TOPICS > Politics

Senate Power Shift

June 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Well, they say they’re friends, but can they work together? The new Senate shakeup immediately changes the lives of two key Senators: Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, who will be chairman of the Judiciary Committee until midnight tonight, hands over the reins to Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont. They join us from Capitol Hill.

Senator Hatch, how will the Senate be different tomorrow, than it is today?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, I think Tom Daschle summed it up. They will have control of the process and control of what comes up in committee, and what comes up on the floor, and that will be the decided change. On the other hand, they are in the majority and they have the right to do that, just like when we were in the majority.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Leahy, or Chairman Leahy, as of tomorrow, what difference does it make, as far as you can tell tomorrow?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, it won’t make any difference on a lot of things. We have before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House some very significant pieces of legislation — one on drug prevention. Senator Hatch and I have co-sponsored others in the high-tech area we’ve co-sponsored. And you see a lot of other pieces of legislation where you have a Democrat and a Republican as co-sponsors. Those will be the same as ever before.

The thing to do now as soon as we organize, I intend to start a fairly significant policy of having hearings on the judicial nominations. We’ve already started looking through the piles as soon as the paperwork is completed, a number of names have been sent up here. We’ll start having hearings on them. And I would, I would hope I could schedule some of those within a couple of weeks of the time we have the Senate reorganization.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you mentioned Senate reorganization and Kwame Holman just reported that maybe some sort of breakdown, or at least Republicans asking for guarantees that Bush nominees come to the floor; otherwise there won’t be reorganization. Where does that stand?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think that would be, you know, a bad mistake, because we can’t have and won’t have nomination hearings until we have reorganization; we want to know who’s going to be on the committee, which numbers are going to be there, who leads, or who stays on, and which one will be available and know that they’re going to have to vote on these nominations at some point. I think every committee, not just Judiciary, but all the other committees that have nominees before them.

But we have said, Senator Daschle has said, time and time again we want to get moving as the president’s nominations come up and have hearings on them. And I would hope that the president would at some point talk to his Republican leadership and say, hey, guys, let’s get reorganized so I can have the nominations on my nominees – or have the hearings on my nominees.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hatch, where does that stand, as far as your understanding of it? Is this something Republicans are willing to tow the line on if they want a guarantee that these nominees will come to the floor?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I don’t even think that’s a problem at this point. I just came from a private meeting with Senator Daschle, and I have to say it was a fruitful, constructive meeting. I’m one of five who has been selected to sit down and resolve some of these problems, and I think we’ll get them resolved. It took them three weeks when, you know, at the beginning, when we had the 50/50 – three weeks to come up a resolution. It was a hard fought battle, but I don’t think it’s going to take that much time. And I really do think, you know, much as we’re concerned about judges and getting them up to hearings and then out on the floor and voted on. I really believe that Senator Leahy will do a good job, will be fair, and will hold regulation meetings and get the judges up and out. We have 101 current vacancies in the federal judiciary.

Now it’s up to the Bush Administration to get the nominees up here so that we can go forward with them. And I’m hopeful that the two of us working together will treat President Bush as well as we treated President Clinton. We were able to get 377 judges through for President Clinton during his eight-year term – with six years of the Republican Senate. Ronald Reagan got 382, five more than Clinton, with six years of a very favorable Republican Senate. And so we treated President Clinton very well, but there are always some disputes, always some problems, and I’ve really tried to resolve those problems through those years. Some I could; some I couldn’t, but by and large, we did a very good job. And I’m counting on Senator Leahy doing an equally good job, if not better.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Leahy, when Senator Hatch says he expects you to treat the nominees that come from the Bush White House as well as they were treated coming from the Clinton White House, do you see that as reassurance or a threat?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think frankly some in the Bush White House might consider it a threat, because I don’t think they’d want us to treat their nominees the way some of the Clinton nominees were treated, but I look at this as a future thing. We have a lot of very substantial things before the Senate Judiciary Committee beyond this. I don’t know – I’m not sure what the fuss is in reorganization; we’ve been doing the same things forever in the history of the Senate; when one party goes in the majority, as opposed to the 50/50, so when one party’s in the majority, I think you have a process you follow. We’ve always done that. Eventually, we will do the same thing here.

But there are a lot of other issues besides just the judges. We know, for example, that there’s been some real concerns about the FBI. We’ve been moving forward. This is going to be a really non-partisan top to bottom review of the FBI – we want to know what happened when FBI Director Louis Freeh gave a very clear order to turn over all the documents on the Timothy McVeigh case, it turns out he didn’t. You saw what happened in the pursuit of the wrong person after the Atlanta bombing during the Olympics. Wen Ho Lee, all these other issues. And there are some problems there. The FBI could do some very, very good things.

But they’ve also got an attitude where they make mistakes nobody seems to really want to correct it. We’ve got to look at that because we have to have credibility in the justice system. We have to know that judges are impartial; that they’re not by the right or the left; that they’re going to give impartial justice. But they also have to know that our law enforcement agencies are going to do are going to be impartial, irrespective of what they do, so they don’t have people, for example, on Death Row that suddenly get released a few hours before they’re going to be executed because, whoops, we got the wrong person.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hatch, I’m curious about your take on your working relationship with Senator Leahy. You heard him say in Kwame Holman’s piece the two of you are good friends. Yet, you’re working right now in a situation where Senator Lott has sent out this memo saying the Democrats lack the moral authority to lead this Senate. What’s your reaction to Senator Lott’s contention to that point?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: That was a rally the troops memo that happens around here all the time. I don’t think there was any – I don’t think anybody should read that the wrong way. He’s just saying, look, let’s get in and fight for the causes we believe in, the projects that we believe in, and hopefully, hopefully we can get all the Republicans, you know, to work together.

GWEN IFILL: But I guess what I’m wondering is how do your personal friendships influence exactly how this Senate is going to be able to work together?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, you know, in the case of the Judiciary Committee I think Pat summed it up pretty well. You know, when it comes to intellectual property, information technology issues, well, we’re almost totally together on everything. I mean, we’ve set the standards throughout the world in many respects with the legislation we passed. We’ve passed all kinds of legislation, very technical, difficult legislation that we’ve both worked on together. We both take a tremendous interest in that legislation.

On criminal law we’ve done a number of things together that really are going to make sense. One of our most important bills this Congress will be the Hatch-Leahy/Leahy-Hatch bill on anti-drugs that will provide alternatives to prison for some of these young people who make a mistake the first time, rather than going to prison. And we’ll resolve some of the inequities there, and there are so many other areas where we can work together. And I think we can work together on judges as well. I know that Pat recognizes how important it is to have the federal judiciary filled.

And there have always been gripes, no matter who’s been chairman, whether it’s been Joe Biden back in the Bush years, where at the end of the Bush Administration there was some 67 people left hanging – at the end of this Clinton Administration there were 41 left hanging. I mean, and there’s always some irritation over that, but it’s just part of the process and part of the problems that committee chairmen have, and I’m going to assist Pat; I’m going to get him every bit of help that I possibly can; I’m a glass-half-full guy. I think that, yeah, we’re in the minority, but I know how to function in the minority too. And I intend to work very closely with him and see that this Judiciary Committee does its job.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Leahy, how about an issue on which you clearly disagree, like the death penalty, how will that play out? We’re all waiting to see what happens with Timothy McVeigh in the next week or so. How will that be different with you in charge of this committee?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I just want to make sure that there’s credibility when the death penalty is going to be imposed. For example – I’m a former prosecutor. I prosecuted successfully a number of murder cases. I don’t support the death penalty, but I have legislation in now that is co-sponsored by a number of people — including a number of former prosecutors who strongly support the death penalty — which would say, ‘Let’s make sure if somebody is going to be prosecuted for a capital crime that they’re given adequate counsel.’ Not somebody who sleeps through the trial; somebody who is drunk at the trial; who is being disbarred in the middle of the trial, all of which are things that have happened in the middle of murder cases with assigned counsel.

And secondly, that if there’s evidence available, whether it’s DNA evidence, fingerprint evidence, electronic evidence, that it’s available to both sides. The whole system of justice breaks down when you see person after person on Death Row about to be executed and find whoops, we’ve got the wrong person. I think that if you’re going to have the death penalty in this country, it’s going to be zero tolerance for mistakes; the American public has got to have confidence in their law enforcement and in the criminal justice system, which means you’ve got to have judges beyond reproach, law enforcement that’s above reproach, and a criminal justice system that’s fair to everybody, whether they’re poor or rich, white, black, conservative, liberal, or whatever. That’s what I want – my legislation to bring.

GWEN IFILL: All right. And finally, Senator Hatch, what is – what do you anticipate the relationship to be now with the White House and this new Democratically-led Senate?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, I hope it’ll be good, because it has to be for this country to work. This committee is too important and people have finally come to the conclusion this is one of the most important committees and some of the most important work in Congress.

With regard to the death penalty, of course, let me just say that Pat and I aren’t that far apart I believe in order to have a death penalty, number one, you have to have absolute perfect guilt and number two, there should be basically no evidence of any discrimination, and number three, the crime has to be so heinous as to justify it, and I do agree with Pat, that we need to make sure that DNA evidence, that DNA evaluations are used in every case where it’s appropriate and that the federal government should assist the states in getting that done. Now we do differ on some aspects that may make it impossible to enforce the death penalty, but I think we can work together and I’m going to do the very best I can to assist him and to help him.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hatch, Senator Leahy, thank you very much for joining us.