Capitol Hill Rhetoric Heats Up Over 'Nuclear Option'

Obstruction! Assassination! Tyranny! The tone of Capitol Hill rhetoric has taken a sharp edge due to the "nuclear option." Alex Chadwick talks with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams about the rancorous debate in the U.S. Senate this week over judicial nominees and filibusters. They also discuss the other most recent examples of heated rhetoric that's scorching American political discourse.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the electronic games that people play; Xeni Jardin will join us.

First, political gamesmanship and how to talk about it. This week the Senate has been debating President Bush's nominee for the federal bench, Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen. This battle's been very contentious and so is the language. Here is Senate Majority Leader William Frist.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): The issue is not cloture votes, per se; it's the partisan leadership-led use of cloture vote to kill, to defeat, to assassinate these nominees.

CHADWICK: To kill, to defeat, to assassinate these nominees. The Democrats, for their part, accuse the Republicans of wielding the tyranny of the majority. Here's the minority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): Right now the only check on President Bush is the Democrats' ability to voice their concern in this body, the Senate. If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, they will have no check on their power.

CHADWICK: Joining us is NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams.

Juan, I'm just really struck by the tone of language there in Washington.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

It's really bombastic. It's bitter. You know, it was Senator Reid who just a week ago declared that President Bush is a loser and then had to call up Karl Rove and apologize, but then said on the substance of it he still believes what he said to be true. So you see that the partisanship, the bitterness is throughout. It's rank at this moment.

CHADWICK: Howard Dean, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, has also been on the offensive. Saturday--this is last Saturday--he told a gathering of Massachusetts Democrats that--and here's the quote--"Tom DeLay ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence." Tom DeLay is the Republican House majority leader, a controversial figure. He's been accused of ethical violations, but certainly nothing proven against him. But it's just more of this--the other people are really bad. They don't just have bad policies; they're bad people.

WILLIAMS: Well, and part of this is, of course, the sort of backwash from the two controversial elections we've had, 2000, 2004. So it becomes a matter of lobbying groups, the partisan groups on both sides, forcing the issue and saying to the leadership in the Senate `No compromise.' Now there's a group of senators, this group of 12--that's, you know, six on each side--that's in the midst of negotiations, even as we speak, Alex, trying to work out a deal where the filibuster rule could remain in place, but there could be an agreement that certain judicial nominees would not be filibustered and allowed to come to the floor for a vote where a 50-vote majority could simply declare them a winner of a seat on a federal bench. But what you see is that the leadership of the Senate, Republican and Democrat, at the moment are captive of the far right and the far left.

CHADWICK: Well, I note that Mr. Dean is going to be on "Meet the Press" this weekend, so perhaps he'll talk some more about relations and how people are getting along.

I do want to play one other clip of tape here, especially since we're talking about politicians in a feisty mood. This is a British parliamentarian, George Galloway. He was testifying in Washington before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Here he is.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Mr. GEORGE GALLOWAY (British Parliament): Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong. And a hundred thousand people have paid with their lives, 1,600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever, on a pack of lies.

CHADWICK: British parliamentarian George Galloway. He's been accused of complicity in the UN oil-for-food scandal. He wasn't taking any guff from the senators this week, Juan.

WILLIAMS: No. I think it was an interesting mix because, as you know, in the British Parliament, they really go at it, Alex, in a way that I think we're unaccustomed to, especially in the Senate. Sometimes things in the House get rough, but in the Senate usually it's gentlemanly discussion, and what you saw this week was Galloway going in specific after Norm Coleman, the Republican from Minnesota, and making it clear that he wasn't taking any gruff from Mr. Coleman. He said earlier in this conversation that he was right about everything and that he really felt that Coleman was being cavalier with the idea of justice. And Norm Coleman--all he could do was smile through this rather barbed attack coming from George Galloway, who feels I think vindicated, feels that no one's been able to prove that he was involved in the oil-for-food scandal or that his children's charity was taking money from people who were benefiting from that fraudulent money scheme.

CHADWICK: Heightened rhetoric in Washington. NPR senior correspondent, regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams, listening in.

Juan, thank you again.

WILLIAMS: Always good to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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