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Post Politics Hour
washingtonpost.com's Daily Politics Discussion

Paul Kane
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Thursday, July 10, 2008 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 Paul Kane was online Thursday, July 10 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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Paul Kane: Alright folks, it's a Thursday morning, and as I type, the Senate once again is having another one of those so-called "cloture" votes on the housing bill -- the third one, at least, that they've had. It's a complicated parliamentary mess of a bill, but the actually might pass it tomorrow, we're told. And yesterday, the Senate passed a Medicare-doctors-price bill in the most dramatic fashion, with Ted Kennedy returning to the chamber for the first time since his brain surgery in early June. So, things are moving here in the Capitol, and there's a lot of swirling controversy out on the presidential campaign trail. Off to the questions.

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Legality: How can Karl Rove simply ignore a subpoena from a House committee to testify? Have other political staffers attached the executive branch also been able to brush off a legal summons in this manner? Whatever happened to respect for the law of the land?

Paul Kane: Rove just blew off the House Judiciary Committee, which had subpoenaed him to appear to testify about information relating to the U.S. Attorneys firings and other Justice Department issues. The committee took some preliminary steps toward holding him in contempt of Congress, according to an e-mail report by my colleague Dana Milbank. Has anyone else ever done this -- completely dismissing a congressional subpoena and not showing for hearings?

Yes: Karl Rove has.

Rove did the same thing to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers did the same to House Judiciary last year. President Bush has claimed what amounts to a never-before-asserted theory of absolute privilege over his closest advisers. Again, this level of executive privilege never has been asserted before, and it is being battled out in the federal courts right now in a House civil lawsuit contesting this claim.

A ruling is expected on the matter later this year.

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Washington: What is the difference between what Jessie Jackson said and what Ralph Nader said?

Paul Kane: The difference between Jackson and Nader couldn't be more important and more stark on matters of race. Jackson for most of the '70s and '80s was the leading black civil rights activist. His campaigns for president in '84 and '88, while unsuccessful, were trailblazing efforts that also helped launch the political careers of leading Democrats, such as Donna Brazile and Ron Brown. No, he is nowhere near as important and influential now, and his star is being eclipsed by other younger politicians and activists -- but on matters of race, his voice still matters.

Nader is a consumer rights advocate, so when he starts talking about racial issues it just doesn't carry the same weight.

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Washington: Paul, you covered the special election in Louisiana where now-Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) picked up the seat. How much does the fact that Woody Jenkins has dropped out hurt Cazayoux's prospects in November? Thanks.

Paul Kane: Ah, a great question about a single House race, but one that is a true bellwether for how things might go in November. The national Republican attitude -- even before a single vote was cast in the early May special election -- was that Jenkins was a terribly flawed candidate and wasn't worth putting in much effort. They followed through with that lack of effort -- the National Republican Congressional Committee invested about $450,000 in Louisiana's 6th Congressional District, while it spent $1.2 million and $1.3 million in the special elections for seats in Illinois and Mississippi, respectively.

All three lost -- yet Woody Jenkins came the closest to winning. What does that tell you? Well, with the right candidate in November, this seat should be much easier for the Republicans to win. But in November the NRCC will be battling it out in about 50 different districts, and won't have the same ability to focus on the district the way they could in the special.

P.S. -- Jenkins told me at a crawfish boil before the special election that it would determine who held that seat for the next decade or so. He said Cajuns simply don't evict incumbents.

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Bethesda, Md.: What's the swirling controversy on the presidential campaign trail? Is it that McCain skipped out on votes on Medicare and FISA, which were so important that Teddy Kennedy dragged himself off his bed to vote? Of course not.

washingtonpost.com: With Nudge By Kennedy, Medicare Bill Passes (Post, July 10)

Paul Kane: Kennedy's return to the chamber yesterday was really something special. Republicans and Democrats alike cheered him on, and GOP senators, such as Kay Bailey Hutchison, were just awestruck. Plain and simple, Kennedy turned that vote around. They had 59 votes without Kennedy, and he showed up and gave them 60 (the number needed to pass the bill) -- and as soon as Republicans like Hutchison realized the bill was passing, they lined up to vote yes. They wanted to be on the winning side.

Thinking of the Senate like a basketball game, Kennedy scored 10 points yesterday. His arrival meant 10 votes, taking it from 59 votes to 69 votes. I've never seen anything like it in the 8 years that I now have covered the Senate closely.

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Washington: Hey Paul -- thanks for taking the question. I am hearing a lot of news about the latest congressional fundraising totals. With new numbers being reported by campaigns, any surprises?

Paul Kane: Here's one that surprises me -- Mitch McConnell will report another $3 million raised for the second quarter of 2008. That's going to put him at something like $10 million or $11 million for the election cycle so far. The record for a Kentucky Senate race had been $6 million. McConnell essentially already has doubled down on the Kentucky record. In this environment, with Republicans running for their lives, Mitch McConnell is leaving nothing on the table. If he loses this year, it won't be because he lacked the funding to do it.

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Southwest Nebraska: Jesse Jackson said something stupid, but even more stupid was trusting Fox News. A number of people I know discount anything appearing in The Washington Post, it being a liberal rag and all. They probably wouldn't trust baseball stats from The Post. Has a large portion of the public been inoculated by the right so that they won't catch any "truth" you might print?

Paul Kane: If you look at today's sports section in The Washington Post, it will show that Phillies slugger Ryan Howard hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of the eighth inning last night. It was his 25th home run. I trust the sports section, and I trust it because I saw it with my own two eyes on ESPN last night.

I also saw Jackson's comments with my own two eyes (thanks, YouTube). You can't blame Fox for Jackson's mistake. It happened. Just like Howard's bomb to win the game happened.

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Re: Clinton's exes: Harold Wolfson and Mark Penn, two of Clinton's most visible strategist are each going teaming up with noted conservatives: Wolfson with Fox News and Penn with Karen Hughes. Why? Doesn't such a move play into the idea that Clinton wants Obama to lose?

Paul Kane: Washington is a bipartisan town in its essence, in its nature. In the late 1990s Jack Quinn, former counsel to Clinton and Gore, teamed up with Ed Gillespie -- then a former RNC staffer who would go on to be RNC chairman and a Bush counselor -- to form a massive bipartisan lobbying shop. Kevin Madden, spin doctor to such GOP stalwarts as Alberto Gonzalez, Tom DeLay and Mitt Romney, just signed up with the once all-Democratic consultant shop Glover Park Group. This is what happens here. I know this upsets people, but this is how it works.

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Washington: Paul, for the life of me, I can't seem to get anyone to answer this question for me ... for all the talk of potential vice presidential choices for Sen. Obama, is there a reason that former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland's name hasn't come up? He seems to me to be a great fit, with a heck of a biography. Maybe not all that well-known, but he's a charmer, and has just about as great a war-story background as McCain.

Paul Kane: Since losing his Senate seat, Cleland has been pretty public about his own bouts of battling depression and possible late-forming post-traumatic stress. A Vietnam War veteran, Cleland would have a fit in his bio to be veep, but honestly I don't think his heart would be into the job. I think that 2002 campaign left him highly embittered with the political process -- particularly after he put a lot of emotion into campaigning for Kerry in 2004 only to see him lose.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Tell us more about the Kennedy Medicare story. I am fascinated by what you wrote so far. It sounds like it is one for the history books. Surely it was not just that his vote took the number from 59 to 60, was it? A no-name senator could have done that. How much of a surprise was his arrival? Did people know he was coming? Did his current situation give senators more of a "big picture" attitude temporarily, letting them move on from the arcane details of the fight? And does all of those bode well for the reported Democratic effort to begin working through practical details on health care to have a bill ready, just in case, for January?

Paul Kane: The buzz about Kennedy's possible arrival basically started the night of June 26, when the Democrats fell one vote short of passing their version of the doctors' price fix for Medicare. Kennedy wasn't there, and he would have been the 60th vote. But there was never any confirmation of it. Close friends like Chris Dodd said they'd been told Monday he was thinking of coming down for the vote, but didn't know for certain until yesterday morning.

It was a closely held secret until minutes beforehand. Staff for Democratic senators got an alert urging their boss to get to the Senate floor early for the scheduled 4 p.m. vote, so that they all could be there to welcome Kennedy to the floor. I personally got a tip he might be coming early yesterday morning. Kennedy's office didn't return my calls. I found out for certain he was here when my old Roll Call colleague Emily Pierce happened to be outside the Capitol on a smoke break and saw Kennedy pull up in the car. (Smoking may kill, but sometimes it helps you get a scoop, apparently!)

What this means for a massive national health care bill in January ... well, I can't say for certain what the prospects are for that. That's just a much bigger issue than one senator -- even one with as big a legislative portfolio as Kennedy.

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Washington: Assuming Obama made the mistake (in my opinion) of choosing Clinton to be his vice president nominee, would he also have to assume her campaign debt?

Paul Kane: Nope, her campaign debt is her campaign debt alone. The Hillary Clinton for President campaign is a separate entity that has to pay off its debts through its own efforts.

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Butte, Mont.: Paul, can you help explain something to me? While, as a Democrat, I appreciate all Sen. Kennedy has done for our country, is the Senate so out of touch that they have not seen people with cancer come to work while undergoing treatment? People do it every day -- probably hundreds of thousands. What exactly was so amazing? He was driven there by a chauffeur, no doubt, walked in, voted, etc. It's not like it was an eight-hour day. What am I missing here? I get that his presence swayed votes (and again, I am glad about that), but geez -- a standing ovation? Tears? Perhaps this shows just how out of touch the senators are about health care in the U.S. Lots of people go to work while receiving cancer treatment.

Paul Kane: Butte -- senators are people, despite what is written and said about them. They are living, breathing human beings, with emotions and hearts and souls. One of their own -- a co-worker who has been with them for almost 46 years now -- was near death a couple weeks ago, and he appeared in their office yesterday to work.

If a co-worker of yours, who had been to many of your officemates the heart and soul of your office, if that co-worker had been near death from brain surgery and then showed up one day for work -- well, I'd hope that you would join your co-workers in a similar standing ovation.

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Anonymous: What are Al Franken's chances of unseating Coleman? Will Jesse the Body throw his boa into the ring?

Paul Kane: At this point Franken's campaign has been stumbling from the ex-comic's self-inflicted wounds: not paying taxes, and old interviews with Playboy that are littered with controversial statements about women and minorities that he now says were meant to be humorous.

In a political environment in which every other Democratic challenger is turning their race into one of the GOP incumbent's behavior and connections to the Bush White House, this is a bad thing for Franken. As long as this race is predicated on Al Franken and what Al has done or said, he cannot beat Coleman. If he turns the race into a referendum on Norm Coleman, he can win.

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Rockville, Md.: It seems that the fight over FISA was more heartfelt than the Iraq fight. Why is it so important to put a few telephone company executives in jail for things they may have done as early as the Eisenhower administration? I don't see it. But someone said they could sue for methods information so they could know exactly what statistical analysis is done with these intercepts. What is going on?

Paul Kane: I'm not sure what you mean by "heartfelt" in terms of Democratic opposition, but I'll say this: Back in February Nancy Pelosi took a deep breath and rolled the dice on FISA. Almost 70 senators had voted for a FISA bill that gave automatic immunity to the telecoms and did not have very strong new regulations on domestic spying.

She didn't like that bill, but the tides for the previous seven years had been that Congress always gave in to Bush on issues of national security.

Pelosi didn't blink -- rather than passing the Senate version of FISA, she instead pushed a bill that very day to hold the White House in contempt of Congress for its refusal to turn over documents and allow former aides to testify in the U.S. Attorneys investigation. And then she closed down the House for a planned weeklong recess.

It was a high-wire political act. When Democrats went home, they realized that they weren't getting killed on FISA, so they dug in for months. Ultimately, they gave in on a bill that many Democrats didn't like, but they leveraged that opposition to FISA for many concessions on domestic policy that simply were unthinkable six months ago.

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Anonymous: I thought Hillary's vote against the new and improved FISA bill was interesting. It appears that Obama is running to the middle as Hillary runs to the left. What's Hillary up to?

Paul Kane: Well, Clinton had said she opposed the FISA bill while she was campaigning, so technically she was the one sticking to her guns.

Interestingly, the House Democratic leadership are the ones who came off as the hawks on FISA. Pelosi, Hoyer, Clyburn and Emanuel all voted for the bill. On the Senate side, Reid, Durbin, Schumer and Murray all voted against the bill.

That's just interesting, because usually the House is where the more ideologically motivated leaders end up, while the Senate is filled with folks moving more toward the center.

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Phillies Phan: Hi, Paul. I am shamelessly hoping that if I open with the fact that our Phillies are still hanging on to first place this close to the All-Star break, you will answer my political question. Tom Delay was on "Hardball" last night, and it got me to wondering why he still is being treated as if he has any credibility while under indictment, and why he is not on trial or in jail. What's going on with his trial? Pardon the pun, but why the delay? My hope is that it's the prosecution that is holding up the show, thinking that if they wait long enough, George Bush won't be able to pardon him if he's convicted. Go Phillies!

Paul Kane: Okay, okay, you got me. I'll bite, because you are supposedly a Phillies Phanatic. DeLay is now a regular presence on many TV, radio and online media outlets. He has started a conservative group with former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. And he gives really sharp, good quotes. I understand your point -- he left the House in disgrace -- but the reality is that the indictment you refer to has not been treated here among D.C. media types as a really legitimate indictment. It's about a complicated maneuver of campaign donations, and it was brought by a prosecutor with a so-so record of winning convictions. That indictment is now three years old, and there's no sign of when the trial is going to start.

DeLay's problem really lies with the ongoing Abramoff investigation, which the D.C. media treats very, very seriously. If DeLay is indicted in that probe, his career as TV prognosticator will be finished.

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Chicago: "If a co-worker of yours, who had been to many of your officemates the heart and soul of your office, if that co-worker had been near death from brain surgery and then showed up one day for work -- well, I'd hope that you would join your coworkers in a similar standing ovation." Yeah, but it's how his presence "inspired" everyone else that troubles us. If a sick co-worker showed up at my office, I wouldn't do the equivalent of changing my vote on a crucial piece of legislation. Can you imagine it? "Oh my god, it's Bill from accounting! You know, if he can make it into work, then I'm going to finish that TPS report after all!"

Paul Kane: Bob: Looks like you've been missing a lot of work lately.

Peter Gibbons: I wouldn't say I've been missing it, Bob.

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Emily Pierce smokes?: And that's rare? I just assumed you all chain smoked in some reporters alcove, while playing cards with your fedoras pushed back and sleeves rolled up waiting for Rosalind Russell to come in and tell you that Mr. Smith is about to lose it on the floor.

Paul Kane: Actually, very few reporters smoke around here in the Capitol. Come to think of it, only about a handful that I can think of smoke regularly, and they all seem to be my former co-workers at Roll Call. Maybe there's something in the office air at 50 F Street that makes people smoke.

As for the fedora, there is one reporter-dude who shows up once in a while wearing a fedora. My friend John recently yelled at him, "hey Drudge, what's up?"

So, no, not many fedoras up here.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Paul, your powerful but graceful response to Butte is one for the ages -- or at least this age. It's the type of "reminding" and heartfelt statement that ought to be made every day in response to the broadcast and cable rants. But to read it just once was a gift. Thank you, and no question.

Paul Kane: Wow, I like Cambridge. Never been there, but I gotta love the place now.

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They gave in on a bill that many Democrats didn't like, but they leveraged that opposition to FISA for many concessions on domestic policy that simply were unthinkable 6 months ago.: What concessions? The Democrats did what they do best, covered their own behinds. They are so afraid that if they don't kow-tow to Bush on Iraq and national security and another terrorist attack occurs, they will be blamed. Obama, whom I support, spoke at lengths about accountability in Washington -- but when push came to shove he put his political future above the accountability that the majority of Americans want. Obama's new type of politics in on thin ice.

Paul Kane: Bush wanted a $108 billion war supplemental bill. "108 is 108" was his mantra.

Democrats then got an additional $25 billion or so in basic domestic spending (shoring up Louisiana levees, veterans hospitals, etc.). They got an additional 13 weeks of unemployment insurance, which Bush said he would veto until 75 percent of both the House and Senate voted for more unemployment insurance. And the Democrats, over Bush's veto threat, started a new GI bill for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

These were major accomplishments.

Just 7 months ago, during the end-game negotiations for the fiscal year 2008, Democrats got stuck with basically no additional funds, gave Bush his war funds, and were on the verge of caving in completely on FISA.

I know many Democratic activists aren't happy, but the past seven months have been a remarkable turnaround of events.

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Paul Kane: Okay folks, time for me to check out. Gotta run to the weekly Senate Democratic leadership press conference. It's been a blast -- I'll see you soon.

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