Fallows On The News: Health Bill, Climate, Drones

Guy Raz talks with James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, about some of the stories in this week's news, including: the Senate health care bill, the climate agreement reached in Copenhagen, and the story of Iraqi insurgents using a cheap computer program to hack U.S. drones.

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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

Copenhagen dominated the news this week. But the big story on the domestic front turned out to be health care.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Senate Majority Leader): This bill will do so many good things for so many people. Some on the right think this bill goes too far. To them I say, you have a lack of understanding what the problems in America are today.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Senate Minority Leader): If they were proud of this bill, they wouldn't be doing it this way. They wouldn't be jamming it through in the middle of the night on the last weekend before Christmas. This bill is a legislative train wreck of historic proportions.

RAZ: Joining us now to talk about this and other stories from the week is James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, and our news analyst here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Jim, have you been outside yet today?

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly): Awkward question. I watched my wife as she shoveled the walk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALLOWS: I have the ideal marriage.

RAZ: All right. Well, let's start with health care, Jim. A dramatic turn. This morning, the Democrats got 60 votes, the votes they needed, picking up Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson's support.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, I think that, you know, this is something the Democrats and the Obama administration had been saying all along, that it would be close, but finally they would make the compromises on abortion, on the public option, on everything else necessary to hold their 60 votes together.

I think what's worth mentioning right now, apart from all the merits of health reform, which we'll discuss for weeks and months to come, is the procedural issue. You know, we've been so used to hearing about 60 votes is being what's necessary to do anything in the Senate.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. FALLOWS: You know, historically, there had been the role to cut off - the Senate has unlimited debate. And so to end that, there had to be a cloture vote, which until 1975 was 67 votes, a two-thirds majority. And since then, it's been 60 votes. But until, really, the Clinton administration, it was done only rarely.

I worked for Jimmy Carter long ago when it was maybe eight or 10 times per year. Starting really with Bill Clinton's time in office, and ever since then, there's been this sense that to do anything, to confirm a Supreme Court appointment, to get anybody appointed, to do any sorts of bill, you had to have this supermajority. And it's had, I would argue, a kind of, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, it has a distorting effect on the way we do business. It makes it hard to direct any public attention on things that need to be done.

RAZ: Jim, going back to Copenhagen for a moment. As we just heard in David Kestenbaum's report, there had been this huge rift between China and the U.S. over the issue of verification. Is that rift now closed?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think it is a very important rift. And I think the report by - from Copenhagen portrayed it accurately. This is in a way the perfect storm, if you will, of problems for China. On the one hand, data coming out of China are admitted even by the Chinese to be very, very suspect.

For example, a pollution reading above 100 in Beijing would qualify as a polluted day. So day after day, the readings would always be 99, and all sorts of other illustrations of that sort. So to have any agreement with China, it has to be somehow testable.

On the other hand, there is still, even in modern China, this almost - this very partly understandable, partly primitive fear of just having foreigners go around the country. The fact that Google Earth can show things in the country that people have never known about is still very disturbing.

And so, the way to solve this gap of being able to prove things from China without offending China's sense of security and national dignity, that is a difficult problem and will be a significant one going forward.

RAZ: Hmm. An interesting story, Jim, out of Iraq this past week. Insurgents apparently were able to hack into video and then intercept video from an American predator drone, using a piece of computer software that they bought off the Internet for $26.

Mr. FALLOWS: I have a bulging file in my office, back when I used to keep files with paperclips, of the so-called weapons of the week sorts of countermeasures like this. Certainly, back in the Vietnam War with bamboo sticks and other things of the sort, the adversaries, they were able to overcome America's vast high-tech arsenal. And this is the fundamental challenge for a technological power like the U.S. militarily.

We have the huge advantage in information technology and weaponry, and sometimes there are very cheap ways to thwart the advantage we have. So I'm sure that coping with this asymmetrical warfare is going to be the next headache for the Pentagon.

RAZ: That's James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, and our news analyst here on the weekend.

Jim, stay warm.

Mr. FALLOWS: Same to you, Guy.

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