On June 6, just two weeks after declaring, “All of the President’s nominees–both now and in the future–deserve a fair up or down vote,” Kansas Senator Sam Brownback used a parliamentary maneuver to block the nomination of Julie Finley to be US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Finley is one of the Republican Party’s most effective fundraisers, “the queen of soft money,” as the New York Times‘s Jill Abramson described her in 2000. She is a forceful advocate for the expansion of NATO and “democracy promotion” in former Soviet-bloc countries–issues that would occupy a major part of her job at OSCE. She is also the founder of Women in the Senate and House (WISH), which raises money on behalf of female Republican candidates who are prochoice. It was that aspect of Finley’s résumé that riveted Brownback’s attention, even though abortion is practically irrelevant to the mission of OSCE.
To block Finley, Brownback exercised the privilege called a hold, by which a senator can put a presidential nomination in purgatory indefinitely. Brownback’s hold went largely under the radar in Washington, but outside the Beltway, his base was ecstatic. On May 3 the Republican National Coalition for Life had issued a press release declaring, “We are concerned that, given [Finley’s] history of support for liberal abortion policies, she will be able to promote her proabortion views through the OSCE.” The Republican National Coalition for Life is directed by Colleen Parro, who told me she “admires Brownback very much for blocking [Finley].” She shares Brownback’s belief that the Republican Party should require a litmus test on abortion for GOP members who seek promotion through the party’s ranks.
“There are a lot of issues about which reasonable people can agree,” Parro said. “That takes place all the time in the Republican Party on matters that are not fundamental. But the right to life is fundamental. You are either prolife or you’re not. If you’re not, and you want to be a Republican, you should just be quiet.”
In 1990 conservative doyenne Phyllis Schlafly started the Republican National Coalition for Life to counter Republicans for Choice’s campaign for a prochoice platform at the 1992 Republican National Convention. There Parro, a veteran antiabortion activist, locked horns with Finley, who had thrown her fundraising muscle behind Republicans for Choice’s efforts. In the platform battle, the Christian right emerged victorious. By last year’s convention, the GOP’s prochoice wing was completely marginalized. On the convention’s second day Parro hosted an extravagant luncheon for social conservative leaders at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green. While she and her guests made the requisite calls for Bush’s re-election, the spotlight was on their hero, Sam Brownback, who was honored with an award and given the podium for a speech. The movement was beginning to size up his presidential potential.
Brownback’s ambition is becoming clearer by the day. He has already made trips to the primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And just as his likely contender for the Republican nomination, Senate majority leader Bill Frist, exploited Terri Schiavo to burnish his “culture of life” credentials with the GOP’s religious base, Brownback has used Julie Finley. The difference is that Frist got burned publicly and was widely criticized for his maladroit handling of the Schiavo affair, while Brownback received credit from the religious right for standing up on principle to President Bush, while most of the mainstream media gave him a pass. Having reaped the political benefits of opposing Finley, Brownback quietly lifted his hold on her nomination on June 10. With social legislation as his tool, Brownback leverages the support of the Christian right forces, which helped lift him from obscurity more than a decade ago. The culture war also serves as Brownback’s means to divert attention from the alliances with elitist religious cults and corporate front groups he has assiduously cultivated throughout his career.