Conservatives Speak, Frist Listens

May 23, 2005, was a fateful day for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. With the so-called nuclear option at his fingertips—and conservatives clamoring for him to deploy it—Frist was instead outflanked by a group of mostly moderate senators known as the Gang of 14.

Conservatives were left bewildered by what they saw as an attempt by Frist’s arch-rival, maverick Sen. John McCain, to spoil a fight with Democrats that had been brewing since 2001. How could Frist let McCain get away with it?

Nearly a year later, Frist is a changed man. Now when conservatives speak, Frist appears to sense their pulse. He doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of 2005.

It was on Jan. 4, 2005, that I had had it with Frist. As Sen. Orrin Hatch explained in an op-ed for HUMAN EVENTS weeks earlier, there was a unique opportunity at the beginning of the 109th Congress to catch Democrats off guard and change Senate rules. Frist let the opportunity pass. And instead, he waited until the brouhaha escalated. That’s when the Gang of 14 thwarted his plan.

Despite my dislike for the compromise at the time it was brokered, it has benefited Republicans—with the exception of since-withdrawn appellate nominee Henry Saad—more than it has Democrats. Two Supreme Court nominees won confirmation because Democrats had no way of blocking them. However, it’s not helping appeallate court nominees Brett Kavanaugh and Terrence Boyle, who still await confirmation.

That brings us to yesterday, April 25, 2006, when news broke that conservatives were again growing disillusioned with Frist’s perceived abandonment of President Bush’s judicial nominees.

National Journal had the story (no link) yesterday morning:

Conservative groups are worried that Senate Majority Leader Frist lacks an effective strategy to propel two controversial judicial nominations through the Senate next month.
“We’ve got to make some of these nominees a household name,” said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, adding that Frist needs to schedule numerous hours of debate before senators vote on appellate court nominees Brett Kavanaugh and Terrence Boyle sometime in May.
A Frist aide said last week the majority leader is considering votes on the two nominees before the Memorial Day recess.

Rushton expressed concern Friday that the Senate’s busy legislative calendar for May would not provide enough floor time for Republicans to speak out in favor of the long-stalled nominations.

The article also quoted Manuel Miranda, former counsel to Frist, who moved some conservatives to tears when accepting the Ronald Reagan Award at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

Miranda said Monday that Frist failed to lay the foundation in the 108th Congress for controversial judicial nominees like Henry Saad and he worries that Frist will take a similar approach next month.
“They treat the issue like a nuisance … like something you throw to the base without a strategy,” said Miranda, who served as Frist’s counsel for nominations in 2003 when the Senate spent nearly four weeks debating former Assistant Solicitor General Miguel Estrada’s nomination to the appellate court.
Miranda resigned that year from Frist’s office after he became embroiled in an investigation related to his tenure as counsel in 2001-2002 for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Miranda said Monday that he recently expressed his concerns to Frist’s office about their strategy on judicial nomination.
“The difference between Miguel Estrada and Henry Saad is the negligence and incompetence of Senate GOP leaders and their staff,” said Miranda.

The Bill Frist of 2005 probably would have ignored these pleas from conservatives. But the Bill Frist of 2006—keenly aware that the conservative base is key to the 2008 presidential sweepstakes—decided to heed their calls for action.

My sources tell me that Frist’s team moved quickly yesterday to counter a conservative revolt on judges. Some of Washington’s most influential conservatives were invited to a private, off-the-record meeting this afternoon where Frist’s staff will outline his agenda. In addition, Frist’s top aides will brief reporters this afternoon about judicial nominees.

The news is encouraging and illustrates that Frist takes seriously the concerns of conservatives. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment in Frist’s turnaround—I think the fallout from the Gang of 14 episode probably opened his eyes—but it’s encouraging that he recognizes the influence of conservatives.

But meetings alone won’t do the trick. Frist needs to act quickly to put into place a strategic plan for confirming conservative judges. It’s a winning issue for the base in 2006 and it could be a signature issue for Frist in 2008.