Politics with Ron Elving: Bush, Roberts and Katrina

With Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts underway, plus the start of confirmation hearings for his Supreme Court nominee, President Bush faces another busy political week at a time when his approval ratings are at historic lows. Alex Chadwick talks with NPR senior political editor Ron Elving about the president's political fortunes.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Washington this week, the big story is supposed to be the hearings on John Roberts' nomination to be chief justice of the United States. But there's plenty of other activity in Congress, much of it focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and that just may upstage this historic process of filling a Supreme Court vacancy. The Roberts hearings were postponed last week for the funeral of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. They're getting under way today with opening statements from the senators and the nominee. Joining us is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, first of all, what's the mood surrounding these hearings? Suspenseful or just kind of ceremonial?

RON ELVING reporting:

More ceremonial, I would say, at this point, Alex. There's a great aura of history about it, of course, history in the making. It's the first time we've had hearings on a new pick for the Supreme Court in 11 years, and it's been two decades since we've had a new chief justice of the United States. So this is the longest time we've gone without a set of these hearings way back into the 1800s. Yet suspense--earlier this summer we were expecting it to be a little bit more dramatic, and that hasn't developed.

Roberts is a safe and savvy pick by the president. He does not excite an emotional reaction, and he does not present much of a target for Democrats on the committee or in the Senate. And, what's more, he's weathered the weeks of scrutiny over the summer very well. And barring some surprise that would be quite a surprise, I think he's going to be easily confirmed. Now there'll be votes against him on the committee and votes against him in the Senate. But now, because he's replacing Rehnquist rather than replacing Sandra Day O'Connor, I think the Democrats are going to consider that a wash ideologically, and they're going to load their guns for whoever the president nominates to replace O'Connor.

CHADWICK: Any intelligence on that yet?

ELVING: Well, speculation really at this point. O'Connor's seat, because it was the first seat that a woman occupied on the court--some people are saying it should be a woman that replaces her. Some say, `No, it can be a woman. That's fine, but it should be someone who is a Hispanic or an African-American.' One of the groups of people that I think might very well be well represented here is people from New Orleans because the president is looking at three women who have served on the Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Two of them are named Edith: Edith Clement and Edith Jones. And a third one is the newest member of that court, Priscilla Owen. The Ediths both have a lot more experience, but Priscilla Owen is a longtime president--or a longtime friend, rather, of President Bush. So that's some advantage.

CHADWICK: OK. Congress has, to some degree, moved on to a new fascination with New Orleans and the recovery from Hurricane Katrina and trying to figure out who's responsible for what happened there.

ELVING: Well, hearings are going to begin this week, Alex, and they're probably going to go on for quite some time. The first hearings will start in the Senate on Wednesday morning. Then there'll be hearings over on the House side, and they're starting on Thursday morning. And they're all saying they're going to focus on disaster relief and getting more help out to people rather than pointing fingers. But, of course, the blame game is well under way, and it's going to continue. We may still have a super committee of the House and the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, but right now it's not clear how that'll be structured. The Democrats want subpoena power, they want equal numbers on the committee, and they're still saying there ought to be an independent commission, like the 9-11 Commission. And the Republican leadership of the House is resisting that at this point.

CHADWICK: OK. Well, we'll follow that as the week goes along. How about the rest of the congressional agenda for the fall? People are back at work now.

ELVING: They are. They will do the appropriations bills as they must. They'll complete the budget process. But cuts in Medicaid--$10 billion they were expecting to cut out of Medicaid; that's going to be much more difficult now with all these victims in the region. And the same is going to be true of some of the tax cuts that they wanted to get done, generally speaking, for the estate tax and to make permanent the estate tax elimination that we passed temporarily a few years ago. And there are 60-some billion dollars already appropriated for the victims of the disaster and much more coming, maybe twice that much eventually. So the budget deficit is going back up, even without additional tax cuts. They had hoped to talk about the Social Security changes in the House Ways and Means Committee this month, but right now they're marking up a bill again with an eye towards helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina. So a lot of dislocation in the agenda because of the disaster.

CHADWICK: And Social Security shunted aside again, the president's big thing earlier this year.

ELVING: It was the thing he wanted to be talking about all year long, and Congress just hasn't been able to focus on it for a variety of reasons. Iraq is one, but now, of course, the disaster on the Gulf Coast.

CHADWICK: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. More of his political analysis at his column Watching Washington. It runs Mondays on our Web site, npr.org.

Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: And we have more just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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