A Turbulent Time on the Political Scene

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The House majority leader was indicted and forced to step aside. A new chief justice of the United States was confirmed, but a battle looms over a second nominee. It's a dramatic time in American politics.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is on assignment; I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Washington is entering what promises to be a critical month for both lawmakers and the Bush administration. The US Supreme Court begins its session on Monday with a new chief justice, and a potential battle looms over a still-unnamed nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. On October 15th, voters in Iraq are scheduled to decide on their new constitution, a critical step toward a US military withdrawal from that country. And less than a week later, on October 21st, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay will be arraigned in a Texas court on a felony conspiracy charge. NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea joins us.

Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Hey, good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Let's begin with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Now he's been indicted by a Texas grand jury for allegedly violating campaign finance laws. How big a blow has this indictment been to Mr. DeLay and to the Republicans?

GONYEA: It's certainly not good news for DeLay, for the party or for the White House. It raises uncertainty within the Congress, and it comes at a time when the president himself is struggling. His own approval ratings have been hurting because of the hurricane response and because of the war in Iraq and because of high gas prices. Those are all big things. So having trouble within a Republican leadership is at the very least an unneeded distraction for the White House.

It also comes just a week after a story about the Republican Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, who's being investigated about the sale of a large amount of stock just before that stock took a big drop in value. Frist's is a story that's still in the early stages. Tom DeLay, however, is facing actual indictment and having to give up his leadership post. So it's not good news for the White House or for the party.

WERTHEIMER: Now some positive news for the administration this week: John Roberts is the new chief justice of the United States, easily confirmed. On Monday, he will preside over the court, and we will all wait for the naming of yet another nominee to replace Justice O'Connor. How might this next nomination process play out, do you think? Is the White House treating it like it's going to be a big fight?

GONYEA: They are. The Roberts nomination process probably couldn't have gone more smoothly for the White House. He was very skilled at getting through the hearings. There wasn't a lot that opponents could pin on him, but he was also a conservative replacing a conservative, William Rehnquist. The question on the next one is how much more conservative will this nominee be than his or her predecessor, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor? Will it be a woman? Will it be a minority? But the sense is that this one is not likely to go nearly as smoothly.

WERTHEIMER: This has also been a week in which news of hurricane recovery dominated the headlines. Do they feel at the White House that the administration, which started off so badly with Katrina, was able to get on top of the recovery from Rita?

GONYEA: They do, and polls give the president pretty high marks for handling Rita. But it's a big contrast to Katrina. The other thing is, Mike Brown, the former FEMA director, was in Congress this week, doing a lot of finger-pointing, doing a lot of that blame game. So that served as a reminder to people about how the first one went.

WERTHEIMER: Very quickly, the Government Accountability Office said the Bush administration broke the law when it hired Armstrong Williams to push education policy. That's, I guess, just another piece of bad news.

GONYEA: Yes, and this story comes at a time when we have hurricane news, ongoing violence, the Tom DeLay story. The Williams story's an example of how this administration has always tried to control the news.

WERTHEIMER: Right.

GONYEA: This week, I think, is an example of how difficult that is.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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