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Virginia's Warner could be key to filibuster

<em>NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" offers insight and analysis into politics past, present and future.</em></p>

MSNBC:  Tim, in this battle over judicial nominations and filibusters, are there genuine passions here or is this a power play?

Tim Russert:  This is real – on both sides.
The gang of 12 – six Republican, six Democrats – Moderates on each side, have been meeting behind closed doors for two days to try to hammer out a compromise where six republicans would not vote to change the rules of filibuster if the six democrats would agree not to filibuster except in extraordinary situations.  That’s the only hope, if they can reconcile their differences.  But it seems the train is roaring down the track.
The White House would prefer to change the rules on filibuster, because they’re thinking Supreme Court – at the next opening, they prefer to have confirmation at 51 votes, rather than needing 60 to stop a filibuster and the Democrats don’t want to give up the right to filibuster anybody they want.
So, I think, by Tuesday, this will crystallize and if it’ not resolved, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, will move to change the rules and Vice President Dick Cheney will sit in the presiding officer’s chair and who knows how it will turn out.
Sen. John Warner, R-VA, appears to be the swing vote.

MSNBC:   If this is orchestrated by the White House, doesn’t that raise additional questions about the independence of the branches of government?

Russert:  That’s one of the Democrats’ points.

Republicans are quick to counter that when the Democrats were the majority, they changed the rules of filibuster from 67 votes of present and voting down to 60.  So there is a precedent.
The fact is this White House and Republicans in the Senate are frustrated they can not confirm every judge they want.  The Democrats counter, “That is what this government is all about.  We are a minority party, and if you put forward people that were ‘not extreme’, they’d be confirmed.  Both sides are feeling very passionate about their view.

MSNBC:  With potential Supreme Court vacancies, could this decision be one of the most important, significant events in the Bush presidency?

Russert:  Absolutely.
People are saying, “What is this argument about?  How does it affect me?”
If, in fact, you only need 51 votes to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, rather than 60 to overcome a filibuster, it changes dramatically the kind of person you can nominate – someone who would be much more ideologically pure, if you will.  And that person could be on the court for 10, 20, maybe 30 years.
There is a difference between William O. Douglas and Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas.  The fact is who sits on the Supreme Court makes a profound difference in people’s lives.

MSNBC:  Is there a concern there’s going to be some fallout if both sides can’t find some what through this, they’re failing to do what they’ve been voted into office to do?

Russert:  Yes.
The support for congress in our latest NBC poll is down to a 33% favorable rating -- 33!  One out of three Americans.
The sense I’ve got going around the country and with my reporting is that people are saying, “We send grownups to Washington to behave in a grownup way.  Why can’t they sit down at a table, roll up their sleeves and work out their differences so they can deal with not only judicial nominations, but Social Security, Iraq, 50 percent of the kids in inner city schools flunking out.”
There are real problems – North Korea, Iran – and it really does frustrate the American people that Washington seems to be so paralyzed, so gridlocked, by this partisanship.

MSNBC:  Who will we see Sunday on Meet the Press?

Russert:  We have an important guest -- an exclusive -- Howard Dean in his first national television interview as Democratic National Party Chairman.  He’s been in that job for 100 days.  We’ll see what Gov. Dean has to say about the so-called nuclear option for judicial nominations, John Bolton, Social Security, the future of the Democratic Party.  It will be an interesting Sunday.

MSNBC:  In the last few weeks, Gov. Dean’s called the leaders of the of the Republican Party, “evil”, “corrupt” and “brain-dead.”  Was it a purposeful decision to keep him in small venues until now, and spring him on the nation on Meet the Press? 

Russert:  Yes.
He had been going around to a lot of the red states and a lot of members of congress said, “You’re the party chairman, you don’t make policy.”  But I guess they calculated after the first 100 days it was now time to roll out the message.
I’m very curious as to the way he’s going to conduct himself and what he’s going to have to say, because he’s someone who’s always been rather blunt and plain spoken.  We have great anticipation.
All this Sunday, on Meet the Press.