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Senate Standoff Continues; "Newsweek" Story Ramifications

Aired May 19, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE: on the left, Paul Begala. On the right, Terry Holt. In the CROSSFIRE, Senate showdown. Will Senate business grind to a halt as the clock ticks down to a possible nuclear option on judicial nominees?

SEN. HARRY REID, (D) NEVADA, SENATE MINORITY LEADER: We're the one institution where the minority has a voice and ability to cut the power of the majority. Today, in the face of President Bush's power grab, that's more important than ever.

SEN. BILL FRIST, (R) TENNESSEE, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: But at some point that debate should end and there should be a vote. It makes sense. Up or down, yes or no, confirm or reject, and then we move on.

ANNOUNCER: Is there any chance for a compromise as senators face off over the future of the courts?


ANNOUNCER: Today, on CROSSFIRE. Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Terry Holt.


Time may be running out for Senate Democrats. As the standoff over judicial nominees is coming to a head, Republicans are calling for a simple up or down vote and they may get them sooner, but in the meantime, Democrats are living up to their promise of keeping the Senate from doing its business.

PAUL BEGALA, ON THE LEFT: Doing its business? Kind of sounds like my dog. And, in fact, that's what they have been doing, passing more loopholes for more energy companies and kicking children off of health insurance. I'd just as soon they stop that business. Democrats say Senate Republicans are so committed to seizing more power, for the Pat Robertson wing of their party, that they are willing to break the rules of the Senate in order to run through a handful of right-wing judges.

We will debate all of that in just a minute with two of the best in town, but first the best little political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

Another American soldier was killed today when his convoy was attacked by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Also today, an official with the Iraqi oil ministry was assassinated. Insurgents and American troops were fighting in Mosul and car bombs again rocked Baghdad. American generals on the ground in Iraq now say their earlier estimates we'll be ale to reduce troop levels this year or in early 2006 were wrong.

In fact, things are getting worse in Iraq. There were 25 car bombings in Baghdad in all of 2004. There have been 21 in just the last three weeks. One general tells "The New York Times" today that American troops, who are heroicly fighting President Bush's war, may be there, quote, "for many years," unquote. Of course, it was two years ago that President Bush played dress-up on an aircraft carrier with a sign saying "mission accomplished." No dressing up the fact this mission is most definitely not accomplished.

HOLT: Well, I would tell you, though you might call President Bill Clinton, your former boss. He said yesterday there's no point in living in the past, that what's going on in Iraq is going to be good for the region. It's going to be good for the people of Iraq. While there are still problems, at least the lights are on. At least people are going to school and hospitals are open. You have to measure the success over there, really.

BEGALA: The generals on the ground say things are not going well.

HOLT: Oh, well, of course...

BEGALA: Another American hero died today laying his life on the line, giving up his life for our country. We should honor that, and come up with a policy to win this thing or get the hell out. That's all I'm asking Mr. Bush to do.


HOLT: The policy is to win the thing.

The first lady, Mrs. Bush as she prefers to be called, has made quite a journey in her life from a small-town librarian to world ambassador for American values. She's off today on a solo tour of the Middle East, visiting Jordan, Israel and Egypt to promote America's commitment to peace and security in that troubled region. She will also focus attention on one of her top priorities, improving the quality of life for women around the globe.

Mrs. Bush, who once vowed never to give a political speech, has become this administration's most popular and effective spokespeople. She is smart, smooth and she's powerfully articulate when the president's vision for peace. With the anti-American sentiment still so widespread in the region, especially after the recent "Newsweek"/Koran fiasco, she will be an effective antidote for what ails the American image abroad and her visit couldn't come at a better time.

BEGALA: You are right about this. I admire Mrs. Bush. I think she is a terrific first lady. I'm so glad that she is willing to stand up to a retrograde anti-women leaders. I wish she would do that with her husband, who's another anti-woman, retrograde leader.

HOLT: Well, Paul...

BEGALA: She should fight for women's rights here at home, as well.

HOLT: You know that this president has nominated and has more women in positions of authority in his administration than any other administration.

HOLT: Well, yes, and he's got more women in poverty. He has more women in unemployment lines. He's got more women -- trying to take away their rights...

HOLT: Think of the secretary of State, the secretary of Labor.

BEGALA: My goodness. Please. Well, anyway, Terry mentioned the "Newsweek" story a moment ago, and David Brooks of "The New York Times" weighed in on that controversy, that being "Newsweek"'s false report that American troops had desecrated the Koran. Incredibly, Mr. Brooks in "The New York Times" today defends "Newsweek" and the disgraced, alleged reporter who wrote that false story. Mr. Brooks dismisses the report as, quote, "a little item," unquote, that was then exploited by madmen. He even attacks the Bush White House as, quote, "whining, media bashers," unquote.

Now, look, I don't often use my time on this broadcast to defend the Bush White House, but on this one they are 100 percent right. "Newsweek" reporter Michael Isikoff is a disgrace. He has smeared loyal American soldiers and he wrote a story that touched off deadly riots and did incalculable damage to America's already battered reputation. No one died when Dan Rather relied on false documents, but he paid with his job. President Bush and his team are right to hold the discredited Mr. Isikoff's feet to the fire.


HOLT: Hallelujah.

BEGALA: Once it a life time, but it is outrageous, isn't it?

HOLT: It is. It is, and you know, these small items in "Periscope" and in other places tend to be more of the rumor and innuendo, and I think, when lives are...

BEGALA: Michael Isikoff should be fired, shouldn't he? They should fire Michael Isikoff, don't you agree?

HOLT: I don't want to tell "Newsweek" what to do.

BEGALA: I do. I'm a citizen. I'm a subscriber. I read their untrue magazine.

HOLT: The media was on Scott McClellan yesterday -- if you saw that, the media was on Scott McClellan yesterday for rightly saying that "Newsweek" ought to be held accountable. They all took it as an offense. I think it's great.

BEGALA: I read the transcript, what the White House press corps did to Scott McClellan. They were wrong, Scott was right. It doesn't happen very often, but good for Scott and good for President Bush.

HOLT: And thanks for defending...

BEGALA: And, bad for "Newsweek"!

HOLT: Exactly.

Just when you thought you had politics all figured out, along comes science. A few years ago big network executives randomly decided that maps showing the results of the presidential election could be color-coded. Democrats would get blue states and the Republican states would be shown in red. Big mistake for the hopelessly liberal TV types. Scientists in Britain now claim that the color red is closely associated with winning, in both nature and in sports. So, forget the low tack, strong national defense policies of the Republican party, it's all about the color.

And what does it all mean? It means the President Bush was always going to win the last election. It means that the Washington Nationals will win the World Series, and it means that I'm going to outdebate Paul Begala today. Look at my background. Break out the champagne.

BEGALA: Oh, that's right. I -- this is a great example of guys with too much time on their hands, and I don't mean just you and me. I mean, these goofy -- but you know, there was the opposite just a few years ago when they did the map. The Democratic states were red, and in Britain the Labor Party is read. The Tories and conservatives are blue. And they switch it back and forth. I mean, I think it's a little much. I chose a pink tie today which means that the team that has pink is going to win every state in which there are gay Americans. Well, that's the whole country. So somebody ought to stand up for them.

HOLT: Good job. Thank you.

BEGALA: Anyway, those folks who are fighting over the future of America judges are still at it. They're using every tactic in the book on Capitol Hill, and even one that is not in the book. Breaking the rules of the Senate in order to change the rules of the Senate, all to put a handful of Republican conservatives on the federal bench. We'll debate the judicial standoff next.

And, later in CROSSFIRE, my favorite story of the day, why this porn star is going to dinner with President Bush. You will want to stay tuned for that one.


HOLT: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. We're at the 11 hour, that's what one senator said today about the standoff over President Bush's judicial nominees. About a dozen moderate lawmakers are scrambling to reach a bipartisan deal to head off a crisis, but it may be too late.

In the CROSSFIRE today, a pair of legal experts. Lanny Davis, former White House counsel during the Clinton administration. And Victoria Toensing, former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department.


BEGALA: Good to see you both. Welcome back.

Victoria, it seems to me one of the problems -- actually both sides have this -- taken themselves a little too seriously. Now, I know they are lifetime appointments. These are very powerful judges and they often rule on life and death matters.

But I love what has done. They have a new ad taking this and putting it through the prism of the new movie "Star Wars." Here is MoveOn taking, I think, a very humorous and gentle nudge at Bill Frist, the Republican leader of the Senate. Here's the ad.


ANNOUNCER: For 200 years, the senators in the fair judges were keepers of peace and justice in the republic until one senator, seduced by a dark vision of absolute power, seeks to destroy this fabled order, replacing fair judges with far right clones. To do this, he's ready to use a nightmare weapon known as the nuclear option.

Stop Senator Frist. Save our courts. Save the republic.


BEGALA: Now, you have got to admit at least the liberals are trying to lighten it up just a little bit.

VICTORIA TOENSING, FRM. DEP. ASST. ATTY. GENERAL: I just love it when the liberals have a sense of humor. Because it's so rare.

BEGALA: That's a good point. But the same problem applies to the conservative.

TOENSING: I always thought the nuclear option, I got very confused, I thought it was when the Democrats threatened to close down the Senate after the Republicans did the constitutional option. So that's where I refer to the nuclear option.

BEGALA: The phrase did come from Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. He's a Republican. And he called it the nuclear option. And I think Republicans are right to call it that. Because it is going to stop everything, right. It's going to stop everything in the Senate. It won't be like...

TOENSING: It's the Democrats stop everything.

BEGALA: It won't be like Newt Gingrich shutting down the entire government. But it will shut down the Senate. Probably a good thing, don't you think, to shut down the Senate for a while so no more Republican right wing legislation passes for all those special interests?


TOENSING: My former boss, God love him, Barry Goldwater, used to say the worst thing we ever did was invent air conditioning. It kept us in session too long. We conservatives don't have a hard time about shutting down government at certain times.

But it is important, and I'll tell you why. You no longer practice law, Paul. But for some of us who care about the court system, and for people who are going to be mixed up in the civil litigation or criminal process, it is important to get good judges.

And what this is doing is keeping a lot of good candidates from ever having their name submitted. Because who wants to go through this? Four years? Your reputation tarnished for what? To get a lower paying job? I don't think so.

HOLT: And a serious judge put under the microscope, his life ripped apart potentially, like the Judge Saad from Michigan, for example. But you know, MoveOn moved in. And it becomes a political issue. This is one of those 527s that we saw during the presidential campaign, tens of millions of dollars. At one point they compared President Bush To Adolph Hitler. This is...

BEGALA: No they did not. Someone put out an ad that MoveOn -- took it down right away. MoveOn took it off.

Anyway, I don't want to defend them. They never compared Mr. Bush to...

HOLT: Nobody wants to defend it after seeing it. It may be funny, but it's tacky and it's ridiculous and kind of embarrassing, I think, if you are affiliated with it. I just wonder, is this the best the Democrats can do in terms of supporting their arguments to be made about a serious issue?

LANNY DAVIS, FRM. WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Well, look, it's hard to overcome the misinformation campaign by good Republicans like yourself. Let's talk about three facts that cannot be disputed. Fact one, Senator Frist led a filibuster in 2000 against a court of appeals judge for the ninth circuit. Senator Frist that filibuster was finally closed down only by a cloture vote.

Fact two, President Clinton never had up or down votes despite all of the rhetoric about up or down votes, on 60 nominations he sent to the Judiciary Committee, that was stopped by one loose lip anonymous Republican that wouldn't let those votes have an up or down vote.

And Senator Frist and my friend Victoria never protested about up or down votes for those 60 Clinton nominees.


TOENSING: Wait a minute. You know what they called this guy that Lanny is saying was filibustered against. They call him judge. Paas (ph). And guess what, he got confirmed with fewer than 60 votes. So if the Republicans had held the Democrats to the same standard that the Democrats are now trying to hold the Republicans, there wouldn't be a Judge Paas or a judge -- two more judges.

BEGALA: When Bill Clinton was president.

TOENSING: He doesn't want to talk about this.

BEGALA: Because I don't really care whether Mr. Paas is on the court or not, I care about the more general process.

TOENSING: But it's important to Lanny's point.

BEGALA: Lanny's point is this...

TOENSING: He got confirmed.

BEGALA: On dozens of occasions, scores of occasions...

DAVIS: But they filibustered.

TOENSING: No, no, no. Wait a minute.

BEGALA: Let me get this question out. I promise you, I'm going to get the question out. The question is this, was it wrong for Republicans to use parliamentary maneuvers on scores of occasions to keep Clinton judges from gotten an up or down vote?

TOENSING: Here are the parliamentary procedures.

BEGALA: Yes or no question.

TOENSING: Wait a minute. I don't have to.

HOLT: Let her answer.

TOENSING: I let Paul get his question out. Let me get my answer out. And which is -- those are holds, which senators approve all the time. And guess what? How many people can bring a hold down which is -- it isn't firm. That's No. 1. It's discretionary with the leader. No. 2, a hold can be overcome by 51 votes, a majority of the Senate. That's all the Republicans are asking for now. And I want to go back and say...

DAVIS: They also refused to hold hearings. Also the Senate controlled the Republicans...

TOENSING: Again 51 votes.

DAVIS: ...who controlled the Judiciary Committee refused to even hold hearings.

My point is, if it was fair game to block Clinton judges without a vote, why isn't it fair game to block Bush judges without a vote?

TOENSING: There was never a filibuster of -- there's a difference between a vote on cloture and a real serious filibuster. And you all don't seem to understand the difference.

DAVIS: My professor in law school would say a distinction without a difference.

TOENSING: Well, your professor would not know what he or she was talking about. Because it is right to debate. Debating is good. That's what the Senate is all about. But in the end, there has to be some finality for these candidates. And four years is not finality. Up or down vote within a certain length of time.

BEGALA: A little finality on this segment here. Keep your seat, we're going to come right back in just minute. We're going to take a break. And when we come back we're going to ask Victoria why a new poll shows that congressional Republicans are about as unpopular here in America as "Newsweek" is in Afghanistan.

And as representatives of North and South Korea meet, there is word that U.S. and North Korean officials have also gotten together. Wolf Blitzer tells us what impact those talks may be having on a potential nuclear threat in that region. Stay with us.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS": I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, a surprising disclosure. The United States had face-to-face talks with North Korea last week. Did the North Korean nuclear program force America's hand? We'll have a report.

A militant Cuban exile is charged with entering the United States illegally. Will the U.S. government send Luis Posada back to Fidel Castro?

And new findings about last December's tsunami -- it may have been even more powerful than it looked.

All those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS." Now, back to CROSSFIRE.

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

High stakes judicial standoff in the U.S. Senate, Democrats are threatening to slow business to a crawl if Republicans invoke the nuclear option and change Senate rules. Still in the CROSSFIRE, Victoria Toensing -- she's a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, and Lanny Davis, former White House counsel during the greatest presidency of my lifetime.

HOLT: Mr. Davis, I wanted to get your political judgment. I am worried about the Democratic party today. I really am. I'm for a two-party system and equal parties, really. Harry Reid has pledged to shut down the Senate. You were around during the government shutdown. You saw that Republicans took a bath on that one against Clinton. Today, one Democratic senator blocked all committee work.

Well, Harry Red's paying the price at least at home, if we show you this poll. "Las Vegas Review Journal" says, according to -- yesterday -- that 42 percent approve of his filibuster effort and 51 percent disapprove. This is hurting Harry Reid at home. Is this hurting your guys nationally?

DAVIS: I have been amazed at how wise the American people are in this because I was worried, if there's a shutdown of the government. I don't think the Democrats are planning to do that. But the American people see the need for checks and balances. You have the congressional Black Caucus, Mel Watt, an old friend of mine, said today, wouldn't it be ironic if the filibuster that was used in the '50s and '60s to thwart minority and African-Americans civil rights...

HOLT: Using the race card essentially today...

DAVIS: is being brought down in a very way that would disadvantage minorities. I think the American people understand checks and balances.

BEGALA: Let me -- I want to bring Victoria into this. There's another poll that I want to show -- answer Terry's poll with, one from today's "Wall Street Journal" and NBC News organization. They ask people, do they approve or disapprove of the job Congress has been doing? Question that has been asked for almost 50 years. Today, the approval rating of the Republican Congress is at 33 percent. Now, Congress has not had that low an approval rating since 1994 when, you recall, the party that controlled Congress was swept out of office. This is clearly -- this kind of power grab from Republicans in Congress not playing very well, is it?

VICTORIA TOENSING, FMR. DEP. ASS. ATTY. GEN.: Well, last time I checked there were Democrats in that Congress, so who knows who they are complaining about?

BEGALA: I know. They are complaining about the Republicans. They run the Congress. I know.

TOENSING: Maybe they are complaining about what the Democrats -- maybe they are complaining about all this brouhaha that's going on regarding the Democrats.

You know, Lanny, you talk about, wouldn't it be a shame if the filibuster were to result in being used now to disadvantage? Well, Janice Rogers Brown is a black woman who is going to be ousted, not being able to be on the D.C. circuit because of the filibuster.

BEGALA: What do you think about that? Why do conservatives raise her race, and alleging, implying, that Democrats oppose her because she is black. Orrin Hatch said so yesterday. Do you want me to play the tape?

TOENSING: You know what?

BEGALA: Do we have time to play Senator Hatch?

TOENSING: I'll be glad to say it right here. I don't know why it's being used. I'm not going to say because, I'm just saying...

BEGALA: Let me play what Orrin Hatch said. No, let me play Senator Hatch, right here, yesterday on our air.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), JUDICIARY CMTE.: She's a conservative African-American. As an African-American conservative -- as a conservative woman, as a conservative African-American.


BEGALA: We got the talking points.


BEGALA: Who cares what race she is. Am I supposed to be against a black conservative, am I for the white conservative, Miss Owen? No, I'm against her, too. Well, maybe we'll find a Navajo we can support. I mean, what the hell? Why are we bringing in race?

TOENSING: Now, wait a minute. Can I answer you? Because I am a woman of this generation. I am a woman who went to law school as a single mother of three children.

BEGALA: Victoria, I'm sorry to interrupt you. We have breaking news out of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The family of those children who is missing in Idaho are having a press conference right now. We're going to take it to you live.

WOLFINGER: ...selected by the family as the family spokesperson. He's going to make a statement. I want to introduce everybody that's here with the family, and if you have questions about the spellings, I'll be happy to clarify it afterwards. We have Bob Price (ph). Bob is an uncle by marriage to the kids. We have Rocky Torres (ph), that's Brenda's step-father. We have Steve Groene. Obviously, we know who Steve is, Shasta and Dylan's father. We have Misty Cooper (ph), that's Brenda Groene's sister. We have Cheryl Morgan (ph), that's the children's step-grandmother. We have Wendy Price, an aunt. We have Vance Groene, the old -- Steve's oldest son and obviously the oldest brother, and we have Christian Price (ph), a cousin to Shasta and Dylan.

Now, please, let's respect these folks. No questions, let's let Steve give his statement, OK? Steve, it's all yours.

STEVE GROENE, FATHER OF MISSING CHILDREN: First off, I would like to thank the law enforcement community for their tireless efforts in this matter. I would also like to thank the media and the general public for all your concerns and all your prayers. I would like to address my children's abductors or abductor. Please, please, release my children safely. They had nothing to do with any of this. Release them in a safe area where the law enforcement can find them. Call the help line, let them know where they can be found. Please, we need the safe return of those children. Thank you.

WOLFINGER: Good job, Steve.



WOLFINGER: Thank you for being respectful. I appreciate that. The only thing that the family has asked is, please, respect their privacy at their homes. They were very adamant. They don't want to be interviewed. The only exception is "America's Most Wanted." They are going to do a segment for "America's Most Wanted." They need to meet with those people and we'll arrange that after this little brief conference.

I have one other bit of information that is -- we're working on and this is news since the press conference at 11:30. We have a little under $70,000 that has been pledged for a reward fund. We are currently working out the particulars of that process. A secret witness in Spokane is helping us with the process, and as soon as we get the details worked out on how it's going to work, that -- we'll be advertising that even more and more. But that is coming, OK? We hope that will help stimulate some more calls eventually.

QUESTION: Who made the pledge?

WOLFINGER: I'm not going to reveal donors at this time until we've got that money solid.


WOLFINGER: Yeah, I really can't. He said he knew what he was wanting to say. I am sure, though, listening to him and maybe you couldn't hear him, Eric, was, he said the children are not involved with this. They are not involved with this, the children.

QUESTION: After the last few hours, have you received any calls (INAUDIBLE) people who were at Sunday's gathering?

WOLFINGER: Yes, I honestly don't know. I have been with the family for the last hour-and-a-half. I just have -- I haven't been taking any calls, even from my own office at this point. My focus has been with the family.

Reporter: Here's the thing, I mean, most people that go to barbecues, they're normal, average folks. They have nothing to hide. So if these are normal, average people attending a Sunday barbecue, you think that they would just say, hey, I was there. What do you want to talk about? What do you want to know, right? WOLFINGER: Absolutely, and that's why we hope that this plea to those folks -- maybe they real -- maybe they thought and I'll have to -- gosh, I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate here. Maybe they thought, I was just at a barbecue. Didn't happen when I was there. Everything's fine. Maybe the plea that we have sent out, to have them contact us, is the invitation they need to do exactly that. OK?


WOLFINGER: They haven't finished yet is my understanding. They have done a lot of the water here. They haven't finished the pond down at the other end, and I understand that Deputy Lowelton (ph), who's in charge...

BLITZER: Speaking now, and shortly after we heard from the father of those two missing children, the father making an emotional appeal to the abductor or abductors to go forward.

WOLF BLITZER REPORTS starts right now.



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