Political Wrap: Jefferson Probe, a Democratic Switch

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NPR's Ken Rudin talks about Republican reaction to the search of Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson's office, a GOP official's decision to join the Democratic Party, and the first big round of primaries.

NEAL CONAN, Host:

And now, it's time for time for Political Junkie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I WANNA GROW UP TO BE A POLITICIAN")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) I want to grow up to be a politician, and take over this beautiful land. I want to grow up...

CONAN: He gets his own theme song now. When is this going to stop?

There's no shortage of political news this week, what with the fallout from the FBI raid of Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson's office and the never- ending immigration debate on Capitol Hill, which pits mostly Republicans against Republicans. We'll also ask what's the matter with Kansas politician Mark Parkinson. He's the former chairman of the state's Republican Party who switched sides yesterday, and is expected to appear on the ticket of Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

You can call us with your questions about the week in politics. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

NPR: NPR's Political Editor and author of the Political Junkie column. You can read it at NPR's website. This week he's also our blogger in residence. I hope you liked the music, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Ah, yes, I do. Yes.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, let's start with William Jefferson. This is a fight now, it seems. There was a hearing yesterday called by the House Judiciary Committee. James Sensenbrenner particularly outraged, it seems, over the FBI raid on the offices of William Jefferson, a Democrat whose been swept up in allegations of, well, stashing $90,000 in bribes in his freezer.

RUDIN: Okay, in fairness to Jefferson, he has not been charged with anything and he has denied any kind of wrongdoing. But, having said that, there is FBI videotape on Jefferson taking $100,000 in bribes, $90,000 of which they found in his freezer. Two people have pleaded guilty already to bribing William Jefferson, and yet somehow that's not what the whole hub-bub is about in Washington.

It's about the FBI overreaching. It's about Dennis Hastert criticizing the Bush administration. It's Sensenbrenner criticizing what the, you know, the separation of powers. And, you know, the Democrats - the Republicans kept talking about how they had this advantage, that all this Republican culture of corruption that was directed at them for so long - and with good reason given Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay and things like that - and they had this issue, they could say, well, look at Bill Jefferson. But now it's about Republican in- fighting.

It's a very, very bizarre week in Washington.

CONAN: And the feeling that this is the opening round. Certainly the FBI's going to be investigating, it looks like, more Congressmen, according to the testimony we heard yesterday, and that's against Mr. Safavian.

RUDIN: That's true, and that certainly will affect Congressman Bob Ney, the former House Administration Committee Chairman from Ohio, who's also in big trouble with this part of the corruption probe.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. And we'll begin with Greg(ph). Greg calling from San Diego.

GREG: Yes. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi there.

GREG: I think that the election here in San Diego is really going to be a very interesting microcosm. The Republican, Brian Bilbray, has taken the view that the House bill on immigration - he agrees with that. Now, it's a very conservative Republican district, but there are a lot of folks who do benefit from illegal immigration, if you will, in terms of farm labor. There actually are farms not far from San Diego, and the construction industry. There are probably a lot of folks who aren't that unhappy with the status quo, in terms of immigration.

Now, an interesting thing that's happened in the last day was that Senator McCain, from Arizona, was going to come to raise money for Mr. Bilbray. Mr. Bilbray is against Senator McCain's bill in the Senate. He opposes it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GREG: And Senator McCain has decided not to come.

CONAN: We should point out; this is the special election to replace...

GREG: 526, right.

CONAN: ...to replace Duke Cunningham, the member of Congress - Republican - who's pleaded guilty to accepting bribes.

GREG: So this was kind of a surprise that Senator McCain rather quickly replied by saying, well, I'm not going to come after all.

CONAN: Yeah. Ken?

RUDIN: It's a fascinating - in a million ways this is really a race to watch. As Greg says, it's next Tuesday in California's 50th District, with the Duke Cunningham - the seat that Duke Cunningham gave up. It's between Republican Brian Bilbray, a former member of Congress who is now a lobbyist, and Democrat Francine Busby.

Francine Busby - the only reason we know about her is because she was really the only Democrat in the race. She ran two years ago, lost by 20 points to Cunningham. But, given the state of the Republican Party in this country, given this culture of corruption that the Democrats keep hammering the Republican Party over, if Francine Busby wins on Tuesday, it could send - it will send shockwaves to Republicans around the country that they could be in for a really serious time this November.

The fact is that John McCain was set to come out for Brian Bilbray because he's very - Bilbray is very strong about immigration; he supports the House bill and not the McCain Senate bill. McCain said, well, that's - that'd be nuts for me to come out there and campaign for him.

CONAN: Yeah.

RUDIN: So it's - the Republicans have their serious problems in California 50.

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin with us here. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's Gary(ph) on the line. Gary calling with Wichita in Kansas.

GARY: Yes, I was calling about the choice for running mate by Kathleen Sebelius.

CONAN: Yes.

GARY: I find the whole - I mean, I'm a Democrat and I support her - but I think she's done a great job. But it's interesting. I mean, I don't know if your guest knows this, but really we have a three-party system in Kansas. We have the Democrats, conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans.

CONAN: Yeah, and apparently the former chairman of the Republican Party in Kansas has decided to move from the moderate side to the Democratic side, Gary.

GARY: Yeah, and also, he was instrumental in getting a Republican to switch sides up in Johnson County, and he's going to run against the attorney general.

CONAN: Yeah. Ken?

RUDIN: You know, two years ago when this book came out, What's the Matter With Kansas, the idea that - the idea of the book was, once upon a time Kansas was a hotbed of populous thought, and now it's become very, very conservative thought. The attorney general there is a guy named Phil Kline. He's subpoenaed medical records from abortion clinics.

The Republican Party in Kansas has - I don't want to say taken over - but is really run by a very, very conservative wing of the party; and many Republicans are leaving the party. That's why Mark Parkinson, the chairman, is now going to be the Lieutenant Governor - the candidate for Lt. Governor on the Democratic side.

So once upon a time you had Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, conservatives but not far-right conservatives. And a lot of moderate Republicans are slowly - slowly but surely leaving the party in Kansas.

GARY: That, and one of the funnest places to watch politics is at the county level, because these two sides of the Republican Party battle for control of the counties. It's really interesting.

But I did have three questions about this move by her.

CONAN: Well, Gary, we, I - we're running a little short of time. I wanted to get some other questions in for Ken before we had to go. But thanks very much for the call, all right?

GARY: Thanks.

CONAN: All right. It's not just Kansas where it's fun to watch politics. New York State, now get this quote from the Senate Majority Leader in New York State, Joseph Bruno, speaking yesterday at the Republican Convention - State Convention on Long Island. "The enemies of New York State are the Democrats," Bruno declared. "The opposition are the Democrats, not one another." This because he's got a real problem with two wings of the Republican Party in the State of New York, as well.

RUDIN: Well, after two wings I would hang up, because clearly the Republican Party is in big trouble in New York. Once upon a time, as they say, you had George Pataki, who is leaving the governorship after three terms. You had Al D'Amato. In the old days you had Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Jacob Javits. You have really nothing now.

You have Hillary Clinton, clearly favored - overwhelming favored to win a second term in New York. You have Eliot Spitzer, the crime-busting State Attorney General, clearly going to be the next governor of New York. And you have feuds within the Republican Party trying to take on these candidates.

And for governor you have William Weld - they had to go to Massachusetts - the former governor, Weld, to be the nominee there. And he might not even survive a primary because he's too moderate. You also have similar problems on the Republican side for the Senate. So the Republican Party we once knew, that you and I once knew, and our parents once knew, it no longer exists.

CONAN: And just before we go, Ken, word of a third party movement that's emerged. No candidate yet, but at least an idea.

RUDIN: Well, there's a group called Unity '08 - that's what you're talking about. The former governor of Maine, Angus King, who was elected as an independent, wants basically running mates to be of different parties - a Democrat and a Republican.

It happened only once in history successfully. As you well remember, Abraham Lincoln picked Andrew Johnson in the 1864 convention, and you had a Democrat and a Republican there. But they're saying that there's too much partisanship in politics. That's kind of weird, because that's exactly what politics should be. But it gets too ugly, and people like Angus King are trying to get more of a bipartisan - you know, people talk about, like, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, for example. The fact is, most Republicans don't like John McCain, and most Democrats don't like Joe Lieberman, so maybe that would be a perfect ticket.

CONAN: I always thought his name was Angus King (I).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Right.

CONAN: Former Governor of Maine, Angus King. Ken Rudin, thanks very much.

Ken Rudin is NPR's Political Editor, author of the Political Junkie column, and also writing NPR's Mixed Signals blog this week, if you haven't had enough. You can find both at our website, npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I WANNA GROW UP TO BE A POLITICIAN")

BYRDS: (Singing) ...and I'll defend until the end the old red, white, and blue. I want to grow up to be a politician and take over this beautiful land. And take over this beautiful land. And take over this beautiful land.

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