Political Roundup: Pension Reform, Bush and Blair
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The latest warfare in the Middle East comes at a time when official Washington is usually headed out of town. President Bush is on his way to Florida today and will spend much of the week on the road, ending at his ranch in Crawford Texas, where he hopes to spend most of the month. The House of Representatives has adjourned until after Labor Day, and the Senate hopes to be gone in a few days. But they're not leaving without a fight.
NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us now to talk about the latest happenings on Capitol Hill and other developments in Washington. Ron, first the Middle East. What will this latest air strike in Qana mean for the administration's position on a cease-fire?
RON ELVING reporting:
In public, Liane, the administration will still say it opposes an immediate cease-fire because the conditions for a more durable peace do not yet exist. And they're surely right about those conditions. The problem, of course, is that the conditions do not seem to be getting any closer and the air strikes are not knocking Hezbollah out of the fight and they're not knocking the fight out of Hezbollah.
HANSEN: So does that mean the Israelis may become less resistant to a cease-fire?
ELVING: At some point, it could well mean just that. As of today, no. I mean, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just said, before his cabinet meeting today, that Israel still rejects a cease-fire. But when President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were together in Washington Friday, they talked of having a proposal for the U.N. this week, and that will almost surely require Israel - well, if not to agree to a cease-fire, at least to be willing to talk about one, as a prerequisite for the negotiations that would lead to a multinational peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon. You've got to have some kind of stop to the immediate fighting before there's any peace to keep.
HANSEN: The other big story in Washington this week has been Congress, which takes off at this point each year. But, are they really gone?
ELVING: Unfortunately, that's another yes and no question. The House has begun its time away, which it calls, of course, not a vacation but a district work period. And the Senate, which has been stung by criticism that it doesn't work the same kind of long schedule as the House, is sticking around for one more week to deal with a big list of issues, including an extraordinary baby that the House left on the doorstep when they went home very early Saturday morning and they passed a version of a pension system overhaul.
It's been in negotiation for a year, to try to eliminate the possibility of people losing their pensions in their private companies. And they also passed a minimum wage increase, the first in a decade, up from 5.15 an hour to 7.25 an hour, over three years.
HANSEN: The Republican leaders in the House allowed that?
ELVING: Yes, and I lived to see the day. This has been anathema to them since they came to power. And I - they believe - it's their view that it kills jobs in the United States and helps overseas competitors and reduces profits for American business.
HANSEN: So why did the Republicans vote for it?
ELVING: Well, that, of course, is a good question. They did because they saw a chance to do something that they cared even more about, which is to produce a permanent, very deep cut in the estate tax. They paired the two together, they pushed them through. And they figured that if in the Senate it doesn't pass, then they can say that the Democrats refused to take a minimum wage increase if the cost of it was a break for people who have very large estates that they're passing on to their heirs. That gives them a chance to neutralize an issue they were afraid the Democrats were going to use against them in the fall campaigns.
HANSEN: And, Ron, in about the minute we have left, of course, the minimum wage and so forth you've just been mentioning, but are there other big issues on the Senate's plate before they go off?
ELVING: They would like also to deal with this pension bill which the House has left them. There were negotiations, as I say, that went on for a full year, and essentially the House leaders walked away from those negotiations at the end, took the parts of the bill that they were ready to take to their members in the House, and then told the Senate, like it or lump it, that's what you've got to take.
Beyond that, they might try to take up the nomination of John Bolton, our - serving as a recess appointment - ambassador to the United Nations. But that'll probably be put off to September, especially given the crisis that's going on that's preoccupying everyone in the U.N.
HANSEN: So Ron, when Congress goes to do constituent work, do you get a vacation?
ELVING: A brief one, Liane. Unfortunately, we keep tabs on them when they're talking to their constituents as well.
HANSEN: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, thank you very much.
ELVING: Thank you, Liane.