Politics with Ron Elving: Bolton, Iraq

NPR's senior Washington editor discusses the week in national politics. Topics include John Bolton's recess appointment as U.N. ambassador, congressional accomplishments and the latest events in Iraq.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And the Bolton story comes on the first day of August, the one month of the year when Washington tries not to make news. Congress has left for five weeks. Tomorrow, President Bush leaves for his ranch in Texas; he does not plan to return until after Labor Day. But before leaving town, Congress and the president were doing all they could to clear their desks, and joining us to talk about this now is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

And, Ron, let's continue on with this Bolton nomination. What sort of signal is the White House sending to the United Nations?

RON ELVING (NPR Senior Washington Editor): Madeleine, the signal is `We're going to take a much tougher line with that organization. It's a new sheriff-in-town time.' This is a man who's not only going to push reform and push it in a tough fashion, but he's going to push a United States-defined notion of how the United Nations should remake itself.

BRAND: And what sort of message is he sending to the Senate?

ELVING: The White House is saying to the Senate that it is not deterred by the lack of consensus for this nominee. If they can't get a consensus for him, they still believe they could have gotten a rough majority for him if it had come to an up-or-down vote, so they're going to go ahead. They don't care if he got a positive recommendation from the committee--which he didn't--and they're just insistent on having the man they think is right for the job.

BRAND: And so now the president officially takes vacation?

ELVING: Yes, officially, although when a president takes a vacation, he's still largely on the job. He's going to be entertaining world leaders there in Crawford, and he'll be traveling a good part of the time. He's going to, in the words of his spokesman, `take his tie and coat off and mingle with the American people.' And when he does that, he'll be talking to them about the war on terror and also about Social Security.

BRAND: Ah, Social Security. We haven't heard a lot about that recently. Is that a dead issue?

ELVING: I don't think it's quite dead. The Congress wants to go back to it, House and Senate, in the fall. They have some ideas; they're going to take the issue up. The Republican leadership needs to build a little consensus before they do this. I'm not certain they're going to be able to pass any legislation this year, though, and the polls are still running heavily against the president's ideas for partial privatization of the system.

BRAND: But Congress did do a lot in July, especially last week.

ELVING: They did a great deal. They did a remarkable amount by recent standards. They got an energy bill they've been working on for years. They got a highway bill that was two years past deadline. They almost finished renewing the Patriot Act, and they gave the president a very strong extension of that legislation from the fall of 2001. They passed liability protection for gunmakers and gun sellers, and they also approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement. So there was lots for the president to be happy about in that last week.

BRAND: And something for him not to be so happy about; the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, breaking with the president on stem cell research. How did that happen?

ELVING: A curious story, Madeleine, and one that seemed to upstage the president at the end of that week of positive developments for him. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, chose the last day before research--recess, rather, to announce that he differed from the president on embryonic stem cell research. Now this is a doctor; this is a man who's personally a physician. And he has had a position in the past in favor of this kind of research, but he had set it aside in deference to the president when the president decided to oppose all federal funding for any embryonic stem cell research.

Now we're waiting to see if this means that Senator Frist will clear the decks so that the expansion of federal funding bill can actually pass in the Senate. If he does, that'll be quite a breakthrough for him.

BRAND: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. His political column, Watching Washington, runs every Monday on our Web site, npr.org.

Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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