Political Wrap: Judicial Nominees, Stem Cell Research

Political analyst Cokie Roberts discusses issues dividing Congress, including the expected showdown in the Senate over judicial filibusters and debate over stem cell research in the House. Some polls show congressional approval ratings at the lowest they've been in years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The US Congress faces two major battles this week: judicial nominations in the Senate and stem cell research in the House. And as these debates proceed, some polls show congressional approval ratings at the lowest level they've been in years. NPR political analyst Cokie Roberts is covering all this and joins us now, as she does every Monday.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS (NPR Political Analyst): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with this battle over judicial nominees and the possibility of filibusters against some judicial nominees. What has happened to the people who were seeking a compromise?

ROBERTS: Well, they're still at it and they apparently had telephone conversations over the weekend, but they say the deadline really of figuring this all out would be tonight. And it's very hard to do, to come up with the right language. But, you know, to show you how different things are in the Senate than they were in the days of old, Steve, you had this weekend Chuck Hagel, a moderate from Nebraska, on the stump against his colleague, the Democratic senator from Nebraska, Ben Nelson. Elizabeth Dole, the chairman of the Republican Campaign Committee, was in Nebraska spurring on Chuck Hagel to hold tough on changing the filibuster rules.

But more important than that was the fact that Hagel was there in the first place. In the old days, you did not have senators of the same state campaigning against each other. These are two men who have to work together every day in the Senate for their state. They basically agree on much more than many people in the same party agree on, but still they're ready to campaign against each other. And in an atmosphere like that, it's very hard to see where people have trust for a compromise plan. You add to that the fact that the party leaders are not particularly interested in compromise. Outside groups are jumping all over anyone who even thinks about compromise. It makes it very hard to get things done.

And both parties, Steve, are feeling somewhat unhappy. Democrats think that they could lose and they are worried that the principle is more important than the political fight. Republicans also worry about those things, but they also worry about the politics. You know, the country tends to punish any party that appears to be overreaching, and the Democrats learned that in the congressional elections of 1994 when the Republicans took over the House and Senate. The Republicans learned it in the congressional elections of 1982 when they lost 26 seats and the Democrats started down the path of retaking the Senate. And you combine what's going on on these judicial nominations with the Social Security plans that are still very unpopular coming out of the White House, it could be a tough election year next year for Republicans.

INSKEEP: Well, let's move from this issue that's caused such bitter divisions between the parties to an issue that causes some division within the parties. On the House side, Republicans are moving forward with a divisive vote on stem cell research. How does that affect what they're trying to do overall?

ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting because they think they now have the votes on a bill that says you can use embryos that would otherwise be thrown out of fertility clinics. And it's surprising that they have those votes because it is a big split in the House Republican Caucus, and President Bush has threatened to veto a stem cell bill if it comes to him, which would be his first veto if that happens.

INSKEEP: Do the Republican divisions on that particular issue have any affect at all on what has been, up to now, the united Republican front supporting their majority leader, Tom DeLay?

ROBERTS: Well, what's happened is that the Tom DeLay situation has disheartened them. The Republican leaders think that they have something they can take home to the voters. They've voted on bankruptcy, they've voted on class action. They think they'll get a highway bill, maybe an energy bill but that it's all been drowned out by the fights over stem cells and the scandals surrounding Tom DeLay and what's going on in the Senate. And they look at polls showing that the approval rating is down for the Congress, as you said, and the only thing that heartens them is that both parties are suffering in public opinion.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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