Post Politics Hour
Thursday, December 20, 2007; 11:00 AM
Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.
Washington Post congressional reporter reporter Paul Kane was online Thursday, Dec. 20 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.
The transcript follows.
Paul Kane: Good morning folks. The holiday recess is finally upon us, the House and Senate have shuttered their doors legislative business for 2007, ending the first session of the 110th Congress on a series of bills that can at best be called compromises. Both sides of the aisles in both chambers left town somewhat disappointed. The Iowa caucus countdown is now just days away, and President Bush's tenure in the Oval Office is now less than 400 days away from being complete, for those of you who are counting. On a personal note, I'm writing up my last blog post this afternoon, a recap of the highs and lows from 2007, and am transferring that job off to Ben Pershing, a once and future co-worker of mine, early next year. After today, I'll be writing as a congressional correspondent full time for the print edition (which really just means my stuff appears in print and online -- we've blended the two sides together a lot).
Now, on to the questions!
Prescott, Ariz.: I saw at the Center for American Progress Web site that yesterday the Republicans in the Senate broke all previous records for obstructing legislation (the metric was cloture votes). The current Senate is only halfway done, that means they Republicans in the Senate could double the previous mark for obstruction when all is said an done. Cy Young. Cal Ripken. Nolan Ryan -- all have records that are thought unbeatable at this point. Republicans in the Senate are setting themselves up for something historical.
How can you guys not mention this obstruction rate in every single story about the Senate? You wouldn't have written a story about Barry Bonds earlier this year without mentioning he was chasing the home-run record would you? Can you reporters at The Washington Post show some respect and give credit where credit is due?
Paul Kane: This is a running theme among liberals who are defenders of Harry Reid and Senate Democrats -- blaming Republicans and filibusters for everything that's gone wrong with the Democratic agenda. Yes, the Senate essentially has set a record for the number of votes to cut off filibusters in one year, already breaking the record for a two-year Congress. In almost every story we write in The Post, we talk about the need for 60 votes to break GOP filibusters. Do we need to cite this statistical record in every single story we write? I think not. And here's why -- the reason for the record is highly mixed. It's not just because of Republican obstruction -- Reid has been accused, by Republicans and Democrats alike, of filing these so-called cloture motions to cut off debate very, very quickly, rather than letting the Senate continue to work its will through debate and amendments. This is a "record" that Reid and Republicans both should take "credit" for.
Washington: I thought today's recap on how the Democratic Congress has done this year was fascinating. When can we look forward to a recap on the GOP minority? Yesterday they set an all-time record for blocking more legislation than any prior Congress, ever (and this congressional term isn't even half over). That seems worthy of a front-page feature story, doesn't it?
washingtonpost.com: Key Setbacks Dim Luster of Democrats' Year (Post, Dec. 20)
Paul Kane: Yes, the minority Republicans had a very tough year. I already answered the filibuster/cloture question, so I'll say this for Republicans: Things went bad for Democrats on all the big issues of the day, but the minority is still in really bad structural shape. In both chambers veteran Republicans have announced their retirements and are leaving behind seats that Democrats have a close eye on. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- who currently has 49 GOP senators -- told reporters yesterday that his goal for the '08 elections is to maintain a "robust minority" that is "north of 45" seats. Not exactly a rallying cry for next year.
San Francisco: Who besides Jim Webb will help keep the Senate open through the holiday break this year? Will new Maryland Democratic Sen. Cardin (also low in seniority!) be asked by Harry Reid, and thus get the exciting CNN interview Webb did during the Thanksgiving recess?
Paul Kane: Yes, in order to prevent President Bush from making recess appointments to cabinet and agency positions, Reid is keeping the Senate open for 30 seconds of business every fourth day, an odd rule that will allow Reid to say legally that the chamber is not "in recess" and therefore no recess appointments will be available to Bush. There are some controversial people Bush would like appoint to interim terms that would run through next year, but Reid will rely on local senators like Webb to show up for these quick sessions. The truth is, Reid has not yet released a full pro forma schedule, so I'm not sure who will preside which days. I can tell you that when Webb did the first pro forma session just before Thanksgiving, his press secretary loved it because it was the cheapest free press Webb's ever gotten. That being said, CNN and other cables didn't show up for the sequels, so I don't think anyone's itching to be in the chair the day after Christmas.
Chicago: Thanks for taking questions. I have been reading a lot about how the GOP establishment is apoplectic over the prospect of Huckabee getting the nomination. But isn't that the wing of the party with all the money? If Huckabee wins Iowa, can he raise the money he will need to compete on tsunami Tuesday? If he gets the nomination, will he be able to raise the big bucks necessary to compete with a completely united Democratic Party, especially if both parties decide to eschew matching funds?
Paul Kane: The GOP field, from where I sit in the Capitol, is far more fascinating than the Democrats. That's because the best funded candidates among Republicans -- Romney and Giuliani -- also are the candidates with the most political downside and potential to quickly flame out. So, if Romney does terribly in the early states, yes, he has the personal finances to keep on going -- but at what cost? If his campaign is going nowhere, he won't just stay in the race. And Mayor Rudy has the same problem. It seems that Huckabee or McCain, if one wins Iowa and the other New Hampshire, could ride media publicity alone into Florida and Feb. 5. We could have a situation where finances aren't determinative at all. That fascinates me.
Raleigh, N.C.: The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works published an article today stating that more than 400 prominent scientist disagree with Al Gore, the U.N. and your paper on man-made climate change. How will this report impact the presidential candidates? How will this report impact The Post's coverage of this issue?
washingtonpost.com: U.S. Senate Report: Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007 (The Inhofe EPW Press Blog, Dec. 20)
Paul Kane: To be sure, that's a report coming from Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the panel. Inhofe is regarded as the biggest opponent of global warming issues in Congress, and by that I mean the man who issues the most regular denials of global warming's existence. I don't know the science of who's right and who's wrong, and that's why I rarely cover this issue. But I know the politics, and I know that an Inhofe report will have no bearing whatsoever on the Democratic nomination battle, that's for sure.
San Francisco: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) had a "hold" on the Julie Myers nomination to head ICE, which Harry Reid appeared to ignore when he allowed the Senate to approve her nomination by a voice vote last night. Is Reid in danger of a challenge as Majority Leader, now that he ignores Democratic Senators' holds (e.g. Dodd) while respecting those of GOP (e.g. Graham, Coburn)?
washingtonpost.com: Senate Okays Myers for Immigration Job (AP, Dec. 20)
Paul Kane: Harry Reid is incredibly safe -- there is absolutely no chance whatsoever of his being challenged for the position of majority leader. It's very difficult to project this to those of you on the outside, because you can't be in the Capitol every day and night, but Reid largely is beloved by his fellow Democrats. He's a senator's senator who did all the dirty jobs (ethics chairman, appropriations cardinal, Democratic whip) that they didn't want to do. He collected chits, earned respect, and two years after he took over as Democratic leader, they won the majority on his watch. That's the equivalent of a football coach who served as an assistant coach for a decade or so and then won the Super Bowl in his first season as head coach. Guys like that buy themselves a lot of room for error the next few years.
Menomonie, Wis.: This seems to be a very, nasty campaign, even within parties. We've had Huckabee making religious slurs against Romney (although the Constitution prohibits religious litmus tests) and a key Clinton aide questioning Obama's past teen drug use. Are we witnessing a presidential campaign, or a campaign for president of the fifth grade? I take that back -- fifth graders are more mature than they are at this point.
Paul Kane: Honestly, it's bad, the back-and-forth on the campaign trail and here in the Capitol. But Trent Lott said something the other day about history, and how he went back and read the stuff people said about each other in 19th century campaigns. That was some bad, bad stuff that was thrown at each other, much worse than mud, if you know what I mean.
And besides, we've yet to have an actual brawl on the House floor (like the Taiwanese parliament) and no duels like Hamilton and Burr. So, when we get to that point, yes, politics will have gone way too far!
New York: Can you clarify the Senate Organizing Rule issue, in the context of Lieberman changing parties? It's been my understanding that even if the Republicans gained a 50-50 tie and a Cheney tiebreaker, the Senate by rule would not reorganize, and the Republicans could not even change the rule by using their newfound majority (something about the old rule would prevail for any debate and Reid could refuse to call the issue).
Paul Kane: Ah, my favorite insider topic that only about eight people understand. Here's the deal -- whoever is in the chair of the Senate has to, by rule, recognize the leader of the majority party first. So therefore, if Lieberman were to officially caucus with Republicans, they would become the majority party (50-50, plus Cheney's tiebreaker). McConnell would be the first person recognized for the purposes of doing business. Now, under normal circumstances, as happened after the Jeffords's switch of '01, there would be a negotiation to reorganize the chamber and craft new committee ratios and appoint new Republican chairman of the panels. But such a reorganization is what they call an "amendable vehicle" -- therefore Democrats could just refuse to reorganize and leave the Leahys, Kennedys, Levins and Baucuses in place as chairmen. McConnell would then simply abandon the entire committee process and all legislation would come straight to the floor and have to be haggled over on the floor without any prior consideration by the panels. This is feasible in theory, but that's it. It would be chaos. Simply put, if you're a liberal who hates Lieberman for his war support, suck it up and deal. That's the only way you maintain control of the gavels and the agenda.
Salinas, Calif.: Hi Paul. Given the excellent reporting on the destruction of purported CIA torture tapes by your colleagues Abramowitz, Warrick and Eggen, do you think that this is another investigation that the White House and its former public servants (i.e. Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzales, et al) will be able to successfully stonewall from congressional hearings before the transition to the next administration?
washingtonpost.com: White House Lawyers Told Of Videotapes (Post, Dec. 20)
Paul Kane: As someone who wrote a ton in the spring and summer about DOJ, the U.S. attorney firings and the Hill's investigations of them, I can say with pretty sound authority that the White House will block any congressional probes on this. They've got less than 400 days to run out the clock on this administration, and there's no basketball-style shot clock to force them to react to the Hill's subpoenas, etc. But, a criminal investigation is a whole other deal. If you want to get answers about what exactly happened there, hope this matter goes into the courts and before a judge who forces the issue. Otherwise, don't expect much from congressional Democrats -- their hands are tied and the clock is winding down.
Cloture: Thanks for your evenhanded explanation of the situation. I'm pleased that our minority is doing what we need them to do in stopping anything really egregious from passing. That maneuver Sen. Positivity (D-Nevada) is pulling to prevent recess appointments is clever. Has it ever been done before, or is Reid reaching a new height in fecklessness?
Paul Kane: I tried to get an answer to the historical ramifications of this pro-forma session thing back in November, during the first round of pro-forma sessions, and the Senate Historical Office didn't know the answer. Some folks seem to think Lott may have pulled a mini-version of this in the mid-'90s on the Clinton White House. Beyond that, no one seems to know. This is one of those things that has frequently been threatened before, but usually results in the White House (Democratic or Republican occupant) agreeing mano-a-mano not to make recess appointments. What's different in this case is you have two very hard-headed people -- Bush and Reid -- who are willing to call each other's bluffs. Clearly, it's unprecedented for this long of a protracted battle to continue going, because at this point you gotta figure Reid will do these pro-forma sessions all the way through next year. That's an amazing standoff.
Salisbury, Conn.: Paul, I resent your labeling of people concerned by the unprecedented filibustering as "liberals." I agree that Harry Reid has done a poor job, but on the one instance where he threatened to deny the cloture motion, the media treated it as "political theater." Just because citizens are critical of government doesn't mean we are partisans.
Paul Kane: I assume you're referring to the round-the-clock debate that Reid held back in July on the Levin-Reed withdrawal timeline debate. Hey, we didn't label it theater -- Democrats said that themselves. Go back and read the stories, they called it theatrics themselves. The deal is this: Rules were changed more than 30 yeand ars ago, they made it more difficult for a small minority to kill legislation through talk-a-thon filibusters. But, a large minority of 41 senators, as long as you hold that big a minority, you're money. You don't have to do a thing anymore -- you're empowered by the cloture rules to ensure you can block just about anything you want, and you don't even have to show up to debate the issue so long as you have one guy/gal from your side on the floor to object to a unanimous consent request to pass legislation. That's the deal.
Fairfax, Va.: What's the deal with all the candidate Christmas ads? Maybe this is a sign there's too much money in politics...
washingtonpost.com: Candidates Step In From the Cold: Just in Time for Christmas, They Roll Out Feel-Good Ads (Post, Dec. 20)
Paul Kane: These ads are clearly the candidates way of handling the bizarre timing of this year's caucuses and primaries. Usually, in the final two weeks of Iowa/New Hampshire/South Carolina, the candidates beat the heck out of one another, pounding away with negative ads. But this year, they're scared to death to do that during the holiday season -- what is supposed to be a feel-good time of spiritual renewal. They're afraid to turn voters off, and really, no one knows what the calendar has done to this entire process. Some pollsters think it's possible that, by Sunday, most voters in Iowa will tune out politics for a week or so, in which case wherever the candidates are in the polls by Sunday may be where they come out on Jan. 3. Others disagree and think the undecideds will be tuning in. It's a great unknown.
Cincinnati: Paul: I'd like to ask a tangential question one of your answers. In regards to Harry Reid, you said "he's a senator's senator who did all the dirty jobs (ethics chairman...)." Why do you -- and probably most of Washington -- consider the "ethics chairman" to be a dirty job (by that term, I am assuming you mean an unwanted job by the party). Isn't your statement about as damning statement as you can make about our party system? Being an "ethics chairman" should be a position of respect and pride, not a "dirty job." P.S. I am a Republican and I am sure this position has the same "respect" on the Republican side of the aisle, as well.
Paul Kane: Okay, Cincinnati, think of it this way: Whatever your job is, I'm going to assume for the sake of argument that you're a well-liked, well-respected person in your office. Now let's just assume for a moment your boss comes by your desk today and tells you of a new promotion: Your job is to be the company's new internal investigator. You're in charge of monitoring the behavior of all your co-workers -- you have to look at their e-mails and study their online behavior to make sure they aren't wasting company resources by spending all day on espn.com (or something far, far more inappropriate). You are your company's own ethics chairman. Is that a job you want? Is that a job that's going to win you a lot of fans in your office? I'm going to guess the answer is no to both questions. However, if you do that job, and you do it well and fairly, and a few years later you pass it on to someone else, a lot of co-workers will say "damn, Cincinnati was a good person, he/she handled office ethics chairman pretty well."
Chicago: Do congressional Democrats trust the White House at all? Is there any trust there? Your answer about Reid keeping the Senate out of recess over the holidays because Bush can't be trusted not to make recess appointments got me wondering about how typical it is for the administration to have no credibility with Congress. Does the White House even care at this point? Thanks.
Paul Kane: Um, short answer to both of those questions on "trust": No. And no.
Arlington, Va.: Yesterday, on the floor of the House, Rep Jim Moran said this: "Sure there's less violence but that's because we have ethnically cleansed most of Baghdad." Can you explain why, when a local congressman accuses the U.S. military of genocide, The Post chooses not to cover the remarks or send a reporter out to ask a few follow-up questions?
washingtonpost.com: Moran: U.S. Has 'Ethnically Cleansed Most of Baghdad' (YouTube)
Paul Kane: Balkanized Homecoming (Post, Dec. 16) I hope that link comes through. I'm not one to usually defend Jim Moran's remarks -- he's got a history of saying some off-the-wall things. But in this instance, I think Moran was not saying "ethnically cleansed" in the killing sense, so much as he was referring to the geographic movement and resettlement of the Sunni and Shiites in the city. This came through in a Karen DeYoung story in recent days (link above) about how Iraq's capital city is increasingly Balkanized into separate encampments.
Portsmouth, N.H.: Assuming that theoretically the obstruction-at-all-costs gambit continues, what do the Republicans get from it? Even rank-and-file Republicans actually want the country to work (which it doesn't really most of the time -- airlines, FEMA, etc., etc., etc.) so all of this blocking progress eventually just looks like giving the citizenry Washington's middle finger, doesn't it?
Isn't it possible that it will just push more votes to the Democrats, either actively or passively through protest non-voters? Realistically, even angry Democrats aren't going to vote Republican. I understand what they get emotionally from obstruction; I just don't understand what they get from it tactically.
Paul Kane: This is the $64,000 question, isn't it? I don't know the answer, to be honest, whether the GOP strategy of making the Congress unpopular will work politically. But to be fair, a good many things that Republicans are blocking they genuinely believe should be stopped in their tracks. Will this obstruction help or hurt Republicans? I don't know the answer. The Democrats believe it will hurt the GOP. Rahm Emanuel says that Democrats are in better position politically today than they were on Election Day 2006; it remains to be seen if he's right.
Leesburg, Va.: You answered a question about the destruction of the CIA torture tapes this way: "As someone who wrote a ton in the spring and summer about DOJ, the US attorney firings and the Hill's investigations of them, I can say with pretty sound authority that the White House will block any congressional probes on this. They've got less than 400 days to run out the clock on this administration, and there's no basketball-style shot clock to force them to react to the Hill's subpoenas, etc." Surely the next Congress can investigate this matter further even after the new administration (Republican or Democrat) comes in in 2008? Just because an administration is out of office doesn't mean Congress can't investigate, right?
Paul Kane: Oh sure, absolutely. It would be interesting to see if, with a Democratic administration and Democratic Congress, whether they would do something akin to what was done post-Nixon/post-Vietnam. Back then, the Senate set up a special committee to investigate all sorts of accusations of abuse of intelligence/special operations, etc. It was called the Church Committee, and its unearthings became critically important to understanding a lot of the CIA abuses in the '50s, '60s and early '70s.
New Hampshire: Hi Paul and thanks for taking my question. I read your article from the 18th about Harry Reid pulling the FISA bill and still am left wondering why "Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the decision had nothing to do with the efforts of Dodd and his allies." I watched the entire proceedings and remain incredibly moved and thankful for the efforts of Sen. Dodd and his "allies" to protect and defend our Constitution by objecting to retroactive immunity for the telecoms. Can you fathom why this dismissive and seemingly disingenuous statement was made? Was there more to your interview with Manley that you will share?
washingtonpost.com: Telecom Immunity Issue Derails Spy Law Overhaul (Post, Dec. 18)
Paul Kane: Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman, was speaking the truth as Harry Reid viewed things. Reid could have pushed the FISA bill through if he wanted to, over Dodd's objections, but it would have taken time -- several days. Reid decided to wait until mid-January. A little-noticed statement Reid made to reporters on Tuesday: he said that by mid-to-late January, when the Senate takes up FISA again, it's likely that the presidential campaign will be finished. That was a not-so-subtle dig, I think, at Dodd -- who some Democrats believe was grand-standing to try to gain attention for his floundering 2008 campaign. Don't yell at me for saying this, this is what some Democrats here on the Hill believe. Eventually, in a month or two, it's extremely likely the Senate will pass a FISA reauthorization with telecom immunity, so Manley's comment in that regard was accurate. So those of you in the blogosphere attacking Jim should understand, he's channeling Reid when he says that.
Cleveland, Ohio: What do you think the fallout will be on Capitol Hill of Brian Westbrook's decision to take a knee?
Paul Kane: Ah, an Eagles fan in our midst. Brian Westbrook is a hero to those of us in Philadelphia and high school football fans in the D.C. area as a graduate of DeMatha high school! Sadly, the Eags won't be going to the playoffs this year, but we beat the stuffing outta the Cowboys last Sunday, which is worth something.
Okay folks, on that note, it's time to say goodbye. It's been a crazy 2007, with Democrats back in charge of the entire Capitol for the first time in a dozen years. Everyone seems a little bit angry about how the year went, on the left, right and middle. That's to be expected, I guess. But we get a break the next three weeks here on the Hill, so our attention can focus on Iowa and New Hampshire. Fun times ahead next year. Have a great holiday season, you and your families. Keep reading, have fun and see you in the new year.
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