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House Majority Whip Responds to Bush Address


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we'll hear from our money coach Alvin Hall about what to do if those rebate checks the White House and Congress are talking about actually make it to your mailbox. We'll also hear about the president's upcoming trip to Africa, and efforts to stem the violence in Kenya from a top State Department official.

But first, we want to talk about the president's speech last night. The president offered his last State of the Union address to the nation. It's a challenging moment for any president and certainly for one facing the twin challenges of a difficult war abroad and a struggling economy at home. Mr. Bush made sure to acknowledge those struggles in his speech last night.

President GEORGE BUSH: At kitchen tables across our country, there is a concern about our economic future. In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that, that growth is slowing.

MARTIN: Yesterday, we heard from White House Counsel Ed Gillespie about the president's speech. Today, we're going to hear from a leading Democratic leader, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina. We visit with him a few hours before the speech in his office at the Capitol. He'd already been briefed on the speech as is customary for congressional leaders. House Majority Whip Clyburn talked about President George W. Bush's legacy.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (House Majority Whip, Democrat, South Carolina): I think we come in to this final year of his presidency with all kinds of mixed messages about what may or may not be his legacy. He has got to be held responsible for what's happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and I don't want us to forget that, people tend to focus on Iraq and forget that we initially went into Afghanistan. We went there with all kinds of support from the Congress, only one vote against going there.

And now things look as if they're falling apart in Afghanistan, simply because we diverted our attention to Iraq. You got to look at what was and was not this administration's response to Katrina, Rita in the Gulf Coast. Now we see the economy beginning to tank. All of that is a part of his legacy and if that is, that's a legacy of incompetency.

MARTIN: I want to take those issues in turn. I'm going to talk about the economy in a minute. But I want to spend one more minute on Iraq. How do you think history will judge the Democrats' response to Mr. Bush's initiative in this area - hit the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan? How do you think history will view the Democrats' response to these initiatives of his?

Rep. CLYBURN: It all depends upon whether or not history's being written in a straightforward manner. It seems to me that the people who write the history will write that we, in several times, passed legislation to rein in the Bush policy in Iraq and he vetoed it, and we were never able to override the veto.

MARTIN: The Democrats, in your view, have never had the strength of numbers to provide really an effective opposition to President Bush?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, it all depends with - it is one thing to oppose and we do oppose. It's something else to put your opposition into law. And you can't get the opposition into law because we cannot override the veto.

MARTIN: Well, here's one area in which the Democratic Congress and the White House have been cooperating lately and that is in response to the economic turmoil that the country is now experiencing. Let's talk about the stimulus initiative that the House leadership has negotiated with President Bush.

The senators are now balking. Some of your Democratic colleagues in the Senate want to add extended unemployment benefits, increases in food stamps. Is this something you'd be willing to fight for? I know this is something that House members - some House members were also interested in, didn't make it into the final package. Do you think it's worth delaying the package if those changes could be made?

Rep. CLYBURN: I don't think so. I do believe that we're in a position to do something now and very quickly. I do believe that some things we could put in that will not engender a veto. So I would love to see the Senate go beyond what we did.

I was one of those who fought very hard for a summer jobs provision for $1 billion. We could create upwards of a million summer jobs for young people, 17 to 21 years old. That would put an immediate infusion of money into the workplace or the marketplace.

So I want to see that in here. I do believe that we ought to do something about food stamps and about extending the unemployment compensation. Now, the food stamps, I don't think, will be a deal breaker, and I don't think the summer jobs will be.

MARTIN: The White House's position seems to be, though, that the House leadership negotiated this package. It's up to the House leadership to sell it to the Senate.

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, we can go to the Senate with a for-sale sign, but we can't make them purchase. And I do feel that some of this, we wanted on our side. And if the Senate, can in fact, get 60 votes for some of this - or even get 68 votes for a veto override, I think we could do it.

MARTIN: I had a chance to talk to White House Counsel Ed Gillespie about the State of the Union a couple of hours before the speech was actually delivered, and I asked him why we haven't seen more packages like this. There are policy initiatives that both sides say are necessary, like, say, health insurance for children, right?

And yet, this is one of the very few times in this administration's history in the relationships with this Congress when the parties have gotten together to work a package - ahead of the rhetoric, as it were - and to take it to sort of both their sides to try to get achievement. And I asked him, you know, why haven't we seen more of this and he said, well, because the Democrats would rather have an issue than the legislation. What do you say to that?

Rep. CLYBURN: I say Ed knows better than that. The SCHIP package, remember, we presented to the president that which he asked for, yet, for some strange reason, he refused to sign the bill when we did exactly what he said he wanted to do. It is because, I think, this White House is locked in to some ideological timeframe or frames, that refuse to allow them to do, even what they campaign on.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're speaking with Democratic Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

One more question about this stimulus package, the failing housing market, the subprime mortgage crisis is clearly one of the causes of the economic worries in the country right now. I think the data is pretty clear that people of color were disproportionately affected by subprime mortgage failures.

The question becomes, does this package that's now on the table do anything to address that problem?

Rep. CLYBURN: Yeah. If you recall, it's a part of this package that deals with the GSEs that we dealt with for Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, that is to allow them to go in and rework these markets. It's something we already passed in the House. Now the reason nobody's talking about it a whole lot is because the bill passed the House but it hasn't passed the Senate.

MARTIN: But some city governments are saying that this was a matter of active discrimination, that some of these communities were actively targeted by predatory practices and that the products themselves are flawed. And that these communities were actively sought out for this purpose and that there's been a huge loss of wealth in minority communities as a result of this. I'd like to ask you, first of all, do you think that that is true?

Rep. CLYBURN: That is absolutely true. And, look, this is something that I had been harping on for four or five years - not just the lending practices in the housing market, but also on the consumer - other consumer ends as well. So the subprime deal has got a whole lot to do with some of these other payday lenders that are plaguing many of our communities.

MARTIN: But if that's the case, who is being held account for that, and how is that going to be accomplished?

Rep. CLYBURN: Oh, this administration is held account for it. I think this administration allowed certain practices, the lack of oversight, and this has been a laissez-faire administration when it comes to trying to protect people who are vulnerable in our society.

MARTIN: But it really sounds as though you don't feel that any real - there really can't be any redress until after the election. Is that what you're saying - if that is the case?

Rep. CLYBURN: And that's what I think.

MARTIN: We talked about this last week when you were kind enough to visit with us when we were down in South Carolina. But are you concerned that this contest is starting to divide the party along racial lines?

Rep. CLYBURN: I was very concerned about that. I do believe, though, that much of the part of leadership - national party leadership - now see that this cannot be allowed to continue. I spoke to all parties concerned before the elections in South Carolina, asking people to chill out, so to speak. And it seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.

I know that Rahm Emanuel, who is from Illinois, spoke with ex-president Clinton, asking him to tone down. And then Senator Kennedy is reported to have spoken to him in heated terms about some of the rhetoric.

I think that is why Senator Kennedy has gotten actively involved in the Obama campaign because he sees that young people are now coming back into this process. And I'm very concerned that the old geezers do not stand in the way. And I count myself as one of those old geezers, and that's one of the reasons I think that we must be very, very careful that we don't make this nomination worthless. And I said to President Clinton every time I spoke to him about this - we need to be very, very careful about this.

MARTIN: What does he say when you say that?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, he said he thought it was all behind us. But he hasn't done much to put it behind us.

MARTIN: Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina is the House Majority whip. He joined us from his office at the Capitol.

And now, we'd like you to tell us more about your reaction to the president's final State of the Union address. What did you think about his plans for the economy, the war in Iraq and education? Let us know. You can go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.