Big Passes, Failures For Busy Lame Duck Congress

Congress has been unusually productive during the current lame duck session, overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell — the ban against openly gay men and women serving in the military — and passing an $858 billion tax cut bill aimed at boosting a struggling economy. However, The Dream Act — which would have cleared the way for legalizing young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16, lived here continuously for at least five years, and who either go to college or enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces — failed. Host Michel Martin talks to political observers, who weigh in on recent decisions made by a busy Congress.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, we will hear from the new president of Catholic University about his vision for the institution and about why more Muslim students are finding their way to his campus and other Catholic Institutions. That's coming up.

Also, her voice redefined the image of the female singer in the 1980s. The Scottish singer Annie Lennox joins us in the studio for a special holiday conversation about her first ever Christmas album. That's also ahead.

But, first, our political chat. Looking back at the year in politics, as well as what was by all accounts one of the most productive lame-duck sessions of Congress in years. President Obama was certainly pleased.

BARACK OBAMA: A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. Instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people.

MARTIN: Here to talk about this session and the year that was in Washington politics, we have three political watchers. We're joined by Ruben Navarrette. He's a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. He writes for CNN.com. He's also a regular contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, co-anchor for CNBC's Power Lunch and author of the book, "You Know I'm Right: More Prosperity, Less Government." And Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cynthia Tucker, is also here. She's also a regular with us to talk about politics.

Welcome to you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

MICHELLE CARUSO: Thank you, Michel.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Thanks for having me.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So, let me just go through a quick laundry list of the work of this session of Congress. That doesn't even begin to talk about, you know, health care reform and some of the things that came sooner. The 9/11 first responder aid legislation, which is worth about $4.2 billion in aid to survivors, the child nutrition bill that was promoted by the first lady, a sweeping food safety bill, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," an extension of jobless benefits for millions, which is coupled with the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, and the ratification of an arms control treaty with Russia, which the president called one of his top foreign policy priorities.

So, just a few short weeks ago, people were saying, you know, the president, he's toast, he's done, can't get anything done. He needs to, you know, get with it. So I'd like to ask each of you, Cynthia, I'll start with you, what happened?

TUCKER: Well, as the president put it, he's persistent. The man turns out to be a pretty good politician. He knew immediately after the shellacking, as he put it, he took, that he was going to have to cut deals with Republicans even if that meant annoying his base. And so the tax cut deal was the very first right out-of-the-box compromise with Republicans. And I think that that helped pave the way for some other things that got done, including "don't ask, don't tell."

Once the Republicans had something that they could claim as a victory, enough of them came around on other issues that the president could get one of his campaign promises, "don't ask, don't tell," repealed. That's a very big deal. Helps assuage the liberal base. He had aggregated the liberal base with the tax cut deal. Helps assuage the liberal base. And of course he politicked very hard on New START. He pulled out every Republican out of office that he could find, got the military to campaign for it. So, the president was rightly triumphant yesterday.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to ask about the fact that he seems to have been willing to compromise all along. I mean, on the health care overhaul, for example, a lot of liberals were annoyed very early because he made it clear that he was going to deal on single payer, that that was off the table. So, one of the things I'm curious about is, you know, why this now. But, Michelle, what's your perspective on this?

CARUSO: Well, I think, why now is because is he knows that it's going to get much, much tougher in January when you have an even more conservative group of legislators coming to town. So, anything he really wanted to get done he wanted to get done sooner rather than later because the compromises are easier now. And I think he also wanted to send a message to independents out there that he had heard them and that he was willing to move like Clinton, more to the center, and in response to them, and knowing that in the end, liberals are always going to vote for a liberal president. You're not going to force them to move over to the right. So, to move to the center and bring in the Independents is going to be good for him in the end. He is a politician.

MARTIN: Well, you know, this is a good time to - I'll just play a short clip from Lindsey Graham, Republican senator of South Carolina. This is his assessment. And I think, Michelle, you've already told us we know you're right, so perhaps we don't even need to play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But I'll just play it. He seems to back up your perspective. Here it is.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: We did a lot of policy changes in the lame-duck, I think inconsistent with the major change in power. But that's what amazes me. And that's why I take my hat off to Harry. And when people say President Obama had a great two weeks, they're absolutely right. I'm the first one to - even though I don't like what happened, I do give them credit.

MARTIN: Harry, of course being Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. So, Ruben, I think Lindsey Graham's take on this is that Harry Reid deserves at least as much credit as President Obama. Your take on that?

NAVARRETTE: Right. Absolutely. I think Lindsay Graham's right about that. I want to say, this is a great segment because you got three different perspectives here. I agree with Michelle that this had to get done. It was pushed through because time was ticking and because imagine if Republicans controlled Congress and they were about to surrender it. They would push through all this right wing stuff and then get it through all this conservative stuff.

It's just human nature. They feel like they've got, you know, they've got a very limited time to get this done before the climate changes and so that motivates them. But, really, you got to put the emphasis on Congress. E.J. Dionne, a liberal columnist and colleague of mine at The Washington Post, wrote a piece just today saying, you know, everybody fascinates over presidents. We love presidents and we focus on presidents. So the tone of this discussion is sort of Obama's been triumphant.

But E.J., I think, rightly points out that if you want to give credit to somebody, you've got to give credit to those members of Congress. Those Democrats in Congress who push this stuff through, Harry Reid at the top of the list, getting it through, I think Congress deserves, depending on your perspective, the credit or the blame for these very, very, very busy last few weeks.

MARTIN: Well, Okay, then let's talk about one of the disappointments of the session, then, which is the DREAM Act failure to pass. The act would've provided a path for citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country before the age of 16, who lived here continuously for at least five years and who either go to college or enlist in the U.S. armed forces. You know, the president said in his press conference - This is one of the significant disappointments for him.

And I'll just play, if you don't mind, I want to play a couple of clips from two senators with two different perspectives on this. This is - oh, sorry, this is one senator. This is Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. He's explaining why he personally could not support it. Here it is.

JEFF SESSIONS: American people did not vote for an amnesty in this past election. And it will be resisted with every strength and every ability that I have to do so. Because this is a lame-duck Congress, it will not pass next year and is not going to pass this year if I have anything to do about it.

MARTIN: I'm very interested to talk about why it is that, you know, the Congress was able to pass "don't ask, don't tell," which could not have happened without Republican votes. And people want to say, well, these are people who are leaving anyway, like George Voinovich. He was the only one who was leaving anyway. Scott Brown is staying. Susan Collins is staying. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins of Maine, they're staying and they voted for.

But no progress on DREAM Act, which had a lot of support from the business community and a lot of - the religious community. So, Ruben, why don't you start with this? This is something you follow closely. Why do you think that is?

NAVARRETTE: Absolutely. Well, listen. You got to get something straight here. The mainstream media has this narrative completely backward. It was Democrats and not Republicans who killed the DREAM Act. Very simply, Harry Reid had those 60 votes. He had more than 60 votes. He had three votes come over from the Republican side. He had two Independents that came over from the Independents. Clearly he could've gotten this through. He lost five Democrats. He was five votes short of cloture, and those five votes were Democratic votes. People like Jon Tester from Montana, senator from Montana, get this - voted against DREAM Act, but voted for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

MARTIN: And so why do you think that is?

NAVARRETTE: Because in his mind he says that in Montana, they didn't like the idea of offering amnesty to college students. But if he were truthful, he would say that in Montana, nor do they like the idea of repealing the gay men. So, clearly, Jon Tester's willing to go against the grain of the folks in Montana when it suits him and when it suits his fancy.

MARTIN: And so the question is, why?

NAVARRETTE: Well, because I think that Democrats and Republicans alike really respect the potency of the immigration issue and they're afraid of being tarred with the brush that they're somehow weak on border security and they saw this as an amnesty in many cases. They saw it incorrectly.

Let me really punch Republicans when they deserved to be punched. We're talking about liars and hypocrites. We're talking about Republicans who built this house of cards on this idea that you shouldn't get something for nothing and people ought to take responsibility for their actions. That's what this bill would've forced people to do, come out of the shadows, take responsibility for being in the country illegally, not something for nothing, but something for military service or college attendance rates.

This is nonsense. The fact that Republicans say they want one thing and then when people give them that, they change their mind and decide they want something else. They're dealing in bad faith.

CARUSO: Michel, I think that...

MARTIN: Michelle, what do you think? Go ahead.

CARUSO: They made a strategic mistake, I think, by making a moral...

MARTIN: Who's they?

CARUSO: This is the supporters of the DREAM Act, the attending college and joining the military as moral equivalence. And attending college is self serving, joining the military, I would argue, is not. If they had been more focused on the bill, I think they would've been far more likely to get it passed. I think overall it highlights what is this deep, deep division within the Republican Party.

You have fiscal conservatives who believe in the free movement of labor, capital and goods. And that means you should have as much immigration as we can possibly take because it's actually good for the economy, hence why the business community was supportive of it. But then you have the socially polarizing aspect of the Republican Party that is very much against this concept of amnesty. And I think it is just a perfect highlight of what can absolutely rupture the Republican Party if they don't come together in some way on this issue.

It's historically when The Wall Street Journal, for example, has run editorials in favor of more immigration. They say it has been their most controversial editorials coming from their base - very, very angry about the idea. So I think this is a highlight of more what's to come.

MARTIN: Cynthia, we need to take a short break in a minute, but your thoughts on this - why no DREAM Act? Why everything else?

TUCKER: Because immigrants have become scapegoats. The new scapegoats, as Muslims have. They're blamed for everything that people are - believe is going wrong, including joblessness in a very deep recession. And Republicans have played to that scapegoating.

MARTIN: Well, do you think that that - well, I don't know. Because, what about Michelle's point? We only have 45 seconds here. Michelle's point that part of the problem was creating a moral equivalency with going to college, which for many Americans is still elusive and it just didn't have the right...

TUCKER: Yes, but...

MARTIN: I guess what the question really is there anything they could've done?

TUCKER: Allowing illegal immigrants to go to college doesn't keep native- born Americans from going to college and it is not self-serving.

MARTIN: Well, that's logic.

TUCKER: The president...

MARTIN: But I'm just - is there anything they could've done?

TUCKER: I don't think so, because the anti-immigrant sense is so strong among the Republican base. Ruben is right. It is a very potent issue out there among Republicans.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break.

CARUSO: I don't think that it's Republicans...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Michelle, we...

CARUSO: ...Democrat...

MARTIN: Michelle, we need to take a short break, but when we come back, we will continue this conversation with syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, co-anchor for CNBC's "Power Lunch," Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, classic and not-so-classic Christmas music with the legendary Annie Lennox. She is here to talk about her new album "Christmas Cornucopia." If you're helping Santa out with stocking stuffers, this might be one to consider.

But, first, back to our political chat. We're talking about the lame-duck session and the year that was in politics with Ruben Navarrette, syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. He also writes for CNN.com. He's a regular contributor with us. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, co-anchor for CNBC's "Power Lunch."

Michelle, before we took a break, you were making a final point about the discussion. We were talking about the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for young people who are brought to this country as very young people, if they completed high school, went to college and served in the military, it was one of the only major initiatives that failed to pass. And you were making a point about that, why that is.

CARUSO: I think it's less Republican versus Democrat and I think it's more a class issue. I think that if you have only a high school degree or you don't have a high school degree, you're far more likely to be against immigration because you're going to be facing a lot more competition in the workforce. The more educated Americans tend to be more supportive of immigration. They're less fearful of it because they're less fearful of losing their jobs to an immigrant. So I think it becomes a class issue.

MARTIN: Well, this leads to my final question for you before we you let you go. And happy holidays to all of you. I'm so glad I had a chance to visit with you before we take a short break. But this week the Census Bureau released results of its population count. Rather small percentage growth of the population. It has significant impact over the number of representatives each state can send to Congress.

Now, you know, a lot of the headlines are, big population growth in the South and Southwest, which have been traditionally Republican, or in recent years, Republican strongholds. But a lot of that population growth is due to Latinos, both birth rate and immigrants. So the question I have for you is, what impact do you think this really will have over the next few years, particularly heading into 2012 elections? Cynthia, I'll ask you to start.

TUCKER: Well, it's going to give Latino voters a lot more clout out west in states that have been traditionally conservative like Texas, for example. And it also, it creates a problem for Republicans, despite what Michelle - the other Michelle - just said. It is the Republicans who've largely stood to block immigration reform. And many Republicans consultants are very worried - and activists - about what this means for Republicans in the future. If they can't come to terms with treating the largest, the fastest growing minority group with more respect, they are never going to be able to lure Latino voters, and that's a problem for the Republican Party.

MARTIN: Or how about recruit different candidates? What about Susana Martinez who's coming in as the governor of New Mexico? How about, you know, I don't know, Michelle, Republican, make your point.

CARUSO: I see the narrative actually very differently. What I see is a narrative of states that have lower taxes and are more competitive on the job front are getting more population. People vote with their feet and they're leaving places like Michigan because the economy stinks because they've done nothing but raise taxes over the years. California at one point was actually at threat of losing a seat because they are losing population as well.

This is about people moving to places where taxes are lower. People will go to where the jobs are. And I don't think it's going to be a discussion about immigration and Latinos, I think it's going to be a discussion about what is the better way to run a state? Do you do it with lower taxes and be more competitive? Or you do it like the northern states have been doing it?

MARTIN: Well, Michelle, there are those who would argue the problem with California is not taxes, per say, it's governance. It's that their governance structure is broken. That it's...

NAVARRETTE: Michel...

CARUSO: That their governance has led to a lot more profligate spending, which has forced them to raise the taxes.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK, well, here's Ruben. Ruben, who is our California - or California resident.

NAVARRETTE: That's right.

MARTIN: Tell us, Ruben, what's your perspective on this? And, also, talk about the census.

NAVARRETTE: I've lived in California for the last six years. Before that, I lived in Texas. So, let me tell you about the two states very quickly. You're all right in the sense that immigrants and Hispanics are driving the growth in Texas, or a lot of it. Also, Michelle has an interesting point about the friendlier business climate, smaller government, lower taxes in Texas being a draw. But it's all wrapped together.

Why do you suppose those Texas businesses are able to have lower taxes, smaller government? It's because of immigrants. The immigrant workforce available in Texas. It's immigrants who are driving the Texas economy and allowing taxes to stay low, allowing all of those services to continue. It's the same sort of thing that increased in Denver and in Vegas and in Phoenix, all over the Sun Belt. It's immigrants that are driving that economy. So, yes, it's an economic issue, but it's also an immigrant issue. The two are intertwined, because without immigrants, you have a pretty sour economy.

So, Texas is where it is, really in the forefront of the national discussion now, with four new congressional seats. I think that's really a harbinger for the future. And Latinos are driving that change in Texas. So, it's very much sort of, welcome to the new America. Or better yet, maybe bienvenidos to the new America. It's Latinos and Texas are driving the new changes.

MARTIN: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. He also writes for CNN.com. He joined us on the phone from Palm Springs, California. Nice work if you can get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera is the co-anchor for CNBC's "Power Lunch" and author of the book "You Know I'm Right: More Prosperity, Less Government." She joined us from the studios at CNBC. And Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Cynthia Tucker works for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Happy holidays to everybody. Merry Christmas.

TUCKER: Merry Christmas.

CARUSO: Thank you.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you. Merry Christmas.

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