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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Interview With Senators Hutchison, Klobuchar; Interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
Aired May 31, 2009 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KING: I'm John King, and this is our "State of the Union" report for this Sunday, May 31st.
President Obama's Supreme Court nominee this week begins to make her case for Senate confirmation. Judge Sonia Sotomayor brings years of experience on the bench and a powerful personal story, but she faces tough questions about controversial statements and rulings on issues like affirmative action. We will look ahead to her confirmation hearings with Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Some of the GOP's most prominent voices are accusing Judge Sotomayor of being a racist. Are those explosive claims hurting the party's already-tenuous position with Hispanic Americans? The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, is here to lay out the GOP's confirmation battle plan.
And we will take you to New York, a critical stage in the growing national debate over same-sex marriage. That's all ahead in this hour of "State of the Union."
A beautiful shot of the United States Capitol. Look at that blue sky, on a glorious Sunday morning here in Washington. In that building, a very big week ahead for Sonia Sotomayor. The appeals court judge President Obama calls an inspiring choice to join the Supreme Court heads to Capitol Hill for her first meetings with the senators, who must decide whether to confirm her. At the moment, odds are that Judge Sotomayor will become Justice Sotomayor and take her place as the first Hispanic and just the third woman to serve on the nation' highest court.
The White House is using her 17 years of judicial experience and personal life story as key selling points, but her legal record is being scoured, and while there is plenty of praise, some with key roles in the confirmation process see they see troubling signs of an activist judge who brings her personal biases into the courtroom. Joining us to look at the record and the road ahead is Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. She is in Dallas this morning. And Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is with us here in D.C.
Senators, thank you both for being with us. Let me start with this. Senator Klobuchar, this will be your first vote on a Supreme Court nominee. You're relatively new to the Senate. Senator Hutchison, you have had four previous votes. Justice Alito, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg, two of those Clinton nominees. You have voted yes on all four. Justice Breyer was clearly left of center. Justice Ginsburg was clearly left of center. Do you believe Judge Sotomayor is more to the left of Breyer and Ginsburg, or will this be your fifth yes vote?
HUTCHISON: I haven't made a decision on how I will vote. And I think that her record will certainly determine where she stands in that spectrum. So I'm looking at the full record.
As you know, I have voted against her when she went to the court of appeals, and I want to look now at the 11 years that have elapsed since then and give her a fair shot. I mean, that's what she deserves, and it's my responsibility.
KING: Let's look at some of what has happened in those 11 years. One of the things that drew a lot of headlines, the first flashpoint, if you will, was a speech she gave back if 2001 out at Berkeley in California. And she said this. "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Senator Klobuchar, the president of the United States, several of his top aides on Friday spent some time backing away from that, saying if she had the chance to give that speech again, she would say it differently. The president wouldn't do that unless he saw her problem. What is wrong with that, with what she said?
KLOBUCHAR: Well, you know, John, I really see this as very similar to what so many other nominees for the court have said. She is talking about her own experiences...
KING: So why would the president have to come out and take it back?
KLOBUCHAR: You'd have to talk to him about that, but I see this as part of her own experience. What she's basically saying -- maybe she could have chosen different words, but what she is basically saying is, your experience matters, and she went on to say that you have to look at this as a whole, that she has to have -- bring her experience to bear, but also the law to bear.
You look at what Justice Alito said in his confirmation hearing when Senator Coburn asked him, he said that he knows his relatives had been the subject of discrimination, and he takes that into account when he looks at cases. Very similar to some of the things she said. I think the basic thing on this nominee is this -- this is a woman who not only knows the law, understands the Constitution, she also understands America. Coming from -- in her own words -- humble and challenging circumstances. Her dad died when she was young. She goes on to become the valedictorian of her high school class, her mom barely struggling to buy them Encyclopedia Britannicas, goes on to be top in her class at Princeton, goes on to be a tough prosecutor. As a former prosecutor, I admire her for that. I mean, I think her boss said she was fearless. And then she goes on to have more experience on the bench than anyone that served on the Supreme Court in the last 100 years.
KING: Let's spend more time -- let's spend more time on the time on the bench. But Senator Hutchison, I want to bring you in on that particular statement. Most of the people criticizing are white men. I'm lucky to have two of the 17 women who serve in the United States Senate with me this morning. Do you find that statement about Latina woman experience, do you find it offensive or does it make perfect sense to you as a woman?
HUTCHISON: Well, it troubles me to hear someone say something like the court of civil appeals -- or the court of appeals is where we make policy in this country. It does trouble me to say that one type of old person versus another one is going to make a different or better decision. Those are troubling.
But I think she will have the chance to explain that. We will be able to look at her record, to see if, in fact, those statements reflect what she has done on the bench.
My view is that America believes in equal opportunity. They want every person to have an equal opportunity. And there are many people with disabilities besides the -- maybe growing up in poor circumstances.
I will say, I think her background is incredible, and her academic qualifications are sound. Now, we need to look at the other very important criteria for a lifetime appointment for the Supreme Court justice of the United States, and that is judicial philosophy.
KING: Are you saying -- Senator Hutchison, you say it troubles you that she says that she might be better suited to make a certain decision than somebody else of a different background. I want to read something -- this is from your website that you posted just this month on your Senate website. It says -- "The experience of balancing a full-time job with a full-time family has given me a unique insight into the needs of working families across Texas and throughout our nation. I have been fortunate to use this perspective to shape legislation that will empower mothers to make choices that are best for them and their children. In fact, two of my proudest legislative accomplishments have been borne out of family considerations."
I read that as you saying as a woman, as a mother, you sometimes think you are better suited than a man to deal with certain policy questions. Is that a fair reading? HUTCHISON: Well, I'm a member of the United States Senate. I do make policy. I vote on policy. And I think it is very important in the Senate or in Congress or for governors, anyone elected and who is accountable to the people, I think should be a part of America and the American experience.
Now, I think that's also important for a Supreme Court justices, but their role is very different. The reason that the Constitution has endured for so many years is because of the balance of powers. And the power in the Supreme Court is to interpret the law, to assure that the Constitution is not infringed, and they have lifetime appointments. And so, I think you have to really be aware of that role in the balance of powers. The policy is made in the executive branch, by the elected president and the elected members of Congress. So I think the roles should be really separated out, and look at the ability of a person to fulfill the role to keep the balance of powers that has made the Constitution such an incredible document, really, in the world for the democracies and the underpinnings of democracy to succeed.
KLOBUCHAR: You know, Senator Hutchison, I appreciate very much the dignified approach she is taking here, very different that you've heard from some of the people who have been criticizing and shame playing, all these names they are throwing at this nominee. And I'll say the same thing, is that these hearings are going to be very important. But when you actually start looking at the record of this nominee, when they start -- people are saying she is some radical. Look at this, 81 percent of the time she actually rejected discrimination claims, when you look back at her opinions. When she was on a panel, a three-judge panel with the Republican appointed judge, 95 percent of the time they vote the same. They agreed.
So I think what you're going to see here is a moderate judge, and as Senator Hutchison was describing, as someone you'd want to see -- someone who looks at the law and looks at the facts, applies the law to the facts.
KING: Let's look through some of the record. Let's start with abortion rights. If you go through her voluminous record, there is nothing, nothing that gives you a hint as to how she would vote if Roe v Wade came before the Supreme Court again, if somebody challenged the basic right of -- constitutional right of privacy or the right to abortion in this country. Does that worry you?
KLOBUCHAR: No, not at all. And in fact, if you look, she did have one case where she actually affirmed a Bush decision of interpretation of the rule, the gag rule, because she felt that she had to apply the law.
But when you look at precedents, one of those precedents is Roe v Wade, so I know what she will be asked in the hearing is her respect for precedent, including that case.
KING: Is it fair to ask a Roe v Wade -- no, a lot of abortion rights groups are asking you to ask her that question.
KLOBUCHAR: It's fair to ask about her respect for the law and precedent.
KING: Let's look, you're both from states where hunting is very important. She has ruled in some Second Amendment cases. And in one case, Maloney versus Cuomo, the question was does the state ban on a certain weapon, type of weapon violate the Second Amendment? And she rejected a lawsuit from a man who wanted to have a martial arts weapon. It's called a nunchuck. And essentially, what she said in this ruling is that the Second Amendment is a federal amendment, and it applies only to the federal government. And she said, quote, "The Second Amendment applies only to limitations the federal government seeks to impose on this right."
KING: So Senator Hutchison, what she says essentially is that states can regulate weapons as long as they are within the umbrella of the Second Amendment. Are you OK with that?
HUTCHISON: I am a very strong supporter of the Second Amendment. I even voted against the attorney general, Holder, because he had written opinions that said the right to keep and bear arms is one for an organized militia and not for the individual, and I vehemently disagree with that, even though I respect him as a person.
That is something that I will look into very carefully. I'm concerned about that approach. The right to keep and bear arms is an individual right and I would be very hesitant to put someone on Supreme Court who did not believe that.
The case -- the Heller case, which I was very involved in, in getting an amicus brief signed by a majority of members of Congress that went to the Supreme Court was very clear that it is an individual right.
However, it was decided on a margin of 5-4. Now, Justice Souter was in the four. So if she disagreed, it would not change that majority, but the next Supreme Court justice could. And I think it is so absolutely important that the Second Amendment be continued, as the Supreme Court has said, to be considered an individual right so that no state, no city, and certainly not the federal government, would ever infringe on that right.
KING: I want to cover another case or two. But are you worried about her and the Second Amendment?
KLOBUCHAR: No, I'm not. This was a specific case regards states -- the state rights and the federal rights. The Heller case made things very clear. I supported that ruling as well.
But you look at what happened this weekend, John. She actually got the endorsements of law enforcement in the state that she grew up in, the state of New York. Some tough cops there, law enforcement, prosecutors.
So I think you're going to see a woman who is a tough prosecutor, someone who wants to uphold the law, has sided with cops many times in decisions, and to also uphold the Second Amendment.
KING: We're going to run out of time, so I'm going to skip other cases and ask you a little bit about the political debate that's about to come now. We'll start with you, Senator Hutchison, as a senior Republican, if somebody in the Republican Party says we want to block filibuster, stall, delay, would you support that or would you say, no, up and down vote on the floor?
HUTCHISON: Well, I think we need to look at the record fully and I think we ought to do that in an expeditious way. I don't think that the need for filibuster will be there unless we have not had a chance to look at the record fully. That's when a closer vote comes into play.
So I have voted for cloture sometimes even when I voted against the nominee if I felt that I knew enough about the nominee. So I think it will be determined in that way.
KING: Is the president his own worst enemy in some ways here, Senator Klobuchar because Senator Barack Obama supported a filibuster against Justice Alito? He said he didn't want him on the court and he supported a filibuster. Has he set a bar that if Senator Hutchison's party decided, we don't like this nominee, they could invoke the Obama standard?
KLOBUCHAR: Well, I don't think so. And as you know, in the end, that didn't happen in that case. And...
KING: It didn't happen, but he supported it.
KLOBUCHAR: Well, I believe that in this case when you look to the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, they want a good, thorough hearing. I think there's significant time to look at her record. I think she is going to pick up Republican support and I don't think that this will be filibustered.
KING: OK. We need to close, we're out of time. I want to give you each one sentence, though, on the future that comes ahead.
Senator Hutchison, you want to be the next governor of Texas, any doubt about that? Are you in that race?
HUTCHISON: Well, I'm in the preparatory stages for that race. I have not made a formal announcement.
KING: Sounds like almost 100 percent.
And when you were here last, Senator Klobuchar, you said this drama, Coleman/Franken, would be over by Memorial Day. There will be arguments at the supreme court tomorrow.
KING: Will this ever end?
KLOBUCHAR: Very close. There is going to be a one-hour argument tomorrow, John. And I will tell you it's not going to be an instant verdict. We won't have a Susan Boyle moment here. But I would hope within a month or so we will get a decision from the Minnesota Supreme Court and that this will be resolved. KING: All right. We will have you...
KLOBUCHAR: No more predictions.
KING: You don't get two votes on the Supreme Court nominee. But we will watch this play out.
Senator Hutchison, one final point. If you're in this race, you're in a state with a large Hispanic population, do you worry that the tone of this debate in the first week has hurt your party with Latino voters?
Barack Obama won two out of every three Latino votes in the presidential election. The future of the Republican Party depends on making inroads again with this community that used to at least be fairly split.
Are you worried about the tone in the first few days as you prepare to run statewide in your state again?
HUTCHISON: Oh, I definitely think we need to have the respectful tone and we need to look at the record. We need to be just very -- we need to have the responsibilities that have been put on us by the Constitution taken very seriously.
And I think that having a solid respectful tone, arguing the facts, not trying to label someone, I think is important. And I think going forward that's what you'll see from the senators who are involved in this process.
KING: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Republican, she is in Texas this morning, Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, thank you both for joining us.
KLOBUCHAR: Thank you, John.
KING: And up next, the top Republican in the Senate sizes up President Obama's Supreme Court nominee and the use of terms like "racist" and "KKK" by some Sotomayor critics in the GOP. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when STATE OF THE UNION returns.
KING: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. We are joined now by the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who is in his home state of Kentucky this morning.
Senator McConnell, I want to get to the record and what you think about Judge Sotomayor. But I want to deal with a few procedural issues first. You are the leader of the Republicans. You will decide whether there will be any effort to stall, delay, filibuster.
Can you, this morning, just rule that out? That if she clears the committee, Judge Sotomayor will get an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate? MCCONNELL: What I can do is give you a little bit of the history of this very contentious issue. Throughout the Clinton years, there were several attempts to filibuster Clinton judges. I personally felt that filibustering judges was inappropriate. I always voted for cloture on every incident -- in every instance, but did oppose some of those judges.
Then in the early Bush years, interestingly enough, with a Hispanic nominee named Miguel Estrada, who President Bush nominated for the D.C. Circuit, the Democrats firmly established the principle with seven filibusters against this outstanding Hispanic-Americanm, that filibusters of judges are the precedent in the Senate. MCCONNELL: So it can be done. The question is, will it be done? I think it's entirely too early to tell. The president himself filibustered, as you pointed out in the first segment, Justice Alito.
So I think the precedent is firmly established. It doesn't mean it will be done in every instance. Here we have a judge with 3,600 cases, 3,600 cases, as the president has pointed out. She has the deepest and longest experience of any judge prior to the Supreme Court of any of the ones who are now on the Supreme Court.
Justice Roberts, the chief justice, for example, only had participated in 327 cases. So there's a lot to look at. And I think we need to go through the process systematically. Chairman Leahy has said in the past that it's better not to do it fast but to do it right, and I agree with that. And that will take some time, given her vast experience.
KING: Does that mean you would not want to vote in July; you'll want to wait until September. Is that what you're saying?
MCCONNELL: It means we want to thoroughly examine her record. I don't know how long that's going to take. I know 3,600 cases, as the administration has pointed out, and long service on the bench means a lot of cases and a lot to look at. I don't think we should start with a presumption of exactly what the end date is going to be.
Justice Souter did the president a great favor by announcing very early that he was leaving. I think it's entirely likely -- I can't imagine that we will not be able to get through this process well in advance of the first Monday in October, which is when Supreme Court resumes its fall term.
KING: You would not take a filibuster off the table and you've rightly noted -- and we talked about a bit earlier in the program -- that Senator Obama, then Senator Obama supported a filibuster against Justice Alito.
I want you to listen, though, to your own standard, laid out on the floor of the United States Senate a few years back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCONNELL: Regardless of party, any president's judicial nominees, after full debate, deserve a simple up or down vote.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KING: You're absolutely right that Democrats have filibustered Bush Supreme Court nominees. I'm not sure this is the right word, but you have an opportunity to be the bigger man and say, we won't play that game.
MCCONNELL: Well, I lost that debate. I just pointed out in our discussion earlier that that was my view, but I lost that. The Senate Democrats, on the Miguel Estrada nomination, firmly established the principle in the Senate which the precedent (ph) also supported later on the Alito nomination that filibusters are available. I lost that debate. The Senate operates frequently on precedent. The precedent is that that's available. But to predict, in the same week that the nominee is put forward, a filibuster, is putting the cart before the horse. We have no earthly idea whether that would be appropriate at some point in the process.
We've got a lot of cases to read and a lot of background to check.
KING: What is your number one concern, based on what you have looked at so far?
What is the number one issue or the number one case where you say, I need some answers?
MCCONNELL: Well, I think everybody is troubled and, obviously, the administration was, too, by the Connecticut firefighters case, which is before the current Supreme Court; by statements that circuit judges make policy. I think we all know that is not the way it's supposed to be.
As Senator Hutchison pointed out in the first segment, those of us who are elected are supposed to make policy, but those of us who are appointed are supposed to apply the law.
You know, every federal judge raises his or her right hand and swears to treat the rich and the poor the same, but what that really means is that, if a rich person has both the law and the facts on their side in a court case, they ought to win.
KING: Well, let's look at that Connecticut -- I don't mean to interrupt, but I want to look more closely at that case you just mentioned. It's Ricci v. DeStefano. It is an affirmative action case. That can be a big issue, as you know, in confirmation. It involves 20 firefighters led by white plaintiff Frank Ricci.
They sued after being denied promotions. They -- the city of New Haven refused to promote them even though they took the city's exam; they passed the city's exam. The white firefighters sued. The city said, because only white firefighters passed the test, they wanted to have a new test because they were concerned they weren't promoting African-Americans and other minorities.
During the oral arguments, Judge Sotomayor said this, "If your test is going to always put a certain group at the bottom of the pass rate, so they're never, ever going to be promoted, and there's a fair test that could be devised that measures knowledge in a more substantive way, then why shouldn't the city have an opportunity to try to look and see if it can develop that?"
She essentially said, go back and try again and the effect of the ruling was to deny these 20 firefighters who had passed the promotions test their promotions. Tell me what troubles you most about that.
MCCONNELL: Well, you've, obviously, read the case, John. I have not yet read it. I'm going to. But let me say this. The Department of Justice, under the Obama administration, disagrees with the decision Justice Sotomayor made. Her colleague on that circuit, Jose Cabranes, also appointed by President Clinton, vigorously disagreed with the decision that Justice -- Judge Sotomayor rendered.
So I think it is certainly worth looking at. We know it's a very important case. It's before the Supreme Court this term. And I think all of us are going to be reading it, taking a look at it and trying to figure out, you know, sort of, how the judge feels about -- about these matters.
KING: On another point, you mentioned the speech in Berkeley where she said, "I would hope a Latina woman would be able to come to a better conclusion in some cases than a white man who didn't have her experience."
And a lot of men have seized that line to say -- "identity politics" -- she brings her personal biases into the courtroom.
I want to read you, though, something else she said in that same speech because she went on at length about the difficulty of dealing, as a human being and as a judge, with the prejudices we all have in our lives.
She said this. "I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."
It sounds like, there, she understands her prejudices and acknowledges she has to wrestle with them sometimes. What's wrong with that?
MCCONNELL: Well, I sure hope that's the case because we expect our judges to do just that. And as I indicated, they take an oath to apply the law as even-handedly as possible and to try their very best not to let their personal biases get in the way of judicial decisions.
KING: Much more to discuss with the Republican leader of the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell, when we return. And when we come back, also a look at the economy and the prospects for major health care reform this year. Stay with us.
KING: We're back with the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, joining us from his home state of Kentucky.
Senator, I want to walk through the interesting politics of the first few days of this Supreme Court nomination battle. And let's go back to the beginning.
KING: President Obama, of course, made his pick on Tuesday in the morning, announcing his intention to nominate Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Within two hours on the radio, Rush Limbaugh was on the attack saying she was unqualified and more.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: So, here you have a racist. You might want to soften that and you might want to say a reverse racist. And the libs, of course, say that minorities cannot be racists because they don't have the power to implement their racism. Well, those days are gone, because reverse racists certainly do have the power to implement their power. Obama is the greatest living example of a reverse racist, and now he's appointed one.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: 48 hours later, though, those remarks making some Republicans uneasy. Senator John Cornyn, who is from Texas and also heads your Senate Campaign Committee, says he finds those remarks terrible. And Senator McConnell, he went on to note that neither Rush Limbaugh nor Newt Gingrich, who also labeled Sonia Sotomayor a racist, get votes on this. They are not in the United States Senate.
You have a difficult job anyway. Are Rush and Newt making it a lot harder by using language like that?
MCCONNELL: Look, those of us who have a vote in this process are the ones who are studying this nomination. We have got a country full of people with their opinions, many of whom have big audiences, and they are certainly entitled to their opinions.
KING: Entitled to their opinions -- I don't mean to interrupt. I don't like to interrupt. Entitled to their opinions, but you're the Republican leader, you are the highest elected Republican in the United States of America. You've got a tough job. Would it be best -- would it be best that language like racist not be used by a man who millions of people listen to? A lot of people who vote for your candidate, and for a man who is not only the former speaker of the House of Representatives but is headline a major fund-raising dinner for House and Senate candidates this coming week here in Washington? Wouldn't it be better that they choose their words more carefully?
MCCONNELL: Look. I've got a big job to do, dealing with 40 Senate Republicans and trying to advance the nation's agenda. I've got better things to do than be the speech police over people who are going to have their views about a very important appointment, which is an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.
So I'm not going to get into policing everybody's speech. The important thing here is to look at the nominee, her qualifications, read the 3,600 cases, and do it right. That's what the American people expect of us.
KING: Can I read into that, though, that you do not agree? You would not label...
MCCONNELL: It is certainly not my view. My view is we ought to take a look at this nominee's qualifications. I think her life story is absolutely impressive.
KING: Let's move on. MCCONNELL: And we all admire the fact that she has started off from humble beginnings, did well in school and has had a long career in public service. But the issue before us now is should she be a Supreme Court justice, and that is what we're going to be concentrating on here in the next few months.
KING: And another issue we will be concentrating on in the week ahead is health care reform. Senator Kennedy has a bill, there's a bill in the Finance Committee. Senator Kennedy's proposal includes a government-run option that the American people could pick if they didn't like their private insurer. They will begin to have discussions about that in the Senate this week.
I want your views on that. But first, I want to share with you what I found to be some pretty startling numbers in new CNN polling. We asked people this week -- would you accept an increase in government influence over the health care system to lower costs and increase coverage? 69 percent say yes, they could support that. And then we went on to make it a bit more personal. Would you accept an increased government influence over your health care to lower costs and increase coverage? And 63 percent still said they would favor that. That seems like a very different dynamic, Senator McConnell, than when we last went through this back in '93 and '94.
Do those numbers put you in a box? And do you see Republicans supporting something like Senator Kennedy wants, with a government option in it?
MCCONNELL: Well, given the way those questions were worded, I'm not surprised you got that kind of an answer. But what you have when you have a government option is that's the only option. You'll have a government plan, which will then lead to rationing health care. And if you ask the question differently and said -- asked people if they want to have the government between them and their doctor, or the government deciding whether they can have a procedure at all, or if they have the procedure how long they have to wait to get the procedure, I expect you would get very different answers. So a lot of these things, questions are responded to depending upon how they are approached.
What we do know, John, is that in countries that have government- run health care, you do have the government between the patient and the doctor. You do have extensive delays in testing, in diagnosis, in treatment. It has a clear impact on life span. And I'm glad that Senator Kennedy laid the plan out there, because there's been some mystery about what the administration might actually be for, and I think the reporters have got it right, that Senator Kennedy has basically laid out what the administration would like to have. And I'm glad to have a plan out there that we can actually look at and understand where the administration is headed.
I don't think the American people want this kind of health care reform, and this is going to be a great and important debate for our country.
KING: Let me ask you in closing, you're joining us this morning from Louisville. I assume you've seen the front page of the Courier- Journal this Sunday. And the big headline across the top is, "Stimulus Funds Save Highway Jobs," and a gentleman is quoted as saying, "If it wasn't for the stimulus money, we probably wouldn't be back to work."
I know you're not a fan of this program. Let me ask you, 100- plus days into the spending of some of this stimulus money, is it working?
MCCONNELL: Well, I hope it's hired a few people, but obviously unemployment continues to rise, and I don't think it was the most effective way to jump-start the economy, to borrow close to $1 trillion, which cost us about $100 million a day in interest. That's a lot of money per job.
KING: And let me ask you lastly, sir, General Motors will file for bankruptcy tomorrow. It hopes to emerge from bankruptcy in 30 days or 60 days, but in that process, the United States government will be a huge shareholder, perhaps to the tune of $50 billion with a B, in General Motors. Are you comfortable with that?
MCCONNELL: I'm not. I think the government auto bailout was a big mistake. We have Ford Motor Company here in Louisville, an American company that hasn't taken government money and is still producing automobiles.
We've ended up exactly where I predicted we would. If we could have let these companies go through the bankruptcy process much earlier in the process, without all of the additional government money, and ended up in the same place.
We want them to survive. Obviously, they have to slim down and get competitive to do that, but it took an awful lot of government money and delay to get to the point we could have gotten to months ago.
KING: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the United States Senate, thanks for joining us on "State of the Union," sir.
MCCONNELL: Thank you, John. KING: Take care, Senator.
And straight ahead, Democrat Paul Begala and Republican Kevin Madden help us break down a confirmation showdown over abortion, affirmative action and more.
KING: Let's break down President Obama's Supreme Court nomination and how it's starting to play out with Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Paul Begala and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.
I want to start with a bit of retreat the White House engineered on Friday, and it was about this. KING: This is what Judge Sonia Sotomayor said back in 2001 in a speech out at Berkeley. She said: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Now people had seized onto, said this is identity politics, she brings her biases into the courtroom. The White House initially said we're fine with it, but then on Friday, the president said this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm sure she would have restated it, but if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Paul Begala, you've worked in the White House, you've counseled presidents on days when they have to go out and say what my nominee meant to say. Why did he have to pull that back?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I'm not sure he had to. But they certainly felt like he did. The only criticism of it was from the kook right and it was invigorating the kook right. You didn't hear, for example, Senator Hutchison this morning screaming and yelling about that comment.
So maybe an abundance of caution. I this think the rule ought to be, this is heresy in cable news, read the whole speech. It's not very long. It's really thoughtful, it's really smart, and the president, of course, he has it right.
She is conducting sort of a debate within this with Sandra Day O'Connor who had said I think a wise old man and a wise old woman would say the same thing, with Judge Cedarbaum, who had talked about the fact that, you know, a bunch of white old men found for civil rights in the Brown case. So this is more complicated than people think. And that's how her speech was, it was nuanced and very smart.
KING: For the record, this heretic, as you would call me, read it several times this week.
BEGALA: Good for you. KING: And if you're at home and you want to read it, go to cnn.com and you can find it on our Web site as well, because it is worth reading. It's a very interesting speech. He used the label "the kook right."
KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.
KING: "The kook right." Have some on the right of your party made this a lot more complicated, a lot more polarizing, a lot more personal than it needs to be at the beginning? MADDEN: That's the word right there. I think you complicate it by making it personal. I think there are a lot of very principled arguments that you can make on policy, on jurisprudence, and on how any prospective judge would approach the profession.
And when you make that argument, I think that is much better ground, because I mean, first you have to all start off with the simple equation that the math is not there for us to really -- to oppose this nomination or scuttle it or any way vote it down.
And I think that that's where the argument has to be. You have to balance this upon a fulcrum of policy and principle and professionalism as a jurist rather than making it personal. Because I think if you're going to make a label, if you're going to offer up a charge that someone is a racist, you had better have something better than a statement like that, which could be taken out of context.
There is a lot more -- there are a lot more troubling aspects of that statement that have less to do with racism and they more have to do with how she would approach her job as a judge.
KING: So help me -- so help me, as a guy who was counseled very senior Republicans in the Congress, who has counseled Republicans who want to run for president of the United States, Kevin Madden, you're in the room, why won't some of them just say, you know, Rush, shut up, Rush, stop.
MADDEN: Well, I think because, look, there's an understanding that Rush Limbaugh talks to many grassroots activists across this country, but the most important thing to remember that he is not an elected Republican.
Tom Tancredo, who had similarly caustic remarks about La Raza and this particular judge, is not an elected Republican anymore. So I think we have to look at folks like -- I mean, if you look at the arguments that Mr. McConnell made this morning -- Senator McConnell made this morning, and you look at what Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison said, that is emblematic of the approach that most Republicans are taking right now.
So I'm in the room with people like that and they're the ones that I think are counseling a, you know, more professional process here.
KING: As you -- go ahead. BEGALA: It's why they need the hearings sooner rather than later. Usually when you're in the minority you try to slow walk it, you sort of hope something blows up and you slow it down, and that is their strategy I think. I think Senator Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, probably wants to slow this down.
I think that's a mistake, because there are more responsible spokespeople for the Republican Party than Rush Limbaugh, but they are not getting any air time until they have the hearing.
If I were advising Senator McConnell, I would say, sir, this time, let's move the hearing up.
MADDEN: Let's get this over with.
BEGALA: Let's show the country a different face of the Republican Party, but they don't seem inclined to do that.
KING: One of the questions going forward is what standard will be used to frame the debate -- the rules of the debate? And I want to give you two standards here. One was outlined in an interview I had on Friday with Senator John McCain. He was the president's opponent. But he was very gracious. He says he doesn't think there should be a filibuster because?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: We sometimes forget, elections have consequences. She would not have been my nominee, most likely, but the fact is that the president won. He has the obligation and duty and privilege to nominate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MCCAIN: Senator McCain says filibustering a Supreme Court nomination, that is out of bounds. Give him or her an up and down vote. A guy named Senator Barack Obama said this back in 2006 when Justice Alito was before the Senate.
"I will be supporting the filibuster because I think Judge Alito in fact is somebody who is contrary to core American values, not just liberal values."
Has the president, through his actions as a senator, made his nominee, now that he is a president, a bit more complicated?
BEGALA: Yes, yes. And I think that's OK. I'm actually -- even though I'm for Judge Sotomayor, they should a right to filibuster. And they should have a right to oppose her based on her philosophy and ideology alone.
Kevin is right, not about personal attacks, but Judge Alito was (INAUDIBLE) qualified. I mean, my goodness, he was an experienced prosecutor and judge himself, he had the highest academic credentials. But people like Barack Obama and many Democrats voted against him because they thought ideologically he was too conservative.
Senator McCain has an honorable position, I just disagree with it. I don't think presidents are due deference on Supreme Court justices the way they are, I think, in a cabinet appointment which is just for a term. So it may complicate things. But I think the Senate has to look really carefully at this.
The problem is the politics. They are going to allow Rush Limbaugh and the rest of those people who, in fact, say racist things. Rush Limbaugh once said about Mexicans, he called them renegade potentially criminal elements. That that's what's going to define them, their vote among Hispanics is going to collapse. KING: We are sadly out of time. I would like to explore that issue, Hispanics, but we'll bring you both back for that on another morning. Kevin Madden, Paul Begala, thank you both very much.
And one issue all but certain to reach the Supreme Court in short order, same-sex marriage. Up next, we'll go to New York where the debate over whether to join a growing national trend is entering its critical final days.
KING: Lady liberty there in New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty on a beautiful, beautiful Sunday.
KING: The same day Judge Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama, the California Supreme Court out here upheld a voter-passed proposition banning same-sex marriage. If you look at the map, the gray are the huge majority of states that do not allow same-sex marriage or civil unions.
Five states -- and you see them concentrated mostly up here in New England, plus Iowa out here, five states do allow full-scale same- sex marriage. And three of those states have taken a step just this year, leading proponents to believe the political tide is turning their way.
A test of that will come in four states with same-sex marriage legislation, including New York, where we visited this week and the debate is in its final days.
KING (voice-over): Hunting for votes in Albany. Christine Quinn is a gay rights activist whose day job helps cushion the disappointment when the answer is no, or at least "not yet."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not possible. Not possible.
CHRISTINE QUINN, SPEAKER, N.Y. CITY COUNCIL: The fear of the unknown. This is a vote they've never cast before, and they don't know how people are going to react. And you're in a position, a job, where people's reaction to you is key to your success and the unknown creates the -- and fear often creates paralysis. And can often hold things back.
KING: Quinn is the speaker of the New York City Council, and thinks before long there will be enough votes in the New York State Senate to allow her to schedule a wedding to longtime partner Kim Catullo.
QUINN: I really think it's going to happen this month before the legislative session is over.
MAGGIE GALLAGHER, NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR MARRIAGE: No. I think the court signaled very strongly...
KING: Maggie Gallagher sees the math differently. Conservative radio one of her lobbying platforms.
GALLAGHER: One thing that Americans agree on, marriage means a husband and wife and we don't want government changing that.
KING: Gallagher's National Organization for Marriage is working to block same-sex marriage proposals here in New York and across the country.
GALLAGHER: We've generated thousands of phone calls to legislators. I don't think they will be passing a gay marriage bill this session.
KING: For now, it is a state-by-state fight, in part because President Obama is on record opposing same-sex marriage.
QUINN: He's not perfect on this issue, and I want him to be perfect. Pretty soon the fact he wasn't perfect will be just a distant memory, I'm almost sure of it.
KING (on camera): Is that a politician's answer?
KIM CATULLO, QUINN'S PARTNER: The president is allowed to evolve just like the American people.
KING (voice-over): Regardless of whether Mr. Obama changes positions, Columbia Law School's Suzanne Goldberg predicts the same- sex marriage debate will soon reach Washington.
PROF. SUZANNE GOLDBERG, COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL: Certainly some time in the next couple of years we're likely to see the U.S. Supreme Court issue a decision or two on this issue.
OBAMA: I'd like all of you to give a warm greeting...
KING: The president's choice for the current vacancy, Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, lectures at Columbia. And Goldberg, who supports same-sex marriage, knows her well. But she says they have never discussed the issue.
GOLDBERG: What I would say is that she is both a wise person and a thoughtful person, and being wise and thoughtful are the right ingredients for reaching, to me, what is the right answer on this issue, which is that equality applies to all people.
KING: Same-sex marriage opponents like Maggie Gallagher can't be sure but believe the current court would narrowly reject same-sex marriage.
GALLAGHER: I don't think this one is going to tip the balance, but we are very close. We're probably only one Supreme Court justice away from a nationally imposed right to same-sex marriage, whether we like it or not. KING: Most proponents of same-sex marriage want more inroads at the state level before there is a major Supreme Court case, which is why the New York debate is so important.
CATULLO: The best way to approach it is to do it state by state, because I think that's what will make people comfortable with it. Obviously, you know, to really get all of the rights that come with marriage, you would have to do it on the federal level, but I don't think that's necessarily realistic at this point.
KING: Proponents believe their chances of making New York the sixth state to allow same-sex marriage are realistic. But the intensity is telling. In politics, "closer than ever" translates into "still a few votes shy," and time is short.
KING: And we'll continue to track that debate as the New York State Senate considers the legislation.
We want to say good-bye now to our international audience for this hour. But coming up for our viewers here in the United States, Howie Kurtz looks at the impact of Jay Leno's move to 10:00 p.m. as Conan O'Brien takes over "The Tonight Show."
KING: I'm John King, and this is our STATE OF THE UNION report for this Sunday, May 31st.
The language is at times startling, "reverse racist," "Latino KKK," has the press coverage of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court focused on the sensational at the expense of serious legal issues? In our "RELIABLE SOURCES" hour, Howard Kurtz will break this down with a panel of top reporters.
And the departure of a legend, Jay Leno leaving "The Tonight Show" after 17 years. A TV critic and a comedian predict what this means for fans of late-night laughs.
And finally, the political conversation has been dominated by the partisan battle over the next Supreme Court justice since the day she was nominated. We'll cut through Washington's smoke and mirrors and rhetoric with the best political team on television.
That's all ahead on today's STATE OF THE UNION.
Time now, as we do every Sunday, to turn things over to Howard Kurtz and his "Reliable Sources."