Bolton, the U.N. and the 'Nuclear Option'

Host Liane Hansen speaks with Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. They discuss the fight over Senate filibusters, the confirmation process for John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations and prospects for overhauling Social Security.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Well, the crack of doom might be rapidly approaching as the showdown over Senate filibusters could come this week. On Friday, Majority Leader Bill Frist announced he intends to bring the names of two judges to the floor for an up-or-down vote perhaps as early as Tuesday. Democratic Leader Harry Reid responded by saying, `The time has come for Republican senators to decide whether they will abide by the rules of the Senate or break those rules for the first time in 217 years.' Here to discuss this and more is Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Welcome back, Doyle.

Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Now one thing missing in this argument is actually the two judges. Who are they and what are the chances that the Democrats will allow the vote to proceed?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, the two judges are Priscilla Owen from Texas and Janice Rogers Brown from California. They are thoroughgoing conservatives. They have been the kind of social conservative judges who infuriate Democrats, but you've heard very little about them. This isn't about them. They're kind of the poster children for this issue. What this issue is really about is the problem that the Republican Party has a majority in the House, it has a president with a 90 percent approval rating among his own conservative base, but in the Senate, they've only got 55 members. And the Senate has those antiquated rules that are driving the Republicans crazy because to really move business you need 60 and you need to compromise, but compromise is not the theme of Washington this year. Majoritarian rule is the theme of Washington this year. Collision is the theme, and that's really what's causing all of these eruptions.

HANSEN: Before we get to the possibility of compromise, though, I mean, if the Democrats do filibuster, what exactly is going to happen?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, here's what happens. First, Senator Frist has essentially said what he wants to do is have about two weeks of debate on the judges. At that point, the Republicans will move to close the debate and go to a vote. The Democrats will object. Now under the current rules, you need 60 votes to stop the debate. Are there 60 votes to stop the debate? No. At that point, if this goes according to what is called the nuclear scenario, Senator Frist says, `Well, let's change the rule, then. Let's say for judicial appointments you only need 51 votes to change the debate.' Then he has to get 51. Does he have that many? Well, we don't know. There are some swing Republicans who may or may not go there. John McCain has said he won't change the rules. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has said he won't change the rules. OK. Now you're down to 53. The Republicans have a secret weapon in Vice President Cheney, who gets to break a tie, but we're going to see potentially one of those great cliffhangers right there in the well of the Senate.

HANSEN: Back to the possibility of compromise--what are the chances?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, you know, what is going on here is each side is trying to figure out--look, there's a political calculation underneath this: What works better? Republican conservatives would like to drive this to a collision because they think they will win. A lot of Democratic liberals would like to drive this to a conclusion on the other side because they think they will win. We've been talking about the nuclear option. This is more like World War I with each side trying to figure out what works. In the middle, there are a few people trying to work something out. Some Democrats have shown a little ankle and said, `Well, maybe we could approve two of the judges'--there are seven judges really that are the flash point here--`two of the judges but not the other five.' And then they raised it to three. Now they're at four. So there's a little bit of dickering going on. Senator Frist and the Democratic leader, Senator Reid, are actually having dinner at Senator Frist's house this weekend, which is a level of sociability we haven't seen in Washington for a while. So watch this space. But I'm going to be a pessimist, or an optimist as just a voyeur, and guess that this will go to some kind of a collision.

HANSEN: Let's talk about another embattled nomination. On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent the nomination of John Bolton to be UN ambassador on to the Senate without a recommendation, which is pretty unusual, and then on Friday, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California said she would put a hold on the nomination until the State Department provides more information about Bolton, and the State Department says it already has provided everything relevant to the nomination. What happens now?

Mr. McMANUS: Another wrangle about the Senate rules. The whole idea of a senator putting a hold on a nomination isn't a formal rule. It's a custom they follow. So it would be possible for the Senate to tell Senator Boxer, `You can't do it.' I think that's probably what happens. This may delay the issue of the judicial filibuster while they straighten that out because if John Bolton's name gets to the floor, it's easy to see the Republicans do have the votes narrowly to get him in, and I think the administration wants to press that early in the week.

HANSEN: Can we talk about an issue? Can we talk about Social Security?

Mr. McMANUS: You bet.

HANSEN: The president has said it's one of his top priorities. Where is that now?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, you want to talk about issues? I'm going to go back to politics and procedure. Where does that stand now? In one sense, the president's Social Security ambitions are hostage to all these other issues. If there is a filibuster, if there is the nuclear option, if work in the Senate grinds to a halt, then Social Security isn't going to get passed this year, but if all that doesn't happen, the other interesting dynamic is that the president's plans are now all in the hands of two powerful chairmen, Bill Thomas of California in the House, Chuck Grassley of Iowa in the Senate. Neither of them seems to think they are bound by the president's plan. There, in fact, there is grounds for compromise, and people are working pretty hard to come up with new alternatives.

HANSEN: Doyle McManus is Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Doyle, thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. McMANUS: Thank you.

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