Politics with Juan Williams: GOP's Abramoff Problem

Farai Chideya and NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams preview the big political battles brewing in Washington, D.C.. Congress will return from its holiday recess to grapple with the implications of the growing investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and President Bush faces how the spreading scandal may affect his remaining years in office.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya, in for Alex Chadwick and Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, New Orleans four months after Hurricane Katrina.

But first, President Bush will ring in the new year at his Crawford, Texas, ranch this weekend. As the president and his party look ahead to 2006, there's a single factor that could have a big impact on Republican clout in Congress this midterm election year. That's the fate of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, indicted on federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. Abramoff's case will go to trial a week from Monday. That's unless he agrees to a plea bargain that would have him helping prosecutors. Joining us is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Welcome, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good to be with you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So, Juan, what do lawmakers have to fear from Abramoff sharing what he knows with the feds?

WILLIAMS: A whole lot. This is a New Year's surprise of the worst kind. Abramoff is, as we speak, engaged in plea bargaining because, as you noted, he would go to trial on January 9th in Florida for fraud involved with some casino votes that he purchased down there. It's really unrelated to the Washington scene, but because it's also being prosecuted by the Justice Department, the federal government, there's the possibility here that he would necessarily make a deal there that would impact pending charges against him in Washington. And that's why you have so many members of Congress worried that if Jack Abramoff starts to talk about the deals that he cut with them, you could have the largest congressional scandal that we've seen since ABSCAM in the 1980s.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about one specific person up on Capitol Hill, Tom DeLay. What does he have to fear specifically from Abramoff's testimony?

WILLIAMS: Michael Scanlon, who was an aide to Tom DeLay, was a key aide, also, to Abramoff. Abramoff made a habit of hiring former aides and assistants to members of Congress, and in that way, created a network of influence. And at the heart of this is Michael Scanlon, who has already pleaded guilty to fraud charges, and it looks as if there's a direct line from Abramoff through Scanlon to DeLay. And so the question is: How deep does this go, and how much does it threaten DeLay, who's already facing his own indictment in Texas?

CHIDEYA: And what's the impact going to be on President Bush's agenda?

WILLIAMS: It puts a chill on DeLay and a lot of the hard-right Republicans who were loyal to President Bush in terms of pushing his agenda in the House. Now already the president--who's facing, you know, possible lame-duck status, as we go into '06--has to worry that there's gonna be a larger profile for moderate Republicans, people who will point at the far right, as represented by DeLay, and say those people were involved in corruption, and it will use it as a lever, therefore, to gain even more power. That could impact the president's agenda going forward.

CHIDEYA: Another issue from this year hanging over the president as he starts 2006 is domestic surveillance by the federal government. Has the president addressed that to the satisfaction of voters?

WILLIAMS: Well, we don't know about the satisfaction of voters, Farai, but we do know that in terms of sort of the intellectual opinion leaders in the country, it's almost unanimous in saying that they feel that the president may have violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, the protections against illegal search and seizure. But the president makes the counterargument that he feels he had authorization as the commander in chief to fight the war on terror and, secondly, from the resolution to go to war against al-Qaeda.

But what we don't know is exactly how far this is going to impact the president going forward. We do know that Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, has said he will have hearings. Members of the Intelligence Committee in the Senate are also very interested in this matter. And it's going to directly impact consideration of the Patriot Act, which is going to expire in early February. So I think we're going to see a lot of the president's time and a lot of the federal government's energies preoccupied with the whole notion of whether or not it was legal or illegal to engage in that wiretapping.

CHIDEYA: NPR's senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams.

Thanks, Juan, and happy new year.

WILLIAMS: Happy new year, Farai.

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