Juan Williams on Politics: Iraq, Alito, Congress

Juan Williams reviews the week in politics with Alex Chadwick. The big news this week includes promises of troop reduction in Iraq, new questions about the abortion views of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito and a flurry of end-of-the-year action in Congress.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, some people get ready for really, really happy holiday reunions.

First the lead, which is today our friend and regular Friday contributor for news and political analysis, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Juan, nice to have you back with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Always good to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: And let's begin with Iraq, where the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, today says there's going to be a cut in the number of US combat forces. The Pentagon says that number--the cut could be as many as 7,000 troops. Juan, the secretary was careful to say that these decisions are determined by military considerations, but so many Americans seem to have doubts about the war today some are going to see this as a political decision.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I'm sitting here in Washington, Alex, and it's seen as absolutely a political decision, and one that the Congress has voted on; you know, saying explicitly that 2006 should be a year in which American troops see a substantial reduction in force in Iraq, in addition to which you have, as you pointed out, poll numbers that still have most Americans saying it was a mistake to go into Iraq, that there should be either an immediate or total withdrawal within a year. These are facts that can't be ignored as you head towards the 2006 midterm elections. So when you have the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, saying that you have 22,000 extra troops in Iraq that were put there for the elections earlier this month and they're going to go away, in addition to which he's not going to replace the two brigades there, you really are seeing the start of what looks like a major drawdown, and I think you have a huge sigh of relief coming from Republicans on the Hill.

CHADWICK: Well, on Capitol Hill this week, talk of filibusters, brinkmanship, some very close votes and one very contentious issue, the Patriot Act. What's going on?

WILLIAMS: This is a fascinating debate, Alex, in which you have some Republicans who have tremendous civil liberties concerns. I'm particularly taken by the actions of Senator John Sununu. What you see in Sununu's actions, a senator from New Hampshire, as well as, you know, some very conservative Republican senators like Larry Craig, is the sense that the civil liberties debate has not satisfied them, that they fear that, in fact, the Patriot Act will lead to expanding government authority, not only in the wiretap area--and of course there was the revelations about the president authorizing the National Security Agency to engage in wiretaps of conversations between Americans and those overseas without getting authorization from a court...

CHADWICK: Right.

WILLIAMS: ...but you also have a sense that maybe things have just gone too far because of monitoring of peace groups, Quaker groups, even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals by the Defense Department, FBI.

And so all of these discussions really then led the Senate to say they cannot get sufficient support even in a Republican-dominated body for a four-year extension of the Patriot Act. And this came despite the president saying that, you know, while the Patriot Act may expire December 31st, the terrorist threat doesn't expire. It came despite pleas from the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.

And then once the Senate said, `OK, so we'll only give you a six-month extension,' here comes the House of Representatives in the person of Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who's head of the House Judiciary Committee, who says, `No, I'm not going to give you six months to deliberate about this.' He saw that as a stalling tactic and really an invitation for, again, a showdown in six months. He said, `Let's discuss it now.' But this puts tremendous pressure on both the House and the Senate because it's likely you're going to have hearings on the president's decision to authorize these wiretaps without court approval in the month of January, just as we approach the new five-week deadline for extension of the Patriot Act.

CHADWICK: One more item, Juan, if I may: new documents from the National Archives on abortion and Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito. What's there?

WILLIAMS: Well, what you're seeing now is it's a constant drip, if you will, Alex, of documents about Alito because of his many years when he served in the Justice Department. And what you have now is Samuel Alito's words with regard to abortion in specific coming out, where he again--he's--we have other documents like this, but these are new documents that support the idea that he has been a constant opponent of abortion rights and trying to create strategies to undermine laws that allow legal abortion in the country. And so all this is doing is adding fuel to the fire of those who are in opposition to him. This week the NAACP has come out and stated its opposition, promised to run ads against him. I think this opposition is building. The question is, is it sufficient that it's going to pull away any of the moderate Republican support that he so far has been able to enjoy? Not yet. No signs yet of significant defections that would indicate that Alito can be defeated.

CHADWICK: NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams.

Juan, merry Christmas and thank you.

WILLIAMS: Merry Christmas, Alex.

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