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Monday, August 19, 2013

Back From Vacation, Obama Has Full Plate

President Barack Obama, second from left, Sasha Obama, and first lady Michelle Obama, are greeted as they exit Air Force One on arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Sunday Aug. 18, 2013, after a family vacation on the island of Martha's Vineyard. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

President Barack Obama, second from left, Sasha Obama, and first lady Michelle Obama, are greeted as they exit Air Force One on arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Sunday Aug. 18, 2013, after a family vacation on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Republican National Committee convened its annual summer meeting last week, where they voted to boycott any CNN or NBC-hosted presidential debate.

And Senator McCain took to the airwaves to criticize the Obama administration’s strategy in Egypt.

NPR’s senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us for a preview of this week in politics.




It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti in for Robin Young. Congress is in recess. The president just wrapped up a vacation, but politics do not take a break, as proved by continued violence in Egypt and ongoing controversy over the NSA's surveillance program. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving doesn't take a break either. He joins us now. Ron, welcome.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Great to have you, Ron. So many of these issues that President Obama is facing after returning from his vacation, they do seem intractable, you know, everything from Egypt to immigration. So let's start with Egypt. We've heard Senator John McCain saying that over the weekend the United States has, quote, "no credibility in the Middle East." What option does President - or options does President Obama have?

ELVING: What we lack as a United States government at this point most in the Middle East is meaningful leverage. The president has the option of cutting off aid in recognition of the legislation that created the aid in the first place, saying that it could not continue if we determined that the government was in power by coup d'etat. And what we have seen in recent weeks is very difficult to describe in any terms other than a military coup d'etat. So there is leverage there for the president if he wants to use it.

Over the weekend we learned that the State Department has already cut off $250 million in economic aid that was on the books and flowing to Egypt. But a lot of that was training programs in the United States, not something that's going to have an immediate impact, really more of a symbolic gesture and something the State Department said it did to comply with the possibility that this will eventually be officially deemed a coup. Now, there's another $585 million in military aid still in the pipeline that the president could cut off, but a lot of people are urging him not to do that because it is the last remaining, if you will, leverage that we have on the Egyptian military. That's clearly pushing its way around in Cairo right now. Israel, for example, is urging that we not cut that off. So it is a complicated question for the White House.

CHAKRABARTI: For the White House. And what about for Congress? I mean if the White House were to make that move, would Congress support cutting off aid with a vote?

ELVING: There's a growing chorus in Congress that is distressed, of course, dismayed at what it sees on television happening in Egypt. And the easiest response to that is to say, well, we can't continue to support this military. We can't send them airplane parts and tank parts when they're using the military equipment in this manner. As you said, John McCain, the senator from Arizona, has taken that position. But there are also still a great number of Republicans who are reluctant for the United States to cut off what line of communication it has with the Egyptian, if you will, ruling regime of the moment, and that includes a lot of supporters of Israel. So it remains a difficult question for Congress as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Ron, let's move on to the ongoing controversy over the National Security Agency's surveillance program. That is still reverberating across Washington, and the world, in fact. Just last week, The Washington Post reported that the NSA violated its own privacy rules thousands of times, but it's not going to stop collecting data. So where does the debate go from here?

ELVING: That Washington report, of course, in The Washington Post was based on a leak from a former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the man who's now living in Moscow. The Post took some time vetting that report and verifying it and then published it, 2,772 instances of violations found by this audit internally within the NSA for a 12-month period before the audit. So clearly a lot of mistakes were being made, some of them unintentional, others seemed to be pushing the envelope and eventually getting struck down by the courts that oversee this operation.

Clearly, a consensus is building that this is a program that's been on way too long a leash. The courts that have been overseeing the operation have not been able to do so effectively, at least not prospectively. They have only been able to come along retroactively and say, no, you can't do that, or this particular aspect of what you're doing goes too far. There's going to be legislation coming out of the House and Senate. Those two bills will be hard to reconcile.

The president eventually will have to put forward some reforms to try to reign in the NSA program, and we'll see if those are enough to satisfy critics. It seems unlikely that they will.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Ron, let's talk about Congress for a moment, because it is in recess, and that means that members in both the House and Senate have traveled back to their districts to hear from constituents, and immigration is the hot topic in many of those districts. We're seeing a report in The New York Times that says that Senator John McCain of Arizona has spent his time back in his home state trying to pressure his congressional delegation to get behind the bipartisan immigration bill. There's a big question about whether or not that bill is going to move forward. So what can we expect to see when Congress returns?

ELVING: Interesting to see that, in this case, Senator McCain and the president are on he same page. They both want to see this path to citizenship move forward as part of a comprehensive bill. Most of the Republican Party in the House, most of the Republican Party in the Senate is not onboard for that. And that is enormously important to these individual Republicans who would have to vote or it in the House.

One of the topics that has been really hot, as you say, in the town halls has been opposition to that path to citizenship in the Republican town halls. So some Republicans are saying - for example, Paul Ryan who was the vice presidential nominee last year - is saying we will have a vote in the House in October on the immigration package with the pathway to citizenship. But not everyone believes that there's going to be that majority among the House Republicans that it would take to get that bill to the floor. So I wouldn't bet on it. I don't think it's going to happen this fall.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Ron, finally, the summertime allows the parties to sort of regroup and look forward, and the Republican National Committee was evaluating its message and its future at the - at its annual summer meeting. This year, it was held in Boston. Why was this year's meeting particularly significant?

ELVING: Well, in a salute, of course, to your home city there in Boston, we would say any meeting there would be significant. But they were hoping this would be a triumph for the newly elected President Mitt Romney. Didn't happen that way, and that Massachusetts former governor did not win. That was one thing they hoped for. The other thing they thought might happen here that also is not happening is the reexamination of the party's relationship with Hispanic voters, with women voters, with minority voters in general and with younger voters.

That was supposed to be a big thrust for this meeting this summer. But instead, the dominant mood at this meeting was quite different, and it had to do with satisfying some of this energy that is so evident within the rank-and-file and the base of the Republican Party these days that seems to be pushing in the other direction.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Ron, we've just got a couple of seconds ahead. There's a little bit about primary debates and uncertainty about that with the Republicans. Can you just give us a brief nut on that?

ELVING: Probably the best evidence of that mood I was just describing a moment ago is that they passed a resolution saying that they would not allow any of their presidential contenders in 2016 to participate in debates on CNN or NBC, because CNN is preparing a documentary on Hillary Clinton and NBC entertainment is preparing a miniseries on her life. They see that as advertising for the other side, and so they refuse to put their candidates on those television networks.

CHAKRABARTI: NPR's senior editor - Washington editor, Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: Stick with us. There's more HERE AND NOW in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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