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Frist Initiative Creates Rift in GOP Base

April 24, 2005|Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will draw a chorus of amens tonight when thousands of evangelicals across the nation hear his call to put more conservative judges on the federal bench.

But even as the Tennessee Republican addresses "Justice Sunday" -- a 90-minute simulcast to conservative churches that enthusiastically backs a Senate rule change to speed judicial confirmations -- the leader faces apprehension from another key GOP constituency.

The country's leading business lobbying associations, close GOP allies in recent legislative efforts and political campaigns, have told senior Republicans that they would not back the Frist initiative to force votes on President Bush's judicial nominees.

Business leaders say they fear the move would lead to a shutdown of Senate action on long-awaited priorities -- as Democrats have threatened if Frist moves ahead with a rule change that they say would drastically alter the traditions of a body designed to respect the rights of the minority party.

"If we do that, then all else is going to stop," Thomas J. Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said during a meeting with reporters Friday.

He then reeled off a list of business priorities that could be delayed for months in the resulting partisan uproar. He expressed the same concerns directly to Frist's office in recent days.

The lack of support from business presents a dilemma for Frist, who wants to build ties with the Republican base ahead of his likely 2008 presidential bid but now must balance competing demands from two pillars of Republican politics: evangelicals, who can marshal millions of voters, and businesses, which donate millions of dollars. Both groups played pivotal roles in securing Bush's reelection last year and expanding the GOP majority in Congress -- and both have made clear that they expect to be rewarded.

But though business groups can already point to several victories -- such as passage of laws on class action lawsuits and bankruptcy -- evangelicals look to the judicial fight as the signal moment to exert newfound influence.

Party officials concede that the tension between business leaders and social conservatives could foreshadow problems for Republican candidates in 2006 and 2008 who, like Bush, will rely on an energized and unified base to win closely fought contests.

"Every day that this does not get resolved there could be increased tension or pressure put on the situation," said one GOP strategist, who requested anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the rift. "Depending on how artfully or inartfully this is resolved, there is some fence-mending that needs to be done."

The business leaders' consternation stands in contrast with the fervor among evangelicals, who are pressuring Frist and the Republicans to move swiftly on judges no matter what the consequences.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the group sponsoring "Justice Sunday," drew applause during a recent private meeting of activists by mentioning the potential for a Senate shutdown.

"That might be the best thing," said Perkins, according to an audio recording of the March meeting provided by the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"As I've sat in this city, been here in this city, you know, gridlock is not a bad thing," he said. "Rarely do they do things for us. Usually it's against us."

Evangelicals view Frist's appearance on tonight's telecast as a sign of their pending victory. The leader's remarks, taped Friday, will be beamed to more than 90 churches and over Christian radio and television networks as part of a program that will include speeches by Perkins and James C. Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

"For four years [GOP leaders] did nothing. They hardly even talked about the things that matter to us," Dobson said at the March activists' meeting. "Now we've come out to vote for them, and they need to get on with it."

The evangelical leaders have expressed frustration with delays in seeing the judicial issue pressed. Frist and his staff say that despite strategic delays, they are determined to put an end to Democrats' tactics that blocked 10 judicial nominees from an up-or-down vote by the full Senate. A vote on changing the rules to allow a simple majority of 51 votes to end debate -- rather than 60 -- could come after senators return from an upcoming recess.

The proposed rule change is considered so explosive for bipartisan relations in the Senate that it is being called the nuclear option.

The risks were brought home to business leaders late last week when two moderate Democrats known for close ties to the corporate community sent a sharply worded letter to Donohue, as well as to his counterparts at the National Assn. of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable.

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