Boehner Elected Speaker For 112th Congress
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
The House welcomes a new speaker, the Senate reconsiders the filibuster, secret holds, and the length of the day, and Gibbs goes in a West Wing shakeup. It's Wednesday and time for a 112th Congress edition of the Political Junkie.
President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?
Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.
(Soundbite of scream)
CONAN: After his holiday hiatus, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us, as he does every Wednesday. Chicago's old mayor eclipses his dad. His brother looks set for White House chief of staff, and African-Americans decide on a unity candidate to oppose the old chief of staff. No decision yet on the old chair of the Republican National Committee. Plus we finally have a certification from Juneau.
Later in the program, the agenda of the new House with current and former representatives. But first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And we can also welcome back the trivia question.
KEN RUDIN: Yay, yay. Happy New Year.
CONAN: Happy New Year, Ken.
RUDIN: I'm excited to be back. Well, a very historic day on the House floor today, the first time in history a person of color was elected speaker of the House - that's John Boehner. That's different color - sorry.
CONAN: Tan is his color.
RUDIN: Tan is his color. But it was very remarkable, very moving. We'll talk about that later because I thought the big story of the day was the fact that 19 Democrats voted against Nancy Pelosi for speaker.
But having said that, today's trivia question is: Which speaker had the most defections from members of his or her own party for election as speaker?
CONAN: So if you think you know the - which speaker of the House lost the most votes from members of his or her own party on the floor of the House of Representatives, give us a call - 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Of course the winner gets a fabulous no-prize T-shirt - again, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And who's this Heath Shuler fellow who got those votes on the House for minority leader?
RUDIN: Well, he got a lot of them. Heath Shuler, of course, made a quixotic challenge to Nancy Pelosi after the election, saying that, you know, maybe the Democratic Party, she had moved the Democratic Party too far to the left. He's a blue dog from North Carolina...
CONAN: And failed quarterback.
RUDIN: Right, and for the Redskins. But I think failed quarterback and Redskins go hand in hand. But I can't say that 'cause I'm a Giants fan, and we know...
CONAN: We know where that goes...
RUDIN: Yes. So anyway, but Heath Shuler, I mean, he made a serious bid. He got 43 votes against Nancy Pelosi back in the Democratic caucus when they were trying to pick a leader, but on the floor today he got still more than expected, 19 votes - 19 Democrats voted against Nancy Pelosi.
CONAN: And these were presumably members who had campaigned on a promise to not vote for Nancy Pelosi.
RUDIN: Well, yes and no. For example, Gabrielle Giffords, who is kind of a moderate liberal, moderate from Arizona, who squeaked to re-election on November 2nd, she voted for John Lewis, for example. There were two votes for John Lewis. Jim Costa of California voted for Dennis Cardoza of California. Dennis Cardoza of California voted for Jim Costa. I'm not making that up.
CONAN: If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.
RUDIN: Exactly. There was one vote for Steny Hoyer. But there were, I think, 11 or 12 for Heath Shuler. And again, you know, it was - look, we knew that John Boehner was going to be elected speaker. The Republicans have a huge lead, 242 to 193. That's a pretty big lead. But the fact is that Nancy Pelosi lost 19 of her fellow Democrats. That was, I thought, significant.
CONAN: And we're going to focusing, as we said, much of this hour on Capitol Hill, but lots of news out of the White House as well.
RUDIN: There is. The news, I guess the news of the day is that Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, the White House press secretary, has announced he is resigning his position to be a consultant. And he's not leaving President Obama. He and President Obama have been very close. They were together at least since Obama was elected to the Senate in the 2004 campaign. Gibbs is going to be a consultant. He'll be a consultant to Obama and the Obama re-election bid.
Can I just say one thing? Before we get away from Congress - we talk about records and history here. As of today, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland is the longest-serving female senator in history.
CONAN: Well, as long as we're talking about longevity records, let's go to the city of Chicago and the office of mayor. Who ever thought that Richard Daley would serve longer than Richard Daley?
RUDIN: Exactly. Only the middle initial changes. Richard M. Daley succeeded Richard J. Daley in terms(ph) of stature. His father served 7,916 days as mayor of Chicago. That's 21 years and eight months. As of last week, the younger Richard Daley eclipsed it. He's the longest-serving Daley and longest-serving mayor in Chicago history. And of course he's not running for re-election. And that election has taken an interesting turn as well.
CONAN: Well, that's because one of the principal African-American candidates has withdrawn from the race, leaving former Senator Carol Moseley Braun as the consensus unity candidate for the African-American community.
RUDIN: Exactly. I mean, you can go back to 1983, when Harold Washington made history in Chicago, becoming the first black mayor there. He did it because the white vote was split. Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley.
And that's how Harold Washington was elected, except that Rahm Emanuel, the nominal frontrunner, the former White House chief of staff who has returned to Chicago to run for mayor - the election is February 22 - black community, led by Revered Jesse Jackson, says that if the black vote is split, there's no way we can beat Emanuel. And I'm not sure they still could beat Emanuel anyway, but now it seems like the African-American community will rally behind Carol Moseley Braun.
CONAN: And let's pivot from Chicago back to the West Wing of the White House and the speculation that the old Mayor Daley's brother is going to end up as the new White House chief of staff.
RUDIN: Right, that's Bill Daley. He was Bill Clinton's commerce secretary. He was also Al Gore's campaign chairman. So he's very well-respected in Democratic circles. The liberal left may not be that crazy about him. He pushed NAFTA. He maybe is too much of a centrist.
He said not too long ago that the Democratic Party has got to move much more to the center, away from the left, and of course the progressives, that's one thing that progressives do not want to hear from the Obama White House.
CONAN: Let's see, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and again it is: Which speaker of the House of Representatives lost most votes from his or her own party in the vote to elect them speaker on the floor of the House of Representatives? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com.
And Marty's(ph) on the line, Marty calling from Tifton in Georgia.
MARTY (Caller): Hey, how are you all today?
CONAN: Very good, thanks.
MARTY: My guess was going to be Tip O'Neill.
CONAN: Tip O'Neill had lots of votes for speaker, but Ken?
RUDIN: No, Tip O'Neill, actually, the only - Tip O'Neill was always elected. There were no defections from his Democratic Party when Tip O'Neill was elected speaker all those times.
MARTY: The main reason why I picked him was just the longevity. I (unintelligible) Reagan went in and everything was going on back then, that maybe somebody had that...
CONAN: You remember his great quote: All politics is unanimous.
RUDIN: Is loco, loco. Actually, there was talk, long-time talk about a coup against Tip O'Neill, but it never happened on the floor during the vote for speaker.
MARTY: I understand.
CONAN: Marty, thanks very much, appreciate it. Let's go next to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Rochester in Minnesota.
JUNO(ph) (Caller): Yeah, hi, this is Juno in Rochester, Minnesota. And I think the answer is Cactus Jack Garner, who became Roosevelt's vice president.
RUDIN: That's correct. Well, that's correct that he was Roosevelt's vice president, and he was speaker of the House when he was picked as Roosevelt's vice president in 1932. But no Democrat voted against him in the vote for speaker.
JUNO: Oh, okay, thank you.
CONAN: Unwilling to suffer the prickles of unhappy fate. Anyway, let's see, we can go next to - this is Richard, Richard with us from Highland, Illinois.
RICHARD (Caller): Howdy.
RICHARD: My guess was Sam Rayburn.
CONAN: Sam Rayburn also had a lot of votes to be speaker of the House...
RUDIN: Right. As a matter of fact, he's the longest-serving speaker in history. He was elected, and then he lost in '46, came back in '48, lost in '52, came back in '54, died in 1961. Why do I remember all this? I don't know. But the answer is no. No Democratic votes against Sam Rayburn for speaker.
CONAN: But good shot. Thanks very much. Let's see if we go to - this is John(ph), and John is with us from Little Rock.
JOHN (Caller): Yes, I was wondering if it's Jim Wright.
CONAN: Jim Wright of Texas.
RUDIN: Well, Jim Wright did have a battle to become majority leader, and he kind of had a tough fight becoming speaker, and of course he resigned as speaker because of a scandal in 1989. But during the vote on the House floor for speaker, no Democrat voted against Jim Wright.
JOHN: Ah, thanks so much.
CONAN: Jim Wright is wrong. Let's see if we can go - I'm sorry. I've got to stop this. Patty(ph), Patty with us from Green Bay.
RUDIN: I hate silly jokes.
CONAN: Yes, I know.
PATTY (Caller): Hi. I was thinking it might be Gerald Ford.
CONAN: Gerald Ford?
RUDIN: Well, Gerald Ford actually was never speaker of the House. He was minority leader until he became vice president in 1973, '74 - no, '73, replacing Nelson Rockefeller. But he was never speaker, and so therefore he was - the question was which speaker of the House had the most votes against him.
CONAN: It was the goal of his life. His ambition was to be speaker of the House. He had to settle for president of the United States.
CONAN: All right (unintelligible) and let's see if we can go next to - this is Robin(ph) and Robin with us from Reno.
ROBIN (Caller): Yes, I'm just being funny here, but Newt Gingrich?
RUDIN: Well, you are funny, and you are correct.
CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding.
RUDIN: Because in 1997 1997, Newt Gingrich was re-elected speaker over Dick Gephardt, who was the minority - the Democratic leader. But nine Republicans voted against Newt Gingrich. Five voted present(ph), two voted for Jim Leach. One actually voted for Bob Michael(ph), who wasn't even a member of the Congress at the time. And one voted for Bob Walker. Newt Gingrich is the correct answer.
CONAN: Robin, thank - congratulations, and we're going to put you on hold and collect your particulars, and we will send you a Political Junkie T-shirt in exchange for a promise for a digital picture of yourself we can post on our wall of shame.
ROBIN: I will do that.
CONAN: All right, you're going to go on hold. And by the way, I'm just told that we also had a correct email from Tony(ph) in Kansas City. He says Newt Gingrich, so he will also get a T-shirt. You've been away for a couple of weeks. We're just throwing these things out there.
And let's see. Finally, it took for Ken Rudin to come back, a senator certified from the election in November in Alaska.
RUDIN: That's right. There's no place like Nome. Lisa Murkowski, who had always had a 10,000-plus lead, but the Republican candidate, Tea Party-backed Joe Miller, refused to concede, saying that they illegally or improperly counted votes for Lisa Murkowski, even if they misspelled her name.
CONAN: Lisa Burkowski.
RUDIN: Exactly. The state supreme court in Alaska unanimously ruled against Joe Miller, and finally he gave up his challenge. Lisa Murkowski was certified in time, and she is, of course, the next senator, and continuing senator.
CONAN: And we're just settling the last dust from the election of 2010 but already talking about the election of 2012, and Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, Republican, has already picked somebody he thinks is the next likely nominee for president.
RUDIN: Yeah, whenever you think of South Carolina lately, you actually think of Jim DeMint, because he seems to be the most powerful Republican there. But Lindsey Graham, the long-time John McCain ally, did come out.
First of all, we should say that South Carolina is a very important state in the Republican primary process in 2012, and Lindsey Graham came out for Mitt Romney.
CONAN: He said he's got a lot of problems, but so does everybody else - a ringing endorsement.
RUDIN: That's exactly what he said, right.
CONAN: Congress is back in session today. So is Ken Rudin. More with the Political Junkie in a moment. And on a day when Republicans assume control of the House, we'll talk with GOP Congressman John Mica, who is set to take over as head of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Plus your calls. What do you want your congressman to do for your district? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor and our Political Junkie. You can get even more of him at npr.org/junkie. Try your hand at his ScuttleButton puzzle and download his podcast there.
The political news today focused on Capitol Hill, the first day of class for the 112th Congress. Just a few moments ago, Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, passed the gavel to the new speaker, John Boehner.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): I now pass this gavel, which is larger than most gavels here, but the gavel of choice of Mr. Speaker Boehner. I now pass this...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. PELOSI: I now pass this gavel and the sacred trust that goes with it to the new speaker. God bless you, Speaker Boehner.
(Soundbite of cheering)
CONAN: And accepting the big hammer was John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, who took the podium and set the tone for the coming session.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): We gather here today at a time of great challenges. Nearly one in 10 of our neighbors is out of work. Health care costs are still rising for American families. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt soon will eclipse the entire size of our national economy.
Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress. No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
CONAN: Speaker of the House John Boehner. Just in a moment we'll speak with the new head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about his plans for the next session. What do you want your member of Congress to do for your district? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also get into the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Representative John Mica is a Republican from Florida and the new chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He joins us from Capitol Hill. And Mr. Chairman, congratulations.
Representative JOHN MICA (Republican, Florida): Well, thank you. I think that's the first time I've heard that, and pretty exciting for me personally, some 18 years in capping a career in business and public service. So thank you for calling me, and rightfully so now, chairman.
But it does bring out a whole host of emotions just coming off the floor, being sworn in and thinking about the responsibility. And we've got, as the speaker just said a few minutes ago on the floor, we've got millions, one out of 10, Americans without jobs, people who are suffering economically. So a host of responsibilities.
CONAN: And a host of responsibilities. Let me ask you a broader question just for a moment. We'll get on to your specific responsibilities in a second. But this was an important election. We've heard a lot from Speaker Boehner - well, today, and also after the election - that this was not necessarily a ringing endorsement of the Republican agenda but rather a rejection of what has gone before. What are you guys hoping to do that's really, really different?
Rep. MICA: Well, I think, of course the other side took control a couple years ago. They headed off, I think they felt they were, you know, wanted to do some things they wanted to do. They took the health care issue first and they cast aside the economy, and I think right now they've - this is the day they paid for sort of that mistake.
Now, we can't make the same mistake. We've got to dive in. We've got to pass policies that encourage expansion of the economy. And so many of the issues could be resolved for the country if we can get the economy going, you know, full-steam again.
So that's our big challenge, and I think that's the mistake the other side made. Hopefully we'll focus on that and not get sidetracked on other issues.
CONAN: The House leadership has called for $100 billion to be cut from the budget. How much of that should come from transportation and infrastructure?
Rep. MICA: Well, we're going to have to do more with less. There's no question. That message was clearly spent - sent, rather, and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. MICA: And expended. But our committee, we're fortunate. We do have a good source of revenue, although we have a declining source of revenue, particularly our Highway and Transit Trust Fund. You know, every time you get a gallon of gasoline, 18.4 cents comes up to that trust fund, and then we get to decide how it's spent in our committee's-authorized programs.
But that's - even that is having trouble because of the economy, because of alternative fuels, more efficient vehicles. So we've got a challenge of finding ways to - and what I want to focus on is cutting red tape, the time lag that it takes for getting projects done, and then look at some creative financing and eliminate some of the wasteful programs.
CONAN: We've heard pledges also - this is the Congress where there will be no earmarks. Of course a lot of those goes towards transportation projects. Are you going to be diligent in following that?
Rep. MICA: Well, you have to be honest. Everything we do in Congress is earmarking. And you know, we will set aside and direct money through the authorization process, and the appropriators appropriate it. But we'll make some decisions where those funds go.
Just like I said, we get the trust fund, and that could be 35 to 40 billion dollars a year. We decide how that's spent, and you know, whether it's one small project. And you know, not all (unintelligible) some members of Congress don't do the right thing, and we've seen the same thing done with earmarks, and not all earmarks are bad.
If we did one big earmark, we'd pass, what, a multi-trillion budget, just hand it over to Obama, the president, we'd earmark it for him to do his administrative earmarking. So you've got to sort out what you do with the earmarking, and then it has to be transparent, it has to be open, and it has to be responsible.
CONAN: All right, John Mica, the Republican from Florida and the new chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. We'd like to hear from callers today. What do you want your member of Congress to do in your district? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raymond is on the line from Dewberry in Florida, and I believe John Mica is your representative. Is that right, Raymond?
RAYMOND (Caller): Yes, I know Mr. Mica. He's a great guy. We are having a Yankee Lake water pumping station being built on the St. John's River in Seminole County, and I was wondering what the congressman thinks about that...
Rep. MICA: Well, I've got to be pretty honest with you. I don't know much about it, so - and whether it's in my district or not, I can find out more about it. But what did you say it is, Yankee Lake?
RAYMOND: It's called Yankee Lake pumping station, and it's going to be pulling out 5.3 million gallons of water from the St. John's River in 2012, when it goes operational.
Rep. MICA: It may be under the St. John's Water Management District.
RAYMOND: Correct, it is.
Rep. MICA: I have not paid attention to it because it's more of a state issue, but we do handle water resources. And this is how, believe it or not, members of Congress find out about projects, even in their own district or area, since we represent such broad areas. But we'll look into it and see what it does.
RAYMOND: Thank you.
Rep. MICA: We've got some interesting issues with water in Florida, and oftentimes, you know, those people that live along the lake there in Dewberry, it's actually part of the St. John's River. We've got Lake George and several other lakes along the wider parts of the river.
And we either have too much or not enough, or somebody's trying to get some of it someplace else, so tough issues, but we'll - I'll check on that pumping station. Appreciate your bringing it up.
CONAN: And another constituent, I believe. This is Paul with us from Daytona.
Rep. MICA: Wow, the whole district reporting in.
CONAN: Paul, you're on the line. Go ahead, please.
PAUL (Caller): Good afternoon, Congressman Mica. How are you?
Rep. MICA: Just great, pretty exciting day for me personally, thank you.
PAUL: Well, good. I'm curious: Since you guys are going to repeal the health care reform, what kind of allowances are you going to make for people with pre-existing conditions?
Rep. MICA: Well, let me say this, and I don't want the Republicans to get off to the same mistake, you know, on the health care. They went overboard, I think, on the other side.
But we need to pick out the parts that are necessary. One of them is definitely pre-existing conditions. We need to look at a whole host of things that would give better coverage, lower cost, increased competition.
So I don't think we should be the party of just the repeal. Now, there'll be a vote. I'm going to vote to repeal it. But that's not going to pass. What we do need to keep in place are things that do make a big difference and will expand coverage, and then people who are left out, they either can't get it because it costs too much - I have a daughter who probably doesn't have health insurance right now since she's been changing physicians. She has a pre-existing condition. And even in this bill, I've talked to some people, they can get it, but it's so darn expensive.
So we've got to find a way to do that even better. So you can't just say no. We've got to find a better way to help folks. The best way too is getting them employment, good-paying jobs with some good benefits. But we've got to go beyond that. Thank you for your question.
CONAN: And Paul, thanks very much. And I do need to follow up. How are you going to convince the insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions unless they also pick up all the people who, well, not paying for coverage right now?
Rep. MICA: Yeah. Well, again, you encourage competition, and you - I believe in as many carrots as possible, as few sticks as possible when it comes to the private sector. So if we create enough incentives for them and the coverage is broad enough so you could absorb some of the expense - but people have seen where you just mandate it like they've just done. Yeah, it's available, but at such a premium that they can't afford it. So you - sometimes, you end up with good intentions, but dropping a lot of folks.
I had one woman tell me that she picked up - again, I think it was her daughter. And she said that the cost to pick up the daughter was as much as the entire policy for the whole family, and she couldn't afford it. So we've got to do better, and I think we can.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. MICA: Right now, I'm fixated on roads, bridges, dams, levees, Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, all the other issues in my committee. But we - that's one I've got to pay attention to, too. Thank you.
CONAN: And we wish you the best of luck with that. You've been very generous with your time today. And, again, congratulations, Mr. Chairman.
Rep. MICA: Hey, an exciting day and historic, to come right off the floor and be on your program - a neat opportunity. Thank you so much, and Happy New Year, and a lot of hope and prayer for the Republicans and the Democrats serving in Congress in the months to come.
CONAN: John Mica, Republican of Florida, now chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
With us here in Studio 3A is Clarence Page, syndicated columnist from the Chicago Tribune, and, of course, Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, is still with us. Interesting, the repeal to be voted as soon as next week, Clarence Page.
Mr. PAGE: That's right. And it was interesting hearing Congressman Mica mention right away that it's not going to pass. I mean, it's not going to pass the Senate, but this is still a bold gesture by the Republicans in the House that sends signals to the rest of the country. And as he - he mentioned the bad start the Republicans got off to back - I presume in 1994, when the Newt Gingrich Congress took over there - in Bill Clinton's first midterm. They did do some overreaching that sent signals that the public didn't appreciate, calling themselves revolutionaries and pushing for spending cuts that resulted in the shutdown of the government. And that's looming in the air right now. That debate is looming over the debt ceiling, raising the debt ceiling, which a lot of Republicans don't want to do. And...
CONAN: This vote is likely to come up in March. The debt ceiling, the ability of the United States - the legal authority for the United States government to borrow has to be raised every once in a while if you're going to keep...
Mr. PAGE: That's right.
CONAN: ...the current system. And there's some in the Senate - and, of course, in the Senate, one senator can block anything. Well, there's some of the senators saying they're not going to vote for that one Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Mr. PAGE: That's right. And that's the sort of thing that could - well, in the - in both the Senate and the House, you've got Republican leaders saying that they're going to try to work this out.
Mr. PAGE: I think they want to - John Boehner, in particular, wants to avoid that kind of a Gingrich shutdown, because he himself was part of that team, a part of Gingrich's team at that time and remembers very well how the negative repercussions hurt them in the long run, and Bill Clinton wound up with a landslide victory in '96.
So it's a similar kind of suspense hanging over the debate now, and you mentioned the Senate minority being opposed to raising the debt ceiling. They're also having a debate there right now procedurally over whether or not to tighten filibuster rules and the...
CONAN: And the secret hold...
Mr. PAGE: Yeah.
CONAN: ...they need to extend the length of the day for a month or so.
Mr. PAGE: That's right.
CONAN: It's an obscure rule change to get all that in by majority vote and not the three-quarters vote I think they need to change the rules at any other time.
Syndicated columnist Clarence Page is with us. Political junkie Ken Rudin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And, Ken, as the - as we focus on the House today, nevertheless, it is going to be very interesting in the United States Senate, as well, whatever happens with these procedural questions. Because, well, the House of Representatives is going to pass a lot of things, including a symbolic repeal of the health care law. It's going to be incumbent on Democrats in the United States Senate to, well, stay with the president and their party. Are they going to do it?
RUDIN: Right. Either that or you have the Obama veto, of course. Now, there's several things - I'm not sure whether this is a symbolic vote. Yes, they're not going to repeal health care. But yes, they also promised their constituents -the Republicans who were elected to the 112th Congress said: If you send me to Congress, I'm going to vote to repeal health care. So I don't know if it's as much of a symbolic vote as it's fulfilling a promise.
But we also saw during the lame-duck that the Tea Party folks were really furious at the Republicans for going along, for caving in on extending unemployment insurance and things like that. So there is a constituency out there that is probably - perhaps just as angry at Republicans as they are at Democrats, and they have to be aware of that.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. We're asking people what they want their member of Congress to return for their district.
Frank is on the line from Rochester, Minnesota.
FRANK (Caller): Hi.
FRANK: What I want is nothing for my district. I want - this is my voter manifesto, I guess. I want them to stop spending, live within the means. I'd like a pay-go system, no more earmarks. And I think the bums in Washington that need to be thrown out are the lobbyists. And for God's sake, stop this partisanship.
CONAN: So, are there any highways, interstate highways in your district?
FRANK: There sure are, but I think those are covered by - they're not covered by earmarks. I think they're covered by Federal Highway Administration, aren't they?
CONAN: Well, as Congressman Mica just said, it depends what you call an earmark and what you don't and earmark.
Mr. PAGE: For clarification, the caller may think an earmark is funding, per se. An earmark is a direction for money that's already been voted on in the Congress, and that's a - it's a distinction a lot of people get confused because the money is there. It's already (unintelligible).
RUDIN: It's not allocated.
Mr. PAGE: It's just a question of whether it's going to go to Arizona or to Indiana or to such-and-such district. And if Congress abdicates that role, the White House, Republican or Democrat, is more than happy to pick it up.
RUDIN: I'd like to know who Frank - Frank, who's your member of Congress?
FRANK: I think it's Lisa Murkowski - no, not Murkowski. I'm sorry. I heard you guys talking about her. It's Amy Klobuchar.
RUDIN: Oh, senator.
CONAN: Senator Klobuchar. Okay. Frank, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
CONAN: We should note this email from Richard in Boston. I want my congressional reps to build the north-south rail tunnel in Boston, which would connect our two passenger rail terminals, north and south stations, thereby closing a major gap in the Eastern regional rail network. Good luck with that.
We're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. And also with us, syndicated columnist Clarence Page. Stay with us. More when we come back. We're going to be talking with a former minority leader of the House of Representatives, Bob Michel, and with Vin Weber, one of our regulars on this program as well, to give us some historical perspective on, well, the big news that's happened today.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: Right now, we've gaveled to order a giant-sized edition of the Political Junkie. The new Congress is in session on Capitol Hill. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us here in Studio 3A. Along with us is Clarence Page, a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
And, Ken, one thing we had not gotten to: the election for the new chair of the Republican National Committee. Michael Steele, the out - well, I was going to say outgoing chairman, but...
RUDIN: He is kind of outgoing.
CONAN: He is kind of...
Mr. PAGE: Personable.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: But, any case, he surprised everybody by saying he wanted to hold onto that job, and, well, there's now been a debate.
RUDIN: There's a debate...
CONAN: Go ahead.
RUDIN: Oh, I thought we were hearing tape. I'm sorry.
CONAN: We're about to hear tape.
RUDIN: OK. There was a debate on Monday and...
CONAN: Thanks for giving that away.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RUDIN: So sorry. I didn't know how the show works here. You know, I'm new here. But Michael Steele showed up with four opponents. The election is January 14th. On Friday, there are 168 members of the Republican National Committee. You need a majority. Most people think that Michael Steele is not close to getting the majority, or at least none at all. And most would think that he is a one-termer at best. But in the debate on Monday, I thought he gave a good presentation, a good case for his re-election, saying, look. I was here to make - to win elections, and we won elections on November 2nd. But I think he's not long for this job.
CONAN: One of his challengers, Ann Wagner, was asked what her favorite book was, and, well, misheard the question.
Unidentified Man: "War and Peace."
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ANN WAGNER (Candidate for Chair, Republican National Committee): It's a bar, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: It's a bar, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): It was the best of times and the worst of times.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: That, of course, was Michael Steele saying his favorite book was Tolstoy's "War and Peace," and then quoted Charles Dickens. Anyway, it's interesting, as we look at that, Clarence Page...
Mr. PAGE: He obviously has the best of times and worst of times on his mind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Indeed, he did.
Mr. PAGE: He couldn't help himself. That's right...
CONAN: And the briefest of times. Probably not long, but he makes a point that the Republican Party needs to reach out, yet at the same time, they went through a litmus test of what each of these candidates hope - stood for on the positions, every single one checked every single checkmark on abortion, on everything you could name.
Mr. PAGE: Yeah, it was somewhat of a waste of time, frankly. I mean, this was worse than the Republican candidate debates that we saw in the last presidential round, because at least there was some dissension once in a while. But this time, virtually every answer was the same. I mean, who's your favorite president? Ronald Reagan. Who's your favorite leader? Ronald Reagan. What's your favorite book? Ronald Reagan's autobiography. You know, I mean, it just went right down the line.
But what was interesting, though, you know, Mr. Michael Steele making the case that he promised that he was going to have a party that won, and the party won. But a lot of party members think that the party won in November in spite of Steele rather than because of him, and that's the key as to why he's not expected to win and why it was so surprising that he decided to...
CONAN: He's certainly didn't say "Of Human Bondage."
Mr. PAGE: There you go.
RUDIN: No, no. But one thing I disagree with you, Clarence, was I think it was a very revealing and a very interesting debate because Reince Priebus, who is the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party...
Mr. PAGE: The well-known Reince Priebus.
RUDIN: Yes. Fortunately, there's no write-in campaign for him...
Mr. PAGE: That's right.
RUDIN: ...because, you know, Lisa Murkowski might be...
CONAN: Are you saying this could be the Reince cycle?
Mr. PAGE: Look out.
RUDIN: But the thing is he said - he was asked about abortion. He said you could not be pro-choice and a - and call yourself a Republican. And to me, not only are you writing Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, people like that out of the party, but basically, it's what Michael Steele said from the beginning he would not play a litmus test game.
And if the next chairman of the Republican National Committee is somebody who will write out - write off pro-choice Republicans, that I think that's taken the RNC in a direction they never took before.
Mr. PAGE: I agree, Ken. Thanks for bringing that up, because I think it's significant that in the '80s, Ronald Reagan, followed by Lee Atwater, tried to build a big tent. They - and they said if you agree with 80 percent of our agenda, that's enough. Well, that's no longer enough, it seems like, for a lot of the party leaders. Now, it's very significant that they have - they seem to be pushing toward more - well, the purists are getting an upper hand and moving toward a smaller tent.
CONAN: We keep talking about 1994, when the new Republican majority came in. Just before that, Bob Michel was the minority leader of the House of Representatives, the Republican, a former member of Congress from Illinois. And he joins us today from here in Washington, D.C. And Congressman Michel, nice to have you with us today.
Mr. BOB MICHEL (Former House Minority Leader, Republican, Illinois): Thank you.
CONAN: I noticed that you were on the floor of the House of Representatives earlier today. What did that feel like?
Mr. MICHEL: Well, it was a very - it's a very unique condition for a former member, you know, to get on the floor. But it's just an exciting time for me. In my 38 years of serving in the Congress, I was always a member of the minority party. And to see a Republican elected speaker of the house, like John Boehner, just a few moments ago, well, it's a real thrill to be here and participate in the proceeding.
CONAN: It's a very different Congress, though, and a very different Republican Party.
Mr. MICHEL: Well, there's no question about that. The election had an awful lot to do with that. And John, in his acceptance speech, made considerable comment about the fact that what he intends to do in leading the House is to honor the will of the American people as reflected by the election results.
RUDIN: Congressman Michel, I noticed that after you left Congress in 1997, you were already out of Congress, you got one vote for speaker. You didn't get any votes today for speaker. So, obviously, you're falling down on the job. But here's a question I want to ask you, though. The Republican Party, in 1994, when you left it, compare it to the Republican Party in 2010. Could Bob Michel survive a Tea Party, Republican Party?
Mr. MICHEL: Well, how could I - today or in my day, people were just much more a considerate comity and considerate of others views. And, yes, we had our bitter arguments on the floor in House. I know Tip O'Neil and I would say, sometime after that, we'd go at it, hammer and thongs, verbally. Never - always on the subject, never personally. And then, after the day was over, well, we could go back to one another's office and have a pop, an old beer or something, play some gin rummy. But there was just a completely different attitude among the members than there has been in the last few years.
CONAN: These days, you would be accused of hobnobbing with the enemy.
Mr. MICHEL: Excuse me?
CONAN: You would have been accused of hobnobbing with the enemy these days.
Mr. MICHEL: Oh, well yes, you're right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RUDIN: Why do you think that things got...
Mr. MICHEL: (unintelligible) when I'm on the floor, to go over and shake hands with all the leadership on the other side of the aisle. It's just a thing that I always felt comfortable doing and felt that that was the best way to get along, get the best results.
RUDIN: Why did the comity break down? And you see it possibly coming back, is there a hope for it right now?
CONAN: I'm not sure you heard that. When did you see the comity break down? Why did it break down? And do you see it coming back?
Mr. MICHEL: Oh, well, I don't know why it was. But I think some has to do with the redistricting among - in the country that's going on. It'll go on this year, after the decennial census. And when the politics raises its head on that redistricting as it does to make the districts either surely Republican or surely Democratic, well, then you got animosities that you wouldn't have if you had more equalized districts around the country where everybody had to compete at election time.
I always had an opponent when I ran and - but we unfortunately, through redistricting, all too often, it's a safe Republican district or a safe Democratic district. And that's what the politics of the state would dictate.
CONAN: Bob Michel, thanks very much for being with us today. And, again, we appreciate your taking the time to be with us on a - on such a day that was so important for you.
Mr. MICHEL: Okay, now, have a good one.
CONAN: Former House minority leader Bob Michel. With us on the line as well is Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. And I know very excited today about the election news. Of course, Vin, I'm sure you're more excited about the news from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Bert Blyleven finally got in.
Mr. WEBER: Finally got in. Finally, there's some justice in baseball. You know, this has not been a great sports winter for Minnesota between the collapse of the Metrodome and the broader collapse of the Vikings. So we finally got something we deserve, which is Bert Blyleven in the Hall of Fame.
CONAN: Well, congratulations on that. I'd be interested in your thoughts. Do you think you could survive a Tea Party challenge in 2011?
Mr. WEBER: Well, you know, I have - I think I probably could. I mean, I'm - I was conservative Republican. I think that if you're an incumbent member and has been here for a while and you get challenged in the Tea Party, it does become difficult, because, you know, you, over time, have to make decisions about funding the government, things like that, that in this environment simply look like you're selling out. So it's not easy as an incumbent.
I would not say, ideologically though, that I think the party has moved a dramatic distance from over the last several years. And I know, you know, people may disagree with me on that. But what we see in the Tea Party is mainly a reaction to a belief that the government had moved substantially to the left over the last two years. And, you know, I it'll balance off back in the middle some place. But I think that's what's mainly been happening.
CONAN: As you look at the results of the election and the new Congress that's happening today, do you think expectations need to be curbed, maybe on both sides? Probably neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are going to be able to get a whole lot through.
Mr. WEBER: Yeah, I - what we have, I think, is two parties that each think that one of the last two elections was a fluke.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WEBER: But they don't agree on which one. You know, the Republicans think that the big Obama victory of 2008, with the Democrats taking 60-40 majorities in both House of Congress, president winning by the largest margin of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. They think that was the aberration. And now, we're getting back to normal. Democrats, Nancy Pelosi specifically, think exactly the opposite. They think that the 2010 election was the aberration. That we turned the page on a new progressive era in 2008 and soon we will get back to their version of normal.
And, you know, both sides are going to be sorely disappointed. I don't think that the country does not want to either turn dramatically to the left or dramatically to the right. And it's - but we have two caucuses that kind of believe that that's the case, and it's going to be hard to get them to work together.
CONAN: Former member of Congress, Vin Weber, now managing partner at Clarke & Weinstock. Also with us, Political Junkie Ken Rudin, syndicated columnist Clarence Page. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?
RUDIN: Vin, you served with John Boehner. You know him. Talk a little bit about the pressures he feels because we saw during the lame duck session how the Tea Party folks said that the Republicans sold out everything, and yet he still doesn't want to be known as just the party of no. He wants to get something accomplished. So he has that kind of balance to deal with.
Mr. WEBER: Yeah. I think the big difference between now and back in 1995, when the Republicans first took the Congress after 40 years, is that we have an experienced leadership team. As Bob Michel mentioned when you had him on a few minutes ago - not only Bob Michel, but no Republican had been in the majority when we took control in 1995. Now, we've got John Boehner who served in the majority as a committee chairman of a tough committee for Republicans, the Education and Labor Committee. And he knows how the system operates. He wants to accomplish something.
And more importantly, most of these guys served through the loss of the majority, mostly of the people in the leadership and committee chairman. And they understand the limitations on a party that only controls one branch of government and the excesses of the party that controls all branches of government. So I really think that we're going to have a pretty competent set of leaders, hopefully in both political parties, but, you know, I know the Republicans best, and I think that we're going to have a pretty competent set of leaders there.
John Boehner wants to accomplish something. He knows the limitations that he's working under. He doesn't have grandiose visions of transforming the world. And he's going to try to get the most done that he reasonably can.
Mr. PAGE: Vin - Clarence Page, Vin.
Mr. WEBER: Hi, Clarence.
Mr. PAGE: Hi. I was wondering, looking at the Tea Party folks in both the Senate and the House right now, what surprises do you think they're going to have to deal with?
Mr. WEBER: Well, first of all, I want to say something positive about them. In the immediate aftermath of the election, you know, you really got this picture of a bunch of folks in pitchforks, storming the capitol, irresponsibly ripping up the institution. I don't think that anything like has happened. These folks, these new members have equitted themselves well. The transition to a Republican majority has gone rather smoothly. Very few real bitter battles over committee chairmanships or anything like that, only really one, the Energy and Commerce Committee. And I think that they're a serious bunch of legislators in the making.
But they're going to have difficulties when it comes to funding the government. I mean, they're going to have to vote for spending bills that even if they're pared back a ways from what the Obama administration wants, are going to look awfully large to the taxpayers back home. And I think that that's going to be their challenge, is to decide that they can - that there - what is going to be enough, how much compromise do they need to get from the Obama administration...
Mr. WEBER: ...in order to allow them to cast votes for the bills that fund our government.
CONAN: And Vin, if you are a Democrat, wouldn't you want every Republican, force every Republican member of the House to vote for the debt ceiling raise?
Mr. WEBER: Oh, sure. That's - absolutely. No one wants to vote for it. It's the obligation of the majority party to vote for it. And, you know, if they can force some fiscal reforms along with it, that's great. That's valuable leverage. The problem is, in order to utilize that leverage, you got to be willing to threaten to actually vote it down. And we all know that you can't have the debt ceiling fail because that'll put the United States government in default.
So it's not a good tool, in many ways, to use. But if they can, you know, get some concessions on the spending side, particularly if any of it was on long-term entitlement reform, it'll be well worth doing.
CONAN: Here's a couple of emails. We asked callers what they wanted their member to do. I'd like my new representative, Sandy Adams - writes June(ph) in Titusville, Florida - to vote for increased funding for NASA. My area of Central Florida Coast is looking towards total economic disaster in a few months, when 8,000 NASA workers will be laid off after the shuttle program is shut down. The real estate market has already hit us hard. None of the laid off workers or anybody else will be able to sell their homes to move to better job markets.
And this from Rebecca(ph) in Tulsa: You asked what we want from our congressional representative. Actually, we would like to have one who actually represents our area. Because of gerrymandering, our congressional representative is located in the panhandle of Oklahoma. He also covers a narrow band of territory that stretches from the panhandle to far eastern Oklahoma. You're likely to see a few more districts that look like that as, well, redistricting is underway around the country. And Vin, that's where a lot of this politics is going to happen.
Mr. WEBER: Yeah. Well, let's go to the first question first, because, you know, I understand the concerns of the poor people in Florida about NASA funding. And I share that concern a little more broadly. We're going to see intense pressure to slash all budgets. And it's understandable because we have a huge long-term debt problem. The debt to GDP ratio is what I focus on, and as you know, it's getting worse and worse and worse.
So the response to that is going to be to cut everything, particularly everything that is quote, unquote discretionary, in which Congress has control over the budget.
Mr. WEBER: That means biomedical research, NASA, lots of other important things.
CONAN: Vin, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, but thank you very much for your time.
Mr. WEBER: Glad to be with you. Bye.
CONAN: And congratulations on Bert Blyleven. Vin Weber. Also, Roberto Alomar elected today. We should mention that. Thanks to Ken Rudin, Clarence Page. And this is NPR News.
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