Post Politics Hour: Sen. Byrd, Financial Regulation, Kagan hearings, more

Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post congressional correspondent Paul Kane was online Thursday, July 1 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the late Sen. Byrd, the battles over financial regulation and unemployment benefits, the Kagan hearings and more.


Paul Kane: Sorry, sorry, sorry, folks, I'm 10 minutes late on the front end of this chat. I promise to make it up on the back end. As I type, just inside the Senate chamber, the Byrd wake is under way. Old timers like Bob Kerrey, Tom Daschle, Alan Simpson, Jim Sasser are here paying their respects to the Byrd family. Since this is not a session of the Senate, it's not being broadcast. Even in the afterlife, Byrd is still a stickler for the rules.

For those that don't have the privilege that I do, turn on C-Span 2. They're airing Byrd speeches today, and right now, it's the Nov. 18, 2009 speech, when he became the longest serving member of Congress ever (joint House-Senate tenure.) It's just about the last floor speech he ever gave. He just referenced "my coal-miner Dad". Love him or hate him, he's Americana.

On to the Qs. -- pk


Reston, VA: Paul, I realize this is a somewhat insensitive question to ask on the day that he is being honored at the Capitol, but I must ask: how "functional" was Sen. Byrd in the last few years? Did he know what he was doing or did his staff do the work and basically prop him up? It's hard for me to believe that a largely infirm, 90-year old man could perform the duties of a Senator?

Paul Kane: It's not an insensitive question. I completely understand. The man served 58 years in the Congress. The first 54 were without question historic by every measure. The last few, yes, he relied a lot on his aides to get around in terms of his physical stature. Mentally, he began to slip on the small things, for sure. But on the big things, he remained fairly true to his self and his values.

Here's a story I wrote about his key role in health care in December -- when just showing up was his job.


Reston: What are Eric Cantor's plans going forward? He seems blocked in the House, as he's stuck behind John Boehner. The Senate seat in 2012 could be a possibility, but not if George Allen decides to make a comeback. Bill Bolling is next in line for the governor's race in 2013. And a sitting House member hasn't won the presidency since James Garfield in 1880.

Paul Kane: This is a fun question, one that lots of folks up here like to play, in terms of the what-next parlor game.

Most recently this was sparked by my buddy John "Bres" Bresnahan:

There's a complete consensus among House Rs that Boehner is now working harder than ever, has unified his conference more than ever before, and that he would undoubtedly be speaker should Republicans win back the majority. (And he's almost certain to remain minority leader should Rs come up short.)

Cantor is only 47 years old. I think the thing he's forgetting -- and what people tend to really forget when they make the Newt comparisons -- is that Newt spent 6 years as minority whip ('89-'94) before becoming the speaker. So, if Cantor wants to follow the Newt model, he could well just wait a few more years and plot a real new path for Republicans.


Fairfax: Have Republicans opposed to extending unemployment benefits and providing states with aid recommended any ways to cut the budget so this legislation doesn't add to the deficit?

Paul Kane: Here's The Other Brown making his case that Republicans are being hypocritical on the issue:

Give me some time, I'll find some GOP rebuttal to this point as well.


Arlington: Paul, the Republicans are viewed as having a much better chance of being in the majority party in the House than in the Senate. In fact, the odds of the Senate flipping seem to be somewhat long. Yet, I can't remember the last time the House switched control, but the Senate did not. Can you?

Paul Kane: In modern times, this has never happened. It's the Chuck Todd Rule. In 2006 people were hyping this same scenario, that Rahm and Pelosi had positioned House Ds to take over but Reid and The Chuckwagon didn't have enough seats in play.

Chuk, in his prior life at National Journal, penned a piece explaining that it's too hard for the House to flip, and that if it does, that means the Senate does also. (As was the case in '06, '94 and '54.)

Sure enough, Webb and Tester eked out wins and the Senate Ds took the chamber, as the iconic photo from that night was Rahm and Chuck holding their arms in air triumphantly claiming victory together.

At this point, it doesn't seem plausible for Senate Rs to win the 10 seats they need to get to 51. Here are the most likely for them to win: ND, Delaware, Arkansas.

After that, they need to pick off PA, Nevada, Indiana and Colorado. Those 7 wins, all plausible but not definites, would get them to 48 seats. They would then need to pick off 3 of the following 4 seats: Wash., Calif, Wisconsin, Conn.

It's a long shot, not impossible, but it's mostly a longer shot because they also have to protect 5 vulnerable seats of their own: NH, Ohio, Mizzou, Kentucky, Florida. If Dems can pick off just 2 of those R-held seats, it won't be as nearly a bad night as some think it could be for Senate Ds come Nov. 2.


Re: Reston: George Allen?! Is he actually considering a comeback in 2012 for his old Senate seat? He never seemed comfortable there (and he certainly didn't do much in his 6 years), so why go back?

Paul Kane: Allen is considered very likely to run again. He's showing up at local events, meet-and-greets. I think he views a win for that Senate seat as an absolution of his horrible 2006 campaign. As if a victory there would wipe the slate clean, from the macaca stuff to the race issues.


DC: I know Ms. Kagan clerked for Justice Marshall, but what Supreme Court decisions are GOP senators referring to when they claim he was a judicial activist?

Paul Kane: I think it's a fair description to say that Marshall was a key member of the liberal wing of the Warren-Burger courts. I don't think he would dispute that. Does it make him an 'activist'? Geez, that word's definition is in the eye of the beholder.

Here's an NPR/Juan Williams take:


Byrd's Legislative Accomplishments: Senator Byrd was the longest tenured senator. He was a master of arcane Senate procedure. He brought the pork home. He was a former Klan member who filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for like 14 hours. But what substantive legislation was he responsible for over the course of the half century he was a senator?

Paul Kane: See, Byrd took 2 paths through the Senate -- leadership and the appropriations committee -- that don't lend themselves to the obvious law-making legacy. He won't have anything like a Pell grant or Roth IRA in his name, the way kids today go to college having no idea who Claiborne Pell was and few folks remember Bill Roth's tenure on the Finance Committee.

See, in leadership, you're the guy on the floor shepherding other people's bills through to passage. Harry Reid deserves a ton of credit (or blame, depending on your politics) for getting the health-care bill through the Senate. But it's not in his name and historians won't debate much aside from the impact of the Ben Nelson deal that got them their 60th vote.

Same with Byrd. He served as Dem leader during the Carter admin and the Reagan admin. He, along with Teddy Kennedy, helped kill off the Bork nomination. He did a lot of these things that aren't immediately visible.


Capitol Hill: If the Elena Kagan hearings were a Bruce Springsteen song, what would be the song?

Paul Kane: Hmmm, it would have to be a long, long song. Because those hearings tend to go on and on. It would need a fairly repetitive chorus, because people are really, really repetitive in those hearings.

I don't think it would be a rocker. Something a bit more melodic. But, ultimately, something with an uplifting ending, because the protagonist appears to have won.

"Land of Hope and Dreams"?

PS -- If you want to look at 1 pdf file today, look at this one:

It tells you all you need to know about Byrd's standing.


Deleware: No not about the Blue Hens...about Sen. Kaufman. That guy seems really, really good. Why won't he change his mind and run for the seat?

Paul Kane: He's just not cut out for all the stuff that you have to do to win a competitive campaign. He's not a money man, doesn't like asking people for money for himself. (Oddly, I'm certain he's raised lotsa money for Biden, as he was his top aide during the '87 ramp up for the ultimately aborted '88 campaign.)

He doesn't like the compromising part of politics. He is genuinely one of the purest people in the Senate at this point. It's a shame he doesn't want to stay longer.

But I think if he did, if he was out there raising money -- undoubtedly from banking CEOs (BoA has a major presence in Delaware since buying up MBNA). He'd be raising money from big PhRMA (they're huge in the Philly area, where Kaufman's money base would be). He'd be doing all the things that other politicians do.

And, undoubtedly, we'd all probably view him differently.


Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE): So this morning we see that another city the size of Boston Proper joining the ranks of the unemployed. The unemployment disease is taking one out ten working adults--it is a terrible pandemic. And who steps up to block benefits? A rich man so out of it he admitted a month ago that he does not know how to use an ATM! It is an outrage that such a withered soul gets away with this with no impunity. As you write about his filibuster (although I realize you don''t consider filibusters filibusters) you should point out just how out of touch this man is, the ATM is is only one memorable descriptor.

Paul Kane: Eh, I don't think the ATM thing was emblematic of anything. These guys are just weird like that. Nelson turned 69 last month. Older people get set in their ways, they have routines, they do things the way they do things. So, 30-40 years ago, Nelson probably got into a routine in life. (Maybe it was every Monday morning he went to the bank and got in line and withdrew enough cash for the week; maybe it was every Friday afternoon. Whatever.)

The key thing is the policy, not little stuff like ATMs. Nelson adamantly believes that they should offset the increased spending on UI benes with cuts elsewhere. It's just what he believes.


Richmond: Has anyone tallied the amount of pork, adjusted for inflation, Robert Byrd took home to West Virginia in his 50-plus year career?

Paul Kane: I spoke with Taxpayers for Common Sense about this 2 years or so ago, and they were gonna try to do it. But it's just soooo difficult to calculate. Remember, earmarks weren't even publicly disclosed until fairly recently.

My back of the envelope math would guess that Byrd is probably responsible for well in excess of $1 trillion going to W. Va., adjusted for inflation. Maybe several trillion.

Just take a look at his most recent press releases. Everything from $2,500 to a community college for the Erma Byrd scholarship fund, to $341,000 for clean water in rural areas.

The man was effectively the largest employer in the state.


Washington, DC: If Eliot Spitzer can be rehabilitated, so can George Allen! And let me just warn my Democratic friends that playing the "family values" card will be hard for them to do, given John Edwards and (possibly Al Gore).

Paul Kane: Oh, absolutely. Let's break down the numbers here, folks. George Allen ran one of the single worst campaigns in the history of modern politics. I don't think anyone would dispute that, not even Allen or his campaign manager.

I mean, aside from macaca, he was accused of being a racist by his old college football teammates. He never really explained effectively why he had that noose in his governor's office. He wore cowboy boots and chewed tobacco as if he grew up in Bristol, Va. -- yet he really grew up in the DC suburbs and in LA, giving himself a real authenticity problem.

I mean, his campaign stunk.

And he only lost by 5,000 votes.

And some random dude got more than 25,000 protest votes. Who knows who he took votes from, Webb or Allen.

It's not hard at all to see Allen coming back and winning, if the GOP's top of the ticket runs better than McCain did in 2008.


routines in life: My mom is 70 and she knows how to use an ATM. She's also on Facebook. Don't generalize.

Paul Kane: I'm not generalizing. My mom's 80 -- turns 81 on Saturday, someone remind me to call her and wish her a happy birthday. She's on email. Heck, she knows how to read my stories online and then click through to email me and tell me what she thinks of my stories.

Yet my Dad, god bless him, he doesn't touch technology. When I went away to college, I gave my Dad a 20-min lesson on how to work his alarm clock. (I really don't know if he ever figured it out!)

Some older folks -- some -- get set in their ways, their way of doing things, and no matter what new thing comes along, they stick to their way of doing things. Some.


Re: Senator Ben Nelson: But where was Senator Nelson's fiscal rectitude on the Bush tax cuts, war spending, and Medicare prescription drug bill? The spending of the unemployment legislation pales in comparison to what those bills added to the deficit.

Paul Kane: I think he would admit that he was wrong on that stuff, that some of it should have been paid for. I'll ask him next time I see him.


Long Island, N.Y.: Paul

Thanks for the chat.

With the Unemployment Insurance extension vote now stuck at 59 votes for cloture, what's the timing of replacing Byrd's replacement to the Senate, which will allow the Dems to get the 60th vote needed to bring UI to the floor for a final vote?

Paul Kane: Expect the replacement to be named the middle of next week, or late next week. Byrd's burial is on Tuesday, the replacement -- likely to be a caretaker in the mold of Kaufman, Paul Kirk and George LeMieux -- will probably be sworn in on Monday July 12 or Tuesday July 13.


Washington DC: Is the President just going to pretend every two years to call for immigration reform so that he doesn't lose the Latino vote in the fall? He seems to consider it his 8th priority in a 7 day week. I'm a Obama supporter but he is slowly losing us.

Paul Kane: By "us", I'm guessing you are a Latino or immigration reform activist, or both. Anyway, yes, there's just not much appetite here on the Hill to take up immigration reform. Obama gives great speeches on the issue, but there's not a lot of energy for the issue here, so I'm not sure what he should do -- better to stop hyping it, or would that be admitting defeat?


Washington, DC: Paul,

Aside from being treated to the spectacle of a Senator asking a nominee to choose between a vampire or a werewolf, was there a point to the Kagan hearings? It seems those that would never support her, will continue to do so and those that were expected to support her, will. Nothing particularly new was offered in terms of Kagan's approach to the Constitution, and afterwards everyone acknowledged what was already known, that she will be confirmed.

Paul Kane: You seem to have just described things to a T. You seem to have just expressed Arlen Specter and Tom Coburn's views on these hearings.

Wait a second, is that you Dr. Coburn?


Byrd: "Presided over the shortest session of the U.S. Senate in history. (6/10ths of a second, February 27, 1989)": What the heck was that about???

Paul Kane: You know, I'm not entirely sure, but hopefully these Byrd tributes will explain.

I'm guessing that it had something to do with the way they held pro forma sessions in 2008 as a way of blocking recess appointments by Bush. Although, I saw a few of those, and they lasted about 15 seconds. In 6/10ths of a second, that's just basically banging the gavel.


Secaucus, NJ : Let's talk about something important - how much trouble are the Phils in with the injuries to Utley and Polanco? Can they keep pace in the NL East until they get back?

Paul Kane: Ugh. Are you a Mets fan trying to get my goat?


Alexandria: Will some of the the President's court of appeals nominees start to move to the floor (and get approved) after the Kagan nomination process is over? If I recall correctly, about 8 of President Bush's court of appeals nominees were approved between July and November of 2002. I mean, there's a seat on the 4th Circuit that's been vacant for 16 years!!!

Paul Kane: No.

Sorry about this, but it's highly likely that Kagan is the last judicial nominee confirmed, or maybe a couple more that are completely non-controversial. But the Ds and Rs have both long practiced the Thurmond standard. Once it got that close to an election, Judiciary committee just basically stops moving nominees. In the minority, Leahy always preached this principle.


Inside the beltway: Hi Paul,

Why didn't Democrats include reconcilliation instructions in the budget to allow them to pass unemployment extensions with 50 votes? That seems like a major tactical mistake. Could they still pass such instructions now?

Paul Kane: Well, for one, they never passed a budget resolution this year. And when they passed the FY2010 budget back in the spring of '09, they never envisioned needing to keep extending UI benefits. They'd hoped that the recession would be over and job growth back.

There's no chance of them passing a budget resolution this year -- it's just too dicey of a political vote to put their endangered incumbents through -- so there's no reconciliation this year.


Royal Oak, Mich.: Thank yoy for the answer about the Byrd legacy. You are so correct. I am a State Representative and during election year our opponents say 'She/he hasn't gotten a single bill passed' as if that's all that we do! (BTW I have gotten several bills signed into law).

My bills get passed because others use their time and talent(talent that most legislators don't have) negotiating bill passage with reluctant members of the other party. Writing legislation is the easy part! Getting bills passed (and constituent services)is something we could not do alone. Hail to our leaders and to those who make us look good in the yes of our voters! :)

Paul Kane:

Hello Royal Oak! I was there in your parts in late October 2008, following Gary Peters and Knollenberg around. Even attended a chamber of commerce event there at a country club one week night (during game 2 of the 2008 World Series, man, that night stunk, because the Phillies lost.)

Thanks for the answer.


Chicago: With Mike Castle and Mark Kirk attempting to move up to the Senate, what House Republicans can plausibly be claimed to be "moderate Republicans" or at the very least someone willing to work across the aisle?

Paul Kane: Fred Upton, Joseph Cao for starters. Jim Gerlach.

And, if the Rs do pick up more than 20-25 seats, there will likely be quite a few more moderates added to the ranks.


Charleston, SC: Paul,

I may be in the minority here, but i found the Kagan hearings extremely entertaining, thoughtful and informative. I was struck,however, by the non-comittal answers. Understanding the rarity of a justice "changing' their supposed constitutional and legal views once on the court, it has happened. Given the fact Kagan has never been a judge before, is her actual view of the law harder to determine or easier? I think it is much harder, especially coming from an academic background that encourages looking at both sides of the argument rather than an advocative or a position of having to choose between arguments like a judge. Is it possible Kagan is not as liberal as Obama thinks she is?

Paul Kane: The 'not-as-liberal-as-Obama-thinks' question was the one thing that had a chance to derail this nominee. If liberals turned against her, then Kagan would have been in trouble. They didn't. She was quite entertaining and funny, engaging. I just don't know how much we really learned about how she will really rule. And that's the point, I guess.


Washington, DC: Not to speak ill of the dead, but even without all the pork that Byrd directed into West Virginia, including federal jobs, it still remains one of the nation's poorest states. Pork is no guarantee of economic health.

Paul Kane: Good point.

But imagine if he hadn't directed all that money there. Wow.


Madison, WI: Paul, thanks for taking questions today. Scott Brown is still threatening to filibuster financial reform even after having "negotiated" a major concession from Democrats on the bank tax. What's the Democrats' fall-back position? Appeal to Collins & Snow? Punt? Thanks again.

Paul Kane: They need to flip Cantwell -- a liberal objector on the first vote -- and they need to get Byrd's replacement sworn in, so long as the ladies from Maine are still aye's.

If that's the case, they have 60 votes.

They're done talking to Brown.


Paul Kane: Alright everyone, I gotta run now. Thanks for the questions. I'll be back here in 2 weeks, on July 15. On that day, I commend you all to be very nice to me. It's my birthday that day. So, get your questions ready, and get your compliments ready. I'll be starting a whole new decade of my life.



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.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company