Capitol Hill Sees Busy Week
LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Republicans in Congress, with more than a little help from their Democrat colleagues, wrapped up work on a wide variety of bills this past week. Legislation being sent to President Bush for his expected signature includes an energy bill with $14.5 billion in tax breaks for industry, $286 billion in transportation spending and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The Senate also extended substantial provisions in the Patriot Act, and passed a measure giving gun makers and dealers a break from liability claims.
For now at least, Mr. Bush will have to do without a measure on Social Security. Despite making private retirement accounts a centerpiece of his legislative agenda this past spring, the president found little support around the nation and, thus, in Congress for overhauling one of middle-class America's favorite social programs. But Republicans on Capitol Hill say they'll come back to it this fall. NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving spends much more time watching the political machinations of Congress and the White House than most people, and he joins us now.
Good morning, Ron.
RON ELVING (NPR Senior Washington Editor): Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: So members of Congress have gone off on what they call recess for the month of August; others call it a vacation. Do you think they've earned their break from the heat and humidity of Washington?
ELVING: You know, a lot of people in Washington blame Congress for that heat and humidity, or at least for a substantial portion of it, and it does get cooler and less crowded when they leave. But this year at least, they can go home with a lot to point to. They've gotten a lot of things done. They got the highway bill done, as you mentioned. It's very popular. People like to have the federal government build them new roads and bridges. And, of course, they expect to see their own tax money coming back to their own state to get that done.
They passed an energy bill, something they've been working on since George W. Bush became president. To get it passed, they stripped away most all of the big policy issues that they were considering. They decided not to get terribly ambitious about committing to more energy independence on any kind of timetable. And what they wound up with, as you suggested, is really kind of the pork in the bill. It's all of the benefits for industry, mostly for things they were doing already. And while no one really expects it to have a lot of effect on prices in the short run, or even in the long run, for that matter--to make gas cheaper, for example--it does look better than just another Congress full of stalemate.
And maybe their biggest achievement was that trade bill that you mentioned, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the CAFTA. The president had a big hand in this. It's not a huge trade bill, but it was very important to the administration. They worked very hard on it. In the end, it passed in the House with just one vote to spare.
HANSEN: Yesterday in his weekly radio address, President Bush called upon the senators to move quickly in September to confirm his Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts. You know, that nomination appears to be in pretty good shape. Is it?
ELVING: I don't think that the Democrats or the liberal groups that are supporting the Democrats and opposing the nominee really have been able to get a handle on the guy. He's a conservative, of course, but he's more of a classic, calm-voiced conservative. You can't really demonize him on the personal side. So I think a lot of the Democrats, in the end, while they'll try to get more documents and they'll push on that issue, I think they're going to probably decide to keep their powder dry on this one and move on to possibly a confrontation or a filibuster on a second Supreme Court nomination later this year.
HANSEN: President Bush didn't mention in his radio address the nomination of John Bolton to be US ambassador to the United Nations. Now 36 senators this past week send Mr. Bush a message saying that they believed Bolton had not been truthful in his confirmation hearings, and they asked the president not to use a recess appointment to give Bolton the job. Is he expected to pay much attention to these concerns?
ELVING: Attention, maybe; but heed, no. The president wants this man. He is also Vice President Cheney's man very much. I don't think he's going to be sent away empty handed. They figure the country's on vacation and the Senate is on vacation, and even though it's highly unusual--we've never had a UN ambassador who was recess-appointed before--and he would only have a short term in office and be somewhat bruised in the office, I think they're betting that the average American won't be paying too much attention in August. They're going to go ahead with it.
HANSEN: Ron, talk a little bit about Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the conservative Republican physician from Tennessee. He provided a real summer surprise this past week. He reversed his opposition to the use of human embryonic stem cells for medical research. Has the doctor lost religion?
ELVING: Oh, I think he's still a good Tennessee Presbyterian, I believe. Well, he may not have lost religion, but he may have lost a good bit of the religious right with this particular decision. And it's ironic, in a sense, because he had been so assiduously courting the social conservatives, religious social conservatives, in the party. You remember the Terry Schiavo case this spring, where he really went out on a limb in that one in the spring, found out the country wasn't really with him.
Originally, on embryonic stem cells, Dr. Frist was a doctor; he was a physician. He was all for the research. But then he seemed to veer more towards the president's position, that any kind of embryonic stem cell research amounted to abortion. Now he seems to be veering back, and some people are going to attribute that to his presidential ambitions, but right now, the way he is maneuvering on this, the main impression he's creating is inconstancy, which is probably not terribly presidential.
HANSEN: Ron, we want to move away beyond the Beltway for a minute and talk a little bit about the AFL-CIO, which suffered some devastating losses this past week. Just as it was celebrating its 50th anniversary, three major unions left the labor federation. What do you expect is going to be the political ramifications of those defections?
ELVING: It's bad news for the Democratic Party, of course. It cuts into their money and their organizing muscle. But politically, old labor, particularly the dominant unions, the old unions in the AFL, were not getting the job done on the national level for Democrats, or on the congressional level. And their numbers have been dwindling; we're down to 12 1/2 percent of the work force being organized and much less in the private sector. So the new labor movement wants to focus more on low-wage workers, organize them, bring them into the stream, and that could help Democrats in the long run. That's what they're banking on for their future.
HANSEN: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, thanks a lot.
ELVING: Thank you, Liane.