Congress Faces Full Plate After Holiday Recess

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Senior correspondent Juan Williams talks to Steve Inskeep about what Congress will be doing when members come back from their holiday recess. Lawmakers went home last week after spending the week deciding the fate of several controversial bills.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Before heading home for the holidays last week, senators spent their final hours in Washington voting on controversial bills. It took midnight sessions and tie-breaking votes from Vice President Dick Cheney, and a lot is still left to do for next year. We're going to get some analysis this morning from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's left to do?

WILLIAMS: The Patriot Act will be at the top of the congressional agenda, Steve. The Senate comes back in mid-January, the 18th, and then the House is back at the end of the month. But with the Patriot Act set to expire--February 3rd is the date--there's going to have to be a lot of negotiating, immediate talks about putting civil liberties safeguards into the Patriot Act. The goal here is going to be to satisfy most Democrats and several key Republicans who voted last week to hold off on passing a full-year extension. The Senate had voted a six-month extension, you know, a bigger window for negotiations and talks, but in the House, Congressman James Sensenbrenner insisted on only a five-week extension to the February 3rd date, and so that's going to force a quicker review. The House is also going to act on a reconciliation with the Senate over that controversial $39 billion budget cut. I don't think there's too much problem there.

INSKEEP: Now let's go back to that Patriot Act. You said there are questions here about national security vs. civil liberties. The same questions that are being raised in the story of spying by the National Security Agency, eavesdropping on people inside the United States. The New York Times over the weekend expanded on its reporting here, saying that telecommunications companies agreed to provide streams of data to the government. How's that going to affect the congressional oversight of all this?

WILLIAMS: Boy, this is going to be hot in January, Steve. The Times report, I think, adds fuel to this fire, and the man at the center of it right now is Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's going to be very busy in January. He's going to hold hearings, he's promised, on the president's use of wiretaps without court authorization. Senator Specter will also be head of the hearings on the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. So when we come to the hearings on the wiretaps, it could be in public, it could be in private.

Either way, the focus will be on whether the president violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure with surveillance, wiretaps, computer intercepts without warrants. President Bush argues that he has authorization to do so under the Constitution in terms of his responsibility to protect US citizens. He also cites the Congress' 2001 vote allowing him to go to war against al-Qaeda.

But now former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who negotiated with White House lawyers over that authority, wrote just last week that the White House tried to get explicit authorization for taking action inside the US and was turned down, so that's going to be central in the hearings that are upcoming in January.

INSKEEP: Did you say that the hearings on this secret program could be held in private?

WILLIAMS: They could be, and so that has yet to be decided. Public or private, because of the sensitivity of the matter.

INSKEEP: OK. Now while Congress is busy with that, the president has a domestic agenda which did not make a lot of progress in 2005. What does he want to do in 2006?

WILLIAMS: Well, clearly the Alito nomination is at the top there for the president, and the president and the White House expect quick action. They expect to pick up some momentum from it. You know, the president's poll numbers have been up a little bit recently. It's about 45 percent on average right now. Still not great, and the White House has to deal with fears of the president becoming a lame duck pretty quickly here. The president's also going to try to continue to shore up support for the war in Iraq.

But in terms of legislation, Steve, I think what we're likely to see is the president advance bills on stem cell research, immigration, extending tax cuts. White House aides are hopeful the president can pick up steam by getting a real handle on the illegal immigration issue which has divided Republicans--you know, there's lots of antipathy in sort of Main Street Republicans about flow of illegal immigrants into the country, but sort of Wall Street Republicans, if you will, appreciate the idea that you have a cheaper source of labor.

So you're going to have, also, on the Hill lots of anxiety over Jack Abramoff, the GOP lobbyist who may enter into a plea deal that leads to testimony against members of Congress.

INSKEEP: Other than shoring up public support, what does the president intend to do about Iraq?

WILLIAMS: Well, just last week we saw Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announce reduction of 7,000 troops in Iraq. You got 20,000 already scheduled to leave after the Iraqi elections were done in late December. So what we're seeing here is a real effort to show that there's a movement to pull US forces away, and also the administration is trying to get a new government in Iraq formed quickly. So all of this has been an effort to show that there is progress being made in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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