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Kelly Wallace: Bush and Congress

Kelly Wallace is CNN's White House Correspondent.

CNN: How have the last two months changed the president's relationship with Congress?

WALLACE: The president certainly seems to have a better relationship with many Democrats due to the September 11 attacks. Ever since the terrorist attacks, Bush has convened a breakfast, almost every week, with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. Both Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, two men who had tussled a bit with the president, seem to have a genuinely better relationship with him. Beyond the leaders, most Democrats have given the president high marks for his handling of the attacks and his support in his own party is definitely universal.

But with all that being said, we are seeing more partisanship now than we had over the past weeks. Democrats will remain supportive of the president's campaign but many are starting to speak out publicly about how they disagree with him on many issues. Perhaps Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said it best when she was asked about Bush's plan for an economic stimulus package, she said the president was her commander-in-chief but not her chief economist.

CNN: The House finally passed an airport security bill yesterday, but unlike the Senate, it does not mandate that security screeners be federal employees. How will these bills be reconciled into one that the president will sign?

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WALLACE: That is the big question -- how will both sides compromise in order to get a final bill to the Senate. What will happen is the bill will be sent to some conference committee, and it will be up to House and Senate lawmakers, appointed to that committee, to try and hash out the differences. Both sides are going to have to give a bit. You have Democrats controlling the Senate, Republicans controlling the House. President Bush has called on lawmakers to resolve their differences quickly and get a bill to his desk he can sign. But, right now, both sides are digging in. Democrats say the baggage and passenger screeners should be federal employees, Republicans say the government should have the flexibility to make the decision. How soon this gets resolved is anyone's guess.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How do you explain the difference in the partisan vote in the House on the airport security bill and the 100-0 vote in the Senate?

WALLACE: That is a very good question. It appears the main reason for the difference was time. The Senate took up this bill very quickly, very soon after the September 11 attacks so there was tremendous pressure to work together to get a bill passed to make sure what happened on that day in September never happens again. But over these weeks since the Senate acted, lots of lobbyists started pressuring House members. Lobbyists such as those representing airport security companies which would go out of business if screeners became federal employees. You also had lobbyists representing airline pilots and others who want to see the federal government completely take over the screening process. And finally, you had President Bush step in and personal lobby undecided lawmakers. Many Republicans, in the end, who were once undecided went with the president. So those are some of the reasons why we saw such different votes in the House and the Senate.

CNN: The president wants to take action to help the economy. Which measures will Congress go along with and which will be harder fought?

WALLACE: That issue certainly got extra attention today with news that the unemployment rate jumped in October to 5.4%, the largest one month increase in the jobless rate in 21 years. Democrats and Republicans both agree on the need for a plan to give a boost to the economy. Both sides support some tax cuts, such as tax cuts to low and moderate income workers who do not pay income taxes and therefore did not get rebate checks this summer. But Bush and Republicans are also pushing for tax breaks to businesses and accelerating already approved tax cuts, which Democrats say are steps that benefit corporations and the wealthy. The other major sticking point is over what to do for laid-off workers. Here is where the two sides are very far apart. Bush wants to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks, but only for workers in those states most affected by the September 11 attacks and provide grants to states to help provide health care coverage to workers no longer with jobs. Democrats want to see unemployment benefits extended for workers in all states and want the federal govt. to spend money to help workers with their health care. Democrats are pushing a $90 billion plan next week, $35 billion of that would be money for laid-off workers. That's a big difference from what Bush is proposing and what the House passed. So this issue is going to be difficult to resolve, and it is also an area, like airline security, where we are likely to see an end to the bipartisanship in the nation's capital that we have seen since the attacks.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Kelly, is the executive order to conceal past presidential papers constitutional?

WALLACE: That is a good question. It could very well be challenged on legal or constitutional grounds. The order gives the president in power as well as a former president a say over wheN the presidential records should be released to the public. The White House said it needed to set up a system to ensure an orderly flow of information. The administration delayed the release of almost 70,000 pages belonging to former President Ronald Reagan three times this year, saying it needed to review the issue. The administration says the only reason information would be kept from the public was if the current president or the previous president felt there was a national security or another reason why it should be held private. Historians and civil libertarians charge the administration is just making it more difficult for information which they believe should be available to the public to be made available. Some critics of the order also charge the White House is trying to protect officials, who work in this administration and worked in the Reagan and Bush administration, from any embarrassment. The White House says that is not the case. We'll have to watch and see how this plays out, whether it is challenged in court or whether people who want records are not getting access to them.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

WALLACE: Next week will be a very interesting week here at the White House. The president is mounting a bit of a PR offensive to make sure his message about the war on terrorism is getting to the American people and also to U.S. allies. The president will deliver a speech Thursday on homeland security issues. He'll also give two speeches to international audiences, his first speech at the United Nations Saturday and a speech to a group of nations gathered in Poland, I believe on Tuesday. Beyond that, six world leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, will be in Washington.

It will be a busy week, but it also appears to be a week where the White House tries to define its message. U.S. officials admit they can do a better job, in particular trying to counter what they call mis-statements from the Taliban and trying to get the U.S. message about the war to Arab and Muslim allies. The administration is also facing though some nervous allies who are questioning the progress of the military campaign. So look for the president to address those concerns as well as the mounting concerns about anthrax and terrorist alerts in his speeches next week.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

WALLACE: Great to be with you as always. See you next week... and can I say, Go Yankees!

Kelly Wallace joined the chat room from Washington, DC and typed for herself. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, November 02, 2001 at 4 p.m. EDT.


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