Health Care, Energy Bills Hold For July 4 Holiday

Congress takes a break next week for the July 4 holiday, having reached critical points in the passage of major bills on energy and health care. They're two of President Obama's domestic priorities — and he continues to push for both. Liane Hansen talks to NPR's Ron Elving.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

This past week was packed with stunning news developments. The death of Michael Jackson capped a series of stories: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's infidelity, continued turmoil in Iran, passage of a major energy bill in the House and decisions from the Supreme Court. It's hard to imagine two weeks like that in a row, but we're going to give NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving a chance to try. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING: Hello, Liane.

HANSEN: So, what's coming up this week that's likely to have us all talking into the holiday weekend?

ELVING: You know, even in the news business I think we hope not to have another week quite like last week. There will be some developments in some of those stories. We'll be looking for more from the Jackson case, of course. And many will be waiting to see if Governor Sanford resigns down in South Carolina.

Here in Washington on another front, we expect to see a CIA release a five-year-old report on the treatment and interrogation of terror suspects. This is a report that a federal judge has ordered the agency to release, and the CIA has been struggling for some time now to decide how much of the report by their own internal inspector general can remain classified and how much must be made public at this point. We'll be watching for that.

One thing we do know is that Congress will not pass any more big bills because they will be gone next week for their Fourth of July recess. And President Obama is also expecting a quiet week with very few public events as he prepares for his next overseas trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana.

HANSEN: Talk about the last act in the House before they closed down for the holiday. The energy bill the House passed late Friday while most of the world was distracted. What do you make of this?

ELVING: It plays as a big win for the White House, I think, but it's really not the president's bill, nor is it Al Gore's bill or that preferred by the greener members of Congress. There were too many compromises in it to call it that, but it is the first effort by Congress to do anything about global warming or, really, to shift the country seriously from the fossil fuels that we've been depending on for the last century, to renewables and nuclear power and greater energy efficiency, essentially the sources we think we'll rely on in the next century.

And we're going to have to start over, you know, with this bill in the Senate in the fall, and they'll pass something very different. And then the big question will be what kind of a role the White House can play in reconciling the House and Senate bills. But I do think it's fair to say this is another hinge of history, another major shift of direction on a fundamental national policy issue.

HANSEN: Let's move on to the judicial branch of government. Tomorrow's the last day of the session for the U.S. Supreme Court. How many big cases are still pending?

ELVING: Just three, each of which, though, is potentially quite important. We've got the New Haven firefighters case. That's a reverse discrimination case, a promotion test on which African-Americans did not do well. The results were thrown out. So, some of the firefighters who did do well on the test sued. They lost in district court, they lost on appeal. And if the Supreme Court sides with the firefighters, that could have major implications for affirmative action and hiring practices throughout the country.

It also has implications for Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was involved in the appeals court upholding, that particular decision, earlier. And her nomination, of course, comes to its hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 13th. So that's still a little ways away. There's also a campaign finance case that could produce a sweeping decision on that issue. And there's also a case concerning the power of states to investigate big banks that are under federal jurisdiction. That, of course, arising from the big financial meltdown last fall.

HANSEN: Some time this week in a Minnesota courtroom, there may be a decision on the Senate race that's gone into overtime there?

ELVING: Yes, overtime and then some. We do expect that the Minnesota Supreme Court will want to clear its decks before the Fourth of July, too, and most observers of this case expect that the Minnesota Supreme Court will name Al Franken the winner in that Senate race - Al Franken, the Democrat. And that Governor Tim Pawlenty, although he is a Republican, will then accept that and certify that result to the Senate.

HANSEN: And the result would give the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate.

ELVING: Officially, yes, but two of those 60 Democrats - Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and, of course, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts - are ill and have not been present in the chamber for some days. Their return, at this point, is uncertain.

HANSEN: Ron, you know how much noise was made back in the spring about the president's first 100 days. I wonder if you think in some ways the milestone of Fourth of July seems more meaningful.

ELVING: It does seem more meaningful, especially this year, in part because that Congress takes a bit of a break - the country does, as well, this time of year and it's a natural moment for assessment. But this has also been an extraordinary year, and right now the president probably feels pretty good about getting the energy bill through the House, about the progress being made in House and Senate towards a health care overhaul.

There's a long way to go yet on his financial reregulation, but he has some momentum there, too. He's begun to engage on the world stage. He's had his first battles of words with problematic leaders in Iran and Korea. And we can see the outlines of potential crises on the horizon and, to some degree, we can see the outlines of his method of dealing with those crises. So, I think we can say Washington and the world are getting used to there being a new presence in the White House.

HANSEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane.

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