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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

It's hard not to feel a little relieved as 2005 slips away, as well as bedraggled. This year, nature unleashed an unprecedented fury; a deadly tsunami took more than 200,000 lives in 12 nations across Southeast Asia, a devastating hurricane season ripped the United States Gulf Coast to shred, an earthquake in Pakistan left many thousands dead and even more homeless.

But it wasn't all disaster. For the first time in a generation, white smoke poured form the Sistine Chapel. Pope John Paul II was succeeded by the conservative Pope Benedict XVI. John Roberts became the new chief justice of the United States, and Alan Greenspan announced his retirement from his post as the nation's top money guy at the Federal Reserve.

It was a year of scandal, too. Washington grew ever more rancorous with ethics problems among prominent Republicans and approval ratings for Congress slogging in the 30s. President Bush's polling dipped low, as well, as the White House tried to weather scandals including the outing of a CIA analyst, the indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, also allegations of secret prisons for detainees and wiretapping without warrants of American citizens. And, of course, the Iraq War. We reached the grim toll of 2,000 casualties and beyond, and questions continued about faulty intelligence and possible quagmires. But the recent elections for a permanent government were declared to be remarkably fraud free.

A bit later in the show, we'll talk about the leap second that gets added to the clock on Saturday. And we want to hear from you. What will you do with that extra second? Send us an e-mail at totn@npr.org.

Right now, though, what stories keep you reading, listening or watching? And who were the people that captured your attention: jailbirds Martha Stewart and Judith Miller, or literary lions Harold Pinter and Harry Potter? Jog our memories. The numbers here in Washington are (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK.

Joining me in the studio is NPR's Washington editor, Ron Elving. Welcome, Ron.

RON ELVING reporting:

Hello.

SEABROOK: There was so much news from the White House and the Capitol this year that we've probably forgotten half of it. Ron, what were the big stories?

ELVING: Mercifully half of it. The big story, of course, is Iraq. It is the biggest story by any measure, whether you're talking size or significance or salience or permanence or constancy. This story is with us daily, it's with us in every news cycle and it has become the story that's so big it encompasses all the other news. The president is fond of saying that Iraq has become the central front in the war on terror. It's really become the central front in his presidency. Everything relates to Iraq, and everything is seen in that context. And that includes Katrina, it includes apparently unrelated things really, such as his Supreme Court nominations. It includes concern about the economy, often pinned to energy prices which have a lot to do, again, with what goes on in the Middle East. It's become the linchpin of our foreign policy and, if you will, the one issue that consumes all others.

SEABROOK: Ron, I remember, when the defense authorization--the defense funding bill came up before Congress, there were some cries of sending so much money to Iraq and not having money for Hurricane Katrina survivors, or at least having to pay for that instead of the money for the war. But I don't--how does Iraq figure into the Supreme Court nominations, as you mentioned?

ELVING: When the president was given the opportunity to fill the first vacancy, when Sandra Day O'Connor initially announced that she was going to step down in June, I don't think it played much of a role in his calculations. But by the fall, when the second opportunity arose with the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, then the president really was embroiled with the war, because in the time between June and September, the war had deteriorated as a situation on the ground with the insurgency and mounting US casualties, but particularly it had deteriorated as a political issue. The symbolic presence of Cindy Sheehan standing outside the president's ranch throughout the month of August really was a sign of how the country's attitudes were changing; not that she'd changed them, but that she was a kind of a symbol.

And, of course, we reached a point in the polls where most people in the country thought it was a mistake to have gone in, that perhaps we were misled to have gone in. And in that context, we also got struck with Katrina. And at that moment, the president suddenly has another Supreme Court appointment to make, and in a very distracted moment, he makes a choice which I think most everyone is going to look back on as an error, one that was not satisfying to his own base, wasn't satisfying to his own people in the White House except, of course, his White House counsel, whom he chose for the Supreme Court. She withdrew her nomination later on.

SEABROOK: And her name?

ELVING: Harriet Miers. That's going to get to be a bit of a footnote and a trivia question, I fear.

SEABROOK: Hmm. The president's polling numbers being down this year, having so much trouble stemming from Iraq but moving into other things, as you said, it reminds me that there was sort of a non-story this year, something that wasn't the news, and that was any kind of update in Social Security.

ELVING: If you go back to January of 2005, everyone was writing about the one issue that was going to dominate congressional action in 2005, Social Security changes. The president proposed private personal accounts within Social Security, the Democrats pretty quickly lined up against it, some Republicans weren't so sure about it, it never got much of a head of steam behind it, lots of other events and issues crowded in around it. The president went on a long campaign to many cities in the country over two months trying to drum up more public support for it; that campaign did not work.

SEABROOK: What about Congress? What were the big stories there?

ELVING: Congress, of course, was not really intimately involved in the Iraq War through most of the year. But by the end of the year, one of the symbols of the president's having difficulty was that Congress was getting involved in how the war was going to be run. But through most of the year, Congress was more concerned with its own agenda and with its own power struggles, which have been quite real. The Senate majority leader got into some trouble--or at least is being investigated--over stock ownership that he said he didn't have any knowledge of, but it came out that he did have some knowledge of. The House majority leader was actually forced to step down from that role, Tom DeLay. He had to step down because he was indicted on a campaign money-laundering charge back in his home state of Texas.

So the Congress was always mostly concerned about passing its budget and its appropriations bills and its own projects, the only things that they're concerned about. And in this particular year, that all broke down in the fall, largely because of that leadership problem that I talked about, and the big distractions of these larger issues of Katrina and Iraq.

SEABROOK: And, of course, not all the news this year was in the legislative and executive branches. David Savage is also joining us here in 3A. He's the legal correspondent for the LA Times. It was a mammoth year for the judicial branch, as well: Supreme Court; O'Connor hoping to retire, we'll see; Rehnquist's death. Tell me about this year. What are your big stories?

Mr. DAVID SAVAGE (Los Angeles Times): Well, you just touched on it. It's really the transition on the Supreme Court that has begun in 2005 and will continue into 2006. This has been a long time brewing. As you know when President Bush came to office 2001, one of the much talked about issues was that he could make the Supreme Court more conservative. He had a real conservative agenda that he's been successful in the Congress, but hasn't had much success in the Supreme Court.

You remember all through this spring, we thought Chief Justice Rehnquist was going to step down and that President Bush would be appointing his successor. It didn't work out quite that way. Sandra O'Connor, apparently, when she was told by Rehnquist that he wasn't leaving, she decided to leave. Then it turned out that the chief only lived a few more months, and we're now in a situation where the second of the Bush nominees, Sam Alito, is coming before the Senate in January. I think the interesting thing will be--to watch is whether the president really succeeds in making the Supreme Court more conservative.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SAVAGE: To sort of step back--this is the third wave of how this has happened, I must say, in my lifetime. President Nixon came in determined to make the Supreme Court more conservative, put four justices on the court, sort of moved it to the right on things like the death penalty--they restored the death penalty; they ended sort of cross-town busing. Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981 also determined to move the court to the right. He had three new appointments--Sandra O'Connor, Justice Scalia, Anthony Kennedy. Part of his agenda was overturning Roe vs. Wade and sort of ending race-based affirmative action, and it's never happened. Some of the Reagan nominees--Anthony Kennedy, Sandra O'Connor--turned out to be more moderate than we thought.

Now we're in a third cycle. And so the question really is: Is John Roberts and Sam Alito--are they going to be more conservative, say, than Sandra O'Connor was and sort of move the court to the right? And it'll be a long time before we know the real answer to that question.

SEABROOK: Any early signs? John Roberts had a couple months now as chief justice.

Mr. SAVAGE: Not really, Andrea. Early signs that Roberts is well-suited to the job--smart guy, quick sense of humor, very--it was amazing in early October to see him on top of the arguments in all those cases. He didn't have the summer to prepare for that. He was busy preparing for his confirmation hearings. He's very well-suited to that job, but I can't say. It's going to be a while before we know sort of how conservative John Roberts is.

SEABROOK: And here at the end of this year, there's the confirmation hearings of Samuel Alito shaping up, as you said. A question for both of you on the political front, as well as the judicial one: What are the big issues here? Abortion? Privacy? Presidential power? Civil rights?

Mr. SAVAGE: I'll take number three. I think the new emerging issue is the extent of presidential power. It was the big issue after 9/11. President Bush was very assertive in his use of the commander-in-chief authority. As you know, Dick Cheney, the vice president, has said that's sort of one of his projects, to restore the strong executive. They ran up against a Supreme Court a couple years ago in a decision where the court reined them in slightly on Guantanamo, said that you've got to give these guys a hearing. Sandra O'Connor had that line about the president does not have a blank check even in wartime; all three branches of the government are involved. That's going to be the big issue, I think, in the year ahead.

SEABROOK: Ron.

ELVING: The other one will be abortion, of course, which is the issue that usually dominates these kinds of Senate confirmation hearings.

SEABROOK: We're reviewing 2005, from Deep Throat Mark Felt to the space shuttle. What's your pick for the most influential story of the year? We're taking your calls at (800) 989-TALK. You can send us an e-mail, also. The address is totn@npr.org.

(Soundbite of Discovery touchdown)

Unidentified Man #1: Nose gear touchdown and Discovery is home.

Unidentified Woman: Houston, Discovery, wheels stop.

Unidentified Man #1: Roger, wheels stop, Discovery. And congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight. Stevie Ray, Soichi, Andy, Vegas, Charlie, Wendy and Eileen, welcome home, friends.

SEABROOK: I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

We're talking about stories that held our attention this year. Bush in China and elections in Iraq.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) I hope we get a new parliament that secures the Iraqi people's future, not a government that favors one sect over another. We have many different ethnic and religious groups--Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Turkmen--that make up Iraq. We need a united government to serve all those interests.

SEABROOK: What were the stories abroad that captured your attention? Our number is (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And we're going to turn in just a minute to some of that foreign news. Still with us here is Ron Elving and David Savage. Thank you both for being here.

Let's quick--turn to some of our callers. Ben in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BEN (Caller): Hi. Actually, this is sort of a subset of the Katrina story. There was a woman that was followed on "All Things Considered" in the weeks and months following Katrina named Sharon White. I don't know if everyone's familiar with her story, but she just lost so much and amidst all of the news about, you know, blaming FEMA and, you know, the stream of bad news coming out of that part of the country, it was just really inspiring and a breath of fresh air to hear this woman carry on with such grace and such dignity and a real sense of hope. And it was remarkable. It may not have been the biggest, you know--she herself may not have been the biggest story of the year, but it was certainly one of the most inspiring.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Ben.

There were a lot of inspiring stories from the Gulf Coast, no, Ron?

ELVING: Absolutely. It's been one of those instances of human courage, human endurance. Much of that, of course, has been shouldered aside by the controversy and, of course, by just the ongoing destruction itself. But there are always stories that come form these kinds of situations and that inspire others.

SEABROOK: Let's get to some foreign news. There was both good and bad news around the world. Ethan Bronner is here to talk about it. He's the deputy foreign editor of The New York Times. He joins us from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ETHAN BRONNER (Deputy Foreign Editor, The New York Times): Thank you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Ethan Bronner, we've had our domestic expert here say that Iraq is the big story of the year. I guess you would concur, huh?

Mr. BRONNER: I'm afraid I would, yes. I mean, Iraq is obviously the overwhelming global story today. It's not just that it matters so much for the Bush presidency and to the United States with 150,000 troops over there, but it has become the kind of defining axis of how one feels about stuff in the world no matter where you are in the world. So that even in places like Latin America and in India and China, there's a kind of Iraq divide in terms of how people feel about what's going on, and generally it's fairly negative.

SEABROOK: Has there been any progress this year? Are we able to say that?

Mr. BRONNER: Well, you know, that's the question, in a way, that we ask ourselves every single day at the paper as we talk on the phone with our correspondents in Baghdad, or they themselves ask themselves, and I don't really know the answer. I would say that clearly, there have been a number of wonderful events if democracy is the goal. There were three important votes this year in Iraq: in January, a tentative parliament that served until now; in October, for a constitution; and, of course, just in December, for a more permanent, for a four-year parliament. And these all went off very well, and it was an exercise in democracy and in hope that I think was inspiring to anyone who watched, including Arabs who have been quite skeptical about it.

That said, the insurgency is still very insistent, quite well-organized, able to carry out an enormous amount of violent acts, and it's hard to know where it will go.

SEABROOK: Of course, Saddam Hussein is now on trial in Iraq.

Mr. SAVAGE: That's true, and I think that has also served as a kind of lesson. I mean, if we step back a half a step or maybe one step from what is the effort in Iraq--and that is, I would say, if you want to define the Bush administration's central foreign policy goal, it would be to spread democracy in the Middle East, in the Arab-Persian Middle East. And in that sense, I think, Iraq, of course, is central to that central goal. But it's also interesting to see what's happening in other parts of the region.

We have--through American pressure, there was a vote in Egypt, and I think that the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected. And there's going to be a vote in the Palestinian territories in a few weeks and it is expected that Hamas will do fairly well. And, of course, in Iraq, the role of religious Shiites seems to be more than the Americans had hoped or expected. So there is a sense that the Americans are able to press ahead with democratization, but that the result of democratization may not be exactly what they had hoped.

SEABROOK: Ethan Bronner, let's take a few calls from out listeners. They have a lot of questions about foreign news. Seth in Ohio. Hi, what's your question?

SETH (Caller): Hi. I think thinking about big news stories of '05, you have to think about the Gaza Strip pullout and actually how relatively peacefully that went and hopefully the positive domino effect that that might have in terms of Israel and Palestinian peace movements. And I'll take the response off the air.

SEABROOK: Ethan Bronner?

Mr. BRONNER: Well, that's a very good point. The Gaza pullout went unbelievably well in the sense that everyone was afraid that extremist settlers and their sympathizers from Israel would carry out violent acts. And the Israeli military, under the direction of Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, really pulled it off beautifully. Now--and, in fact, I think that the caller is right, that what happened there is hugely important because I think it propelled Sharon further to the center. And Sharon left the Likud Party that he had helped found in the '70s and has now founded a party called Kadima, a centrist party. So there is definitely a feeling that something significant is happening in Israel--elections among the Palestinians in January and then on March 28th, an Israeli election. And certainly there is the sense that if this party of Sharon's is victorious in March, that further withdrawals from the West Bank will occur.

SEABROOK: On that note, Justin in Syracuse, what's your comment?

JUSTIN (Caller): Hello. This is my first time calling in. I was going to dovetail off the Israel comment and mention that the leader of the PLO passed away and how that affected the foreign policy relationship between the Bush administration and Israel.

SEABROOK: Ethan Bronner, Yasser Arafat...

Mr. BRONNER: I'm sorry. Who passed away?

SEABROOK: Yasser Arafat.

Mr. BRONNER: Oh, yeah, sorry. That was, of course, in November, I think, of 2004.

SEABROOK: Ah.

Mr. BRONNER: But hey, we can count it in the year if you want. Well, that's...

SEABROOK: It made waves, anyway.

Mr. BRONNER: OK. It certainly did. Look, that was an extremely significant death. Now in some ways, I would say that it felt like it was going to be more significant perhaps than it was. I think that's what we're going to have to see in the coming year. It was widely felt that Yasser Arafat was an obstacle, perhaps the obstacle, to an Israeli-Palestinian deal over a two-state solution because he was playing a double game. And it was fervently hoped in Israel that he would die. Now that he has died, I'm not entirely sure that it's going as well as the Israelis had hoped on the Palestinian side.

So what the Israelis have essentially done is decided to carry things out unilaterally, and that's, you know, a risky policy which could cause some blow-back on the Palestinian side. It's not something that anybody is very happy about on the Palestinian side. So I think that the significance of his death is clear, but what it really means remains to be seen.

SEABROOK: Let's open this up back to the domestic front. Ethan Bronner, stay on the line.

Mr. BRONNER: Sure.

SEABROOK: We'll go back with Ron Elving, senior Washington editor for NPR, and David Savage, legal correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Congress stuck its nose into some new territory this year.

Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas; Majority Leader): It's not for any one of us to decide what her quality of life should be. It's not any one of us to decide whether she should live or die. She has constitutional rights to live, and we are trying to protect her constitutional right to live and, more importantly than that, her constitutional right not to have somebody else decide her future by pulling out a feeding tube and letting her starve for two weeks.

SEABROOK: That was then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, talking, of course, about Terri Schiavo. David Savage, Ron Elving, I don't know who's going to go first. Was it a legal story, or was it a political story? Savage--David Savage?

Mr. SAVAGE: Well, it turned out not to be much of a legal story. The Florida courts had handled this case for a long number of years. A judge had sort of carefully gone through the facts and basically concluded that Terri Schiavo's brain had died. She really could not--she really was--could not recover in any way. The Florida courts had, as I say, dealt with that case for years and basically concluded that Terri Schiavo would have wanted to die had she been able to speak for herself. That's the conclusion they made.

And then at the last minute, Tom DeLay and a lot of Republicans tried to make it a national, legal, political issue to try to get the federal courts involved, including the Supreme Court, in reversing all those decisions. And the Supreme Court basically just stood back and said, `This is not our case. There is no legal issue here for us to take this up. There is no federal constitutional issue,' and they stood back and just let the Florida court's decision stand.

SEABROOK: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ron Elving.

ELVING: Well, because it was not such a legal issue, as David says, it became very much a political issue. And the Congress initially told the federal courts that they should intrude and take this all over again, and the federal courts essentially ignored it. They essentially said, `No, we're not going to intrude.' And Congress tried every way it possibly could, other than to actually march some of the members down to Florida to physically intrude, to get involved in this matter despite the fact that it was clearly a division within the family that had been adjudicated over a long period of time and resolved.

As a result, Congress did not go home for its normal--I believe it was the Easter holiday recess. Dr. Frist, who is the Senate majority leader, went out on the floor and said that as a doctor, he could tell, even from Washington, DC, based on the video that he had seen, that there was still some quality of life here and that there was really no reason to remove the feeding tube, irrespective of what all the other doctors and courts had said. And there was an extraordinary moment in which the leaders of the House and the Senate essentially said, `We believe we know better, and we're just going to move right on into this case.'

To their great surprise, while they were seen as heroes by many in the right-to-life movement--many people had fastened on this case as an end-of-life right-to-life issue--they were not seen as the courageous heroes that they imagined they would be by the majority of people who were polled. In fact, in the weeks immediately thereafter, they took quite a spanking from the public in general, and so did President Bush for making a special effort to come back to Washington and sign these bills that they had passed at the end of the period of time they were getting involved in the case

SEABROOK: And so some political fallout there from Terri Schiavo maybe ended up being more of a political story than a legal one.

ELVING: It was a bit of a black eye, I think, for the leadership in both the House and the Senate, individually and in terms of their control of those two chambers, their majorities in both those chambers. They did not come off the way they thought they would.

SEABROOK: Let's go to some of our listeners. Mike in Camillus, New York. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks very much. The--seems like to me the biggest story was also the biggest unreported story--is a compilation of all the things that have been going on with the war on drugs: We've had numerous Supreme Court case decisions; Condi Rice was in Colombia; $2 billion planned for Colombia; somebody came out and said there's been no effect on the trade, on the supply of cocaine in America; the meth labs; the murders along the border with Mexico; the DEA's in 140 countries. And to top it all off, we have the biggest prison system in the world that has grown exponentially just since the start of the war on drugs in 1970. And to finish with that, the Veterans Against Vietnam War was a big, big story. But what hasn't come out is that there's now a group of cops, judges and others who've come out against the war on drugs, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. And that's totally unreported. And we've got the--you know, there's so much money being spent. I mean, if you go back just a bit to 2004 in the domestic policy debate between Kerry and Bush, not one question came up about the war on drugs.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Mike. Ethan Bronner.

Mr. BRONNER: Well, that's, of course, a mix of domestic and foreign story. I would say that, you know, much of what the caller said was very intelligent and interesting. The supply, of course, continues to grow. There's an interesting development in Bolivia. The man who has been elected the president, Evo Morales, is a former coca grower and promises to legalize, to some extent, coca growing in Bolivia. And, of course, that's viewed with horror by the administration here that sees that it will simply increase the supply of cocaine here. He didn't mention poppies in Afghanistan, but that's been an enormous problem. Most of that does go to Europe rather than the United States.

But it's true that today in Haiti we have a government--we have had previously a government in Haiti until some months ago that really relied, to some extent, on drug trafficking to thrive. So it's an enormous, enormous issue across the globe, and the rich countries essentially end up being the consumers of it all. He's right.

SEABROOK: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, of course, we're missing a big element here when we talk about the news of 2005: business. We had all the perennial newsmakers back this year: Alan Greenspan, Martha Stewart, Kenneth Lay. Jill Dutt is assistant managing editor of the Financial section in The Washington Post. She's going to round up the business stories of the year for us. She joins us from her offices in DC.

Jill Dutt, what are the big ones?

Ms. JILL DUTT (Assistant Managing Editor, Financial Section, The Washington Post): Hey, thank you. Nice to be with you today. Well, you mentioned some of the illustrious characters of the year. I--one of the big stories here was who was going to run the Federal Reserve after Alan Greenspan stepped down. And, you know, on Wall Street and in Washington he's viewed as a bit of a god, and as the White House was trying to decide who to pick, it--they needed to come up with somebody after the sort of disaster of the Harriet Miers nomination.

And Ben Bernanke, who had been thought to be a very solid candidate but perhaps overtaken by others who had stronger political friends after the Harriet Miers fiasco--he was named quickly and was warmly welcomed, both during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill and by Wall Street. So he will actually take over after Greenspan's last meeting in January. And that's going to be a really interesting thing to watch because the economy, which as been going quite strong and has been quite resilient, even with huge shocks, like what happened to oil prices after Hurricane Katrina and the whole economic devastation of Hurricane Katrina--you know, it's been quite strong. But things that have kept it going, like, you know, rising housing prices and low interest rates--things are starting to feel perhaps we're getting later into the cycle. So it will be interesting to watch how he handles shifts in the economy.

SEABROOK: Jill Dutt, hang on just a minute. We have to take a short break.

Ethan Bronner, the deputy foreign editor of The New York Times, thanks for joining us with some foreign news.

Mr. BRONNER: Sure.

SEABROOK: And, David Savage, legal correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, thanks for your views as well.

Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: We're reviewing the stories in 2005 that made the headlines and some that didn't. Gas prices shot up. Same-sex marriages are recognized in a few countries around the world. And Rafael Palmeiro made some confusing claims.

(Soundbite of congressional testimony)

Mr. RAFAEL PALMEIRO: Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I do not know how to say it any more clearly than that--never. The reference to me in Mr. Canseco's book is absolutely false.

SEABROOK: Later, we have an e-mail challenge. A leap second will be added just before 2006 arrives. What will you do with it? E-mail your ideas at totn@npr.org. I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION.

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(Announcements)

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SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

Tomorrow join Ira Flatow on "Science Friday" for a sneak preview of Oliver Sacks' new book on memory and music. Plus, have scientists failed to help the public understand science?

Today we're talking about 2005 and looking forward to 2006. What captured your attention, raised your ire or made your skin crawl in the past year? I want to make sure we get through some other fascinating breaking news this year. Some big breakups were Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, Chris Klein and Katie Holmes, Sienna Miller and Jude Law, DJ-AM and Nicole Richie. And, of course, the hookups--you remember Bennifer back in 2004. Well, now we have Brangelina, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and TomKat, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Big news.

With us today are Ron Elving, senior Washington editor for NPR, and Jill Dutt, assistant managing editor of the Financial section of The Washington Post.

Jill, we talked a little bit about Alan Greenspan, we talked about the economy a little. Let's look at people's wallets. What about gas prices this year?

Ms. DUTT: Yeah, it's amazing that more--that we've had what believes to be a pretty good Christmas shopping season, given the fact that gas prices are so much higher now, even though they've come down from their spike levels right after Katrina. There's still very little thought that they're going to get much lower than this anytime soon. And you've really not seen huge protests about it. You know, what you've seen is what's now happening with the auto industry. The sales of SUVs have started to decline; people are looking for smaller cars. But it's actually quite a muted response, given the huge increase.

SEABROOK: And, also, of course, we have Enron and Tyco, big trials this year.

Ms. DUTT: Yeah. Well, the big Enron--the big kahuna and Jeff Skilling. That's coming up at the end of January. But this year you did see very interesting--you know, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco being convicted, Bernie Ebbers going to prison for the accounting scandal at WorldCom. And at the same time you see Richard Scrushy, the CEO of HealthSouth--even though I think it was seven or eight of his people who reported directly to him had pled guilty and pointed the finger upward, he was acquitted by a jury and is now fighting to get severance and other payments from HealthSouth.

SEABROOK: And, Ron Elving, looking back to Congress and the White House, what are the big issues coming up in 2006? What from '05 will carry over? I mean, of course the Supreme Court, Patriot Act, endangered species. We've got all kinds of things: the CIA leak investigation. Tell me about...

ELVING: All of those things are going to be back, Andrea. One of them is going to be up right away. On January 9th, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin its confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito, who is the president's choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. That will then become an occasion--if you will, a battleground--between the Senate Republican and Democratic critics of the Iraq War because they will have an opportunity to talk about illegal--or allegedly illegal--surveillance, warrantless surveillance, of Americans on American soil, which will be raised as an issue in those hearings and then, of course, will be an issue when Congress returns fully, House and Senate, toward the end of the month and gets down to debating the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act was not renewed as expected at the end of 2005. It's going to expire five weeks later, at the end of January, and that is if it is not renewed by House and Senate negotiation in the time between now and then. It's going to be a little tricky because formally the House and Senate are not going to be in for much of January. The House isn't expecting to come back until practically the end of the month. But the key figures, the key committee leaders, will be negotiating and trying to make a deal on the Patriot Act, so that the expiring controversial provisions can be, in some sense or another, worked out between the administration and Congress. But all the distrust that's come from this National Security Agency surveillance we just learned about last month is going to come home to roost in those negotiations.

And then, of course, Congress walks to talk about immigration. The House has already passed a tough immigration enforcement bill the president doesn't like. The Senate is going to take that up at some point in February. And we still have hanging fire a five-year budget deal for the entire federal edifice that did not get finished before the House and Senate went home for Christmas.

SEABROOK: How about a CIA leak investigation?

ELVING: Well, that's a little bit less clear because we still have a special prosecutor who's going forward and still interviewing people, still hanging a little bit of a sort of damocles over Karl Rove, who is the president's chief strategist in the White House. We already have one formerly powerful White House person in Scooter Libby, who was the chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, facing indictment in that case. So I don't know that Congress is necessarily going to get involved in that, if they can possibly avoid it.

SEABROOK: Let's take one last caller on this. Ismael(ph) in Sacramento, California.

ISMAEL (Caller): Yeah, definitely, you know, the Valerie Plame leak, that was pretty big. It seemed to have a domino effect over all these, you know, other stories that came out. But my comment, really, is kind of a lighter one, you know, in the sports world. You know, the congressional hearings on steroid abuse and stuff, that was kind of big but was later--it seemed to be helped out later by the White Sox, you know, going to the World Series and winning in four games. I thought that was pretty big. Also, just in the recent news, folks, you know, basketball is kind of big news: the NBA's enforced dress code. There's a lot of implications that came out of that and was a lot of fun, you know, to talk about. And then, lastly, you know, recently Kobe Bryant against the Dallas Mavericks scored--I think it was about 62 points by the third quarter, and that was kind of far spread. And, you know, it's well recognized as a great effort.

SEABROOK: Thanks so much for keeping us up to date, Ismael. We appreciate it.

Ron Elving is the senior Washington editor for NPR. Thanks for being here.

ELVING: Thank you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: And Jill Dutt, the assistant managing editor for the Financial section in The Washington Post, thanks so much.

Ms. DUTT: Thank you.

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