Congress Gets Back To Work After Recess

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Congress returns to Capitol Hill this week from its July Fourth recess. Co-host Renee Montagne talks with NPR Political Analyst Cokie Roberts to find out what issues the lawmakers will tackle first.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Congress is back after its July 4th recess with plenty to do. Lawmakers will be battling over major legislation and campaigning in an election year where there are lots of angry voters. Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, is NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now the Senate returns this week to fight over measures to save homeowners from foreclosure, to avert Medicare cuts, and also to give the government power to spy on suspected terrorists. Any hope for reconciliation on all these really difficult issues?

ROBERTS: Well, eventually, yes. But it is a tough time, because as you said, it's a campaign year - and not just a congressional campaign, but a presidential campaign where there are lots of things going on in the Senate among partisans of the candidates.

Yesterday, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the - of course - the Democratic nominee the last time around and formerly a very good friend of John McCain, said that the presumptive Republican nominee does not have the judgment to be president. So you have a certain amount of animosity going on in the Senate chamber.

And on some of those measures, the Democrats have been the problem. On some, the Republicans have been the problem. The president has issued veto threats. So they're going to slog through and get them done, particularly Medicare. The Medicare changes especially need to get done.

But, of course, that's not what they're hearing from the voters about, Renee. What they're hearing from the voters about is gas prices, gas prices, gas prices. And that's a place where it's a little bit tough to figure out what to do.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, polls are showing Congress's approval rating to be as low as 13 percent. You would think that number or numbers like it would spur Congress into action on gas prices and other issues that voters are loudly showing that they care about. Why isn't that happening?

ROBERTS: Well, you would think that. Of course, as I said on gas prices, it's hard to figure out what to do. Senator John Warner of Virginia has proposed a national 55 mile-an-hour speed limit, which was imposed the last time there was a problem with oil prices.

But the truth is, here, Democrats are not feeling the heat, despite those approval ratings. They think that this is just such a bad year for Republicans that they'll be okay no matter what, and there's no need to make what could be unpopular compromises on some of this legislation. And the Republicans think they could be absolutely right.

The sort of generic question: Which party do you want to control Congress? The Democrats win going away in the polls. And Republicans are defending a lot more turf in Congress. There have been a lot of resignations of Republicans in the House. In the Senate, Republicans are defending 23 seats, Democrats only 12 by the luck of the draw. And no Democrats are retiring, and three senior Republicans are retiring.

And there's some states that could easily go from the Republicans to the Democrats. So you've got, you know, a Democratic Party that just feels very, very confident that it can do whatever it wants to do.

MONTAGNE: Well, with all that expectation about picking up seats in Congress, is that good news for the Democratic presidential nominee?

ROBERTS: Maybe, maybe not. As you get close to Election Day, if it looks like the Democrats absolutely have the Congress and have it big, you'll start to see a campaign from the Republicans saying, don't let them have all of Washington. You want another check and balance on this government.

And sometimes that kind of argument works. If it's a year where the voters are just feeling like just turn it all over, it probably won't work, but it'll be something very interesting to watch.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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