WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Congressional moderates dealt the Religious Right two major political blows this week, first in the Senate with a compromise on judicial nominees and then in the House with legislation that would expand the number of embryonic stem cells eligible for federal funding.

That leaves the Religious Right looking more hampered than in the last Congress, when they pushed through a wide-reaching ban on abortion as well as a bill that criminalized injuries to fetuses that arise from violent offenses.

Since the House vote on stem-cell research is unlikely to survive a threatened veto issued by President Bush, the Religious Right is focusing its outrage and alarm on the Senate’s compromise on the use of filibusters against judicial nominees, which drew a flurry of angry press releases from religious conservatives.

“This Senate agreement represents a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats,” Dr. James C. Dobson, chair of Focus on the Family, a religious conservative advocacy group in Colorado, said in a statement. “The unconstitutional filibuster survives in the arsenal of Senate liberals.”

Women’s rights activists, however, were claiming no victories. Instead they issued their own batch of statements in a kind of competition about which side would suffer most under the deal averting the “nuclear option,” short-hand hyperbole for the explosive effect that ending the filibuster would have had on Senate business.

Limiting the filibuster of judicial nominees to “extraordinary circumstances” gave Democrats nothing, they said, since it was already being used to block only judges they view as extremist. In the last Congress, they noted, Democrats blocked 10 of more than 200 of the president’s nominees. Further, noted abortion rights activists, the decision paves the way to the confirmation of three conservative judges to the federal bench.

“The Senate ‘compromise’ was more like a mugging, where the thug says ‘If you give me what I want, I won’t shoot you . . . at least not right now,'” Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C., said in her own statement. “Indeed, the victim may feel relieved for the moment, but has been victimized nonetheless. And may yet be shot.”

Widening Rift

This week’s developments expose a widening rift between religious conservatives and moderates within the Republican Party, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor of politics at Drake University in Iowa. And religious conservatives are beginning to realize that even though they control party leadership, they don’t have as much sway over the party and the public as they would like.

This division is expected to become more visible, Caufield said, as the Senate takes up debate of more judicial nominations–including appointments to anticipated openings on the Supreme Court–and other social issues, in the areas of abortion and perhaps gay marriage and stem cell research.

On Tuesday evening the House of Representatives voted in support of legislation that would ease restrictions on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. The vote went against President Bush and Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay, the embattled born-again Christian from Texas. President Bush, DeLay and other conservative fundamentalists oppose the stem-cell initiative as “embryo killing” legislation because it moves beyond the president’s executive order on August 9, 2001, to bar federal funding of research on those embryonic stem cell lines not already in existence.

The bill faces an uphill road to passage. First, it must pass the Senate and then it must win the signature of President Bush, who has vowed to veto the legislation. If he does, the legislation would need support from a two-thirds majority in both chambers to overcome the veto, an unlikely scenario given that House supporters fell far short of a veto-proof majority on Tuesday.

The stem-cell vote followed Monday’s 11th-hour agreement by 14 senators to retain the right of the minority party to filibuster the president’s judicial nominations, a critical point as vacancies on the Supreme Court could open up as early as this summer. Filibuster, in this battle, is the process used to block presidential nominations because Democrats have refused to join in attempts to shut off debate–which requires 60 votes and the Republicans hold 55 Senate seats.

‘Trio of Terrors’

The compromise agreement hammered out by Senate moderates paved the way for the confirmation of what NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C., called the “trio of terrors” to the federal bench. They are Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen, California Supreme Court Judge Janice Rogers Brown and former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor.

Under the deal, seven Democrats agreed to allow floor votes on the three conservative judicial nominees in exchange for a commitment by seven Republicans to oppose a procedural move to ban filibusters of judicial nominees.

Democrats can still block the president’s appointments in “extraordinary circumstances”–a point that made Democrats the victors in the long-standing partisan fight over judges, Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America, a social conservative advocacy group in Washington, said in a statement.

Owen, whose nomination to the seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had been blocked by Democrats for four years, won Senate approval on Wednesday.

The Senate is also expected to soon approve Brown and Pryor, whose nominations had been blocked by Democrats who objected to their records on issues such as abortion, civil rights, workers’ rights and consumer rights.

After a banner cycle in the 108th Congress, the setbacks this week make the year so far a mixed bag for the Religious Right–a surprise given that Republicans’ expanded their majorities in both the House and Senate in the 2004 elections.

The movement scored a major victory last month when the House approved a bill that would make it a federal crime to take women under the age of 18 across state lines to have an abortion without the consent of a parent, legal guardian or judge.

But religious conservatives ultimately lost the battle–in the courts and in public opinion–to prevent the removal of a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman in Florida who died in March. Opinion polls showed the vast majority of the public disapproved of the decision by congressional leaders–at the urging of religious conservatives–to try to save the woman’s life by enacting a law shifting jurisdiction over the case to federal courts. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

Anti-abortion rights groups also suffered a minor loss earlier this year when the Senate approved in April an amendment that if passed would overturn the so-called Gag Rule and restore federal funding to organizations overseas that use funds from any source to perform abortions, provide counseling and referral for abortion or lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country. That legislation is not expected to become law.

“The Religious Right may have suffered a setback,” concluded Rick Hardy, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “But it doesn’t mean that the liberal left is in command.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Filibuster Storm Brews Over Judicial Nominations:

Bush Successful in Appointing Activist Judges: