Filibuster fight may imperil agenda

Fallout in Senate may prove too much for Bush to ignore

`It will stand in the way of all legislation'

Leaders scrambling to finish what they can ahead of clash

April 24, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Senate is poised as early as this week for a bitter and politically bruising fight over President Bush's judicial nominees that could effectively shut down the Senate, with potentially damaging effects for both parties and lasting consequences for the 2008 presidential campaign.

The fallout could be particularly toxic for the president's agenda.

This was supposed to be a spring of legislative accomplishment - a period when Bush, riding high on his re-election victory, would marshal the forces of the Republican-led Congress and begin writing his legacy with such legislation as a Social Security overhaul, a broad new energy measure, legal reform and more tax cuts.

Bush began the year with some swift victories; he signed a measure in February to curb class action lawsuits and a new bankruptcy bill last week making it more difficult for people to cancel their debts by declaring bankruptcy.

But if Republicans follow through with their threat to cut off Democratic filibusters blocking Bush's judicial nominees, Democrats say the president should expect to see all but the most routine legislation stalled in a partisan stalemate.

"It will stand in the way of all legislation," said Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who, as the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, would have a leading role in any bipartisan Social Security compromise.

Baucus said he told Bush as much last week when the president gathered senior lawmakers at the White House to prod them on his energy plan. Stop Senate Republicans from choosing the "nuclear option" to curb filibusters of judicial nominations, Baucus told the president, and you'll be much closer to a quick bipartisan energy compromise.

Bush said he was "staying out of that" fight, according to Baucus. But since the president's agenda is packed with items he needs Congress to accomplish, the battle may prove impossible for Bush to ignore.

Among the measures on Bush's wish list that risk being slowed or scuttled altogether, say lobbyists and lawmakers, are the president's long-stalled energy measure; legal reforms he has tagged as high priorities, including bills limiting medical malpractice awards and asbestos lawsuits; a highway bill to replace one that expired two years ago; and a budget agreement that would smooth the way for many of Bush's plans, including making his tax cuts permanent.

The fate of two high-ranking Bush nominees - Stephen L. Johnson, his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and John R. Bolton, his chosen ambassador to the United Nations - may also hang in the balance, after they stalled in the Senate last week.

"Everything will have to either take a back seat or be left at the bus station," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

Leaders are scrambling to complete what work they can before the clash, but party divisions already are sapping momentum.

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader who is pushing the filibuster changes, was strategizing late last week to complete the highway measure - one that has attractive goodies for all members of Congress - before the judicial battle pushes it aside.

The outcome of the judicial fight will probably affect Frist's chances of capturing his party's presidential nomination in 2008.

Democrats will not specify precisely what measures they will block if Frist "goes nuclear," and many Republicans brush aside the threats as empty brinkmanship.

White House officials have declined to speculate about the fate of Bush's top priorities should the Senate dissolve into a partisan meltdown, essentially saying they will cross that bridge if they get there.

But it is clear that Republican leaders have, at least for the moment, put Bush's policy aspirations on the back burner in favor of waging a bitter battle against Democrats over his judicial picks.

"I don't think we can worry about appeasement. We can't be worried about all [the Democrats'] various threats. We need to call their bluff and move forward," said Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican.

The threat of a listless year on Capitol Hill carries risks for Bush and for lawmakers in both parties, who could feel the effects at the polls next year.

Some analysts said Republicans stand to lose the most if the Senate descends into deadlock, because they control both houses of Congress and the White House.

"Majorities are always more likely to be blamed by the public than minorities" for legislative stalemates, said Sarah Binder, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Most Americans have no clue which party's running the chamber, but they expect majorities to rule, and since this is not a divided government, it's pretty easy to cast blame and to give credit."

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