Video: Russert discusses on new Dem Congress

NBC News

Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC:  Tim, the Republicans are grousing about how the Democrats plan to run the new Democratic-controlled Congress during its first 100 hours – no amendments allowed, no hearings.  Does that sound strangely familiar?

RUSSERT:  One of my favorite comments Thursday comes from a Republican who said, “Wait a minute.  You’re supposed to treat us the way that you WANTED to be treated, not the way we treated you.”

I think we’ll see things somewhere in the middle.  There was a lot of “Kumbaya” Thursday, but my sense is things will settle down.  The Republicans will probably be treated a bit better than they treated the Democrats because civility was such an important issue this past election, but when you’re in power, you exercise it.  And the Democrats will behave like a majority party.

MSNBC:  In the political and philosophical makeup of the House and the leadership, the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is more liberal than 91% of her colleagues, according to one poll.  But now that she’s speaker, isn’t she leading a party with a lot of new members elected on pretty conservative platforms?

Russert:  She better be cautious.  The reason the Democrats captured control of the Congress was because swing, moderate, independent voters crossed over and voted for Democrats in swing districts.

So, if she pursues a liberal agenda, come two years, they will be in trouble.  That’s why they’re focusing on minimum wage, stem cell research and things of that nature which have appeal with independent voters.

I think the real issue, however, will continue to be Iraq.  Both houses of Congress will be having, for the first time, serious oversight with robust aggressive hearings.  The president, I think, is going to meet a lot of challenges when he tries to recommend, next week, sending a so-called “surge” of new American troops into Baghdad.  He’ll do it and Congress can’t do much about it, unless they want to cut off the money – which they’re not prepared to do at this moment.

MSNBC:  Speaker Pelosi, says Congress will fail to satisfy voters if they don’t aggressively pursue a new direction for Iraq.  Should we expect to see those new Democrat-controlled Congress’ planned hearings into the Iraq war getting nasty?

RUSSERT:  I think they will be robust and aggressive.  There has not been true congressional oversight of the Iraq war since it began, because the Republicans wanted to be mindful, respectful of their fellow Republican, President George W. Bush.

But now, on the Senate side, you have Delaware Democrat Joe Biden, who’s said he’s against the so-called ‘surge” of more American troops.  He has lined up several former secretaries of state and military commanders and he’s going to press the administration very hard.

On the House side, half the Democrats have voted against the war and they want to demonstrate their judgment was correct.

So, I think both house of Congresses will have very serious, very aggressive hearings.

MSNBC:  The Democratic opposition against the war is very pronounced, but what are you hearing about Republicans.  Are they getting restless about the war too?

RUSSERT:  They are.  And quietly they are saying they’re deeply concerned and have been spending a lot time talking to one another.  Joe Biden said Thursday many Republicans in the administration consider the war lost. He clearly was echoing sentiments he’s hearing from some Republican senators privately.

But I think there’ll be a consensus among Republicans to go along with the president for this surge – an attempt to control Baghdad and the security situation.  But their patience is running out.

MSNBC:  Bottom line, how much can Congress do?

RUSSERT:  They can have aggressive hearings and they can cut off funds.  They will do the former, but they won’t do the latter. So the president will have his way if he decides to go forward.

If it doesn’t work, then I think we will could see a replay of what we saw in Vietnam – Congress beginning to debate, very openly, the purse strings for a war.

If it does work and things are stabilized, the president will be able to buy some time.

MSNBC: Will the Iraq issue take away from concentrating on the domestic agenda the Democrats have?

RUSSERT:  I think the agenda they have will be manageable, doable – the minimum wage, stem cell research, lobbying and ethics reform, new homeland security measures.  They should pass both houses of Congress And then the president will have to make a decision whether to sign or veto the legislation.

But the Democrats realize they have to achieve something.  They can’t just criticize the Iraq war.  They need a positive record of accomplishment on the domestic side.

MSNBC:  Two other issues.  First, the president signed postal legislation, with a signing statement saying the government can open private mail if they suspect terrorism.  Is that going to fly?

RUSSERT:  That’s interesting.  The White House is saying nothing has changed, they are restating current policy.  But Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine says she’s deeply trouble by this and wants to look into it.

So, I think we’re going to have to have a much clearer explanation of what the president thinks his authority is and where it comes from.


MSNBC:  The second issue: John Negroponte is moving to the State Department from his current position as Director of Nation Intelligence - replaced by retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell.  What’s going on there?

RUSSERT:  On the surface, I’ve never seen anybody give up a cabinet-level job to become a “number two”.  There was a lot of grumbling about the bureaucracy of the new intelligence service – whether or not he was a tough enough infighter to take that kind of job on and that he’s much more comfortable being a diplomat.  So, I think he’s being slotted to accommodate his strength and they’re bringing in Admiral Mike McConnell – a much more aggressive spy chief with a lot of experience.

MSNBC:  Who’s on Meet the Press this Sunday?

RUSSERT: We’re going to have Sen. Joe Biden, who’s going to oversee hearings on Iraq and says the administration knows the war in Iraq is lost.  He’s going to debate Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who agrees with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and President Bush on the need for a surge of new American troops.

Joe Biden versus Lindsey Graham - it should crystallize this issue for our viewers.

Then, Michael Gordon, who co-authored "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq", John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal and CNBC, and Judy Woodruff of PBS in a good, interesting roundtable.

All Sunday, on Meet the Press.

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