Lame-Duck Congress Makes Final Legislative Run
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Not far away from the White House, the lame-duck session of Congress got under way yesterday. Despite having lost their majorities at the polls last week, House and Senate Republicans will still preside over these final days of Congress. And while lawmakers face a stack of unfinished business, much of the talk yesterday dwelt on one issue: the war in Iraq.
Here's NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA: For some Democrats, at least, the opening of the lame-duck Congress provided a moment to bask in the warm glow of victory.
(Soundbite of many people speaking at once)
Unidentified Man #1: How many hundreds of thousands votes did you win by?
Unidentified Man #2: You were catching up to Casey. He was catching up with me. He gave Casey a run for his money with the margin.
WELNA: Senate minority leader Harry Reid wore a big smile, posing before cameras with all nine of the Democrats who got elected to the Senate for the first time last week. Only one new Republican senator got elected, Tennessee's Bob Corker. There was no similar photo-op for him. The senator he'll replace, retiring majority leader Bill Frist, did try to put the best face on a stunning defeat for the GOP when he spoke on the Senate floor.
Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): So while I, of course, was disappointed in the outcome, we're not discouraged. And people come back today not discouraged, because as I've said, this election was democracy at work. Change can be tough. Change opens the door, however, to new opportunity. And with that new opportunity comes new hopes.
WELNA: Hopes for bipartisanship, Frist said. With their numbers reduced to 49 in the next Congress. Republicans know any bills they want passed will need some votes from Democrats. Minority leader Reid sounded a similar note of pragmatism.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We must take advantage in the next few weeks, get as much done as we can. There's 55 Republicans, there's 45 Democrats - we understand that for the next 60 days. After that, it's going to be a very slim majority that we have - but it's one that we believe will open the door for bipartisanship.
WELNA: Reid agreed with Frist, that lawmakers should now try to finish a stack of overdue annual spending bills. He also agreed with President Bush that this lame-duck Congress should take up both a trade agreement with Vietnam and a nuclear accord with India. But Reid said nothing about the president's call last week for legislation authorizing warrantless eavesdropping done by the National Security Agency. And nothing, as well, about the White House's push for Senate confirmation of United Nations Ambassador John Bolton. Democrats showed no inclination of going along with either of those requests.
Reid did say he was pleased President Bush met yesterday with the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton.
Sen. REID: If we're going to have a new direction in Iraq, the president must listen to new ideas. This is step in the right direction. That's why last week, I asked the president to convene a bipartisan, congressional leadership and invite other people to it, if he wants. Of course, it's his meeting, but if he wants to have Secretary Baker, Congressman Hamilton, members of the military...
WELNA: And finding a way out of Iraq will be the top priority of the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to the Democrat who will be its chairman, Michigan's Carl Levin. He held a news conference here to pitch a proposal for a nonbinding congressional resolution on Iraq.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Most Democrats share the view that we should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months - to begin that phased redeployment.
WELNA: Levin said the point would be for the president to make clear to Iraq that the U.S. presence there is not open-ended. At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow gave short shrift to Levin's proposal.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): It's an idea that still doesn't have any detail in it. It isn't fleshed out. It is not something that allows you to have any measure by which somebody does this.
WELNA: Some White House allies here at the Capitol slammed Levin's proposal as retreat. Here's Texas Republican Ted Poe yesterday on the House floor.
Representative Ted POE (Republican, Texas): The question I was asked when I was in Iraq, by Iraqi citizens was, is America going to leave like in 1991, before the war is won? While American politicians are debating that question, turn the U.S. military loose on the enemy and let our troops decide that question with total victory.
WELNA: Barring such a victory, however, the Democrats will take over in January, hoping the president is ready for the new direction they're demanding.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
INSKEEP: And you can get a preview of the Democratic agenda for the next Congress at npr.org.
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