Another Session Ends on Capitol Hill

What was accomplished in the just-ended session of Congress? What was not? Eric Pianin, congressional editor and deputy national editor for The Washington Post, offers his insights to Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Democratic and Republican senators alike were no doubt relieved to leave a torpid Washington, D.C. on Friday after wrapping up a late-night session before the August recess. For a look ahead to the issues Congress will face once they reconvene, we're joined now by Eric Pianin of the Washington Post. Mr. Pianin, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ERIC PIANIN (Washington Post): My pleasure.

SIMON: And biggest news from Thursday's session, of course, was probably the minimum wage. Some Democrats voted against raising the minimum wage 'cause the bill would also have permanently cut estate taxes. Have the Democrats given up on this issue?

Mr. PIANIN: Well, I don't think they've given up on it, but I think that the activity we saw on Thursday night was a good example of the political theater we've been seeing throughout the year.

What I'm wondering, though, is whether the Democrats haven't sort of gotten themselves into a corner. I think that you could sort of understand intellectually why they voted against this bill, but I think it's hard to explain that in a soundbite. And I think that the Republicans may have the upper hand in arguing that the Republicans are the party for increased minimum wage while the Democrats were against it.

SIMON: What other issues do you think are going to be on the Congressional agenda when they come back?

Mr. PIANIN: Well, I think that, you know, clearly there'll be an effort to try to resolve this immigration policy. Most Republicans in the House want very tough legislation cracking down on illegal immigration across the border. And then you've got the president with a lot of allies in the Senate who want a broader, more comprehensive plan.

You know, this Congress has been criticized for being a do-nothing Congress, engaging mostly in theatrics and little of substance. I could probably, you know, list half a dozen issues that are still hanging out there. Abortion notification, asbestos litigation, the budget, the whole question of dealing with detainees, domestic surveillance.

We haven't even discussed the Congressional scandals this year involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And there have been all kinds of promises from Republican leaders that they would pass major lobby reform cracking down on illicit activities. Port security, Social Security. I mean there are all these issues that are hanging out there.

And I think it's significant to note that when Congress returns from their August recess shortly after Labor Day, there will only be about 15 working days left on the calendar before Congress adjourns for the year and lawmakers go home to campaign.

SIMON: Tuesday, primary election day in Connecticut. Senator Lieberman, according to the polls, Democratic incumbent, is reported to be behind in double digits by his challenger, Ned Lamont, who's a cable TV executive.

Mr. PIANIN: It's a fascinating race, and it also highlights the potency of the war issue. Not necessarily throughout the country, but certainly in some regions of this country. In the Northeast in particular. There are at least two or three other Congressional races in the state of Connecticut that may turn on voter sentiment on the war.

I think there's incredible resentment on the part of Connecticut Democrats. All of this works against a senator who may have gotten a little out of touch with his constituents as he's pursued his national ambitions.

SIMON: Is there another race that maybe hasn't gotten the attention you'd like to tip to our attention now?

Mr. PIANIN: Getting back to the whole question of the Congressional scandals that unfolded late last year and early this year. We've yet to see how potent the issue will be. I think you'd have to keep an eye on a number of races.

One in Montana - Senator Conrad Burns, who also has had ties to Abramoff - is facing a touch challenge from a Democrat, John Tester. Also in Ohio, Congressman Robert Neigh, who was very close to Abramoff and is the target of a federal investigation right now, he seems to be doing okay so far. But we'll have to see how things turn out in the general.

SIMON: Eric Pianin, congressional editor and deputy national editor for the Washington Post. Thanks very much.

Mr. PIANIN: Thank you.

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