White House, Congress Prepare for Change

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The White House and Congress are preparing for a lame duck session that could be unusually eventful. Meanwhile, a new working relationship is likely as Democrats take control of the next Congress in January.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary sitting in for Scott Simon, who's home nursing his voice back to health after a rainy night in Tennessee.

That election's over now, of course. Democrats will control both houses of Congress, and that may mean changes coming at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue next year. Joining us now from the White House is NPR's Don Gonyea. Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: And to talk about Congress, NPR's Brian Naylor. Good to have you with us, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, Don, the president met this week with the presumptive new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and with the Senate Democratic leaders, and they all talked about working together. But the president is still pushing some pretty contentious issues - confirming John Bolton as U.N. ambassador, wiretap legislation, just to name a couple.

So just how much does the president really want to work with the Democrats?

GONYEA: It's interesting, 'cause these really did seem to be friendly, cordial meetings. But we are also absolutely getting mixed messages. Take the Bolton nomination. In his first nomination to the U.N. job a little over a year ago, it was blocked by the filibuster by Democrats. They said he had the wrong temperament, that he was a big critic of the U.N., that his skills in dealing with subordinates was an issue.

But when they blocked it, the president came through and gave Bolton a recess appointment, which means he could take the job without formal confirmation. But that appointment expires with this Congress. So even though there still are not the votes to even get his new nomination out of committee, the White House is pushing it. So much for a new tone there.

And you mentioned the wiretap, the domestic spying issue. That has also been deeply divisive, and here it is being pushed hard by the White House in the days after the election. There seems to be an effort to get what the president can get through the lame duck session of Congress while the Republicans still have their hands on the levers of power, you know, for another month or so.

NEARY: And Brian, what about the current Congress? How well are these kinds of things going to be received on the Hill at this time. I mean can the Republicans push any of this through before they lose their majorities?

NAYLOR: I think the chances for Bolton and the wiretap legislation are both about slim to none. First of all, they're probably going to be tied up trying to pass some spending bills. And they'll be lucky if they can get that done. I'm guessing that they'll pass sort of a temporary budget that'll get him into the New Year.

And the Bolton nomination is dead. I mean it's not even the Democrats that are blocking it. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been holding it up there. And though he was defeated on Tuesday, he said that he sees no reason to change his mind.

The wiretap legislation has been stalled in the Senate all along. And though Democrats are still in the minority, they've certainly been emboldened by the election and they can still block it, because it'll take 60 votes to move it, and those votes just aren't there now. So I think Mr. Bush was a little unrealistic maybe in what he expects to get done in this lame duck.

NEARY: The new Congress begins in January. How are things going to change?

NAYLOR: More than anything, Democrats talked during the campaign about their eagerness to hold oversight hearings and to restore some checks on the executive branch. So one of the key players there will be Congressman Henry Waxman of California, who will chair the House Government Reform Committee, who's been fond of complaining that under Republicans there was no matter too small to investigate when President Bill Clinton was in office, but with President Bush there's no issue that was too big to overlook.

And he's likely to look into the issue of contracting and some would say the bungled rebuilding of Iraq. There will surely be hearings into Iraq policy by the new Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden of Delaware, and the military aspects of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carl Levin takes over at the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he's likely to be aggressive in his oversight of the administration.

NEARY: Don, one way the administration seems to be dealing with all of this is to bring back some of the people who served with President Bush's father 15 years ago.

GONYEA: Well, most notably is Robert Gates, who was named this week to replace Donald Rumsfeld as the defense secretary. He worked for a number of presidents during a lengthy career at the CIA. He was CIA chief. But he's really seen as one of the important players in the administration of the first President Bush. He's back and he's seen as much less combative at the Pentagon, replacing Rumsfeld.

But also, the president is awaiting some important recommendations, the findings of a very distinguished panel called the Iraq Study Group, which is looking at how the U.S. might move forward in Iraq. That panel is headed by the first President Bush's secretary of state and a long-time top aide, Texan James Baker.

So a president, this president, who seemed intent on not being like his one-term father in the White House is sure looking to a lot of those old hands that were so important to his father.

NEARY: We haven't seen much of Vice President Cheney this past week.

GONYEA: He sat quietly on the couch in the meetings this week with Senator Harry Reid and with Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi. But recall too that he also worked for the first President Bush as defense secretary. We're going to have to watch to see if there are any signs of his influence diminishing.

NEARY: And where's Karl Rove?

GONYEA: Karl Rove has been present but not very vocal. He was the one who had to make not one but two very difficult phone calls to the president this week, telling him first that the House was lost to the Democrats and then that the Senate was lost. It'll be interesting to see how he kind of rehabilitates his image as the genius political advisor.

NEARY: NPR's Don Gonyea and Brian Naylor. Thanks to both of you for being with us.

GONYEA: A pleasure.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Lynn.

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