Senate Grapples with Bolton Nomination, Filibuster Issue

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Robert Siegel talks with Rutgers University Political Science professor Ross Baker about the machinations within the Senate on both the John Bolton nomination and the judicial filibuster question.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

With unusual Senate procedure in the news, we turn to Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker.

Welcome back, Professor Baker.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Rutgers University): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: I'd like to ask you about what happened today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee decided to pass the nomination of John Bolton to the full Senate without a recommendation. Rare, unheard of, common? What would you say?

Prof. BAKER: Not common, but not unheard of. The tie vote enables the committee to send on the nomination to the floor for a vote. There was no positive recommendation; there was no negative recommendation. In a sense, it's sort of a jump ball that goes to the Senate. Clearly, even among some Republicans who supported the Bolton nomination on the committee--Senator Hagel of Nebraska being one--the enthusiasm for Bolton was not great.

SIEGEL: Senator Voinovich did something--said something very interesting today. After describing John Bolton as a poster child for all that a diplomat should not be in a scathing speech, the senator said, `I'm not so arrogant as to say that I should pre-empt the role of the entire Senate, deprive my colleagues of a chance to vote on the floor.' Is that a principle that you've heard often, that the committee member doesn't believe he should preclude action by the full--but isn't that what the committees do? Don't they preclude action by the full body?

Prof. BAKER: Well, that's certainly been the case with Republican-dominated Judiciary Committees under Clinton and Democratic Judiciary Committees under Bush. There are two places where a nominee can be stopped. One is by an adverse vote of the committee, and the second, of course, is on the floor. Now the Democrats, of course, at this point, are fighting their judicial battles on the floor because they're outvoted in the committee. But if they had the votes in the committee, they would do it there.

SIEGEL: Let's put this together with, as we've heard from Brian Naylor, what's likely to be a showdown, perhaps as soon as early next week, over the judicial filibusters. Are we seeing the Senate majority leader either attempting to or succeeding at greatly strengthening his hand in the institution of the Senate?

Prof. BAKER: Well, you know, I think that Bill Frist's vision transcends the United States Senate at this point. I think this is all about the 2008 Republican nomination for president. I think that Senator Frist has been under enormous pressure from social conservative groups to force a showdown on this. I suspect that if he did not have presidential ambitions, he might be of a more compromising disposition. But I think it's tremendously important for him to really plant the flag and attempt to force a showdown with the Democrats.

SIEGEL: And yet the case of John Bolton seems to illustrate the problem that faces senators when they aspire to the presidency, which is there are some members of this committee who are going to say, `I voted against John Bolton after I voted for him.'

Prof. BAKER: Well, I don't think it's going to be quite as consequential as the vote on the military appropriations bill that got Senator Kerry so tied up. I think that it does point out, of course, one of the problems that occurs when members of Congress run for president, and that is they just take thousands and thousands of votes. The longer you've been there, the more votes you've cast, any one of which can be construed in the most sinister way possible. So--but I really don't think that John Bolton will ever become a campaign issue.

SIEGEL: Well, Ross Baker, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

Prof. BAKER: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Ross Baker teaches political science at Rutgers University, and he spoke to us today from New Brunswick, New Jersey.

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