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GOP counters pitch against Bush judges

WASHINGTON

Senate Republicans are moving to put some muscle behind their pitch to eliminate judicial filibusters after watching liberals push out TV ads against them in anticipation of a showdown over who sits on federal appeals courts.

"They're ahead of the power curve," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said of the orchestrated effort by Democrats and groups such as MoveOn.org and People for the American Way. "I think you'll see a greater, stepped-up message on part of the Republicans to go on offense on this issues."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, after vowing last fall to stop Democrats from blocking the most conservative of President Bush's nominees, will appear in a telecast later this month with leaders of social conservative groups.

According to a flier for the Louisville, Ky., event, it will focus on how judicial filibusters are being used "against people of faith." The telecast is being organized by the Family Research Council, which sponsored a similar event last year opposing gay marriage. Frist's staff said he will probably record his message for the telecast.

The Tennessee Republican, a likely contender for his party's presidential nomination in 2008, is under pressure to force a Senate showdown before Congress breaks May 27 for a long Memorial Day recess.

To change Senate rules so that Democrats can no longer block Bush's nominees with filibusters requiring just 41 votes, Frist needs a simple majority in the 100-member Senate. He can get that by mustering 50 votes and bringing in Vice President Dick Cheney as the tiebreaker.

The Senate has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent. But a half-dozen GOP senators either have said they oppose or have refused to support changing the rules.

Frist's plan has been dubbed the "nuclear option" because Democrats have promised to retaliate by blocking the rest of Bush's legislative agenda - excluding spending and highway bills and national security measures. His supporters call it the "constitutional option," saying the forefathers never intended to let a minority of the Senate block a president's choices for judgeships.

Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's 52 appeals court nominations through filibuster threats, while allowing the confirmation of 34 others. They have said they plan to keep blocking those 10 if they are brought up for confirmation again and will block other nominees they consider to be too conservative. Writings or judicial opinions on abortion, civil or labor rights and the environment are often a litmus test.

People for the American Way and MoveOn PAC have been running television ads for weeks trying to discourage Republicans from forcing a showdown over filibusters. Democratic leaders Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House have coordinated a message accusing majority Republicans of "abuse of power" and "arrogance."

"Our voice is being lost," Frist said this week. "From a leadership standpoint, we've held back, which has allowed the vacuum to be filled by lots of other voices. I hope what you will see over the next several weeks is us to do a better job."

To help publicize their message, a GOP group called the Advise and Consent Working Group now issues daily recaps of what GOP senators say about judicial nominations and rebuts Democrats' statements on the issues.

Republican senators have joined Democrats in giving daily speeches on the subject from the Senate floor. New conservative organizations such as the Judicial Confirmation Network and the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters are entering the fray to counter MoveOn and People for the American Way.

The Judicial Confirmation Network has planned an initial $250,000 ad buy on cable television to counter the liberal ads.

"The other side has started a pretty aggressive campaign," said Wendy Long, the group's lawyer. "We didn't want to just sit here and do nothing."

Some conservative groups have held off spending money on the filibuster battle, saving resources for an anticipated Supreme Court fight. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, has thyroid cancer, and many people expect a retirement from the nation's highest court before President Bush ends his second term.

But conservative senators and advocacy groups said there must be a resolution on the filibuster before that happens. Needing 60 votes to confirm a Supreme Court justice might affect whether Bush picks a conservative or a moderate, they said.

Thune said a high-profile Supreme Court nomination and a simultaneous fight over whether that person can be filibustered by Democrats might muddy the water and make both objectives more difficult.

Jesse J. Holland is an Associated Press writer.