Week in Review: Filibuster Deal, Bolton, Stem Cells

Scott Simon reviews the week's events with senior news analyst Daniel Schorr. Topics include the deal struck by senators to permit a vote on Bush judicial nominees, U.N. ambassador nominee John Bolton, the vote on federally funded stem-cell research and aid for the Palestinians.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This agreement is meant in the finest traditions of the Senate. It was entered into trust, respect and mutual desire to see the institution of the Senate function in ways that protect the rights of the minority. So I'm very pleased to stand here with my other colleagues tonight, and I believe that that goodwill will prevail.

SIMON: Senator John McCain speaking at the US Capitol on Monday night. NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Now for Senator McCain, who was instrumental in putting together this coalition of...

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: ...seven Democrats and seven Republicans, a compromise that kept the filibuster, but also moved along the votes on several judicial nominations, how do you read this agreement?

SCHORR: Well, I think it's a rather remarkable move from the middle to seize the initiative from the polarized leadership. It sort of took the wind out of the sails of both Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate, and Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, and it headed off a looming confrontation. So, all of a sudden, having been through a lot of left and right, we have a center.

SIMON: Now, of course, this agreement promises some votes on three judges, as a matter of fact...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...three judges for confirmation, and then agrees that the filibuster will not be entirely discarded, but used only in extraordinary cases.

SCHORR: An interesting thing. The most interesting thing is that phrase `extraordinary cases.'

SIMON: Yeah.

SCHORR: Who decides what's extraordinary? I have a feeling that as we approach the next nomination to the Supreme Court, we're going to see a lot of this extraordinary.

SIMON: The Senate vote to confirm John Bolton for the next US ambassador to the United Nations has been held up. On Thursday, Senate Democrats forced a delay until at least June, when people return from the Memorial Day holiday.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: Now Democrats are protesting that the White House refuses to release some classified material...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...that bears on Mr. Bolton. Does this amount to a filibuster in fact, if not in name?

SCHORR: Well, what is a filibuster? If you have a debate that goes on past the scheduled time and no way to end it except by something called a cloture resolution, requiring a two-thirds vote, then it is a filibuster. What they got in trying to break the filibuster was a 56-to-42 majority, which is four short of the necessary 60 to cut off a debate. So the filibuster is on, and they continue to be on when they come back from the holiday, in June.

SIMON: What's the material that the Democrats are seeking? Do we know?

SCHORR: Well, I think I have an idea from having read a lot about it. I think I've put it together. On at least 10 occasions, Undersecretary Bolton got the National Security Agency to do something it ordinarily is not supposed to do: provide him with the names of Americans who are mentioned in intercepted conversations. This enables Bolton, in a matter of speaking, to spy on the officials with whom he was having a great deal of differences. And I think that what is now in dispute is why they can't see it if they were given to him.

SIMON: How interesting or explosive is this material, potentially?

SCHORR: Like a lot of people, I haven't seen it. What is explosive in the first place is the propriety of the NSA turning over names. It's not supposed to do that. And way back in the mid-'70s, when I was covering investigations of the NSA, it turned out they were keeping a watch list of Americans that they weren't supposed to do, and it looks like a little bit of that has come back. The NSA...

SIMON: But now do we know that this has happened, or is this just according to reports?

SCHORR: We know that on at least 10 occasions, because he admits that on at least 10 occasions, he asked for something that came out of those NSA intercepts, namely the identity of the people who were conducting the conversation. At least that much we know.

SIMON: Fifty House Republicans decided this week to vote for a bill that would allow federally funded embryonic stem cell research, even though President Bush has said that he'll veto that bill if it reaches his desk. What do you make of these 50 Republicans?

SCHORR: Well, what we make is, if you look at the polls coming in from around the country, a Pew Research poll shows that 52 percent of Americans would like to see stem cell research, because it may bring cures that we otherwise wouldn't have, and they are less worried about what is called the possibility of ending a life in a fetus and all that.

The public is now ready, apparently, for this, as all the polls indicate. And this vote in the House, which came as a big surprise to the leadership, and a probable vote in the Senate, which will go along with that, indicates that--you know, you have to figure that anything that Nancy Reagan is pleading for and saying her husband died of Alzheimer's, and maybe if this cure had come, it might have helped him, that has a powerful impact. And so I think that the movement now for this stem cell research is moving.

SIMON: On the other hand, is it kind of easy to vote for legislation they know is going to be vetoed if it's approved?

SCHORR: That is also true. And the president has said he invariably will veto it. It will be his first veto.

SIMON: President Bush hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, often known as Abu Mazen, at the White House this week, and pledged $50 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: What does this suggest about the administration's confidence in Mahmoud Abbas?

SCHORR: Well, it suggests, first of all, they've been getting along very well there. Every sign was that it was a fairly successful meeting, although they had their differences. I think, for example, that Mahmoud Abbas is saying he'd like to bring the militant Hamas into the mainstream of Palestinian politics. President Bush says, `No, we still consider them to be a terrorist organization.' And they differ on that, but those differences will persist. And as you've suggested, that $50 million that goes directly to the Palestinian Authority to build places in Gaza after the Israelis have withdrawn from there, that's unusual. It is not often that these grants are made directly to the Palestinian Authority who, after all, are not yet a government.

SIMON: On Thursday, the Pentagon issued a report in which it confirmed five instances of what it called mishandling of the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay confinement facility by US personnel. Now no Korans being flushed down the toilet, as Newsweek reported then later retracted and, of course, sparked riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But how provocative are this week's revelations?

SCHORR: Well, the answer is to look what's happening around the world. You look at the wire services, and along a big swath of the Islamic world, there are demonstrations still going on. I mean, you can say Newsweek can retract, but Newsweek retractions don't figure in that part of the world. What they know is that there has been disrespect shown to the holiest of holy books, the Koran. And as far as they're concerned, they don't care what they hear from Newsweek or from the American government.

SIMON: In Iraq this week, Sunni and Shiite politicians and clerics met to try and find some kind of solution to go forward as there are growing instances of what I think can fairly be called sectarian violence. At some point, when does this begin to resemble a civil war?

SCHORR: Whenever you decide to call it a civil war. I mean, from the very early stage, there was someone said, `This is the beginning of civil war.' It's not against the American occupiers. What it is is Sunni against Shiites, returning to wars they have fought before.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: My pleasure.

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