Political Wrap: Filibuster Debate

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News analyst Cokie Roberts discusses the confrontation expected this week in the Senate over the filibuster. Republicans are threatening to change Senate rules so that a simple majority could stop debate on a judicial nominee. Currently, 60 votes are required. Democrats are threatening to bring Senate work to a halt in response.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The Senate convenes this week facing some of the most contentious issues in the institution's history. Both parties have turned the confirmation process for presidential nominees into major political battles, and now Republican leaders are close to changing the rules of the Senate. But the fight over that rules change could affect the Congress for years to come. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts joins us now, as she does every Monday morning.

Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's going on here? Is there really as much division as people suggest here?

ROBERTS: Oh, yes. I mean, this is as bad as certainly I've ever seen it, but what you've got here is Democrats who are stung by the loss of the entire federal government to their control, and they're seeing openings. They feel they can paint the Republicans as out of the mainstream with some of these nominations, so the fight over John Bolton, for instance, to be ambassador to the United Nations, is part of that, and over many of these federal judges. But, of course, the big fight that they are gearing for is the Supreme Court. And what you have happening there is both sides fully armored for a really major, major battle.

Now the Democratic groups have been geared up for years. They've had an infrastructure in place in the debates over Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, but now the Republican side is absolutely ready to take the Democrats on, and they're not just ready to defend or attack the nominees, they're ready to attack, some of them, the entire judiciary, and you and I have talked before about the upset in large parts of the conservative part of the country over judicial rulings on issues like school prayer, abortion, now Terri Schiavo, etc., but you are seeing now groups like Focus on Family and Dr. James Dobson, who leads that, saying that the federal judiciary is the primary focus of what they need to get done politically because they see the judiciary as running roughshod over the American people, and he has said quite publicly that he's ready to see Justice Kennedy, for instance, impeached because of his recent statements. So, you know, we're talking about serious stuff here.

INSKEEP: Although people have been angry about these issues for years, what makes them so intense now?

ROBERTS: Well, there's lots of pressure on the Republicans, as I say, from the outside groups. The Democrats have felt that pressure for a long time. But it is much more effective pressure when you have the majority leader of the Senate running for president, as everyone assumes Bill Frist is doing. He has got to play to the Republican base in what will be a wide-open nomination battle in 2008, and he figures he can pre-empt some of his Senate colleagues on the base when he does something like this, so when, for instance, Chuck Hagel, says that he wants to find a compromise on this filibuster rule, Bill Frist is not slightly interested in a compromise. He's not running for the Senate again. He won't even be there. He's interested in pleasing the Republican base.

INSKEEP: We've just got a few seconds, Cokie, but so much of this debate has ended up being about the history of the Senate, which is one of the reasons I'm glad you're here. You know it so well. Is either side right or wrong on this?

ROBERTS: There's no debate in the Constitution on this subject, so we--in the constitutional debate, so you can't go back to the founders on it, except that colonial legislatures did have unlimited debate, so it's possible that when they said the Senate should advise and consent, they knew they could talk it to death.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much.

That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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