Weekly Political Roundup

Melissa Block talks to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times about this weeks political developments, focusing on the deal struck by moderates in the Senate to avoid the so-called "Nuclear Option" that would have ended filibusters on judicial nominees.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

After the failed cloture vote, Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he does not want the fight over John Bolton to stop other Senate business. Specifically, he said, Democrats expect votes to go forward on two more of the president's judicial nominees, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor. That's in accordance with this week's compromise agreement on judicial nominations. Their confirmation is expected, adding to Priscilla Owen's confirmation yesterday.

Before the Bolton vote, our regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times stopped by to talk about to talk about the new political landscape and the deal on judges.

Let's talk about this agreement hammered out, not by the majority leader of the Senate, Bill Frist, but a bipartisan group of centrists. What's happened to leadership in the Senate, David Brooks?

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Well, you've got a polarized body and a group of people who are not polarized. And so they finally took a look at the precipice, and for once in their lives, the moderates actually did things. Usually, the moderates end up as sort of well-intentioned roadkill.

BLOCK: A phrase you used in your column not long ago.

Mr. BROOKS: A phrase I used. And I must have liked it because I've just used it again.

BLOCK: But are you eating your words now?

Mr. BROOKS: No. Well, I was surprised they would do it, because usually they take a strong stand and then they cave in to their own parties. But in this case, they really stuck their noses out and cut the deal. And as has become clear in the last few days, the leaders and especially Bill Frist are not happy about it. And, to me, what's interesting on the right is you've seen people like James Dobson, the social conservative, go into a conniption fit. I happen to think it's a mistake. I happen to think conservatives got a pretty good deal out of this, as will become clear in years to come.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, I want to ask you again about leadership, though, here. Back in the day, wouldn't this have been the role of the Senate majority leader, work out a deal, as opposed to staying on the sidelines and letting a group of centrists take over?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Right, because historically majority leaders built coalitions out not from the fringe. And in this case, Bill Frist, for his own political reasons--he wants to be president in 2008; he wants support of social conservatives--took this very, very hard line and said, `We're going to get rid of the filibuster entirely for all judges.' And so this group of moderates decided, `This is not going to be good for the Senate. It's not good for us,' and they made this deal.

The Democratic leader, Harry Reid, seemed a lot happier than the Republican leader, Bill Frist, because I think Reid was looking at defeat, and this salvaged something out of the defeat and preserved the right to filibuster in the future and perhaps killed at least two or three of President Bush's nominations. So the Democrats did get something out of this. But the two judges who are left, who are likely to go through, are very, very, very conservative judges.

BLOCK: If you look at the language in the Senate compromise, they spent a lot of time talking about the role of `advice' in this `advice and consent' role of the Senate. They encouraged the president to consult with both parties in the Senate before he submits judicial nominations. You have Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying, `The president needs to get the message that more collaboration is better.' David Brooks, do you think there's going to be more collaboration?

Mr. BROOKS: No.

BLOCK: No.

Mr. BROOKS: No. This has been a complaint--and, I would say, this has been a complaint from Republicans since the Bush team came to office. You might think that Bill Frist and George Bush talk a lot, but that's not true. Bill Frist sometimes get invited to the White House, as other senators do, but it's not like they're strategizing. I'm always shocked by how little consultation there is between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill. I think it's been a failing, their Capitol Hill operation, ever since. Do I think the White House will start now? No. Do I think that they're basically on the same intellectual page on the sort of judges they like? With most Republicans, yes--no consultation, but basic agreement.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne.

Mr. DIONNE: See, I think that part, insisting on consultation, is the most radical and important part of this bipartisan agreement, because President Bush really has gone out of his way, especially in renaming these judges who had been rejected in the last Congress, to sort of spite the opposition to them. Bill Clinton and other presidents went out of their way to consult with the other party. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer went on to the Supreme Court, Clinton was careful to check with Orrin Hatch and other Republicans and say, `What are the tolerances in the Senate? I don't want a huge fight about this.'

I think we'd all be much better off if there were consultation leading to more moderate judges. They could be moderate conservatives or moderate liberals; under Bush, they'd be moderate conservatives. But you'd get fewer radical judges.

BLOCK: E.J., you mentioned the Supreme Court. Let's look forward to an eventual Supreme Court nominee. The thinking is that Chief Justice William Rehnquist could be stepping down as early as next month. Do you figure we'll be going through this same nuclear option fight then with a nominee that Democrats might say, `This is an extraordinary circumstance. We're going to filibuster,' and then Republicans are moving to bar them? David Brooks.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I think the conventional view is that in case of the Rehnquist seat, it's unlikely we'll have the big knock-down, drag-out fight. Maybe if Sandra Day O'Connor retires, then we'll see something because a Bush pick there would shift the balance of the court.

To me, the most important part of this deal is what I call the Janice Rogers Brown standard. If Janice Rogers Brown is not an extraordinary circumstance, then anybody who comes after her, who's basically as conservative as she is, which is pretty conservative, is not an extraordinary circumstance.

BLOCK: So that's the bar.

Mr. BROOKS: So that's the bar. And I don't think Democrats can filibuster anybody in that neighborhood. And if they do filibuster anybody in that neighborhood, I think Republicans will feel perfectly in their rights to invoke the nuclear option.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, do Democrats have themselves in a bind here?

Mr. DIONNE: I don't think they're going to interpret the agreement the way David did, and the question is whether Republicans interpret it that way. I think that there was haggling. And in order to get out of the Republicans a concession that they wouldn't do the nuclear option, the Democrats took several steps--I think in the case of Janice Rogers Brown, probably a step too far--to get this concession. But I don't think Democrats are going to feel constrained by the Janice Rogers Brown standard 'cause if that's the case, any kind of radical conservative goes, and I don't think they're ready to do that.

BLOCK: Let's turn to another topic. There was a vote in the House this week in favor of expanding stem cell research. You had 50 Republicans bucking the party leaders and joining with Democrats on that bill despite the threat of a presidential veto. E.J. Dionne, what's going on?

Mr. DIONNE: What's going on is a number of people who think of themselves as right-to-lifers, as anti-abortion, can't quite get to the point where they say, `This is exactly the same thing as abortion.' That's one piece of it. The second piece of it is that fundamentally, and for, you know, principled social conservatives, this is a problem. This is a quite pragmatic country, and I think a lot of Americans look at this and say, `Whatever this concession might be, endangering human life at that stage is more than made up for by the potential saving of human life in the future.'

This was always an issue on which President Bush was in the minority. John Kerry tried to use it in the election. A lot of those Republicans looked, no doubt, at their consciences but also at the polls and said, `This is a step too far.' And I think it does go to this point that President Bush will not have everything going his way in the last two years.

Mr. BROOKS: It's funny. As one travels around the country talking to Republicans, among social conservatives, most are with the president, a belief that you should not create life to destroy life. But when you go out to California among people who are pretty big donors to the Republican Party, especially in the business community, it's amazing how often I find the stem cell issue comes up, how often people bring it up and how vehemently they are opposed to what the president is doing. And there are a lot of people who are sort of squishy on abortion, like most of the country, but who don't really worry about abortion 'cause the odds of them having to have an abortion themselves are very small if they're 55 years old. But the odds of them getting a disease where stem cell research could have an impact are relatively high, and so this is an issue that's much more on their minds and where pragmatism is much more a factor than philosophy.

Mr. DIONNE: That crass, self-interested analysis by David is almost certainly right, and I think that does drive a lot of this issue.

BLOCK: And on that note of agreement, we'll stop right there. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown University and David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to you both.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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