Sen. Byrd, gun decision, more -- Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010; 11:00 AM

The Post's Ben Pershing takes your questions about the latest political news and previews the week ahead.


Ben Pershing: Good Monday morning. This may turn out to be one of the busier political weeks of the year. We've got the Kagan hearings, the Petraeus hearings, votes on financial reform in both chambers, plus now the death of Robert Byrd and a big Supreme Court decision on gun rights. Let's discuss.


Philadelphia, Pa.: One person's "pork" is another person's jobs. Is there an estimate as to how many Federal funds Senator Byrd guided to West Virginia? In a state there is relatively financially less off than other states, how importance were these programs to the people and economy of West Virginia?

Ben Pershing: Byrd's fondness for federal funds -- or "pork" -- was a huge part of his legacy and also helps explain his longevity in office. No matter what else was happening, West Virginians believed it was good for the state to have him in Washington. You're right when you say "one person's 'pork' is another person's jobs." That's the inherent tension here. The money and federal projects that Byrd brought to W.Va. absolutely did help people get hired there and helped the state economy, but was that at the expense of the rest of the country? Are senators simply obligated to do whatever they can for their states regardless of the national consequences? Much to chew on this morning.


Bristow, Va.: Forty-nine States paid the price for what Senator Byrd did for West Virginia. Congress term limits would have prevented it. Limits work for the President, and they would work for Congress also.

Ben Pershing: And this is the view I was just referring to. Putting a federal agency in W.Va. may have been good for the state, but was it good for all the other states? Was it good for our overall economic health? Term limits are a whole separate issue. And I suspect the reliance on seniority in the Senate -- some critics would call it overreliance -- has a lot to do with the dynamic this reader is criticizing. Simply by sticking around so long, Byrd accumulated an enormous amount of power that benefited his state at the expense of others that have 10 times the population.


Bethesda, MD.: Under Senate rules, how many Senators does it take to fillibuster now there is a vacancy?

Ben Pershing: Three-fifths of 99 still rounds up to 60, so that number is unchanged.


Pittsburgh: How legitimate a criticism of Senator Robert Byrd do you think it is to tag him with his racist long-ago past, as opposed to his legislative record the past 39 years?

Ben Pershing: That's the challenge for any obituary-writer, one that came up as well when Strom Thurmond died. I think you can and should include his past in any assesment you write about Byrd, but that doesn't mean you should do so at the expense of the other things he accomplished. I do think that good articles about Byrd will write about his evolution on racial issues -- not just his racist past but also about how and when his views changed, the apologies he made, the controversy from when he used the phrase "white n---ers" on national TV -- all of it, the good with the bad.


st paul: Hi Ben -- Thanks for taking questions today. Is the jobs bill pretty much dead for the time being? And who will pay the higher price politically -- the Democrats for not being able to get it done, or the Republicans for blocking it?

Ben Pershing: It may not be dead but it's certainly hurting. If I knew for sure which party would benefit I would be a genius and would be paid more than I am. This has been an interesting debate to watch -- Republicans are more convinced than they've ever been that public concerns about federal spending and the debt are preeminent. They believe that inoculates them against charges that they're heartless toward the unemployed. Will it? I don't know.


Montgomery Village, MD: Ben I think you meant to say it would still take 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster.

Ben Pershing: Yes, sorry if that wasn't clear. It will still take 60 votes to invoke cloture (ie break a filibuster).


Falls Church, Va.: Even setting aside the long-ago Klan membership, Byrd voted against the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He voted against Thurgood Marshall's nomination (and Condoleezza Rice's). He opposed affirmative action. He opposed gay rights. Is it fair to say that the only reason he's regarded differently from Strom Thurmond is because Thurmond switched parties?

Ben Pershing: Hmm, interesting question. I think Byrd might be treated differently because he had a liberal voting record on many other issues. And because I think he more overtly apologized for his past than Thurmond did. I can see why some people would think there was a double standard there (though I also remember a lot of complaints when Thurmond died that his racist past was minimized by the media).

Also, you are the first person I've seen to include Condoleezza Rice's confirmation vote on Byrd's list of alleged racial sins. Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer voted against her too, among others. I've never heard it suggested that Byrd voted against her because she is African-American.


Washington, DC: I'm still trying to get my hands on the Supreme Court's Second Amendment decision, but does the vote pretty much guarantee that Chief Justice Roberts will be watching the State of the Union from the comfort of his living room next year?

Ben Pershing: I think there's a good chance a lot of Supreme Court justices won't attend the next SOTU because of President Obama's criticism of the court during the last address. That's true regardless of today's decision.


Dunn Loring, VA: Wasn't it just over two years ago that Obama was critical of Gen. Petraeus and refused to vote to condemn MoveOn's "General Betray Us"? Isn't Obama's decision to abandon his hand-picked general for someone who he previously disparaged more about saving face in light of Obama's failed Afghan policy, and less about the Rolling Stone interview?

Ben Pershing: Obama certainly has come around on Petraeus. He did criticize the Iraq surge when it happened, and I know Republicans would very much like for the president to admit he was wrong about that. The Senate vote on condemning the MoveOn ad was a bit more complicated. I remember watching the debate and it was completely political -- Republicans were eager to force Democrats to condemn a prominent liberal group.


It's not the pork, it's the hypocrisy: Ben, Byrd at least honorably admitted that he cared about jobs for his home state. Too many of the reps in DC prattle on about the evils of "pork" when their states are net recipients. As a taxpayer in a sending state, I'm far more irritated by the hypocritical condemnations of "pork" than by funding jobs in places where they really matter. Not all Americans resent helping other people, you know.

I also would like to add that I admire Byrd for another reason: he admitted that he'd changed his mind over the years. More of that in DC would be refreshing too.

Ben Pershing: That makes sense. You think Byrd was helping his state and helping people who need it, and you admire that. But federal funding is a zero-sum game. A million-dollar project or earmark that goes to West Virginia isn't going to Kentucky or Oregon or Mississippi, and maybe people in those places need jobs too. And maybe the money could actually be spent more efficiently or effectively somewhere else.

_______________________ An early read on the special election to fill the Byrd vacancy, via The Fix: Byrd's death triggers special election ... but when? (Washington Post, June 28)


Byrd's successor?: Who are the leading candidates for the governor of West Virginia to consider as Senator Byrd's replacement? Would the person selected serve all the way till January 2013?

Ben Pershing: The second part of your question is complicated -- see The Fix post linked below for our most current reporting on the subject. Technically, W.Va. law says that if there are more than two and a half years left in the incumbent's term when the seat becomes vacant, then you need to have a special election to fill the seat during the soonest cycle (which would be this November). But there is some confusion about when the seat is officially declared vacant, and Democrats believe Gov. Joe Manchin (D) can appoint someone now who will hold the seat until a special in November 2012 (when Manchin himself may well run).

Two names for whom Manchin could appoint in the short term -- Rep. Nick Rahall and former Byrd aide Anne Barth.


Rockville, Md.: After today's rulings by the Supreme Court, can any Republican senators ask Ms Kagan about "activist judges" with a straight face? Gun rights extended by Supreme Court (Associated Press, June 28)

Ben Pershing: "Activism" is in the eye of the beholder, yes? I've heard a lot of liberals complain that the Citizens United vs. FEC decision should also be called "activist" because of how it disregarded so much precedent. And the Rehnquist court routinely threw out bills passed by Congress -- is that "activism," or restraint? Or are those labels fairly useless?


Washington, DC: I think "It's not the pork, it's the hypocrisy"'s point was more along the lines of the fact that you have so many other politicians from, say, Kentucky or Oregon or Mississippi, who rant and rave about the evils of pork while also going back home to talk about all the jobs they've brought to their state (in other words, they're proud of their pork, they just don't want to call it that). People like Byrd and Rep. Murtha weren't two-faced about it. On the other hand, you have a lot of Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats who were talking smack about the second stimulus bill on Face the Nation or Meet the Press, refusing to vote for it, then running home to brag about all the jobs they created for their states.

Ben Pershing: Yes, point taken. Byrd and Murtha both talked openly about what they were doing, said they thought earmarks were a good and useful part of the appropriations system, and didn't apologize for what they did. Whereas some members rail against spending on one hand while trying to get earmarks on the other.


Washington, D.C.: Our family has a funny memory of Senator Byrd. He was giving a speech outdoors dedicating some new renovation at Harper's Ferry back in 1999 or so. It was a very hot day and we had very young children at the time, so we excused ourselves to not bother everyone else during his speech. After we got back from touring Harper's Ferry for more than an hour, HE WAS STILL SPEAKING, and looked to have lots more to go. Boy could he speak.

Ben Pershing: Yes, he was a legendary talker. My personal favorite was his annual speech on the Senate floor to note the beginning of spring. He would go on and on about the trees and the rivers and nature, and he would quote poems. It could go on for quite awhile.


Salinas, Calif.: Wow, Falls Church putting Condoleeza Rice in the same sentence as Thurgood Marshall (for so many reasons) almost elicited a Monday morning coffee spit take. That being said, I think Sen. Byrd should be judged on the totality of his record with the evolution of his thought a significant factor in judging his legacy.

Ben Pershing: Yes, as I said in my response, the circumstances of the Marshall vote and the Rice vote seemed very different.


Atlanta: Admittedly, I have not yet read the article in Rolling Stone. I would not go to Rolling Stone for an interview with a major general. Having said that, do you think the general was misled in questioning? Was he provided a false sense of friendship or confidentiality to get him to speak? How do you think the journalist got the general to speak so freely (to his possible detriment)?

Ben Pershing: I have no idea how or why McChrystal and his aides were persuaded to make so many damaging comments. The Washington Post has reported that McChrystal's people felt misled by the reporter in certain instances, but the reporter (Michael Hastings) and his editors steadfastly deny doing anything wrong. More importantly, none of the quotes have been challenged on their substance. It's possible McChrystal thought that if he gave this reporter enough access, he would get favorable and charitable treatment in response. But it just doesn't work that way.


East Lansing, Mich.: I considered myself leberal-leaning and I read Ezra Klein. He's taken issue with key beloved public figures in politics like Howard Dean or Robert Wexler as well as those in media like Rachel Maddow or Arianna Huffington.

Actually most liberal blogs I read about how awful this or that is in the Obama administation.

So why are those on the right so upset that somebody that has been doing a fine job reporting doesn't like Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich or Pat Buchanan? Apparently ideology doesn't even matter, you just have to completely adore all public figures who are conservative? Washington Post blogger David Weigel resigns after messages leak (Washington Post, June 26)

Ben Pershing: This has been quite the topic of discussion recently both inside this newsroom and in the blogosphere. I can't necessarily speak for the critics who felt Weigel's messages from Journolist were over the line, but my sense is that the main complaint was that his sentiments went beyond criticism to being actually unfair. And these were people and groups that he needed to cover in order to do his job (covering the conservative movement) well. You need to maintain a baseline level of respect for your subjects.


Arlington, VA: I was listening to talk radio and heard a couple of hosts celebrating the death of Sen. Byrd and saying they think this could be a good chance to pick up a seat for the Republicans. Are our politics really this ugly now, or has it always been this bad?

Ben Pershing: It's always been this bad, if that's the right word. There are only 100 senate seats, every single one of them is important, and every vacancy or potential vacancy is worthy of discussion. Now, actually celebrating his death does seem appropriate. But speculating about whether his seat will be Democratic or Republican seems okay to me.


To Bristow VA: Hey, Bristow, we have term limits - the voters can vote the incumbents out. I have seen what term limits have done to the states that have them, and I say no thank you. Don't limit my right to vote for whomever I want by an artificial limit on the number of terms I can give my senator or my congressional representative.

Ben Pershing: Yes, West Virginians decided to keep sending him back here and that was their choice.


Chicago: "Ben Pershing: I think there's a good chance a lot of Supreme Court justices won't attend the next SOTU because of President Obama's criticism of the court during the last address."

Then I just lost a little more respect for them. We need adults running our country, not children.

Ben Pershing: I can see why they were upset. There is a lot of ritual and ceremony involved in the SOTU, and officials from the various parts of government -- cabinet folks, diplomats, etc. -- attend the speech partly out of respect for the office of the president. In turn, they expect to get some respect back. So for Obama to criticize the court so harshly with them sitting right there, with no opportunity to respond, struck some of them as harsh. And there is no substantive reason for the justices to attend -- it's all symbolic.


Washington, DC: Ben, is there any chance that Congress is going to extend unemployment benefits? I'm asking on behalf of my 10 or so unemployed friends, most of whom are over 45.

Ben Pershing: Yes, there is still a chance but the way forward appears murky. Democrats and Republicans are still waiting for the other to blink.

_______________________ Coming up at noon:Discuss Sen. Byrd's life and legacy

Ben Pershing: Thanks for all the great questions everyone. If you want to keep discussing Byrd, click on the link below for another good chat.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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