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Senate Power Shift: McConnell, Spector Address Press

Aired June 5, 2001 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Republican control of the U.S. Senate is in its final hours. At the end of business today, Senator Jim Jeffords formally will leave the GOP, giving Democrats a one-vote advantage in the Senate. This will be the first time in U.S. history that a midsession defection has changed control of the Senate.

CNN national correspondent Bob Franken is up on Capitol Hill today, and I imagine it's a pretty busy day -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a pretty busy day, but it's going to be even busier tomorrow. Most of what you see is behind the scenes, including something that's going to happens overnight, which will be the most concrete evidence of the change that's being made. It has to do with the desk of Jim Jeffords. Right now, that desk is located in the back row on the Republican side, in this perfectly symmetrical Senate. It is going to literally be unbolted. It is then going to be transferred to the Democratic side.

There's no particular reason for where it's going to be located, which is in the next-to-last row, between Senators Bingaman and Kerry. It's just so that the symmetry of the Senate -- the appearance of the Senate -- can be maintained.

So it's going to be squeezed in, and with that, Senator Jeffords will become independent Senator Jeffords, voting with the Democrats; therefore, he sits on that side of the Senate.

Of course, his decision to do this has caused quite an earthquake in the United States Senate and in political Washington, and in an interview with television stations in Vermont, he gave some indication why he did this, and the key issue was education.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS (I), VERMONT: One of the key reasons I decided to do what I did do was because of the lack of desire to increase the funding of education in those very critical areas of which I find it's essential, and that is to make sure that local governments have sufficient funds to take care of kids, and for us to live up to our promise...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FRANKEN: Now, what has Senator Jeffords wrought? This change in the Senate, of course, and in control of the Senate. And there's an awful lot of behind-the-scenes planning going on today as each side tries to gain the maximum advantage, or avoid the maximum disadvantage, as this switch occurs.

The committee assignments, of course, will revert to the Democrats. They will take over as the chairs of the various committees. The problem is is that under the current rules of the Senate, they won't necessarily have the majority on these committees, and the Republicans are insisting that before they go along with that kind of change, the Democrats are going to have to agree to make it much easier to get the president's judicial nominations.

That's a huge issue, of course. Democrats believe that one of the most important functions they can accomplish, if they take over the Senate, is to slow those down. There's always that philosophical fight between Republicans and Democrats and whoever's in the White House appointing them.

On both sides of this issue, there are the arguments, starting with the Republican Fred Thompson. He spoke with CNN's Jeanne Meserve.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), TENNESSEE: ... basically what we're asking for is fairness, to not unduly hold up the president's nominations. There have been some tests that they say they're going to apply to judge nominations that hasn't been applied before. We're a little concerned about that, so we need some accommodation on that. Exactly what that's going to be or what it should be remains to be seen. But it's nothing we can't work out.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: ... if Democrats on any of the committees, particularly on the Judiciary Committee, begin to unduly, unfairly hold up judicial nominations, then there will be a public outcry and they'll be let out on the floor.

But to just give a blanket promise that automatically everything will come out of the committee onto the floor just is unprecedented, and it's never happened and for good reason...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FRANKEN: While that debate is going on, the senators have been meeting behind the scenes at this very moment outside the Senate chambers.

Here's Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: ... hold the Senate up, but we do want to have a serious negotiation about how this 49-member minority will be treated in the new Senate. So fairness will be the guiding word in these negotiations.

So with that, let me turn it over to you, my colleague.

ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Just a word or two about the work of the judiciary committee. There are some 31 circuit vacancies, some 69 district court vacancies, and it is our hope that we can move ahead to conduct the people's business with those judicial nominations.

WATERS: This is what we were discussing a moment ago. These are the senators who have been meeting -- the Republicans -- to establish their negotiating posture, the Republicans saying that they want to make sure that these judicial nominations from the president go through. Of course, the Democrats want to make that as difficult as possible.

SPECTER: ... who was assistant attorney general nominee for civil right, and you can go back in history when President Reagan submitted nominees to a Senate controlled by the Democrats, and there were problems. Or when President Clinton reported nominees to the Judiciary Committee controlled by Republicans.

But is our hope that we will move ahead, as my votes indicated last year, on executive branch nominees and on judiciary nominees. We want to negotiate in good faith with the Democrats. We want to get this worked out on a bipartisan basis and go ahead and carry out the people's business.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any questions, anyone?

QUESTION: Senators, are you the lieutenants in this declaration of war against the Democrats?

MCCONNELL: There is no declaration of war. At the risk of being redundant, let me say again this is first day back, that we haven't even had the first meeting yet. There is no declaration of war. We're going to have to lay down the parameters of the organization of new Senate, just as we did earlier in the year.

QUESTION: Senator McConnell, all morning long, Republicans have talked about fairness -- everything has to be fair -- but no one will say what fair is. We know what your concerns are, but can you tell us what you might propose to Mr. Daschle at 5:00 about what you think would be a fair way to carry out the reorganization?

MCCONNELL: Clearly, we're not going to negotiate the arrangement here. We haven't even had the first meeting yet, so I don't think I can describe what fairness is. We do want to discuss that first with Senator Daschle, rather than to try to lay down the parameters here.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Senator, how far do you go in establishing fairness before it might be perceived by some, perhaps unfairly, that you all are stonewalling and slowing things down?

MCCONNELL: Look, at the beginning of this Congress, we spent three or four weeks negotiating the resolution under which we operate...

WATERS: We're going to move across town, to the White House.

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