Today's Papers

A Question of Justices

Everyone leads with Washington’s preparations for a showdown over who will succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. The Washington Post leads with the news that the bipartisan filibuster pact may get in the way of Democrats’ efforts to block a conservative nominee. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times lead with rundowns of senatorial “positioning and saber rattling” about what does and does not constitute an appropriate question to put to a potential justice.

The “Gang of 14” accord, the recent pact between Democrats and Republicans to avert the nuclear option on filibustering, may now prevent Democrats from blocking conservative candidates on ideological grounds. According to the terms of that deal, Democrats may block a nominee only under “extraordinary circumstances.” Republicans warned that “extraordinary circumstances” mean problems of ethics or character and do not include a candidate’s politics, and the WP notes that some Democrats agreed. “Ideology is not an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ unless you get to the extreme of either side,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, one of the seven Democratic signers. If Democrats did try to mount a filibuster based on a nominee’s ideology, the deal’s Republican signers might feel that Democrats had reneged on their side of the bargain. If that happens, Republicans might consider themselves released from the deal and could yet invoke the nuclear option.

Meanwhile, senators squabbled about the rules of engagement for questioning nominees. Democrats plan to ask potential justices about specific issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Republicans argued that such questions were out of bounds since they amounted to asking nominees to prejudge cases or make promises, and the WP has the White House agreeing off the record. But Democrats stood firm. As Sen. Chuck Schumer put it, “They are going to try to get away with the idea that we’re not going to know their views. But that’s not going to work this time.”

The LAT notes that even the notion that Bush’s pick should have broad appeal is controversial. Ted Kennedy argued that Bush ought to select someone who can bring the country together, but some conservatives disagreed. As one commentator put it, “This idea that we’ve got to have a consensus candidate … is ridiculous.”

The WP fronts word that Alberto Gonzales made a surprise visit to Baghdad, but the paper seizes the occasion to ask the attorney general about the court. Gonzales said he would be advising the president about potential nominees, but wouldn’t comment on his own prospects. The LAT notes that there is “not a lot of enthusiasm” for Gonzales from the right, which sees him as a supporter of abortion rights and affirmative action.

Meanwhile, the WP teases news that Christian evangelical groups are planning a multimillion-dollar “church-centered” campaign to place a solid conservative on the Supreme Court. The campaign will employ the same methods as those used to win same-sex marriage bans in 11 states in November, namely, Christian talk radio, satellite broadcasts, direct-mail, and grass-roots organizing.

The NYT and the LAT front and the WP teases word of the apparent kidnapping of the top Egyptian diplomat in Iraq near his home in Baghdad. The NYT goes right out and says he was “kidnapped … by gunmen,” but the LAT is more circumspect, saying that he is “missing” and “reportedly abducted.” The diplomat was slated to become the first ambassador from an Arab nation in Iraq. Witnesses reported that gunmen beat him and called him an “American spy” before abducting him.

The NYT fronts and the WP teases news that an American commando was rescued in Afghanistan. The commando was a member of the four-man Navy Seal reconnaissance team that has been missing in the Afghan mountains for a week. The team was originally tasked with finding Taliban and other insurgents but was declared missing after the helicopter that was sent to extract it was apparently shot down, killing 16. The Pentagon refused to comment on details since the search for the other three members of the team is still going on. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s defense minister noted a spike in activity by insurgents and foreign fighters.

The LAT fronts a story about jitters at NASA as the agency prepares for the first shuttle launch in two years. After two lost shuttles and 14 lost astronauts, “the agency’s tattered reputation, as well as the future of its human spaceflight program, is on the line.” The WP fronts a profile of astronaut Eileen Collins.

The WP fronts and the LAT teases the obit of Gaylord Nelson, the three-term Democratic senator from Wisconsin who founded Earth Day. Nelson introduced the mainstream to modern environmentalism, helped ban DDT and Agent Orange, and worked to establish fuel efficiency standards.

Free lunch … Paul Krugman skewers the latest antics from the “pro-obesity” lobby: trying to convince Americans that worrying about obesity rates is unpatriotic. A food industry Web site informs readers, “The Founding Fathers, authors of modern liberty, greatly enjoyed their food and drink. …  Food liberty—just one of the many important areas of personal choice fought for by the original American patriots—is constantly under attack.”