Political Junkie: Iraq, Minimum Wage, a New Congress NPR political editor Ken Rudin talks about the speech President Bush will give on Iraq, efforts to raise minimum wage and the first 100 hours for the new Congress. Plus: Iraq hearings in Congress and one mouthy Democrat's quest to be president.

Political Junkie: Iraq, Minimum Wage, a New Congress

Political Junkie: Iraq, Minimum Wage, a New Congress

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NPR political editor Ken Rudin talks about the speech President Bush will give on Iraq, efforts to raise minimum wage and the first 100 hours for the new Congress. Plus: Iraq hearings in Congress and one mouthy Democrat's quest to be president.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And of course it's Wednesday. Time for another round with the Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of Political Junkie Segment Introduction)

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

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.

Mr. LLOYD BENTSEN (Former Senator, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Aaaagh!

CONAN: And this week the president, as we mentioned, gives a major speech about the war in Iraq. Democrats and Republicans brace for a response. And as the first 100 hours of the new Congress begin to tick, a look at the Democrats' efforts to raise the minimum wage and their other promises. Plus, Iraq hearings in Congress and one Democrat's quest to be president. Call us with your questions for the political junkie. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

With us here in Studio 3A is Ken Rudin, who's NPR's political editor and our very own political junkie. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Washington is abuzz about that speech tonight. What's at stake for the president?

RUDIN: Well, you know, we've heard this before in the sense that we keep thinking this is a signature moment for the president, that he's going to have to rally the nation behind his policy. But, you know, given what happened on November 7th, given the type of the Democrats who took control of both the House and Senate, given the fact that so many of the campaigns were decided on opposition to the war in Iraq, it's going to be hard to make the case again that we still need more troops and not a phased pullout or anything like that.

CONAN: A lot of Democrats are saying we interpreted that election as a referendum on the war and a decision by the American people to start phasing down. Here, you want to start ratcheting up?

RUDIN: And some Republicans are talking about it too. Gordon Smith of Oregon is really, really queasy about more troops. Of course, he's up for reelection in 2008 and that could be part of it. But I think he spoke publicly what a lot of Republican are saying privately, that they're nervous about what - whether you call it a surge or an escalation, but the fact that more troops are going to be sent.

CONAN: And Democrats are a little bit nervous too. People in both Houses, I think Ed Markey in the House and Ted Kennedy in the Senate, are submitting legislation that would force a vote on cutting funds for these inquiries.

RUDIN: Right. And I think most Democrats or many Democratic leaders think that's going too far and that could be owned as reckless in the sense that it could by to bite the Democrats. President Bush has warned Democratic members of the House that pulling out funds, you know, withdrawing funds could lead to a calamity now. There are some people who say that what's going on now is a calamity. But obviously that'll be a political fight that will be waged the next two years.

CONAN: And the fight starts almost immediately. After the president's speech there's going to be hearings in both the House of Representatives at their various committees, most likely the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee; same thing on the Senate side. And these are all platforms for people who may be interested in running for president, particularly on the Senate side. But Duncan Hunter in the House, let's not forget him.

RUDIN: Right. And I think there are three or four members of the Senate who are not running for president. And that's a shame because I think what you really need to know because, you know, Robert Gates, the new defense secretary, Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, will be dragged before these committees Thursday and Friday to talk about what the policy is. But again, if politics comes into play in - of course in this town you can't help but have politics come into play - it will be kind of unfortunate.

CONAN: Have senators been able to use hearings like that as platforms for presidential campaigns?

RUDIN: Well, of course the big anti - well I mean there was Estes Kefauver, as you well remember. And during the 1950s he had the racketeering and anti-crime hearings that didn't boost him to the presidency, but it did - he was Adlai Stevenson's running mate in 1956. Bill Fulbright, the senator from Arkansas who never ran for president of course, but he did have very serious hearings on the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. That really was the beginning of the end for popular support for that conflict.

CONAN: I think a lot of people wanted Sam Ervin to run for president after the Watergate hearings. And didn't Harry Truman chair some hearings looking into corruption and war contracts?

RUDIN: Absolutely, and it lead him to being - to President Roosevelt dumping Henry Wallace at the 1944 convention and putting Harry Truman on his ticket.

CONAN: Anyway. Let's get on to other subjects. And of course we welcome your phone calls. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Darren(ph). Darren calling us from American Falls in Idaho.

DARREN (Caller): Yes. I have a question about the minimum wage.


DARREN: Do you think the president will sign a minimum wage bill that does not include tax breaks for businesses?

CONAN: That's what the president said; he would sign a bill if it reached his desk with tax breaks for small businesses. And the Democrats, at least in the House of Representatives, Ken Rudin, say we're going to pass a piece of clean legislation, just the minimum wage.

RUDIN: That's right. And lots of luck of getting that to the president's desk because people forget that for all the success that Nancy Pelosi may have and she has been having, the Democrats have been having in the House this week, there is still the Senate that we can't forget. And we saw what 45 Democrats could do to tie up the Senate with Republican control. You now have 49 Republicans in Democratic control. And these Republicans and some Democrats say look, you know, if you're going to have a minimum wage up to $7.25 over the next I guess three years there has to be a corresponding tax reduction on small businesses. And I think the Republicans will insist on that. It's hard to imagine that bill coming out of the Senate without that in part of it.

CONAN: And of course the argument on the other side is we haven't raised the minimum wage for 10 years. It's at historically low levels.

RUDIN: It is, and I think both arguments hold true.

CONAN: Darren, thanks very much for the call.

DARREN: Thank you.

CONAN: The 100 hours that Nancy - now she took the gavel, we all saw the pictures in the newspapers the next day, last week. The 100 hours, though, didn't begin until this week?

RUDIN: It began yesterday at 1:00 p.m. It's a very sacred - it's like Festivus on "Seinfeld," you know, that great holiday. Well it started at - for some reason, it started at 1:00 yesterday, and that's when they began the implementation of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

But, you know, last week we still had an ethics overhaul package, earmarks reform package. But again, officially, according to the Democrats, it started yesterday at 1:00 p.m.

CONAN: And the House of Representatives is the one sticking to the 100-hour timetable. The Senate moves rather slowly.

RUDIN: It does, and we saw that in 1995 too. Newt Gingrich's Contract with America was mostly in the House and it was very active in the House. Things do take place much slower-paced in the Senate.

CONAN: But you are expecting today a vote on the minimum wage in the House?

RUDIN: Absolutely, and it should pass.

CONAN: All right. Here's an e-mail question from Celine(ph) in Capitola, California. The first 100 hours agenda and Iraq may be congressional priorities right now, but what about the possibility of the return of habeas corpus for U.S. captives worldwide and the chance of closing down Guantanamo, two things that are hurting this country a great deal. Who in Congress has these things as priorities?

RUDIN: Well, they are priorities. And, you know, there's people like Henry Waxman in the House. They're going to have hearings in both the House and Senate, but that is not part of the 100. And I think Pelosi's idea was not to over-reach, not to really - I think to really just keep it to a minimum for the 100 days so they can have some modicum of success.

But the hearings on Guantanamo, the hearings on constitutional rights and treatment of prisoners is still to come.

CONAN: Well in fact Speaker Pelosi wanted to keep the agenda pretty much on domestic issues, on the minimum wage, on ethics reform in the House of Representatives, things like that. And the president's timing has focused the conversation back on Iraq.

RUDIN: Exactly, and the Democratic members of Congress are being barraged with questions about how can you focus on this when the number one issue is, as we saw on November 7th, Iraq. And they've got to address that.

CONAN: Get another caller on the line, and this is Greg(ph). Greg calling us from Michigan.

GREG (Caller): Yeah, I was just wondering. Just last week Senator Levin here from Michigan announced his reelection bid for 2008. Isn't that a little quick?

CONAN: Carl Levin of course also the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee now. Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: Well, no, only because there have been rumors about there are some people, some members - you know, Levin has been in the Senate since 1979. Some of them are getting up in years. Ted Stevens also, the Republican from Alaska, also announced he's running for reelection. John Warner of Virginia, who turns I think 80 next month, will also - also announced that he intends to run.

There are a lot of people waiting in the wings to see whether these incumbent senators of both parties will run again, and so I think they want to just let them know that either they are running or they're thinking about running.

CONAN: And the purpose - I'm sorry. Go ahead, Greg. I'm sorry.

GREG: You think that has something to do with Governor Granholm possibly positioning herself to run?

RUDIN: Actually, I have never heard that at all. But I think there's always been a question about whether Levin has had enough. But given the fact that the Democrats took back the Senate, given the fact that he's now the - Levin is now the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, he doesn't seem like he wants to go far away.

Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who I think is 115 years old, has talked about - has said he's running again next year, too. So Democrats have the power they've waited for years to have. They're not about to give it up any time soon.

GREG: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Greg. But I guess part of his question, and what you were talking about, is if these well-established figures announce early that they're going to be running, you might scare out some competition who might be tough.

RUDIN: Well, that's exactly true, and we've seen this in a lot of races. And Virginia's a good example, too. John Warner has talked about saying he will plan to run again. Tom Davis, the congressman from the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Northern Virginia, has been chomping at the bit and really wants to run for the Senate. His district is becoming more and more Democratic. He would love to run for the Senate, and I think maybe Warner's just giving him a little warning that, you know, he plans to stick around a little longer.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Jennifer(ph), Jennifer with us from Minneapolis.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi, Ken. Just wondering what you think about the 2008 senatorial race for Norm Coleman against the backdrop of the Republican National Convention here in the twin cities and the possibility that Al Franken might throw his hat in the ring.

RUDIN: Well, everything. I mean, first of all, I don't think it really matters where the national convention is held. I mean I think the Republicans made a big deal of having it in Detroit in 1980, and Detroit was not about to go Republican. But Norm Coleman is clearly one of the vulnerable senators. Of the 33 senators who are up for reelection in 2008, 21 of them are Republicans, so the Republicans have far more at stake.

Coleman is very aware of the fact that Amy Klobuchar won pretty big in last year's open Senate race in Minnesota. The Republicans are nervous. The question is whether Al Franken can win statewide. I know there are a lot of Democrats who would like that seat in addition to Al Franken. I'm not convinced Franken will be the Democratic nominee.

CONAN: Thanks, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Ken Rudin, NPR's political junkie, also the author of a column that appears on our Web site of the same name. Is the new one up yet?

RUDIN: It should be up soon, but it focuses on the 2008 Senate races. It's not just a column; it is the column.

CONAN: The column, the column on NPR's Web site. Anyway, if you'd like to see that - or not - you can go to our Web site at npr.org. If you'd like to join this conversation, give us a phone call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's a question from Emmett(ph) in Pennsylvania by e-mail about stem-cell research. Why is it that the Democrats, he writes, purport to make advances in stem-cell research legislation while merely submitting a bill which is now a year behind current research? He may be beyond your areas of expertise.

RUDIN: It certainly is. That's a great question, though.

CONAN: It is a great question. We'll try to get an answer to it.

RUDIN: I wish we had some smart people on the show who could answer it.

CONAN: All right Emmett, stay tuned and we'll try to get you an answer on our letter segment on the program next week. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Joe(ph). Joe's with us from Stoneham, Massachusetts.

JOE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

JOE: Listen, I noticed that Dennis Kucinich announced for president at the beginning of the week last week. He came out with a 19-point plan to get out of Iraq almost immediately and there's absolutely no coverage of him. (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Your line is breaking up, Joe, but I think we got the gist of your question, why isn't anybody paying more attention to the plan of second-time presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich?

RUDIN: Well, I mean certainly Kucinich does speak for the anti-war block in the Congress - I don't know if that's a majority block - or at least the - not extreme, but the people who really want to pull out right away and cut off funding.

Kucinich, we saw him in 2004. He did not go anywhere. I think most of the chattering classes feel that he's not going to go anywhere in 2008 as well. And given the fact that most Democrats, like the Hillary Clintons, the John Edwards, the John Kerrys of the world, who voted for the war have suddenly become anti-war, Kucinich's, you know, anti-war views are obviously shared by most people in the party.

CONAN: He is part of the progressive coalition of Democrats in the House of Representatives. Of course a former member of the progressives that's now the speaker of the house.

RUDIN: That's true. And, you know, a lot of people, a lot of Republicans, seem to like to cast Nancy Pelosi as one of these San Francisco liberals. But really she's not only the leader of the Democratic Party, she's the speaker of the House and she's not part of that ideological battle - she should not be part of the ideological battle that she may have been in the beginning of her career.

CONAN: And she has said in advance of this Congress and in advance of her taking that gavel, some things are off the table. We're not going to be talking about the impeachment of President Bush, which some in the progressives would have liked to talk about.

RUDIN: Exactly. And I have a feeling that if Kucinich does make any kind of a breakthrough it will be by going after members of his own party. It's one thing to go after President Bush on the war, but it's another thing to go after, perhaps, Democratic leaders of the House and Senate who may be less willing, more reluctant, to break away from the policy of the past.

CONAN: Let's get Chris(ph) on the line. Chris is with us from San Antonio.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi.


CHRIS: I wanted to ask about the committee chairmanships. When I was growing up they always went to the member with the most seniority. Today, is it purely at the whim of the speaker of the House or the majority leader?

CONAN: That began to break down I guess in '94, didn't it, Ken?

RUDIN: Well actually, it began - it first broke down after '74, when the young Turks took over in the Watergate midterm elections and some of the senior members were either dumped or had serious challenges. One of the ways that Les Aspin came to the House Armed Services Committee chairman was reaching over, past more-senior members.

But it also happened in '94. Gingrich, Newt Gingrich, picked some of his favorites over more-senior members. And we saw it with the House Intelligence Committee chairman that Nancy Pelosi bypassed Jane Harmon of California, bypassed Alcee Hastings of Florida, to pick Silvestre Reyes of Texas to be the head of intelligence.

CONAN: But it's up to the speaker to do this, or is it a rule?

RUDIN: No, it's not a rule. And I think that - I mean the Republicans have always been more traditional about seniority than Democrats, but since '74 often - not often, but sometimes - it is up to the whim of the speaker, and Nancy Pelosi has not been shy about using that.

CONAN: So I think, Chris, the answer is it depends.

CHRIS: OK, thank you.

CONAN: OK, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can get Jim(ph) in. Jim's calling from Maryville, Tennessee.

JIM (Caller): Yeah. I've got two questions with regard to the possible reelection campaigns for Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina in 2008, and also for Lamar Alexander in Tennessee in '08; and wondered if Mr. Rudin has any thoughts about the political future for Harold Ford, Jr. in Tennessee, if he might run for that race or some other likely Tennessee-wide position.

CONAN: Harold Ford, Jr. of course ran a competitive race for Senate this past year and came up short. Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: Let's go to Tennessee first. Lamar Alexander remember, a two-time former presidential candidate. He's kind of been pretty invisible in his six years in the - or four years in the Senate. You know, he was elected four years ago. He's up for reelection in 2008. He ran for Republican whip, Senate whip, last year and was upset by Trent Lott who only announced his own candidacy like two days before the election.

So Lamar Alexander has had a less-than-auspicious first term in the Senate. Harold Ford, Jr. has - there are rumors that he may run again and he should give Alexander a tough fight. But again it's still nominally a Republican state.

In North Carolina Elizabeth Dole did not win many plaudits in running the Senate Campaign Committee last year, but she still should be favored to win another term if she runs.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And Ken Rudin, thanks very much for being with us, as you are every Wednesday.

RUDIN: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: And again, if you'd like to read his column, it's on our Web site at npr.org. And the political junkie will return.

I'm Neal Conan, National Public Radio in Washington.

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