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Eyes On Congress To See What Gets Done After Midterm Elections


The return of those two Americans from North Korea was one of the few bright spots in a tough week for President Obama. And as the Congress comes back into session, this week might not be much better. The president has responded to Republican victories last Tuesday and discussed his plans going forward. Here to talk about all of that is Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: President Obama appeared on CBS's "Face The Nation" yesterday, and that was his first TV interview since the midterms. He said the message he took from the Democrats' defeat was that people want to see the city work. What, though, can the president do to make that happen?

ROBERTS: Well, it'll be tough. There was lots of noise yesterday from the people just elected to Congress saying that they'd be working across the aisle, but we've heard that before. And what the president says is what he needs to go forward is to sell his policies better. And that's always the political defense, Renee. It's not the policies that's the problem; it's the public relations about the policies. But there are lots of people in Congress who disagree with the president's policies and what they see as his failure to compromise. He's reinforced that since the election by saying he'll go forward with an executive order on immigration, which the Republican leaders have warned against. So it's likely to start everything off on a very bad foot.

MONTAGNE: Well, obviously it takes two to, you know, disagree, so will we see any change in Congress when it returns this week?

ROBERTS: Well, some lame ducks really respond to elections. In 1982, when 26 Republicans lost their seats in the House and unemployment was at 10 percent, the lame duck came back and did a big public works bill and also added a public service component because for the first time they had noticed that women were voting in that election. But I don't think that's likely to happen this time. They'll probably just going to do what's needed to keep the government going and fund the Syrian rebels and go home.

But on government funding, it's clear that the presumptive Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has learned some of the same lessons the president said he's learned about gridlock. McConnell says there'll be no government shutdown, no default on the national debt. Now, he could have some problems in his own caucus on that. And then there's the question of whether the Democrats bring up the nomination for the new attorney general while they still control the Senate, though the Republicans have said that they should wait until the new Congress. There might be a deal on nominations in general that Harry Reid makes with Mitch McConnell, but there's going to be a fight inside the Democratic Party on that.

MONTAGNE: Let's just spend a moment talking about those lame duck sessions. It's such an odd feature of American politics since many of the people voting on the bills just won't be around in a couple of months. So in your time watching Congress, what - how have you seen this handled?

ROBERTS: These are very odd indeed. First of all, you're constantly aware of them - the hallways of the Congressional office buildings are filled with boxes. There's almost a physical avoidance of the people who lost, like they have some sort of communicable disease. And there's lots of finger pointing. And Harry Reid is already pointing his finger at the president, saying it's the president's fault the Democrats lost. There are lots of Democrats who are pointing their fingers at Harry Reid, saying he didn't call up votes on a lot of bills so the Democrats wouldn't have to vote against the president. And that put them in a position where their opponents could say they voted 99 percent of the time with Obama. And of course, it also means if you don't bring up bills and you don't bring up amendments, that there is no compromise. Now, Mitch McConnell says he's going to make the Senate work again.


ROBERTS: We'll see.

MONTAGNE: All right, Cokie Roberts joins us most Mondays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts
Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.