NPR's Political Junkie Ken Rudin recaps the week in politics from the winners and losers of the 'fiscal cliff' deal to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's health concerns. Incoming freshman representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) share their expectations as new members of Congress.
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NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Congress clamors back up the cliff but not before the speaker flips off the majority leader, and it's déjà vu all over again as we hit the debt ceiling. It's Wednesday and time for a....
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Groundhog Day...
CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.
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PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?
SEN. BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
SEN. LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.
GOV. RICK PERRY: Oops
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.
CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. And this past week can be described as excruciating, exasperating, extended, but not quite endless.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On this vote, the yays are 257. The nays are 167. The motion is adopted. Without objection, a motion to reconsider is laid on the table.
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CONAN: Congress finally finds a way to escape the fiscal cliff and promptly sits beneath the Sword of Damocles dangling from the debt ceiling. Secretary Clinton goes to the hospital for treatment of a blood clot. Bay State Democrats coalesce around a candidate to replace her successor. And Hawaii's new senator is sworn in.
Later in the program, three new members of the House, and we'll look at the winners and losers from this week's drama. You can email us now, firstname.lastname@example.org. But first political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And we begin, as usual, with a trivia question. Happy New Year, Ken.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Happy New Year to you, too, Neal. And Happy averting fiscal cliff for now.
CONAN: For now.
RUDIN: OK, well anyway, the trivia question, this is going to be another spenate - spenate secial - special Senate election in Massachusetts this year to replace John Kerry, once he's confirmed as secretary of state. The state's previous senator, Scott Brown, was also elected in a special election following the death of Ted Kennedy. So the question is: Of all the senators first elected in a special election who will be serving in the 113th Congress, which one is the most senior?
CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, if you can figure out this week's trivia question, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Of the 100 senators who will serve in the 113th Congress, which has been serving the longest, having been first elected in a special election?
RUDIN: It makes complete sense to me.
CONAN: It does - to you. In the meantime, Ken, what a drama. Yesterday at this time, we thought the deal was dead.
RUDIN: Well, we did, and we didn't. I mean, we also said that you know that some deal is going to have to be attained right before the deadline, and even though we had 17 months - we were prepared for this for 17 months - yet suddenly at the last second - it's like studying for a test the last second, you do that - so we're known for that thing.
But I mean it was just, the emotions are still raw, the emotions are certainly far from healed. And yet you could argue who got the better of the deal. The left is still very unhappy that Obama gave away the store. The right is still unhappy that Boehner was too willing to compromise with the old...
CONAN: Agreed to raise taxes but got no spending cuts.
RUDIN: No spending cuts. So, you know, I mean so - but ultimately the economy has not fallen apart. It is not Henny Penny. The sky is not falling, at least as of January 2nd, 2013. We'll see what happens after that.
CONAN: The stock market likes it. It's up currently 220 points. This may not last, but in the meantime, it's back up over 13,000. Anyway, as we look at this process, we're going to be talking about winners and loser later in this process, but what, 10 days ago, it was Plan B that crashed and burned in the House. Speaker Boehner then punted over to the Senate, which finally got around to passing a bill with strong-arming from the vice president of the United States on New Year's Eve, or actually, after midnight on New Year's Eve.
RUDIN: Well, it seemed like - I mean, if you want to make this argument that the adults took charge, Boehner was ineffective in his meetings. Not only was he ineffective with his meetings with President Obama, but he obviously didn't have the support or the backing of his House Republicans. I mean, when he came up with this Plan B, that is to tax folks - to remove the Bush tax cuts from those making over a million dollars, many Republicans balked and said look, we're not supporting any tax hikes for anybody, even if you're making a million dollars a year.
So as it turned out, what they signed for were those making under - over $400,000 a year.
CONAN: $450,000 for combined income.
RUDIN: Right, for couple. So, so I mean, you know, ultimately perhaps Plan B was something that the Republicans should have taken, or at least a lot of the anti-tax Republicans should have taken, when Boehner was trying to get it. But he didn't have their support then, either.
CONAN: Well, we go back to that grand bargain that Speaker Boehner and President Obama tried to negotiate, what, a year and a half ago at the debt ceiling, when they triggered this fiscal cliff in the first place, when they couldn't make a deal. And that grand bargain all of a sudden looks a little bit better, too.
RUDIN: Certainly for the Republicans, because back then, President Obama was talking about $600 billion in spending cuts, and as far as I know from this thing that we just signed, perhaps maybe - we...
CONAN: We, you and me, yeah.
RUDIN: There's maybe $12 billion in spending cuts. But of course there will be more anguish and more debate to be held. Of course the Republicans think they're going to bring this debate all over again, up all over again once the debt ceiling argument is renewed at the end of February. But President Obama says absolutely not, there's no negotiation on that.
CONAN: Well, there's going to be much more about that in the weeks to come. But how does the president not negotiate over the debt ceiling? The Republicans can say in exchange for raising this debt limit, we will demand X, Y and Z.
RUDIN: Right, and the president says these are bills that we've already agreed to, we've already spent this, and we - obviously we have to pay our bills. And that's what we intend to do.
CONAN: Well, we'll have to see how this negotiation works out. In the meantime, the sequestration is punted down that far, as well. So that's another hostage being held to an agreement at the end of February. And, well, all kinds of other stuff passed in this bill last night. There was the dairy, the Farm Bill, which prevents the prices of milk from zooming up. But no bill passed to support the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
RUDIN: Well no bill passed, no bill was brought up for a vote. And then the Republicans and Democrats from New York, New Jersey are furious. Michael Grimm from Staten Island, Peter King from Long Island - they're even talking about perhaps starting a little revolt against Speaker Boehner when he's up for re-election.
I mean, officially he's up for re-election tomorrow, and there are some rumors that maybe Eric Cantor will take him on. I doubt that's going to happen. But there's a lot of - there is certainly unhappiness in New York and New - look, here's what happened. They promised - the Senate passed a bill that would give billions of dollars to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
The House clearly wanted to do something, but they didn't want to do it right after the fiscal cliff - they weren't going to have another spending bill after fiscal cliff negotiations ended. So basically Boehner said uh-uh, I'm pulling this from the floor in the 112th Congress. He still says that he expects that bill to pass this month in the new 113th, but I think yesterday was not the time to do it. But a lot of folks in New York and New Jersey are livid.
CONAN: As we speak, Chris Christie is holding a news conference - the governor of New Jersey - to lambast the Republican leadership in the Congress, which refused to bring the bill up. It had passed in the Senate. In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question.
RUDIN: What was it again?
CONAN: And that is of the 100 senators who will be in the 113th Congress, which has served the longest after having been first elected in a special election? OK, all right.
RUDIN: Makes sense to me.
CONAN: We'll start with - this is Justin(ph), and Justin's on the line with us from Des Moines.
JUSTIN: Is it Barbara Boxer?
RUDIN: Barbara Boxer was not elected in a special election. She succeeded Alan Cranston in 1992.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Justin.
JUSTIN: No worries.
CONAN: All right, let's see if we can go next to - this is Ted(ph), Ted with us from Wilmington.
TED: Yes, I say Chris Coons in 2010.
RUDIN: Chris Coons was - was he elected in a special - yes, he was elected in a special election, but he's only been in the Senate for two year. He is not the most senior senator to be elected in a special election.
TED: Because he was elected after Senator Biden, for Joe Biden's seat.
RUDIN: That's correct. But there are people much more senior than he is.
TED: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Robert(ph) and Robert with us from Roscoe, Illinois.
ROBERT: Hi, is it Senator Kirk from Illinois, appointed - elected to the infamous Senate seat for sale?
RUDIN: No actually Senator Kirk - President Obama of course gave up the seat early. They appointed Roland Burris, Blagojevich tried to sell it to everybody else.
ROBERT: Oh yeah.
RUDIN: But Kirk actually was elected in 2010 when the original Obama seat was up. so it wasn't a special election.
ROBERT: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Robert, and let's go to Larry(ph), Larry from Alton in Virginia.
LARRY: Yes, Ashton in Virginia.
CONAN: Forgive me, I need new glasses.
LARRY: I'm going with Michael Bennet.
CONAN: Michael Bennet, the son of the president from Colorado.
RUDIN: Also elected in a special election, but again he was elected in 2010, special election, but not the most senior senator to have been...
CONAN: And when I said - former president, a former president of National Public Radio.
RUDIN: That's right.
CONAN: Anyway, thanks Larry. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Peter(ph), and Peter's on the line from Roseville in California.
PETER: Yes, it's the other woman senator from California, Dianne Feinstein.
RUDIN: That is the correct answer.
CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.
RUDIN: Because in 1988, Governor Pete Wilson gave up a Senate seat to be elected governor. He appointed, as you well remember, the very famous John Seymour to the Senate. And in that 1992 special election, Dianne Feinstein was elected in '92, and then she ran again in '94. So the answer is Dianne Feinstein.
CONAN: Congratulations, Peter, you'll start the new year with a free Political Junkie T-shirt and, of course, the fabulous no-prize Political Junkie winner button. So congratulations. Stay on the line, we'll collect your particulars.
PETER: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's go back...
RUDIN: He didn't sound that excited, did he?
CONAN: Well, it's early in California.
RUDIN: He's still celebrating, yeah.
CONAN: In any case, let's go back to the special election, the one coming up in Massachusetts, where we expect John Kerry will be confirmed to be the next secretary of state, to sail through, and there's already a lot of maneuvering on the Democratic side to line up behind one candidate in particular.
RUDIN: That's pretty remarkable given the fact that, you know, when you think of Ted Kennedy, as long as he served in the Senate, and John Kerry has been in the Senate since 1985. This is a seat that there are so many ambitious Democrats who really, really want it. Ed Markey, who was first elected to Congress, the House, in 1976, he said after many years of hemming and hawing about running for higher office, Ed Markey said I think I want to be a senator.
And suddenly every Democrat, well not every Democrat but...
CONAN: Well, one big exception.
RUDIN: Vicki Kennedy, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, they all seem to be uniting around Ed Markey, and a lot of people are saying other Democrats stay away. Now Stephen Lynch is one of those Democrats who were talking about running for it. But clearly the early backing of Ed Markey - and this is remarkable. Nobody has been in the House that long and went on to win a Senate seat.
So 36 years in the House, he's pretty remarkable. But the Democrats seem to be coalescing behind Ed Markey. Scott Brown looks like the likely Republican nominee.
CONAN: But Michael Capuano may run, also.
RUDIN: He's also looking at it, as well.
CONAN: In the meantime, we have a new senator from Hawaii appointed by the governor there, Neil Abercrombie, who got in time to vote on that, on the fiscal cliff deal.
RUDIN: Well, this was a shocker because everybody knows that Daniel Inouye, one of his final words or certainly final wishes, was that he wanted Abercrombie to name Colleen Hanabusa, a member of the House, to that Senate - to his Senate seat. And Abercrombie said no, I'm picking Peter - Brian Schatz, who is his lieutenant governor. He's 40 years old. He's Jewish. He's not Asian, as most senators from Hawaii have been - but a big surprise, Abercrombie wanted his person, not Inouye's person.
CONAN: In the meantime, new members, the other new members of the 113th Congress will be sworn in tomorrow, and we're going to talk with three of them when we come back from a short break. Stay with us. Ken Rudin is with us, as he is every Wednesday, in our political junkie segment. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, which means political junkie Ken Rudin is here with us in Studio 3A. Any ScuttleButton winners this week, Ken?
RUDIN: Not this week. It was some holiday. So - but next week the new political junkie column and the ScuttleButton puzzle returns on Monday.
CONAN: And you can find those at npr.org/junkie. Starting tomorrow, we'll have a brand new batch of lawmakers to discuss as the 113th Congress takes over the difficult task of addressing ongoing concerns about taxes, spending, sequestration and the debt ceiling.
Among the new congresspeople who will take their official vows on Capitol Hill tomorrow, three freshman members who join us here today on the program. Michelle Lujan Grisham is a Democratic representative-elect from New Mexico's First District. She's with us here in Studio 3A. Welcome.
REP.-ELECT MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. Also with us here in the studio, Democratic Representative-elect Kyrsten Sinema, who represents Arizona's Ninth District. Nice to have you with us.
REP.-ELECT KYRSTEN SINEMA: Great to be here.
CONAN: And Republican Representative-elect Doug LaMalfa joins us by phone from his office in Washington, D.C., and he represents California's First District. Good to have you with us today.
REP.-ELECT DOUG LAMALFA: Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: And your office, is that your new office up on Capitol Hill?
LAMALFA: That's the only one I've got, yes, sir. It's right here in Cannon. So we just got our key a little while ago.
LAMALFA: Thank you.
CONAN: Who got the best office?
SINEMA: Oh definitely not me. I was very low in the pool.
GRISHAM: Seven in the lottery, got our first pick, Cannon 214, where we're glad to be there.
SINEMA: My office has a door, which is awesome.
CONAN: That's very good. After watching the shenanigans over the past couple of days, any of you have any second thoughts, going back home soon?
GRISHAM: It's a clear and resounding recognition that it's time to get to work, and the sooner the better.
SINEMA: You know, I come from a state, well, as you know, Arizona, where I've served in the minority my entire career. So what I saw this week, of course, is disheartening but unfortunately not surprising. What I am excited about is that this new freshman class, on both sides, are full of a bunch of problem-solvers. So I think maybe we've got an opportunity to go in and get something actually done.
CONAN: You all have experience in politics. As you mentioned, you were in the minority where you came from. Doug LaMalfa, you're moving from the minority in California, to the majority in Congress.
LAMALFA: It's all new ground for me here. We've never even had a whiff of a majority in California, for many, many years on the Republican side. So it will be an interesting thing here in the House of Representatives to have at least a majority there, although the way everything looks, it doesn't feel like very much of a majority with, you know, the Senate, the White House and the media all doing their number on the Republican side.
RUDIN: I'm still giggling at the media part. But anyway...
SINEMA: I think it's your fault, Ken.
CONAN: He is the media.
RUDIN: I am the media, right. You know, the three of you obviously know what polls tell you about public approval of Congress - 13 percent was the last number I saw - public approval of Congress. What were you thinking, as Neal kind of said, what were you thinking, what made you want to run for Congress and join this beloved 13 percent?
GRISHAM: Well, I think Kyrsten hit it right out of the park. We all are problem-solvers. We've got constituents and families in our own communities who want us to make a difference. We all come from, I think, a pretty diverse public service background with very difficult circumstances that we've all had to address. And now more than ever we need to do that.
And I'm a caregiver. I know that my mom - when we're talking about Medicare and Social Security - these are not issues that we can wait one more second to begin to address in a meaningful way.
CONAN: That was Michelle Lujan Grisham. Kyrsten Sinema?
SINEMA: Well, you know, Arizona, as we all know, is home to the greatest foreclosure crisis in the country. We actually eclipsed Nevada and are number one. And that's an issue that's very personal for me. When I was a kid, my dad lost his job. We lost our home to foreclosure, and I ended up homeless for a couple years.
And so I get up each morning, and I think what can I do to help the residents of District 9, make sure that they have the ability to keep their jobs, pay their mortgages and prepare for the future. And so despite the fact that Congress has a very, very, very low reputation, if I can do the best for my constituents and make sure they're getting what they need to take care of their families and prepare for the future, it's worth every second.
CONAN: Doug LaMalfa?
SINEMA: Well for me, first I had a chance to meet Kyrsten in the hallway here on one of our previous trips. So I'm looking forward to working with her. And I see Michelle also has been named to the Ag Committee. So we'll be able to accomplish some things together on that committee.
LAMALFA: The American public expects us to accomplish ultimately the goals of what it is that government should be doing and doing it efficiently. Now, so that means we have to figure out how to get along, but also we do have our philosophical issues that our constituents, when we asked for their vote in our district, we tell them we're going to stand for this and this. And if we do opposite of that, then we've broken basically a campaign promise.
So that's why we do have to battle back here sometimes because each of us comes from perhaps a different type of background or district. But when we get into the room, we have to figure it out. And so, you know, the last few days, we've seen a lot of ugliness, but also, ultimately, they did hammer something out, like it or not. Something did get done.
It's a lot like college finals. You have to get down to I guess the very deadline and cram it all in at the end. That's my experience in California legislature. It always came down to the end, too.
SINEMA: I've got to tell you, Doug, as a college professor myself, I'm not interested in hearing folks waiting until the very last minute to prepare. So I'm hoping we get a little discipline, maybe study a little earlier.
LAMALFA: It would be nice.
GRISHAM: Imperative. It's imperative.
CONAN: You've all had the orientation. You've all been shown how to vote. As the drama came down last night, were your index fingers itching to cast a vote on that bill?
SINEMA: My index finger was just rolling on Twitter. I was just watching over and over, what was happening...
CONAN: Over and over again what's happening on Twitter. Michelle Lujan Grisham? Excuse me.
GRISHAM: No problem. Absolutely. I mean, nobody wants this kicked down any further. Unfortunately although we've got some action, it still is - what do we have, just a couple of months before we have to make other decisions. I hope that we don't, as Kyrsten said, wait so long. We ought to be doing that business each and every day.
And that's the kind of reaction and urgency that I think every new member feels about taking on these important issues.
CONAN: Doug LaMalfa, was that a vote you were just as happy to sit out?
LAMALFA: Well, you know, whether - I was half-expecting that it would be in our laps starting on the third anyway, so, you know, it was 50-50. But I'm actually used to, in our California State Senate, to doing a voice vote. So I didn't have an itchy finger.
RUDIN: Congressman, Congressman-elect LaMalfa, you're talking about what Speaker Boehner had to do, had to battle with his own members of his own party to get it passed. Obviously he voted for it. His number two, Eric Cantor, his number three, Kevin McCarthy, voted against it. How - from far away, since you're just coming into it now, how do you assess the role that Speaker Boehner is doing in trying to keep his Republicans together?
LAMALFA: Well, the speaker will tell you that when you have a majority, you're also expected to govern. You're also expected to accomplish and get something done. And so you had several different phases of how you were going to look at a package before the election, you know, speculation was that maybe President Obama doesn't win again, and you have completely different look to things.
There was speculation Republicans might take over the Senate. So you had hesitation to take a deal that had any tax increases in it, by Republicans, before that. Well, then we had the reality of the election that came in. The country went into a different direction, and I think the speaker recognized that the leverage that they were looking for was going to look a heck of a lot different after those election results with a Democrat-controlled Senate and White House and a Republican U.S. House.
So we have a whole different type of leverage, or less of it, I guess, as Republicans. So now it was going to be what kind of deal are you going to cut. And so I think the speaker looked at it as the reality is that some of these things are going to happen. So I don't criticize him, completely, for realizing that and putting that out there.
CONAN: Kyrsten Sinema?
SINEMA: You know, as I was watching what happened in the last few days, I think, like most Americans, I was somewhat disgusted that it took this long to solve the problem, and they didn't really do it all the way. It's going to be back in front of us in less than two months. And - but one thing that I did notice and I felt somewhat better about is that like most important legislation that's gone before previous Congresses, that the bargains that are made that are bipartisan, that have strong support from both parties, tend to be more long-lasting and tend to be enduring within our country.
And what I'm looking for, what I'm hoping for in this next Congress, is that Republicans and Democrats will be more interested in finding those grand solutions and less interested in just party fealty, just doing the party line - that where our country really needs are people from both sides to come together and pass legislation like we've seen in the past: Medicaid, Social Security, all the grand pieces of legislation were done in a bipartisan way.
CONAN: Except for the most recent health care reform.
SINEMA: That's exactly right. That was one-party rule. And my personal opinion is, is that whenever you find a piece of legislation that has broad numbers from both sides of the aisle, it's - no one's going to be delighted with it, but it's probably a good piece of legislation.
GRISHAM: Except in this case with the Affordable Care Act, we had a whole different environment that we haven't seen before in the House, where we have a group of members who have pledged not to engage or support any kind of legislation brought by this administration and creates an environment where you can't a have effective bipartisan solution-making. There isn't anyone who doesn't realize that we have a problem in this country with health care and what it costs in this country. It's not affordable. It's not accessible. It's going to get that way. We're on the right path, but this is a whole different climate, and we hope this freshman class returns to that climate again.
RUDIN: Unlike Ms. Lujan Grisham and unlike Mr. LaMalfa, who came from relatively safe Democratic and Republican districts, Kyrsten Sinema came from - as a matter of fact, you didn't win your election or we didn't know who won the election until days later...
SINEMA: That's right.
RUDIN: ...do you have to watch your back when you run, or you're just - you just plow to 113th Congress unafraid?
SINEMA: Well, you know, I've been running my whole life. I'm not that fast, but I'm pretty steady. So, you know, I just - I don't think the word afraid should be part of anyone's lexicon in Congress. The fact is that that whether you come from a district that is solidly Republican or Democrat, or like mine, a district that is split evenly down the middle, swing district, that your daily responsibility has to be, first, to the constituents of your community and, second, of course, to the larger issues facing our country.
And the truth is, Ken, most people who get up in my district - and I think this is true of most districts in the country - don't wake up and think, oh, I've got to do my Republican laundry, or, oh, I got to get that Democrat gas in my car. They just want to get to work, keep their job, pay their bills, prepare for their kids to go to college. So the issues that save the most people, are not person issues.
What I'm trying to do in my career and what I hope I will continue to do when I'm in Congress, is just keep thinking like that. What matters to these families.
CONAN: Have you made your first fundraising call for re-election yet?
SINEMA: Yes, I have. Shortly after my election, as Ken so kindly mentioned - two days for my election to be determined - there was a - you know, we see - we were wondering, we have to go to court. You know, it turned out that I won by over 10,000 votes, but it just took awhile to get there. So I was calling folks right after the election, saying, hey, we're not sure what's going to happen. I might need some more help. Of course, I got to call all of them back later and say, thanks, we did. We won so.
CONAN: Doug LaMalfa, I wanted to ask you, you mentioned the Ag Committee. You come from generations of rice farmers up there in the northern part of California. How does that going to inform what you do in the 113th Congress?
LAMALFA: Well, it's a very agricultural, very rural district. Resources are or were a key part the economy in that northeast corner of the state, a very large district. And so what I've worked with in my years in the state legislature are - just as the farmer, people I know, the economy - even from the - the way it affects the economy in town, as I put it, you know? The people would sell you the pickups and the tractors and everybody - a refrigerator and the people down at the bank. It's all interrelated. And so I think it will be very informative and very good set of experiences in order to help make decisions on that Ag Committee, as well as the other committee I was placed on, the Natural Resources Committee, because we have a lot to do.
As, you know - as we see the issues that got done here in the last couple of days, we're going to have the egg problem here because of the so-called dairy cliff. Don't you like how now - things are no longer gate anymore? They're now cliffs.
LAMALFA: So I - is that good or bad, I don't know. But - so the dairy issue is very real, because the farm bill reverts back to the 1949 law that I don't think anybody can live with it the way it is. So we have that, immediately, to work on, and so I think that kind of experience and background will be helpful. But, you know, we all have to learn new things in this role here and make the best possible decisions and listen to the people that actually deal with them in the district or nationally. They can inform us. We don't know what all this because we got elected or something, you know?
CONAN: Doug LaMalfa, he's a representative-elect in California's first district, as he mentioned. Also with us representatives-elect Kyrsten Sinema, who's from Arizona's ninth district, and Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who represents New Mexico's first district. Of course, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us, as he is every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wanted to ask you, Michelle Lujan Grisham, you come from - is your family going to have a monopoly on all the political offices there in New Mexico?
GRISHAM: Well, wouldn't that would be nice for problem solving in New Mexico?
CONAN: We've been to, you know, Thanksgiving dinner might suggest otherwise but go ahead.
GRISHAM: There you go. We - and here's the hard part that is in all these New Mexico families - my family has been there for 400 years and got those origins. We're all related in some way. Interestingly enough, my colleague, Ben Ray Lujan, we are cousins, if you go back, you know, 10 times removed.
CONAN: The same way the queen of England and me are cousins.
GRISHAM: The reality is I am a much closer cousin to the former Republican member, Manual Lujan, who was actually in the district, in the seat that I now hold. And I...
RUDIN: And in the Bush cabinet.
GRISHAM: And in the Bush cabinet. So poor Ben Ray. I think he'd like to stop that rumor that we're cousins. But it's nice that...
SINEMA: He's a lot taller though.
GRISHAM: True. He's got two inches on me, so he's hugely taller.
CONAN: And you are also a member of the Agriculture Committee as we heard. What else are you going to be doing?
GRISHAM: Well, the other thing about the Agricultural Committee - I mean, New Mexico has got large dairy farming. We've got large agricultural interests. We have problems with water. We do specialty farming. But this is also rural economic development, and I represent a district that - well, the heart of the district is the urban area, Albuquerque, urban center of New Mexico. There are lots of rural communities surrounding my district, and it's where we deal with school nutrition and food security. And New Mexico is one of the states, unfortunately, that's leads the nation in hunger for families. And I think that I can absolutely make an impact to make sure that we're dealing with those issues as well.
CONAN: Kyrsten Sinema, is there one issue you're going to be focusing on?
SINEMA: Well, the number issue, I think, that Arizonians are facing, as I mentioned earlier, is the issue on mortgages and foreclosures. And Arizonians are struggling to find jobs, keep jobs. And they're very concerned that if they're not able to keep their job or a find job, that they'll lose their homes. And as you know, we are losing homes at a very high rate, still, in the Arizona. So I think the top issue is, really, a combination of both job creation and, of course, protecting hardworking middle-class families who want to keep their homes, who've stay in them for a long time, and helping them have the ability to do so.
And I'm really happy that I was assigned to the Financial Services committee. That committee, of course, is the committee that makes the determinations around mortgages lending and the finance industry. So I'm hoping to really make sure we put in some strong, consumer protections and help families like my own, that struggled many years ago.
RUDIN: I'm watching the two of you and, of course, I don't have the advantage of seeing Mr. LaMalfa here.
RUDIN: But I assume the three of you are all smiling and optimistic. How long does that optimism last? I mean, when do you say, oh, my goodness. What did I get myself into? Right now, you seemed to be smiling. Will you go guys come back again and share your experiences and say how you've done in...
SINEMA: Well, Ken, I served seven years in the Arizona State Legislature. I smiled through all that, I'm sure we'll be fine in Congress.
RUDIN: You probably had a good sense of Yuma.
SINEMA: I do.
CONAN: He's used that joke before - badly.
SINEMA: Got me trouble sometimes.
RUDIN: Yuma is a city in...
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. She knows that.
CONAN: Yeah, yeah.
SINEMA: Yes, it is. I didn't represent Yuma though.
RUDIN: Yeah, I know. But - so the joke doesn't work.
GRISHAM: Well, I did 17 years in state governments, served in the executive of both Republican and Democratic governors, and joined a very effective bipartisan environment and got a lot of great work done. And I think the - sure, you have the days that were much tougher than others. And we had an anemic, really difficult economy in the '90s. I'm - I have always remained optimistic. So I'd love to come back and share that enthusiasm with you.
CONAN: Doug LaMalfa, the last 30 seconds is for you.
LAMALFA: You know, I still believe in the American system here, that if people or one of the citizen legislators do what is right and what the founders had in mind, then this process can work. And so, that's where my faith lies in this and that's what I intend to do here. We've got huge issues coming up right away, both the national level and district level, that if you just play common sense to it and remember the people's rights of their own self-determinations, instead of government control over everything, I think we can get back and do things just as well as we did many years ago.
SINEMA: Getting there.
CONAN: And if it doesn't work, we're going to blame you three.
CONAN: We'll be back in a minute with winners and loser from the fiscal cliff. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
RUDIN: With the late-night passage of a deal by the House, the political battle over the fiscal cliff takes a break, at least for the moment. And from the nearly interminable negotiations, winners and losers emerged. On the heels of the deal, President Obama offered his gratitude to several key players.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In particular, I want to thank the work that was done by my extraordinary Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Boehner and Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. Everybody worked very hard on this, and I appreciate it. And, Joe, once again, I want to thank you for your great work.
CONAN: So we want to hear from you. Who do you think came out as a winner in the fiscal cliff negotiations? Who didn't do so well? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Twitter @totn.
And, Ken, it sounds like Vice President Joe Biden came out with some plaudits from all sides.
RUDIN: Absolutely. It seems like if you look at Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, the two leaders, the Republican and Democratic leaders, respectively, in the Senate, McConnell didn't trust Reid. A lot of Republicans didn't like Reid. There was his famous quote that we can't repeat over the air when Speaker Boehner ran into Harry Reid at...
CONAN: Just outside the Oval Office.
RUDIN: Words you don't often hear at the Oval Office. But anyway, McConnell basically suggested, well, look, I've known Joe Biden for many years. We've served in the Senate together for decades. It seemed like it wouldn't have happened without the two of them. Certainly, both sides do credit Joe Biden.
CONAN: And Mitch McConnell comes out as somebody who's able to make a deal and then deliver.
RUDIN: That's true. And, of course, we could talk about the political ramifications of it later. Remember, his fellow Kentucky Republican, Rand Paul, was one of the five Republicans who voted against it in the Senate. And who knows if there's going to be a primary challenge to Mitch McConnell. And you never know whether there's going to be a challenge to John Boehner tomorrow. But at least right now...
CONAN: And the election of the - for...
RUDIN: Speaker of the House, exactly. But you - for at least for right now, Mitch McConnell made it happened.
CONAN: And then you go to the House side, and the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, well, Plan B crashed and burned. He punted to the Senate, and then it seems like a lot of the objections yesterday in the House of Representatives, from his fellow Republicans, where, hey, we didn't have a voice in this negotiation.
RUDIN: No. And they say they didn't have a voice. But even if they knew that they had a concede, give in on taxes because after all, President Obama did win re-election and one of his promises was to raise tax rates on the wealthy, but they didn't get the promised spending cuts. And they're furious that their speaker who was willing to exceed - to a deal that it didn't include those spending cuts.
CONAN: And the speaker had also made a promise that, well, he would agree to an up or down vote. The Republicans eventually decided they did not have the votes to parry - to amend the Senate bill, which would effectively kill it. And he then brought it up for an up or down vote in the House, knowing he would not get the majority of his own party to support it.
RUDIN: He hated the fact that it would pass with Democratic votes. And we've said this about Speaker Boehner from the beginning, that his problem was never so much the Democratic opposition, it was trying to rein in or at least somehow work with these Tea Party folks who were elected in 2010. And for the most part, they were not on his side. Certainly, Neal, the two to one majority Republicans voted against the bill yesterday, in opposition to the speaker.
CONAN: But the Tea Party caucus, that's only, what, 50, 60 people. A lot more Republicans voted against than that.
RUDIN: Well, I mean, you could say how many members of the Tea Party caucus there are. But the point is, there are a lot of Republicans who just said they're just not happy with the way things are going. And if you're talking about the number of votes, 85 Republicans, including Speaker Boehner, voted for it. 151 Republicans voted against it. That's - I think there's far more Tea Party Republicans just the 50 or 60 in the official caucus.
CONAN: You mentioned earlier that two other members of the Republican leadership were among those voting no. That was the majority leader Eric Cantor and the number three position, Mr. McCarthy from California. Interesting, the chairman of the budget committee voted with the speaker and those voting yes.
RUDIN: Yes, Neal. Of course, we're talking about Mr. Paul Ryan who may have some higher office designs in mind. And on the Senate side, it was interesting too. You talk about all the conservative, the big - the conservatives in the Senate. But Pat Toomey voted for it. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma voted for it. Jim DeMint, the very conservative senator from South Carolina, didn't even vote one way or the other. So for all the opposition we thought would be from conservatives, you didn't see that opposition in the Senate.
CONAN: A couple of other names. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, well, the minority in the House of Representatives (unintelligible) play a big part.
RUDIN: No, this is not a criticism about Nancy Pelosi. It is just the way the House is done, this absolute rule when you have the majority in the House. And so Nancy Pelosi, being the leader of the minority, didn't have really much of a say, whereas in the Senate, both - I mean, nobody controls the Senate unless you have 60 votes. And therefore, McConnell had a much outsized role, even though he leads the minority.
CONAN: And one other name, that is President Barack Obama.
RUDIN: Well, he campaigned on it. You know, he could've gloated. There are a lot of folks on the left who said that he gave in too much to the Republicans, that he could've insisted on a much higher tax rate for the Republicans. After all, now the Bush tax cuts are permanent for those making under $400,000. But that's something that Republicans were pushing for years, and President Obama said, uh-uh, not on my watch. And yet this bill basically solidified, cemented the Bush tax cuts. So for all, yes, President Obama did get what he wanted. He would rather have a deal than have - go over the cliff. But at the same time, Republicans got more than they - I think they got more than they are admitting that they got.
CONAN: Well, they - the Democrats did also get a one-year extension of the unemployment benefits. That was important to the Democrats as well. And there were some other credits in there for, well, what are perceived as Democratic causes like subsidies for alternative energy, that sort of thing.
RUDIN: But as we said earlier in the show, I mean, yes, we think that we could all breathe a sigh of relief now and all the drama and all the trauma is over but may not be over because we may go through this exact same thing when the debt ceiling limit comes up in the end of February and throughout the year. I mean, again, I think of our three previous guests, the optimistic freshmen and the members in the incoming Congress. I just want to see how optimistic they can stay for how long.
CONAN: Well, we want to hear from you. Who won? Who lost in these negotiations? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. We'll start with Patrick, and Patrick's with us from Avondale in Arizona.
PATRICK: Hi there. You're talking about winners and losers, but I don't think there are any gold medals being handed out over this issue. At best, I think that both the Republicans and Democrats and especially the American people are getting a thanks-for-trying ribbon because the fact that it took the, you know, tumbling - practically tumbling over the edge of this fiscal cliff to actually get some kind of resolution show - it wasn't even, you know, nobody's cheering. Nobody's saying, yay, we did it. No, you know, or no, they took away from us. It seems everybody is kind of grumbling about what has been achieved. And the fact that it took us going to the very edge to even get a hesitant and almost unwelcomed resolution shows, I think, how entrenched both sides are in, well, we need to have this and we - and not even we need to have these things, but we can't let the other side have this or that.
CONAN: Patrick's point is they were fighting over, well, what seemed like, at the end, small beer. The big issues on spending cuts, Ken, those all remain to be resolved.
RUDIN: That's true. But Patrick is also making another point that we knew this date was coming for 17 months. It was Congress itself that put in this self-imposed deadline of the fiscal cliff. So we knew it was coming, and to wait for the final hours, the final minutes to get something done, you wonder why - who are those 13 percent who have a high regard of Congress?
CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much for the call.
PATRICK: Thank you too. I hope to hear you guys on the air for a lot longer.
CONAN: We do too. Let's go next to - this is Larry. Larry with us from Tucson.
LARRY: Hi there. I think the winner really is the American people because we didn't wind up losing a lot of things. It would've been absolutely unbearable if a million plus people lost their jobs because a bunch of idiots in Washington can't take and agree on anything. And the loser in this was Congress because bottom line is we're going to keep beating them over the head and voicing our outrage until they learn that they need to have common sense. And I encourage everybody listening - you now what, if you don't pick up the phone and send emails, these idiots aren't going to get the message. We need to be loud and vocal because we're going to repeat the same thing in a couple of months.
CONAN: You're right.
LARRY: Everybody is sick of it.
CONAN: You're right. We're going to be on another cliff. Well, hopefully we'll come up with a better metaphor than that. But we're going to be at another precipice, let's put it that way, in a couple of months. But the American people - he's also right because sequestration has been extended for a couple of months before it would set in. The people who would be - have lost their jobs, maybe 800,000 people, they're still working. And those people who are on unemployment extensions, they will get a check next week.
RUDIN: And then you go back to the re-election rates of this bunch of idiots who run for Congress every two years, they get overwhelmingly re-elected. And when there is an opportunity for a third party or an alternative party to come fruition in 2012, nobody stepped forward, nobody wanted to come up with the money or the candidates to do it. So for all the opposition, for all the head wringing of what's going on and handwringing of what's going on, there seems to be no alternative to the system that we have now and to these players.
CONAN: Larry, thanks very much. Here's an email we have from Don(ph): When you speak of winners and losers, shouldn't you at least make some mention of the numerous subsidies for corporate America which were included. And, Ken, there was a lot of pork in this bill that was passed first by the Senate, and then by the House last night.
RUDIN: Well, when we - if you think of what the original goal was, it was to either put some kind of a handle on the entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, to pair down the debt to improve the economy. Did anything happen? I mean, everybody agrees that this thing that we've passed basically raises the deficit. I mean, it doesn't shrink the deficit at all. So all the things they were supposed to accomplish, what did it accomplished, except for the fact that the markets are satisfied.
CONAN: And since the Social Security payroll tax holiday is now officially over with the end of the holiday yesterday, well, everybody's taxes go up 2 percent if you're earning an income.
Here's a tweet from Eric Levinson(ph): The American people are the losers. The fiscal cliff has been averted by the most confused runaround since the Keystone Cops.
And this tweet from Grant Homark(ph): Biggest winner: Biden. The Senate and the White House won too. The House looked like children throwing a tantrum then caving.
Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us as he is every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Dan, Dan with us from Womelsdorf in Pennsylvania.
DAN: Well, you did that very well.
CONAN: Thank you.
DAN: I think President Obama lost. I think he lost on two counts, actually, three: The (unintelligible) limit, the Social Security gift that we all (unintelligible) them for the 2 percent gift and also, I think they should've raised the amount of Social Security that gets taxed. I mean right now, it's what, $130,000?
CONAN: I think it's $115,000. But you could be right.
DAN: Yeah, I mean, they should raise that up a lot more. I mean, it's ridiculous. So you're asking the little people to pay a lot more and given breaks. Calling $400,000 as the middle class is ludicrous.
CONAN: Well, Dan echoes a point that other Democrats have made, Ken Rudin. The president will never have more leverage than he had, well, until he agreed to sign that bill last night.
RUDIN: Right. And he could've taken advantage of it. Of course, we talk about how elections have consequences, and for the longest time, as he was campaigning, President Obama said, my line is one we will not - we're going to get rid of the Bush tax cuts and incomes over $250,000 will be taxed. He made a major concession to move it up to 400,000 - 450,000 for couples. So for all the victories that President Obama did get, and I think he did win. I mean, if we talk about winners and losers, yes, he did win because he wanted - he ultimately got what he wanted. There's so much - many Democrats say he could've gotten much more of and didn't take advantage of it.
CONAN: Dan, thanks.
DAN: You're welcome. Bye.
CONAN: Let's go next to Mike, Mike with us from Ames, Iowa.
MIKE: Well, I think that the House Republicans were the winners. I think they were handed a victory by the House Democrats because they were saved from being blamed for a huge economic disruption.
CONAN: That's a point, Ken. The House Democrats did not have to vote for this bill. Vice President Biden was there yesterday afternoon rallying them in favor of it. But they could've put a very embarrassing defeat on Speaker Boehner.
RUDIN: Yeah, I wonder about - I've been thinking about that. I wonder about all the Republican who say I can't believe we got this or we didn't get this and we didn't get that. Ultimately, they got more than one would've have thought after election result the way we saw in 2012. So I'm just wondering if the Republicans really know that they got more than they expected. But they're not just saying it.
CONAN: Mike, do you think Democrats would've taken the blame if they voted against it?
MIKE: I think if they had - if the numbers had been fairly close, no.
MIKE: They have voted. There's a block against it. They would've shared the blame.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
RUDIN: And we know that the Tea Party folks are complaining about - saying they were really the losers. But ultimately, most of the Tea Party folks voted with the Tea Party position on it saying...
CONAN: Yeah, but they got a bill that raises taxes, has no spending cuts and has lots of that corporate pork in it.
RUDIN: Yeah. Well, they didn't get the ultimate result. But they voted - but their members voted the way the Tea Party - whatever the Tea Party is - wanted them to vote.
CONAN: Yeah. A couple of the senators, any of them, Rand Paul or Jim DeMint on his way out of the Senate. They could've blocked that measure in the Senate. One vote would've held that vote and it would not have passed.
RUDIN: It's interesting the fact how close it was in the House relatively, and yet it was 89 to 8 in the Senate.
CONAN: Let's go to Katherine(ph), Katherine on the line from Berkley.
KATHERINE: Oh, hi. It's my first time ever on TALK OF THE NATION.
CONAN: Well, congratulations.
KATHERINE: Thanks. I think it was a win for the whole country. I think it was wonderful. We were able to avoid going over that cliff. But I am concerned about the effect on the poor of the payroll tax having been eliminated because I was looking in The New York Times today, and it says that those people earning an average of - no, excuse me, 11 - around $11,000, this is the people, the bottom 20 percent of the population. Their average income of around 11,000, they're going to be paying $120 more taxes. And for people who are barely making ends meet, that's going to be a big chunk, you know, maybe it means that won't be able to earn a little bit less - have a little bit less money for food or whatever. But $120 is a lot if you only earn less than thousand dollars a month.
CONAN: And those numbers are important to remember. Katherine, thanks for reminding us.
KATHERINE: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Ken, as we move ahead, the next battle is looming already. How soon are we - well, there's tomorrow a day of official celebration, inauguration coming up and then the State of the Union message. I guess, after that, we're going to settle in to the next fight over the debt ceiling.
RUDIN: Yes. And there's going to be politics as usual. Of course, the president said that if we don't pass this thing, if we didn't pass this thing, I would've used my State of the Union message. I would've used my inaugural address. I would've gone to the American people saying, this is intolerable. But the American people can't be fooled thinking that everything is now, you know, peaches and herb.
RUDIN: Which were peaches and cream in the fact that there's a lot of still things - still contentious things that they're going to be battling over. And this good feeling of today is going to be a distant memory. I'm sure of it.
CONAN: Well, in the meantime, we can celebrate the stock market up 221 points at last glance. Ken Rudin will be back with us next Wednesday. Don't forget, Wednesday, the 16th, the Political Junkie road show here in Washington, D.C. If you'd like to attend the event and buy a ticket, send us an email with Junkie road show in the subject line. The address, of course, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm, Neal Conan. Ken Rudin is with us every Wednesday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.