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Amid Terror, Congress Stumbles On Legislative Battles

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Last week began with President Obama hopeful about prospects for gun control and immigration legislation to advance, but the President's focus quickly turned to terrorism and consoling a shaken nation, as gun control legislation floundered in the Senate. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.


This is WEEKEND EDITION. From NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin. The attacks in Boston put President Obama back in the familiar role as consoler-in-chief at a time when he is still fighting big political battles. For more on the extraordinary events of the past week and the political impact, we're joined by NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So unfortunately, Mara, the president has had to do this several times before, lead a community and the country through a tragic event, but this is different. It's the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil on his watch. Are there any political repercussions to this at this point?

LIASSON: Well, there are some. We just don't know how they're all going to play out. First of all, there will be a debate about how to treat the surviving suspect whether or not he should have been read his Miranda rights or not, whether he should or should not be considered an enemy combatant, so that's the first set of questions.

The second one is how the bombing might affect the president's agency in Congress, and the first thing that we heard last week was that some are saying we should slow down the debate about the immigration reform bill while we digest all the events from Boston.

MARTIN: Because somehow there's a connection, critics saying that you need to crack down on immigration to prevent things like this.

LIASSON: That's right, and we finally did get the immigration bill introduced this week. It has a huge coalition in favor of it. Strange bedfellows like John McCain standing next to Richard Trumka and Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, but we do hear conservatives saying that this is a reason to shut the doors to future immigration.

Now, don't forget, these were legal immigrants, the marathon bombers. They were brought here as children. One was a naturalized citizen. But you do have this debate about whether or not, because they were immigrants, that's a reason to slow down or to somehow alter the push for immigration reform. I think that supporters were well aware of these arguments.

And they fired back immediately, saying this is why we need immigration reform, so we know who's in the country, and we can keep track of their comings and goings. I still think the immigration reform bill has huge momentum behind it, big broad coalition, and we'll see if the deal that the Senate made can pass the Senate and push the House into agreement by the end of the year.

MARTIN: Of course, though, the president had a major policy setback on another priority last week, guns. Can you explain what happened there, Mara?

LIASSON: Well, the senate defeated an amendment on background checks for sales at gun shows and on the internet. This would close loopholes in the existing background check system. That was favored by huge majorities in the polls, and there was a lot of pressure from the gun lobby who seems to have won in this round of gun legislation. Also, Republican alternatives were defeated, and by defeated, I mean they didn't get 60 votes.

That's what you need in the Senate to pass anything because it was filibustered. Ninety percent of the country does support background checks, and ninety percent of Democrats voted for them. Ninety percent of Republicans voted no. So it was partially partisan, but it was also regional because four Democrats who were up for re-election in 2014 in red states crossed party lines to vote against it.

Only four Republicans voted yes, so now we're in the post-mortem period - what happened, how did something like background checks that has 90 percent support of the public fail to get 60 votes? Was it just because the NRA was too powerful, or could the president have done something differently, spend less time outside of Washington speaking before rallies and more time twisting arms, personally, with senators inside Washington?

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks so much for wrapping up all this news, Mara. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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