WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans are going on the offensive to eliminate judicial filibusters (search) after watching liberals churn out TV ads against them in anticipation of a showdown over who sits on federal appeals courts.
"They're ahead of the power curve," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said of the orchestrated effort by Democrats and groups such as MoveOn.org and People for the American Way. "I think you'll see a greater, stepped-up message on part of the Republicans, to go on the offense on this issue."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), after vowing last fall to stop Democrats from blocking the most conservative of President Bush's judicial nominees (search), will appear in a telecast later this month with leaders of social conservative groups.
According to a flier for the Louisville, Ky., event, it will focus on how judicial filibusters are being used "against people of faith." The telecast is being organized by the Family Research Council, which sponsored a similar event last year opposing gay marriage. Frist's staff said he will probably record his message for the telecast.
Under the flier's heading, "the filibuster against people of faith," it reads: "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."
The Tennessee Republican, a likely contender for his party's presidential nomination in 2008, is under pressure to force a Senate showdown before Congress breaks May 27 for a long Memorial Day recess.
To change Senate rules so that Democrats can no longer block Bush's nominees with filibusters requiring just 41 votes, Frist needs a simple majority in the 100-member Senate. He can get that by mustering 50 votes and bringing in Vice President Dick Cheney as the tiebreaker.
The Senate has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent. But a half-dozen GOP senators either have said they oppose or have refused to support changing the rules.
Nuclear Option a 'Power Grab?'
Frist's plan has been dubbed the "nuclear option" because Democrats have promised to retaliate by blocking the rest of Bush's legislative agenda -- excluding spending and highway bills and national security measures. His supporters call it the "constitutional option," saying the forefathers never intended to let a minority of the Senate block a president's choices for judgeships.
"At this moment, there are those who are planning what I consider to be an assault on very base of Constitution," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said on the Senate floor Friday. "Those who wish to change the rules of the Senate and defy tradition, change rules in the middle of the game and have a full frontal assault on the unique nature of this institution … that, I think, is an abusive power. It goes way too far. [It] ignores the founding fathers, the Constitution, rules of the senate [and] for what? So the president of the United States can have every single judicial nominee approved by the Senate?"
Durbin, calling the nuclear option a "power grab," added that that route is also an "assault on values of checks ad balances."
Durbin also assailed news of the Family Research Council event -- first reported in The New York Times Friday -- portraying Democrats as "people against faith."
He said these filibusters are "not an issue of religion," but of whether the nominees abide by the Constitution. "In 10 cases out of 215, the nominees did not pass that test," Durbin added.
Lader, in an informal briefing with reporters, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he was quite upset that people would suggest his party was against people of faith. "God does not take part in partisan politics," said the Nevada lawmaker. "I do know God cares about poor people, sick people, widows, orphans ... I think those are moral issues."
Reid, a Nevada Democrat and a Mormon, called it "beyond the pale" for Frist to agree to participate in the telecast. Durbin called it "outrageous." Reid said that America is a democracy, "not a theocracy and for now Senator Frist to say that he's going to participate in this event in Kentucky next week is beyond the pale."
Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's 52 appeals court nominations through filibuster threats, while allowing the confirmation of 34 others. They have said they plan to keep blocking those 10 if they are brought up for confirmation again, and will block other nominees they consider to be too conservative. Writings or judicial opinions on abortion, civil or labor rights and the environment are often a litmus test.
People for the American Way and MoveOn PAC have been running television ads for weeks trying to discourage Republicans from forcing a showdown over filibusters. Democratic leaders Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House have coordinated a message accusing majority Republicans of "abuse of power" and "arrogance."
"Our voice is being lost," Frist said this week. "From a leadership standpoint, we've held back, which has allowed the vacuum to be filled by lots of other voices. I hope what you will see over the next several weeks is us to do a better job."
To help publicize their message, a GOP group called the Advise and Consent Working Group now issues daily recaps of what GOP senators say about judicial nominations and rebuts Democrats' statements on the issues.
Republican senators have joined Democrats in giving daily speeches on the subject from the Senate floor. New conservative organizations like the Judicial Confirmation Network and the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters are entering the fray to counter MoveOn and People for the American Way.
The Judicial Confirmation Network has planned an initial $250,000 ad buy on cable television to counter the liberal ads.
"The other side has started a pretty aggressive campaign," said Wendy Long, the group's lawyer. "We didn't want to just sit here and do nothing."
Some conservative groups have held off spending money on the filibuster battle, saving resources for an anticipated Supreme Court fight. Chief Justice William Rehnquist (search), 80, is fighting thyroid cancer, and many people expect a retirement from the nation's highest court before President Bush ends his second term.
But conservative senators and advocacy groups say there must be a resolution on the filibuster before that happens. Needing 60 votes to confirm a Supreme Court justice might affect whether Bush picks a conservative or a moderate, they say.
Thune said a high-profile Supreme Court nomination and a simultaneous fight over whether that person can be filibustered by Democrats might muddy the water and make both objectives more difficult.
Former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn told FOX News on Friday that the idea that conservatives would paint Democrats as "people against faith" is "particularly galling."
"I think that in politics, most Americans think that any one political wing trying to capture religion and faith as their own is plain and simply, offensive. What's going on here is a war between the … fundamental institutions of American democracy."
But former Whitewater counsel Robert Bittman said Republicans are doing what they can to live up to their constitutional advise and consent obligations and to get an up-or-down vote on the president's judicial picks,
"What is absolutely clear is that the nominations that are being held up by the Democrats … are absolutely 100 percent qualified to be federal judges," Bittman told FOX News. "It's really discouraging that the Senate is holding up these people and won't even allow a vote."
FOX News' Molly Hooper and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.