Obama 'Understated' When Reacting To Zimmerman Verdict

There has been a lot of political reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict, announced Saturday night in Sanford, Fla. Also in the news, it appears the Senate is headed toward a historic vote on changing filibuster rules.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's talk more about what President Obama had to say after the verdict. Commentator Cokie Roberts joins us, as she does most Mondays.

Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Well, I said what President Obama had to say. He didn't actually say anything. We didn't actually hear him. We got a written statement from the president after the Zimmerman verdict. Should we read anything into that?

ROBERTS: Yeah, I think so. He had his words if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon played back repeatedly since the verdict was announced Saturday night. And there were critics at the time who said when he said that, that he was weighing in on one side of the case. So rather than do that yesterday, the president was understated.

Look, there's obviously a huge amount of upset among many African - many African-Americans who think the justice system is biased against them, that Trayvon Martin was the victim of racial profiling. And you just heard in Greg's piece the head of the NAACP calling on the Justice Department to take up the case on the federal level. Some members of Congress are saying the same thing.

Others have argued this verdict should reopen the debate about gun laws, since Zimmerman will be allowed to have his gun back, and the president did use the occasion to say, quote, "We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis." The likelihood of that happening in this very divided Congress, however, David, is not great.

GREENE: All right. So the jury has spoken, but some debates might certainly go on. Well, let me ask you, Cokie, about the divided Congress you mentioned. The Senate is bitterly divided over filibuster rules, and that they're doing something really unusual today.

ROBERTS: Yes. They're going to have a meeting tonight. It gathers an entire body. The rank-and-file asked the leaders for this. There'll be no reporters, no public. They'll meet in the historic old Senate chamber that's usually used as a museum just to show people where some of the major debates of our history - including some somewhat violent ones leading up to the Civil War - took place.

But the Senate convened there in the lead up to President Clinton's impeachment trial, and members of the Senate thought that the gatherings brought them closer together and set the right tone going into that debate. So they're trying it again.

GREENE: Well, no offense to the filibuster, but this debate doesn't seem as momentous as a presidential impeachment. I mean, why do they think a proposal to change Senate filibuster rules rises to the level to have such an important meeting here?

ROBERTS: Well, because it can change the whole tone of the Senate if minority rights are encroached on as the minority says that Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to do. He says he wants to eliminate the filibuster when it comes to presidential appointments. He argues Republicans have frivolously held up the president's nominees, and that any president has a right to name his own team.

So Reid is threatening to invoke what's come to be called the nuclear option, which is a parliamentary device that would allow his party, his party, to change the rules by a simple majority vote of 51 senators. Now, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor last week that if Reid carries out this threat, he would go down in history as the worst majority leader ever.

Now, for somebody to say that on the floor of the Senate is very unusual. Those are strong words for that body. McConnell walked them back a tiny bit over the weekend, but the feelings are strong. The problems for both sides here, David, is that they've each been on the other side of this question, and their former speeches are being used against them.

Republicans threatened to use the same ploy against Democrats on judicial appointments in the Bush administration, and Democrats - including Harry Reid - said it would, quote, "blow up the Senate." Now, the shoes are on the other feet. You know, it's that old adage: Where you stand depends on where you sit.

GREENE: Yeah, role reversal here. Well, keeping the metaphor going, what happened when Republicans were talking about detonating the nuclear option?

ROBERTS: A bipartisan group of 14 Senators got together and pledged to oppose both the nuclear option and filibusters of judicial nominees, except in extraordinary circumstances. Something like that could happen again today, but so far, there's no sign of it. It will be interesting to see if vice president Biden plays a role. He's been very useful in bringing Senate Republicans and Democrats together.

But if they don't come together over this and the nuclear option is invoked, look for an even more dysfunctional Senate. I know that's hard to believe, but Republicans who would come together with Democrats on policy are likely to balk on this.

GREENE: We'll be watching. Commentator Cokie Roberts, it is always good to talk to you.

ROBERTS: Nice to talk to you, David.

GREENE: She joins us to talk politics most Mondays here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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