Political Corner: Bush on Immigration, Alito's Record

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NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams discusses former California Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham's bribery admission and resignation, President Bush's latest immigration policy proposals, and Supreme Court justice nominee Samuel Alito's sentencing record. Guests: The Rev. Joe Watkins, head of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia and a member of the first President Bush's White House staff, and Ron Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Every Thursday, we join NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams and our Political Corner insiders. Today, they'll discuss the fallout from the resignation of a key California congressman, who this week admitted taking millions of dollars in bribes. Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Thanks, Ed. We're joined now by Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. He's at our NPR studios in Washington, DC. Also with us, Reverend Joseph Watkins, head of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia and a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. He joins us from WPHT in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church): Good to be with you.

Professor RON WALTERS (University of Maryland): Thanks so much, Juan.

WILLIAMS: The topic that we begin with today is Congressman Duke Cunningham's guilty plea to bribery and his resignation from Congress. The lawmakers said he took $2.4 million from military contractors and evaded more than a million dollars in taxes. Reverend Watkins, what does this mean for the Republican Party as it faces charges, especially from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, that there's a culture of corruption on the Republican side in Congress?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, clearly there are some who want to exploit this for partisan gain, but this is really a very, very sad tale, and it's really sad for every member of Congress. It really, I think, causes lots of folks who are voters to look at members of Congress and say, `Boy, this is bad stuff. I wonder if they're all doing this kind of thing?' Well, the truth of the matter is is that this is a personal indiscretion on the part of one member of Congress who has freely admitted his guilt and who now wishes to atone for what he did wrong. There will be, more than likely, an election that Governor Schwarzenegger will assign, a special election, that is, to fill that seat, and hopefully it doesn't discourage the American people from doing what it is they've been charged to do, which is to vote for folks to lead them and represent them.

WILLIAMS: Especially given that it's not just Randy "Duke" Cunningham. It's also, you have charges against Tom DeLay. You have charges against Senator Frist. Ron Walters, does this give the Democrats a hook in terms of how to appeal to voters going into the midterm elections? Many of the Republicans have charged that Democrats don't have an agenda and that Republicans are, you know, going to continue controlling the House, the Senate and the White House.

Prof. WALTERS: Well, I think the Republican Party right now is doing a pretty good job of giving Democrats all of the issues they need to go into the midterm elections, but I think the Democrats are really justified in playing defense in this case, because coming out of the 2004 election, most people have the impression that morality was one of the key political issues, and if these cases bleed over into the 2006 election, then they provide a very potent example of what Americans don't like.

WILLIAMS: OK, gentleman, topic two for Political Corner this week: President Bush proposed a two-track policy on immigration in a visit to Arizona. Down on the border, he said that he's for a guest worker program that would bring 11 million illegal immigrants into legal status, that would allow them to even work, and then go back home on some legal basis, and he also said that he wants stricter border enforcement. Is it going to bring the Republicans together, Republican businessmen who want some use of illegal workers to fill jobs, as well as sort of the Republican base that's upset over the idea that you have so many illegals in the country?

Prof. WALTERS: I think that it's going to continue to be a divisive issue with Republicans and many other Americans, primarily because if you look at the public opinion polls, you find that with respect to immigrants in the country and, in some cases, whether they're illegal or not, Americans want them humanely treated. But when it comes to letting more people in and the control of the border, here, Americans want the border control, so that there is this duplicity that I'm not sure that's going to be solved.

Rev. WATKINS: Well, I think the president makes a very good point. He opposes amnesty. On the one hand, he understands the importance of allowing these workers to have this opportunity to continue to work here in the United States under some kind of a temporary guest worker program. It allows our economy, which is booming, to continue to grow and allow these folks to do jobs that Americans just don't wish to do.

On the other hand, the president does not wish to reward people who have broken the law, and that's what amnesty does, and it sends a very, very bad, a dangerous message to anybody out there, saying, `Well, you know what? I can get into the country illegally now still and then have a chance to become a permanent resident or an American citizen.' So I think the president is going about it the right way. On the one hand, being very practical, realizing that a disruption would be--it would cause a disruption to remove these workers right away and to send them home right away, but on the other hand, that they can't stay here, that they are not in line to become permanent citizens or permanent residents of the United States.

WILLIAMS: Third topic for Political Corner today. Judge Sam Alito, who is, as you know, a nominee for the Supreme Court, as a 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals judge ruled that it was OK for authorities to strip-search a 10-year-old girl. Ron Walters, is any of it going to make a difference as to whether or not he gets his seat on the Supreme Court?

Prof. WALTERS: Juan, I'm not sure that it's going to make a big difference on whether or not he gets a seat on the Supreme Court, but I think it continues to show that he really was a foot soldier in the so-called war on drugs, which really overcriminalized people who were involved in that, and sort of released the police to do sort of what they would. This is in the same category of a five-year-old in Florida who was handcuffed and other kinds of things that really sort of went over the line. And those people who justify things like that did so in the name of sort of being tough on street policing, considering people who were involved in sort of street crime, and to be somehow different than the rest of American citizens and, therefore, open season on them. So Alito continues to confirm that impression that he was part of that era and maybe still part of that era, and I think that continues to give the civil rights alliance and some of those people tremendous pause.

WILLIAMS: Joe Watkins, do you see any major hurdle to Sam Alito getting on the court?

Rev. WATKINS: No, I think that when people hear about it, without realizing the context in which it was done, of course, it sounds like a terrible thing, but when taken in its entirety and when all these cases are examined closely, you'll see that he's a very thoughtful, reasonable person, and that even in this decision, his dissent was reasonable.

WILLIAMS: Reverend Joseph Watkins is head of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia and a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. He joined us from WPHT in Philadelphia. And Ron Walters is professor of political science at the University of Maryland. He joined us from our NPR studios in Washington, DC. Gentlemen, thanks for taking part with Political Corner.

Rev. WATKINS: Thanks so much, Wan.

Prof. WALTERS: Good to be with you.

WILLIAMS: Back to you, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks, Juan. Join us every Thursday to hear more from Juan Williams and our Washington insiders right here on Political Corner.

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