McCain irks Republicans over anti-filibuster option

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Sen. John McCain has once again enraged Republicans by publicly opposing Majority Leader Bill Frist’s plan to employ the so-called nuclear option for ending the filibusters against President Bush’s judicial nominees.

“Look, we won’t always be in the majority,” Mr. McCain told MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews Thursday night. “I say to my conservative friends, someday there will be a liberal Democrat president and a liberal Democrat Congress. Why? Because history shows it goes back and forth. I don’t know if it’s a hundred years from now, but it will happen. And do we want a bunch of liberal judges approved by the Senate of the United States with 51 votes if the Democrats are in the majority?”

Mr. McCain particularly outraged conservatives by telling Mr. Matthews that Republicans have done the same thing to Democrats in the past, a point that Republicans dispute.

Conservatives responded yesterday by coordinating a three-pronged attack on the Arizona Republican aiming to either flip him or kill any hope he may have of running for president again in 2008.

The so-called nuclear option, is a rare, parliamentary procedure that would bar the filibustering of judicial nominees.

“He will have no presidential hopes if he pursues this course,” said Manuel Miranda, a former Frist staffer who now chairs the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters. “This very well may be the first primary campaign between Bill Frist and John McCain.”

Mr. Miranda’s coalition — a group of more than 150 conservative organizations that don’t normally take part in judicial fights but are deeply involved in Republican primaries — has begun a letter-writing and e-mail offensive in not only Mr. McCain’s home state of Arizona, but also the key primary states of Michigan and South Carolina.

It was in Michigan that Mr. McCain achieved his surprise upset over candidate George W. Bush in the 2000 primary campaign and it was in South Carolina that Mr. McCain was defeated by fervent conservatives. Mr. McCain has been traveling in Michigan, South Carolina and other primary states, fueling speculation that he will run again in 2008.

Combating the Democratic filibusters has become a hot issue among conservatives, who see the judicial branch as the last bastion of liberalism. Mr. Frist, who also appears to be running for the Republican nomination, will be rewarded if he gets Mr. Bush’s nominee on the bench, conservatives say, and Mr. McCain will be punished if he opposes those efforts.

“If Senator McCain refuses to stand up for fairness, it will damage his carefully crafted image and whatever aspirations he might have,” said Marshall Manson with the Center for Individual Freedom, one of the groups in Mr. Miranda’s coalition. “The people who care about this issue are watching carefully, and they have long memories.”

Mr. McCain said yesterday he is not worried. “That’s fine,” he said. “We just returned from Michigan and we had great crowds. I’m very popular there, which I’m grateful for.”

In a letter to activists, Mr. Miranda urged conservatives of every stripe to plead with Mr. McCain to switch his position.

Mr. McCain told The Washington Times yesterday that his position isn’t new and he won’t change his mind. “That’s nothing new. I’ve said that for awhile,” the senator said. But in previous statements, Mr. McCain was always very careful to say he remained open-minded about considering Mr. Frist’s arguments.

Democrats, meanwhile railed against Mr. Frist yesterday for his planned participation in “Justice Sunday Simulcast,” which the Family Research Council will pipe into churches across the country during Sunday services a week from tomorrow.

Mr. Frist, of Tennessee, and other conservatives say that the Democratic filibusters against Bush nominees are based on their opposition to any nominees who have personal religious beliefs, such as opposition to abortion, even if they vow never to let such beliefs enter into their judicial rulings.

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