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Filibuster Fight a Crucial Test of Frist’s Leadership

If he fails, he is dead as a presidential wannabe

If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hopes to capture the Republican nomination for president in 2008, then he has to see to it that the Bush judicial nominees are confirmed. If he fails, then he is dead as a presidential wannabe. This is a critical test of leadership that Sen. Frist simply has to pass if his ambitions are to have any chance of realization. No issue is as important to conservatives as the battle to return the federal bench to something like its appropriate role under the Constitution. Conservatives are fed up with winning issue after issue at the ballot box, in the Congress, and in state legislatures, only to see arrogant federal judges overrule the popular will and impose their own progressive political preferences on the law. From reasonable limits on abortion, to same-sex marriage, striking God from the Pledge of Allegiance and a score of other issues, the courts consistently show utter contempt for the people’s will as expressed through their elected representatives. Conservatives want to see a return to a genuine separation of powers among three co-equal branches of government — and some degree of humility and respect for representative democracy in a federal republic restored among an oligarchic judiciary that today acts de facto as the superior branch. All across America one hears the same refrain from grassroots conservatives: If we cannot get qualified, constitutionalist judges confirmed with a conservative president in the White House and 55 Republicans in the Senate, then what’s the point? Why bother working hard to elect Republicans? If we cannot succeed now, we never will. The stakes are very high, as are the expectations. Conservatives expect Bill Frist to overcome the Democrats’ filibustering tactic and get the Bush nominees confirmed. The Left’s strategy has been obvious to all for more than four years: filibustering Bush circuit court nominees is designed to lay the groundwork to block one or all of the putative Bush nominees to the Supreme Court. Or, failing that, to cow the president and Senate Republicans into nominating David Souter-like stealth entities to avoid bruising confirmation battles and threatened filibusters. Senator Frist’s greatest challenge, of course, is not the Senate Democrats, obstructionist-in-chief Harry Reid, MoveOn.org or the panoply of George Soros-funded confabulations on the Left; the majority leader’s greatest challenge is bringing his own GOP conference along on the strategy to break the filibuster. This is the true test of leadership he faces. Conservatives are not unmindful of the obstacles Sen. Frist confronts. Not all the 55 Republican senators can be relied upon to back the parliamentary maneuver variously called the “nuclear option,” the “constitutional option,” or even the “Byrd option” after the senior windbag from West Virginia. Sen. Frist’s challenge is to persuade, cajole, seduce, or browbeat at least 51 Republicans into supporting the strategy. The usual wobbly Republican liberals from the Northeast can be expected to defect. Some others are reluctant to have Sen. Frist pull the trigger because they just don’t care too much about the issue and are not discomforted if President Bush were frustrated in the exercise of his appointment powers. Still other Republicans tremble before Harry Reid’s bombastic threat to shut down the Senate to all other business. These tremulous Republicans view this prospect as tantamount to Armageddon. After all, if the Senate goes into a Reid-induced deep freeze, how will all those vital pork-barrel projects so important to the folks back home get funded? Perish the thought! And the K Street business crowd down in Gucci Gulf could care less about judges, the federal courts or confirmations, and is pressing Republicans to avoid shuttering the factory for even a single day lest their clients’ special-interest legislation be delayed or derailed. Such are the problems that beset Senator Frist. But at the end of the day, conservatives do not really care about these difficulties. No one ever suggested being majority leader was easy. It’s Dr. Frist’s job to overcome such obstacles and get the job done. This is a test of leadership. And it’s a pass-fail test. No credit will be awarded for good intentions, a noble effort, or hard but futile work. If Bill Frist delivers 51 Republican votes, breaks the Democrats’ filibuster, restores the Senate’s historic practice regarding simple majority votes to confirm judges and stops this attempt to re-write the rules for a Republican president …quot; well then conservatives will take his potential presidential candidacy very seriously indeed. But if he fails and the Democrats succeed in blocking the Bush judges, including ultimately a Supreme Court nominee, well then Bill Frist need not come calling at the conservatives’ door in 2008. That may not be fair, but that’s the way it is. On this issue conservatives are not in a mood to be forgiving. It’s show time and Bill Frist must deliver.

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Mr. Lessner is a senior associate at Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm. He is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union and editorial pager editor of The Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., and holds a doctorate in history from Baylor University.

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