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Senators Cool to Bashing Judges

Senate GOP leaders disputed Tuesday assertions by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other conservatives that the Terri Schiavo case would lead to legislative action being taken against federal judges.

Rebuking DeLay’s claim that judges would have to “answer” for their Schiavo decisions, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) instead said Congressional intervention in the matter was a singular event and the case would not result in any further legislation related to judges.

“I believe we have a fair and independent judiciary today, and I respect that,” Frist said.

Frist also said that the Schiavo case, which pumped up the passions of conservative activists across the country, would make it neither more nor less likely that the Senate would adopt a GOP plan to end filibusters on judicial nominations. “They’re two entirely different issues,” he said.

Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also distanced himself from DeLay’s comments that the federal judges involved in the case — who some Republicans feel ignored their wishes in legislation requesting the federal judiciary take up the matter — should face some sort of action from Congress. Instead, McConnell said the Schiavo matter had been addressed by the Senate and was now resolved.

“This is a stand-alone issue … unrelated to others,” McConnell said when asked of DeLay’s remarks.

The comments from the top Senate Republicans came less than a week after Schiavo’s death, which prompted a fiery response from DeLay, who said, “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” Later, he referred to “an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their noses at Congress and the president.”

Democrats have pounced on the remarks, calling them irresponsible and seeking to portray them as further indications that top Republicans were abusing their power. Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday began a press conference by reading DeLay’s comments aloud and calling them part of “an arrogance of power on Capitol Hill.”

In a sign that Reid believes he is making some progress in talks with Frist about nominations — and distinguishing the Senate leader from DeLay — Reid credited Frist with taking a wait-and-see approach on how to handle the pending judicial showdown.

“I’ve never found him to be arrogant,” he said later of Frist.

As they have attacked Republicans on their attempts at changing rules to eliminate filibusters, Senate Democrats have tried to frame the issue as a power grab by Republicans, and Reid and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have said DeLay’s actions played into that theme. In particular, his high-profile role in the Schiavo case came as DeLay has also been battling a sea of ethical questions regarding his top fundraisers, as well as his relationship with the now-politically toxic lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who helped arrange several high-priced international trips for DeLay and many other House Republicans.

DeLay has referred the issue to the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), has also been critical of the federal court’s refusal to fully review the case. “The courts ignored the clear intent of the legislation,” said Dan Allen, DeLay’s spokesman.

The House committee has just begun to examine in the issue and is considered a long way away from drafting legislation.

Senate Republicans did not specifically mention DeLay by name, but did little to back up his claims that action was needed. Asked if DeLay had overreached on the Schiavo issue, Frist demurred.

“I’ll have to let Members of this body and others speak for themselves,” he told a group of reporters at a “dug out” press conference on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. Asked later to specify whether he thought DeLay went too far, Frist said, “I am going to speak for myself and not speak for the House at all.”

Even Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), whose remarks on the Senate floor Monday wondering whether anger at judicial decisions had indirectly led to a recent spate of violence against judges also drew criticism, said he would not support any legislative action against judges. “I don’t think Congressman DeLay and I see eye to eye on that,” said Cornyn, a former state judge.

While he said questionable decisions by judges should be criticized, Cornyn backed away from DeLay’s remarks about judges having to “answer” for their decisions. “I really don’t know what he means,” Cornyn added.

Of top Senate Republicans, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) indicated he thought some legislative action should be considered in the wake of the case, at least to give protections to those who are so disabled they cannot speak for themselves. Saying the nation “crossed a Rubicon” in the Schiavo case, Santorum did not agree with Frist that the judiciary was “fair and independent.”

“We certainly have an independent judiciary,” said Santorum, chairman of the Republican Conference. “I would argue they believe that they are a superior branch of government and not an equal one, and that is a problem.”

Some Senate GOP aides said there was no specific effort to distance themselves from DeLay because of his remarks or his own ethical question marks. Rather, it was part of the new push to move beyond the Schiavo case, which has not proven to be a popular intervention on the GOP’s part, according to public polls.

They also suggested DeLay’s remarks were more targeted toward internal House politics and his effort to shore up support among conservatives.

Meanwhile, Frist cautioned reporters when pressed about trying to predict any kind of timetable for a showdown over the so-called “nuclear option” to eliminate filibusters. He and Reid talked about the issue Monday, although neither would go into specifics about the discussion.

Frist turned away any questions about the strategy of the issue or the timing, saying it was pointless “until we have exhausted every other means.”

But most compromise measures floated so far, including one drafted by Frist and Cornyn and another being worked on by Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), so far involve a guarantee of an eventual up-or-down vote on judicial nominees, effectively ending filibusters.

Kennedy told Roll Call Monday that Democrats would not stand for any compromise that eliminated the filibuster. And Reid said there was “217 years” of tradition regarding the Senate’s institutions.

“I don’t intend to do anything that would hurt this institution,” he said.

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