions by the courts have not only changed our nation's course, but even led to the taking of human lives."

Perkins argues that, in blocking 10 of Bush's nominees, a "radical minority" has launched an "unprecedented filibuster." It's not true technically, and it's not true generally. Democrats haven't actually filibustered most of the 10, and filibustering a judicial nominee isn't unprecedented: The Republicans filibustered Lyndon Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice in 1968. More to the point, Perkins' argument -- and it is one frequently repeated by Republicans in the Senate -- misses the larger point: They may not have used the filibuster, but Republicans used all sorts of other tactics to block Bill Clinton's nominees to the federal courts.

John McCain acknowledged as much Thursday as he said, once again, that he opposes the Republican plan to "go nuclear" by wiping out the right to filibuster judicial nominees. The Arizona senator is one of two Republicans who have said, more or less unequivocally, that they'll vote against the "nuclear option." The other is Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee. The Los Angeles Times ran down the rest of the math the other day. If Frist loses four more Republicans, the "nuclear option" is dead. Those four could be Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, each of whom has expressed doubts about the nuclear option. As the Times says, other Republican senators are also wary but fear going public and incurring the wrath of the Republican leadership -- or the religious right.

Will Frist take a chance on the nuclear option even if he might not win? The Washington Post says he doesn't have much choice, at least if he wants to keep the religious right happy -- and his political ambitions alive. The Post quotes Richard Lessner, the executive director of the American Conservative Union: "If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hopes to capture the Republican nomination for president in 2008, then he has to see to it that the Bush judicial nominees are confirmed. If he fails, then he is dead as a presidential wannabe."

By Tim Grieve

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

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John Mccain R-ariz.