Idaho Senator Clings to Post, Congress Preps for New Session

Republican Sen. Larry Craig, of Idaho, earned an unwanted spotlight for about his guilty plea in connection with lewd behavior. Also, Congress resumes session as new information suggests that poverty in America is declining. Democratic pollster Ron Lester and Patrick Sammon, president of the Log Cabin Republicans analyze the week in politics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, our regular Friday features. We have a Faith Matters conversation about a woman who found a calling after suffering a devastating loss, and the Barbershop guys are in the house. That's just ahead.

But first, it's time to talk politics. Lots of political news this week. Republican Senator Larry Craig is getting no love from his colleagues in the GOP. Word of his arrest and guilty plea in connection with lewd behavior in a Minneapolis airport bathroom has created an uproar in his home state and on Capitol Hill. For most of the week, he's been fending off questions about his sexuality and calls for fellow Republicans for his resignation.

And in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' resignation, the inspector general at the Justice Department announced that he's investigating whether Gonzales gave false testimony before Congress. Also, poverty numbers in America have dropped, but there may be a catch. And Congress begins a new session on Tuesday.

So, joining us to talk about all of these is Democratic pollster Ron Lester. Also with us is Patrick Sammon. He's the president of the Log Cabin Republicans. It's a political organization for gay and lesbian Republicans.

Welcome to the program, gentlemen.

Mr. PATRICK SAMMON (President, Log Cabin Republicans): Good to be with you.

Mr. RONALD LESTER (Democratic Pollster): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Patrick, let's start with you. Senator Craig's Republican colleagues have forced him to resign committee assignments. He's been referred to the Ethics Committee. In fact, there are rumors swirling that he may resign as soon as today, although he, of course, has previously said he won't. But why all this? I mean, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor, as I understand it. Why - he's been in the Senate a long time, why does he not have more friends?

Mr. SAMMON: Well, it's clear that he needs to resign and take responsibility for his actions. I think that the time for him to contest these allegations would have been before his guilty plea. You can't come back now and try and explain what happened. And then you had that absurd news conference early in the week, where he tried to explain why he did enter a guilty plea. And I don't think anyone believed it. And I think political strategists will be talking about the silliness of that news conference 20 years from now.

MARTIN: Okay, but the underlying allegations, which he, you know, said, you know, everybody understands - he says he was entrapped, it's not true, he just wanted to get it all over with, doesn't involve children. Okay, so it's a misdemeanor, so tell me…

Mr. SAMMON: Well, it's …

MARTIN: …why he should resign a Senate seat over a misdemeanor?

Mr. SAMMON: Well, because it's certainly the nature of the misdemeanor. I think, you know, what his sexual orientation is, is irrelevant to the story. I don't want to speculate on whether he is gay or not. But I think no matter what someone's sexual orientation is they can't be seeking sex in a public place. I think he has violated the trust of the people of Idaho, number one.

And the lack of judgment is just incredible to me. That alone is grounds for him to resign. Not only the lack of judgment with the initial incident but with the way he's handled it since then. It's just clear that he can no longer effectively serve the people of Idaho, and I think they deserve better. So he needs to take responsibility and resign.

MARTIN: Okay. Now, Ron, this is obviously a tragedy for Senator Craig because it's embarrassing, you know, among other things. But is there any broader significance to this, politically? I mean, Idaho's a very Republican state. The entire delegation is Republican. President Bush won the state by like 38 points. So, if he does resign, he'll be replaced by another Republican. So is there any broader significance there?

Mr. LESTER: He may be replaced by another Republican, but you never know. If you remember, a Republican was defeated in Montana last time by Democrat Jon Tester. And these are states that are close to each other, similar in demographic makeup and political orientation. So that's not a given.

I think what's so significant about this Craig event is that the Republican Party is a party of morality and values. It puts itself on a high horse. It's the party of apple pie and the American flag. So, when something like this happens, it just cuts against the grain of the Republican Party, particularly coming on the heels of the Foley matter in 2006 and the Vitter matter. It's just a virtual nightmare for them and just almost a perfect storm of sorts for the Democrats, politically.

MARTIN: Well, it is still awhile yet to the election, so do you think really anybody will remember it by next fall?

Mr. LESTER: Well, I think that's a good point. I think public opinion tends to ebb and flow, but certainly the timing is very bad. I mean, the Democrats lost Congress for 12 years. It took the Democrats 12 years to get back on method's track. Public opinion takes awhile to form, so they've got, now, five months until the primaries and about 14 months until the general election.

And it's not just the Foley matter, the Vitter matter and the Craig matter, but it all goes back to January of 2005 with the defeat of the Social Security bill, the passage of the bankruptcy bill and the estate tax, which really hurt them badly, the expansion of the war. And then Katrina, that really had a major effect on public opinion.

You had Foley, Vitter, and now there's talk next week, when Congress comes back, about President Bush killing health insurance. So I think that it's a series of events that happen over time that makes it so difficult for the Republicans to recover from.

MARTIN: Patrick, you want to speak to that?

Mr. SAMMON: I think that the biggest problem with this situation is the ethical cloud that hangs over the Republican Party. Certainly, hypocrisy is part of the story because Senator Craig has a terrible record on gay rights, and he tried to use family values as a political issue while at the same time not living up to those standards.

But it has to be pointed out, even if he was supportive of gay rights, his behavior would still be inappropriate and illegal. To Ron's point, though, I think the ethical cloud that hangs over the party with the questions involving, you know, Senator Stevens and going back to last year with Jack Abramoff, and then the situation with certainly Mark Foley, all of that creates a real problem when you're talking about ethics and character and integrity and good government. So, the Republican Party has a lot of repair to do and this certainly doesn't help do that.

MARTIN: And talking about sort of questions of ethics. As I mentioned, the Justice Department announced that they're investigating the truthfulness of former attorney general - well, he's still attorney general until, for a couple more weeks - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' congressional testimony about warrantless surveillance, the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys. Is this the kind of thing that, I mean, I think for a lot of people, particularly the Republican Party, there was a sigh of relief when Mr. Gonzales chose to resign because they thought, well, at least it sort of takes this issue off the table.

And does this investigation, you know, do you think that this will sort of keep the story alive? Patrick, perhaps you want to take that?

Mr. SAMMON: I think now that he has resigned, and I know those investigations will continue, but the potency of the issue as a political tool for the Democrats I don't think will be there the way it would have been had he stayed on the job. I think that once the president nominates someone else for the position and then we move ahead with confirmation hearings that will move the focus of this story.

MARTIN: Okay, Ron, what do you think? I mean, what about the substance of it? I mean, if this is unfairly - that's a fairly, that's a very significant charge. He's the chief law enforcement officer of the country, and if he's deemed to have lied, it's significant substantively. But do you think it politically?

Mr. LESTER: I think it's very significant and it adds on to the other debacles that I talked about earlier. I mean, here we have a guy who really should have gone a long time ago. And what he endured was death by a thousand cuts. It was carried out on national television every day in these painfully long hearings.

The American people got sick of it. Everyone got sick of it, even the Republicans. And he finally had to go. He stayed too long. I mean, politically, that was very damaging to this administration.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Democratic pollster Ron Lester and president of the Log Cabin Republicans Patrick Sammon.

Let's talk about some numbers. The Census Bureau is reporting that for the first time in a decade, the poverty rate has declined from 12.6 percent of the population to 12.3 percent. Sounds like a small number, but it is statistically significant. And as I said, it's the first drop in decade.

Now poverty has become part of a national conversation again, in part because of presidential candidates. But, Ron, do these numbers suggest that perhaps it may not be a strong issue for the Democrats as much as they may believe because the country might be on an upward trend?

Mr. LESTER: Well, health insurance is the major issue for the Democrats. As a matter of fact, if you take a look at the parties when you do polling, the Democrat's position on health insurance gives them their strongest advantage over the Republicans. This is the only major industrial nation in the world without some form of national health insurance. It's the richest country in the world, yet we have 15 percent of the entire population without health insurance: 25 percent are blacks and 30 percent of Hispanics. It is unacceptable.

So this is an issue that needs to be dealt with on a bipartisan basis. It's not a partisan issue; it's a humanitarian issue. But politically, it works to the Democrats. In New York, for example, Governor Spitzer is talking about actually suing the federal government if they don't pass this bill because there are so many children up there who are going to be very, very sick and not get the care that they need.

MARTIN: Patrick, what about - this Census Bureau report I just cited also said that the number of people without health insurance rose to a record number, I think, 47 million people. Does this suggest that Republicans are going to have to do more to talk about bread-and-butter issues?

Mr. SAMMON: Well, I think you're seeing more Republicans around the country talk about the need for health care reform to increase the number of people who are covered by health insurance. But, if you have Democrats proposing a solution that injects more government into it, I think that most Americans are suspicious of that. They don't want a single-payer system.

What I think you'll see in the coming years is different states around the country experimenting with different ways to increase access to health insurance. You saw that in Massachusetts. I know there have been proposals in California and some other states. But I don't think that demanding that government provide universal care that would be cost prohibitive is the best way to go. We need to be expanding market forces so that people make more choices with health insurance.

When I go to the doctor, of course if the doctor says do you want this test? Since I'm not - have no connection to the cost of it, of course I say yes. So you need to be providing more choices for people. And then I think that would help increase coverage…

MARTIN: Okay, Patrick, I'm sorry. Just very, very briefly, if you saw that, you know, Congress was not able to make headway on the other sort of big national issue - immigration. Is - and for a lot of people that was a relief, because a lot of people didn't like the proposal that they came up with.

But is not embracing a choice that people don't like going to be enough for the Republicans in Congress to hold on to their seats or even make any headway, given that people are already so dissatisfied with Congress' performance? I guess what I'm saying is rejecting a bad health care proposal that a lot of people don't like, is that going to be enough in a year like this?

Mr. SAMMON: Well, I think the context of the upcoming campaign will provide Republicans with an opportunity to talk about what solutions they propose for health insurance. I know we've seen Mayor Giuliani offer a proposal that's more based on market forces to increase coverage of the uninsured. So the upcoming campaign will provide Republicans the opportunity to present alternatives.

MARTIN: Okay, Ron, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to skip you for the last word. We're out of time. We'll have to have you come back and give an answer to that, so we'll have to let you go. I'm sorry.

Mr. LESTER: Okay.

MARTIN: Patrick Sammon is president of the Log Cabin Republicans. He joined us from our New York bureau. Democratic pollster Ron Lester joined us by phone from Lakewood, New Jersey.

Thanks, gentlemen.

Mr. LESTER: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. SAMMON: Thank you.

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