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Congressional Democrats move to exploit schisms in GOP ranks

WASHINGTON—Sensing divisions within the GOP ranks, congressional Democrats are turning up the heat on Republicans, accusing them of trying to use their power to intimidate judges, change Senate rules and avoid ethics scrutiny.

The orchestrated campaign will reach fever pitch Wednesday with a joint House-Senate news conference and talk-radio appearances by half a dozen Democratic senators.

One of the Democrats' main targets will be embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose overseas trips, links to lobbyists and political fund raising are under growing media scrutiny.

But Democrats also are agitating against Republican efforts to change Senate debate rules on judicial nominations and are accusing some social conservatives of trying to interfere with the independence of the judicial branch.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has begun to distinguish between "responsible" and "irresponsible" Republicans in an attempt to take the partisan bite out of the Democrats' message and exploit Republican schisms.

"Responsible Republicans in this country and in this Senate must listen to what's going on in our country," Reid said.

Already, liberal groups have been aiding Democrats by running advertisements questioning DeLay's ethics and accusing Republicans of an overall power grab.

But the strategy has risks because it could tar Democrats as negative obstructionists—a label that Republicans have used with some success in the past.

For now, though, the Republicans are on the defensive.

On Tuesday, DeLay made a rare appearance at the Senate Republicans' weekly lunch to address questions about his ethics. He asked senators to "please be patient," a tacit acknowledgement that some Republicans are growing nervous about the questions swirling around him. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said DeLay blamed liberal organizations for the attacks against him.

While Democrats have been publicly cautious about raising ethics questions about DeLay, they've been eager to criticize efforts by the House Republican leadership to change ethics rules so that it's harder to bring a complaint against a member. To protest the changes, Democrats have refused to let the House ethics committee even meet.

A few Republicans have called on DeLay to answer the criticisms against him, including conservative Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a moderate who often quarrels with DeLay, has said the majority leader should step down.

"This is a very broad-gauged offensive to drive a real bulge in the Republican line," said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University. Baker said Democrats see DeLay as being especially vulnerable and sense that Republicans are "getting as nervous as a Christmas goose."

The GOP fissures are even more pronounced when it comes to conservative Republicans' attacks on the judiciary. The judicial criticism has been particularly intense ever since federal judges refused to reattach a feeding tube for Terri Schiavo, whose controversial case involved the Congress and the president.

Last week, DeLay told a gathering of religious conservative activists that the federal judiciary had "run amok" and that Congress needed to intervene. Others at the meeting called for the impeachment of judges. But President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have said they support an "independent judiciary."

On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., defended DeLay against the ethics accusations, but he denounced his remarks about judges.

Judges, Graham said, "cannot operate in an atmosphere where political people are going to take an individual's decision and threaten their job. That is unhealthy for the country. It is not going to be adopted by the Senate as a way of doing business. It is political rhetoric that needs to stop."

Conservatives are also pressuring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to change Senate rules so that Democrats can't stall Bush's judicial nominees. Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's appellate court candidates by using the filibuster, a maneuver that allows extended debate and can only be terminated by 60 votes. But some Republicans worry about altering such a venerable Senate tradition as the filibuster, and Frist aides say they aren't sure they have the 50 votes they need to change the rule.

Two organizations allied with Republicans—the National Right to Work Committee and Gun Owners of America—have come out against the rule change, saying it could lead to broader, unintended changes. Both groups credited the filibuster rules for stopping labor bills and gun-control legislation that they opposed.

Former Republican leader Bob Dole, interviewed on National Public Radio, warned Republicans "to be very careful, that's my advice, before you start tinkering with the rules."

"I mean the rules have been changed before," he said. "You want to think down the road. The Senate's going to change. It's not always going to be Republican."

The change has been labeled the "nuclear option" because it signals a last resort and it would likely devastate what's left of Republican-Democrat relations in the Senate. Reid has threatened to slow the Senate's work to a crawl if Frist carries out the change.

"Comments to try to make this partisan, this shut-down-the-government strategy, I don't fully understand," Frist said Tuesday. "That sort of rhetoric is just not helpful to what we're trying to do on the floor of the United States Senate when you look at civility and you look at trust and you look at working together."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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