McCain Reserved on Prospect of Filibuster over Alito

Steve Inskeep speaks with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) about judicial filibusters and a statute to ban torture of detainees. McCain is part of the so-called Gang of 14, a group of senators working to prevent a shutdown in the event of a fight over Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The latest Supreme Court nomination raises the chance of a major battle in the United States Senate. Democrats are skeptical of Judge Samuel Alito, liberal groups are already questioning his record, and conservatives back him strongly. And that means the nomination will be a test for a group of lawmakers from both parties. They got together during an earlier fight over judicial nominations. The goal then was to keep the Senate from being shut down by Democratic filibusters and Republican responses. The group includes Senator John McCain of Arizona, who's on the phone this morning.

Senator, good morning.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How easy do you think it will be for Judge Alito to get confirmed?

Sen. McCAIN: I don't know. It's too early to tell. It was just about a little after this time yesterday, less than 24 hours, that the president announced him. There's no doubt that he is conservative. That's what the president said he was going to--those were the qualities that he would look for when he had nominated a Supreme Court when he campaigned for election and re-election. But the so-called Gang of 14 will be meeting on Thursday and will be having discussions then.

INSKEEP: The Gang of 14, that's your group that's trying to avoid the Senate being shut down over judicial nominations.

Sen. McCAIN: Yes.

INSKEEP: Have you spoken to any of your fellow senators in that group?

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah, but they--again, there's obviously, as you stated--that he's a conservative judge. The question is is whether he is, in the minds of seven Democrat senators, not acceptable, and I think they're going to be carefully--or it was a criteria about extraordinary circumstances which I won't bother with the details, but see whether he meets that or not.

INSKEEP: Well, we can explain that.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: This group of senators, who are large enough to control the path of the Senate, have said that they won't filibuster or support a filibuster...

Sen. McCAIN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...unless there are extraordinary circumstances, someone who's very objectionable.

Sen. McCAIN: Right.

INSKEEP: Have you heard and Democrats say that Alito might be at that level?

Sen. McCAIN: Not yet, but I--well, I've heard that from Harry Reid and others but certainly not in that group of seven Democrats, and I think that they're going to take their time here and meet and discuss before they make a decision. We've got a--this is a long process, as you know. He has to go through a number of things like meetings with senators, and then these hearings are scheduled, and it's not clear to me that we're going to get that done before Christmas. So I think there's a fairly ample amount of time.

INSKEEP: Senator, I want to ask about another matter in which you're deeply involved. You've written legislation that would ban the abusive treatment of prisoners in US custody. A human rights group has said that the CIA and Vice President Cheney want covert agencies to be exempted from that ban on abusive treatment. Should they be exempted?

Sen. McCAIN: Of course not. We are--that's not America, to start with, and second of all, we are signatories to an international commission on torture. The United Nations fundamental rights of man are clear, and torture doesn't work. There's a whole variety of reasons why this is very important that we ban torture, and that also comes from people like Colin Powell, who wrote a letter strongly in support of the amendment that we had to prohibit the use of torture or cruel and inhumane treatment and also to make sure that the exact procedures for interrogation are spelled out in the Army Field Manual. And they want to--the administration or Vice President wants to carve out an exception to that that's unacceptable.

INSKEEP: And just in a couple of seconds, do you have the votes to get your version of the legislation through Congress and even over a presidential veto if need be?

Sen. McCAIN: We had a 99 vote in the Senate. I believe we do. I just hope they'll drop it, because we don't need to engage in this fight.

INSKEEP: OK.

Sen. McCAIN: America's image, as Colin Powell pointed out, in the world has been very badly damaged because of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

INSKEEP: Senator, thanks very much.

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And John McCain, by the way, is author of "Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember."

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