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NEAL CONAN, host:

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

And now it's Wednesday and time for our regular Political Junkie feature.

(Soundbite of song “I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician”)

THE BYRDS (Musical Group): "I want to grow up to be a politician and take over this beautiful land."

(Soundbite of Former President Ronald Reagan)

President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of Former President John F. Kennedy)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest post is (foreign language spoken).

(Soundbite of Former Senator Lloyd Bentsen)

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Former Senator, Texas): Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

(Soundbite of President George W. Bush)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider and I decide what is best and what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the Secretary of Defense.

(Soundbite of Howard Dean)

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Democratic National Committee Chair):

And then we're going to Washington D.C. to take back the White House!

(Soundbite of screaming)

CONAN: As always, we have no shortage of news. Republicans in the Senate fell one vote short of a Constitutional amendment designed to ban flag burning. The primary race in Connecticut between Senate Democrat Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont gets nastier and nastier. And is immigration the new gay marriage? Apparently not, at least according to Republican primary voters in Utah's 3rd Congressional District. Here's an attack ad from an anti-immigration group, which had hoped to unseat incumbent Republican Chris Cannon.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Congressman Chris Cannon says he's tough on illegal immigration.

(Soundbite of laugh)

Unidentified Announcer: He says he's never supported amnesty for illegal aliens.

(Soundbite of laugh)

Unidentified Announcer: In fact, he supported amnesty bills for illegal aliens nine times and even cosponsored amnesty bills six times.

CONAN: Here's your chance to talk politics with the junkie himself, Ken Rudin. What races are you watching? What's hot in the blogs? Our number 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, email talk@npr.org

And, Ken, always nice to have you on the program.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Let's start with that race in Utah. It's supposed to be pretty close.

RUDIN: It was very close. Chris Cannon is really a reliable conservative. I mean, he's voted the conservative line throughout his five terms in Congress, but he also supports President Bush's guest worker program on illegal aliens, and that was not good enough for many anti-immigration groups. And they ran a lot of money, expensive campaign against Cannon. And at last month's state convention, Cannon was denied the official party endorsement. So a lot of members of Congress were watching yesterday's primary in Utah to see whether even a strong conservative could lose in the onslaught of an anti-immigration campaign.

CONAN: And it turned out it wasn't that close.

RUDIN: No he won with 56 percent of the vote against a first term candidate, John Jacob. His last name's actually Jingleheimer Schmidt, and, of course, his names is your name too. But, again, I think a lot of Republicans watched it very, very carefully, because as much as clearly anti-immigration as many of the House Republicans are, and uneasy as they are about what the Senate passed, they were still wondering whether, you know, Cannon would be in trouble. And if Cannon were in trouble, then who knows what the conservative base would be capable of doing in November.

CONAN: And, yeah, always difficult to be the president of the party, at the same time, in opposition with much of the House Republicans, and indeed much of the party base.

RUDIN: Right, that shows a difference, really, between caucuses and state conventions, and voters - a primary where most voters of all political ideological persuasions come out.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Mack(ph) - Mack's calling us from Cincinnati, Ohio.

MACK (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Mack.

MACK: Glad to be on your show.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

MACK: My comment - basically, a comment. This whole flag burning issue - I'm a Republican, but I don't see what the big deal is. There are so many more important issues to deal with then whether somebody's burning the flag or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And, Ken Rudin, a lot of Democrats were asking a lot of Republicans that very same question earlier this week.

RUDIN: Well, actually - and that's true - and only 66 votes in the Senate for the constitutional amendment - 67 were needed to pass, to send that amendment off to the states. But, you now, three Republicans voted against it. It was very interesting.

The number two Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, voted against it. Lincoln Chafee, who's in Rhode Island in a tough reelection fight voted against it. And Robert Bennett, the Republican Senator from Utah voted against it. And the reason I'm mostly puzzled about Bennett is that his fellow Republican from Utah, Orrin Hatch, was the sponsor of the amendment. And it's very interesting that Hatch gave a very emotional speech after the vote and said that, you know, those members of congress who voted against it may get retribution by the voters. But really, it may be Lincoln Chafee, of all the members who voted against - Chafee may be the one in trouble, because he has a very strong, conservative challenge in the September 12th primary…

CONAN: In Rhode Island.

RUDIN: In Rhode Island. And Chafee could pay the price for voting no.

CONAN: And he could still, no matter what he does, he's going to face a tough race coming November.

RUDIN: It's a tightrope, because you have a strong Democratic candidate as well. Right.

CONAN: Yep. Mack, thanks very much for the call.

MACK: Thank you.

CONAN: And a lot of complaints about political posturing by the Republicans: the gay marriage amendment, the flag burning amendment, abortion's going to be coming up in a couple of week's time. And, of course, the flag amendment came up a week before the fourth of July. Yet, Democrats are doing this, too. The minimum wage proposal that they put forward in the United States Senate, they knew would not pass the United States Senate and didn't have a prayer in the House.

RUDIN: Right, but in fairness of the Democrats, I mean, more people are concerned and more people are affected by the minimum wage being boosted than a flag amendment, given the fact that I think the total number of flag burnings in the past year jumped from three to four. And that's really not affecting that many people.

But look, people say it's Karl Rove at work. They've been - the Congress, the conservatives in Congress have been trying to push this flag amendment since 1990, a year after the Supreme Court ruled that burning a flag was part of free speech. So it's not so much a Karl Rove motion, move, as anything else. But the Republicans came closer than they ever have before. This passed the House six times previously, but the fact that it failed by one vote - I mean, who knows who gets, you know - already, the Republicans are putting out an ad saying that it's Robert Byrd of West Virginia who's up for a ninth term in November. Said he's responsible for the defeat. I think you could do that for any Democrat who voted no.

CONAN: And three Republicans, too.

RUDIN: Yeah, but only Chafee, of the three, are up for reelection this year.

CONAN: Now, let's get another caller on the line. And, let's go to - this is Tom(ph) - Tom's calling from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

TOM (Caller): Yes, I was wondering if you foresee the failure of this immigration amendment - if that's going to end the talks of immigration by the conservative Republican base, or if we're going to see that again in 2008. And if we are, if the Democrats are showing any sort of signs of a rebuttal for the Republican conservatives?

CONAN: Mm hmm.

RUDIN: Well, it seemed like it was really the Republican conservatives who were upset about this from the beginning. And even though we talk about the Senate had passed it, a majority of the Republicans in the Senate opposed it as well. So the fact that Speaker Dennis Hastert said we're going to take this immigration hearing on the road before we ever get into a conference committee with the Senate Republicans, we're going to have these hearings around the country.

And on this show last week, Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood said, for all intents and purposes, that means - that very well may mean that immigration overhaul is dead for 2006, and I kind of think that House Republicans couldn't be happier.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's talk about the other issue that's happened, and that is the debate over the war in Iraq. Over the past couple of weeks now - I guess since the death of Mr. Zarqawi in Iraq - the White House and Republicans in general have rebounded a little bit. Policy in Iraq looks a bit more promising. Reconciliation efforts are underway. And the Republicans now, in debates in the House and the Senate, seem to embrace the president's position. Do they really believe this is going to be a winning position come November?

RUDIN: My gut tells me that they really have no choice but to have this united position on the war, because they were being hammered. They know it will be a key issue in November. I mean, if the Republicans are going to lose control or at least take losses in the House and Senate, I think Iraq is obviously the key issue. And so maybe their strategy was, well, we're in an untenable position, let's make the best of the good news we've had in the past week with the establishment of the new government in Baghdad, the killing of Zarqawi.

But, you know, my gut tells me it's still the Republicans are going to pay some kind of a price in November for this. It's interesting, though, even though we're talking about Republicans will pay the price of this, it was John Kerry who got vilified by his fellow Democrats for pushing a time-certain withdrawal. It was Hillary Clinton who was booed at a conference for progressives because she said she was against a date-certain. And Joe Lieberman, the three-term Senator from Connecticut may face, is facing a serious primary on August 8th from an anti-war challenger from the left. So even though Republicans may pay for it in November, Democrats seem to be on the hot seat right now.

CONAN: And let's introduce another guest - Republican Brian Bilbray won a hotly contested race in San Diego to replace former congressman Duke Cunningham, who's now in prison for taking bribes. Congressman Bilbray is with us by phone from his office here in Washington. And Congressman, congratulations.

Representative BRIAN BILBRAY (Republican, California): Thank you very much.

CONAN: Did your fellow House Republicans, were you - interestingly, immigration was the big issue in your race there in California. Were you watching the Republican primary yesterday in Utah?

Rep. BILBRAY: Yes, I was.

CONAN: And what did you make of the results?

Rep. BILBRAY: I mean, the results said basically that the issue is still very hot, obviously. And I think Chris Cannon and I had a great talk about how to address the issue, how to reflect the community's changing opinion about how important immigration is. And I think Congressman Cannon reflected that just in time to be able to sort of address this issue.

CONAN: He talked about the importance of reinforcing the border, of controlling the border, but he is still for the president's amnesty plan.

Rep. BILBRAY: Well, I think you've seen him say that, you know, how it's implemented and when it's implemented needs to be re-thought. And so I think you're seeing the fact that everybody across the board - including the Senate -is talking about the fact that maybe we need to talk about proving some credibility on the enforcement side before we're able to move forward with any type of issue that reflects an attitude about amnesty.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

RUDIN: Congressman, last week on this program, Ray LaHood said that Dennis Hastert's road show hearings of immigration perhaps makes the issue moot for 2006 - that the House, the Congress may not pass immigration overhaul. Do you agree with that assessment, and do you think that's good news for House Republicans?

Rep. BILBRAY: I think, first of all, its good news for everybody that you don't just move forward with - the Senate, well-intentioned, started a railroad moving or a ball rolling that they didn't know where it went to. I don't think that any Senator thought that they were going to give things like $4,000 earned income tax credits to somebody for ever year they were here illegally, or they were going to tell seniors that social security benefits were going to be given to people for when they were illegally here. None of that was intended.

But I think what we've got now is an opportunity to look at how bad our, the mistakes can be made if you don't sit down and really try to address this issue point by point. The Senate was trying to get it all done in one time, let's just wrap it all together, and I think that the concept of committing amnesty as a way of stopping illegal immigration is as logical as drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat to drain water out. And the reaction - I think the more you look at the Senate bill, even the Senators today are starting to say, we didn't mean this to be involved, and we didn't mean this kind of a reaction.

So I think it's going to get people to rethink. But I don't think that it means that we can't find, not a compromise, but an alternative that the House and the Senate can agree on. And I see that as being one of let's focus on the major source of illegal immigration, and that's illegal employment. And there's a very simple way of being able to turn off the valve, and that is go after those that have been exempted from the ‘86 law. We did amnesty in '86, but we never did the employer enforcement part of the ‘86 law. And if we go back to that, get some credibility with the rank and file people in America, then we can talk about other proposals. But not until then, because there's basically no credibility when it comes down to stopping illegal immigration.

CONAN: We're talking with the victor in the California 50th, that's Brian Bilbray, a former and now current Congressman from that district.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION and Political Junkie from NPR News.

And we have a question coming in from Charles. Charles is calling from Palo Alto, California.

CHARLES (Caller): Hi. Yes, I was wondering. I grew up in the San Ysidro, Imperial Beach area of San Diego in the ‘70s. And I heard that Bilbray, you are from the same area, and I was just wondering how you ended up forming your opinions on immigration.

Rep. BILBRAY: Absolutely. I grew up right there on the border with you. I happen to be one of the few people serving in the House that's rescued illegals when they were drowning. I've recovered their bodies when they didn't make it, and I think you remember in the ‘80s, I've seen illegals being slaughtered on the highway during the time of the Bonsai charges. Remember when they would rush the freeway and run up the freeway?

So I've seen the human cost of illegal immigration, and it really made me committed to the fact that the message needed to be brought to Washington that this game that we're playing of saying that we've got to immigrate legally but then looking the other way or actually rewarding people for breaking our laws has a huge human cost.

And it's one that we just have to recognize that you do not reward people for breaking the law or breaking the rules and punish those who play by the rules and expect the outcome to be good - in human terms, in economic terms, and especially in the concept of wanting to maintain a nation of law. So, you're right, I grew up right there with you, and growing up on the frontier I think my perspective's a little bit different.

CONAN: Okay, thanks for the call.

RUDIN: Congressman, it's Ken Rudin again, I have a quick question for you. Obviously, your election on June 6th was ground zero for politics of the year. And it was a solid Republican district, but you won by only four or five points. What did you hear from disenchanted Republican voters, and what message did you hear - can you share with Republican candidates around the country for this year?

Rep. BILBRAY: Well, you've got to remember that there was two other conservative candidates on the ballot, plus I had a group of other Republican candidates running against me for a primary on the same day as the general. And every - in fact, there were four or five to six percent of people that voted for other candidates based on a call that Bilbray is not tough enough on illegal immigration. So, when you look at this issue, it was an overwhelming vote on the issues that this is an issue that's been put on the back burner for politically correct reasons. And finally now, the public is starting to tell Washington that we, you know, we're fed up with your finding excuses always to look the other way or to reward people with illegal immigration.

And I'll tell you, the Senate really set it off at the end there. They meant well, but it's really - I think anybody would agree - it blew up in their face.

CONAN: Well, Congressman, the good news is you won election in June. The bad news is you have to run again in November. We certainly hope you like chicken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. BILBRAY: Believe me, we will do a lot of fish in San Diego, too. We're very healthy-minded, and I'm glad that it's a very environmentally sensitive district that believes in recycling Congressmen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There you go! So happy fish tacos to you, Congressman Bilbray.

Rep. BILBRAY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And again, congratulations. Brian Bilbray, who was just elected a couple of weeks ago in the California 50th District, and is running against Francine Busby - Ken Rudin - the same opponent, again in November.

RUDIN: Yes, but a much different emphasis on the race. Matter of fact, Francine Busby said she's probably going to take the summer off. I don't think this will be nearly as close in November.

CONAN: All right. Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie. His new Political Junkie column is up now on npr.org, if you'd like to read it. And, of course, he's with us every Wednesday here in Studio 3A.

RUDIN: Even if you don't like to read it, you should.

CONAN: Even if you don't like to read it. All right.

RUDIN: That's right. You should read it.

CONAN: All right. Ken Rudin, thanks very much. We'll be back next Wednesday with Political Junkie.

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, and this is NPR News.

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