Week In Politics: Hagel's Rough Day

Last week, former Sen. Chuck Hagel faced a very critical confirmation hearing in his quest to become the next secretary of defense, and President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators made the pitch for immigration reform. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Mara Liasson about the week in politics.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

There are some big items on the country's political agenda: the confirmation of the next secretary of defense, changes to gun laws perhaps, and an overhaul of the immigration system. And this past week saw some movement in Washington on all three issues.

To talk about the week's political news, we are joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. Let's start with Chuck Hagel. He is a former senator, a Republican, and he's the president's pick for secretary of defense. Hagel went up to Capitol Hill this past week for his confirmation hearing and he had a bit of a tough time. Right?

LIASSON: He did have a rough hearing]. He really got a bloody nose. There was only one senator, Carl Levin - the chairman of the Armed Services Committee - who said he helped his cause. He clearly stumbled on a lot of answers. He seemed to not know for moment, at least, that our policy towards Iran was not one of containment. He got particularly harsh grilling from his former old former friend John McCain about past statements he made about the surge.

And he's going to have a committee vote on Thursday. There are more Democrats than Republicans on the committee. That's a good thing for him.

MARTIN: So, chances of getting through?

LIASSON: Well, right now he has only two Republicans who've come out to support him: Mike Johanns, also from Nebraska. That's Chuck Hagel's home state; Thad Cochran, Republican senator from Mississippi. However, the most important thing is that there is not a single Republican who has said yet that they will filibuster his nomination. And defeating a cabinet nominee is very unusual. It's only happened nine times in the history of the Senate. And defeating a former senator has only happened once, and that was John Tower.

MARTIN: Let's switch gears now to gun control. There was a hearing last week. People from both sides of the issue testified before a congressional committee. But there's still no legislative action. What are the prospects for new laws at this point?

LIASSON: Well, of the three major proposals that the president has made - which is universal background check, and a ban on those big ammunition clips, and a renewal of the assault weapons ban - most people think the one and perhaps the only one that has a chance for success is universal background checks. This is something that polls - in some polls close to 100 percent support, in the '90s. It's extraordinary. This is something that...

MARTIN: The American public.

LIASSON: The American public, that the NRA used to support - they don't support it now. They say it's unworkable. But that I think has the best chance of success. Even so, it's going to be hard. Just because national opinion is overwhelming in favor of something, the loudest, most intense views on gun issues are on the side of gun rights supporters.

MARTIN: Lastly, let's turn to immigration reform. This is an issue getting some traction on Capitol Hill right now. A group of senators from both parties unveiled a proposal. President Obama, too, is out calling for immigration reform. What is being suggested right now? What are the politics? Any common ground?

LIASSON: Yes, there is extraordinary amount of common ground. This is a real anomaly in Washington. What they're talking about is a comprehensive bill that would increase border security; it would fix the legal immigration; and most importantly, it would design an eventual path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers currently in the United States.

And this is being proposed by bipartisan group of eight senators. Eight senators - four Republicans, four the Democrats. Marco Rubio is a leading Republican voice on this. And the House is different. It's going to be much harder to get it through the House, because Republicans there answer to a different kind of political calculus. But there's also a bipartisan group in the House that's just about to release its own proposal on February 12th.

MARTIN: But we have been here before. Right, Mara? I mean, President George W. Bush tried overhaul immigration and failed. Just quickly, what is different about this time?

LIASSON: The biggest difference is the 2012 elections, where Republicans lost the Hispanic vote 71 to 27 percent. This is something that Republicans feel they have to do. They have to get this issue behind them in order of having any chance of winning national elections again.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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