Congressional Update On Capitol Hill, Vice-President Cheney had to break a tie vote as the Senate debates deficit reduction, drilling in Alaska, defense appropriations and the USA Patriot Act.
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Congressional Update

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Congressional Update

Congressional Update

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

And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. A federal judge has resigned from a special court set up to oversee government surveillance. US District Judge James Robertson was one of 11 members of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, and resigned apparently in protest over President Bush's policy of obtaining wiretaps without warrants. And today, Saddam Hussein launched into an extended outburst at his trial in Baghdad. The ousted Iraqi leader alleged that he'd been beaten and tortured by American captors while in detention. Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we're going to be conducting a bit of a political roundup. The Senate is in last-minute negotiations and voting as it hurries to get off for its Christmas break. Today the Senate approved deficit cuts but defeated a bill that would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the jury is still out on extension of the USA Patriot Act. We're going to be following all of that and the implications for the year to come tomorrow at this time on TALK OF THE NATION.

But first, let's get the news on some of those same things. NPR's congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook--congressional reporter Andrea Seabrook joins us here in Studio 3A.

And I guess the big vote today is on ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. An amendment was attached to the defense appropriations bill, which is a must-vote measure--can't go against it. It's been held up by a filibuster in the United States Senate.


That's true. You know, this defense bill has become what some people call the Christmas tree at the end of the year on which they hang these big, shiny ornaments, like ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They hang on it $3.8 billion of avian flu funding, $29 billion of further funding for the Gulf Coast reconstruction, these kinds of things. But it was always ANWR right from the start that had--that everyone knew might tank this bill. It is not a provision that an overwhelming number of people support. In fact, there--most Democrats are against it, and even a few moderate Republicans. And that's--it really became a sticking point in the House as well. Leaders over there had to wheel and deal in that bill, put in more money for heating oil assistance in order to get people to vote for ANWR. Now in the Senate, it just totally tanked this morning. They couldn't get the votes they needed to prevent a filibuster on this measure.

CONAN: And what does that mean for the future? Because funding runs out for the Pentagon and the war in Iraq at the end of the year.

SEABROOK: Exactly. All of those things on the Christmas tree, and what I forgot to mention is the trunk: $450 billion worth of money to fund the Pentagon, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan. I mean, you know, this is a huge and major priority for Republicans in control of the House, the Senate and the White House. They're not going to let funding for the Pentagon expire on December 31st, as it would do if they weren't to do anything now. So they have a couple of options. Either the Senate can go back and pull ANWR out of the bill, because the bill will pass if ANWR isn't in it--if they do that, then the House has to come back and vote on that bill--or the Senate can say, `Forget it. We're going to pass what's called a continuing resolution.' What that does is--a stopgap measure to fund the government through a certain amount of time, giving them more time. Either way, the House is going to have to come back and at the very least do a voice vote with few members there. At the very worst, some Democrat stands up on the floor and says, `I ask for a recorded vote.' And suddenly you have people flying in from the 50 states that have to vote on the House floor.

CONAN: And if that was not enough drama, earlier today the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, arrives in his role as president of the Senate to cast a tie-breaking vote, this one on deficit reductions.

SEABROOK: This--you know, it's amazing to watch these games of chicken going on between the House and the Senate. This is a budget bill that sort of re-jiggers the federal budget for the next five years. It would cut about $40 billion of money in Medicare, Medicaid; you know, pretty serious program cuts. It's actually a slight reduction in the rate of growth in those programs, to be technical, but we call them cuts because they would actually throw people off the rolls of the social welfare programs, so we call them cuts. And, yeah, it is controversial enough that a 50-50 tie had to be broken. If Vice President Cheney hadn't come back from the Middle East to break that tie, then the bill would have failed.

The big thing there, though, is, again, they made--the Senate in their cantankerous nature made some minor technical changes to the bill, and so the House is going to have to vote on that again. That they won't come back for. They don't have to do that by December 31st.

CONAN: Nobody's budget runs out if the bill...

SEABROOK: Exactly.

CONAN: ...isn't passed anytime soon.


CONAN: And then there is another big political enchilada; that's the USA Patriot Act. As he left the White House today, the president said the Senate must pass the extension of the Patriot Act; we can't even have a few days without it.

SEABROOK: Yeah. And you know what's interesting? The president and the Senate are playing this other game of chicken, where the Senate's saying--the president's saying the Senate's going to let it expire and say it's a security issue; the Senate's saying the president's blocking the three-month extension of the current Patriot Act. This is really a political problem. Though both sides are painting it as a security problem at the moment, most members of Congress, most members of the Senate, want to extend at least most of the provisions of the Patriot Act. We're talking about two or three provisions that they're really fighting over, and I think in the end either the Senate will have to, you know, jump over some serious hurdles and pass this Patriot Act extension, or they'll have to do a new bill to extend it for three months. And, again...

CONAN and SEABROOK: (In unison) ...the House will have to come back...

SEABROOK: vote on that, so...

CONAN: So if you're a member of the House of Representatives and you're just settling in for vacation, don't unpack too quickly.

SEABROOK: Don't put your elbow on the arm of that wing chair just yet.

CONAN: Well, anyway, tomorrow we hope to have resolution on more of these, and in any case we'll be talking about these bills, how they're getting through or not getting through the United States Senate, the political impact of that. And while there's a political background to this, of course, certainly with the USA Patriot Act, the revelations about domestic espionage, new revelations today, the resignation of a FISA court judge and all of that--if that's not enough, we're going to have Andrea Seabrook in this chair next week to bring you up to date on all of the action, because I'm sure the House is going to be back next week, right, Andrea?

SEABROOK: I'm not going to predict that. We'll see what happens when. But, Neal, I'll attempt to be an adequate substitute.

CONAN: And I'll go out and I'll unpack gratefully. Andrea, thanks very much in advance for filling in next week. Appreciate it.

SEABROOK: You're welcome.

CONAN: Andrea Seabrook, NPR's congressional reporter.

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