Immigration Bills, FBI Raid Stir Congress

Contrasting approaches to immigration legislation pit the House against the Senate, while most of Congress unites to protest an FBI raid of the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA). E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post (and the Brookings Institution) and David Brooks of The New York Times discuss recent events with Melissa Block.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This Republican on Republican set-to is one of the topics we'll take up now with our regular political analysts, E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Thank you very much.

Mr. E. J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Good to see you.

BLOCK: E. J., let's start with you. If you were to think of somebody who would take on the Bush administration on this issue, Speaker Dennis Hastert might not come to mind. He's been tight with the Bush administration.

Mr. DIONNE: But the House is more important. You know, shoot if you must this old gray head but spare this House from FBI searches, he said. I think everybody looks a little bit bad in this. I think House leadership, Democratic and Republican, look like they're resisting a legitimate search into somebody against whom, let us say, the allegations seem very strong.

So they look like they are special pleading. At the same time the Justice Department doesn't look very good because this has never happened before, and it shows a kind of impatience with administration overreach even on the part of Republicans. And then the President countermands his own Justice Department. It just shows how much mistrust and nastiness there is in this city these days.

BLOCK: David Brooks, you could say to Congress look, where have you been on privacy issues and the excesses of the White House here?

Mr. BROOKS: Well it's also true that the members of Congress, and especially Republican members of Congress, these days do not feel particularly close to the White House. I would say contempt is the word they tend to have for the White House. So there's a lot of bitterness there.

What you see is a lot of things. The first, on the substance, there is some truth to the idea that the Executive branch should not be going through offices of the Congressional branch. That's something I think people, you know, do have to worry about. On the other hand, when anybody else gets investigated, you know, their house can get raided. So why shouldn't it be true for a member of Congress? And then simply as a matter of politics, what's going on is simply insane.

The one thing that the Republicans and Democrats can agree on is the defense of bribery. And then the second thing is that, for Republicans, they finally get a Democratic scandal. They've had all their scandals, finally a Democratic scandal. Denny Hastert immediately turns it into a Republican scandal. So their one moment and they blow it. Some of the, you know there was these reports of a shooting today up on Capitol Hill and somebody immediately made the joke, oh, that's just Denny shooting himself in the foot today again. So.

BLOCK: In fairness, they would say this is not in defense of bribery. It's in defense of this hallowed institution and our prerogatives in the building.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. And what I'm trying to do is make a distinction between the substance, where they do have some grounds, and the politics. Believe me, nobody in the country is going to understand this distinction. They're going to say, if the guy committed a crime and the authorities want to investigate, they should be able to investigate.

Mr. DIONNE: And of course a lot of Democrats are saying the Republicans are worried about later events and they're using, they're striking a preemptive blow here in the Jefferson case so they don't face this down the road.

BLOCK: Let's move onto another topic and that's the ongoing debate about immigration. We have the Senate yesterday passing its version of an overhaul of immigration laws. And we've been hearing some sharply differing views from the Senate and from the House, which passed a bill that was very different last year. Let's listen to a bit of Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who wrote that House bill. It's far tougher than the one that was passed by the Senate.

Representative JAMES SENSENBRENNER (Republican, Wisconsin): This will set out the very difficult House-Senate Conference Committee because the approaches taken by the House and the Senate on this issue have been 180 degrees apart.

BLOCK: David Brooks, that conference committee is going to be trying to figure out a way to make these two bills into one. Is there a way to do that? Can they reconcile them?

Mr. BROOKS: It's possible, but I wouldn't bet on it. You know I would say to Sensenbrenner, you and your fellow House members could go back to your safe District and say you defeated an amnesty bill. And I suspect in your safe District you will be treated as a hero. On the other hand, in the country at large, for a problem that really does plague the country, that is uppermost on voters' minds, do you really want to go back to the election and say, we did nothing? And that's really the alternative and that pressure, to not do nothing, is going to move the House. Whether it moves them to actually reach an agreement with the Senate, I kind of doubt. But it's possible.

BLOCK: Words to live by. Let's not do nothing.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. I think David's basically right, that this is a problem inside the Republican Party. It's actually been striking how relatively unified the Democrats have been, at least publicly, on this issue. And I think the Republicans face a choice of either appealing to this base that feels very strongly about this, against any new open immigration bill, but risking looking like they can't get anything done at all.

BLOCK: David Brooks, do you see President Bush actually getting out in front on this? Really using his bully pulpit to try to get this bill passed? In other words, when he said just after he was elected for his second term, I have capital and I intend to use it, does he still have that capital on this and will he use it?

Mr. BROOKS: He doesn't have the capital he had and he's not well regarded on Capitol Hill. In part because he hasn't had the communication, private communication, that he should have had for the past six years. I don't worry about him going out and giving more televised address, I think that would be fine, but not particularly helpful.

What he's really got to do is pull Sensenbrenner from the house, the Republicans from the Senate and actually get them down to the White House and say let's cut a deal. And it's that inability or unwillingness to get involved in the nuts and bolts of deal making that has been strangely absent from the president. And, you know, he could send out to do it and he has, but doing it himself makes all the difference and whether he's going to be willing to do that on this case probably will be one of the things that makes it work or not.

BLOCK: E.J. what do you think?

Mr. DIONNE: He needed to get out much more forcefully much earlier, he had a strong position on this after the 2000 election. That position kind of disappeared. Now he's worried that the only support he can count on, and even that's starting to leave him, is in the conservative base of the Republican Party.

So he's reluctant to come out forcefully in favor of a Kennedy-McCain or McCain-Kennedy style solution because he doesn't want to alienate that part of the party, but unless he comes out strongly he may not get a bill.

Mr. BROOKS: There's one final thing which is fundamental here, the country is divided on this. It's simply hard to take an issue, form a compromise on a major issue when there's really very little middle ground in the country on this subject.

BLOCK: One last thing we want to talk about today and that is the war in Iraq. We heard last night from President Bush and British Prime Minster Tony Blair at a news conference at the White House and they were asked about mistakes they had made. Let's listen to what President Bush had to say.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Saying "bring it on." Kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people. That, I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner. You know? Wanted dead or alive. That kind of talk.

It, I think in certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted. And so I learned some, I learned from that and, you know, I think the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our county's involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time.

BLOCK: David Brooks, this is striking, I mean, in content and in tone, this is not a President Bush that we're used to hearing.

Mr. BROOKS: One of the things that striking is the pauses between the words. He just sounds like a different person and I think what's happening is that the gap between the way people in the White House speak privately and the way they speak publicly is narrowing. Privately they've been realistic about what's going on in Iraq and the mistakes they've made, but they don't share that with anybody.

For a long time they've continued with the happy talk in public so you think they're brain dead. But they're not brain dead, they're realistic but they've just never showed it and now finally they're beginning to show it.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne was this a rare moment of reflection or do you there is some bigger sea change at work in how the president is thinking and talking these days?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think it shows how much the world has changed in just a couple of years. He took pride in saying things like "bring it on" and "wanted dead or alive." There was a sense that this image of being a tough talking guy, who if necessary would shoot first and ask questions later, was actually good for him. It clearly isn't good for him now.

I think the disturbing thing about it was that it was still, except for the Abu Ghraib thing which was good to hear him say, it really focused more on sort of selling the policy on what he said rather than what he actually did and when he said it's too sophisticated you wondered if he was accusing his audience of not liking plain talk.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks to you both.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times.

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