Political Roundup: The Week in Politics Columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post discuss the week of wrangling in the Congress and other political news.
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Political Roundup: The Week in Politics

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Political Roundup: The Week in Politics

Political Roundup: The Week in Politics

Political Roundup: The Week in Politics

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Columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post discuss the week of wrangling in the Congress and other political news.


While most US senators had already left the Capitol yesterday for the holiday recess, not quite all of their business was done.

(Soundbite of Senate proceedings)

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): The Senate will now come to order.

SIEGEL: The sole senator in the chamber, John Warner of Virginia, called the Senate to order and then, after a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, he asked the clerk to read a letter to the Senate.

(Soundbite of Senate proceedings)

Unidentified Clerk: Washington DC, December 22nd, 2005. To the Senate, under the provisions of Rule 1, Paragraph 3 of the Standing Rules of The Senate, I hereby appoint the Honorable John Warner, a senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia, to perform the duties of the chair. Signed, Ted Stevens, president pro tempore.

SIEGEL: And by that order, John Warner chaired the session of the Senate, but he was also the only senator there, making him officially two people within one body.

(Soundbite of Senate proceedings)

Sen. WARNER: In my capacity as the senior senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia, I ask unanimous consent that the chair now lay before the Senate the House message to accompany S-2167. I ask unanimous consent that the Senate concur in the House amendment and the motion to reconsider be laid upon the table.

SIEGEL: Now at that moment, Senator Warner was, in effect, asking himself for approval of an extension of the Patriot Act by five weeks. That's the deal that the House had asked for instead of the six months that the Senate had proposed, and he liked what he heard from himself.

(Soundbite of Senate proceedings)

Sen. WARNER: Without objection.

SIEGEL: Actually, Senate leaders of both parties had already agreed to go along with whatever the House asked for. So Senator Warner was expressing what he knew to be the will of the Senate. Why Senator Warner? Well, he does live close by in Virginia, and someone had to do it. And once the Patriot Act deal was done, Senator Warner had something else to ask of himself.

(Soundbite of Senate proceedings)

Sen. WARNER: In my capacity as the senior senator from Virginia, I ask unanimous consent the Senate now stand in adjournment sine die, under the provisions of H. Con. Res. 326.

(Soundbite of gavel; clapping)

SIEGEL: Not much of a gallery there, either. We can get as much noise out of our two regular political observers who really are two different people, David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

Welcome back, both of you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Thank you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And as entertaining as that last bit may have been, let me put this to you, which was the opinion of John McCain, among other senators. He says, `The Senate is broken. And what we witnessed this past week was further evidence of its collapse.' David Brooks, do you agree?

Mr. BROOKS: When was the Senate not broken? It's a hundred huge egos. People have driven themselves crazy by talking too much, and they only pause to accept flattery.

Mr. BROOKS: What happened on Capitol Hill this week was ugly. It was sort of what happens in a second term. Second terms of presidents are congressional terms. Congress takes control and there's no leadership. And so we saw, as Bill Frist says about running the Senate, it's like running a cemetery: `There are a lot of people under you but nobody's listening.' And that happens.

SIEGEL: (Laughs) But in the Senate, according to its rules, they are supposed to be some committees that authorize legislation and then appropriate--there's an appropriations committee that then steps in and then the whole Senate votes on it. It doesn't happen that way anymore.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, you know, first of all, listening to Senator Warner, democracy is wonderful. A one-party, one-man state for a day with the happy permission of all the senators who didn't want to come back from vacation. In some ways, the Senate is actually working well again because--Guess what?--we have checks and balances in our country again. The vote on the Patriot Act to say no--a majority of the Senate said, `We won't accept the Patriot Act as written. We want more civil liberties protections'--that happened because four Republican senators--Senators Sununu, Craig, Murkowski and Hagel--were willing to say, `No, we're not going to go down the party line. We're willing to postpone this issue because we think this bill should be changed.' So I think that's a positive thing.

The negative side, I don't think it's the Senate that's broken nearly as much as the House, where you had this budget bill--774 pages--appear on the floor at 1:12 Monday morning. No one had any time to look at it, to study it. There were a lot of descriptions of it that turned out to be wrong. Who knew how many members had any idea what was in there? So I would vote for a broken House much more than a broken Senate.

SIEGEL: David, do you want to stand up for the lower chamber here?

Mr. BROOKS: No, I happen to think that both houses work the way they do. The House is a body where the majority just has dominant control and the Senate is a body where people actually have a lot more freedom. One senator can bring the whole body to a halt, and that's sort of what makes it fun.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you both about this story to which former Senator Daschle contributed some new information today and that's about domestic surveillance and the president's order to go ahead and conduct some intercepts of communications that involved people in the United States. He says he has the power to do that. His critics say, no, you had no authority to do that at all. Are we talking about a very serious conflict between the president and either the judiciary or the Congress here?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, there are sort of two prongs to this issue. The first is the constitutional issue, which Daschle was going to: Does the president have the power to survey calls that come from outside the US and go into the United States? Daschle thinks no. I'd say most law professors that I've read think no, think they agree with him. Cass Sunstein, expert on constitutional law, thinks yes. But it's at least constitutionally dubious.

But then there's the political issue, is should the president--if say...

SIEGEL: Even if he has the right to do so.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. If, for example, we capture a laptop belonging to al-Qaeda with 4,000 names, should the president do whatever he can to check those e-mail addresses, check those phone numbers and just immediately survey all those bits of data? I think as a matter--just as a citizen, I want the president to do that. We've got a situation where the FISA act, which is the courts that organize this thing, that regulate this thing, are obsolete. And they've been made obsolete by advances in technology. With mobile communications technology, it's really hard to tell whether a cell phone is here or abroad. So the distinction which that system is based on has become obsolete.

Second, the FISA process works case by case. But we now have these sophisticated technologies than can data-mine thousands and monitor thousands of different nodules of information and you can't use that FISA process.


Mr. DIONNE: But under existing law, the president and the authorities have 72 hours before they need the permission of this special court. FISA court does not sort of try to obstruct investigations by the government that are legitimate. I think it is incomprehensible still that the White House, having insisted on the Patriot Act, which was a kind of admission that it didn't have all these powers under Article 2, couldn't figure out a way to go to Congress and say, `We need more flexibility because of these new technologies.'

SIEGEL: Which they say they were going to Congress in the sense of consulting with leaders of the Intelligence committees and saying, `Here's what we're doing.'

Mr. DIONNE: A handful of people. That's not a law.

Mr. BROOKS: What the president should have done in an ideal world is bring some Democrats and some Republican leaders to the White House and say, `We've got this new situation. I'm going to tell you everything I'm going to do. If we disagree, we're going to work it out in this room so we have some sort of bipartisan protection.' It can't be written down in law. It has to be done on the basis of trust between the parties.

SIEGEL: One very quick question. The president's poll numbers went up last week. I mean, after dipping down into the low and mid-30s, he began, you know, getting his nose above 40 once again and even higher than that. Has he passed--do you think he's gotten past the low point of his presidency in terms of his relationship to the American people, or is the evening still young, David?

Mr. BROOKS: I guess I would say the evening's still young. You know, I think The Washington Post I saw he was up at 47. It's actually kind of remarkable given the year he's had that he's still up even in that territory. It does matter, though. As we saw on Capitol Hill, when the president is below 45, say, members of his own party begin to flake off much more easily.


Mr. DIONNE: I think what the poll suggests, wherever he is 41 to 47 in the various polls, is that he's finally won back Republicans who left him after Katrina and then the Harriet Miers nomination. And it's not clear to me and it's not clear from the polls that he has picked up much support among Independents and he's certainly not won back Democrats. I think he's going to continue to have problems in Congress as long as Independents are as hostile to him as they have been over the last several months.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for a lot for coming in once again. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and see you soon.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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