Week In News: Payroll Tax Cut, China VP Visit

In a victory for the White House, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed an extension of the payroll tax cut on Friday after weeks of refusal. Host Mary Louise Kelly speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about the political reasoning behind the vote.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The yeas are 293; the nays are 132. The...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Congress did the right thing and voted to make sure that taxes would not go up on middle-class families at the end of this month.

REPRESENTATIVE PHIL GINGREY: This legislation is simply an election-year gimmick.

OBAMA: It is amazing what happens when Congress focuses on doing the right thing instead of just playing politics.

KELLY: President Obama and Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey on yesterday's passage of the payroll tax cut extension. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us now, as he does most Saturdays, for a look behind the headlines. Hey, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So, as you know, Republicans in the House swore that they would never give up fighting against this tax cut extension. It ended up passing easily. What happened?

FALLOWS: It certainly did. I guess the prospect of an impending election marvelously focuses the mind as it does for House members every two years. This suggests that we may have seen, at least for the moment, a high watermark of the stop everything obstructionist spirit, which was what the Tea Party Republicans were largely elected for in the House. You'll recall that last summer, we had this brinksmanship about raising the debt limit and a possible default on the national debt...

KELLY: Which went on for weeks and weeks and weeks, yeah.

FALLOWS: Indeed. And we saw it in the last moment. Then I think the next stop was in December when the Obama administration thought that the political winds had changed to be at its back. And as they put the Republicans in a position of opposing a - an extension of payroll tax cut that would look bad. And I think the - a number of Republican, including Senator McCain, said they just put themselves in an impossible position by saying no on too many things. So at least for now, they're willing to resolve this issue in more or less a normal fashion.

KELLY: Moving along to politics of a different type. China's vice president, Xi Jinping, was in the U.S. this week. He may well be China's president by next year, so this was a closely watched visit. I gather he got a rather unexpected toast - almost a roast - from the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Jim, you were at the lunch where these two leaders were. What happened?

FALLOWS: Yes. This was a gala event. It was co-hosted both by Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton. And Biden, in the beginning of his toast, said what is normal in these sorts of events, which is the importance of long-term relationship, how valuable it was for both countries to have these 40 years of interaction since Richard Nixon's opening, et cetera, et cetera.

And then he spent the second half of his remarks giving a very detailed list of the concerns and complaints the United States have, ranging from China's veto with Russia of the Syrian resolution in the United Nations towards intellectual property theft and currency evaluation and things like that. In real time, Mr. Xi seems somewhat taken aback. He had his own prepared toast, which was anodyne and positive, although the next day, he did give a more substantive response about China's view on these same issues.

But I think, in perspective, it was an indication of the constancy of U.S.-China relations, where the United States has tried to say that, on the one hand, it recognizes that it's better to be China's friend than its enemy. And it welcomes China's emergence. But on the other hand, there are a lot of areas where we really do deeply disagree.

KELLY: Let's touch just briefly on some sad news from this week, the death in Syria of The New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid. His colleagues were lining up to call him the most gifted foreign correspondent in a generation.

FALLOWS: I know him only through his work, not personally. And I'm moved, of course, by the testimonials of his friends and colleagues. This is a reminder what he has done over the last two decades, this reportage from the Middle East, of what journalistic organizations can do. They train people. He was trained in Arabic. They send them around the world to help us understand the evolution of the world. And that is something he did masterfully, and it's a lost to everyone that he has died.

KELLY: That's Jim Fallows. He's national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks very much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure.

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