WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, frustrated by the audacious campaign of Democrats blocking judicial confirmations, begins a counter-offensive this week. He will start by returning to one of President Bush's nominees generally given up for dead. The effort will accelerate throughout this congressional session into mid-November, with one roll-call vote after another.
None of this may confirm any of the federal appellate court nominees marked for defeat by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic grand master, because they are deemed too conservative. This effort is intended to "refocus" (the word used by GOP strategists) on the unprecedented filibuster campaign to prevent a sitting president from selecting his own judiciary. The refocused struggle would peak early in the 2004 election year with a frontal assault on filibuster rules. Although no justice seems ready to leave the Supreme Court of his own volition this year, control of the highest court is ultimately at stake.
The GOP base, needed intact to re-elect George W. Bush, is angry -- angry with Kennedy's Democrats for blocking the judges, angry with Frist's Republicans for not trying harder. That could cost Bush's re-election if nothing is done.
Many Republican senators, mirroring their business supporters, would like to concede Kennedy's triumph on judges and get on with their own agenda. The GOP's will to fight has seemed lacking. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who as Judiciary Committee chairman manages this issue for the Republicans, has been passive. He has not aggressively demanded floor time to debate judges after the Senate refused seven times to invoke cloture on Miguel Estrada's now withdrawn nomination for the important District of Columbia Circuit.
But rank-and-file Republicans care deeply. The president on the road mentions the failure to confirm judges in nearly every speech, and it evokes more applause than anything else. Republicans are sensitive to complaints that Frist is too timid to wage a 24-7 strategy to let Democrats talk themselves to death. They respond that some 45 disciplined Democrats cannot be forced to surrender.
Now, Frist is about to mount a campaign in three phases, lasting through what's left of this year's session.
Phase One: Start this week with a cloture vote on the nomination of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering Sr. of Mississippi for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. Pickering, bottled up in the Judiciary Committee during the 2001-02 Democratic interregnum, has just been sent to the Senate floor.