Politics with Ron Elving: Congress Ends 2005 Session

Madeleine Brand speaks with NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving about President Bush's press conference and the end of the congressional session. The House of Representatives ended a late-night session to finalize legislation on military funding and cuts to social programs, and the Senate hopes to do the same by the end of Monday.

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And joining us for more from Washington is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

And, Ron, we've heard a lot of President Bush over the last three days, a live radio address on Saturday, an Oval Office speech last night and today's press conference. What's going on here?

RON ELVING reporting:

Two things, Madeleine. One, the president is taking advantage of the Iraqi elections last week, as he expected to do, to put forward his plan for victory in Iraq one more time, to give us, for example, last night a prime-time summary of the four-speech series that we had heard over the previous two weeks laying out what the president wants to do in Iraq and bolstering public support for it, bolstering the enthusiasm in the United States for it. That they had planned. That they had been working on. The second thing we're seeing and that has lent a great deal of interest and, if you will, a certain amount of heat to these presidential appearances is on the defensive side and that is the president reacting to the news last Friday about the surveillance of US citizens in the United States by the National Security Agency which would appear to be strictly illegal except under certain circumstances when the administration is supposed to get authority from a court, which the president has acknowledged he has not done on 30 occasions and which the president says he will continue to do because his lawyers tell him it's all right and because they believe the Congress authority to use force against Iraq also gives him authority to do things of this nature.

BRAND: And he's been quite adamant in that and I'm wondering if he's managed to quiet the concerns about this program.

ELVING: Let's be clear. I think the United States general public will accept in large measure the president's explanation that after the events of 9/11 extraordinary measures needed to be taken by this government and that Congress largely implicitly understood that and approved it and that having a few members of Congress continue to be aware of its continued use--that is to say the president's asserted authority for this kind of surveillance--makes it OK. And I think that a sizeable--I won't guess at the percentage--but a sizeable proportion of the public will accept that because with the president they believe that 9/11 changes the rules and changes the circumstances and casts the Constitution in a new light.

At the same time, there are a great number of people who will not accept that explanation, who will see this as untrammeled, unchecked power on the part of the executive. It's a trust me situation where the president says, `This is extraordinary power. Trust me. I'm going to use it in a good way and I will observe the restraints of the Constitution,' but it has to be self-restraint. Some people are going to see that as straight autocracy and it's going to get a great deal of push back from elements of the Congress, not only Democrats but Republicans as well. Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said it looks unacceptable to him and he's going to have hearings. So this is something that the president is going to have to deal with in the weeks and months going forward. I think it will color the hearings for Judge Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. It's going to be around.

BRAND: And the president is also battling low public opinion. Shortly before a series of speeches the president gave on his strategy for victory in Iraq, his approval ratings were an all-time low. So have they improved since he's been delivering those speeches?

ELVING: Yes, they have. The president has seen his approval ratings go up several points, although it does not appear to be directly linked to greater public acceptance of the war in Iraq or of the justifications for that war. That does not seem to have changed much with respect to the war but the president is doing a little better possibly because he is firming up his support among Republicans and other supporters who were getting a little disillusioned because they felt he hadn't fought back. They felt he wasn't defending himself adequately, so they were getting a little disillusioned and the president has brought a number of those people back to his standard and that's improved his overall ratings. Plus, the economic numbers are, generally speaking, working in his favor.

BRAND: Now tell us what is going to happen with the USA Patriot Act. On Friday, the Senate blocked re-authorization after this NSA wiretap story came out. Will the Senate deal with this before leaving for the holidays?

ELVING: The Senate will probably--well, will certainly deal with it in one sense or another. The Senate will probably pass a three-month or a one-year extension of the act in its entirety with the expiring provisions that are so controversial. But I think that the controversy that has arisen over the NSA surveillance of American citizens in America is going to firm up those votes that have said, `We will not give you permanent re-authorization of the Patriot Act until we have resolved some of these issues and some of these controversies. We have seen the potential for abuse and we want to rein that in.' So I think that they will have an extension, three months or a year. The House will just have to come back to work. They've left this morning. They want to be gone for the year, but they're just going to probably be forced back by the Senate before the end of the year to accept this three-month or one-year extension because I don't think the votes will be there in the Senate at this point to re-authorize the Patriot Act to cross the board as the administration wants.

BRAND: Ron Elving is NPR senior Washington editor and you can read Ron's column Watching Washington at npr.org.

Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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