Details Sketchy On NSA Changes, But Congress Reacts Quickly

Political correspondent Mara Liasson talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about the announcement of the potential changes to the NSA and the likely political fallout. She also gives a sneak peak of how the mid-term elections are shaping up.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back in the U.S., while there were complaints that some of the recommendations were vague, reactions have been nonetheless swift, especially in Congress. Joining us to talk about the political fallout at home is NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, the president's NSA proposals, how are they going over on Capitol Hill?

LIASSON: Well, the reaction was mixed, as you would expect because this is such a divisive issue and not just left and right. The civil libertarian left and the libertarian right is united on this. So, you heard Democrats, like Tom Udall of New Mexico and Ron Wyden of Oregon call this a major milestone, but they want to go much further and put more restraints on the programs. Then you heard other Democrats, like the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein and the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, saying they're concerned about the president's proposals to put more restrictions on the scrutinizing of people's metadata and calls. And they are worried about that. So, you can see it's a very mixed reaction because this is a divisive issue.

MARTIN: But Congress is the body that has to green light these reforms ultimately, right?

LIASSON: They do. And if they don't, by June of 2015, the Patriot Act expires, and of course that's what some of the opponents of this collection want to happen, that the whole law goes away. But that is the deadline hanging over Congress and they have a lot to do before then. They have to decide exactly what some of these reforms will look like. The president left the work to them. For instance, exactly where this data will be stored, if not by the government. So, they have a lot of details to figure out.

MARTIN: Let's get to the political realities. As you say, the criticism came from the left and the right. But did the president do enough to ease concerns from Democrats, from those in his own party?

LIASSON: Well, he's never going to ease the concerns of the ACLU and some parts of his base. But, yes, I think he did go far enough to quiet the concerns of people who thought these programs were going forward unrestrained and unreformed.

MARTIN: So, as the leader of his party, the president is also looking towards the fall, laying the groundwork for the midterm elections. Do we expect some bold new policy initiatives, Mara, or just a do-no-harm approach?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, the president's trying to limit the damage the Democrats will suffer in 2014. Historically, the president's party loses seats in the second term midterm. To help them, he has to get his own approval ratings up. He has to make sure Obamacare is implemented correctly. But, yes, he has come up with a policy agenda of big issues that do unite his party: raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance, and focusing on issues like income inequality and a lack of upward mobility. Those are the things that he's going to be talking about. They will unite his party. And I think Democrats are happy with that. The question is how much of it can he get passed through Congress.

MARTIN: So, not enough for Democrats to just kind of look to the Republicans, as all the headlines suggest, all the fracturing that's happened in the wake of the government shutdown. That's not enough. They can just bank on that?

LIASSON: Oh, bank that the Republicans are having a bad year? No. The irony is that the Republicans, while their national brand is in a lot of trouble and they're looking at a daunting challenge in a presidential election in 2016, for 2014, for the midterms, Republicans are in very good shape. They did take a big hit after the government shutdown but much of that damage was wiped out by the damage the Democrats inflicted upon themselves with the rollout of Obamacare. But for 2014, the Republicans are in good shape. They're defending fewer seats in the Senate. The map in the House, the way congressional districts are drawn, protects Republicans House incumbents. So, yes, it's not enough to Democrats to bank on Republicans' troubles.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.

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