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JUDY WOODRUFF'S INSIDE POLITICS

U.S. Supreme Court Hangs in Balance; 2004 Democrats Attack Bush

Aired May 20, 2003 - 16:00   ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide.

ANNOUNCER: Abortion rights on the line. The U.S. Supreme Court in the balance.

And the 2004 Democrats on the attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of these judges that come out of the White House, they will take your rights away.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For the sake of our forests and for the sake of our communities, we have got to act quickly.

ANNOUNCER: Lighting a fire. A president whose been burned on some environmental issues promotes healthy forests.

ARI FLEISCHER, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: Being the briefer is kind of like playing intellectual chess.

ANNOUNCER: Ari Fleischer prepares to give up the game. We'll ask him about his moves in the White House and what comes next.

Now, live from Washington, Judy Woodruff's INSIDE POLITICS.

WOODRUFF: Thank you for joining us.

Well, just weeks after President Bush said America had turned the corner in the war on terror, the threat level has gone up to high again. As you heard live on CNN a short while ago, the United States is back at code orange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ASA HUTCHINSON, HOMELAND SECURITY UNDER SECY: For all Americans, we recommend that you continue with your plans for work or leisure. The purpose of this announcement, of course, is to alert our law enforcement community, primarily so that they can implement their security measures. And then, secondly, to advise the American public of this increased alert level so that they can themselves be alert and vigilant, because vigilance in and of itself is a deterrent to terrorist activity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: Local law enforcement officials across America are on alert that terrorists may be plotting a new attack inside the United States. As always, New York is especially on guard, putting more uniformed police officers in subways, on bridges and other crowded places. Terror fears also high in Saudi Arabia after last week's deadly suicide bombings. The U.S. and British governments are closing their embassies in the Saudi capital. Saudi security officials working to crack down on terrorism after the latest attack say they have arrested three suspected al Qaeda members in the port city of Jeddah.

Well, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer joins us now to talk about the terror threat, as well as about his own future. Ari Fleischer, good to see you.

ARI FLEISCHER, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: Hello, Judy.

WOODRUFF: The president did say just a few days ago the corner has been turned on the war on terror. Is that still true or was that a mistake to say that?

FLEISCHER: I think what the president said is the tide has turned. And as you know, tides have a way of coming in and going out. And in the next sentence the president said is that al Qaeda has been diminished, but not destroyed. And that's what we're seeing. We know that there are terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda that still desire to hit us.

WOODRUFF: Americans are out there thinking or hearing, OK, I should go about my life as usual, but I should also be extra vigilant. How do they strike the right balance?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, this is a balance that really law enforcement sets. The American people hire and pay their taxes for law enforcement to do the protecting. And at times like this, the law enforcement community receives what's called an inlet, which is communications from the FBI that provides them with as much information is as knowable. And then the law enforcement agencies step up their normal already elevated levels of vigilance. And that is how our system works. The American people, as Secretary Hutchinson said, should and will go on with their regular lives.

WOODRUFF: Let's talk about you, about Ari Fleischer, your announcement yesterday you're going to be leaving the administration later this year. This has been an extraordinary 2 1/2 years. The election recount of 2000, you've had 9/11, two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is this a case of burnout?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's something to that, Judy. I think if you look at the fact of a modern White House president -- press secretary, since Marlin Fitzwater lasted six years. And that was really in the pre-cable era. There was CNN was just in its infancy. There was no Internet. I don't even know how he lasted six. But no press secretary since then has lasted four. This is an arduous job. You get up at 5:00 every morning. Reporters call you at home. It's a lot of work to it. I'm looking forward to a little quiet. And I'm especially looking forward to seeing my wife.

WOODRUFF: Are you saying it's a tougher job than what the president, or the chief of staff or others in the White House do?

FLEISCHER: No, I think there are a lot of very tough jobs in the White House. Everybody has a hard job to do here, especially the president. But it is the nature of the press secretary job. It's a little bit of tension, a little bit of combat every day with the press corps. That's part of our system. It helps keep us free, frankly. Our reporters can fire away and ask whatever they want. But I made a personal decision. I know in my heart when it's time to go. And I will miss a president whom I believe deeply, both as a boss and as someone whose advocated policies I believe in.

WOODRUFF: Ari, last night I interviewed David Gergen who, as you know, was a communications adviser to President Nixon, President Reagan, President Clinton. He gave you very high marks for your loyalty to the president, but he did say that this White House he said has been extraordinarily closed by the standards of the past. He said he thinks the country would be better served by more openness. How do you respond?

FLEISCHER: Well, I really disagree with that. This nature, this description of closed, you know, you have to remember this is an unusual time. This is a war time. When people during the lead-up to Afghanistan asked me when will the attack begin, do you want me to answer that question? Of course, I won't answer a question like that. I shouldn't. And so we are going through unusual times, especially in the war on terror. And it is not as if we are talking about pending issues that are more domestic in nature. But this is a successful administration because we focus on what the president believes in. We have one boss. We don't have a lot of the petty camps inside the White House, which typically is what happens when there are leaks from one point of view or another point of view. And then it is free season from the White House and on the White House. We're unified behind the president whom we believe we only have his policies to talk about.

WOODRUFF: One other comment, a little bit tougher from Tom Rosensthiel (ph). He is with the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He's a former journalist himself. He said, quote, you have stuck to "the company line in an unyielding way." He said you've been, quote, "lacking in candor and antagonistic toward the press." Now this is supposedly somebody who is out there in the middle.

FLEISCHER: Tom, I wish he'd come to our briefings more often. I don't think I've ever seen him there. You know, the fact is my job is to faithfully articulate what the president believes in and why. And I'm proud of the way I've done that. And that's the way the job should be done. The press secretary's job is to report what the president thinks. The press' job is to ask whatever they can. And my job is to give them as much as I possibly can in the way of answers. But, you know, it typically works the other way around. If you start getting all of these different stories out of the White House, the press is delighted, and then they write the White House is in disarray, because you get more than one story. We have only one story to tell, and it's the president's story.

WOODRUFF: Well, you're right. Reporters just keep on digging. Usually not satisfied with one answer.

FLEISCHER: That's right.

WOODRUFF: Well, Ari Fleischer, it's been something to watch you over the last two and a half years. We'll keep watching you until July and find out what you're going to do after.

FLEISCHER: Thank you, Judy.

WOODRUFF: Best of luck. Thanks for talking to us.

FLEISCHER: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

WOODRUFF: All right.

In recent days, the Democratic presidential candidates have stepped up their criticism of the Bush administration's war on terror. But today they picked a different fight over the future of the Supreme Court. It happened during a forum sponsored by Emily's List, which helps to finance the campaigns of Democratic women, mostly women, who favor abortion rights.

Our Candy Crowley has more now on the high stakes high-court politics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SNR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's Washington's version of a summer blockbuster, the possible breakup of the Supremes, an action film.

TERRY MCAULIFFE, DNC CHAIRMAN: If he holds true to form and if he does appoint, it will be a major battle.

SCOTT REED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: The Supreme Court in regards to social conservatives is the big enchilada.

CROWLEY: Previews are running on the campaign trail.

CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If George Bush gets re-elected, you can about be certain that in six years Roe vs Wade will be gone, affirmative action will be gone, and the extreme political agenda that this group has advocated and promoted will be ensconced in civil society.

HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We will not see extremists on the bench in a Howard Dean administration.

CROWLEY: Mind you, no high court justice has announced a retirement yet, but the battle has been joined. Democrats have lost a preemptive strike on their committee Web site. And the '04s are tuning up on lower court nominees. SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Some of these judges that come out of the White House they will take your rights away. It is no more complicated than that.

CROWLEY: The court experts say the two Supreme Court justices most likely to leave are Sandra Day O'Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, both nominated by Republicans. Democrats are convinced if either leaves it will be this summer to avoid a nomination battle in the overheated atmosphere of an election year. It's not ideal timing for the Democrats, but they'll make due.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I'd rather have it take place next year, but it's going to take place. This is going to be an issue in this campaign. And Democrats are going to remind people that this is a huge deal. And if George Bush is trying to put right wing extreme judges who have extreme views on this court ...

CROWLEY: Perhaps you hear the theme emerging, keyword "extreme," because in the end, the politics of this election season battle is where the votes are in the main stream.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are people in both parties that are part of the base of both parties that get extremely emotional about who will be nominated to the Supreme Court. But this is really about the broad main stream of America.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: In short, Democrats view a battle over a Supreme Court nominee as a way to both excite their base and persuade swing voters that George Bush is too far to the right and a threat to a number of hot button issues, including civil rights, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: It's already getting hot. You can feel the flames licking at our side.

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

WOODRUFF: Candy Crowley, thank you very much.

Well, the Democrats also these days are working to finalize a plan for their party's presidential candidates to hold debates. The Associated Press reports representatives of the nine candidates agreed last night to have six to eight debates this year beginning in July. Well, now the Democratic national committee hopes to draw up a more detailed plan by the end of this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCAULIFFE: We want to have debates. But we want to make sure the debates are highlighting our candidates and highlighting the issues. So this was a way to bring some structure to the debates so we could maximize the importance of the issues that are going to effective in 2004 ... (END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: All of this taken place as the Democratic candidates have been invited to at least 40 joint appearances in the coming months.

Still ahead, Republicans on the Hill race to cut a deal on tax cuts. We'll tell you if they are making progress.

The president pressures lawmakers to see the forest for the trees. Will environmental issues cut in the 2004 campaign.

And move over Ben Affleck, a big political wheel has his eye on J-Lo.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: Last hour, the nation's threat level jumped to orange. Under Secretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson made the announcement to reporters about 30 minutes ago. You heard it live right here on CNN.

Meanwhile, New York City is stepping up police patrols. We'll hear more about what the empire state is doing to combat terrorism in just a few minutes. New York's Governor George Pataki goes before camera any moment. We'll have live coverage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: Well, after Republicans met with the president yesterday, House and Senate leaders are working now to bridge the differences between their two tax cut bills by the end of this week.

With me now for more is our congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl. Jon, are the two sides any closer together?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a very fast-moving target. They really are no closer on substance, but they are a lot closer in terms of coming to an agreement on when to do this. What happened last night at the meeting with the president, six top Republicans, three from the House, three from the Senate. The president told them under no uncertain terms that he wants to get a tax cut passed and on his desk by Memorial Day. That is something that as recently as yesterday Republicans on both sides of the Capitol were saying that they did not think was possible. Now they are all saying that it will get done, even though the differences are still quite considerable.

The point here is the president's leadership on this is pushing them towards a rapid deal. A point made by the Senate leader, the Senate Republican leader just a short while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN) MAJORITY LEADERS: The president made it clear last night that he very much believed it was in the nation's interest to complete this package as soon as possible, and before the recess. And I think that does have an impact that demonstrates his leadership. It's something that we feel very strongly about on the Senate side, so I think it was a great move by the speaker, and myself and the president of the United States that it could be done, that it should be done and that it will be done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KARL: Right now, the negotiations going on are between two men, the Ways and Means Chairman over in the House Bill Thomas and the Finance Chairman over in the Senate, Chuck Grassley. I spoke with Chuck Grassley after emerging from an hour-long meeting, the first meeting with Bill Thomas. And he said of Bill Thomas, his strategy is to wear you down, but he's not going to wear down Chuck Grassley. Grassley said these are very tough negotiations, the two sides holding very firm.

They are still quite far apart on the question of the dividend cut. The House has got a plan that would cut capital gains taxes, instead of eliminating the tax on dividends. And also the question of the size of the tax cut. These two sides both thought they'd be able to do something at about $400 billion. They came back and found out that key Senate moderates, especially George Voinovich of Ohio wouldn't go for anything over 350. So, Judy, some long and difficult negotiations ahead this week.

WOODRUFF: I would love to be a fly on the wall, Jon. You're talking about two tough characters, Chairman Grassley and Chairman Thomas.

KARL: That's for sure.

WOODRUFF: All right, Jon Karl at the Capitol. Thanks very much.

Promoting healthy forests or promoting profits for loggers. Just ahead, the political fire surrounding the nation's forest policy and why environmental issues rarely settle elections.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: ... using paper ballots instead of creating multiple ballots to match the state's various voting machines. And requiring the candidates themselves to help foot the bill for the primary. The party has about $200,000 in the bank. The primary could cost as much as $2 million.

INSIDE POLITICS returns in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: The House of Representatives is expected to approve President Bush's Healthy Forest Initiative before the end of business today. Critics, including many Democrats, say the measure will be anything but healthy for the nation's forests. But do voters really care?

Our Bruce Morton takes a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Bush at the White House urged passage of his Healthy Forests Initiative, which would streamline or suspend regulations so as to make clearing and cutting in national forests easier and, he said, reduce the risk of fires.

BUSH: For too many years bureaucratic tangles and bad forest policy have prevented foresters from keeping our woodlands healthy and safe.

MORTON: It's controversial, of course. When Mr. Bush introduced it last year, a Wilderness Society spokesman called it extreme, wrong- headed and overreaching. The Democrats generally denounce the president on the environment. Joe Lieberman called him the worst president we've had on the environment since the environmental movement began. And the presidential wannabes all have environmental proposals. John Kerry calls for environmental empowerment zones in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). John Edwards would spend federal money to boost ethanol production. It comes from corn, the stuff they grow in first in the nation caucuses Iowa, and so on.

The League of Conservative Voters gives them all pretty good marks. Lieberman and Kerry get grades in the '90s. Dick Gephardt is the low man at 66, but he sometimes agrees with unions on putting a higher priority on jobs. Is the environment an issue that will matter in the election? Do Americans care about it?

KEATING HOLLAND, CNN POLLING DIRECTOR: We tested 11 different issues and the environment ranked ninth. It was below big issues, obviously like the economy and the war on terrorism, but it also ranked significantly below crime drugs, homelessness, illegal immigration and a couple of other issues.

MORTON: Right. As in most American elections, the big issue in 2004 looks like our old friend, the economy. The environment will be well down the list.

STUART ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: Democrats will use the environment as they'll use a handful of other issues. But if George W. Bush is defeated, it's jobs and the economy. That's the number one Democratic target.

MORTON: It's the economy, stupid. Some things don't change.

Bruce Morton, CNN Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WOODRUFF: Here's a question to consider. Why is Jennifer Lopez on INSIDE POLITICS today, at least talking about her? We'll tell you in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) WOODRUFF: This is the governor of New York State George Pataki talking to reporters on this afternoon. The federal government has raised the terror threat level to high. Governor Pataki.

(INTERRUPTED FOR CNN COVERAGE OF LIVE EVENT)

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