Pelosi, Pryce Offer State of the Union Review

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Ed Gordon discusses President Bush's State of the Union address with Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-OH), chairman of the House Republican Conference, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Last night, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address. He painted an optimistic vision of America's future.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We will lead freedom's advance. We will compete and excel in the global economy. We will renew the defining moral commitments of this land. And so we move forward, optimistic about our country, faithful to its cause, and confident of the victories to come.

GORDON: The speech follows a difficult year for the president. His plan to overhaul Social Security found little traction. The government's response to Hurricane Katrina brought tough criticism from all sides. The Iraq war continues to dominate the headlines and the president's approval numbers are at or near all time lows. So he used last night's speech to accentuate the positive. The economy is on the mend, wages are up, and there are signs of progress in the war on terror. For more in the president's speech, we'll be joined in the moment by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. But first, U.S. Congresswoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio chairs the House Republican conference. She joins us now. Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

Representative DEBORAH PRYCE (Republican, Ohio): My pleasure. Great to be with you.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about what you heard last night. After hearing the speech, some say that it may have been a bit too optimistic. What's your thought?

Representative PRYCE: Well, I heard an infectiously positive, optimistic president. The press has been dominated by doom and gloom, in spite of all the progress that is being made in the economy and the war on terror, and securing our homeland, and so I really believe that people needed the shot in the arm of good old fashion hope and optimism.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, when you think about what was said last night, for instance, the economy, he talked about the wage increase, and more jobs being created over the last few months. But one of the things, I'm in Detroit this week, that you find when you think about what we just heard from Ford last week, what we hear from Kraft this week, there are a lot of people who continue to hurt, and don't see this kind of progress. What do you tell them?

Representative PRYCE: Well, I'm from the state of Ohio. And so we're one of those states that isn't quite bouncing back like the rest of the economy across the country. But the president spoke directly to us. He talked about new technologies for energy, and less dependence on foreign oil, and how we're going to rely more on clean coal and ethanol. That's great for our region. He talked about the competitiveness initiative. We could be very poised to benefit greatly from his pledge to increase the federal investment in education, and research and technology. Those manufacturing based areas need to switch over to something that can sustain their economies, and manufacturing just won't be it continually for the next decade.

GORDON: And what do you tell those families until that happens? How do they survive that gap?

Representative PRYCE: Until that happens, the federal programs are in place to assist them. We're constantly looking to help those folks get from one job to a training program that will provide them with a more secure economic future. It's just a matter of we can't step back. We have to wait and allow these good initiatives, tax policies, jobs and growth initiatives, that has brought the rest of the country back on their feet, greatly, in spite of the challenges. These are very historic times, but they are historic challenges, as well.

GORDON: What do you tell those who suggest that the president is wrapping fear around America with the eavesdropping done by his administration, okayed by his administration, is being wrapped in the cloak of terror as a fear tactic?

Representative PRYCE: Well, it's not a fear tactic. It's a fact of life. We have to be vigilant about protecting our homeland, about securing our borders, about keeping Americans safe, and the president's job is to do just that. And he has to use every tool available to him or he believes he won't be doing his job. The fact that he has the power to listen to conversations of al-Qaeda, people in this country, their overseas conversations, I think can benefit us, and I think we have already seen proof that it can work. We haven't had another attack on our country since the very first one. I think this administration has done a good job. And this is just one way that they're doing it.

GORDON: Congresswoman, finally, let me ask you about Katrina. The president raised it, but the fact is that Congress requested more than $60 billion in aid for that region. As of today, only half of that money has been doled out, and the other half is still sitting around. There are those, as you know, who are complaining that we're dropping the ball again.

Representative PRYCE: Well, once again, when you put that much money at one time into the pipeline, it's almost impossible to use it quickly. The money is there. The money is just not being administered quickly enough by the state and local officials. But there's also the side of the coin that you want to consider, that you don't want to spend it too quickly and do it wrong.

Rebuilding that area of the country is absolutely essential to the good of the whole nation. We don't want to rebuild it and cause the exact same situation to possibly happen again. And I think that those kind of very intricate community decisions have to be made. It can't all be handled at the federal government. And working with the state and local officials has not been easy since the very beginning, and that's part of the hold up.

GORDON: All right. Congresswoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio, chair of the House Republican Conference. Thanks for joining us.

Representative PRYCE: Thank you.

GORDON: We're not joined by House Democratic Leader, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): My pleasure. Thank you.

GORDON: Let me get your idea overall of what you heard last night.

Representative PELOSI: What I heard last night was interesting and some of it appealing. The only sad thing is the far cry from the story that the budget will tell today that we vote on, on the floor. So to hear the president say one thing about investing and innovation and education, and understand that the budget today will leave millions of children behind by not funding No Child Left Behind, by increasing the cost of student loans to families struggling to send their children to college, and talk about investing in research and development to keep us competitive. That's great. But the budget today cuts that very funding.

So, when I'm listening to it, I'm listening in the context of what we will be doing in the next 24 hours. The president talked about cutting spending and the budget that he's putting today, the policies in it will increase the deficit, $300 billion. So I was hearing one thing and realizing quite another. The difference between the rhetoric and the reality was quite stark.

GORDON: He painted a fairly rosy picture in terms of what he assumes will happen by virtue of the economy in the next few months. Are you as optimistic about it?

Representative PELOSI: Either the president is in the dark or the president is in denial about what's happening across the country. America's middle income families are in a middle income squeeze, and this is made worst by the cost of energy at the pump and in heating their homes, made worse by the cost of prescription drugs, which is the single biggest contributor to the increase in healthcare costs. If the president is talking about raising the standard of American people, then we have to have an increase in the minimum wage. If the president is talking about healthcare as being important, the last thing we should be doing is health savings accounts and association health plans.

These are okay if you're healthy, wealthy, and very young. They do not lower the cost of healthcare, and they increase the budget deficit. So they fail on many scores. But it's particularly necessary to address the needs of health for American people. The disparity between the minority communities and others is only worsening. In the past five years since the president took office, there's been an increase of 11 percent of African Americans who do not now have health insurance, so we need something bigger than what the president talked about, but these health savings accounts and association health plans are the wrong way. They're brought by the same people who brought you the privatization of Social Security.

GORDON: Certainly, too, Americans, as we heard the President discussed the numbers in terms of AIDS and how they've ravaged the African American community, but what we also saw last night, and people were bothered by this, Congresswoman, the idea that Democrats sarcastically stood up when he talked about Social Security. He seemed to point the finger back at Congress, specifically Democrats, suggesting that they've not been helpful in pushing his plans through.

When you take a look at that and juxtapose it to the numbers, the poll numbers, his, as well as Congress, including Democrats that are very low, the American people think that this partisan game has gone too far, and we're not seeing enough come out of Washington to help those on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Representative PELOSI: Well, I certainly agree that we, Washington, is not getting the job done for the American people, and part of that is because the Republican culture of corruption here that has the special interests first. That's how we got a prescription drug bill that meets the needs of the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance companies and not seniors. That's why we have a energy bill that gives subsidies to energy companies at a time when they're making record, historic, and obscene profits and the energy costs are going up for the American people.

But the fact is that we fought the President last year for a whole year outside of Washington, I might add, because it was impossible inside of Washington, to defeat his proposal on Social Security. So you're darn right that we stood up and applauded when he recognized that we defeated his proposal for Social Security, which was a privatization plan which would have unraveled Social Security. The American people understand that, that's why they resoundedly rejected what he had to say what they knew what he was proposing.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, people saw Justice Alito front and center last night. Some will say that he is the personification of the idea of not seeing Democrats fight tooth and nail for the ideals they believe in. Is that fair criticism?

Representative PELOSI: Well, the votes just simply are not there. Elections have ramifications. The Republicans have control of the Senate, so there's no way that the Democrats could defeat Alito. I think they made a good fight in pointing out his view of an expansive presidency at the expense of the other branches of government and the concerns that were there about privacy, especially relating to a woman's right to choose, but they don't have the votes, and that's a simple fact.

We have a chance in 2006 to elect a Democratic Congress and that will change all of that, and the prospects are very good for us, but I think you're going to see a very lively year, and people have to understand as they do that when you win the election you have all the leverage in the world, and it's very heard to defeat the majority in the Congress and the White House. We don't need any rubber stamps, and that's what our campaign is, don't be a rubber stamp for the policies of George Bush.

GORDON: All right. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader with the U.S. House of Representatives. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Representative PELOSI: Thank you so much. My pleasure, Ed. Thank you.

GORDON: If you missed the President's speech, you can hear it in its entirety plus analysis from our NPR political experts at our website at npr.org.

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