Week Ahead In Politics Examined

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While grumbling continues over his failure to pay taxes, Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Daschle should be able to rely on a store of goodwill from his Senate colleagues. And President Barack Obama is expected to tap GOP Sen. Judd Gregg for Commerce secretary this week.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama is the first person to go straight from the U.S. Senate to the Oval Office since John F. Kennedy, and he's using his ties from his old job in his new one. He has mined the Senate for his vice president and several Cabinet members. And this week, his influence with the Senate is put to the test as that body takes up his economic stimulus package, now measured at about $900 billion. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about this White House Senate access.

MARA LIASSON: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: The House passed the stimulus bill last week without a single Republican vote; all but 11 Democrats voted for it. But President Obama and others have hopes for bipartisanship in the Senate here. In fact, here's Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, on the Senate floor this afternoon.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): I would urge colleagues to use this week working with our chairs, working with the Obama administration, to come together to make sure that by the end of this week, we have shown the American people that this critically important legislation on recovery and investment is moving forward to deal with the critical needs of those we represent at home.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. And Mara, what are the prospects for alliance in the Senate? How many - how important is that for President Obama?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, the prospects are much greater just because of the structure of the Senate. It takes 60 votes to pass anything. There are also 10 senators, 10 Republican senators who represent states that Obama won. That's quite different than the House, where House districts are drawn to be packed with either Democrats or Republicans. The bill is already changing as it moves its way through the Senate. There's going to be more tax cuts for businesses. There's going to be a fix for the alternative minimum tax. There's going to be more money for public infrastructure.

LIASSON: Already, the bill is changing in ways that should make it more appealing to Republicans, so they should get more Republican votes in the Senate, but also when it comes back to the House after a conference committee. It's very important, I think, for President Obama to not just ram these things through with Democratic votes, not just to get them passed, but also because he wants to lay down this marker of some kind of bipartisanship and good will that will help him in the future on health care reform, and energy and entitlement reform. Those things are really hard. All the stimulus bill is, politically, is spending a ton of money with cutting taxes.

That's relatively easy compared to the tough choices ahead where Democrats won't vote for things like health-care reform or entitlement reform unless Republicans do.

SIEGEL: Now the newest subplot in Obama's relations with the Senate is the news that he is considering Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to be the Commerce secretary. And Judd Gregg, I gather, is considering becoming Commerce secretary.

LIASSON: Yes. It looks like he will be. And this is a real coup for the White House. Gregg made a deal that if he does accept this position, the Democratic governor of New Hampshire will replace him with a Republican. Now that's very unusual, but if he didn't do that, the Republicans would no longer have the 41 votes they need in the Senate to block legislation, to make a filibuster.

SIEGEL: And his successor would sit for two years, until the next election.

LIASSON: Yes. And his successor has to run in 2010. The reason this is a coup for the White House is, number one, they get the bipartisan bragging rights of another Republican in their Cabinet. Also, whoever replaces Gregg, this Republican might not run again in 2010, and whoever they are - would be a heck of a lot easier to beat the Judd Greg, who's very popular in New Hampshire, which is a state that's trending Democratic. And also, whoever is going to be the replacement for him, even if it is a Republican, might be more moderate than Gregg, and might be more willing to vote with the Democrats. And the last thing is, as one top White House aide explained this to me, it's like taking one of the other team's quarterbacks.

Judd Gregg is very, very skillful and knowledgeable on budget matters and fiscal matters. He's a real leader. So they're taking that away from the other team.

SIEGEL: Now, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is on the griddle today before his old colleagues over delinquent taxes. Do you think he's going to be confirmed as Health and Human Services secretary?

LIASSON: Yes, I do. He's going to get a lot of senatorial courtesy. He was a member of the Finance Committee. The White House and Democratic senators have kind of circled the wagons around him. Still, I think this is a black eye for the White House, who set these very - a very high bar for ethical standards. We know he had to pay more than $100,000 in back taxes for a private car and driver that he used 80 percent for personal use. He made a ton of money working for health-care companies, millions of dollars since he got out of the Senate. He consulted with them on lobbying strategies, but he never registered as a lobbyist. And…

SIEGEL: And that's the litmus test.

LIASSON: And that is the litmus test for this White House. As long as you are not a registered lobbyist, you are welcome in the administration.

SIEGEL: Now, now briefly, Senator Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is, I gather, the one man in America looking for a worse mortgage on his home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: Well, he's looking for a different mortgage. He is finally refinancing the two mortgages he got under that VIP program from Countrywide, mortgage company, which was, of course, the big villain in the subprime housing crisis. So this ends his dealings with Countrywide, and he…

SIEGEL: He has to go in the market and say, anything but a special deal is okay.


SIEGEL: Thanks, Mara. It's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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