What the President Isn't Talking About

President Bush spoke to Florida business leaders about the U.S. economy Monday morning in the wake of a House vote to raise the minimum wage and cut estate taxes. NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving talks with Madeleine Brand about the issues the president has not been talking about in recent days.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now to Washington, which is powering down for an August recess. The House has already left town. The Senate will do the same at the end of the week. Lawmakers, though, leave a lot undone. And joining us to talk about that is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And, Ron, the biggest thing on everyone's mind is of course the crisis in southern Lebanon. What are we hearing today from the president and from Congress on that front?

RON ELVING reporting:

Nothing new so far, Madeleine. The president has made mention of the Middle East several times over the last two days, at a T-ball game yesterday at the White House and at a bakery in Miami today, at a Coast Guard event today. No specific reaction on the Qana bombing, but a pledge to make the Middle East safe again, particularly for children. The president has been talking a lot about children the last two days.

But no change in the United States position. He still says we need a sustainable peace, not an immediate cease-fire. Condi Rice is coming back to Washington this week. He will meet with her and Congress is not touching it.

BRAND: Not touching it. And what about in Iraq - in violence - in Baghdad there is continuing violence there.

ELVING: Yes, indeed. Even less mention of Iraq, really, in recent days by the president and by Congress. Our troops, of course, are redeploying within that country to shore up forces in Baghdad.

BRAND: And what about some other domestic matters, contentious matters the Senate's taking up?

ELVING: Yes, before it leaves the Senate is going to take up some highly contentious matters. Perhaps the biggest one was quite unexpected. The House left early Saturday morning, but not before pairing up two of the oldest and most nasty partisan battles we have in Washington: lowering the estate tax and raising the minimum wage. They put them together in one bill.

So the House Republican Leader said, if you'll give us a permanent cut in the tax for estates, we'll give you that two dollar minimum wage increase you've been talking about for the last nine years.

BRAND: Nine years? So will the Senate take that deal?

ELVING: Well, Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader, likes it. He has made the estates tax, which he of course calls the death tax, a big priority. And the deal they're looking at would eliminate the tax on estates under five million for individuals, ten million for couples. That's a lot of millionaires exempt right there. And bigger estates would still pay a tax, but a smaller one.

As for the minimum wage, the GOP leaders still dislike raising it. They say it's bad economics, it kills jobs, it helps China. But it does have the one big selling point that it would take away a big issue the Democrats will campaign on this fall.

So Frist could bring along most of the Senate Republicans, I think. And if the Democrats resist it, they'll say look, the Democrats want a higher minimum wage but they won't give us a tax cut to get it.

BRAND: I see. So is this a political winner for the Republicans?

ELVING: It could be, if they could get it done in the Senate. And if then, of course, it doesn't happen, you'd have to ask, how good do they really look, dangling a two dollar increase for the working poor as bait to get a millionaire's permanent tax break.

BRAND: Mm-hmm. And what else is on the Senate agenda this week?

ELVING: Well, they do want to get the minimum wage deal done. Then they would move on to a pension overhaul bill that's supposed to shore up the overstressed pension system for private sector employees. And that's pretty important. Some of the airlines have gone bankrupt and they've been dumping their pension costs onto the federal back-up system, which really can't take it anymore.

BRAND: And today, I understand, there's news on the Plan B contraceptive - that's the so-called morning after pill - that there could be some resolution to this.

ELVING: Yeah, we have a report this morning that the Food and Drug Administration may allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B to women 18 or older, that's the morning after pill, so-called. The drug maker, Barr Pharmaceuticals, has apparently been told the FDA wants to talk about steps that they can take to make this available without a prescription to anyone 18 or older.

BRAND: So this has previously only been available by prescription. Why is this happening now?

ELVING: Timing's interesting, because tomorrow the Senate Health Committee was supposed to meet with the man President Bush has nominated to head up the FDA, Andrew von Eschenbach. And several Senators have been holding up von Eschenbach's appointment - including Hillary Clinton - because they want to see the FDA move on this particular drug, which they've been sitting on for the last three years.

BRAND: Okay. Thank you very much. NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And you can read his column, Watching Washington, at npr.org. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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