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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Midterm Results And The New Congress


Now our Friday political conversation. Joining us - E J Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. And sitting in for David Brooks, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Bloomberg View. Gentlemen, welcome.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.


SIEGEL: Let's start with today's lunch at the White House - or at least the point behind it. Ramesh, you first - are you at all hopeful of a change of tone? - Perhaps a year of constructive legislation in Washington?

PONNURU: A year might be stretching it. I do think there are some areas where there could be some progress. Take trade promotion authority, that's an issue where congressional Republicans are more supportive of the president's position - he wants that authority - than congressional Democrats are. But I think those sorts of issues are few and far between.


DIONNE: I think the Chicago Cubs, bless them, have a better chance of winning the World Series than we have for an era of bipartisan comity. I think it's very clear that the conservatives in particular are looking forward and saying we're almost there, all we need is the White House. And I'm not just talking about Tea Party conservatives who want to fight all the way, I'm talking about mainstream conservatives, like the National Review where Ramesh works, which had an editorial called "The Governing Trap," where they argued that if they really tried to work closely with Obama, they're going to split the Tea Party and the establishment again and they'll make the country ready for Hillary Clinton. If a Democrat and a Republican Congress can work well together, National Review argued, why wouldn't the country do it again? And I think immigration is the classic case where they've have shown - the House just doesn't want to act.

SIEGEL: Well, let's talk about immigration. Speaker Boehner has cited the crisis at the border with unaccompanied minors coming over as having made it impossible earlier for him to take up the bill. If that's not the case, can you imagine the house speaker saying, all right, we'll look at that Senate bill now?

PONNURU: You know, the number of people in the Senate who support that bill is going to be lower in the new Congress. Supporters of that bill were defeated in many cases by opponents of it. I suspect that the House has more opponents as well. And people who oppose this bill, many of them Republicans, would experience any movement on that as a betrayal after this election.

SIEGEL: So the short answer is no, you wouldn't expect that.

PONNURU: Exactly.

DIONNE: Right. And if you look at the exit polls, 39 percent prefer deporting illegal immigrants to letting them apply for legal status. Those voters voted more than 3-to-1 Republican. John Boehner is not about to take those voters on, which is why I think the president has the choice but to use executive action. He's already drawn a red line on this, if I may use that word, and I think he'd really hurt himself if he retreats from that.

SIEGEL: Well, is there some point of political philosophy here about immigration that distinguishes Republicans from Democrats? Is it about permitting a path to citizenship as opposed to some legal guest worker status? Is it about deporting or not deporting? Ramesh, can you draw that line?

PONNURU: It's not a binary question. There are Republicans who are all over the map. Some of them drawn line at citizenship, they say legal status is fine, but not citizenship. Others are fine even with citizenship. Some of them say, but you have to make sure the enforcement measures are in place and already working before you do that or you're going to have more illegal immigration.

SIEGEL: There must be a secure border before anything else can happen.

PONNURU: Right, and secure workplace.

DIONNE: Yeah, which is kind of an odd argument because many of the illegal immigrants who are here are overstaying visas. They came here legally. And so I think you really have three parties. You have Republicans who support a broad immigration reform, but are a minority in their party, the part that really runs the party and the Democrats. You've got a majority for it, but it can't itself in this political circumstance.

SIEGEL: All right, let's assume then that what we're going to see on immigration is more likely to be President Obama taking some kind of executive action. He's been warned, you know, it'll be - it'll poison the well. He'll be playing with matches and get burned. What does that mean? Ramesh, what do you understand that to mean?

PONNURU: Well, look, in recent - in the election that just finished, not only Republicans but even some Democrats were saying that this would be going too far, that the president doesn't have the authority to do this. There's a reason no previous president has ever thought about doing something like this. And I think the first thing that this means is there is a big budget fight that starts immediately about attaching to the next spending measure a restriction that this measure can't be funded.

SIEGEL: Meaning gridlock begins in January?

PONNURU: Or December.

SIEGEL: Or December. We can just write it in right now in the calendar.

DIONNE: Right. I think it will be a big fight. And the question is there have been a lot of big fights where the president has kind of had to be passive or just trying to keep bad things from happening. At least in this case he'd be on offense and say I'm going to try and solve some of these problems. And I think they'll be very careful about what they do and what they don't do.

SIEGEL: Let me as you a question - Latino votes are very much influenced by this 900-pound gorilla of an issue about immigration reform. Resolve that and presumably Latino voters would vote about taxes and jobs and health care and whether they think government is competent or not. Which party has the greater interest in seeing the Latino vote more - I'll say more normalized?

DIONNE: The Republicans and that's the irony. I think the problem is the National Republican Party has an interest in normalizing this issue. Georgia W. Bush got 40 percent-plus of the Latino vote. But if you look at where Republican members of Congress are from, particularly in the House, they have very few Latino voters. So they have interests in a way opposite to that of the party as a whole.

PONNURU: I'm not sure the issue gets resolved very easily. Let's say you that some sort of compromise passes where you have legal status but not citizenship, doesn't the fight then just move on to, well, why don't we have citizenship, too? So I'm not sure that the issue actually can be put away by the Republicans as much as - E J is right that a lot of Republicans would like to be able to.

SIEGEL: Well, guys, thank you both. And E J, I think you've made some Chicago Cubs fans very hopeful about Washington.

DIONNE: They have a right to be compared to this.

SIEGEL: E J Dionne of The Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

PONNURU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.