JUDY WOODRUFF: With President-elect Obama meeting with congressional leaders and new developments in the efforts to fill several Senate vacancies, there was no shortage of political news on this eve of opening day for the 111th Congress.
We dive right in with Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily; and Shailagh Murray, congressional correspondent for the Washington Post.
Thank you both for being here. Let’s start with the subject on everybody’s mind — Shailagh, to you first — that’s the economy. We learned over the weekend that the president-elect is now looking at proposing 40 percent of this big stimulus package in tax cuts.
First of all, tax cuts for whom? And is this a surprise?
SHAILAGH MURRAY, The Washington Post: It is a surprise, the size of this proposal. We were expecting to see a payroll tax credit that Senator Obama proposed during the campaign that would go to individuals, people who were working, middle-class folks, mostly. There was also a business incentive for creating jobs and preserving jobs that he’s been touting for a number of months.
But a number of these provisions have been around Washington for a while, and they’re mostly Republican ideas, to invest — to allow businesses to invest in new equipment and write off losses in larger quantities.
So they’ve resurfaced from 2002-2003 tax bills. They’re very popular. And the Obama folks and many folks on the Hill believe it can have a direct impact on the economy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Mr. Obama said today it’s consistent with what he was talking about during the campaign.
SHAILAGH MURRAY: The president-elect has never seen himself as particularly ideological when it comes to economic issues. He has always touted himself as a pragmatist who’s willing to listen to ideas from anybody and willing to consider anything that he thinks might work.
They see this tax proposal as an act of goodwill, good faith towards Republicans, who they very much want on board on this package. They want a big vote coming out of Congress on this stimulus bill. It won’t happen as quickly as they may have wanted, but, six weeks or so from now, I think they’re hoping for 80 votes or so in the Senate on this.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about that, Amy? We were being told that this was something that they were going to deal with right away in the new year. Now they're saying, no, it's going to take longer. What's happened?
AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Well, it seems to me that they do want to get this big number rolling out, which is actually exactly how the president-elect wants to start his term right, which is coming into Congress, changing the way Washington works, instead of -- he could, obviously, pass this with just a Democratic majority.
He doesn't need to have a big number in terms of being able to pass it, but wants to send the message that we are definitely changing the way Washington works. This is going to be bipartisan. And that is part of the focus here.
The question, of course, was -- I don't think any of us really thought that we were going to see this happen under President Bush's watch, that there would be some sort of stimulus that would be agreed to before we got to January 20th.
So right now what they're talking about is sometime in early February. I think, for most folks in the country, what they're seeing right now is there's actual movement going forward. The next thing they want to be able to see is how quickly that gets into their pockets and how quickly they may see the markets and the job market itself start to rebound.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Shailagh, how much agreement is there already on this? Is it just too early to know?
SHAILAGH MURRAY: There's broad agreement that this package is necessary, that it should be large, that it should contain a combination of spending and tax incentives. There is less agreement on some specific issues, such as aid to states, for instance, a small portion of the package, compared to some of these other, like, investments in road projects that everybody loves.
But there are some ideological boundaries to sort of breach, for instance, giving big Medicaid payments to states that have been battling budget crises and some education incentives also in those grant programs.
So the Republicans are raising concerns about fairly minor provisions right now. Whether this holds -- I mean, we're just getting started. We just started with this today, so...
JUDY WOODRUFF: That's right. It's only January...
SHAILAGH MURRAY: Right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Amy, let's talk about some of these appointments. Word just this afternoon that former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta is Mr. Obama's choice to head the CIA, and there's already pushback from some Democrats.
AMY WALTER: Well, it was certainly a surprise. I don't think this was -- this was certainly not a name that was on any of our lists. I remember I was going through, actually, trying to see who'd been mentioned.
And, you know, it seems that the consensus right now is that the Obama folks were unable to find somebody who they could get others to agree with, folks especially concerned about names that had been mentioned previously and their past association with Bush-era terrorist -- you know, gathering information on terrorism, wiretapping, things like that.
So trying to find somebody who didn't come from that world -- of course, the pushback, of course, is that Leon Panetta does not have that experience and doesn't come from that world and that outsiders in the past haven't done all that well handling the CIA.
Yet there's also -- this is also a very tough place to come into, even for somebody who's known as being a very good manager.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, losing a cabinet appointee, Shailagh, Bill Richardson pulling himself out of consideration to be secretary of commerce. What happened there? And what happened with the vetting?
SHAILAGH MURRAY: Well, that was a big surprise. Governor Richardson is caught up in a -- sort of we call it pay-to-play scandal back in his home state involving a California company who gave political donations and received some state contracts. That's being investigated. It's been out there for a while.
And, apparently, the Obama folks only became aware of it recently. It's also seemed -- the investigation seems to have intensified.
So the degree to which this was instigated by Governor Richardson, whether it just seemed inevitable, given the circumstances, we're not really clear on that right now.
But it is, I think, a reminder that the president-elect has a record of being very abrupt in cutting off individuals or scandals that, once they get a little bit close to him, he separates himself...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Cutting the cord.
SHAILAGH MURRAY: ... pretty decisively. And this is actually his second -- the second person who's come forward for the commerce job. The first, Penny Pritzker, his...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Of Chicago.
SHAILAGH MURRAY: ... of Chicago, big hotel heiress, billionaire, his fundraising chief during his campaign, widely admired, but had complex business dealings that couldn't be untangled.
Senate seats still unresolved
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, quickly to two Senate races, we know there are four that aren't resolved, but today in Minnesota the state canvassing board said it's Al Franken, the Democrat. Is this final or not?
AMY WALTER: It will never end, Judy. The -- we will continue to be Groundhog Day in Minnesota.
The Supreme Court made its statement, but they said that it is still open for a Coleman legal challenge, so he can actually still challenge this case. His camp came forward today and said they are planning on doing that.
Now, traditionally -- and the law in Minnesota says -- that if there is a legal challenge, the governor and the secretary of state cannot sign the certificate that makes you a United States senator.
There is talk, however, that Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, is going to try and seat Al Franken, given that he has won, according to the canvassing board. This is going to set up what is, along with what they're calling Senator-elect Burris, into -- appointed Senator-elect Burris -- in Illinois for, you know, both of these seats. Will they actually be filled by January 20th?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and -- and senator -- the designated senator, Roland Burris, of Illinois, Shailagh, he was chosen by the governor under investigation, Blagojevich. Where does that stand? Burris is headed to -- he's here in Washington, I guess.
SHAILAGH MURRAY: As we speak, right, he is arriving here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Where does that stand?
SHAILAGH MURRAY: Well, he is eager to take his appointed position. And the Senate Democratic leadership is, frankly, uncertain whether to give it to him or not.
There has been a line in the sand drawn that his appointment is tainted because of, obviously, his patron is Rod Blagojevich. But that legal situation doesn't seem to be headed towards any immediate resolution.
And Harry Reid is confronting this, this sort of conflict between what to do about Burris and what to do about Al Franken, and it's hard to seat one senator, who is under a supposed political cloud, when you have another that you're denying the seat to. So there's a growing sense that we may see Senator Burris around after all.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Have you ever seen the Senate so unresolved, Amy, as it is now?
AMY WALTER: No, I mean, we've had times when you're waiting for final recounts, but this just sort of says it all, which is you have the president-elect right now going along saying, "I want to get as many votes as possible in the stimulus package, change the way Washington works," and yet we're watching the Senate try to come together and we're seeing sort of the same, old political lines being drawn, the same, old somewhat partisan battles.
This could poison the well. And I think this is what Harry Reid has to be careful about, which is how he deals with both of these could set the tone for how Washington works for the next few weeks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing dull about 2009 so far when it comes to politics. Amy Walter, Shailagh Murray, thank you.
SHAILAGH MURRAY: Thanks.