Conservative activists question Sen. Bill Frist's floor priorities

Senate Republican leaders hope to rally their base this week by passing a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration, but some GOP activists are balking at the move.

“While most of us would support such an amendment, we believe this is a misguided use of time,” a coalition of dozens of interest-group leaders wrote to Republican senators in a letter they will send today.

The broadside by nomination-focused conservatives raises the prospect that an effort to fire up conservatives could backfire on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as Republicans try to draw distinctions between the parties before the November election.

The line of attack echoes that of liberal Democrats who argued that last week’s debate over a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage showed a Republican Party out of touch with the American public.

The conservative activists, led by Third Branch Conference chairman and former Frist aide Manuel Miranda, warned that Republicans will suffer damage to their majority if they do not escalate a simmering battle over judges before the November elections.

“If Americans continue to see obstruction and hear excuses rather than debate and votes on nominees, senators should not be surprised that, come Nov. 8, the votes they want may not be there,” said Jan LaRue, Concerned Women for America’s chief counsel.

Miranda, LaRue and others have been pushing Frist to adopt a more confrontational strategy on nominations before the election, in part because they fear Republican losses could doom nominees who are in the pipeline. To this point the conservatives have been on the losing end of a battle over whether to circumvent Senate rules to force simple majority votes on judicial nominations.

That maneuver, known as the “nuclear option,” was placed on the shelf last year after a bipartisan group of 14 senators struck a deal in which the seven Republicans said they would oppose the move in exchange for a promise from the seven Democrats that they would support filibusters of judicial nominees only under “extraordinary circumstances,” a nebulous term that leaves senators significant wiggle room.

Miranda predicted yesterday that Frist will bring the nomination of 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Terrence Boyle to the floor soon but that Frist may be reluctant to move other judges.

“They are ready to give us Boyle and end there,” he said.

But the Gang of 14 has not given its blessing to Boyle, whose nomination has been plagued by conflict-of-interest allegations. The Gang’s seven Democrats wrote to Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) last month to ask for another hearing on Boyle. At the same time, Republicans declined to offer support, raising questions about Boyle’s viability on the Senate floor.

But some Republicans argue Frist should schedule “prime time” debates over the nominees and try to force floor votes, even if he is stymied by Democratic filibusters. The battle, they say, will rally the base.

“If opponents engage, we believe the debate itself is a gain,” they wrote. “If opponents obstruct through abuse of Senate rules, highlighting that obstruction is vitally important, and not just for political advantage.”

While Miranda and his allies raised hackles at a press conference yesterday, many conservatives are clearly pleased with the effort to ban flag burning. It has been among the highest priorities for some conservative interest groups for years.

Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council, acknowledged yesterday that he was “going a little off message” when he thanked Frist for bringing up the amendments to ban flag burning and gay marriage.

The flag-burning issue does not cut neatly across party lines. Majority Whip Mitch McConnell and fellow GOP Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) have voted against similar constitutional flag-burning bans, while past Democratic supporters number in double digits.

Democrats said conservatives who think the flag-burning amendment should be on the back burner are half-right.

“The push to confirm radical judicial nominees and the flag amendment both reflect misplaced Republican priorities,” said Rebecca Kirszner, spokeswoman for Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid has supported the amendment and will again if it comes to a vote, Kirszner said. “But he still believes this is not what the Senate should be debating right now,” she said.

It does not appear that the flag-burning measure will attract enough votes to clear the two-thirds threshold for passage of constitutional amendments.