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Post Politics: Obama Bias, Supreme Court Pick, Murtha, More

Ben Pershing
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online May 5 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions.

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Ben Pershing: Happy Tuesday, all. We've got President Obama's first Supreme Court nomination coming soon, a supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan awaiting action on the Hill, plus financial news, swine flu and all kinds of other interesting stuff to talk about. So let's get started.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Ben

Why is expected that confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice won't happen until Fall? I realize there is "vetting" involved, but most of the likely candidates have all been through some approval process previously to reach their current position. Be thorough, yes, but 4-5 MONTHS ? I guess all those Congressional recesses come first, along with the Republicans trying to figure out their negative talking points and "litmus tests."

Ben Pershing: I think the timing of all of this is very much in the air. First Obama needs to pick a nominee. Orrin Hatch said yesterday he thought we'd have one this week, but that seems unlikely. Then, yes, the Judiciary Committee needs to do lots of vetting before it begins its hearings. Remember, the current Supreme Court term ends in June and then the next one starts in October, so there's no real rush here. There's no reason the nominee has to be confirmed quickly. If it were August and the next term started in less than two months, then I think you'd see more urgency.

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Richmond, Va.: I love it when the Post has exposes like the one on Murtha this morning. Outside the beltway, such obvious corruption (can't think of another word) gets one's blood boiling, and if I were a constituent, I would dislike this man, even if I had voted for him. Having said that, how does it work in his district? Do his constituents care enough when there is such an expose to kick him out, or do they, too, get largesse from his seniority, and do not care about personal largesse?

washingtonpost.com: Murtha Nephew Got Contracts

Ben Pershing: I don't want to make overly broad generalizations about people in Murtha's Pennsylvania district. I'm sure there are some voters, Republicans andd Democrats alike, who are disenchanted with him because of these allegations. But you also have to remember that Murtha has almost singlehandedly revived and propped up the economy in Johnstown. The airport, the military facilities, the defense contractors and tech companies opening new offices -- all of these things are in Murtha's district because he put them there. He has brought home so much money and so many jobs that I imagine he's still overwhelmingly popular at home. The question is -- how popular is he outside of his district?

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Chicago: What do you think it is the chance there will be some sort of formal investigation into the Bush administration and torture? A special prosecutor, congressional committee, blue ribbon commission, etc?

Ben Pershing: Right now I would say it's less than 50/50 such an investigation would happen. That's just a guess -- there might be a probe -- but with Obama lukewarm on the idea it's hard to see congressional Democrats pushing this very far, even though they want to.

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Saint Paul, Minn: Hi Ben -- Thanks for taking questions today. Since we have a new president and supposedly a new way of doing things in Washington, are we likely to see anything different in the way Pres. Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court is handled by the Senate Judiciary Committee? Can we expect to see the usual three-paragraph question followed by the usual non- answer? I think I know what you are going to say, but humor me anyway.

Ben Pershing: The tradition of Senators liking the sound of their own voices probably has not changed and will not change, despite the new era of Obama, etc. The fact that Joe Biden is no longer in the Senate will certainly cut down on some of the long speeches -- during Alito's confirmation hearing, Biden once spoke for something like 10 minutes, uninterrupted, without actually asking a question. But there are plenty of other Senators eager for their moment in the spotlight, so you should expect the tradition of long-winded hearings to continue.

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washingtonpost.com: FWIW, questions about Post editorial policy are best sent to the Ask the Ombudsman chat, going on live now.

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Monmouth, OR: Good morning. Regarding the Supreme Court, Gov. Granhom of Michigan has been mentioned, but is Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington being mentioned? She is a former state AG, big on the tobacco settlement, other issues, and a proven politician with "empathy." Also, could we all sign a petition that next Supremer come from a BCS football playing school? I feel I have as much in common with Justice Roberts as I do with, say, Prince Charles. Thanks.

Ben Pershing: Two parts to your question, and they're related. Yes, I have seen Gregoire's name mentioned in some press accounts, including in the New York Times. I have not heard of anyone referring to her as a frontrunner. I think she gets referenced more as an example of someone Obama might pick if he wants to make an unconventional choice. Which brings me to your second point: There has been a lot of speculation that Obama will forgo picking an appeals court judge (like many of the recent nominees) and will instead pick a prominent politician in the Earl Warren mold. That's where people like Granholm and Gregoire come in, and that's where you might see someone who didn't go to Harvard or Yale get picked. Gregoire, for example, went to law school at Gonzaga. Granholm went to Harvard, so she wouldn't be all that unconventional. But she got her undergraduate degree at Berkeley, like I did. So she must be pretty awesome.

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Greenville, SC : Ben - Did you read Mark Knoller's explanation of why the White House press corp rose when Obama entered the press briefing room but had not extended the same courtesy when Bush did? Kinda shows you where the press corp is coming from, don't you think?

washingtonpost.com: When Reporters Rise For The President

Ben Pershing: I did read that. Did you take what Knoller wrote as some evidence of bias? I tend to believe what he mentions at the end -- a lot of people in the current WH press corps are new and were unaware that it's better in this instance not to stand and block the shot of photographers. And they didn't know that you stand in the East Room, not the briefing room. But if you want to believe that the standing issue is evidence of mass bias, that's what you're going to believe, regardless of what Knoller does or doesn't write.

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Cherry Hill, N.J.: Has there been any polling on a Ridge vs Toomey primary in PA?

Ben Pershing: Not that I've seen yet, though I think everyone would be interested to see such a poll. Two polls have come out this week suggesting that Ridge would do better against Specter in a general election than Toomey would. But the GOP primary matchup is tougher to handicap -- it seems that Ridge might suffer from the same problems in the primary that Specter would have, since Ridge supports abortion rights and Toomey is anti-abortion. And I don't see Ridge jumping into this race unless he felt very confident he would win the primary

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Potomac, Md.: Ben; The definition of terrorist, in my view, needs to be update to include CEOs that move companies overseas in order to cheat our tax system. CEOs whose salary is 400 times more than the average worker in their company. These people have destroyed so many lives in our country and around the world.

Ben Pershing: Um, I can understand your outrage about CEO pay but I don't think it quite makes sense to brand them as "terrorists." Just because you think someone is behaving selfishly or immorally doesn't make them terrorists.

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Re. Torture?: What does Obama have to do with the decision to investigate and prosecute? Is prosecuting crimes just optional in the U.S. now? Of course not: In fact if Obama in any way directs his Attorney General to not prosecute the crimes of the past administration, he will not only become morally culpable, he will basically be obstructing justice, exposing himself to international criminal prosecutions, and further politicizing the DOJ. Am I missing something here, Ben?

Ben Pershing: What you're missing is that the attorney general is a politician. He doesn't operate in a vacuum. When it comes to particularly big, high-profile issues like this one, Holder will at least consider public opinion and the political environment as well as the wishes of Congress and his boss before he acts. Now, Holder may consider all of those things and still decide to investigate. I'm just predicting that he won't. As for Congress, Democrats can decide to investigate whatever they want, I just think they will be hesitant if they don't have Obama's endorsement.

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Washington, D.C.: Ben, Please, enough with the sports chat, there are two sports chats today. Can this be a politics chat as advertised?

Ben Pershing: Actually, I don't think I've really mentioned sports yet (though one of the questions did reference the BCS). But since you bring it up, how about those Dodgers, huh? Did you know they've started the season 11-0 at home?

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Salinas, Calif.: Hi Ben. Does it seem likely to you that Pres. Obama will propose a replacement for Justice Souter who would make it unwise for Republicans to spend a lot of political capital on trying to block (which they can't) and leave the more controversial (read young liberal) pick for later in his first (or presumably second) term? I'm thinking that with a full plate of challenges to deal with at present, he's looking to slip a nominee under the culture wars radar this go round.

Ben Pershing: There's a certain logic to that argument -- Obama has enough on his plate, so he shouldn't pick a fight now. But so far in his 100+ days in office, Obama hasn't shown much interest in deferring fights. He often talks about his ability to do lots of things at once, and he wants to push forward on health care reform, climate change and other controversial fronts even while dealing with the economy, Afghanistan, the auto industry and a dozen other things. I don't think Obama will wait to nominate someone controversial if that's who he really wants to pick.

You can also argue that it will be easier for Obama to get someone liberal through the Senate now, replacing the liberal Souter, than if he tried to pick a liberal to replace a conservative in the future. That's when Republicans would really try to make it as tough as possible.

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Washington, DC: Ben Pershing: I did read that. Did you take what Knoller wrote as some evidence of bias? I tend to believe what he mentions at the end -- a lot of people in the current WH press corps are new and were unaware that it's better in this instance not to stand and block the shot of photographers. And they didn't know that you stand in the East Room, not the briefing room. But if you want to believe that the standing issue is evidence of mass bias, that's what you're going to believe, regardless of what Knoller does or doesn't write.

Oh, come on, Knoller's "explanation" was just pathetic. How does he know what the other reporters know about the etiquette of standing when the President enters a room? He would be more credible if he admitted that most of the reporters in that room like, admire, agree with, and voted for Obama, and do NOT like, admire, agree with or voted for Bush.

And your last statement doesn't exactly indicate that you're receptive to those who disagree with you.

Ben Pershing: I'm perfectly receptive to arguments that the media is biased. I think there are lots of legitimate examples that can be cited of media bias, and you can even make the argument that the Obama/Bush/standing in the press room example is evidence of bias. I just don't necessarily think that what Mark Knoller wrote was evidence of bias on his part or anyone else. Knoller wrote what he believes to be true, and he knows more about White House press etiquette than anyone, more than you and me combined. So I tend to give some credence to what he thinks.

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Republican rebranding: There appear to be at least three new groups engaged in this process. Who would be the grown-up go-between who brokered some sort of agreement among these groups re the party's future?

Ben Pershing: I don't know if there is a "grown-up go-between" who can broker agreement among all these groups, nor do I know if there should be one. Shouldn't Republicans have a good, honest internal debate about what they should do next? Why not have multiple competing groups jockeying for position, and let the best groups and the best ideas rise to the top? The idea that the minority party has to be represented by one central leader or one central group is, I think, overrated. Who was the leader of the Democrats when they were out of power? Howard Dean? No -- power was split up between different people and different factions, and the party was able to make a comeback anyway.

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There oughta be a law...: Actually there are conflict of interest laws that would probably apply to Murtha. However, I don't see this Justice department to be any different than any other and he will skate because he is of the cloth, as it were. Can citizens make a citizens arrest so to speak, or are we stuck with Holder's potential decision in this matter?

Ben Pershing: The Justice Department has gone after quite a few members of Congress in recent years -- Ted Stevens, Cunningham, Jefferson, Renzi -- the list goes on quite a ways. And some of the groups and lobbying firms linked to Murtha are currently under federal investigation. So I wouldn't necessarily leap to assume that Murtha will "skate."

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Arlington, Va.: Has Sen. Specter offered to return or refund any contributions he received prior to his switch to the Democratic party? How much cash did he bring with him for the fall campaign when he made his move?

Ben Pershing: Specter did say he would return contributions to donors who asked, but I wonder if/when he's actually going to follow through. Several GOP Senators stepped up and gave him tens of thousands of dollars earlier this year, and they are going to want their money back. As of March 31, Specter had $5.8 million in his campaign account and had raised $1.3 million in the first three months of the year. I have no idea how much of that money donors will ask be returned.

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Silver Spring, MD: CEO's are NOT terrorists; they are enemy combatants and will dealt with accordingly. Did former Secretary Rice's response to a student's question on terrorism register on the political map? It was OK to torture because we were all scared? Can you tell me whether that is "moral relativism" or "situational ethics?"

Ben Pershing: Well, Rice's comments registered on the political map in that a lot of people were talking about them and they got significant press attention on this site and other outlets. I don't feel qualified to answer the second part of your question, but maybe WaPo will schedule a chat with a philosopher later and you can pose the question again.

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Fired up in Berks County, Pa.: Arlen Specter can't be very healthy after so many health issues and due to old age -- so why should Democrats in Pennsylvania fall in lockstep behind Obama and Rendell and the rest of the dummies who think Arlen should be forgiven and just given our parties nomination when someone younger who is a real Democrat needs to step aside and keep out of the primary ? Is this just the ways of Washington that most of us don't understand ?

Ben Pershing: Democrats certainly don't have to fall in line behind Specter. They can vote for someone else in the primary, assuming there is someone else they like better. (Joe Sestak is talking a lot, but I'm not positive that he'll run.) But I'm not sure what Specter's age and health have to do with it. If he wins the election and then has to leave office for some reason, Rendell (a Democrat) would appoint a temporary replacement and then you'll have the chance to vote again in a special election.

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Purcellville, Va.: Even though I voted for Obama, have voted for the Democrat party in every election, and am a super-liberal bleeding-heart, even I have to admit that he is a Socialistic Islamo-Fascist who will bring about the ruin of the American Experiment. Is the honeymoon over?

Ben Pershing: I sense that you are being facetious, but you never know these days. Good use of "Islamo-Fascist" in a sentence, though.

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Ben Pershing: Thanks for the fine questions, as always. See you next time and enjoy your Tuesday afternoon.

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