Republicans Put Democrats On Defensive

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For a Republican Party with no majority, no leader and no brand name, it was a pretty good week on Capitol Hill. Democrats joined the GOP in putting the brakes on President Obama's plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and Republicans successfully attached pro-gun legislation to a popular credit card bill.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. For a party with no majority, no obvious national leader, and a weak brand name, the Republicans had a pretty good week on Capitol Hill.

First, Democrats joined the GOP in resisting President Obama's efforts to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Then, the Republicans successfully attached pro-gun legislation to a popular credit card bill.

NPR's David Welna is with us to talk a bit more about this. It looks like the Republicans in Congress perhaps made a bit of a comeback this week.

DAVID WELNA: I think you could say that at the very least, they have figured out how to exploit the fear factor. Take this issue of money for closing down Guantanamo. It was just $80 million out of a $91 billion war spending bill, but that's practically the only thing in this bill that really got debated in the Senate.

Republicans already knew from a vote on this two years ago that many Democrats are afraid of reprisals from voters who fear the prospect of detainees who've been repeatedly described as some of the worst of the worst being transferred to the U.S. mainland. You might call this the not-in-my-backyard caucus in the Senate.

So, when Democratic leaders decided to avoid a tough vote and beat a retreat on this by stripping the Guantanamo money from the war spending bill, Republicans declared victory. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): And I think the American people who are concerned about their own security and safety ought to be pleased that our friends on the other side of the aisle are showing some flexibility on this issue and heading in our direction.

LYDEN: And how did that provision allowing people to carry loaded weapons in national parks end up in the credit card consumer rights bill that President Obama signed, Friday?

WELNA: Again, Republicans knew that a lot of Democrats feel very vulnerable, whether justifiably or not, when it comes to votes on issues backed by gun owners. So, by wielding the threat of holding up the popular credit card bill, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn got Democratic leader Harry Reid to agree to allowing a vote on Coburn's amendment, which allows guns in those national parks that are in states that permit concealed weapons, and half the Senate Democrats ended up voting for that amendment, including Reid. And ironically, Coburn ended up voting against the credit card bill, even though it now includes his gun amendment.

LYDEN: Does this Republican offensive have legs?

WELNA: Well, you know, historically, the party that's not in the White House has picked up seats in Congress in midterm elections. And I think the Republicans' prospects for sustaining this will depend in part how the economic recovery goes. But Republicans seem to feel that they still have an upper hand when it comes to national security issues.

You see this playing out in their efforts to keep the spotlight on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying she should apologize for last week accusing the CIA of misleading her and Congress on the use of waterboarding. The GOP wants to keep the story burning, but Pelosi is not cooperating. Here is how she responded yesterday to a barrage of questions from reporters about the CIA flap.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): On the subject that you asked, I've made the statement that I'm going to make. I won't have anything more to say. I won't have anything more to say about that. Another subject?

WELNA: In other words, end of story, though I'm sure Republicans don't see it that way.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Lawmakers are headed back to their states for the Memorial Day weekend, and what do you think is going to be on their constituents' minds?

WELNA: Republicans will be talking about the climate change bill that a House committee just approved. The GOP is calling this a new tax on energy and a bad idea. Democrats will likely tout that bill. But, you know, they're also likely to face questions about Guantanamo detainees will soon be living down the street from them, and President Obama tried quelling such fears with his speech at the National Archives this week. The fact that he made that speech I think shows how effective Republicans have been in making the closing of Guantanamo a big issue.

LYDEN: NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. Thank you and have a great weekend.

WELNA: Thank you, Jacki.

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