TERENCE SMITH: That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the New York Times. Gentlemen, welcome.
This week, another full week of a classic inside the beltway battle over process; the filibuster and the president's judicial nominations. I think you two met today with the Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid. It sounds like an ideological collusion to me, but you were there. What did you learn? What is the very latest?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, they call us in for sage advice. It's like Solomon and Pericles coming in - no, I think where we are right now is that all of yesterday there were twelve moderates, six Democrats, six Republicans trying to get a deal; they failed, not definitively; they may still work it out. But they came this close to the deal and they couldn't do it, and they couldn't do it for, I think, two reasons. One, they couldn't establish trust in the room. Even among these centrists there was no trust across the parties; and the second thing is they're centrists, and centrists just are not ruthless - or willing to push through a deal. They want to shop it around, make sure everybody's happy, communicate, talk, make it just right; and so they never did deal. And so I think what we have learned from Reid, and I think we've heard the same from the Republican leadership, is they're ready for the fight on Tuesday. There will be a vote and there will be a nuclear showdown.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, what's really at stake here? Is it really just about the process of the filibuster? Or is it something a little larger?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, what's really at stake is, this is the warm-up fight for the Supreme Court, Terry, and if, in fact, the rules are changed -- I mean, the Senate rules are pretty explicit - to change the rules of the Senate, the rule says you have to require two thirds of the Senate as voting, 67 in this case. So they don't have 67 votes, they're going to change the rules, to change the rules and do it with 51. I mean, that's with the vice president ruling from the chair. And so that's what's really at stake. I mean, David and I were both on Capitol Hill today separately, other than our meeting with Sen. Reid. But Republicans I talked to were quite candid about, you know, the process that didn't begin with this, that - when Bill Clinton had been in the White House, we decided to kill 'em in committee, the nominations, because we controlled the committee.
So I think that it's - what I'd add to David's analysis is not only that I commend those who trying to fashion a compromise, particularly interesting I think that Bob Byrd, the Democratic leader of the Senate for a long time from West Virginia, who was against a compromise, and John Warner of Virginia - I mean the sort of two of the two of the lions of the Senate who are probably key players in this whole thing. But what I would add is that Republicans said to me today on the Hill, they said the problem is that this is being driven -- the trains are driven by the interest groups on both sides.
TERENCE SMITH: David, Mark referenced the Supreme Court possible battle over that. Is this something of a dry run for that? Is it likely to affect the situation and might it apply in the case of --
DAVID BROOKS: This wouldn't be happening if we didn't have two Supreme Court nominations proudly hanging over us for the next couple of years. They want to make sure there's an up or down vote, the Republicans do, on the Supreme Court nominations, as well as these circuit court judges; they're pretty important. People see Priscilla Owen maybe as a replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor, so that all factors in. But the other thing is, this is all about partisanship. This is not only about the Supreme Court; it's about the U.S. Senate, and what that becomes. This has been a train toward increasing polarization in the Senate, and we've just been heading this way for 20 years. And to me what was interesting about the moderates was these people getting together - where they going to say, we're out of the trench warfare, we're going to break out of this? And this was their effort to do it, and as far as I could tell, it's failed. So that's -
MARK SHIELDS: I wouldn't write 'em off completely. I mean, they're going back in on Monday, and for that they deserve the appreciation and the credit because they run the risk -- neither leadership likes to have a compromise fashioned without either leader in the room, I mean, even though they give it their blessing. So I think in that sense, Terry, that they've kind of shown us the way, the 12 in the middle.
TERENCE SMITH: Are there political winners and losers here that you can - either one of you -- can identify?
MARK SHIELDS: I think Harry Reid is - a lot's riding for Harry Reid; a lot's riding, I would say, for Bill Frist, the Republican leader. But Harry Reid is an intriguing figure. It's his first year - he's only been there four months -
TERENCE SMITH: As Senate Minority Leader.
MARK SHIELDS: As the Senate Minority Leader, and he seems to have fashioned a deal with his caucus, and that is, I don't care how you vote individually on - whether it's asbestos or bankruptcy or tort reform, I need you to be united with me and all your colleagues on Social Security and on the filibuster, and that's really -- it hasn't been trying to lay down party positions, except on these two. And this is really -- this is big time. I mean, he's in the spotlight. For Bill Frist I think there's a lot of presidential politics involved here, and I think in a strange way even if he does prevail, in the final analysis, the hearts of the religious right, who are most concerned about this issue, belong to George Allen of Virginia; Sam Brownback of Kansas; and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, potential rivals of Frist in 2008, a lot more than they do to Bill Frist.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think Bill Frist has that and more at stake?
DAVID BROOKS: I do think it was - you know, something Harry Reid told us today was he thought this was really being pushed by the White House, 90 percent from the White House. That is actually something I disagree with. I think it was something Bill Frist has been talking about for a long time, and a lot of Republicans have been talking about for a long time, and it does have some presidential implications for Frist. Would he be pushing this hard without the need to sort of win over and solidify support from the religious conservatives? Maybe, maybe not.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you get the sense that the public is following this the way people in Washington are?
DAVID BROOKS: I hope not as closely. But I think there's a general sense out there, and I think the general sense is we're worried about gas prices; we're worried about the economy, and what the heck are they doing out there? And the second general sense --
TERENCE SMITH: You mean what the heck are they doing -
DAVID BROOKS: -- In Washington. And it starts with Schiavo and then it goes on and on and on, but then I think there's the general sense of the filibuster, which is the same when Newt Gingrich shut down the Congress - and we've talked about it before. In my business we cut deals. We don't get everything we want; we act like adults. Why can't they just do that? And that's why I think you've seen both parties see their approval ratings decline and why you've seen Congress in particular see its approval ratings decline.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, there were new polls, Mark, this week that showed ratings down for -- approval ratings down both in the Congress, for the president and declining confidence about the economy and about the war in Iraq.
MARK SHIELDS: There really were. And particularly I focused on the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, because they plot the whole thing over the years. The numbers for the Congress are the worst they've been, Terry, since 1994. And everybody in the business remembers what 1994 was. It was the earthquake that took four years of Democratic control of the Congress and turned --reversed it. And so the Democrats don't have particularly higher marks than Republicans. Republicans have plummeted; the Congress has plummeted. If you just go back to inaugural day, it's down a full 20 points since then in public. I think David is right. They don't see the Congress dealing with them; they see them bickering; they seem them doing minor and trivial things. But I think the concern that Republicans have to have is there's no good news. Iraq is not good news; the economy is not the good news. Nothing is good news for them right now. And when the public expresses its ire and anger at the Congress, it's always visited upon the majority party, and that's, I think has to be a concern.
DAVID BROOKS: The other thing I would say, and I've got this sense from the leadership of both parties, they're like in the pre-World War I, we'll be home by Christmas days. Right now they're having meetings; they're plotting out what to do after Tuesday when this vote happens and they think they've got the winning strategy to really make it work for them, to humiliate the other party, and they have way too sunny a view of what it's going to look like to most people who are casually paying attention. They think, oh, they'll look like obstructionists, but that's not how it's going to look. It's going to look like trench warfare and people are just going to have some vague, generalized sense that these people are just, you know, they're just incompetent.
TERENCE SMITH: We also had a story the week with Newsweek retracting its initial account of the desecration of the Quran in prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the White House coming down very hard on Newsweek specifically, the press generally. What's going on here?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, you try and change the story, when the story isn't good, and the press is critical of you, you turn your guns on the press. I mean, I really think David had - I thought a very perceptive column -- I don't say that very often about David - in the New York Times on Thursday on this very subject talking about his own experience to colleagues. And I'd just add that the information generally about disparaging the Quran and using that as a tactic of interrogation has been reported widely before this. I mean, with the flushing down the toilet, it stuck and could not be confirmed. But, you know, I just thought the White House sort of - for a White House that really took us to war on totally false information about nuclear biological chemical weapons, I thought it was a little overreaching.
TERENCE SMITH: David, what did you think of what the White House said on that?
DAVID BROOKS: I think first the White House should never attack the media. They run battleships. They are really powerful. When they get in a -- I don't want to say a pissing contest, but I'll say it -- with the media, you are just, you're lowering yourself if you're the White House. And it's just demeaning. The second thing is they should focus on who are the real villains here, and that's not Newsweek for making an error; it's the people who incited the riots in the first place. The columnist, Kathleen Parker, had a beautiful phrase, when she said, "Those people don't need a reason to riot; they need an excuse." And that's exactly right. Imran Khan, the Pakistani opposition official, and the clerics there, they were just looking for an excuse, and they are the killers.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. David, Mark, thank you both very much.