WASHINGTON – Setting the stage for an early showdown in the new Congress, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) intends to seek quick approval for one of President Bush's judicial appointees, threatening a rules change if Democrats try to block action.
"Cooperation does not require support for the nominees," the Tennessee Republican said as lawmakers elected on Nov. 2 convened for the first time. "Cooperation simply means voting judicial nominees brought to the floor up or down."
Frist said he would seek approval in February for an unnamed appointee. "Self-restraint on the use of the filibuster for nominations — the same self-restraint that Senate minorities exercised for more than two centuries — will alleviate the need for any action" to change the rules, he said.
Sen. Harry Reid (search) of Nevada, the newly elected Senate Democratic leader, did not respond publicly to Frist's comments. In the past, he has cautioned Republicans against a unilateral rules change.
Frist made his remarks as the new Congress convened, more firmly under Republican control than the old one, ready to tackle Bush's ambitious second-term agenda.
"We have big challenges that face this country, and we need big ideas to meet those challenges," said Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., elected speaker for a fourth consecutive term.
"This is getting tiresome, Mr. Speaker," joked Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), a loser's lament uttered as she handed him the gavel he will wield for two more years.
Hastert vowed action on Bush's call for overhauling Social Security, including provisions that would allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes independently. Energy and transportation legislation will be on the agenda, he added, as will an attempt to limit lawsuits.
Across the Capitol, Frist spoke of some of the same issues — although his remarks about judicial nominations most underscored the political changes wrought by the election.
Republicans gained four Senate seats on Nov. 2, defeating former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in the process. The GOP had attacked him relentlessly as the obstructionist-in-chief when it came to Bush's agenda over the previous two years, and some chastened Democrats have talked about the need to seek more compromise and less confrontation.
At the same time, civil rights groups as well as organized labor and other organizations are likely to continue pressuring Democrats to resist some of Bush's most conservative nominations for the court — particularly if there are retirements on an aging Supreme Court.
Frist, too, faces new political pressures. He will be prodded by conservatives among the rank and file — the newcomers as well as the veterans — to move aggressively to implement the president's agenda. He also is a potential contender for the White House in 2008, and presumably he will be eager to court conservative activists who play a role in presidential campaigns.
Under Senate rules and procedures, opponents of legislation or a confirmation can force supporters to gain 60 votes to prevail. Republicans have talked for more than a year about a change that would eliminate that prerogative when it comes to appointments to the federal courts.
They could force a change by simple majority vote if they chose, but that would likely trigger an angry reaction by Democrats, who could slow the rest of the GOP agenda in retaliation.
"If my Democratic colleagues continue to filibuster judicial nominees, the Senate will face this choice: fail to do its constitutional duty, or reform itself, restore its traditions and do what the framers intended," Frist said.
If Frist was putting Senate Democrats on notice, it was the Democrats in the House who forced the first fight of the new Congress by opposing GOP-crafted ethics rules.
"The proposed changes are destructive and unethical," evidence of Republican arrogance and pettiness, charged Pelosi.
Republicans prevailed on a vote of 220-195, a victory that had been assured Monday night when Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay agreed to delete some changes that caused some rank-and-file Republicans to balk.
DeLay, at the center of an ethics controversy in 2004, said the criticism by Democrats marked the first of what would be "countless personal attacks against the integrity of the majority and ultimately against the House."
But noting increased GOP majorities in Congress as well as Bush's re-election, he added, "The American people have entrusted the state of their security, prosperity and families to us, and over the course of the next two years, that sacred trust will be honored by action."