Senate Set for Showdown on Filibuster Rule

Elving's 'Watching Washington'

Alex Chadwick talks with NPR senior political editor Ron Elving about the stalemate between Democratic and Republican senators over President Bush's judicial nominations and the procedure for filibusters.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, Mike Pesca reports on how to know that a hate crime really is a hate crime.

First, the lead: Washington. An old-fashioned drama's being staged in the US Senate today. Republican leaders are planning an all-night session and bringing in cots for senators who don't think they can stay awake. Here's the Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation" yesterday.

(Soundbite of "Face the Nation")

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Senator Majority Whip): We'll go through the night, Monday night, to make sure everyone has an opportunity to express themselves. And then Tuesday morning we'll have that vote.

CHADWICK: This is all about confirming some of President Bush's nominees to federal appeals courts and perhaps ultimately about the Supreme Court. Also in Congress this week, important votes on stem cell research and combat roles for women. Joining us is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Ron, this is it--the showdown over judges and the nuclear option that we've heard so much about. Can you just tell us what's going to happen in the next day?

RON ELVING reporting:

Well, at long last, we do seem to have arrived at the magic moment. The debate will continue today at 5:30 Eastern time. There will be a roll call vote to get all the senators in place. And then they will continue the debate tonight, perhaps all night, as Whip McConnell was saying a moment ago. They may go all night, they may not--we'll see if that really takes place. And sometime around 11:00 tomorrow when the necessary amount of time has passed, they will have a vote on cloture--that is, to cut off the current filibuster possibility on the judgeship of Priscilla Owen, appeals court judgeship.

Then, if there are not 60 votes to do so, which there will not be--we know that much for sure--then they will have a dramatic moment in which Vice President Cheney, acting as is his right to be the president of the Senate, he will say that in his opinion, as he reads the rules and the Constitution, it is not necessary to have 60 votes to cut off debate on a judicial nomination, that that's a special case under the Constitution. The Democrats will object to that, there will be a vote on that ruling by Cheney, and it will probably be extremely close. If it's 50-50, the tie will be broken by Mr. Cheney. Presumably, he will vote to uphold his own ruling.

CHADWICK: One would think. I was interested to read in The Washington Post this morning that one factor in all this is that this is really a vote about principle, about what you believe. There are no bridges that you can swap off here, you can't build a highway in someone else's state; this is, you've just got to people on what they believe.

ELVING: That's true, except in the old days, even knowing that, what senators would have done is they would have worked out a deal by which some judges were allowed through on a straight up or down vote and others were not. They would have essentially split the difference, taking some judgeships on each side. But right now we're in a situation where both the president and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have said every nominee must have an up or down vote. And given that as the absolute standard, it's very hard to see where the compromise would come.

CHADWICK: So the compromise is out?

ELVING: It appears so, although there is still this group of six Democrats, six Republicans trying to work out a deal by which they would swap off their votes and both end any filibuster and also deny a confirmation to certain judgeship nominees. That's the kind of deal they would have worked out in the past, only they would have done it more quietly in the cloak room. They're trying to do it in public. That's extremely difficult to do.

CHADWICK: How about the public division on the issue of stem cell research? There's a vote in the House on that tomorrow.

ELVING: Yes. And this has been a controversial issue for a number of years. President Bush essentially put in place a banin 2001. This is a bipartisan bill from Republicans and Democrats that would lift that ban with respect only to those embryonic alliances that were going to be disposed of, that would not have had any other opportunity to become a human being. And in that case, you can get a majority of the House to vote for it, including many Republicans. That could also pass in the Senate, but, the president has said, does not meet his standards, he'll veto it.

CHADWICK: If he does, it's going to be the first veto.

ELVING: That's right. He has yet to cast a veto as president.

CHADWICK: The president spent the morning with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. They had a joint news conference, Ron.

ELVING: They did. And they touched on some of the sore points in the relationship, as well as taking credit for the democracy that's taking root there in parts of Afghanistan, particularly with respect to mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The president of the United States said that we hope to send home any Afghans who are still there as soon as possible. There are still Afghan citizens there.

CHADWICK: How about women in combat? A vote on that?

ELVING: We're getting a vote on that probably on Wednesday in the House because some people--House Armed Services Committee in particular--feel that women should not be exposed to the dangers they have been there in Iraq. We're taking a number of casualties there because there are, of course, no front lines. The combat is everywhere.

CHADWICK: Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, also the author of the weekly Watching Washington column on our Web site, npr.org. Ron, thank you again.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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