Is Santorum nervous about going nuclear?

The Pennsylvania senator, up for re-election in 2006, has checked out the polls, and he doesn't like what he sees.

Published April 21, 2005 1:50PM (EDT)

Is Rick Santorum urging Bill Frist to move his finger off the button? The Hill says so. In this morning's report on the nuclear option, The Hill says that Santorum has digested polls showing that voters aren't so keen on ending the filibuster and concluded that the time isn't right for going nuclear.

Republicans won't say much about what their internal polling reveals. But asked whether the public isn't a little uncomfortable about killing the right to filibuster judicial nominees, Santorum said: "Our polling shows that."

Santorum is no Chris Shays or Lincoln Chafee or even George Voinovich. The Pennsylvania Republican is at the core of the GOP's power structure -- he holds the No. 3 position in the party's Senate leadership -- and the religious right has been counting on him to lead the charge on the nuclear option. But Santorum, who is considerably to the right of voters in a state that went for John Kerry in November, has an election of his own coming up in 2006. Is he a little wary of going too far this time?

A Republican aide told The Hill that Santorum's concern is merely a matter of worrying that there's too much else going on in the Senate right now, and "you couldn't get a clean shot at" ending the filibuster now. Among the distractions: the continuing political fallout from the Terri Schiavo case. While some Republicans no doubt consider the Schiavo case Exhibit A in the need for the nuclear option, others see the risk that voters will view the nuclear option as part and parcel of the party's unpopular intervention in the case and some of its members' ill-advised comments in the wake of Schiavo's death.

That doesn't mean that the rhetoric is cooling when it comes to concerns over the judiciary. Ken Salazar, the newly elected Democratic senator from Colorado, said Wednesday that the religious right is using "un-Christian" tactics in pushing the nuclear option -- and he singled out the ultra-right group Focus on the Family for special attention. "I think what has happened is Focus on the Family has been hijacking Christianity and become an appendage of the Republican Party," Salazar said. "I think it's using Christianity and religion in a very unprincipled way." Focus on the Family spokesman Tom Minnery said he was "flabbergasted" that Salazar would "call our Christianity into question." And then he returned the favor. "Some of the nominees will be filibustered by the Democrats because of their religious views," Minnery said. "As a Catholic, I would think the senator would be especially alarmed about the anti-Catholicism of some of his colleagues."

By Tim Grieve

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

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