Week In Politics: Korean Unease, Lame Duck Congress

In our political roundtable this week, guest host Mary Louise Kelly speaks with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard about how Washington should respond to bellicose North Korea. They also look ahead to how the lame duck session is shaping up in Congress.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Now a bit of political analysis on how the Korea situation is playing out here in Washington and some of the other challenges the Obama administration has on its plate. I'm joined by our regular political commentator E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. And sitting in for David Brooks today is Matt Continetti of the Weekly Standard.

Mr. MATT CONTINETTI (Weekly Standard): Thank you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post, Brookings Institution): Thank you. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Matt, let me start with you. I heard North Korea described this week as the land of lousy options. Does that about sum it up?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Oh, I think so. But, you know, when we talk about the political climate here in Washington, over the past few months we've had all these, you know, China bashing has become a favorite hobby and I think a justified hobby of the political class. And whether its their treatment of political prisoners or whether it's their treatment of the currency.

And now we see the case in North Korea. Everyone seems to think, well, China is the big factor here. But what is China doing? It continues to assist the North Koreans. It does not subscribe to the idea that the government in North Korea is the major problem and above all, it does not want that government to collapse. So, for all the talk of China's rise, what we see is that rise is not necessarily always a positive thing.

KELLY: And we have heard several members of the Obama administration this week saying, calling on China to do more and lead the way. E.J., what do you make of the Obama administration's response so far to this latest crisis over North Korea?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think these maneuvers that you just talked about in the earlier segment are very much the Obama administration trying to tell the Chinese, you got to do something and we are going to do some things that you're not crazy about. These are off their waters. And there really aren't a lot of options, as you said.

I mean, the one country in the world that absolutely does not want a war on that peninsula is South Korea. This is a very prosperous country. They have an enormous amount to lose. And so the Obama administration is in a position of wanting to look tough against this provocation, which they're doing, without risking a war.

And I think that the - when you're dealing with a regime that some heart of itself is fundamentally irrational and thinks it has little to lose, that's a really dangerous position to be in for us.

KELLY: Yeah, and a nuclear armed North Korea on top of it.

Mr. DIONNE: Exactly.

KELLY: Let me, while we're talking nuclear conundrums, let me ask you both about a different subject - the START treaty. This is the nuclear weapons reduction treaty that President Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed months ago. It has stalled in the Senate.

E.J., what is your guess? How is this going to play out in the upcoming lame duck session?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I must say, Im kind of astonished that Senator Kyl is blocking this. I mean...

KELLY: This is Republican Senator John Kyl.

Mr. DIONNE: From Arizona. There are so many conservatives and Republicans who are for this, from Pat Buchanan to Robert Kagan, very different kind of conservatives, to James Baker and Henry Kissinger and Senator Lugar.

The only person who has something to win if this treaty is blocked is Vladimir Putin, because this really will strengthen his side and particularly the anti-American side in Russia. If it goes through, it will probably give comfort to the people who want to be our friends.

I really hope he finds a way to back off of this position because I think this is very destructive for us as a country, forget Republican and Democrat.

KELLY: Matt, whats your take on this, destructive for us as a country?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Im not sure. In fact, many advocates of new START say that one of the reasons the Senate should pass it is that its so inconsequential to our national security. So, if it fails to pass, I dont think the costs will be as high as E.J. says.

But I will say, what we see in this is a preview of things to come. One of the reasons the Obama administration is pushing for passage in the lame duck is that theyre afraid with the six new Republican senators in the next Congress that the difficulty of passing the law will be even greater.

But what were also seeing in the lame duck, not only the port in of more Republicans next year, we're also seeing the type of politics that will be played out in the next Congress, which is that Republicans like to flex their muscles. And so what you see here, the new START treaty is symbolizing the coming gridlock, it seems to me.

Mr. DIONNE: I think that's right, but where I disagree with Matt is, yes, in terms of the hardware, this may not be the most important thing. But in terms of our long-term interests where we want a relationship with a Russia that tilts more Western than against us, I think that's where the treaty has significance and that's where I think this is a very unfortunate thing the Republicans are doing. It's a wrong issue to pick for flexing your muscles.

KELLY: And let me follow up on this issue of Republicans flexing their muscles and whether that's going to continue. As we see the Congress change with the January new Congress being seated, we're going to see that playing out in a different venue next week when President Obama sits down with congressional leaders.

Lots of subjects on the table, but one of the - ones that's surely going to get a lot of attention is tax cuts, whether to extend them. Matt, what do you see as a good negotiating strategy for the Republicans going into that conversation?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I think the Republicans have held the cards on this issue for some time, not only because their caucus is unified, that they want an extension of all tax rates for about two or three years at least, but it's also the Democrats. You know, there's been a split in the Democratic caucus. A lot of Democratic congressmen, many of whom have lost their seats and also, a lot of Democrats in red states, especially those red state senators whose seats are going to be up in 2012, I think they're on the Republican position of not raising taxes on anyone in a recession.

So the Republicans hold a card. But when, you know, when I look forward to this lame duck session, I'm very pessimistic. The Democrats have so much to cover, so much that they say they want to do over this next weeks of legislative business, including funding the government, I wonder whether anything is going to get passed over the next month.

KELLY: E.J., what's your take? I mean, President Obama and the lame duck Congress coming back, both trying to figure out a very tough balancing act and how to actually get something done here in Washington.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. There is an awful lot on the plate of this lame duck if they were to go through it all. I think the Obama administration still hasn't found its way on this issue. I think they are obsessed with looking reasonable and sort of telling the country, we're willing to negotiate with the Republicans because they want the country to blame the Republicans if things break down.

But in the process of being so reasonable, I think they weaken their own bargaining position and that a lot of the president's own supporters, and I believe a lot of people in the middle are looking for a little toughness from the president. Where is he going to draw the line? They've signaled that they were - they are more or less willing to extend these tax cuts for a couple years.

I think that's a bad idea. But if they're going to do that, they ought to be negotiating hard for something such as extending unemployment benefits for the two million people who are going to need them by the time the next holiday rolls around in about a month. And for Democrats to agree to these tax cuts for the wealthy and not have the unemployment extension passed, that would be a real scandal for the Democratic Party.

KELLY: Matt, quick response?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I would say this, I think it's unlikely any of this stuff will pass, and so that means a lot of Republicans are eager for their first vote in January to be a retroactive tax cut.

KELLY: Okay, thanks very much. That was Matt Continetti of the Weekly Standard and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and the Washington Post. Thanks to you both.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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