Is America Really Concerned About How Judges are Confirmed?

Official Washington is buzzing about the political showdown over president's judicial nominees. To get a sense of how the Senate fight is playing outside of Washington, D.C., Melissa Block talks with newspaper editors from Arizona, Ohio and Nebraska.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Senate Republicans have scheduled a test vote for Tuesday on the Appeals Court nomination of Justice Priscilla Owen. That could trigger the so-called nuclear option, meaning Republicans could try to eliminate the use of the filibuster for judicial nominees. Behind the scenes a dozen or so senators have been racing to try to broker a compromise before all that happens.

BLOCK: To find out how this story is playing around the country, we'll check in with newspaper editors in three states, with Republican senators who are involved in those back-room talks. These senators are standing apart from President Bush and their Republican leadership and trying to forge a compromise.

First, to Ohio. Senator Mike DeWine is one of those working on a deal. We called Joe Hallett, senior editor of The Columbia Dispatch. He read to us from today's front page.

Mr. JOE HALLETT (Senior Editor, The Columbus Dispatch): The headline was: Polarized Congress in Uncharted Territory. And it's about how the battle is playing out across the nation and, I guess, in particular in Washington.

BLOCK: Are you getting a sense from your readers that this is something that they're actively following, that they're paying attention to?

Mr. HALLETT: Well, I think so, and I don't want to overstate it. I mean, it's not something that is a topic of every conversation. But I think, judging by some of the e-mails we're getting and if you talk to somebody on the street, they are aware of it. And they seem to have taken sides pretty much along partisan lines.

BLOCK: What's the nature of the e-mails that you're getting?

Mr. HALLETT: Well, obviously, from the Republicans, it's, `Reid and the Democrats are trying to stop Bush's judicial nominees from getting a fair hearing.' And from the Democrats, we're hearing the opposite; that, `Frist and the Republican are trying to undo a time-honored tradition in the Senate, one that empowers the minority voice of the Senate, as it should be.' But there is an odd mixture.

I think when you talk to people, both sides and particularly of those in the middle, there's a bit of a contradiction. They seem to believe, one, that Bush nominees should have an up-and-down vote on the Senate floor, but they're also very wary of any action that could undo the tradition of a filibuster. I think there is an understanding of how important that is to the institution of the Senate.

BLOCK: Interesting to think about how you would reconcile those two trains of thought there.

Mr. HALLETT: Yeah, I'm not sure how they reconcile it, and I think that is why, although there hasn't been a lot of commentary here on it from our readers, I think that there would be widespread support for what Senator DeWine is trying to do: to find some sort of compromise, to avoid the so-called nuclear option. You know, DeWine is a centrist. He's getting to be a rare bird in the Congress, but I think that's where most of our readers are and most of Ohioans are, kind of in the center of things. And they like to see the parties work together rather than come at this type of a loggerhead.

BLOCK: Joe Hallett is senior editor of The Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio.

Joe, thanks very much.

Mr. HALLETT: Glad to help.

BLOCK: And now to the Grand Canyon State. Arizona Republican John McCain is another of those senators in the thick of the negotiations over a compromise. Tina May is national editor of The Arizona Republic.

Thanks for being with us.

Ms. TINA MAY (National Editor, The Arizona Republic): Great to be here.

BLOCK: And I suppose it's not an unusual situation to find John McCain somewhere in the middle of things trying to work out a deal.

Ms. MAY: No, it's not. He seems to relish that role. And I think, you know, he really does believe in what he's trying to do. But it does rankle the conservative members of his party, so much so that he got into a little dust-up with one member, a House member of the delegation, last week in their delegation meeting that they have on a regular basis. But he does--he is in the middle of things, and he likes to be out there, and he gets a lot of attention, so he continues.

BLOCK: And would you figure that voters or readers of yours in Arizona are paying attention to this, especially because John McCain is involved?

Ms. MAY: Well, they were paying a lot of attention, at least based on our letters to the editor a couple of weeks ago, and it was running very much along partisan lines. When he got more into the fray, people who admire, respect, like him are on his side; people who don't aren't.

BLOCK: Is it getting a lot of front-page attention in your newspaper?

Ms. MAY: Well, we led the paper with the story yesterday, but that was a wire story for us. But we did have our own sidebar by our Washington reporter, Billy House, talking specifically about McCain's involvement and his--as we call them, the back-room maneuverings to try to get some kind of compromise working with some other members of the Senate.

BLOCK: Well, what are the big stories that are taking precedence over this one right now?

Ms. MAY: Well, the heat. It's unseasonably hot now, possible 110-, 113-degree temperatures this weekend, so that's on a lot of people's minds. And then the merger of America West and US Airways, that took a lot of our front page today 'cause that's a big deal. America West is based here and hometown airline, so we were all over that one.

BLOCK: Tina May is national editor of The Arizona Republic.

Thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. MAY: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

BLOCK: Nebraska's two senators are somewhere in the middle of this mix. Democrat Ben Nelson is one of those trying to broker a compromise. Republican Chuck Hagel hasn't revealed how he'd vote but is believed to be among the Republicans who could tip the balance in favor of a deal. To find out how this is playing in Nebraska, we turn to Larry King, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

Larry, is this making it onto the front page?

Mr. LARRY KING (Executive Editor, Omaha World-Herald): It was a front-page story for us yesterday, but I would say it is not a continuous front-page story, the issue itself.

BLOCK: What are Nebraskans paying attention to, would you say, that trumps this?

Mr. KING: Well, local and regional issues are important to us. In the rural areas outside of Omaha, we have a drought occurring in Nebraska. There's concern about the methamphetamine problems. And the overall economy is a continuing issue.

BLOCK: Apart from those issues, is this judicial fight something that you think resonates with your readers? Are you hearing from them about that?

Mr. KING: Not much. I think it's potentially a political issue for both our senators in the future, but I don't see evidence that it is a big issue with our readers or their constituents. I'm not seeing many letters to the editor. I don't hear much talk about it. I don't--you could ask the senators, but I think if they would poll their constituents on the issues that they are concerned about, this election of judges would be down the list of federal issues that they would want their senators to deal with.

BLOCK: I wonder if you have a sense of whether folks in Nebraska see this as fitting into a bigger picture of partisanship, lack of comity in Congress, lack of comity in Washington.

Mr. KING: I think there's probably frustration that the politicians they send to Washington can't settle these things without long, drawn-out fights and that--I think there's probably a skeptical view of it as just another example of politics as usual as opposed to deep thought on the issue itself.

BLOCK: Mm. Larry King is executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

Mr. King, thanks very much.

Mr. KING: Thank you.

BLOCK: We also spoke with Tina May with The Arizona Republic and Joe Hallett with The Columbus Dispatch.

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