Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said it was not "radical" to ask senators to vote on judicial nominees as he hardened his effort to strip Democrats of their power to stall President George W. Bush's picks for the federal court.
Frist, speaking at an event organized by Christian groups trying to rally churchgoers to support an end to judicial filibusters, also said judges deserve "respect, not retaliation," no matter how they rule.
A potential candidate for the White House in 2008, the Tennessee Republican made no overt mention of religion in the brief address, according to his videotaped remarks played on giant television screens to an audience estimated at 1,700 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Instead, Frist seemed intent on steering clear of the views expressed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other conservatives in and out of Congress who have urged investigations and even possible impeachment of judges they describe as activists.
"Our judiciary must be independent, impartial and fair," said Frist, who was not present at the event.
"When we think judicial decisions are outside mainstream American values, we will say so. But we must also be clear that the balance of power among all three branches requires respect — not retaliation. I won't go along with that," Frist said.
For months, Frist has threatened to take action that would shut down the Democrats' practice of subjecting a small number of judicial appointees to filibusters. Barring a last-minute compromise, a showdown is expected this spring or summer.
"I don't think it's radical to ask senators to vote. I don't think it's radical to expect senators to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities," said Frist, whom Democrats have accused of engaging in "radical Republican" politics.
"Either confirm the nominees or reject them," Frist said. "Don't leave them hanging."
While a majority of the Senate is sufficient to confirm a judge, it takes 60 votes under Senate rules to overcome a filibuster and force a final vote.
Rather than change the rules directly, Frist and other Republicans have threatened to seek an internal Senate ruling that would declare that filibusters are not permitted against judicial nominees.
Because such a ruling can be enforced by majority vote, and Republicans have 55 seats in the 100-member Senate, Republican leaders have said they expect to prevail if they put the issue to the test.
Democrats blocked 10 judicial appointments in Bush's first term. The president has renominated seven of the 10 since he won re-election, and Democrats have threatened to filibuster them again.
Inflamed by the role of federal judges in Terri Schiavio's final days and rulings on gay marriage, conservative Christians are now determined to take a stand against what some have called a judiciary run amuck and against what they see as democratic efforts to block conservative nominees from the federal bench, reports CBS News Correspondent Joie Chen.
Among the speakers Sunday was R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who said that putting more evangelicals on the court will mean rulings more in tune with the religious convictions of churchgoers.
"We are not asking for persons merely to be moral," Mohler said. "We want them to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ."
Republicans pushed two of the nominees — including Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen — from the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on party-line votes.
Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, raised the possibility of a deal. "I think we should compromise and say to them that ... we'll let a number" of the seven judges "go through, the two most extreme not go through and put off this vote and compromise," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is open to compromise, his spokesman said Sunday. "There's lot of concern among Republicans about the road Senator Frist is leading the Senate down," Jim Manley said.
In his remarks, Frist singled out Owen for praise, possibly indicating she will become the test case for the expected showdown. She has been nominated for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Frist said that "even though a majority of senators support her, she has been denied an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate. ... Justice Owen deserves better. She deserves a vote."
The majority leader noted that some Republicans are opposed to ending judicial filibusters, fearing that the Republicans may someday want to use the same tactics against appointments made by a Democratic president.
"That may be true. But if what Democrats are doing is wrong today, it won't be right for Republicans to do the same thing tomorrow," Frist said.
Republicans held a Senate majority for six of President Bill Clinton's eight years in office and frequently prevented votes on his court appointments by bottling them up in the committee.
Even some of the Supreme Court justices have gotten into the debate over filibusters and spoke candidly last week in a rare public discussion, reports Chen. Justice Antonin Scalia said he is dismayed by what he sees as political intrusion on the judiciary.
"I think what is going on is unprecedented in the difficulty of getting judicial nominations confirmed," said Scalia.
The Louisville event — "Justice Sunday: Stop the Filibuster Against People of Faith" — was held in a church and was sponsored by the Family Research Council, a conservative religious group.
Critics, including a number of ministers and Democratic politicians, said holding the event in a church was inappropriate.
At one of several rallies in the city on Sunday afternoon, about 100 protesters sat on the steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse as public officials voiced their dissent.
During another protest, several hundred people gathered at a Presbyterian church where progressive religious leaders condemned Frist and others for using the pulpit to spread a political message.