Week in Review: Johnson, Iraq, China Trade

Topics for debate from the week's news include the health of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), the question of troop levels for Iraq and the visit of a high-powered U.S. delegation to China for trade talks.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This week, Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota is reportedly recovering from emergency brain surgery. The balance of the Senate may hinge on his recovery. Also on Capitol Hill, the question of troop levels for Iraq is front and center. And the United States sends a high-powered delegation to China for trade talks.

NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us now.

Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And the Senator, as we note, is recovering from brain surgery. There is a complicated protocol about how to proceed when a senator may be incapacitated.

SCHORR: Uh-huh.

SIMON: And of course, as we mentioned, the balance of the Senate may hinge on the degree to which he can resume his seat in a normal life. Is there a rule about Congress people being able or unable to serve?

SCHORR: Yeah. I'm not exactly sure about how complicated the rules is. The rule, which is not a written rule, but the rule is that a senator is a senator as long as he has not resigned, and as long as he is alive, and that's up to him. And we've had several examples in past history of senators who stayed in office even when incapacitated. Strom Thurmond, at the age of 100, could hardly walk, but remained a senator.

My favorite senator story is Claire Engel of California. In 1965, paralyzed after a brain operation, carried to the Senate for a crucial vote on the civil rights bill. The teller comes up on a roll call vote and says, Mr. Engel, and Engel points to his eye, unable to speak. And the teller says, Mr. Engel says aye.

SIMON: Hmm. Now, there seems to be some bi-partisan amity on the whole question of giving Senator Johnson whatever time he needs to recover. Because in the past senators of both parties have been in positions like this, haven't they?

SCHORR: That's right. And in almost every case, it is accepted that even - he may not be able to walk, he may not be able to talk, he may not be able to do anything - he may in certain cases not even show up in the Senate for a full year, or even for two years. And the unwritten rule is a senator is a senator.

SIMON: Democrats open the new Congress with a 51 to 49 majority.

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: People have to wonder at the same time, could that balance change?

SCHORR: Well, it could change. I mean if, for example - I don't want to speculate on the condition of Senator Johnson - but if for any reason he were not available or did resign or something, and he wasn't there, that changes the balance from 51-49; then you would get 50-50 and you would get a vote - the tie-breaking vote by the vice president. And in effect the control of the Senate would shift from the Democrats, who are expecting to get it signed on January 4th, and it would shift back to the Republicans.

SIMON: But as we speak, there's no reason to think that will happen now?

SCHORR: There's no reason to think - and there's speculation about all of this. It's all because we're fascinated by the spectacle of all of this. The fact of the matter is, he's had an operation, he's still a senator, and as of now, everything remains the same until January 4th, when the new 110th Congress meets and adopts what is called the Organizing Resolution, which puts committee chairmanships in the hands of the Democrats.

SIMON: When President Bush received the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, he indicated he would deliver an Iraqi policy speech by Christmas.

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: This week he postponed the speech.

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: Any indication why?

SCHORR: Well, he says that the reason was that he wants the new secretary of defense, Bob Gates, to get up to speed and so on. But it is generally supposed that he's having trouble making up his mind what he wants to do, because he's under rather conflicting pressures as to whether to send more troops to Iraq, or send - bring back troops from there, or keep the ones we have, or make them trainers, or whatever.

They have a fundamental difficulty in that they really don't exactly know how to proceed from here, and have to put that into a big speech, which you call a new strategy, isn't easy.

SIMON: That debate about more or less troops sharpened this week, because Baker-Hamilton Study Group had called to reduce troop levels in Iraq over the next year.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: But this week, the Army's top general called for thousands more troops to be deployed to Iraq on the idea that they would secure certain areas. If that worked out, then you could begin to withdraw troops. How do you see this debate shaping up?

SCHORR: Well, the military is really very upset at what's going on, especially because they feel that it is weakening the Army and making it more difficult to retain a cohesive force for some other trouble that may arise one of these days. We had General Peter Schoomaker, the Army commander, testifying and said, we're afraid that our military is going to break. It's a very strange word, to say our military is going to break.

And so here you have a president who thinks he needs more troops and is being told you are really siphoning off troops which we may need for other purposes. On top of which, you're beginning to get people coming home from one and two tours of duty and beginning to object to going back for a third tour. And I think pretty soon there are going to be difficulties about the military.

SIMON: U.S. sent a high-powered delegation to China for trade talks this week; six cabinet level officials, including the Federal Reserve chairman. They hope to get some concessions on the liberalization of Chinese currency policy. What did they come away with?

SCHORR: Well, not very much. What they really want is for China to re-adjust the rate of their currency so that we will be able to compete better with the Chinese. The Chinese are very happy about the way things are. They're holding billions and billions in debt from the United States, they're selling a lot, and they are pleased. So I have a feeling that our delegation is coming home from Beijing displeased.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: Sure thing.

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