First Ready to Go Nuclear

Under pressure to act by the White House and social conservatives, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Tuesday he will start calling for up-or-down votes on President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees as soon as next week.

The move could trigger a partisan standoff on Capitol Hill and test Frist’s ability to command his own party. But if the Tennessee Republican with presidential ambitions plays his cards right, the confrontation ultimately could bolster the power of the Republican Party and the presidency and pave the way for confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court justices favored strongly by conservatives.

Frist, in a midday news conference with reporters, stopped short of saying he will go through with a rule change known formally as the “constitutional option” and nicknamed the “nuclear option,” should Democrats filibuster any of the nominees he tries to bring to a vote, as they have done in the past.

Under that proposed rule change, which would need the backing of at least 50 of the Senate’s 55 Republicans, Democrats would be stripped of their ability to use party-line filibusters to block nominees, making it easier for conservative judges to be confirmed.

Several conservative advocacy groups have been urging the move for years. They are pressuring Frist to make his move by June, to set the stage in the event Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has been fighting cancer, decides to retire when the court recesses.

Asked if the nuclear option is inevitable if any nominees are filibustered, Frist said, “No, I’ve been very careful to keep all of our options open.”

That frustrated conservative groups, who said he was sending mixed signals.

“There is no acceptable alternative other than to invoke the constitutional option,” said Tom Fitton, president of advocacy group Judicial Watch. “If they were to pull back now it would be simply unforgivable and the Republicans wouldn’t be able to get any Supreme Court nominees through.”

Fitton said he was hopeful, however, than Frist was simply “setting up the ball on the tee.”

“The catchword has been ‘Better win later than lose now.’ That’s been coming out of the leadership,” Fitton said. “I guess they’ve now decided they can win. I don’t think he’d move forward unless he has the votes.”

Libertarian and Republican business groups have shown considerably less enthusiasm for the nuclear option. Liberal groups vehemently oppose it, and African American and civil rights leaders and Democratic senators held a news conference of their own Tuesday opposing the nuclear option.

While Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., both say they would prefer to reach a compromise, each has rejected overtures from the other and neither seemed optimistic that a deal is within reach.

“We are prepared for a vote on the nuclear option,” Reid told reporters later in the afternoon. He called the fight “entirely unnecessary and irresponsible” and charged that the White House had “manufactured this crisis” by resubmitting nominees Democrats already had rejected.

At least four of those nominees could be brought up for votes next week.

If Republicans adopted the nuclear option, it also could ease confirmation for any nominees to the high court.

Since Bush became president, 95 percent of his nominees have proceeded to confirmation votes, but Democrats have used the filibuster to block 10 nominees.

Frist dismissed criticism that he is forcing the confrontation to win support from his party’s base. He said the party in the minority should not be able to block votes on nominees who have clear support from a majority of the Senate.

“It is so clear to me, crystal clear to me, that this is a matter of principle,” he said.