The impending political showdown in the Senate over President Bush's judicial nominees is being driven in part by an important voting bloc within the Republican Party, conservative Christian activists.
A strong voter turnout from religious conservatives was a key factor in President Bush's re-election victory last November.
Now, conservative Christian activists are trying to whip up grass roots support in favor of President Bush's judicial nominees who are opposed by Democrats in the Senate.
The Reverend Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and a longtime leader of what is often referred to as the 'religious right,' recently told ABC's 'This Week' program that no issue, not even terrorism, is of more importance than controlling what he sees as liberal activist federal judges. "I think they are destroying the fabric that holds our nation together. There is an assault on marriage, there is an assault on human sexuality. As (Supreme Court) Justice (Antonin) Scalia said, they have taken sides in the culture war," he said.
Republicans are counting on a show of public support from conservative Christian activists to help break a Senate logjam on confirmation votes for several of President Bush's judicial nominees.
Opposition Democrats view the nominees as extreme conservatives and have threatened to use a delaying tactic known as the filibuster to prevent the nominees from ever coming up for a vote. "As United States senators, our role is to give advice and consent. It is defined in the Constitution, advice and consent. And the way we do that is by voting, voting up or down, yes or no, confirm or reject," said Bill Frist of Tennessee, who leads the Republican majority in the Senate. .
Democrats say any attempt to do away with the right to filibuster would weaken the checks and balances on the president that allows the minority party to resist what the founders of the American Republic called the tyranny of the majority.
Democrats also objected to a recent television broadcast organized by religious conservatives that labeled them as against people of faith because of their opposition to the president's nominees. "And yet they feel that they have gotten such a mandate that they can roll back the Constitution, undo checks and balances and always get their way. It is an arrogance, an abuse of power," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
The president says his nominees deserve a simple up or down vote in the Senate. But he disagrees with those Republicans who see the issue as a test of religious faith. "People in political office should not say to somebody that you are not equally American if you do not happen to agree with my view of religion. As I said, I think faith is a personal issue," he said.
Historians say there have been occasions in the past when politicians were unhappy with judicial decisions and tried to take action, but usually they failed. "The whole point is that we did not want to subject the federal judiciary to partisan political wrangling and that is why judges serve during good behavior for life. That was the whole reason to put that in (the Constitution), to take the judges out of politics so that they could rule on the basis of the law, not on the basis of politics," said Stephen Wayne is a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington.
Political analysts see the battle over judges as an extension of last year's close election in which the president narrowly defeated Democrat John Kerry by a margin of 51 to 48-percent.
"Within the Republican base and within the Democratic base, I think emotions are running very, very high. The people who are sort of in the very middle of the (political) spectrum, they have sort of gone back to their normal lives. But the partisans, the ideologues, the people that are really into politics, they did not let down at all," said Charles Cook, who publishes an influential political newsletter in Washington.
Liberal activist groups have also become energized about the Senate battle over judges and are attempting to build grass roots support to oppose the president's judicial nominees.
Both sides see the current dispute as a likely preview of what might happen if President Bush gets an opportunity to appoint a new justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.