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Congress Returns with Spending as Top Priority

September 5, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The House and Senate return from a five-week
August recess, during which many members campaigned for reelection, and with no
less than majority control of Congress in play, perhaps for the first time in
12 years. Members will be more than anxious to leave Washington in a month or so to campaign
full-time, right up to Election Day, November 7.

Here first to handicap each party’s chances in the upcoming
midterm elections are Stuart Rothenberg — he’s editor of The Rothenberg
Political Report — and Amy Walter. She’s the senior editor of The Cook Political
Report.

Stu and Amy, thanks very much.

Stu, to you first. Democrats need to pick up what? Republicans
need to pick up 15 seats in the House, six in the Senate, in order to win
control. What are their chances?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Editor, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well,
yes, Democrats have to pick up those significant numbers.

Right now, I think the Democrats’ chances are pretty good in
the House, not quite as good in the Senate. We have a long way to go. But,
right now, in the House, I think there are enough seats in play. The poll
numbers, local and national, suggest something has happened. And I think the
Democrats have a decent chance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think that?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, it’s a combination of the national
stuff. There is a national wave going on, in terms of Bush job approval, congressional
job approval, and the poll question, “Is the country headed in the right
direction or off on the wrong track?”

All, when you add those together, there’s a desire for
change out there. The public is dissatisfied with the direction of the country,
with the president’s performance. So, that creates an environment, a landscape
that’s good for the Democrats.

They have recruited enough candidates. There are not a lot
of districts in play, Judy, but there are probably enough decent candidates to
take advantage of their environment.

And when Amy and I scope around, when we smell around, to
try to find what the poll numbers are in individual districts, it’s very clear
that Democratic numbers are unusually good for this point in the cycle, and Republican
incumbents have mediocre poll numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, you’re forecasting a good season for the
Democrats. What has changed in the last two years, since the last congressional
election?

AMY WALTER, Senior Editor, The Cook Political Report: Well,
Stu pointed to it. It’s the environment that has changed the most dramatically.

I mean, if you go back two years ago, or let’s go back to
the last midterm election, when the president was sitting at 60 percent
approval rating, you ask the question about who do you trust better on the
issue of terrorism, Republicans had something like a 30-point advantage on
that. Even in 2004, what you knew was that, while the president’s approval
rating wasn’t as strong, he still had a great support among his base.

And, even as he was losing independents, it was only by one
vote. And when Stu and I are looking at these polls, what we’re seeing is now
that not only are Democrats more motivated — and that’s a real problem — than
Republicans — and, if you ask the question about how motivated today are you
to go out and vote in November, Democrats, certainly much more so than
Republicans.

And then you look at independents, who were breaking evenly
two years ago. Today, they’re breaking dramatically for the Democrat. The one
question now is — you know, there are a bunch of folks right now sitting in
undecided.

I think those voters are the ones that both sides are going
after — Democrats going after them, as Stu was saying, with the sort of time-for-change
message. What Republicans are going to try to do is to say, you know what? You
may be undecided right now. They’re not going to try to sell them on the
Republican, as much as trying to undercut the Democrat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what’s at the core of this unhappiness on
the part of voters?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think a sense that the country is not
headed in the right direction. And, for some people, it may be the war in Iraq. For other
people, it might be administration’s response to Katrina. For other people,
it’s high gas prices.

But there’s a mood, Judy. Elections are often by the status
quo, keep the guys who are there, they’re doing an OK job, vs. change. And, at
the moment, for a variety of reasons — different people may have different
reasons, but they’re all saying, we need some new decision-makers, some new
leaders.

Favorable weather

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is this, Amy, something that theDemocrats can do something about, or is this just a matter of the Republicansminimizing the damage, the potential damage?

AMY WALTER: Right. This is -- for Democrats, it's reallyjust holding on. It's literally, you know, the feeling of having a tailwind,and what you want to do is just ride it for as long as you can, and try not togive Republicans any opportunities to knock you off course.

If you're the Republicans -- and this is a big differencefrom 1994, the last time we saw one of these wave or mood elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

AMY WALTER: Look, there were a lot of Democrats who neverthought that was going to happen. There were many that were caught off guard --the candidates, campaign committees, bigger, stronger, faster better fundedthan they were in '94.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I just want to say, I think thedifference between this election and other elections is that, in most otherelections, the out-party, the challengers, have to try to make the case to firethe incumbent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mmm-hmm. Right.

STUART ROTHENBERG: So, they're looking for an issue here orhealth care, prescription drugs, immigration, whatever it is. Fire theincumbent. He's or she has made mistakes. That's not the way it is now.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Now it is, the voters seem to wantchange, so it's up to incumbent Republicans to say, here's why either youshouldn't fire me, or, in most cases here's why you ought not hire this otherperson, because, if you get them, wow, this is what you're going to get. Andyou're not going to like it. And you're not going to like it, either because oftheir personal ethics, their previous political performance, or whatever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can President Bush make a difference? Can hego around'? He has been campaigning. We hear he's going to do more? Can he makea difference in these races, Amy?

AMY WALTER: You're not seeing a lot of Republicans that areworking hard to attach themselves to the president, like they were in '04,certainly in '02.

Look, they want him to come in right now, because he's stillthe best fund-raiser in the country. He can bring in $200,000, $500,000 in onenight. So, that certainly is going to be there.

But I think what we're already starting to see in some ofthese campaign ads are Republicans who are either very openly distancingthemselves from the president, or, at least in a more subtle way, trying tobreak and show their independence from the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's an example of that?

AMY WALTER: Clay Shaw down in Florida. Now, here's an incumbent who hasbeen around for quite some time. He has survived in a pretty marginal district.

He's always -- he's not exactly one of the most conservativemembers of Congress. But, right now, he's coming out in his ads, and sayingoutright, I disagree with the president on Social Security, or, I don't likeparty labels. I'm just here for Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to be clear, both of you are sayingright now it looks good for the Democrats...

AMY WALTER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... to take control of the House.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senate, pick up seats, but maybe not takecontrol.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And we would both agree, a lot couldchange between now and November.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sure.

STUART ROTHENBERG: But I think you're right.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is -- this is September the 5th.

AMY WALTER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, there's a sense in Americanpolitics, at least for the last decade or so, that Republicans do betterclosing on Election Day, and those final hours up to Election Day. Why wouldn'tthat happen this year?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, it might. It's possible.

They may be doing -- they have run recently -- oh, I thinkwe're only talking the last few cycles -- technically better campaigns, withmore money. Remember, 20 years ago, Judy, we used to talk about organized laborturning out voters. And we used to say the Democrats had the advantage.

I think the Democrats have a terrific team at the DemocraticCongressional Campaign Committee. They have got -- they have raised a lot moremoney than they have in the past. The Republicans may win in the final twoweeks.

But the wind at the back of the Democrats, the Democrats'financial footing, I...

AMY WALTER: And I think motivation is the other key, right? Imean, it is a lot easier to turn out voters when they're already motivated tovote, and when they already support your president.

But, if only 80 percent or 78 percent of Republicans areeven supporting the president right now, it's not just a question of gettingthem out to vote. You have got to get them out -- convince them that they wantto support a Republican. That's very different than we saw in 2004.

Targeting terrorism

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

Amy Walter, Stu Rothenberg, we are going to come back to youin just a few minutes.

But, right now, Republicans still do have a firm hold onthis Congress, and they are going to try to take political advantage of thatwith a targeted legislative agenda over the remaining weeks.

For more on that, we are joined by Norman Ornstein of theAmerican Enterprise Institute. He's co-author of "The Broken Branch: HowCongress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track."

Norman Ornstein, thank you very much.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given this political scenario that Stu andAmy have laid out here, what do you expect to see happen over these nextseveral weeks in Washington?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, Congress is back today. They'rescheduled to leave on September 29.

They desperately want to go back and campaign. They have got15 legislative days in which to work. And what they have decided to do is tomake this security month.

Instead of focusing on the domestic agenda, which includes,of course, immigration as the big issue, along with an ambitious plan foroffshore oil drilling, and a host of other issues, including 11 appropriationsbills that are undone, they're going to focus on a series of things, some ofwhich are clearly necessary on the agenda.

The Hamdan decision of the Supreme Court threw the issue oftrials for terrorists back in Congress' court, dealing with wiretaps and FISA. Theyhave to do defense appropriations to deal with the war and homeland security,as well.

But the fact is that they want to make this political pointfor just the reasons that Stu and Amy have suggested. They don't have muchtraction on other issues. They think they still have some on security and theycan portray the Democrats as being weak in dealing with terrorists. So, this isas much a political agenda as it is a policy one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the Republican leadership doesn't riskanything by, for example, setting immigration aside, which is something that wehad heard earlier was a priority, for them to get a deal done this year on?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think it's a big risk, actually, becauseI think one of the themes that we're going to have out there that plays withdissatisfaction in the electorate is the do-nothing Congress.

And, by focusing the way they are, there's a real chancethat we will have very few accomplishments, actual policy items gettingthrough. Immigration may not have quite the same resonance as the failure ofhealth care did in 1994, when one party, then the Democrats, were in power. Butit will underscore the notion that not much is happening.

And, frankly, as well, you know, we saw today a number ofDemocrats, including the leaders, sign a letter and hold a press conference,calling for the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld. It's clear now that, asRepublicans focus on the security agenda, very aggressively, talking about theDefeatocrats, Democrats are going to responsible in kind.

And that means an even more rancorous month in what has beenan unusually rancorous Congress. And it's not clear that voters are going toreact very well to bickering that doesn't result in accomplishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Norm, what happens to some of these otherthings that we had earlier in the year were a priority for the Congress,lobbying reform, earmark reform, this whole appropriations process...

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... that favors special interests?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, they have pretty much abandoned thelarger issues of lobbying and ethics reform, and are going to do a targetedearmark reform, hoping they can get that through the House and Senate inidentical form, which won't be easy to do.

They are not be able to get the appropriations done. They'rehoping, certainly, to go get the big-ticket defense appropriations, and, by theway, with that, funding for a fence in Mexico, hoping that will stave offthe worst case on immigration, and homeland security.

But we're going to end up with a fiscal year, beginningOctober 1, almost certainly with another large continuing resolution. They aretrying to get the bare minimum done, basically, with a few accomplishments thatthey can point to, so that they can get out of town as quickly as they can.

My guess is, they won't be able to leave until at least thefirst week in October. But they're probably not going to have a whole lot oftrophies to put on the wall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, Norm, any chances of alame-duck session?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think the chances are extraordinarilyhigh of a lame-duck session.

But keep in mind, Judy, that, if the Democrats win eitherhouse of Congress, their incentives to do much cooperating with the Republicansin a lame-duck, where the Republicans are still in charge, when they're goingto take over in January, will be close to zero.

Focusing the electorate

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.

Norm Ornstein, thanks very much.

I want to bring Amy Walter and Stu Rothenberg back into theconversation.

Amy, if this is the way it plays out, as we just heard fromNorm, what does that portend for the November elections?

AMY WALTER: Well, look, I think Norm set it up quite well.

There's not a whole lot that Republicans, I think, are goingto be able to do to change the minds of voters right now. I mean, I think thatvoters are almost as calcified as they can be at this point, in terms of theirviews of Congress, of the president, of the direction of the country.

I mean, they have been pretty set for some time now. And theonly question, then, is can Republicans change the terms of the debate in theseindividual districts? Can they do, as Stu said, focus on this candidate here,this candidate there, try to knock them off their game a little bit, and holdon literally district by district, rather than -- I think nationalizing thecampaign is not the way that Republicans are going to  go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stu, this entire thrust of theRepublicans to talk about security, to say, if you have Democrats in charge,the country is not as safe as it is with Republicans in charge...

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think it's a good...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... going to work, not going to work?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think it's a good strategy,because you can only play the cards that you have. And that's the one card thatthey still have left. It's the one card where the president has some advantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it worked for them...

STUART ROTHENBERG: And it has worked in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... in the past.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right.

And it unifies Republicans. And it might appeal to swingvoters. The only thing that I that I disagree with Norm on -- and I neverdisagree with Norm -- I know better -- is that, if the Republicans brought upimmigration, it would only point out the divisions within the party. They stillcouldn't get anything done.

The Republicans want to keep this election on one nationalissue, terror, and, as Amy has suggested, all about the individual candidates,why candidate X shouldn't be sent to Washington, D.C., why Lois Murphy inPennsylvania, or Diane Farrell, or Patricia Madrid, why that person isunacceptable.

So, the fact that nothing is getting done, while there is arisk for do-nothing Congress -- I certainly agree with that -- the Republicansreally want to keep the focus of this campaign elsewhere, terrorism, and thenthe individual qualities of the challengers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Any particular Senate race, very quickly,either one of you suggest to our viewers they should keep an -- all of them, ofcourse.

AMY WALTER: Well, of course, of course.

Look, there are -- we pointed out earlier in the broadcastthat there are six that Democrats need to pick up.

So, states like Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, those are realbattleground states for the Democrats. I think that, if you see movement,wouldn't you say, in Missouri, Ohio, those are reallythe two sort of keys.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think they say "Missourah".

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And that is the one I would say, too. Thatwill tell us how big the wave is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Talent.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

STUART ROTHENBERG: That will tell us how big the wave is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. Stu Rothenberg, Amy Walter, thank youboth.