WASHINGTON—Big business is riding a small wave of success in Congress these days, and corporate America may well thank seven of President Bush's judicial nominees.
The Senate is moving unusually fast on the business agenda largely because of Republican fears that Democratic objections to five men and two women whom President Bush has nominated to appellate courts may shut it down.
The Senate recently passed two long-stalled pieces of pro-business legislation, on class-action lawsuits and bankruptcy law. Next on the business agenda: energy, health insurance and highway bills.
Many conservatives are pressing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to confront Democrats promptly and strip them of their power to use delaying tactics to block court nominees. That would require a controversial change in long-standing Senate rules. Republicans probably could muscle it through with their 55-member majority, but if they do, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has vowed to retaliate by blocking any further action with every procedural device at his disposal.
"Right now it seems to be a stare-down," said Dan Danner, the senior vice president for public policy at the National Federation of Independent Business.
Lobbyists also worry that any vacancy on the Supreme Court would provoke a titanic battle in the Senate, making it impossible to get anything else done. Chief Justice William Rehnquist's struggle with thyroid cancer has prompted speculation that he might retire at the end of the court's term in June.
"That would suck all the air out of town," Danner said.
With prospects of a Senate judicial deadlock looming, Frist appears eager to clear the decks of achievable legislation.
Business lobbyists are especially attuned to this week's federal-budget debate. They face a crucial vote Wednesday on oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which environmentalists have opposed but which advocates say could help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Efforts to authorize drilling in the refuge have stalled energy legislation for years, but making it part of the budget could expedite its passage.
"If you can move ANWR in budget reconciliation, then you have momentum going into the energy bill," said Bruce Josten, the executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Danner, whose group represents small-business people, wants Congress to make it easier for small businesses to create health-insurance purchasing groups. Josten wants Congress to move quickly on a highway bill that would finance billions of dollars in road projects.
"If I were them and wanted to get something done, I'd do the ANWR thing, pass the energy bill, do the highway bill," Josten said. "After that it starts getting a little dicey."
Some Republicans, however, would like to hold back some bipartisan legislation to dangle before Democrats after a confrontation over judges. That could put Democrats in the uncomfortable position of obstructing legislation their constituents want.
"The Democrats are going to block the highway bill?" asked Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., incredulous because it contains money for almost every lawmaker's district. "They can huff and puff and say, `We'll shut the place down.' What about the stuff they care about?"
Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said business lobbyists looking for speedy action on their pet causes shouldn't be putting pressure on Republicans.
"The business community ought to talk to our Democratic friends if they are concerned about this," he said. "We can't stop the nomination process."
The political world is watching Frist to see how he decides to make his move against Democrats on judges, a step many call the "nuclear option" because it threatens to devastate relations between the parties in the Senate. In a recent interview, Frist said he was exercising "restraint," which means "not doing anything knee-jerk, not doing anything radical, not doing what various constituencies might want to do."
Frist is often mentioned as a likely presidential candidate in 2008, which could require him eventually to pay more attention to the Republican Party's conservative base than to Senate decorum.
"He's put two great touchdowns on the scoreboard," said Scott Reed, a Republican lobbyist and strategist. "He's ultimately going to be faced with a fork in the road: running the Senate or designing a strategy for Iowa social conservatives."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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