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Filibuster Fight Will Shape GOP’s Future

The Congressional fight to eliminate judicial filibusters will have a direct effect on the long-term success of the Republican Party as well as the future aspirations of GOP Senators considering running for president, social conservative leaders warn.

Several prominent “movement” leaders said that a failure to end judicial filibusters would leave rank-and-file activists dispirited after having worked to re-elect President Bush and expand Republican majorities in the House and Senate last year.

In fact, they suggest a loss in the judicial battle might be enough to drive these activists away from the polls in 2006 and perhaps in 2008, denying Republicans a loyal political base seen as vital to GOP victories.

“If they feel they were abandoned by those who were put in office who weren’t even willing to fight the fight, I can just hear the air leaving the movement,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “It would have devastating consequences for future elections.”

Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, echoed Perkins’ prediction.

“If the movement were to be let down over this, I don’t think we could get people to turn out,” he said.

As for individual Senators with presidential aspirations, such as Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), this week will determine whether social conservatives embrace or shun their expected candidacies.

“It is going to be make-or-break for several presidential candidates, as I see it,” said Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition of America.

Republicans began the process Friday that should culminate in a Tuesday vote on the nuclear option.

For social conservatives, the vote to eliminate filibusters for judicial nominees is much more than a battle over individual judges. Rather, it represents the greater struggle over the moral direction of the country.

Changing the filibuster rules would clear the way for like-minded judges to ascend to the highest courts in the nation, at a time when these activists contend that the federal judiciary is being run by ideologically driven liberals. Appointing more socially conservative judges to the bench would help advance efforts to prevent same-sex marriages and perhaps one day lead to a ban on abortion, activists said.

Even if Frist believes that he lacks enough votes to change the Senate rule on judicial filibusters, social conservative leaders said it is still important for him to call for a recorded vote.

Many leaders in the movement said the vote to eliminate filibusters for judges is akin to last year’s procedural vote to ban same-sex marriage.

Frist held a vote on same-sex marriage in July 2004, even though he knew he didn’t have the 67 votes to pass a constitutional amendment, or even a simple majority. But by calling the vote, he forced Senators to publicly take a stand on the issue heading into a hard-fought campaign season.

“It is our position that nominees should have an up-or-down vote, and if some Republicans don’t agree, we would know who they are and they could then be held accountable,” Weyrich said. “It is as simple as that.”

So far, Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) are the only two Republicans seeking re-election in 2006 who have publicly stated they would vote against the nuclear option. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) has not said how he will vote.

Even if Frist was not able to muster the 50 votes needed to change the rules, his stock would not plummet in the eyes of social conservatives, several leaders said — as long as he held a vote.

“Fundamentally, I don’t think [losing] would hurt him, at least not seriously,” Weyrich said.

Leaders in the social conservative movement will be closely watching how Hagel votes on the nuclear option, Backlin said. So far, Hagel has not publicly stated his position.

“It is an important 2008 vote for Chuck Hagel,” Backlin said. “He is a young guy and will be running in primaries for the next 12 to 16 years.”

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, said he considers it unfathomable that any Senator who votes against the measure could ever be a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

“It is unimaginable to me that somebody could be successful in Republican presidential primaries who ended up siding with the opposition against the overwhelming majority of his own party and the White House on such a fundamental issue,” Bauer said.

Mike Buttry, a Hagel spokesman, said the Nebraska Senator is not weighing how his vote on this issue might affect any future campaigns.

“Sen. Hagel understands the long-term politics of this vote,” Buttry said. “However, he has never made a decision or cast a vote based on political calculations. This vote will be no different.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is trying to reach a deal to avoid a showdown, is not considered a favorite son of social conservatives.

Other GOP Senators said to be eyeing a White House run, such as Sens. George Allen (Va.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.), are not being watched so closely because they have already made clear their support of a rules change.

A senior Senate Republican aide said Frist needs to spend the next 24 hours deciding if it is worth it personally to move forward with a vote even if he knows it will fail.

“If you go for this and lose, you have to say, ‘What is the political fallout,’” said the aide to a conservative Senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Does it substantiate the Democrats’ [argument] that we were overreaching and our own moderates proved it?”

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