Week in Review: Patriot Act, Presidential Powers

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A discussion of key events in the week's news. Topics include last-minute congressional action; the debate over domestic surveillance and presidential powers; and a failed bid to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): In my capacity as the senior senator from Virginia, I ask unanimous consent that Senate now stand in adjournment, sine die, under the provisions of H. Con. Res. 326.

(Soundbite of gavel striking; applause)

SIMON: Senator John Warner of Virginia, the last man left standing, announcing Thursday night the end of the first session of the 109th Congress.

NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

DAN SCHORR reporting:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Dan.

SCHORR: Last man left sitting. Go ahead.

SIMON: Oh. Yeah. Sine die. That's Latin for oy vay, isn't it?

SCHORR: That's right. Oy vay--I guess what it really means is we're now setting a date to come back again.

SIMON: And he was literally the only one left on the floor.

SCHORR: And he was--yes. The applause you heard was from members of the staff who were probably very happy to see this session end. And he was the last one there, which meant that he was both the presiding officer and what was left of the Senate and probably chosen for this job because he lives nearby in Virginia.

SIMON: All right. Well, let me ask you about what the Congress took on and, in a sense, what it avoided. Lots of tough issues at the end of this session. In the end, they voted to extend the Patriot Act, but for five weeks only. The president didn't get the permanent extension that he wanted. Also the Republicans themselves declined for a move that would've made it a six-month extension. Congress passed the Patriot Act overwhelmingly in 2001. What's changed?

SCHORR: Well, I think what has changed is that first of all we're that many years away from 9/11, and after 9/11 the administration could get almost anything they wanted if it was labeled an anti-terrorist measure. That's over. I think there's also been some tension now between the administration and the Congress, and not only the Democrats in Congress but some of the Republicans are beginning to peel off here and there. And the third thing is that the president's poll ratings have not been very good.

SIMON: Although up this week, I gather.

SCHORR: Up this week from last week. That's right. But still on the whole on the low side, hovering under 50 percent. And those who thought they had to do whatever the president wanted now seem more inclined to act on their own.

SIMON: Let me ask you about how some of those differences may have been aggravated by the issue of the president's use of domestic surveillance--this, of course, when it was revealed that the National Security Agency had monitored phone calls and e-mails inside the US without a warrant, I guess, in 35 instances that have been acknowledged. The president says he's the president; he's sworn to defend the country. There's a clamor too coordinate national and international security information. I know you have some historical precedents in mind where Congresses and presidents differ on this.

SCHORR: Well, this is the old question of inherent powers of the presidency. I mean, President Reagan claimed inherent powers when he sold missiles to Iran and financed the rebellion in Nicaragua. That was called inherent. No one ever knows exactly what inherent powers are, but the president asserts them. President Nixon, who was a very old friend of mine, asserted he had inherent powers to have the FBI investigate me, and his misuse of the FBI ended up in three articles of a bill of impeachment against President Nixon. Well, nobody's talking today about an impeachment of President Bush, but this is one once again a conflict between the Congress, in the first place, and the administration as the administration reaches a little too far to exert power.

SIMON: And does Congress get more aggressive about asserting its authority in a president's second term?

SCHORR: That's right. And a result of that is that they use their power of filibuster to make sure they won't get the Patriot Act through. There probably going to be an investigation now of his use of wiretapping to wiretap people in America. One has to remember that in a war against terrorism, the president has to be allowed to do a lot of things. But when it comes to the question of whether the president would have the right to practice surveillance, telephone surveillance, there was a means to do that that was passed in 1978 as a result of the Nixon era. And it said you can come to a special court designed for the purpose and that court will give you a warrant, and then you can go and tap to your heart's content. The president said he doesn't need that and insists that even today he has a right to do it. And that will be fought out.

SIMON: There was also some disagreement. The administration says that congressional leaders were consulted on these wiretaps, including Democrats. I don't know of a Democrat this week who said, `Yes, I was consulted.'

SCHORR: Well, no, the ones who were consulted were the leaders. At the time, Tom Daschle was the Democratic--the majority leader. And he writes a piece in The Washington Post going back over all that went on to get that act together and says that it was clear they had asked to say that they would be able to use any means necessary also in the United States, and Daschle said that they refused to allow that to happen, that they were going to have a bipartisan resolution. So it was clear from beginning to end that they knew what they were doing, and what they were doing was asserting the right to do things in the United States which the anti-wiretap law makes a crime.

SIMON: One of the last acts of this Congress before we leave it was to pass a $39.7 billion deficit reduction bill in the Senate.

SCHORR: Yeah.

SIMON: Where are those cuts going to be made?

SCHORR: Well, the cuts are going to come, as you might expect--not going to come out of defense. Big new defense appropriation. Not going to come out of tax cuts--that's going to go ahead. What they're going to cut, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans. Those are the three big items which they want to balance the budget.

SIMON: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling was defeated.

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: Bit of a surprise for some people.

SCHORR: This was a bit of surprise, especially a bit of a surprise to Senator Ted Stevens, who was fighting for that for 25 years. Yes, there is a sense in which today people who don't agree with the administration come out, say so and vote so. And this was not altogether a very happy first session of this Congress. We must also mention that Senator John McCain finally got through what they had refused to give him for a long time, an anti-torture amendment to the resolution.

SIMON: Which the administration had signed on to.

SCHORR: Which now the administration has signed. Having originally opposed, the president said he was glad to join his friend John McCain in doing it, stepping back a little.

SIMON: Iraqis held elections for a permanent government last week, and as we sat here we noted that the turnout was high, in excess of 70 percent. Violence was low. How would you describe the postelection situation in that country now?

SCHORR: Well, the postelection situation depends now what happens with the Sunnis. If they get a place in the parliament, a suitable place, and then maybe get represented in the permanent government to be formed, that might work. But there are indications that the Shiites are not very anxious to give a great deal of representation. If they don't get representation, if they don't get a little sense of participating in this thing, then again we have to worry about whether there's going to be a civil war.

SIMON: New York City had a transit strike. It was settled towards the end of the week. Isn't there a Dan Schorr Boulevard or something in the Bronx? They named a street after you. And I just...

SCHORR: Thank you.

SIMON: ...wonder if the buses are running, back running on that street.

SCHORR: There is a Daniel Schorr Street right next to the Grand Concourse, which was a lovely gesture that the borough of the Bronx made to me. And so I prayed that the Lexington Avenue Woodlawn line which ran past my house would be back soon.

SIMON: I'm sure that's what tipped the issue. Thanks very much, Dan Schorr, the man, not the boulevard.

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