Clinton Awaits Hearing As Bush Holds Final Presser

It's an intense week in politics. We examine President George Bush's final press conference and the buildup to confirmation hearings for Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder. We also explore when Congress is likely to release the second half of the $700 billion bailout package.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen. In a few minutes, Amtrak supporters hope for a brighter future in the Obama administration. But first, President Bush held his final press conference this morning. He said the most urgent threat facing the incoming administration is the potential for an attack against the United States. The president also spoke about the troubled economy.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The question facing the president is not when the problem started, but what did you do about it when you recognized the problem? And I readily concede, I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told by chief economic advisers that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.

COHEN: That's George W. Bush, speaking at his last press conference as the president earlier today. Joining us now to talk about that conference and the week ahead in politics is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING: Hello, Alex. Good to be with you.

COHEN: Good to be with you. And as we just heard, Mr. Bush spoke of his legacy related to the current economic crisis. He also talked about terrorism, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. What's your take on the overall tone of today's press conference?

ELVING: You had to be struck by the degree to which President Bush talked about his presidency as something that happened to him, events he reacted to, as opposed to events he set in motion or policies he pursued that had certain effects. So, he talked about inheriting a recession at the beginning of his presidency and then having another one hit him at the end. And he talked about his disappointment that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. And he said that he thought that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina had been unfairly criticized because, after all, federal helicopters picked up 30,000 people off of roofs.

COHEN: As you mention, the president spoke about his critics, and he also spoke about the critics that Mr. Obama will likely face. What advice did he have for the incoming administration?

ELVING: You know, throughout the news conference, he was quite kind and generous to Barack Obama. Every time he referred to him, he seemed quite - almost warm to the idea of this new president coming into office and as though he were welcoming him into the office. He told him, don't be too carried away with all this talk about isolation in the presidency, in the Oval Office, and don't be weighed down by this talk of burdens of the office. He said he should do things to get his mind off of work as often as possible and that he should take comfort in the fact that his family was just 45 seconds away, as he put it, living right there in the White House, his wife and his two young daughters.

COHEN: Ron, let's take a look at the next administration. Tomorrow, Senator Hillary Clinton will appear before the Senate for confirmation hearings to become the next secretary of state. What can we expect?

ELVING: I think we're going to hear a remarkably respectful and substantive hearing. I don't think it's going to be a "Punch and Judy" show, as some confirmation hearings have been in the past. It's remarkable, when you stop and think about where Hillary Clinton began as a public figure and the contentiousness around her persona back in the 1990s, the degree to which she now has almost a kind of senior statesman status when it comes to a situation such as this. So I expect there to be a lot of serious policy talk about Gaza, about the Middle East in general, about Russia.

Now we need to note here, there's a brand new chairman on foreign relations, and that's John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential nominee from 2004. I think that while he was obviously friendly to the Barack Obama candidacy last year, he will be very respectful to this choice, partly to the new president, but also to Hillary herself. And the ranking Republican here is still Dick Lugar from Indiana, longtime serving Republican senator, quite courtly in manner. We're a long way from the days of Jesse Helms.

COHEN: Barack Obama's pick for attorney general, Eric Holder, is also facing confirmation hearings this week. Those hearings might be a bit more heated. Explain why.

ELVING: You're going to see a little bit more contentiousness on the Holder front. Two reasons - Marc Rich pardoned back in 2001. Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich; Eric Holder signed off on it at the Justice Department. I think a lot of Republicans see that as their single best chance to embarrass the new administration and the new Cabinet in the hearings this week. And at the same time, a lot of Democrats want to ask questions - and Republicans too - about some of Eric Holder's jobs as a $2-million-a-year Washington, D.C., lawyer in the years since he was in the Justice Department.

COHEN: Finally, Ron, lots of talk about Congress releasing the second half of this $700 billion bailout this week. Where do we stand with that?

ELVING: Quite possible that Congress will get that done this week now that Barack Obama has asked George Bush, has asked the current president, to formally put in a request for that money. Congress has got a lot of questions about how this money is going to be spent, as it has questions about how the first half of the money was spent. So, they're going to resist. There's going to be some pushback. But it's quite possible the release will come this week.

COHEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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