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House Republicans Pitch In for ‘Nuke’ Effort

A group of House Republicans is wading into the fight over judicial filibusters, hoping to refine their party’s message in the weeks leading up to a Senate vote on the matter.

Led by Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio), the bloc of conservative Members plans to lead an education effort in the House on the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option, which would allow up-or-down votes on all of President Bush’s judicial nominations, including several of whom had been filibustered in the previous Congress, as well as any future Supreme Court nominees.

“Although clearly the Senate has a more public and visible role, we as one of the two houses of Congress are also affected as are the people we represent,” Chabot said in an interview Thursday.

Rep. Steve King (Iowa) offered a preview of the group’s view on the issues.

“What’s been lost in the battle here is the fact that the Senate has a constitutional duty to approve or reject the president’s judicial nominations, and when taking the oath of office, all Members of Congress swear to defend and uphold the Constitution,” he said.

Chabot, who chairs the House subcommittee on the Constitution, added that he has a personal stake in the debate because his Cincinnati-area district is within the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which currently has four vacancies.

Aside from Chabot and King, Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), Lamar Smith (Texas), Jim Ryun (Kan.) and Trent Franks (Ariz.) will participate in the effort, which will include special order and one-minute speeches on the House floor as well as press conferences aimed at educating voters on the issue.

“This is going to be something we are going to have to communicate in the states at the local and regional level, and [House Members] will be helpful doing that,” said Republican National Committee Communications Director Brian Jones.

The RNC is expected to begin a stepped-up outreach program to its grass-roots supporters today, a move that will include a letter-to-the-editor campaign aimed at swaying public opinion.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), too, will ratchet up his activity on judges with a speech today in New York City and a more aggressive appearance schedule on talk radio and television this week, said spokeswoman Amy Call.

“We need to start focusing back on the issue, which is whether these nominees get an up or down vote,” she said, echoing King’s comments.

House Democrats have also been coordinating their efforts with their Senate counterparts as they attempt to weave a broad national message of Republican “corruption” pegged on the ethical problems of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the nuclear option.

Jim Manley, the head of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) “war room,” has been the chief message liaison to House Democrats.

“Let’s be clear. It is the Republicans that will shut down the Senate,” Manley said Friday. “Democrats are united in opposition to the nuclear option.”

The showdown over judicial nominees took a major step forward last week when the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen.

A Senate vote on banning filibusters of judicial nominees is likely to come in the second week of May. Next week the Senate is expected to debate the highway bill, and then a week of recess is planned.

An attempt to end judicial filibusters can be brought up at any time the Senate is in session, however.

Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) deferred to Frist on the specific timing of a vote but did say Thursday that “we are reaching a point where decisions are going to be made.”

Frist was scheduled to participate in “Justice Sunday” over the weekend, a televised gathering of religious groups opposed to the judicial filibuster. He has drawn considerable criticism from Democrats for his decision to appear at the event.

Even Republican loyalists acknowledge that to this point Democrats have won the public relations battle with an emphasis on the historical significance of the filibuster.

The party sought to keep pressure up Friday with an online petition organized by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to “tell Bill Frist that the American people won’t accept an ultraconservative federal judiciary,” according to the e-mail appeal signed by DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

“We are gearing up for an important fight … over the very future of our federal courts, including the Supreme Court,” he wrote.

Today Schumer will host a conference call with reporters to drive home the idea that Republicans’ “obsession” with judges is keeping them from dealing with important kitchen table issues such as the rising price of gas.

Other Democratic Senators are expected to take to the floor to drive that idea home.

The GOP House Members will add their voice to the growing chorus of conservative groups seeking to reclaim message momentum from Democrats.

Outlining what is likely to become a major Republican talking point in the coming days, Chabot called the blocking of the 10 nominees “unprecedented,” pointing out that this Senate has the lowest confirmation rate on judges since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency.

“We need to make sure the public is informed and an active part of this whole process,” Chabot said. “You’ll see increased emphasis on this.”

Chabot was quick to note that neither he nor any of his colleagues are lobbying any undecided Senators on the nuclear option, although he said some Members are reaching out to friends across the Capitol.

“I would encourage a dialogue between Members that have relationships with Senators,” said Chabot. “It is always good for the two houses to keep the lines of communication open.”

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