Video: Frist’s telecast

updated 4/24/2005 10:56:33 PM ET 2005-04-25T02:56:33

Majority Leader Bill Frist said Sunday it was not “radical” to ask senators to vote on judicial nominees as he hardened his effort to strip Democrats of their power to stall President Bush’s picks for the federal court.

Frist, speaking at an event organized by Christian groups trying to rally churchgoers to support an end to judicial filibusters, also said judges deserve “respect, not retaliation,” no matter how they rule.

A potential candidate for the White House in 2008, the Tennessee Republican made no overt mention of religion in the brief address, according to his videotaped remarks played on giant television screens to an audience estimated at 1,700 in Louisville, Ky.

Instead, Frist seemed intent on steering clear of the views expressed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and other conservatives in and out of Congress who have urged investigations and even possible impeachment of judges they describe as activists.

“Our judiciary must be independent, impartial and fair,” said Frist, who was not present at the event.

“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 said.

For months, Frist has threatened to take action 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.

“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.”

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.

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Expected to prevail
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 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 Sunday was Charles Pickering of Mississippi, one of the judges blocked from a permanent promotion to 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 abruptly ended 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 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.

Room for compromise?
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.”

The majority leader 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 the 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.

Pulpit politics
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 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.

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