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Frist, Reid To Lobby Business

More than 50 of the nation’s most influential business executives will be lobbied on the “nuclear” option by Senate Republican and Democratic leaders today in separate closed-door meetings.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and other GOP leaders will meet with members of the Business Roundtable in the morning. Over dinner, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will speak to the same group of CEOs.

Republican use of the controversial procedural maneuver against filibusters has provoked Democratic threats of bringing legislative business in the chamber to a halt — a matter of great interest to business lobbyists, who have a long list of legislative initiatives waiting for Congressional action.

“We just hope the fight over these nominees doesn’t grind the Senate business to a halt and keep them from the important business that we care about, like asbestos and energy,” said Pat Cleary, senior vice president of communications for the National Association of Manufacturers.

But Frist remained unbowed Tuesday by the repeated Democratic warnings, indicating that he is ready to tackle the issue of President Bush’s stalled judicial nominees next week.

“It’s something that we will need to address because it’s principle,” Frist said. “It is fairness and it’s duty.”

“If the Republican majority moves forward with the nuclear option, they will compromise our ability to pass legislation important to the business industry,” Reid said. “The Republicans need to decide whether they’ll continue focusing on five extreme judicial nominees or move the Senate forward so we can work on legislation important to the business community.”

Amy Call, a Frist spokeswoman, said the Majority Leader would use the breakfast meeting “to explain the principles he stands behind on this issue.”

The showdown over Bush’s judicial nominees comes at a time when business interests have just won two long-sought victories, on bankruptcy reform and on legislation to limit class-action lawsuits. The Senate is now inching toward a compromise bill that would compensate asbestos victims, but K Street lobbyists acknowledge that the fight over Bush’s judicial nominations could scuttle any progress made on this issue as well as other initiatives.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) declared Tuesday that if the GOP moves forward with the nuclear option, “there will be nuclear fallout.” He insisted Democrats would not “shut down the Senate,” but instead would be selective about what bills it allows to be voted on.

“Important bills will pass, but many others will be slowed down and may not be considered,” Durbin said referencing Defense, Homeland Security and critical appropriations as bills that would not be blocked. “When you start moving into discretionary areas that reflect the Republican political agenda, I think it is going to be reflected in the workings of the Senate.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) accused Democrats of politicizing the judicial issue at the expense of important legislative priorities.

“They are putting partisan politics above the business of the country,” he said. “We have business to do here in the United States Senate, and we are going to continue to be the party of ideas. We have a full agenda. They have nothing.”

The meetings today are just the latest outreach efforts by both parties to try to convince the business community to support their respective positions on Bush’s judicial nominees. Santorum and Senate Republican Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) regularly meet with GOP lobbyists, while Democratic Senators hold similar strategy sessions with K Street Democrats.

Hutchison said she attended a meeting with trade-association representatives Tuesday, where she addressed the nuclear option but downplayed the concern of the attendees.

“They wanted to know what was happening on the judges, but no one said, ‘Oh gosh, this is going to hurt the energy bill,’” she said. The Texas Republican said she explained to them, “We had to come back to the precedent of the Senate and the will of the Constitution.”

“People understand that you can’t have a 60-vote requirement for judges,” she added.

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) disputed the claim that the business community is not concerned, saying he is hearing exactly the opposite.

Business lobbyists are now keeping a sharp eye on the calendar, realizing that there is a small window of opportunity to have their measures considered before the Senate turns its full attention to appropriations bills. K Street Democrats predict that in the short term at least, the party will not alienate the business community if it slow-walks legislation in response to Frist’s triggering the nuclear option.

But concern exists about the long-term consequences.

“The business community might tire of the dilatory efforts and turn on the Democrats,” warned a Democratic lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable said her group hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“We think it is vitally important to the economy that the Senate resolve its differences so that the legislative and judicial process can move forward in a timely fashion,” said BRT spokeswoman Tita Freeman.

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