|Originally Aired: September 5, 2006
Congress Returns with Spending as Top Priority
|Lawmakers return to Washington this week after a month-long recess to focus on an agenda that includes increases in spending for defense and homeland security.|
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
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
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
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
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
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is this, Amy, something that the
Democrats can do something about, or is this just a matter of the Republicans
minimizing the damage, the potential damage?
AMY WALTER: Right. This is -- for Democrats, it's really
just 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 to
give Republicans any opportunities to knock you off course.
If you're the Republicans -- and this is a big difference
from 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 never
thought that was going to happen. There were many that were caught off guard --
the candidates, campaign committees, bigger, stronger, faster better funded
than they were in '94.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I just want to say, I think the
difference between this election and other elections is that, in most other
elections, the out-party, the challengers, have to try to make the case to fire
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mmm-hmm. Right.
STUART ROTHENBERG: So, they're looking for an issue here or
health care, prescription drugs, immigration, whatever it is. Fire the
incumbent. He's or she has made mistakes. That's not the way it is now.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Now it is, the voters seem to want
change, so it's up to incumbent Republicans to say, here's why either you
shouldn't fire me, or, in most cases here's why you ought not hire this other
person, because, if you get them, wow, this is what you're going to get. And
you're not going to like it. And you're not going to like it, either because of
their personal ethics, their previous political performance, or whatever.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Can President Bush make a difference? Can he
go around'? He has been campaigning. We hear he's going to do more? Can he make
a difference in these races, Amy?
AMY WALTER: You're not seeing a lot of Republicans that are
working 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 still
the best fund-raiser in the country. He can bring in $200,000, $500,000 in one
night. So, that certainly is going to be there.
But I think what we're already starting to see in some of
these campaign ads are Republicans who are either very openly distancing
themselves from the president, or, at least in a more subtle way, trying to
break 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 has
been around for quite some time. He has survived in a pretty marginal district.
He's always -- he's not exactly one of the most conservative
members of Congress. But, right now, he's coming out in his ads, and saying
outright, I disagree with the president on Social Security, or, I don't like
party labels. I'm just here for Florida.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to be clear, both of you are saying
right 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 take
AMY WALTER: That's right.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And we would both agree, a lot could
change 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 American
politics, at least for the last decade or so, that Republicans do better
closing on Election Day, and those final hours up to Election Day. Why wouldn't
that happen this year?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, it might. It's possible.
They may be doing -- they have run recently -- oh, I think
we're only talking the last few cycles -- technically better campaigns, with
more money. Remember, 20 years ago, Judy, we used to talk about organized labor
turning out voters. And we used to say the Democrats had the advantage.
I think the Democrats have a terrific team at the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee. They have got -- they have raised a lot more
money than they have in the past. The Republicans may win in the final two
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? I
mean, it is a lot easier to turn out voters when they're already motivated to
vote, and when they already support your president.
But, if only 80 percent or 78 percent of Republicans are
even supporting the president right now, it's not just a question of getting
them out to vote. You have got to get them out -- convince them that they want
to support a Republican. That's very different than we saw in 2004.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.
Amy Walter, Stu Rothenberg, we are going to come back to you
in just a few minutes.
But, right now, Republicans still do have a firm hold on
this Congress, and they are going to try to take political advantage of that
with a targeted legislative agenda over the remaining weeks.
For more on that, we are joined by Norman Ornstein of the
American Enterprise Institute. He's co-author of "The Broken Branch: How
Congress 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 and
Amy have laid out here, what do you expect to see happen over these next
several weeks in Washington?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, Congress is back today. They're
scheduled to leave on September 29.
They desperately want to go back and campaign. They have got
15 legislative days in which to work. And what they have decided to do is to
make this security month.
Instead of focusing on the domestic agenda, which includes,
of course, immigration as the big issue, along with an ambitious plan for
offshore oil drilling, and a host of other issues, including 11 appropriations
bills that are undone, they're going to focus on a series of things, some of
which are clearly necessary on the agenda.
The Hamdan decision of the Supreme Court threw the issue of
trials for terrorists back in Congress' court, dealing with wiretaps and FISA. They
have to do defense appropriations to deal with the war and homeland security,
But the fact is that they want to make this political point
for just the reasons that Stu and Amy have suggested. They don't have much
traction on other issues. They think they still have some on security and they
can portray the Democrats as being weak in dealing with terrorists. So, this is
as much a political agenda as it is a policy one.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the Republican leadership doesn't risk
anything by, for example, setting immigration aside, which is something that we
had 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, because
I think one of the themes that we're going to have out there that plays with
dissatisfaction in the electorate is the do-nothing Congress.
And, by focusing the way they are, there's a real chance
that we will have very few accomplishments, actual policy items getting
through. Immigration may not have quite the same resonance as the failure of
health care did in 1994, when one party, then the Democrats, were in power. But
it will underscore the notion that not much is happening.
And, frankly, as well, you know, we saw today a number of
Democrats, including the leaders, sign a letter and hold a press conference,
calling for the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld. It's clear now that, as
Republicans focus on the security agenda, very aggressively, talking about the
Defeatocrats, Democrats are going to responsible in kind.
And that means an even more rancorous month in what has been
an unusually rancorous Congress. And it's not clear that voters are going to
react very well to bickering that doesn't result in accomplishment.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Norm, what happens to some of these other
things 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 the
larger issues of lobbying and ethics reform, and are going to do a targeted
earmark reform, hoping they can get that through the House and Senate in
identical form, which won't be easy to do.
They are not be able to get the appropriations done. They're
hoping, certainly, to go get the big-ticket defense appropriations, and, by the
way, with that, funding for a fence in Mexico, hoping that will stave off
the worst case on immigration, and homeland security.
But we're going to end up with a fiscal year, beginning
October 1, almost certainly with another large continuing resolution. They are
trying to get the bare minimum done, basically, with a few accomplishments that
they 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 the
first week in October. But they're probably not going to have a whole lot of
trophies to put on the wall.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, Norm, any chances of a
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think the chances are extraordinarily
high of a lame-duck session.
But keep in mind, Judy, that, if the Democrats win either
house of Congress, their incentives to do much cooperating with the Republicans
in a lame-duck, where the Republicans are still in charge, when they're going
to 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 the
Amy, if this is the way it plays out, as we just heard from
Norm, 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 going
to be able to do to change the minds of voters right now. I mean, I think that
voters are almost as calcified as they can be at this point, in terms of their
views of Congress, of the president, of the direction of the country.
I mean, they have been pretty set for some time now. And the
only question, then, is can Republicans change the terms of the debate in these
individual 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 hold
on literally district by district, rather than -- I think nationalizing the
campaign is not the way that Republicans are going to go.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stu, this entire thrust of the
Republicans 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 that
they 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 swing
voters. The only thing that I that I disagree with Norm on -- and I never
disagree with Norm -- I know better -- is that, if the Republicans brought up
immigration, it would only point out the divisions within the party. They still
couldn't get anything done.
The Republicans want to keep this election on one national
issue, 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 in
Pennsylvania, or Diane Farrell, or Patricia Madrid, why that person is
So, the fact that nothing is getting done, while there is a
risk for do-nothing Congress -- I certainly agree with that -- the Republicans
really want to keep the focus of this campaign elsewhere, terrorism, and then
the 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, of
AMY WALTER: Well, of course, of course.
Look, there are -- we pointed out earlier in the broadcast
that there are six that Democrats need to pick up.
So, states like Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, those are real
battleground states for the Democrats. I think that, if you see movement,
wouldn't you say, in Missouri, Ohio, those are really
the 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. That
will 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 you