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Lame Duck Congress Waddles Up Against A Deadline


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. For many of us, deadlines can make us more productive. Unclear as to whether or not we can say the same of Congress, but they face a deadline nonetheless. The lame-duck session wraps up Thursday. And Congress has a whole lot to get to before then. They have to pass a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown. There's immigration reform and a controversial report about torture that the Senate Intelligence Committee is poised to release to the public.

To talk about all of this, we're joined now by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.


MARTIN: Let's start with the specter of yet another government shutdown. What are you hearing about the odds of getting a funding bill passed?

LIASSON: Well, the odds are pretty good. I don't think we're heading towards that kind of crisis legislating that we've seen so much in the past. The deadline is Wednesday night. The speaker of the house seems very confident that he can pass this so-called cromnibus bill. It's a terrible name.

MARTIN: Bad name.

LIASSON: It's a combination of a continuing resolution that funds the government and an omnibus spending bill. It would fund the government all the way till next fall, but fund the Department of Homeland Security, which administers the president's controversial immigration actions, only until March when, presumably with an even bigger Republican majority, the Republicans would have more leverage.

The Senate and the White House would accept this approach so maybe this is a sign that we're getting back to regular order, fewer cliff-hanging midnight deadlines, crisis to crisis legislating.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, so speaking of immigration, on Thursday, this past week, House Speaker John Boehner held a symbolic vote to protest President Obama's executive action on immigration. Where is that debate right now?

LIASSON: Well, it is a mostly symbolic action. It's not going to be taken up by the Senate. The president is going to Nashville on Tuesday to talk about why he decided to act on his own on immigration and what it means not just for people who are legally who might be eligible for deportation relief and temporary work permits, but also for the economy. The president did do what he said he would do. And according to Latino pollsters, he's gotten a political bounce of support from Hispanic voters.

The big question now, in terms of legacy, is will the Congress actually, in the end, pass something? Now Republicans don't have a lot of tools available to stop these executive actions. As you said, last week, they passed a symbolic measure nullifying the president's move. But as for passing a big, comprehensive immigration bill, right now Republicans don't seem to have the votes or the inclination to do anything beyond border security.

MARTIN: All right, let's move on this torture report. This report held by the Senate intelligence committee is about torture, U.S. government use of torture by the CIA in the past. The intelligence committee was ready to take this public. But then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said no, urged Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Committee not to do that. What's in this report, Mara, and what are the implications of making it public?

LIASSON: Well, the Senate Intelligence Committee report is, as you said, about the CIA program of torture, enhanced interrogation techniques and rendition. It's supposed to be released this week. We do know that Secretary of State Kerry called the chairman of the committee, Dianne Feinstein, to talk to her about it. But the State Department says he did not ask her to delay the release of the report. The administration supports releasing the report. And the State Department says Kerry told Feinstein that the timing of the release was her choice. But the administration is concerned about how the report would affect ongoing efforts against ISIS, the Islamic State terrorist group, and the safety of Americans who are being held hostage around the world. And it wants those issues to be taken into account.

MARTIN: Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat, threatened to read the report on the Senate floor. I mean, we spent so much time before the midterm election talking about the divisions among Republicans. But it sounds like Democrats aren't exactly getting in line altogether.

LIASSON: That's true. Senator Udall said if the report isn't released in a transparent manner, he would read it on the floor. This isn't the only area where Democrats are at odds with the White House. You might see differences on trade, maybe the Keystone Pipeline, sanctions on Iran. But the White House does feel on big things like the health care bill, immigration, they're not worried about keeping their troops in line.

There will be veto fights in the new Congress. And the White House will need one third plus one of one house to uphold the president's veto. And on that, the White House sees the House, not the Senate, as the place where Democrats can build a more reliably unified Democratic firewall. And as a senior White House official said to me this week, we're going to learn to love the House more than we have in the past.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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