Post Politics: Specter and Seniority, Budget Cuts, More

Paul Kane
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Thursday, May 7, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the White House and Congress with Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane. Kane was online May 7 at 11 a.m. ET


Paul Kane: Good morning folks, another Thursday, another chat. I did that special mid-week appearance last week to talk about Specter's switch, and eight days later, here we are again with Specter still in the news. A slightly weird rollout by the Dem leadership on this.

The Supreme Court choice is looming, and Obama's put out a detailed budget this morning that has a sense of agita for everyone in it. Later today the bank-stress tests will be released. So, a lot is happening, and I haven't even mentioned the Phillies 1-0, hard-luck loss to the Mets last night. Arrrrgggggghhh.

On to the questions -- pk


Boston: If Specter is not really a Democrat and he doesn't have seniority how is he going to get elected? If the main reason he changed party loyalties was to get re-elected and he doesn't won't this be the worst way to go out of politics after such a long career?

Paul Kane:

There's the link to the latest Specter move. He's got some of his seniority back, apparently. Dick Durbin gave up his subcommittee on the Judiciary Committee so Specter would have a perch, and a place to put some of his formerly GOP staff that crossed the aisle with him.

This move suggests Democrats realized they looked like they were penalizing Specter for crossing the aisle. I realize many on the left don't trust Specter, and you thought the original decision of giving him no seniority was a good thing. Make him earn that trust. The other side of the debate was, how can you penalize someone for switching parties? If that were the case, no Republican would ever consider switching parties to join Democrats ever again, at least not while Reid is the leader.

Looks like Dems are trying to thread the needle on that inner debate they've been having.


Game: A new drinking game: Every time you use the word "lefties," we take a long drink of our skinny soy chai lattes.

Okay: GO!

Paul Kane: OK, picking up where I left off at the end of last week's chat. Why do some liberals who read these chats get so agitated when I use the terms left-winger, lefty? Repeatedly some of you have sent in questions accusing me of calling you names. I don't understand why you think those terms are pejoratives, in any way. Just so you know, when looking at the speaker's chair in the House, and when looking at the president of the Senate's chair, Democrats are on the LEFT side of the chamber. It's a physical description of where Democrats sit.

For what it's worth, I don't recall conservatives asking questions/complaining when I use the right-wing, righty terms. Heck, I've pretty much called them every name in the book the past few months.

Feel free to express yourselves in the questions, and I'll try to pull up the best response later in this chat. It's a curious thing to me.


Avon Park, Fla.: Did the Founding Fathers intend for the Senate to give deference to the president on Supreme Court nominations? If so, I think that's unfortunate. Since they're appointed for life, justices don't really work strictly for the President. Therefore, the opposing party should have a right to oppose that pick on ideological grounds.

Paul Kane: This is a central, inherent issue that runs throughout judicial nominations, particularly Supreme Court noms. While in the minority, the Chuckwagon (that's Schumer) spent several years arguing that ideology, political ideology, was the central issue to confirmation fights. He felt that you could and should ask a Supreme Court nominee, What's your position on Roe v. Wade? What's your view on gay marriage rights?

The Chuckwagon thought it was foolhardy to pretend that judges should not, ahem, pre-judge an issue that would be coming before them on the bench.

Conservatives, led by Jeff Sessions in particular, argued that this was ridiculous. They felt that what you should be allowed to ask was qualifications. Has this person demonstrated throughout his/her career an understanding of the law, a reasoned thought process?

Schumer and Sessions would both agree that a third plank in this was ethics. If a person had conflict of interest issues in his/her past, that would be a disqualifying mark.

That's what they argued back in '05, anyway. Will be intersting to see if those roles are reversed now that we have Democratic nominees coming down the pike to a Democratic-controlled Senate.


Weird Rollout?: Not that I expect Reid to do anything in a clean competent fashion, but after four days of listening to Snarlin' Arlen attack the party, its policy positions and even it's winning Senate candidate from Minnesota, what is so weird about stripping Specter back down to Cabin Boy?

Paul Kane: The press has done a horrible job of reporting on the reasons behind the initial decision to strip all seniority of Specter.

The things you cite -- Specter's statement seemingly in support of Coleman, the back and forth on his alleged 'loyal Democrat' statement -- were not the cause of this. It all came down to one central thing: the other Democrats simply didn't want to be leap frogged in the line of succession to key subcommittee and full committee chairmanships.

This is the decision that would have been made regardless of any statement or vote that Specter made in the last 10 days.

This was all about turf, and turf alone. My friends at Politico, unfortunately, have driven some of the coverage in this area, and, frankly, it's been misportrayed.

At best, the veteran Dems who opposed Specter getting full seniority seized on those comments about Coleman as examples of why he shouldn't get seniority. But party loyalty and purity was not the motive here, their own turf was what this was all about.


Saint Paul, Minn.: Hi Paul -- Thanks for taking questions today. Can you please explain what Spector was trying to say (or not say) in his comments earlier this week about the Coleman/Franken situation? Was was he trying to say (or not say)?

Paul Kane: Best-case scenario, if you're a Democrat: Specter was making an off-hand joke. He does have a viciously cynical sense of humor.

Worst-case scenario: He slipped up and let his true feelings come out; it's entirely possible that he dislikes Franken very much and would prefer Coleman in the Senate.

While it does appear that he won the race, Franken has been a divisive personality, and I think those in all corners of politics would concur with that.


Specter's consolation prize: So with the news of the subcommittee chairmanship given to Arlen Specter today, there is an obvious question to ask: what the @?%$# is going on? Is Harry Reid in charge or not?

Paul Kane: I was just saying to a colleague that Reid and Durbin appear to have handled this in Burris-esque fashion. One minute they're swooning all over Specter, the next minute they're telling him he's got no guarantee of seniority ever, and finally Durbin himself is surrendering a subcommittee to give Specter a perch of power.

Just seems like they coulda coordinated this one a bit better, doesn't it?


Las Cruces, NM: One of the most effective weapons Democrats wielded during the last election cycle was the "culture of corruption" charge. That said, several Dems have been recently involved in some hanky-panky (see Murtha, et al.). It seems to me that when a Republican is caught it is seen as something systemic, but when a Dem is caught it is treated as an isolated incident. Does the media owe us a better effort in exploring the "pay to play" culture that is driving Washington? Can Obama actually live up to the image as the new FDR that has been created in the media if Congress only acts when it will result in their individual campaign war-chests continue to bulge?

Paul Kane: This will be an intriguing issue over the next few years. In terms of you point about systemic vs. isolated corruption, the GOP stories broke onto the scene in late 2004, 2005 and 2006. Most involved House Republicans, including leadership (DeLay, Doolittle) and several powerful committee/subcommittee chairmen (Ney, Cunningham, Jerry Lewis). The GOP had been in power almost 12 years at that point, so it was pretty close to a systemic issue.

With Dems, you've got the Jefferson case, and I think pretty much everyone would agree that the cash-in-the-freezer case appears to be pretty isolated. He's one of a kind, bless him. What is on the precipice of becoming "systemic", as you put it, is the appropriations committee issues involving Murtha, Visclosky, Moran, Mollohan. Those guys all serve together on the same Appropriations subcommittees, steering billions to the clients of the same lobbying firm.

But we've yet to see any deep connections to Dem leaders on this issue, so it just doesn't come close to the levels of questionable corruption of Republicans 4 years ago.


Why do some liberals who read these chats get so agitated when I use the terms left-winger, lefty? : Say it loud, I'm left and I'm proud! Come on, fellow liberals, let's take back these terms. "Illiberal" is an insult, remember. And remember what Democrats are supposed to be for, no matter what mud the righties sling at them.

Paul Kane: Huh, this is an interesting take.

For what it's worth, when you Google 'lefty communism', you do get some screeds about commie-syms, but they appear to be in modern blogs. When you type in 'righty facist', you get the same result.


Wokingham UK: I have a slight sense that we're beginning on both sides of the Atlantic to relax and pat ourselves on the back over rescuing the economy. Are we entering into a Heckuvajob mood, and could this be a mistake?

Paul Kane: Uh, you just scared me. I really have no inside information about any of this, but I'm definitely afraid that this economy is getting ahead of itself. There are still some fundamental issues of concern here. Just because the banks are seemingly a bit more healthy than we feared, doesn't mean people are rushing out to buy $800,000 homes in Prince William County, 75 miles away from the Capitol.

I fear you're correct, I hope you're wrong.


Re: Weird rollout: Paul, as a lefty who sometimes visits Media Matters, can I just say that I asked that question and I think you gave me an excellent answer!

Paul Kane: My gosh, I'm having a Sally Field moment.

Someone from Media Matters likes me, they really like me!

I'm kidding, thanks for the support.


Those guys all serve together on the same Appropriations subcommittees, steering billions to the clients of the same lobbying firm. : And haven't they all been in Congress a long time? Just saying the corruption culture might be due to their old-fashioned This Is The Way The Game Is Played mentality. So I guess that does make it systemic. Never mind.

Paul Kane: Yes, they have been in Congress a long time, well, Murtha and Visclosky have served since the 1970s.

Those guys in particular do come from an old-school mentality that epitomizes the way things used to be, regardless of whether what they've done is or isn't unethical/illegall/misdeeds.

Obama's long-term issue here, is changing that culture of Congress. I think that there will be many more battles with the appropriators ahead. Obama's inner instincts here are as a true reformer, that's where his head, heart and soul are.

But he's also a pragmatist who wants to do big things. Is he willing to start a war over earmarks if it means infuriating David Obey, who's already thrown down a gauntlet on his AfPak policy?

Clearly, getting AfPak right is more important to Obama than reforming earmarks.


Franken: On what basis are you characterizing Al Franken as "divisive"?

Paul Kane: Look, I'm not picking a fight with anyone here, I went to Minnesota for a few days and got along just fine with Franken. I was really kinda surprised to watch him do his thing in a diner in Mankato, about 80 miles south of Twin Cities. He connected on some level that I was surprised to see, given the fact that he really is a Manhattanite, who spent 30 years living in NYC and then returned home to launch the Senate campaign.

But I think it's pretty clear that his years of writing -- in books and interviews with Playboy, including jokes that liberal women's groups took great offense to -- as well as his years of really progressive hosting of his radio show, those things made him a divisive figure.

I'm sorry if that upsets you, but it's the reality.


Re Sessions: So in his view it would be okay to ask a candidate for a federal bench, if they agreed with Brown vs. the Board of Education? or perhaps the Voting Rights Act?

Paul Kane: As I recall the Roberts/Alito hearings, the nominees would answer questions phrased this way: Can you pick a few of the best, most important rulings from the Supreme Court and tell us what you liked about them?

To ask specifically about Brown, might get into territory where the nominee is likely to not respond. Unless he/she says simply, that ruling is settled law.


dc: I don't know that people are offended by the leftys tag so much as your attitude - you said last week you enjoyed needling/provoking "leftys" -- if you enjoy needling and provoking people why are you so surprised when they get provoked?

Paul Kane: That's a good point. I just wondered why this particular label provoked you so much. I understand why liberals/progressives/left wingers/whatevers get upset when I thoroughly disagree with your reading of senatorial rules (the idea that Reid could force Rs to mount old fashioned filibusters).

But I just find it odd that this label gets so many of you riled up. The '50s-era/McCarthy thing makes sense, but only for some of you. My random guess is that most people who read these chats are under 50 years old, so you didn't grow up fearing being hauled before Nixon or McCarthy's committees.


Dunn Loring, VA: When listing corrupt Democrats, why didn't you include Charles Rangel, who not only is a tax cheat but pushed through favorable legislation for a company who donated huge sums to a school named for Rep. Rangel? And doesn't Rangel hold a key leadership position in the House?

Paul Kane: Sorry, forgot Rangel. Hey, I was just riffing there. We don't have a lot of time to answer these questions, try to answer as many as possible. Rangel's alleged corruption, for what it's worth, is different than the others. He just appears to have liked the side perks of office and power, using them to get cheaper rent, not really filling out his financial disclosure forms in detail, maybe paying taxes on the villa, maybe not. There's not a lot of evidence that he used the power of his position to do legislative favors for donors/supporters, at least not in the fashion that Jack Abramoff and PMA sought.


Bridgewater, Mass.: Considering the proportion of US funds going to the military and entitlements, does it even make any sense to look for meaningful savings in discretionary spending?

Paul Kane: There are those that contend that the only way to get real budgetary reform is to go after entitlements. They would argue it's worthwhile to do the other stuff -- trimming earmarks, ridding waste, fraud and abuse from the system -- but the long-term issue is Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.


Vernon, British Columbia: Re: "lefty". Paul, it isn't about the name, lefty, or liberal, that probably bothered most lefties during your chat last week, but your snarkiness in taking it upon yourself to warn lefties not to get too cocky. Can't you just answer the questions with informative and non-biased answers? Get a chat all of your own like Froomkin if you want to be partisan. The other WaPo chatters post things without comment rather than respond with snarky partisanship. You could call your chat "Get Snarky with Paul". Well there goes the new name for Paul Farhi's chat...

Paul Kane: I just disagree with this premise altogether. I don't think there's anything wrong or biased with warning liberals that they have to careful not to become dot-com dittoheads. And that, by the way, is a deep criticism of the right-wingers. You guys aren't there yet, not even close.

I think it's a pretty clear observation, not a bias, that what killed conservatives over the last 5 years was their puritanical pursuit of perfection.

They're pretty close to achieving their goal. And with it they're deeper into the minority than they've been at any time since 1978.

This is a warning that, over time, liberals and the far left could become a similar version of this in the years to come.


Filibuster: Can you explain WHY it's impossible to force an old-fashioned filibuster? Why not just get up and say, "When the Republicans are done talking, we'll vote." Over and over again until they're worn out.

Paul Kane: Because you cannot force Republicans to talk. The rules changes in the early 1970s insituted a system that made it easier for a minority of 41 or more to basically just sit back and say, Go ahead, do what you want, but we're going to vote no on every effort to cut off debate.

The minority doesn't need to speak, they just need 1 senator in the chamber to object to any unanimous consent request to pass a bill.

So, if Reid did force an old-fashioned filibuster, it would be the sound of 1-hand clapping -- Democrats could just take to the floor and speak in support of some issue, for hours and days on end if they wanted.

But as long as the Republicans have at least 41 votes, they don't have to do anything.

Some liberal thinkers believe that Reid should go ahead and do just this, leave the Senate in a state of suspended animation, for days and days. They think if the Senate was simply at gridlock, they could galvanize activists around the country to stage protests back in the states, and it would lead to an uprising and bills would pass.

Almost every Senate Democrat disagrees.


Arlington, Va.: "Obama's inner instincts here are as a true reformer, that's where his head, heart and soul are."

Shouldn't you preface your aspirations for the President with "I hope" or "I wish"? You have no idea what's actually in his head; what's principle and what's tactics.

Paul Kane: Good point, I don't know what's in his head/heart, for certain. But I watched him up close in the Senate for several years, and I can tell you that my observations from watching him were that his instincts appear to be on the reformer side.

He and Russ Feingold worked side by side on ethics reform, and no one in the Democratic party has better reformer credentials than Feingold. And Russ stands by Obama's instincts on this issue, he says it's true to his inner being.

Again, Obama wants to get things done, so, there's friction there with other Democrats. It's a key issue to watch.


Harrisburg, Pa: Hey, man, if super-cool George Clooney calls himself a lefty, it's good enough for me, too.

Also, if Feliz puts that ground ball in his pocket, the Phils might have had a chance against the Mets shaky bullpen. Double arrgh!!!

Paul Kane: I missed that play last night!!!

I was flipping between LOST and ESPN. No worries, I won't give away what happened in LOST. Next week's season finale is gonna be craaaaaazzzzzy.


Kensington, MD: Paul, I know it's too late to submit this coment, but nevertheless:

I'm a 64 year old longtime liberal, and your use of "lefty" in the the context of these discussions is perfectly fine, jack, A-OK and 23-skidoo. We really do need to lighten up about all this. And you're right, this isn't Joe McCarthy time.

Paul Kane: Thank you, Kensington.

For future reference, I'll not use it as often -- unless I"m really trying to provoke you guys!


But we've yet to see any deep connections: I think you misread Las Cruses' question. There seems to be a double standard in reporting on these issues. As a Midwestern moderate who has supported candidates on both sides (but never straying far from that comfortable middle ground) I sometimes see an event that if perpetrated by a Republican would have generated non-stop coverage for days, while a Democrat skates . Murtha's trouble are off the front page already while if it had been John Boehner doing the steering, he would have been politically crippled by now.

Paul Kane: Um, have you looked at our front page the past 3 months? I think we've run about 5 A1 stories on Murtha. He would beg to differ with any suggestion that the press is going light on him.


Paul Kane: Alright gang, this chat's come to a close. The Senate is voting now on a defense procurement bill, a reform effort that Obama had McCain down to the WH to talk about last week. So maybe the Obama folks are serious about something more than those $100 million in savings they hyped a few weeks back. Real Pentagon procurement could save as much or more than the $17b they proposed saving in the new, detailed budget.

I've gotta run now. I'll see you back here in two weeks.

Go Phillies! -- pk

_______________________ When Paul's done, we have a Federal Budget Cuts that just started.


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