Bush Administration Holds the Line

Overall, it was a tough year for the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. The White House, by contrast, has every reason to be celebrating this holiday season. NPR's Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Don Gonyea.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was not full of Christmas cheer this past week. He and his fellow Democrats in Congress have had a somewhat tough-go of it lately. The White House, by contrast, has every reason to be celebrating this holiday season. It seems President Bush is still calling the shots, or at least a lot of them.

NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea says Mr. Bush would seem to be at a disadvantage in his dealings with Capitol Hill, but he's not.

DON GONYEA: Even a lame duck president has the institutional powers of the presidency, and we've watched in the last year since Democrats took control of the Congress. We've watched him kind of learn some new tricks, learn things he didn't have to do when he had Republican majorities. So there is that.

Now even a weakened president, a president with lower approval ratings has the bully pulpit that allows him to get out there, get on television, get on radio and frame the issues for the American people in ways that Democrats in Congress are not quite able to do. They don't quite have the same access.

And then let's not forget the veto pen. There's the veto which he has used, there's the threat of a veto which he has used, because Congress is so closely divided that the mere threat of a veto is often enough to move the ball and allow the president to hold sway.

HANSEN: President Bush did his yearend news conference this past week, and a reporter pointed out that the administration had achieved many of its goals without compromising with the Democrats and by threatening to use the veto. And he asked what this said about the Bush administration's relationship for the Democratic leadership, and this was the president's response.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Now the president constantly has to make sure that the executive branch is involved in the process. And one way is to make - is to use the veto. And the veto wouldn't been - have been effective without close coordinated and consultation with the Republican leaders in the House and the Senate.

HANSEN: You'll notice President Bush didn't mention the Democratic leadership in his response to the question. So how are his relations with them after this year?

GONYEA: You picked up on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: We didn't hear the names of Reid or Pelosi in that. You know, it's not that chilly in Washington these days, but I would say that the relations between the president and the Democrats, particularly the leadership, is about as chilly as the temperatures in Iowa and New Hampshire these days. I mean, they're just not getting along, and when the president can bypass them, he does. And that's - generally speaking, that's his approach.

HANSEN: What measures that the White House had hoped to accomplish this year did Congress actually succeed in blocking?

GONYEA: Well, a big one was immigration reform. The president talked about it a lot. Interestingly enough here though, his problem was not the Democrats; it was conservatives within his own party. He had a deal with Democrats, and it all fell apart because of strong Republican opposition.

The energy bill, they did get an energy bill passed, but it doesn't have things like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the president wants. He wants greater expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. That's not there yet. The president did not get the on-going funding for all of next year for terrorist surveillance programs that he wanted. So there are number of key things from the perspective of this White House the Congress was able to block.

HANSEN: Let's talk about some other things that are happening with the White House. Several congressional committees are investigating the White House, most recently to find out what was known about the destruction of several CIA interrogation tapes. How has the White House dealt with this scrutiny?

GONYEA: Can you say the words with me - no comment. Anytime they've been investigated or anytime there's any kind of a legal proceeding, we saw it with the CIA leaked case, the Valerie Plame Wilson case, the answer was always as long as there's an ongoing legal proceeding, there'll be no comment from this podium. And we heard that from the president in this past week on the case of the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes. He says, well, there is oversight, an investigation underway, so it's best that I not comment now.

HANSEN: Even though it's not yet Christmas, everyone is beginning to think about their New Year's resolutions. What do you think the Bush administration is resolving to accomplish next year?

GONYEA: You know, they're not saying it out loud, but it's the eighth year, and it's the last chance to really nail anything positive down about the legacy. President hates the legacy word; he hates it when he's asked about it. But we will see right after the first of the year, an eight-day trip to the Middle East - it'll be his most important trip to that region - so we're going to see that. And they're going to be doing all they can, hoping that things do improve in Iraq because they feel that it's an important part of the legacy as well.

HANSEN: NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: It's a pleasure, thanks.

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