Political Wrap: Filibuster Debate

The dominant issue in the Senate this week will be whether to do away with the filibuster of judicial nominees. Current rules require the votes of 60 senators to cut off debate. Majority Leader Bill Frist will try to change that to a simple majority. If he succeeds, the immediate result would be confirmation of several controversial judicial nominees. News analyst Cokie Roberts looks at the issue.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Stem cell research and many other issues could be affected by what the US Senate decides to do on its filibuster rules. Proposals to change those rules could reach the Senate this week. NPR political analyst Cokie Roberts joins us now as she does every Monday.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So last night the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Harry Reid, the minority leader, were scheduled to have dinner together. Does this mean they're trying to work out some kind of agreement?

ROBERTS: Well, I'd be a lot more positive about that if I didn't know about the fact that they were supposed to have dinner together and it hadn't been so widely publicized, which leads me to believe that they were trying to show that they are trying to get to a compromise when they are, in fact, the two people in the Senate least likely to get there. Bill Frist has presidential ambitions, as we've talked about. Harry Reid wants to show the Democratic Party is cohesive and hanging tough. And the Democrats don't want the rules changed, as we know, but they also don't want to seem obstructionist, so they had a dinner planned. The compromise, if it comes, will come from other people in the Senate, Republican John McCain, Democrat Ben Nelson, who are working to try to get something done. As Senator McCain said yesterday, `People of goodwill can get to a compromise.' The question is how many people of goodwill there are in the Senate at the moment?

INSKEEP: Well, why are so many senators so angry about this particular effort to change the rules?

ROBERTS: Well, these internal questions are always the most contentious. They get to their senator's own power and the power of the institution. Again, as John McCain said yesterday on ABC, the very point of the Senate with its two seats per state, regardless of the size of the state, is minority protection, and these fights in history have been bitter. Grover Cleveland called the Senate into special session to repeal part of the Silver Act and there was a huge filibuster. Henry Cabot Lodge said there's another right more sacred than a legislative body than the right of debate and that's the right to vote. The filibusterers did eventually give up, but Cleveland's high-handedness destroyed the party and there wasn't a Democrat elected until Woodrow Wilson so that's an object lesson here.

INSKEEP: And the rules regarding the filibuster have been modified before. Why not change them now?

ROBERTS: Well, again, that was very bitterly fought and that was Woodrow Wilson who did it. He called the Congress again into special session to arm merchant ships and the Progressives, La Follette and Wallace, filibustered. There was a huge public outcry. Editorials called them Benedict Arnolds and the pressure from both the president and the newspapers created the mechanism for cloture. At first, two-thirds of those present in voting could cut off debate, then it became three-fifths. But nobody was happy about it.

INSKEEP: Do senators, Cokie, on either side think that the public at large is following all these details?

ROBERTS: Well, if they don't reach a compromise, we are going to have a truly arcane vote which will be a vote on the motion to table the appeal of the ruling of the chair.

INSKEEP: (Laughs)

ROBERTS: That will be the vote that will decide whether the rules of the Senate are fundamentally changed and the minority is denied certain rights. The Democrats are quite bolstered, as arcane as all this is, by polls showing the public overwhelmingly on their side. There's a new poll out in Time magazine today showing again the public is with the Democrats on this. And so the pressure from outside, unlike with the cloture change, is coming from both directions, from Democratic groups who don't want change, from Republican groups who do. So I think that the pressure to get some kind of compromise is very strong, particularly if the Republicans don't think they have to votes to change the rules.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks as always.

That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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