WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) is distancing himself from some of his more strident Republican colleagues while defending GOP efforts to crush judicial filibusters.
The Tennessee Republican, in videotaped remarks to a conservative Christian rally on Sunday, said senators must be forced to vote on President Bush's judicial nominees, but he also said judges deserve "respect, not retaliation" for their decisions.
"Our judiciary must be independent, impartial and fair," Frist said to the approximately 5,000 attendees of the "Judicial Sunday" rally in Louisville, Ky.
"When we think judicial decisions are outside mainstream American values, we will say so. But we must also be clear that the balance of power among all three branches requires respect — not retaliation. I won't go along with that."
Frist's comments were a departure from recent ones made by Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn who, while saying he didn't support violence against judges, speculated that a recent spate of high-profile attacks against them might be related to perceptions of activism.
And following failed efforts to keep brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo (search) on a feeding tube, House Majority Leader Tom Delay (search) was forced to apologize for rhetoric critics decried as menacing to judges.
The renewed push to deprive the minority party of a potent stall tactic came on the heels of conservative Republicans' outcry over "activist judges" following Schiavo's death. Critics accused party members of simply trying to railroad opposition to conservative, overtly religious, anti-abortion judges.
While some political observers accused Frist of trying to play the judges issue both ways, he has previously said he considered the issues of filibusters (search) and judicial review to be separate.
Frist, who is said to be jockeying for the Republican Party's nod in 2008, also did not mention religion directly, though the rally's aim was to accuse Democrats of targeting Christian judges.
"I don't think it's radical to ask senators to vote. I don't think it's radical to expect senators to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities," said Frist, whom Democrats have accused of engaging in "radical Republican" politics.
"Either confirm the nominees or reject them," Frist said. "Don't leave them hanging."
For months, Frist has threatened to take action — the so-called "nuclear option" — that would shut down the Democrats' practice of subjecting a small number of judicial appointees to filibusters. Barring a last-minute compromise, a showdown is expected this spring or summer.
While a majority of the Senate is sufficient to confirm a judge, it takes 60 votes under Senate rules to overcome a filibuster and force a final vote.
Rather than change the rules directly, Frist and other Republicans have threatened to seek an internal Senate ruling that would declare that filibusters are not permitted against judicial nominees.
Because such a ruling can be enforced by majority vote, and Republicans have 55 seats in the 100-member Senate, GOP leaders have said they expect to prevail if they put the issue to the test.
Democrats blocked 10 judicial appointments in Bush's first term. The president has renominated seven of the 10 since he won re-election, and Democrats have threatened to filibuster them again.
Among the speakers at the Judicial Sunday rally was Charles Pickering of Mississippi, one of the judges blocked from a permanent promotion on an appeals court. He called the filibuster tactic unconstitutional and said it should be ended permanently if used again.
Pickering's bruising battle for a seat on a federal appeals court ended abruptly when Bush, in a temporary recess appointment that did not require Senate approval, elevated him last year to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Democrats threatened a filibuster of Pickering's nomination, accusing him of supporting segregation as a young man, and promoting anti-abortion and anti-voting rights legislation as a state lawmaker — allegations Pickering denied.
Pickering announced his retirement in December, saying he would not seek nomination for a permanent seat that would have required Senate approval.
Republicans pushed two of the nominees — including Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen — from the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on party-line votes.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., raised the possibility of a deal. "I think we should compromise and say to them that ... we'll let a number" of the seven judges "go through, the two most extreme not go through and put off this vote and compromise," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is open to compromise, his spokesman said Sunday. "There's lot of concern among Republicans about the road Senator Frist is leading the Senate down," Jim Manley said.
In his remarks, Frist singled out Owen for praise, possibly indicating she will become the test case for the expected showdown. She has been nominated for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Frist said that "even though a majority of senators support her, she has been denied an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate. ... Justice Owen deserves better. She deserves a vote."
He noted that some Republicans are opposed to ending judicial filibusters, fearing that the GOP may someday want to use the same tactics against appointments made by a Democratic president.
"That may be true. But if what Democrats are doing is wrong today, it won't be right for Republicans to do the same thing tomorrow," Frist said.
Republicans held a Senate majority for six of President Clinton's eight years in office and frequently prevented votes on his court appointments by bottling them up in committee.
The Louisville event — "Justice Sunday: Stop the Filibuster Against People of Faith" — was held in a church and was sponsored by the Family Research Council.
Critics, including a number of ministers and Democratic politicians, said holding the event in a church was inappropriate.
At one of several rallies in the city on Sunday afternoon, about 100 protesters sat on the steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse as public officials voiced their dissent.
During another protest, several hundred people gathered at a Presbyterian church where progressive religious leaders condemned Frist and others for using the pulpit to spread a political message.
But Tony Perkins, president of the group organizing the event, told FOX News that "what this boils down to is that the philosophy of that minority of liberal senators in the United States Senate has been repudiated in almost election after election, almost every recent election."
During Sunday's event, names, photographs and office phone numbers of senators were flashed across the TV screens. Perkins asked those in the church and others watching a nationwide simulcast to call the senators and ask them to end the filibuster.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.