SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Sure was different in Washington, D.C. this week than from the way it's been over the last few years. The president took responsibility for mistakes in Iraq. House and Senate committees, now led by Democrats, roughly grilled the secretaries of state and defense, and the House passed important legislation, half of which the president has threatened to veto. NPR's Andrea Seabrook watched it all happen.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Question. What do you get when you have a new Congress, a defensive president, and a war going badly? Answer. Four bills, two veto threats, one White House speech, and a couple of secretaries' testimony.
House Democrats hoped to make a splash by bringing to the House floor four bills in four days. First it was the 9/11 Commission recommendations bill. It would, among other things, require that every package to enter the U.S. be screened. That passed Tuesday. Then it was a hike in the minimum wage to 7.25, a big difference from today's 5.15, said New Jersey Democrat Rob Andrews.
Representative ROB ANDREWS (Democrat, New Jersey): This the day for the people who empty the bedpans, change the bed linens, sweep the floors, and do the hardest work of America.
SEABROOK: Thursday was Congress's version of a rerun. Legislation allowing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research passed the House. It passed Congress before and was vetoed by President Bush. This week he promised to veto it again.
Bill number four came yesterday and it proved the sharpest debate. It would change Medicare, requiring the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drug prices. Wisconsin Democrat Steve Kagen, a doctor, said right now drug companies aren't playing fair.
Representative STEVE KAGEN (Democrat, Wisconsin): Today in America the real price of a pill is whatever they can get.
SEABROOK: But many Republicans were adamant that the Medicare prescription drug program is working just fine. In the words of Joe Barton of Texas...
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
SEABROOK: And Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey, also a doctor, called the bill government price controls.
Representative PHIL GINGREY (Republican, Georgia): We need to kill this sucker dead.
SEABROOK: In the end, though, the Democrats' bill passed the House, and that drew President Bush's second veto threat of the week. All four of these bills are now shuttled over to the Senate, where exactly zero bills passed in this first full week. That's not unusual though. The Senate is sort of the calm sibling to the House's more frenzied temperament. And the Senate did work on its own revamp of ethics rules this week.
What was going on in Senate committees, on the other hand, was anything but calm. After the president's speech outlining what he called a new strategy for the war in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were dispatched to sell the plan, a hike in troop numbers and a new focus on holding down violence in Baghdad.
It was no easy sell, though, especially for Rice, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democrats were dour and even Republicans were skeptical. Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel called this king of policy very, very dangerous.
Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): Matter of fact, I have to say, Madame Secretary, that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out. I will resist it.
SEABROOK: Hagel and others dubbed the president's plan an escalation of the war. That's a heavy Vietnam-era term that Rice did not accept. She told Hagel escalation isn't just a matter of putting more troops on the ground.
Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): Escalation is also a question of are you changing the strategic goal of what you're trying to do. Are you escalating...
Sen. HAGEL: Would you call it a decrease? And billions of dollars more than you need for it?
Ms. RICE: I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad.
Sen. HAGEL: So in the end, the Senate stole the House's thunder this week. Rather than a Democratic winning streak, the focus in Washington was on whether the president can break what many think is his losing streak in Iraq.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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