Pressure by White
House Is Being Applied With Care
By RICHARD W.
STEVENSON, NYTimes on the Web, May 19, 2005
WASHINGTON, May 18 - At the
White House, the official line on the fight over ending filibusters of judicial
nominees is that it is a matter for the Senate to decide.
But behind the scenes, the White House, directly and through its allies, is
playing an active role in keeping up the pressure on the Senate to assure that
President Bush's nominees have up-or-down confirmation votes, Republicans
involved in the effort said.
So far, administration and Congressional aides said, the White House has avoided
any strong-arm lobbying of Republican senators to end the use of filibusters to
block nominees to federal judgeships.
The aides said any heavy-handed pressure from the White House could backfire by
making the issue seem less about fairness than about the balance of power
between the executive and legislative branches, a topic on which senators of any
political stripe might be loath to side with the administration.
Instead, the White House has been relying on relatively casual conversations and
contacts, focusing on the merits of its case that nominees who command majority
support deserve votes. Vice President Dick Cheney, who by virtue of his
role as president of the Senate has been the administration's point man in the
debate, and Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee who
is a close associate of Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's strategist, attended the weekly
lunch on Tuesday for all the Republican senators, where the issue was Topic A.
On Wednesday, the White House arranged for the two nominees at the center of the
fight, Justices Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla R. Owen, to meet privately
with a number of Republican senators, including John W. Warner of Virginia, one
of the most senior Republicans to have expressed reservations about eliminating
the filibuster in confirmation fights over judges.
But if the White House is treading warily in dealing with senators, it has been
aggressive in the broader political landscape, where it is facing furious
opposition from the Democrats, who are portraying Republicans as power hungry
and out of touch with the concerns of most Americans.
Working closely with the Republican National Committee, Republican leaders on
Capitol Hill and outside interest groups, the White House is helping shape a
campaign that in many ways resembles its effort to shape public opinion and win
votes in Congress for Mr. Bush's proposed overhaul of Social Security,
Republican officials said.
Each Tuesday morning, the Republican National Committee convenes a strategy
session on Social Security that includes White House officials, senior
Republican staff members from Congress and representatives of outside groups
that are drumming up support in the filibuster dispute.
Those groups include some with close ties to Mr. Bush and his political machine,
like the Committee for Justice, which is run by C. Boyden Gray, who was White
House counsel under Mr. Bush's father. The group was established three
years ago with the encouragement of Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and Mr.
Rove, said its executive director, Sean Rushton.
Also involved are groups that have backed Mr. Bush on other fronts like Progress
for America, which has been running advertising that supports the White House on
judicial nominations just as it has on Social Security and in Mr. Bush's
For their part, the Democrats are hitting back hard, lumping the debate over the
filibuster with the ethical questions about the House majority leader,
Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, and assertions that too much power in the
hands of one party inevitably leads to trouble.
"Their corruption and abuse of power is already here for all Americans to see,"
said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader.
The Republican National Committee has been using its vast database of Bush
supporters to turn up the heat on Democrats. A few weeks ago it sent
e-mail messages to conservatives and people for whom judges are a big political
issue, asking them to call Democrats like Senators Reid, Robert C. Byrd, Hillary
Rodham Clinton and Edward M. Kennedy and tell them "not to shut down the
government" and "start fulfilling their constitutional obligation."
Strategists at the Republican committee and the White House have discussed
putting similar grass-roots pressure on some of the Republican senators who are
possible defectors on the issue, but decided against it, Republicans involved in
the deliberations said.
"The general consensus up to now has been that it's not helpful to do that,"
said one Republican official who sought anonymity because of the delicate issue
of the differences among Republicans.
The White House can call on a broad array of conservative groups that come at
the issue from perspectives like opposing abortion and gay marriage, as well as
legal theory. The participants in the weekly meetings include
representatives of Focus on the Family, the powerful Christian advocacy group
run by Dr. James C. Dobson, and the Federalist Society, the influential
conservative legal group.
At the same time, the White House is publicly turning up the pressure on
Democrats, accusing them of being obstructionist on judicial nominations and
portraying that position as part of a broader problem that Democrats have used
to keep Mr. Bush from addressing issues like Social Security and high oil
In doing so, the White House is also pressing Democrats not to use the
bitterness of the filibuster fight as a reason to slow the Senate to a crawl and
cut off any remaining hope of bipartisan agreement on the rest of Mr. Bush's
agenda. "The president is concerned that you've had leaders from the
Democratic Party in the Senate who have been more intent on blocking progress
than they have been on coming to the table and working with us to solve the
important priorities that we face," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman,
said. "Let's remember that this matter is being discussed right now
because Senate Democrats have gone to an unprecedented level of blocking the
president's nominees to the bench from simply receiving an up-or-down vote on
the floor of the United States Senate."