Week in Review

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Sheilah Kast and Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst, review the week's news.


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

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)

Judge SAMUEL ALITO (US Supreme Court Nominee): A judge can't have any agenda, a judge can't have any preferred outcome in any particular case, and a judge certainly doesn't have a client. The judge's only obligation--and it's a solemn obligation--is to the rule of law. And what that means is that in every single case the judge has to do what the law requires.

KAST: That was US Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito giving an opening statement on Monday in his Senate confirmation hearing. If confirmed, Judge Alito will replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the high court. Senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

Welcome on board, Sheilah.

KAST: Thank you so much. The Senate hearings for Mr. Alito ended on Friday. In all, he handled 18 hours of questioning. Did he say anything that could threaten his confirmation?

SCHORR: Well, not that I heard or that I'm aware of. His supporters would say, and I think maybe with some justice, that his opponents never laid a glove on him. He apparently had decided that he would provide no ammunition that could be used against him. And for all the efforts of senators Kennedy, Leahy, Feingold, having decided that he wasn't to go where they wanted him to go, he didn't go.

KAST: Democrats grilled him about his membership in a Princeton University alumni group, the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. That group opposed admitting women to the university and opposed affirmative action as a means to diversify the student body. Mr. Alito testified he was not active in the group and that he has no recollection of joining...

SCHORR: Yeah, he...

KAST: ...or of attending meetings.

SCHORR: That's right. Great loss of memory. Losses of memory are very, very helpful at various times. There's apparently little question that when he was at Princeton he was involved with right-wing groups, but this particular one he simply has lost his memory on.

KAST: So did his answers shed any light on his views on civil rights?

SCHORR: Well, he indicated that he would not support any move to reverse Brown vs. Board of Education today, but I don't think anybody would. I think his views on women's rights and on gay rights were a lot less clear.

KAST: Did we learn anything about how Mr. Alito would vote on abortion?

SCHORR: No, we did not. We emphatically did not. Democratic senators tried every which way to get him to say those magic words `settled law.' That is to say that Roe vs. Wade decision is settled law. If it's settled law then you get stare decisis, meaning it's a part of their tradition, not to be overturned. But that attempt went nowhere either.

KAST: Justice John Roberts was confirmed last September with the votes of 22 Senate Democrats. Is Mr. Alito likely to get a similar amount of Democratic support?

SCHORR: I certainly think he will get less Democratic support and it may be that he'll get close to no Democratic support. The Democrats are simply not happy with Judge Alito. Professor Charles Peter Palm(ph) had said that he may be in the conservative mainstream but he is on the right bank of the mainstream. So it looks as though it will be probably a party line 10-to-8 in the Judiciary Committee next week, and then after a big debate in the Senate probably something close to 55-45. That is a almost--almost--to be expected, is a party-line vote.

KAST: Well, let's turn now to Iraq, where there's other court news. The chief judge in the trial of Saddam Hussein and others accused of crimes against humanity is reportedly planning to step down later this month, and there's been no official word explaining why.

SCHORR: Yeah, well, the chief judge is Kurdish. Rishgar Ahmed(ph) is his name. And he hasn't given any explanation of why he doesn't want to preside anymore, but I guess you can figure out why. First of all, it's a dangerous job and it's possible to get killed doing this. And another, it must be pretty frustrating to see Saddam Hussein try to dominate the proceedings. As to why he really wants to leave, he'll have to give his own explanations.

KAST: OK, let's stay in that same part of the world. Iran has resumed uranium enrichment at three of its nuclear facilities. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the European powers are calling for an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency to consider referring Iran to the UN Security Council. Does the council have the votes to impose sanctions on Iran?

SCHORR: Well, yes, unless, that is--unless Russia and/or China exercises a veto. Now President Bush has met on Friday with the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and they indicate now that they're not going to rush into this, that they appear to be going a little bit slow on sanctions.

KAST: But Iran is threatening to bar unscheduled UN inspections of its nuclear sites. Is there the will among the US and the EU to do something about the situation if Iran closes the door on the UN?

SCHORR: Well, there would be a price to pay if they went ahead with sanctions. China depends on Iran for a large part of its oil supply. Russia has several big contracts in the works with Iran. I have a sense from what I'm reading, what they're saying, that they want to talk about the possibility of sanctions, but I don't think they're rushing into it. For the moment, it looks like they're still trying diplomacy.

KAST: Israel is reportedly pushing for tougher action against Iran. It points out that Iran's president has called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Israel's not a member of the UN Security Council. What specifically is it calling for the international community to do?

SCHORR: Well, I don't know what they say in public they're calling for the international community to do, but I think, having talked to several Israelis, that they are talking in terms of simply bombing the reactors and the installations where uranium is being enriched now. You will remember that Israel in 1981 bombed a reactor in Iraq near Baghdad, and I'm sure that they would be willing, if necessary. I mean, their life is at stake if Iran manages to develop a bomb. And I think that before Israel would let that happen, they would go to great lengths.

KAST: Last week we reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in critical condition in a Jerusalem hospital after a massive stroke. This week, Mr. Sharon's condition largely is unchanged. Palestinians and Israelis have elections approaching. How is Mr. Sharon's illness and prognosis affecting the political situation in the Middle East?

SCHORR: Well, some say this is the end of an era in the Middle East. I think that Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, is apparently doing fairly well at holding Sharon's party together, but Sharon is really out of the picture for good. If he lives--and there seems to be indications now that he may live--he clearly would not be able to return to work. And that really means a new instability in the Middle East.

KAST: Let's focus here in Washington. House Republicans are preparing to elect a new majority leader after Tom DeLay announced he will not try to regain the post. Missouri Representative Roy Blunt and Ohio Representative John Boehner are the front-runners for that job. What does a change in leadership mean for House Republicans?

SCHORR: Well, what the Republicans really need more than anything else right now is to be able to make a case--and a fairly convincing case--that they're out to reform a very corrupt system, the system that gave us Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff. It is not clear whether Boehner and/or Blunt can do it. They may need some new faces. But as of now, I think the Republicans are in trouble.

KAST: And both the House and Senate are considering proposals to change the ethics rules.

SCHORR: That's right, and everybody's now very reform-minded. It used to be just Senator McCain and Feingold. But all of a sudden now there are a lot of converts to reform.

KAST: Some of the changes they're talking about, a ban on privately funded travel for Congress persons and a ban on all gifts and a life-long ban on former Congress people serving as lobbyists. Any of these changes likely to be adopted, and how much of a difference would they make?

SCHORR: I don't think anything would serve the purpose other than going for publicly financed congressional elections, the way we have public financing of presidential elections. Money has to be gotten out of the system or the thing will never change.

KAST: And how optimistic are you?

SCHORR: Professionally, I'm optimistic.

KAST: Professionally optimistic. Dan, thanks very much.

SCHORR: Sure thing.

KAST: Senior news analyst Dan Schorr.

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