Will Lawmakers Make Santa's Naughty Or Nice List?

After receiving an earful from Democrats and Senate Republicans, House GOP members agreed to a deal to extend unemployment benefits and a payroll tax holiday. The Republican race is also heating up in Iowa and New Hampshire. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with former GOP National Committee chairman Michael Steele, and Joy-Ann Reid of TheGrio.com.

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ALLISON KEYES, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, Teenie Harris documented all aspects of life in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Now, we can see his work in a new exhibition. We'll talk with the curator in just a few minutes.

But first, President Obama got an early gift from Congress. Both houses have approved legislation to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for two months.

Yesterday, a somber looking House Speaker John Boehner announced that House Republicans had accepted the deal after a bitter battle. This, as GOP presidential candidates gear up for the upcoming caucuses in Iowa.

Here to dissect this week's political news are Joy-Ann Reid who's managing editor of TheGrio.com and a contributor to MSNBC. And Michael Steele is here. He's the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Welcome back both of you.

JOY-ANN REID: Great to be here.

MICHAEL STEELE: Good to be here.

KEYES: We'll have to start with the announcement that Boehner made yesterday. He acknowledged that there was some politics with this issue that didn't fall in his favor. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN BOEHNER: It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world, but let me tell you what, I think our members waged a good fight. We were able to come to an agreement. We were able to fix what came out of the Senate.

KEYES: So, Michael, Boehner sounds like he's trying to claim victory even though several media outlets actually used the word caved to describe what happened. But what does this mean politically for him and those House GOP members who were initially against this deal?

STEELE: Well, it's - well, I'll put it this way, there's no victory here. This has been a very, very tough couple of weeks, an unnecessary tough couple of weeks because the point that we've gotten to is one that clearly we could have been at three weeks ago and four weeks ago. And the fact that this is how we got here, the process, exposed a lot of weaknesses within the caucus. The lack of communication between the House and the Senate members was really problematic. And so, I don't see this as a victory here. The president has had a very good fall since I would probably say about early October.

KEYES: Right.

STEELE: He's managed the message incredibly well. He's gotten out in front of the argument. He's laid the groundwork for that argument very well and the Republicans right now are playing catch up.

KEYES: Joy, earlier this week the Wall Street Journal of all places ran an editorial suggesting that the debate got so out of hand that President Obama is in the catbird seat now when it comes to 2012. What do you think?

REID: Well, I think in a lot of ways that's true and I agree with much of what Chairman Steele said. I think the big narrative or one of the big narratives of the fall is just the weakness of John Boehner. He is speaker of the House in part of because of this Tea Party wave but he has no control and really no influence over those 87 to 90 freshmen. They don't want to do it again. He'll cut a deal and they completely undermine him.

He also can't really trust his deputies. You don't get the sense that Eric Cantor, who is the House whip or Jeb Hensarling, some of these, quote-unquote, young guns are even loyal to the speaker. And then the third part is that Boehner is so weak and so sort of afraid of his position, it appears, that he can't do the obvious thing which would have saved him in this crisis which is go to Nancy Pelosi and get the votes from Democrats. He doesn't want to be seen to have to pass bills with Democratic votes.

KEYES: Joy, I wonder how you think this is going to affect the sitting members of Congress that were in the middle of this? The public on the street seems a little annoyed with them.

REID: Well, I think that for the - particularly the freshmen, they're going to find out that the people who just pushed the lever for whoever the Republican was in 2010 because they were annoyed at the Democrats or annoyed about health care reform, they didn't sign up for the whole blue plate special of right wing ideology. I don't think a lot of these voters understood how ideologically and how strident the members were that they were electing.

And now that they're finding out a lot of these constituents are saying hold on a second, I didn't sign up to completely eliminate government/Medicare and give the rich a pass, while we, you know, milk the poor.

KEYES: Michael, I've got to ask you to jump in.

STEELE: Yeah, well, I appreciate that perspective. But clearly...

KEYES: He raised his eyebrow at the blue plate thing.

STEELE: Yeah, the blue plate, I love that special.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEELE: It goes down very well. But the reality of it is, I think voters, having spent three months on the road with those voters out there, I think they knew very well what they were getting. And part of what you've seen is something Washington has not seen elected officials who actually come to town and do what their constituents have asked them to do. And as much as we may moan and groan about the lack of cooperation and compromise, that's not necessarily what voters said last fall.

They wanted voter - these men and women to come to Washington to draw a very, very bright line in the sand on spending, holding the line of spending, cutting taxes and doing the kind of cuts to government that we've seen. So, I get what I get that one side of it. I don't think it's as clear that voters are now going to turn around and give back the majority to the House. I don't see that happening at this point.

KEYES: Let me move on to the Republican presidential candidates. They're preparing for the caucuses in Iowa less than two weeks away. Ron Paul is the latest candidate leading in Iowa. Michael Steele, should we be taking him more seriously?

STEELE: Well, I've always taken Ron Paul seriously. I mean, Ron Paul has been a national voice, a very consistent national voice for almost 30 years and it's rather ironic and a little bit humorous that the things that he's talked about are now mainstream for conversation. When it comes to spending, and the like where we have a problem is of course his positions on foreign affairs which tend to be a little bit isolationist. But I think, yeah, going into Iowa, you got to look at the chances that he would definitely come in a strong second if not outright win Iowa right now.

Mitt Romney has decided to put a push on. Newt Gingrich is going to hold his own there and I think really be competitive going into New Hampshire and South Carolina as well. So, I look for the Republican field to be a little bit fluid going into the month of January.

KEYES: Joy, I wonder whether you'd think some of the candidates, Romney in particular and John Huntsman, who haven't been spending a lot of time in Iowa are making a mistake?

REID: Well, I think that Iowa has become less and less representative of the overall constituency of the Republican Party. I think it's so far to the right, particularly on the religious right. It doesn't necessarily produce electable candidates. But I will say back to Ron Paul for just a second, he may be popular with his libertarian core constituency that he's carried from race to race and also among the liberal libertarians that love his anti-war stance.

KEYES: Mm-hum.

REID: But he also wants to stop regulating food and drugs and not have the government help people get health insurance and get rid of Social Security. So, his views are pretty extreme and he's got some racial views that have cropped up in the past...

STEELE: Yeah.

REID: ...that I think are really troubling. As for the other candidates, I think that Romney's probably bigger mistake is now appearing to try to go big in Iowa and try to play belatedly. Because now if he comes in fourth, it really looks like a loss.

KEYES: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about some of the week's hot political stories with Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee and Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor of TheGrio.com.

Yesterday, by the way, Mitt Romney's campaign got a kind of nice holiday gift or at least a sort of endorsement from President George H.W. Bush. Let's take a listen to Romney's reaction yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I had the chance to chat with the president this afternoon and wish him a Merry Christmas. He did the same to me. I thanked him for his support, his leadership, his heroic life, and his friendship mean a great deal to me. I must admit, this is much more important to me personally than even politically.

KEYES: Michael, does this quasi endorsement even matter?

STEELE: No, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Why not?

STEELE: No. Well, because if anybody's been paying attention to the politics of this country for the last 24 months and certainly the last six or seven months, it's the people who are making these decisions. They don't give a hoot who's coming out and standing next to you and wrapping their arms around you. They may or may not like that person. So, folks are going to make up their own minds here. If, you know, if an endorsement mattered, then this thing would be all over.

I mean, given the endorsements that have already been racked up for Mitt Romney, it probably can't get beyond 25 or 30 points in any given poll for the last year. What does that tell you when 70 percent of the people out there still don't want to vote for you, despite what the folks here in Washington are doing and wrapping their arms around you? And trust me, the establishment in this town, they're not all that crazy about Romney, either. I mean, you know, you saw them push, you know, the governor of New Jersey and others. So, there's a reality out there that the people are going to bring home more so than any endorsement will.

KEYES: Joy, some pundits out there are suggesting that this whole show of support to Romney might mean the Republicans are trying to head off their worries that Gingrich might be the nominee.

REID: Oh, yeah. I think it's pretty clear that the establishment Republicans, anyone who's ever served with him in Congress, and Republicans more generally are horrified by the idea of a Newt Gingrich...

KEYES: Horrified is a strong word.

REID: Yeah. I think people are because...

STEELE: But they know payback's a you know what.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REID: First of all - yeah. The people know him and he's very incendiary. He's very undisciplined. People can see it being sort of a circus with him as the nominee. But I think that the endorsement of the former president to Romney really cements two things.

One, as Chairman Steele said, Romney is the establishment candidate right now. He's Wall Street's candidate. He's the old guard or the Republican Party's candidate, but he's also the Bush candidate. And this has been an under-covered story in this race. His advisors, particularly on foreign policy, come from the Bush world. He has the support of Bush world. And if people bring Romney in, let's say, as the next president, you're really bringing back the Bushes. And I don't think people understand that.

KEYES: Really briefly...

STEELE: Good point.

KEYES: Really briefly, there's been some buzz out there about a potential vice presidential candidate. And, yes, I'm talking about former Secretary of State Condi Rice. Michael Steele?

STEELE: Well, a novel concept. I don't know if she would do it.

KEYES: And I should say Condoleezza.

STEELE: Condoleezza. I would advise her not to, but...

KEYES: Really?

STEELE: Yeah. Because I think that she - you know, she's been in that limelight for a while and I think she has some other things that she can do to contribute as opposed to getting back into that Washington morass at this point.

KEYES: Joy, I wonder what you think about that and whether her record could be a liability, and fairly quickly.

REID: Yeah. I think, first of all, she's so associated with the Bush administration and with the war in Iraq that I think it would be a liability, in a sense. And, also, she's had her travails with the right wing of the Republican Party, too. They got very angry when she said that slavery was America's original sin. She's admitted that there were some mistakes in Katrina. I think that could come back to haunt her.

And, listen, I don't know on Dr. Rice, but I doubt she'd want to marry her brand to the Republican Party's brand at this point. She'd probably be wise to just stay away from it.

STEELE: You said it more directly than I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Interesting.

REID: We're a good complement, Chairman Steele and I.

KEYES: All right with the love fest. Got to go. Joy-Ann Reid is a veteran journalist and managing editor of TheGrio.com. She joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee was right here in our Washington studio. Thanks, as always, for a spirited conversation.

STEELE: Thank you.

REID: Happy holidays.

STEELE: Happy holidays.

KEYES: Happy holidays to you.

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