Political Wrap: DeLay Primary, Domestic Wiretapping

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Talk of the Nation debuts a regular feature. Each Wednesday NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, also known as NPR's Political Junkie, will join Neal Conan for a look at the latest events from the world of politics, and answer listeners' questions.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal CONAN in Washington, and here are some of the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. The House Appropriations Committee has attached an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill that would stop Dubai Ports World from operating the terminals at six American ports. The White House says it would veto any legislation that blocks the Port's deal. And three college students have been arrested in connection with a spate of rural Alabama church arsons. Five of the churches were destroyed, four were damaged. More details on those stories, and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

There appears to be a deal between the White and Congress on warrantless wiretaps, but, as we mentioned, every prospect of a showdown on port security. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay survived yesterday's Republican primary in Sugarland, Texas, while Democrat Henry Cuellar beat back a challenge in Laredo. The president asks Congress to approve a line item veto, while a sports book in Las Vegas begins to take bets on how low his approval ratings will drop. This is a fix and half for NPR's political junkie, and starting today, Ken Rudin joins us every Wednesday with political news and analysis. If you have questions about either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the election this November, or the one two years off, give us a call. 800-989-8255. That's 800- 989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And NPR political editor Ken Rudin is here with us here in Studio 3A, and welcome to a regular feature here on TALK OF THE NATION.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

I'm looking forward to this. Thanks.

CONAN: And why don't we begin with the news on that showdown on this port security deal?

RUDIN: Well, basically, you know, a funny thing happened to the Republicans on the way to the 2006 elections. Homeland security, port security, national security was always their issue. It served them well in 2002. It served them well in 2004, but Republicans back home are hearing about this Dubai ports deal, that they're hearing it badly, saying it's a bad deal.

I mean, forget about the argument. Republicans, who should know better, probably, are saying that this is not going to work, so as you said earlier, Jerry Lewis--they love him in France, of course. He's chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he will offer an amendment today to a must-pass piece of legislation.

Basically, the legislation is funding for the war in Iraq, funding for Katrina relief, and he's going to put this thing, basically, pulling away, keep reversing the deal that would allow Dubai ports to control the U.S. ports.

CONAN: And the president might be forced, for the first time in his administration, to veto a bill.

RUDIN: You know something, every time the president says, you know, every time the president - something he doesn't like, he says, 'Well, I may veto this.' We've heard this over and over again.

The point is, is that if the put, if they pass this bill, is President Bush going to veto a bill that is a must-pass legislation? Again, on the Katrina victim relief, and on the Iraqi war.

So, they're kind of daring him--Congress is daring him to do that, but Republicans are hearing, you know, a lot of arguments from back home saying this deal is wrong, and it must not go through.

CONAN: And are they afraid of being outflanked on this issue by the Democrats?

RUDIN: Well, that's exactly it. I mean, Democrats from day one, from moment one, said, this is a crazy bill. This is a crazy law. We should not allow this to go through. And Republicans, who basically understand why Dubai--Dubai is a solid ally of the United States in the Mid East, but they're hearing it from the folks back home, and they don't want to be outflanked on this issue.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Another big issue in Congress, and that's the warrantless wiretaps. There was a hearing last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee on this. And Chairman Arlen Spector basically told the Attorney General that he thought that this was being done illegally. And now, it looks like there is a deal being struck to pass a piece of legislation that would make what they want to do legal.

RUDIN: Well, that's very interesting, because you heard a lot of arguments, a lot of unhappiness from Republicans. Arlen Spector was very strong about it with Attorney General Gonzalez, said, this can't stand. Chuck Hegel, the so- called independent senator from Nebraska, Olympia Snow, an independent senator from Maine, both Republicans said, Congress should really look into this.

And then, lo and behold, last night, in a closed door meeting, Republican senators basically made a deal with the White House saying that they would still allow wiretapping for 45 days without a warrant or informing Congress, but they would still maintain a congressional oversight over the program. A lot of Democrats like J. Rockefeller, the Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, saying, this is a sell-out of the White House-sell-out to the White House. Where's the Republicans who stood up and said, basically, we have to watch over this program?

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on this point. John. John's calling us from Elmira, California.

JOHN (caller): Hi. I may have broken the law, and now you have to change the law so I'm really not breaking the law, and I'd like to take your answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay.

RUDIN: That's exactly...

JOHN: Thank you.

RUDIN: That's exactly what Democrats are saying. They say, we promised to look into this. We promise to see whether they, whether the administration broke the law or violated any laws, and now what it seems to be saying is that, well, you know, forget about what happened in the past. We're not going to investigate what happened in the past. We're going to have strict oversight, but there can be some, you know, leeway with wiretapping. And basically, they're changing the law after, you know, after the horse cut out of the gate.

CONAN: But even some White House supporters said in the past, you know, one of the reasons they opposed a piece of legislation to legitimize what the White House wants to do with the NSA and the warrantless wiretaps is the suggestion if they do that, it implies that what they were doing before was illegal.

RUDIN: That's exactly right. And Pat Robertson knows that's exactly not the case. We're really showing Congressional independence on this issue.

CONAN: Moving right along. Actual elections yesterday in the state of Texas, primary elections, and no more interesting than the one in Sugar Land, Texas, where the former House majority leader Tom DeLay faced a challenge from three other Republicans.

RUDIN: That's right. I mean, everybody was looking to see, first of all, nobody thought Tom DeLay would be defeated. He's out, he has tons of money, he has tons of influence in the district, and the three Republicans that ran against him in the district are basically unknown. But there were a lot of people who said, well, maybe he could be forced into a runoff. It would be interesting to see how many Republicans would vote against him, given the fact that integrity has become the big issue in that district, given the fact that he's under indictment by Ronnie Earle in a money laundering case in Texas, given the fact that he's involved in the Jack Abramoff mess in Washington. So, a lot of people were looking to see how many Republicans would see this, sit home, or vote against Tom DeLay in yesterday's primaries, to see how vulnerable he may really be in November.

CONAN: And how did he come out?

RUDIN: He got 62% of the vote, and I kind of think that that's better than most people thought. I mean, you know, he still is in trouble at home. Nick Lampson, the Democratic challenger in November, he's the best funded of any Democrat running for any congressional seat in the country. He's a former congressman, he's getting a lot of out-of-town money. But I think Tom DeLay's very good at shifting the focus away from him, and he can say, look, Nick Lampson is a favorite of Barbara Streisand and George Soros and the liberal left. And it's really about Nick Lampson and less about Tom DeLay.

CONAN: And let's move to another primary in Texas yesterday. And this in the Democratic side, after Republicans were, got Tom DeLay, got his redistricting plan through in Texas, a number of Democratic congressmen found themselves running against each other. That happened two years ago in Laredo, Texas. Henry Cuellar emerged as the victor then. He faced the same rival again, a former congressman, this time around. How'd he do?

RUDIN: He did much better than anybody thought. What happened two years is Ciro Rodiguez was a liberal, let's say a liberal Democratic congressman, and he's being challenged at the primary by Henry Cuellar, who's more of a moderate conservative. Cuellar beat him in a disputed primary by 58 votes, and in the past two years, Cuellar really was a pro-Bush Democrat. He voted, he's supported the war, he's supported the tax cuts, he's supported a lot of things that the Republican leaders in congress were pushing. And Rodriguez, who lost two years ago, said, wait a second, this is not what we elect Democrats for, especially in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, which is San Antonio and Laredo and things like that. So, the liberal left and labor unions poured a lot of money in for Rodriguez this year, thinking that they may overturn what happened two years ago. But Cuellar got the win.

CONAN: And we did hear the phrase, the word rather, DINO, and it wasn't a reference to Fred Flintstone's pet.

RUDIN: That's exactly right. DINO, you know, we always talk about Republicans in name only, RINOs. They say that about liberals like, like Arlen Specter, there, or Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island, there. RINOs, Republican in name only. Well, Ciro Rodriguez called Henry Cuellar a DINO, Democrat in name only. But the DINO is not extinct, apparently.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Joe, and Joe's calling us from Nashville.

JOE (Caller): Yes, my biggest concern, and I wanted to get your reaction, really, is the over-arching issue of electronic voting machines. The fact that there's, many states will vote with non-verifiable machines with no paper trail. They've done hack tests now in Florida and proven the Diebold Gem systems are hackable. Florida now has a unified database where they found actually had, it was pre-populated with votes. And, this seems to be totally under the radar, and it doesn't matter what any politician does or says or pretends to believe, if he's not accountable to the constituents, we will never have accountability in Washington. The NSA scandal, none of that will result in anything. And I wanted to get your reaction to that.

CONAN: Is the creditability of the electoral system itself at question here?

RUDIN: Absolutely. We learned that in 2000 in Florida, and obviously changes were made in Congress to make the voting procedure more accountable and fair and better, but there are still major problems. There's still no paper trail for many voting machines. New York State got basically an ultimatum from the government saying they've got to update their machines, they've got to update the way they count the votes. And four years after the debacle in Florida, six years after the debacle in Florida, we're still talking about the same issue.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JOE: It's, but it's really the Orwellian, the typical Bush Administration Orwellian phrase, you know, Help America Vote Act is actually help Diebold get contracts with these paperless voting machines. And they're hammering these states to make the change, even when Diebold is totally reticent to provide printers for these machines. And the states have all, have plenty of power to jam up recounts even if there is a paper trail. There's just, I just wish there was more in the media about this subject.

CONAN: Okay, Joe. Thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. One other big item, and this is a resignation from Congress. Bill Thomas, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, just about the most important job, other than maybe Speaker of the House, is announcing his resignation.

RUDIN: I was going to say, perhaps even more important than Speaker of the House. Not his resignation, but he won't run for another term in November. This is a major blow for George W. Bush. Is Bill Thomas a nice guy? Absolutely not. Is he a popular guy? You know, God no, I mean even Republicans, many Republicans can't stand him. But is there a smarter, more effective member of congress? Probably not. Bill Thomas, as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, basically shepherded in all of the Bush tax cuts, 2001, 2002, three and four. He's the one who gave the President authority to, fast-track authority to put together these trade deals. He's built, Thomas is the one who put the prescription drug benefit to Medicare. But, the Republicans have a law, there's a law, they passed a law in Congress that chairmen, committee chairmen can only serve for three terms. And Bill Thomas' three terms are up in 2006. And basically, he doesn't want to stay if he's not going to be chairman of Ways and Means, so he's decided to retiree. But in understanding this decision, not much has happened to the Bush agenda since the president was reelected in 2004. They certainly haven't made the tax cuts permanent. The attempt to overhaul Social Security, you know, fell flat on its face, so maybe Bill Thomas is getting out at the right time.

CONAN: NPR's political junkie, Ken Rudin, is with us in the studio. If you'd like to see more of his work, it's unlikely, but if you'd like to see more of his work...

RUDIN: Please, somebody!

CONAN: ...you can go to our website at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Scott. Scott's with us from Philadelphia.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes, how are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

SCOTT: You know, as we talk about this Orwellian society and a lot of things the Bush Administration is pushing very subversively behind the scenes, I find it very interesting that with the homeland spying that he flat-out came out and admitted to the country that he's doing this behind the scenes, which again breaks the law. And if you have somebody who's...

CONAN: Well he admitted he did it in secret, he didn't admit that it broke the law.

SCOTT: Well, he admits that he's doing it. There's certainly been question and debate that it's breaking the law and certainly the way that the laws are written in congress from the 1970s suggest that it is breaking the law. I suppose the question really is, why isn't this being taken more seriously by Congress? Why don't the republican leaders stand up and at least reprimand if not even, you know, certainly the word impeachment's been thrown around, and, one can argue that the tactics that the Bush Administration has been taking on many fronts, have certainly been much more divisive and destructive to the country than any of Bill Clinton's actions ever were on a national security level.

CONAN: Well, again, a question of debate. But it's interesting, Ken Rudin, it was, I think just the other day, one of several towns in the state of Vermont passed a resolution for impeachment of the President of the United States, partly, I think, on this exact wiretapping question. It also said the war in Iraq was illegal. And congressman Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist from Vermont, said that they might be right, they might be wrong, but in any case, this is not going to happen.

RUDIN: Well it's not going to happen as long as the Republicans control congress. Obviously, you can have the counties in Vermont calling for impeachment, you could have San Francisco, the San Francisco city council voted for impeachment, but until the Democrats control either the House or the Senate, no legislation, no possibility of impeachment of the president will happen in the last two years of the Bush presidency. Democrats need fifteen seats in the House to take over there, six seats in the Senate. And, you know, of course it could be a tidal wave going against the Republicans in November. Most of the, if you look at the polls, most of the issues are in the Democrats' favor, but it's, you know, it's a tall, tall task to get fifteen seats. The Democrats haven't won that many, picked up that many seats since 1982 in an off-year election. So, Democrats are certainly going to have their work cut out for them.

SCOTT: They certainly do.

CONAN: Thanks Scott.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: Speaking of which, the president's popularity ratings in the opinion polls continue to go down. He got back over 40 a little while ago, now back under 40. Is this all that unusual for a president in his second term?

RUDIN: Well, of course, if it happens in the first term they're defeated, and there is no second term.

CONAN: You've got a good point.

RUDIN: But we have seen in, you know, in the so-called six-year itch, where Ronald Reagan was very unpopular in 1986 with Iran-contra. Nixon was unpopular in 1974, after six years, with Watergate. So we've seen that the president can, has the capability of pulling down your party, or certainly hurting your party in an off-year election, in a mid-term election. And a lot of Republicans, that's why a lot of Republicans are running away from the president on the Dubai Ports deal, on Katrina, on things like that, because, and on the eavesdropping story. Because they realize that the president's numbers are very, very low, and the vice-President even lower. You know, the only person who likes him probably is Harry Whittington. And so, it looks like, that the Republicans really are every man for himself.

CONAN: And we even saw, during the recent governor's meeting, which was here in Washington, D.C., some Republican governors expressing concern that by the time the elections are over this November, Democrats might hold the majority of state houses.

RUDIN: Yeah, I mean, ultimately, that doesn't really matter that much. There's no, it doesn't matter to me or you, who the Governor of Idaho or Wyoming is. But it certainly sends a statement around the country that the Democrats may have a better plan, a better way of dealing with things. And if Bush carries, pulls the party down, you can see Democrats winning where they normally would not have.

CONAN: Hmm. All right, here's an email question from Chris in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Political junkie? Is that Ken Rudin's official title at NPR? That sounds great. How can I get that job?

RUDIN: Well, um, I don't know...

CONAN: Just keep listening and wait for him to screw up.

RUDIN: I think, you know, when I turn 40, which will be in, 30 years ago, ah, no, no, I'm not leaving. You know, it's like one of those congressmen you saw in the Deep South, who you see them carry out on a stretcher. I'm not leaving unless I'm on a stretcher.

CONAN: Well, he does add this line, which I should put in for fairness. Thanks for the segment. I'll look forward to it every Wednesday. Ken Rudin, thank you for being with us and we'll look forward to hearing the Political Junkie every Wednesday on TALK OF THE NATION.

RUDIN: Thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

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