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updated 7/31/2005 1:42:21 PM ET 2005-07-31T17:42:21

PLEASE CREDIT ANY QUOTES OR EXCERPTS FROM THIS NBC TELEVISION PROGRAM TO "NBC NEWS' MEET THE PRESS."

Sunday, July 31, 2005

GUESTS:  Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator; Eileen Collins, Discovery Shuttle Commander; James Kelly, Discovery Shuttle Pilot; Charles Camarda, Discovery Shuttle Mission Specialist; David Broder, Washington Post; John Harwood, Wall Street Journal; Kate O'Beirne, National Review; Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

MODERATOR/PANELIST: Tim Russert, NBC News

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday...

(Videotape, July 26, 2005):

Unidentified Man:  And liftoff of space shuttle Discovery.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  ...day six of Discovery's flight into space.  How safe is the mission?  Why have future shuttle flights been suspended?  How realistic is a future flight to Mars?  With us here in Washington, the administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin.  And speaking to us from space, Discovery Mission Commander Eileen Collins, Mission Specialist Andy Thomas and Mission Specialist Charles Camarda.  The head of NASA and the Discovery crew together only on MEET THE PRESS.

Then John Roberts, the Democrats and the Supreme Court, the CIA leak investigation and the politics of stem cell research:  insights and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal, Kate O'Beirne of the National Review and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.

And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, another astronaut, John Glenn, reflects on the risk of space travel 42 years ago.

But, first, this was the scene on Tuesday:  all eyes on the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

(Videotape, July 26, 2005):

Unidentified Man:  And liftoff space shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Just hours ago, a first in the 58-year history of MEET THE PRESS, we spoke to Americans from space.  I asked Discovery shuttle Commander Eileen Collins what she hopes is achieved by the Discovery mission.

(Videotape):

COL. EILEEN COLLINS:  By getting the space shuttle back in orbit after two and a half years, it's been a huge effort from all those people in the shuttle program and around the country working hard to get the shuttle back flying and I'd have to say the second thing is getting the International Space Station resupplied and built and we're working on that.

MR. RUSSERT:  You received a lot of kudos for your back flip maneuver.  One long-time observer of NASA said, "Big boys move over, Eileen Collins has just done it."

COL. COLLINS:  I think you're talking about the rendezvous picture maneuver we did on the third day of the flight before we got to the station.  It's the first time it's ever been done.  We exposed the underside of the shuttle to the space station crew members.  John Phillips and Sergei Krikalev took pictures of our tiles and that helped us ensure that we have a good healthy underside to come home with.

MR. RUSSERT:  A question for all three of you.  When you learned that foam had broken off the fuel tank again, what was your honest reaction?  How fearful were you?

DR. ANDREW THOMAS:  You know, Tim, it wasn't a question of fearful.  We were disappointed.  We were surprised, too.  We were very surprised.  It was very unexpected.  The biggest emotion was one of disappointment, that all of that work that had been done to make sure that foam would not come off had failed to address one critical area where foam was liberated and it was a great surprise.  We didn't feel it was a threat to us from a point of view of our return home and our entry.  It didn't strike us, but nonetheless we're very, very troubled and very disappointed that such a thing could happen.

MR. RUSSERT:  Charles Camarda, same question, any real fear?

DR. CHARLES CAMARDA:  I concur with Andy.  Tim, we're not fearful.  We were surprised, not that little pieces of foam were coming off the tank but such a large piece came off.  They had been planning to improve several of the sections of the PAL ramp, as you know, and they only phased out or replayed one small section of it.  They're going back and they're taking a look at that.  We understand I believe that what's causing the foam to come off, and they have a team on the ground that's working on it, and hopefully, when we come back, we'll be looking at what did that.

DR. THOMAS:  Tim, if I can follow up on that, the area where the foam came up is an area that was not examined or decisions were made not to look at it and not to test the foam there.  I think we do need to address why was that decision made.  Was that decision made out of concern for damaging the foam? Was there some technical reason why they made that decision, or was it subject to cost pressures or schedule pressures?  I think we do need to address the question of why that area was not examined as part of the investigation as to how it came about.

MR. RUSSERT:  Commander Collins, are you confident that if for some reason Discovery could not return, that you could spend some time at the space station and that Atlantis could safely come rescue you?

COL. COLLINS:  Well, we have set up this flight for a contingency such as seven of our crew members staying on the station.  We have got enough supplies to do that for a short period of time.  We can't do that forever.  Now, the situation we had, Atlantis could be launched to bring us back home, but you'd still have to address the problem of the foam that has fallen off the specific area of the tank that had not been fixed.  And I do want to say, you know, I'm going to put myself in the middle of this, but I knew that this area of the PAL ramp had not been fixed.  We made a decision not to work on that.  They did something called non-destructive inspection and looked at this PAL ramp area and did not see any void or any imperfections underneath.  So we didn't think there was going to be any problems with the PAL ramp.  So we decided not to fix it and fly.

And again, I was also surprised when I saw the foam fell off because I was not expecting that to happen.  So we're learning.  We're going to learn.  We're going to continue to press on.  I do want to say that space exploration is important.  So we're going to look at this problem and keep on going.

MR. RUSSERT:  The question for all of you:  planet Earth, in the Milky Way galaxy--Milky Way just one of 100 billion galaxies--do any of you have any doubt that there's intelligent life beyond Earth?

DR. THOMAS:  Well, Tim, you're quite right, the universe is a vast ocean and we are barely wetting out feet in the beach of that ocean.  There are huge distances out there.  The immensity is almost unimaginable.  Given that, I would say it's highly likely that there is life somewhere out there in some form, probably a form that's not even recognizable to us.  I'm quick to point out that that doesn't meant that they're visiting us in UFOs, because I don't believe that is the case, but I do believe that out there deep in the universe there may indeed be other sentient life.

MR. RUSSERT:  Charles Camarda, same question, intelligent life beyond Earth?

DR. CAMARDA:  I would say probably odds are there is intelligent life out there.  I think that's one of the reasons why people choose to explore space. That's why we go into space, to explore the unknown.  And it would be great if we could discover that there is life on another planet and we're working on it and that's why we're going to the moon and to Mars.

MR. RUSSERT:  Eileen Collins, intelligent life beyond Earth?

COL. COLLINS:  Oh, I believe we need to keep on exploring.  We're just taking baby steps here with the space shuttle and the space station.  We're going to go back to the moon.  It's part of--our country's plan is to get people back to moon, back--onto Mars.  We're going to get out there and find out.  I also do believe that.  I think it would be--it's kind of unimaginable that, you know, we would really be alone in this universe.  I think that, you know, probably not our generation but future generations of people on Earth will find intelligent life.

MR. RUSSERT:  Eileen Collins, you're from Elmira.  You have a Buffalo Bills banner up there with you?

COL. COLLINS:  I am a fan, that's for sure, but I was limited with the amount of things that I could bring up and so I think what I did was bring up a picture of my daughter's school class.

MR. RUSSERT:  All right.  All of you, I think you--wave to your families right now, your husband, Pat, and children Bridget and Luke; Andy Thomas, your wife Shannon, Charles Camarda, your wife Malinn, your kids.  Let's say hello to all of them today and we thank you for your bravery.

COL. COLLINS:  Well, thank you very much.  And we miss our families and we love them and we look forward to being home here in a little bit over a week. Thanks.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  And now back on Earth in Washington is the administrator of NASA, Dr. Michael Griffin.

Welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

DR. MICHAEL GRIFFIN:  Thanks, Tim.  It's a pleasure to be here.

MR. RUSSERT:  The euphoria on Tuesday after the liftoff and then some concern, and let me show you why.

(Videotape of launch)

MR. RUSSERT:  This is the picture, all the world held their breath as we can watch a piece of foam peeling off the fuel tank and it's quite a size, close to a pound, which led to stories all across the country like this.  "When a piece of insulating foam...broke off from the shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank during ascent this week, it not only raised questions about the safety of future shuttle flights, but also called into question the competence and engineering judgment of NASA...  Had it broken off 40 seconds earlier, as the foam that doomed the Columbia did, it could have hit the orbiter and poked a hole in the shuttle's fragile protective skin."

Were we just plain lucky?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, certainly we were lucky.  If it had broken off earlier and if it had followed a different trajectory, it could have hit the orbiter, as any piece of foam could, and could have done some damage.  That's why we struggled very hard over the last two and a half years to eliminate that problem.  We almost got all of it.  Almost all of the fixes made to the external tank over that last two and a half years worked, but in three or four spots we didn't get it.

MR. RUSSERT:  You heard the astronauts say that they were disappointed, surprised.  You heard Andy Thomas say that perhaps it was cost pressures.  You heard Eileen Collins say there was a non-destructive inspection.  What was that?

DR. GRIFFIN:  A non-destructive inspection is when you use radiographic, if you will, X-ray, our other methods to examine a particular area or a particular thing without tearing it apart to do so, because I'm sure you appreciate if we tear it apart to verify that it was good, then we have to put a new one on and now we don't know if that's good.  So we did do a NDI, non-destructive inspection, on the power amps and did not find any faults or voids and therefore elected to leave them alone.

The concern in that particular area is that is one of the areas remaining where we've not been yet able to figure out a way to apply the foam robotically, automatic spray-on techniques that have little variance.  In the areas where we did that, the tank held up very well.  Where there's a hand application, it's always a question.  But we did look at it and our judgment at the time was that it was OK.  As everyone has said without any attempt to hide it, we goofed on that one.

MR. RUSSERT:  The task force established by NASA to monitor the ABC safety improvements after the 2003 disaster concluded on June 28th, about a month ago, that the agency, "Did not meet the requirements of a team of accident investigators," that the agency, "eliminate all debris shedding."  It noted pointedly that the external fuel tank attached by metal struts to the shuttle during its violent launch, "still shreds debris that could potentially cripple an orbiter."

Having gotten that report from the task force, why take a chance?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, I think you have to look at the literal words of the Accident Investigation Board, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and the literal words in that report, which were to eliminate all debris shedding from the tank.  And then the independent task group, the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group, which I'll just call the task group after this--the task group was given a very strict charter:  evaluate how well NASA does in meeting the exact words of, and exact recommendations of, the Accident Investigation Board.  We have not--and I have said and others have said--we cannot eliminate all debris from coming off of the tank.  So our more realistic goal became that of reducing the size and nature of the debris to very small particles. We thought we had accomplished that.  We really did.  And so when Andy and Eileen and Charlie said, "We were surprised," well, count me among them.  I was surprised to see a large chunk of foam come off the tank.  I think everyone was.

MR. RUSSERT:  When you make a decision like that, how much risk is acceptable in your calculation?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, we had calculated as best as we could, and again, we didn't get it right.  We had calculated that the risk of damage due to foam coming off the tank was no higher than other risks we have to accept in space flight.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  There is some probability, as with any turbo machinery--a large jet engine or a rocket engine or anything like that--there is some probability that the turbins internal to the shuttle's main engines will shed a blade and blow up an engine.  We don't expect it, but there is some probability that that can occur.  There is some probability, one in a couple hundred, that a piece of orbital debris or a micrometeorite will strike the shuttle or the station while they are in orbit right now and destroy them.  It's a bit of a dangerous environment.  When we reduce the risk of foam shedding down to a level where it's comparable to the other risks that we must assume to do space flight at all, then we say, "OK, we've done enough."  Does that give you a feel for it?

MR. RUSSERT:  Yes.  Let me pursue that a bit, and again, cite a New York Times editorial.  "If [the foam had hit the orbiter and made a hole in the shuttle], the astronauts would have been in grave peril.  They would have been unable to fly back through Earth's atmosphere, lest superheated gases penetrate the hole and destroy the shuttle, as happened to Columbia.  They would have been able to try to repair the damage with the tools and materials they are scheduled to test on this flight, but nobody considers those repair kits ready for real use...Alternatively, the astronauts could have taken refuge on the space station and waited to be rescued by another shuttle, which would itself face a risk of foam damage."

When will you be absolutely confident that it's safe for Discovery to return home?

DR. GRIFFIN:  When Eileen has Discovery stopped on the runway and is ready to be towed off.  There is no elimination of all risk.  There is no absolute confidence.  One of the first lessons--I happen to be a flight instructor as a spare-time hobby, although I don't have much of that anymore.  One of the first lessons we teach a student pilot, just starting out in the game that Eileen has reached the pinnacle of, is that no flight is over until the airplane is tied down and the engine is off.

MR. RUSSERT:  When will you make the decision that you're going to try to bring Discovery home?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, right now, as I've said--as has been said several times--Discovery is the cleanest bird we've had on orbit in recent memory.  We have--so we think Discovery is safe to bring home, so that's not a decision. We have approximately one-sixth the number of scars on this orbiter by actual count as compared to the average over the last 113 flights before Discovery. So almost everything we did to fix the tank worked.  We're working a couple of issues on Discovery right now.  But we have--we think we have work-arounds. We think Discovery is safe to bring home.

MR. RUSSERT:  What would happen, God forbid, if you made a decision that it was not?  Take us through that scenario.

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, the scenario that we have worked out ahead of time was that, as Eileen said earlier in her interview with you, they did bring extra food.  We think we can sustain the folks on board the station for a couple of months, a little bit short of a couple months.  While we roll out Atlantis, which has been prepared for flight, we would, you know, launch--we would make the decision to launch Atlantis, rescue the crew.  And if we actually thought Discovery was not safe to enter, we would put it on automatic entry and destroy it over an ocean.

MR. RUSSERT:  But Atlantis could have that same foam problem?

DR. GRIFFIN:  It would be a judgment we would have to make as to what we would do about the PAL ramp foam.  Now, maybe we would simply take the foam off and put something else on.  That's way down the road.  We haven't--we don't have, at this point, a plan for that.  We did not expect this.  And I have to end this question by saying, again, we think Discovery is just fine.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Russians have volunteered that they would use their Soyuz to help rescue our astronauts if need be.  And yet there are now reports that the cosmonaut Russian outfits are different than the American astronauts, and that they're not compatible.  Could the Russians help rescue if need be?

DR. GRIFFIN:  I think there's some help that could be supplied.  It's true that our suits are different, but I'm not sure that matters specifically speaking for launch and entry.

MR. RUSSERT:  There has been some debate, I understand, about the number of people to go up on the Discovery because now with crew of seven plus the two on the space station, we would have nine people on the space station.  It had been recommended by some that only four go on this flight, so in case of a rescue, it would be a lot easier.  Is that true?  And why did you choose to send seven?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, it's surely true that if you have fewer people, they're easier to rescue.

MR. RUSSERT:  Yeah.  But was there a debate as to what is the number?

DR. GRIFFIN:  I don't know if there was or not.  I've been on this job for about three months, and a decision on crew size would have been made a couple of years ago.  But to illustrate the factors that would go into that, I don't know if you spent a lot of time watching the mission time line unfold, but if you had, you'd notice that everyone's been quite busy.  They are bringing new equipment up to the space station, they are taking old equipment and, frankly, trash off of the space station.  They've done considerable use of the robotic arm to--this is, again, a test flight, the first of two test flights.  They've made extensive use of the robotic arm to scan the bottom of Discovery.

Everybody has been real busy.  If we had only chosen to fly four people, we would have agreed to do a lot less.  And if we agreed with ourselves that we were going to do a lot less, we wouldn't be able to accomplish all the things we really feel we need to accomplish with this mission.

MR. RUSSERT:  It has been announced that the shuttle has been grounded.  How long do you think that grounding will last?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Grounding was a media term.  What we said was we wouldn't fly another mission until we understand the PAL ramp foam and how to protect that from coming off again.  Right now, we're focused on, you know, the inspection and analysis of Discovery, as you said yourself, making sure that it is safe to enter.  We have convened what I've called a tiger team of exceptional engineers within the agency to begin looking at how--exactly the questions Andy raised and that Eileen raised--what did we miss?  Why did we miss it?

MR. RUSSERT:  Were there costs and schedule pressures?

DR. GRIFFIN:  I'm sure that there were not because we spent quite a lot of money and we took all of the time we needed to fix this orbiter.  I absolutely believe that when folks did the non-destructive inspection that Eileen referred to that a reasonable engineering decision was made, "Let's leave it alone.  We might make it worse instead of better."  Now, that decision in retrospect was clearly wrong.  But I am certain it was not made out of schedule or cost pressure justification.

MR. RUSSERT:  If you can solve the foam problem, how many more shuttle flights would you like between now and 2010?

DR. GRIFFIN:  We would like 19 or 20 because that would allow us to complete the International Space Station in accordance with our objectives and our obligation to our international partners but also allow us a flight to be able to repair the Hubble.  So we would like to get 19 or 20.  We'll get what we get.  We're retiring the shuttle in 2010.  The administration at NASA have worked out an orderly plan to retire the shuttle and move on to its successor.

By the time we retire the shuttle, it will have been in service for nearly 30 years.  That's a long time for something which is fundamentally an experimental vehicle.  The shuttle has been a step along the road to allowing humans reaching access to space, but it did not reach that goal.  We need to keep at it.

MR. RUSSERT:  If, in fact, you cannot satisfactorily solve the foam problem, what then?  Would we give the space station and control of it to the Russians and pull out of the project?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, I don't think we would just give it to the Russians and pull out of the project.  I think we would clearly have to work with our partners to figure out a way to sustain the station until we could get a new vehicle in flight.  The way you posed the question really leaves me only one possible answer.  If we cannot fix the foam, then we'll have to figure out a different path to sustain the space station until we get a new vehicle.

MR. RUSSERT:  When will that be?

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, we're currently, as a matter of fact, doing design studies on just such things right now.  I don't have the answers for you today, but we are working vigorously on it.

MR. RUSSERT:  The new space vehicles that will be used for the moon and for Mars will be re- configured so that the fuel tank will not be on the side but on the bottom?

DR. GRIFFIN:  I strongly doubt that NASA ever again will design a manned spacecraft that places the crew in a position where anything can fall on them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mars and the moon--Gallup pollsters asked the American people about Mars and would they favor or oppose the United States setting aside money for such a project.  Funding a manned mission to Mars?  Favor, 40 percent, and opposed, 58 percent.  It's now estimated it will cost over $200 billion between now and 2025.  Fifty-eight percent of the Americans opposed. NASA has a large job ahead of itself to try to convince the American people that it is in their financial and fiscal interest to pursue Mars.

DR. GRIFFIN:  Well, when you poll and ask the question that way, you can get almost any answer you like.  It's very close to those, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" questions.  If I ask the question in a different way, I might get a very different answer.  The way I would ask it is, "NASA will spend about 5 percent or less of the money which is spent on national defense each year for the next 20 years.  What would you like to see done with that money.  Given that we're going to spend that money on the American space program, what would you like to see done with it?" and then list various options.  "Returning to the moon, eventually going to Mars, exploring the asteroids and other planets, or would you rather that the United States space program be confined to lower-Earth orbit as we have been for the last 30 years?"  And I strongly suspect that if confronted with choices, if confronted with the knowledge that we're going to be spending money on space and confronted with choices about where we should spend that money, that those poll results would change dramatically.

MR. RUSSERT:  There may be a debate about priority.  Should we spend money in space at all or use it for domestic needs?

DR. GRIFFIN:  But the reality is that if we spent--the average American spends less than 15 cents per day on the space program, less than $60 per year on the space program.  If you took all of that money, $60 a day wouldn't get the average American through very many meals.  We spend--the space program is an investment in America's future.  It's actually an investment in humanity's future but it's important to me that America lead that way.

Now, as with all investments that have a great future return but a risky return, we can only afford to invest a small portion of our national wealth in those things.  And that's fine.  But we are only investing a small portion of our annual wealth.  The average American's tax bill every year is something close to $10,000, about 8,000 or so dollars.  That's the average tax bill every year.  Of that, you know, a little bit is spent for space, a very small amount.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think that the Chinese, the Russians will race us to Mars?

DR. GRIFFIN:  I don't think we're going to have a race, but I think what is very clear is that space will be explored, exploited, settled.  Humans will not be confined to this planet forever.  And the question I always ask myself is, if I believe that that's true and I absolutely do, which humans do we want to be there?  I think obviously we want all humans to be there with us but we don't want others to be there without us.  And if we, the United States, back away from space exploration, other people will be there and we won't.  And I find that to be an unacceptable alternative.

MR. RUSSERT:  Same question I asked the astronauts:  Do you believe that there's intelligent life beyond Earth?

DR. GRIFFIN:  I think there must be.  I would find it more surprising if among 400 billion stars in this galaxy and a hundred billion galaxies--and this is only an average galaxy--if among all those different places that we were the only evolved intelligent species, I would find that incredibly remarkable circumstance.

MR. RUSSERT:  Dr. Michael Griffin, we thank you for joining us.  And we hope and pray for the successful return of the Discovery crew.

DR. GRIFFIN:  Thank you, and as do we.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, back to Washington politics:  the Roberts nomination, stem cell research.  Our political Roundtable with David Broder, John Harwood, Kate O'Beirne and Eugene Robinson.  Then our MEET THE PRESS Minute, astronaut John Glenn right here on MEET THE PRESS 42 years ago.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Our political roundtable and our MEET THE PRESS Minute with former astronaut John Glenn, after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Welcome all.

Kate O'Beirne, let me start with you.  The president wants John Bolton to be the ambassador to the United Nations.  Congress has been delaying his confirmation.  Word is that tomorrow the president will make a recess appointment.  What do you hear?

MS. KATE O'BEIRNE:  I don't think that would surprise anyone who's been watching the John Bolton nomination.  I think that recess appointment, given the inevitability of the kind of opposition he's faced in the Senate, could have been made over Memorial Day, could have been made over the Fourth of July.  A lot of supporters of John Bolton have wondered why the White House didn't do it then.  I guess they wanted to be in a position to be able to say, "We cooperated for weeks on end and ultimately we need a representation up in the U.N."

Many of these disputes go back to the '80s and John Bolton's role in some of those old Reagan-era arguments.  He made some powerful enemies within the State Department, I think, stepping on some toes.  But ultimately he enjoys the support of both the president and vice president, and I think that's what's going to matter when he gets to the U.N., too, the fact that he speaks for this administration.

MR. RUSSERT:  David Broder, John Bolton would serve through 2006 until a new Congress comes in.  What would his appointment by the president without congressional approval mean to relations between the Democrats and the president?

MR. DAVID BRODER:  Probably does some damage, but I think that there are larger stakes now with the Supreme Court appointment sitting out there.  The truth is I think that if you had a secret vote in the United States Senate there would be a very small number of votes at this point for Mr. Bolton, Republican or Democratic.  But it is the president's choice.  He is the president's ambassador and I don't think that the Democrats will impale themselves on trying to deny the president that right.

MR. RUSSERT:  There'll be a lot of denouncing of the president for making the recess appointment.

MR. BRODER:  Yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  But will it spill over, Gene Robinson, into the Supreme Court battle over John Roberts?

MR. EUGENE ROBINSON:  To tell you the truth, I agree with David.  I don't think it spills over.  I think the Supreme Court nomination is seen everywhere in Washington as a much more important battle.  As David said, Mr. Bolton will be the president's representative.  The president has a right to have his representative, even if he's not the one anyone else would choose.  Supreme Court justice is different.  Many people feel that the president doesn't have the right to have any Supreme Court justice he wants, if it's not one that anyone else would choose and so I think that's the much more important battle.

MR. RUSSERT:  And you put your finger on the debate that we've been hearing all week long in Washington and around the country, just how much should we know about John Roberts and his views on some of the various issues confronting our society and our culture and our nation?  How specific can Democrats be in trying to pin Mr. Roberts down?

MR. ROBINSON:  Well, I think you could pretty much script the scenario.  They will try to be very, very specific.  They will try to pin him down on issues like Roe vs. Wade, on various other kind of social issues that will certainly come before the court.  And I think, fairly predictably, Mr. Roberts will not want to be pinned down on those issues, as you know, and I think that's kind of the way the hearings will unfold.

MR. RUSSERT:  John Harwood, we've had situations where Robert Bork, because he had writings, was specific in his writings and answered questions about him.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg was very specific about her views on abortion, less so on the death penalty.  How do you see the Roberts hearings unfolding, in terms of the specificity of the questions and his responses on some of the cutting issues that confront our country?

MR. JOHN HARWOOD:  I think, Tim, he's going to do his best to duck those questions, as he advised, as a young lawyer, Sandra Day O'Connor when she was coming up to her Senate confirmation.  And, interestingly, we've seen, you know, in our Wall Street Journal-NBC poll that a majority of Americans say that nominees should not have to get too specific about issues that might later come before the court.  So I think Democrats are playing a fairly weak hand with the exception of the issue of abortion, which people do have a greater interest in.  They're not going to get too far, I don't think, in forcing him to be specific.

I want to go back to one thing about Bolton, though.  David Broder is exactly right.  There is not very much enthusiasm among Republican senators for John Bolton.  And it's a reflection of the difficulty the president's having not just on this nominee but more broadly with Iraq.  The majority of Americans don't like his handling of Iraq.  That's one of the reasons we saw General Casey talk about the potential for troops withdrawals next year.  And watch the special election in Ohio's 2nd District on Tuesday to replace Rob Portman.  This is a very Republican district, 64 percent for President Bush last November and an Iraq War veteran, very critical of the president, is running competitively.  Still an uphill fight for him, but the fact that he has a chance in that district is a trouble sign for Republicans.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you agree with that?

MS. O'BEIRNE:  We'll see.  I think the Republican in that seat still has to be favored and, of course, that Democratic candidate is a former Marine, and we love our Marines.  You know, he is an attractive candidate.  I'm not so sure how much of that is turning on the Iraq War.  The adversaries of John Roberts are not--Gene's exactly right--going to get his opinions on any cases that might come before the court.  That's going to make sense to the American public that a judge shouldn't be seemingly prejudging the outcome of cases.  I think it is fair game and senators ought to be questioning Judge Roberts about his judicial philosophy, about his method of reaching decisions.  He was on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for two years.  There are 36 decisions of his own.  They're certainly fair game.  But he's not going to lay out a political agenda.

MR. RUSSERT:  Sam Brownback, the Republican senator from Kansas, said, "Trust but verify."  So perhaps conservatives will also want to know whether Judge Roberts believes that Roe vs. Wade was correctly decided.  Is that a fair question?

MS. O'BEIRNE:  I think he's going to respond, should he be asked that question--and he's going to be asked that question.  He'll respond the way his predecessors in the Supreme Court all have.  "That decision is--we are called upon fairly frequently with abortion-related decisions to pass judgment on it. It's likely to come before me.  I'm not going to tell you today whether or not I think it was fairly decided."  He did, as a circuit court of appeals judge, set a law, but that's not necessarily the position of a Supreme Court justice.

MR. RUSSERT:  As we learned in Plessy vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education.

MR. HARWOOD:  At the end of the day, most conservatives are going to trust President Bush's choice and the president's given them good reason to trust them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson, what does this mean to the class of Democrats who want to run for president in 2008, which is probably about half the Senate, but what do they do if there was no specificity of response from Judge Roberts, particularly on the abortion issue in terms of their presidential aspirations in 2008, running with very activist, committed liberal voters?

MR. ROBINSON:  That's a very good question.  It depends on whether there's anything for them to hang a no-vote on.  But I think there would have to be something there.  I mean, if there's something in Judge Roberts' writings that hasn't been uncovered yet that seems to speak to the abortion issue more directly, then I think they could be vocal and active in their opposition.  If not, you know, I think he'll be approved fairly easily.

MS. O'BEIRNE:  My guess is those elite Democratic candidates will vote no. They'll find a reason to vote no.

MR. HARWOOD:  But why should Hillary Rodham Clinton?

MR. ROBINSON:  Exactly.  Exactly.

MR. HARWOOD:  Why should Hillary Rodham Clinton?

MS. O'BEIRNE:  She votes no.

MR. ROBINSON:  I'm not convinced.

MR. HARWOOD:  Republicans are expecting that there's a very good chance that she will vote for this nominee as a high-profile demonstration, as she's been trying to do on some other issues that she is a mainstream politician.  And certainly other Democrats will get to the left of her on this--John Kerry, John Edwards, maybe even Evan Bayh.  We don't know what Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to do, but that's one that's going to be the most fascinating.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president said he would not put anyone on the court who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.  And Senator Clinton has reaffirmed a similar plan.

MR. HARWOOD:  But Judge Roberts is not going to say that he would overturn Roe vs. Wade.

MR. BRODER:  You know, Tim, this man is going on to the Supreme Court.  And what the Democrats could usefully do, from the country's point of view, is illuminate him not subject him to some sort of cross-examination about specific issues where he will not respond.  But he's led a pretty sheltered life in the law.  We don't know much about what his view is of American life and society.  If we could find that out, it could probably be useful information for the public to have.

MR. RUSSERT:  What kind of questions would you ask him?

MR. BRODER:  I'd ask him, for example, what does he think about what's happening now in some of the states in this country?  What does he think is happening in the relationship between the states and the federal government? What does he think about what is happening between the employers and employees of this country?  Get some sense about where his sense of social justice may be, what his sense of obligation to the society, and particularly ask him, what does he think the law means to average citizens?  What can they expect from the courts?  If he wants to talk about predictability, that would be important to know.  If he thinks that there are some specific issues where people have a stake in what the courts decide, we'd like to know that about him.

MS. O'BEIRNE:  Interesting, interesting questions.  But they're not the kind of thing Democratic senators appear to be interested in.  I mean, recently Janice Rogers Brown, from a family of sharecroppers, came before the Senate for confirmation to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and Democratic senators didn't seem the least interested in what her diverse background might tell them.

MR. BRODER:  There was a question in her case about whether she would be confirmed.  I don't think there's any question that he will be confirmed.  So let's use the hearings to find out something about him.

MR. RUSSERT:  Absent of something unforeseen in the hearings?

MR. BRODER:  Yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you all see overwhelming confirmation right now?  Anyone disagree?

MR. HARWOOD:  Seventy votes or more.

MR. RUSSERT:  Seventy or more.

Let me turn to stem cell research.  Senator Bill Frist, Dr. Bill Frist, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, announced that he would support legislation that said that some of the discarded--up to now-- embryos in fertilization clinics could be used for embryonic stem cell research.  His announcement was met with response like this from Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.

"It is an understatement to say that the pro-life community is disappointed by Sen. Frist's decision to join efforts to void President Bush's policy limiting the funding of embryonic stem cell research. ... The media have already begun speculating that Sen. Frist's announcement today is designed to improve his chances of winning the White House in 2008 should he choose to run.  If that is the case, he has gravely miscalculated.  To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science will be rightly seen by America's values voters as the worst kind of betrayal--choosing politics over principle."

Gene Robinson?

MR. ROBINSON:  Well, Bill Frist is a really interesting character in Washington, I think, because that's the essential question, is this politics over principle or principle over politics?  I tend to think in this instance it may be principle over politics as a man who knows more about medicine, more about the potential of stem cells, who knows he is kind of a bellwether for much of the Senate, for much of the Congress on medical issues and at some risk, I believe, to his presidential aspirations, certainly in opposition to the way he's tried to further them in the past like with the Schiavo case, for example.  He has come out on the stem cell issue against the president, quite possibly will lead the Senate in opposition to the president's wishes.  I think that's out of character but really interesting.

MR. HARWOOD:  But you know what, Tim?  The politics on this issue are moving in Bill Frist's direction not just nationally but within the Republican Party. Let's don't forget most Republican primary voters are not religious conservatives; about a quarter in Iowa, many fewer than that in New Hampshire, more in the South.  Arlen Specter recently survived a Republican primary challenge in which he was on the opposite side of this issue with a conservative opponent.  That issue was a net-plus for him in the primary. This is not one of those issues that divides the country evenly with Republicans and Democrats of equal weight.  This poll is very big in favor of more expanded embryonic stem cell research and so Bill Frist has not chosen the short side of this issue, even within his party.

MR. RUSSERT:  David.

MR. BRODER:  I have to disagree with my colleague Gene on this one.  I think it is absolutely in character for Bill Frist.  He lives in two worlds.  He has never stopped being Dr. Frist even while he's been Senator Frist.  He practices in charity wards and goes overseas to take care of patients all the time.  And I think this reflects the fact that in the world where his friends, his family live, stem cell research is regarded as enormously promising and legitimate.  And while most of us think of him purely in political terms, he has a whole other life that may be as important and compelling to him in the long term...

MR. RUSSERT:  But Gene mentioned the...

MR. BRODER:  ...as his presidential ambitions.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...Schiavo case.  David, when Bill Frist injected himself in the Schiavo situation, saying he had observed the tapes and talked to other doctors in terms...

MR. BRODER:  Yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...of her vegetative state.  He received a lot of blow-back...

MR. BRODER:  And it was...

MR. RUSSERT:  ...from his classmates in medical school...

MR. BRODER:  Yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...and the medical community.

MR. BRODER:  And I'm sure that that had some factor in this decision as well.

MR. HARWOOD:  He's showing independence in a way that's true to his own history.

MR. RUSSERT:  Now, Kate O'Beirne, you know the Republican Party, the conservative movement very well.  What will this do to Bill Frist if he chooses to seek the presidency?

MS. O'BEIRNE:  I think it's a political problem for him, Tim.  I do agree that this is a position supporting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that he's more comfortable with.  I think he was quite uncomfortable two years ago, back in the president's ban on the federal funding.  He hasn't done a very good job of explaining how he reconciles that view with his description of himself as a pro- life Republican.  Life begins at conception. He hasn't, as I said, reconciled it.  And I think politically the reason why this might be, despite how the issue plays and I don't disagree with you--it doesn't play as well for the Republicans as typical abortion-related issues do.  The reason why I think it's a particular problem for him is the reservation on the part of conservatives about Bill Frist is that he has no real fixed political views.  He doesn't have much of a record.  The president's views, 'cause he's majority leader, wind up being his legislative views.  People also question his political skills.  So I think that the politics of this, the timing of it, stepping all over the headlines of Republican victories this week, the flip-flop on it might serve to reinforce the reservations about Bill Frist as a politician.

MR. HARWOOD:  But, Kate, let's don't forget who's the front-runner for the 2008 Republican nomination right now.  It's John McCain.  Do social conservatives like John McCain a lot better than Bill Frist?  I don't think so.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, in 2000, he changed his position on embryonic stem cell research.

MS. O'BEIRNE:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Kate, you're exactly right when Senator Frist called the president, the president said, "Vote your conscience," but the White House was upset by the timing...

MS. O'BEIRNE:  Couldn't he have waited?

MR. RUSSERT:  ...because it's at the end of the legislative season.  Let me talk about another issue regarding the White House, David, the C.I.A. leak, Valerie Plame, Joseph Wilson.  What's your sense of all this?

MR. BRODER:  There's so much that we don't know, Tim, and I think we are getting close to the point where we're going to have to get some answers from Mr. Fitzgerald.  You can't put a New York Times reporter in jail for four months and then just walk away and do something--he has to either indict or give us a really full report about what this has all been about.  At this point we do not know what questions he's asking and we don't know anything about the answers that he's getting.

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene Robinson?

MR. ROBINSON:  We don't know, even, really, what crime he's looking at.  Is he looking at the basic violation of revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent?  Is he looking at some sort of perjury indictment; if so, against whom? Karl Rove, Scooter Libby.  What's going on here?  I agree with David that we do need to know.

MR. RUSSERT:  John, what are you hearing?

MR. HARWOOD:  Well, I think, first of all, the fact that Patrick Fitzgerald is going to continue with this grand jury until October assures that this story isn't going to go away.  There's going to be an end point where we find out more.  And I think the question is, A, is Patrick Fitzgerald going to bring charges, either perjury, as Gene suggested, or on the underlying case of this CIA leak.  But then there'll be a political question if there are no charges and that is how much at odds with White House statements were the actual conduct of White House officials once we know exactly what he found?

MR. RUSSERT:  There seems to be some criticism on the Hill now coming from Republicans about Mr. Fitzgerald, even hearings on the Hill.  What is that about, Kate?

MS. O'BEIRNE:  Well, I think it's frustration.  I don't disagree with what's been said.  It's been two years, lots of money's been spent.  You've got a New York Times reporter sitting in jail and that would seem to indicate to me that a prosecutor's not going to let that fizzle out.  We're all sitting saying to ourselves, what was that all about?  I mean, prosecutors tend to want to indict.

MR. RUSSERT:  But it isn't interesting that during the Clinton administration there's a lot of criticism by Democrats of Ken Starr for not bringing a conclusion, Republicans saying don't interfere in the prosecution.  Let it take its time...

MS. O'BEIRNE:  Well, the contrast I see there is the level of cooperation from the White House with Peter Fitzgerald.  I mean, they haven't come up with--even a White House that really feels strongly about executive privilege, they haven't dreamed up novel privileges, they haven't been attacking the prosecutor.  They seem to be fully cooperating and my guess is there are probably sources for this original story that go beyond the White House, outside the White House.

MR. RUSSERT:  What does that mean?

MS. O'BEIRNE:  That the original disclosure might not have been by somebody in the White House.  It could have been somebody else in the administration, somewhere else in the administration.

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued.  David Broder, John Harwood, Eugene Robinson and Kate O'Beirne.

We'll be right back with former astronaut turned U.S. senator, then turned astronaut again, John Glenn, from 1963 right here on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn made history as he became the first American to orbit the Earth.  Upon his return, he was greeted as a true American hero. One year later he appeared right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Videotape, April 21, 1963):

MR. LAWRENCE SPIVAK (NBC News):  Colonel, I'd like to get your own personal opinion on this.  You risked your life and you've devoted your energy and your time in this race to get to the moon.  Are you yourself convinced beyond question that it's worth doing?  And why?

MR. JOHN GLENN:  Well, yes, I am, or I wouldn't be in the position I'm in.  I do think that it will prove to be worthwhile in the future.

MS. BONNIE ANGELO (News Day):  If something unforeseen happens, wouldn't this be a terrible setback to the nation's prestige?

MR. GLENN:  Well, I don't know.  I think we can all expect sometime to have a failure in space.  We've been fortunate so far, of course, and not only fortunate.  It's been the result of a lot of very careful and very close attention that I think we've had the successes that we've had.  As in flying airplanes, sometimes we're going to have a fatality.  We feel that the whole program is worthwhile.  If we have a setback like that, of course it'll be regrettable, but we hope that this doesn't cause everyone to lose support for the program.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Indeed, NASA has had setbacks, losing 17 Americans in three separate spacecraft tragedies.  Ever the astronaut, fear never deterred John Glenn from wanting to return to space.  In 1998, at age 77, he became the oldest person ever to fly in space when he returned aboard the shuttle Discovery.

And we'll be right back.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Visit our Web site mtp.msnbc.com, where you can now download and listen to MEET THE PRESS on your computer, your MP3 player or MEET THE PRESS podcast wherever and whenever you want.

That's all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

MR. TIM RUSSERT: 

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