This Week in Politics: 100 Hours on Capitol Hill

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John Ydstie speaks to Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and Congressional reporter Andrea Seabrook about the opening of the 110th Congress.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

It was quite a week for Democrats on Capitol Hill. They took control of both Houses of Congress for the first time in a dozen years. And Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker and the highest-ranking woman in U.S. government history. This week, however, it's time to get down to work, and the Democrats have set out a mighty ambitious work plan.

Joining us to talk about what's to come in Washington are our good friends Andrea Seabrook - who's back at her perch on Capitol Hill - and NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Welcome to both of you.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Hello.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, John.

YDSTIE: Andrea, tell us just one thing you'll remember about this new Congress on its first day.

SEABROOK: Okay, to pick one thing, I think I will remember the girls. The little girls in party dresses that were all over Capitol Hill, and the fact that almost every member of Congress I stopped to talk to his children, or talk to him or her, told me that no matter what the party they were, that this was an inspiring day for their little girls. Seeing the first female speaker sworn in in U.S. history was a big deal for these girls, so there was a sense that they were really aspiring to great heights.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Also on that first day, the Congress passed a new set of ethics rules. I believe the vote was 430 to one.

SEABROOK: Yes, exactly. And these new rules banned things like using corporate jets to go gallivant across the country, taking gifts and meals from lobbyists. It's an attempt by the Democrats to come in and really lay a new groundwork of ethics standards that they hope will change the tone in Washington and keep this sort of creeping money that sort of flows into the cracks of politics all the time, keep it out.

They hope that that'll keep them on the up and up in the coming years, and that they can prove to the American people that they do government differently than the Republicans do.

YDSTIE: Well, Ron, you've been around Washington for a while now. I've seen a few New Year's resolutions just like this one come and go. What's the life expectancy for these new ethics rules?

ELVING: It's not permanent. The spirit of reform, if you will, the spirit of ending the culture of corruption - as the Democrats were calling it during the campaign - is frequently with us, but then it tends to fade. And people start to nibble around the edges of the rules and say, well, can I just do a little bit of this, and is it okay if I have lunch with a lobbyist who is also my cousin or my best friend or my roommate from college, a previous acquaintance, what have you. And that - we'll go through all that again.

And it's a little bit, you know, Andrea used that metaphor that sounded like water. And it's a little bit like water in a house. You can do all kinds of things to keep water out of a house; eventually water will get in your house. That doesn't mean you don't work at waterproofing your house. And every now and again, Congress needs to pass a new set of tighter rules and then watch the process play itself out again.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. But money is to politics as water is to hills. Money rolls into politics and water rolls downhill.

ELVING: Politics is largely about money. It's about making the rules for making money in our economy and in our culture. That's largely what Congress does; it makes the rules for commerce. And with that much money flowing around every decision that they make, it's extremely difficult to keep some of it from - well, I'll just say carrying some of the members away.

YDSTIE: So let's talk about the next steps in this hundred-hour agenda that the Democrats have set. I guess it's pretty tightly scripted. Tuesday, they'll adopt a package of recommendations from the 9/11 Commission that the Bush administration has not adopted.

SEABROOK: That's right, John. And then on Wednesday, they raise the minimum wage. Thursday, it's stem cell research. And Friday, they institute a new system for buying drugs at lower prices. All of these bills they have already passed the rules for. It's kind of an arcane, crazy process. But they've already sort of parted the waters for these bills to slide through Congress. That doesn't mean it'll be easy. It's a really rigorous agenda. I've never seen four such giant bills passed on four consecutive days before. But I haven't been here that long, only four years.

YDSTIE: So let's take that list that Andrea just gave us, including the ethics rules, 9/11 Commission, minimum wage, etc. Ron, are those safely said to be the greatest hits of the campaign trail last year?

ELVING: Certainly they're all things that Democrats ran on and ran on successfully. They got good responses and people were also telling pollsters that they cared about these things. And they all seem to be winners. They should be able to get almost all the Democratic votes for all of those issues. And they should be able to get a few Republican votes as well, so those should be doable.

Now, it may take four marathon-long sessions of the House in order to do it, but they would like to have that impression. They've talked about getting a lot done in the first 100 hours, so they would like to create this working-overtime-for-you image of their first week in office.

SEABROOK: And the Democrats, for once, have actually seemed to have backed the Republicans into a corner here. I mean the strategy that they have played has made it so that Republicans are going to have a hard time voting against these things. I mean, go voting against lower prescription drug prices? Voting against an increase in the minimum wage? All except for the most conservative of the Republican members will have a hard time voting against it. So it may not be that hard.

YDSTIE: And what about this hundred hours? Are we talking about a hundred hours straight, so they're going to pull over-nighters? Or are we talking about a hundred hours in business days?

ELVING: Yes, it's a little bit like dog years. When Congress talks about hours, days, anything of that nature, they're talking about their own floor time. And their floor time is so many hours of business in a given day.

YDSTIE: And what about Iraq, the other big issue, of course, in the election - what's Congress going to do about the war?

ELVING: You know, first of all, let me just say that CBS News did a poll this weekend in which it asked people what they thought this new Congress ought to address first. Forty-five percent of the people responding said Iraq. The second most popular answer, eight percent.

YDSTIE: So what are they going to do, Andrea?

SEABROOK: Well, you know, it's been interesting to watch them try and figure out what they're going to do. I mean it's obviously the one thing that voters voted on that Democrats can't come in and place a nice slam dunk about. So, you know, Pelosi has given a speech. She'll keep talking about it. Congress holds the purse strings of this war and so the appropriations process will pick over what the Bush administration has asked for. And I think most people are just waiting to hear from President Bush what his plans are.

YDSTIE: And what do we expect from the president on this, Ron?

ELVING: The president is expected to give a speech this week in which he tells us what his new direction is in Iraq. And it's going to be a lot like the previous direction, only with more troops - perhaps 20,000. And that means longer tours for people who are already there. And it means shorter rotations in and out of the country, or longer rotations in the country, shorter out of the country, for the troops who have been in reserve and who have been coming in and out.

So we're not going to be having a lot of really fresh troops, necessarily; it's not like we're sending people that have never been to Iraq before. But we are going to have higher troop levels and some changes of tactics. And what change of tactics we hear from the president, that could be crucial to the success of these larger troop concentrations, because if they just go on having more people do what we've been doing in the past, I don't think very many people think that will be more successful.

YDSTIE: And Andrea, we've talked a lot about what the House is up to now and how the House might respond to the Iraq issue. What about the Senate?

SEABROOK: Well, I think that over there they're also waiting to see what the president's going to say. In general, what I hear from senators is that they're expecting some very serious oversight of whatever the president says he's going to do. They basically see from Democrat's point of view that there hasn't been a whole lot of oversight of this war and that that's a major, major problem with it. And they plan to really bring out those magnifying glasses on whatever policy the president proposes.

YDSTIE: Ron, do you have something to add to that?

ELVING: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee are expected to begin their hearings, specifically on the Iraq war, how we got in there, what went wrong there and what we're doing there next, beginning mid-week this coming week.

YDSTIE: Senior Washington editor Ron Elving and NPR Congressional reporter Andrea Seabrook, thanks very much to both of you.

ELVING: Thank you, John.

SEABROOK: You bet.

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