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Washington's Busy Week


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. We're going to begin this hour of the program with a look back at what was a pretty eventful week in politics. The Republicans in the House of Representatives selected a new Majority Leader to permanently replace Tom DeLay. The Supreme Court got a new justice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. And, of course, the main event, with the most pomp and formality, was the State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Here's a short sample of what President Bush had to say.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In a system of two parties, two chambers and two elected branches, there will always be differences and debate. But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone. And our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another, and I will do my part. Tonight the state of our union is strong, and together we will make it stronger.

SIEGEL: Joining us to go over the State of the Union and the rest of the political developments of the week are our regular political observers. They are, of course, David Brooks, of The New York Times, and E.J. Dionne, of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome back.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Thank you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: E.J., pretty high-minded stuff from the president in that quip all about civility.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I just want to say that I feel only good will and respect for my friend here, David Brooks. What was interesting is that the president said that and then just a couple of pages later he's out there attacking defeatism, isolationism, retreat. He is trying to make the case for his warrantless spying program and clearly wants that to be an issue in the campaign. So I guess I didn't take the civil tone stuff at the beginning very seriously.

I think the biggest problem with this speech was on the domestic side. The foreign stuff was predictable. It's arguments he's made. It's stuff he believes in. And you could tell from the passion that he really believes in this stuff, whether one agrees with him or not. But the administration had said for weeks that this was going to be — he was going to do a big deal about health care. Well, there was no large health care program here. And if this doesn't open up an opportunity for Democrats, then their own trial lawyers should start suing them. I mean, because there's a real hole there on health care policy.

And the other thing is, some of his best ideas he seemed to steal from Democrats. It was funny to hear the oil guy say America is addicted to oil. And there was this very nice program to train 70,000 high school teachers to teach AP courses. Sure sounded like a Bill Clinton kind of program to me.

SIEGEL: That's about twice the number of teachers now teaching AP science and math courses, we learned. David Brooks, what did you think about the speech? Little different, perhaps?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, that's just what a liberal twit like E.J. would say. So much for civility.

Mr. DIONNE: All right, I've lost all my good will and respect for you, David.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I more or less agree. It was like — I was thinking it was like Lincoln's Second Inaugural, only less filling. There wasn't a lot there. I agree that the foreign policy stuff was pretty familiar. The domestic stuff, you know, it was small, but the money isn't there, and that's going to be the fact for the next three years, at least, maybe for the rest of our lives.

But, you know, I was up on Capitol Hill yesterday, and one thing that struck me with the Republicans and Democrats, how there's a lot of discussion going on, discussion specifically about how to make some sort of portable health care, how to do something bold on energy. And this is something everybody's sort of buzzing about. And Bush didn't get us there. He didn't give us the big policy. But there's a buzz. And, you know, if you want to have some hopeful ideas about dramatic ideas in the future, the buzz is really there, and that's serious, and I think Bush contributed to it.

BLOCK: Glad to see civility is ruling in this studio. I want to turn to the other big news on Capitol Hill this week, and that's the change in leadership in the House. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who was serving temporarily as Majority Leader, has been voted out. John Boehner of Ohio is in. And the thinking is that the choice is at least an attempt among Republicans to distance themselves from the lobbying scandal. But criticism has already begun of Boehner's own connections with lobbyists. He talked about that today at a news conference, and let's listen to a little bit of what he had to say.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): I have good relationships with K Street and people who lobby us, both paid and unpaid. And I can tell you that everything I've ever done is above board, ethical, and every action I've taken during my entire political career has been in the best interest of my constituents and the American people.

BLOCK: Now, David Brooks, Democrats are already saying John Boehner is the same old same old. Are they right?

Mr. BROOKS: We'll see. You know, the geography of this race was Roy Blunt was sort of of the party establishment. John Shadegg was endorsed by McCain. He was the pure reformer. And Boehner was Goldilocks. He was just sitting in there in the middle, not pure reform, not pure party establishment. But we'll see what they do. And I think the crucial thing to look for is whether it's just banning trips that lobbyists pay for, which to me is trivial, or whether it's something more serious.

And here, I think, enforcing the House rules, so there's actually time to look at legislation before you vote on it, and also addressing this earmarks issue, all these things that, all these parts of bills that are stuck in the middle of the night directed at one specific spending or one specific federal contract. I think there's a sense that the House - you know, they're anxious. The reason this, I think, is not 1994, when you have this big turnover, is Republicans are totally anxious, and they want to do something serious to reform. So I think it's possible something will happen.

BLOCK: But E.J., it does seem like the Republicans are all over the map on what kinds of reform they'd want to see. I'm not hearing any clear consensus.

Mr. DIONNE: No, there is no clear consensus. You realize what a problem we have when it's a radical reform to say that people will actually get to see the bills they vote on before they actually vote on them. You know, Roy Blunt was a very interesting case, because the rule is he who lives by DeLay dies by DeLay, that Roy Blunt rose in the party because of his close ties to Tom DeLay. He was effective in the ways Tom DeLay was. And by the time the vote happened, Republicans wanted to run away from DeLay, and Boehner, as David said, was sort of the guy in the middle. He's hardly a pure reformer.

Indeed, Marshall Whitman, a former aide to John McCain who's now with the Democratic Leadership Council, wrote in his blog this morning, John Boehner is to reform what Bill O'Reilly is to humility. I think it's a line you're going to hear from a lot of Democrats because of Boehner's ties. But what Boehner may be able to do is create at least some links with Democrats, because he has gotten along better with Democrats than any of the other crowd that they've had running the place, particularly DeLay.

BLOCK: Let's move on. One of the first things that John Boehner is going to have to do is to try to get President Bush's new budget through Congress. It's supposed to be delivered early next week. David, what are you going to be looking for in that budget?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, some serious cuts, some cuts in entitlements.

BLOCK: Well, do you think he'll get them?

Mr. BROOKS: I think we'll get trivial cuts. You know, we've already had a few trivial cuts, which if you looked at the trim line, you wouldn't even notice any difference, and it's created a lot of pain. The other thing I look for is, frankly, going back to what we were talking about with the State of the Union, the two big ideas were some energy funding, switch grass burning, and other things like funding basic scientific research. And I do think that is kind of important, and Bush promised it. And if he doesn't have some serious money for that, I think, you know, a lot of people will be disappointed, including me.

BLOCK: E.J., what's your outlook for the budget next week?

Mr. DIONNE: It's probably going to be even worse than the awful budget they just passed this week. I mean, this budget they passed this week is a scandal. There are cuts almost entirely in programs for the very poor, some for the middle class, but particularly in Medicaid, at the same time that the Congress rejected proposals that were in the Senate budget that would've taken a little bit of money away from preferred provider organizations, from the drug companies, so when the time came to make the cuts, the cuts came to the poor.

Now what you're going to see is more cuts in that area, because we know spending for defense is going to go up. We know spending for the war is going to continue. So the Republicans, I think, have really sort of made the issue very, very clear. They're going to want to pass substantial tax increases which do go to the very wealthy, and the only part of the budget they're willing to cut really does go to the least well off. The Democrats had a slogan a long time ago, It's not fair, it's Republican. I have the sense they're going to revive some form of that slogan in the next couple of months.

SIEGEL: In addition to John Boehner, there is, of course, another man with a new job in Washington this week.

Chief Justice JOHN ROBERTS: Repeat after me. I, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., do solemnly swear.

Justice SAMUEL A. ALITO, JR.: I, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., do solemnly swear.

SIEGEL: That's how Justice Alito was ceremonially sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts. He was confirmed by the Senate this week, completing, along with the confirmation of Justice Roberts, the biggest change the nation's high court has seen in quite a long time. E.J., President Bush's legacy?

Mr. DIONNE: This is huge. I mean, and, you know, we'll see whether John Roberts is sort of the more moderate sort of conservative that people suggested or is a firm conservative. My hunch is he'll be a very smart but very firm conservative just like Sam Alito. What you've got is, conservatives are one vote short of having complete control over the court. Justice Kennedy is now the swing vote. He used to share that role with Sandra Day O'Connor. But clearly the court is moving to the right and this legacy is going to be with us for a very, very long time. Democrats are going to have to learn how to fight court battles 'cause they didn't do it very well this time.

SIEGEL: David?

Mr. BROOKS: Well we know one thing that won't work. It's calling somebody radical, radical, radical. People don't believe that. They took a look at Sam Alito and he seemed like a careful fact-based person and I think we understand now that if the President nominates someone who is sort of a mainstream Federalist Society establishment conservative, who probably has some pro-life personal views, that that person can get confirmed. And I know there are rumors floating around, especially around the White House, that there could be one maybe even two more openings. And I think the assumption, the lesson learned from this is this worked. The public likes this guy. If we get any more openings, we're going to do something like this again.

SIEGEL: And let the record show that on a death penalty appeal that went to the court, first thing that Sam Alito did was not vote with the very conservative.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. People aren't stereotypes. People aren't stereotypes. People are much more complicated than we get from the confirmation process. And he's like that.

BLOCK: I want to get to one more thing for next week. And that is what is the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings on the Administration's Domestic Spying program. This hearing's going to be in the Senate Judiciary Committee. E.J. have Democrats gotten any traction on this issue trying to make this an issue for the President?

Mr. DIONNE: No. I think the only person who can get real traction on this issue is Arlen Specter because I think how this issue plays out depends on whether Senator Specter holds these hearings and ends up saying something like the following: Look, yes we need to change the laws but the President doesn't have the authority to do this all by himself. And there need to be some restrictions so we know our liberties are protected. If Arlen Specter does that, he drains a lot of partisanship out of this and creates the opportunity for a real debate. And President Bush is in a difficult position because if he says no, no, I already have all this power, then he moves to, I think, his weakest argument which is the President can be unconstrained in time of war. Even people who care passionately about protecting us, a lot of them don't believe the President should be unconstrained in his power.

BLOCK: David Brooks?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, we end up on civility. I agree with E.J. I think politically this is winner for the president. The president had a line in the State of the Union you're going to be hearing that if somebody from al-Qaeda is calling from the U.S., we want to know about it. That's a good applause line. But as for the substance, I completely agree with E.J. I think what the President should say is, listen, I believe I have the authority to do this. But I accept the fact that intelligent people don't. So I'm willing to write it into law because this program is so important. Let's change the law so we all agree we have the authority. And by the way, politically in contrast to E.J. I think this would be good for the Republicans because I think there are some Democrats who object to the spying on principle. Some who object to the spying because we don't have a legal framework for it. And I think you'd see divisions open up over there. In any case, I think it's the right thing to do for the country, to do what I think Arlen, what I hope along with E.J., Arlen Specter will do.

SIEGEL: Well thanks to both of you. Our regular political observers David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Georgetown University.

BLOCK: And you can read more about the political stakes in next week's hearing on domestic spying at our website NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.