August 13th, 2014
Guest: Jonathan Weisman
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. There was some heavy drama in Washington a couple of weeks ago as Republican leaders in the House of Representatives battled with members of their own party over what, if anything, to do about the humanitarian crisis posed by tens of thousands of migrant children at the border with Mexico. In the end the House passed a measure certain to die in the Democratically-controlled Senate and Congress left for a five-week recess with nothing accomplished on the issue. Meanwhile in the Senate, partisan battles have left that body unable to get much done either. We've invited New York Times congressional correspondent Jonathan Weisman back to give us a read on what's happening and what's not happening in Congress and what to expect as we move toward the midterm election. Jonathan Weisman also contributes to The Times' politics and government blog, "The Caucus."
Jonathan Weisman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You wrote recently that this Congress is headed toward being one of the least productive and most divided in history. How do we measure that?
JONATHAN WEISMAN: Well, most traditionally you would measure congressional productivity by the number of laws actually approved by the House and the Senate and signed by the president of the United States. And in this measurement, we are right now just a little bit less productive than the last Congress and the last Congress was the least productive in history. So we are now on track to be - this Congress will be - the least productive on that measurement in history. But if you do other measurements by, let's say, looking at the big issues of the day and whether Congress actually dealt with the big issues of the day, this Congress again looks like it is on track to be the least productive in history. Even in days in session, this Congress looks to be the least productive in history. This is a Congress that really is doing nothing.
DAVIES: OK. Well, that's inspiring way to get us started.
DAVIES: This term ended with some fireworks over immigration bills. First let's just look at the broad outlines of the immigration issue in Congress. You know, a year ago there was a lot of optimism that we were going to see comprehensive immigration reform. The president wanted it, Republicans interested in appealing to Hispanics wanted it. Why did the momentum for that fall apart?
WEISMAN: Well, as you stated, remember, after the 2012 election there was a postmortem done by the Republican National Committee and the one thing that everyone agreed on is that Republicans need to get behind some kind of comprehensive overhaul of the immigration laws if they are to compete in the presidential elections and compete for the demographics that are growing fastest. Not just Latinos and Hispanics but first-generation, second-generation immigrants, more broadly. And that - the party elders set out do that - remember the Senate actually, last year, passed a comprehensive immigration bill that was bipartisan. It didn't have the majority of Republicans, but it had a lot of Republicans on board and there was a sense that the momentum would carry it in the house.
I was never convinced and ultimately what happened was - although House speaker John Boehner wanted to do this, he was on board, he did not want to expose the kind of, fissures that were in the Republican conference. He didn't want to turn to Democrats to shoulder the load and didn't want to have the kind of virulent, anti- immigration sentiment that would surely surface if this bill, or series of bills, got to the floor of the House. And that's why, ultimately, he tried to put it in deep freeze. That plan became a cropper (ph) really, when there was this flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America coming to the border in Texas. And suddenly there was a need to do something on immigration, if only to get enough money to the border - to the border patrol and the immigration service - to deal with this influx.
DAVIES: And the president wanted money to deal with the humanitarian crisis and there were some policy initiatives he had in mind. And speaker Boehner did try to get consensus around a bill, right? What did he want to do?
WEISMAN: Exactly. Well, what he - the president asked for an enormous amount of money; $3.7 billion. The speaker said, forget it - you're not going to get that much money. We'll give you a smaller installment to get you through the next few months and then you can come back. We'll try to do this as part of the ordinary appropriations process, spending bill process.
And he was going to put that on the floor. He knew he had to do something to appease his right-wing. So the bill he was going to bring to the floor had a smaller amount of money - in the hundreds of millions of dollars, not the billions - and it had a change in policy reflecting a change in the 2008 law.
Now let me explain this 2008 law. There was a law that passed in 2008, it was actually in response to concerns about human trafficking, sex trafficking, actually, human slavery trafficking from Central America. And it gave certain rights to minor immigrants, not coming from Mexico or Canada, but other countries - primarily Central America here - to give them more access to U.S. courts to plead their case; that they were actually fleeing persecution. And this law was signed into law - passed overwhelmingly in Congress - huge bipartisan majorities - and no one really took much notice of it. But the coyotes - the human traffickers bringing kids up from Central America - they were aware that this law was there and suddenly they started pitching it - look, if you get to the border you're going to have to have a hearing, you're going to get to plead your case. Come on, let's do it.
And the Republicans wanted to change that 2008 law to make it that Central American kids would have no special treatment; they would just be treated the same way Mexican kids were. At first the Democrats and the White House were amenable to that, but then they realized, no, we're not going to sit and pass - the only immigration law that passes Congress actually makes it harder for kids to come here. So the Democrats united against it and John Boehner found himself very isolated when he actually brought this bill to the floor.
DAVIES: As things unfolded, we found some of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus - Michele Bachmann and Steve King of Iowa - drafting the legislation. How did that happen?
WEISMAN: The speaker and the leadership of the House thought they had the votes for a slimmed-down spending bill to help the border patrol and to change the rules for unaccompanied kids showing up at the border. They were going to just take it to floor, have this vote, go home, say - we did it. And suddenly they realized on the Thursday before they were leaving session, they didn't have the votes. And they sent out what's called a whip notice, an email to every member of Congress saying, you know what, forget it. Just go home. We're done for the week. We're done for the month. See you in September.
A bunch of members jumped into their, you know, chauffeured cars and headed out to the airports around D.C. and were heading home, but then there was this huge human cry from the bulk of the House Republican Conference saying, no way - I can't go home without having something to present to my voters and said, look we did something about this border crisis.
So then bizarrely, they sent out another notice, saying, we're not a promising anything but please come back. We're going to have a meeting in the basement of the Capitol, 4 o'clock. Let's all hash this out.
So they straggle in. A lot of them are in their street clothes now, they've shed their suits. They go down to this meeting and one by one, about 50 of them get to the microphones and say, we have to stay here until we get a bill through. We will not leave until we get something done on this border crisis.
And that's when they turned to the far right - the right-wing that was balking - and said, what do you need? Let's have another meeting.
And they went across the hall to another conference room in the basement of the House, sat down with Steve King, and this guy Raul Labrador from Idaho, and Michele Bachmann, and another very conservative member from Alabama, Mo Brooks, and said, what do you need? And they hashed over the changes to both the spending bill and a separate bill on the president's executive order on young illegal immigrants and they said, do we have your approval? Yes, we do.
Michele Bachmann and Steve King; not the emissaries that you want to your Latino voters, started tweeting out pictures of themselves, saying, look here we are approving the bills for a vote. We're all for it.
And Michele Bachmann went to reporters and said, this is great. We gutted the Speaker's bill. And then they went to the floor of the House on Friday and passed it and all went home.
DAVIES: So speaker Boehner because he couldn't get the votes for a more moderate measure and because his members insist they have to vote on something, says, well, the only thing that we're going to pass with Republicans is something that the conservatives approve.
WEISMAN: That's right. I mean, I think his calculation was, nobody will know the details of these bills; they just need to be able to go home and say we did something to confront the influx of unaccompanied minors at the border.
And he's right, for his members. His problem is that among Hispanic, Latino voters, immigrant voters, I think that they will know the details of these bills.
DAVIES: And Texas Senator Ted Cruz played a role here, right? What happened?
WEISMAN: Ted Cruz has become a very interesting addition to the United States Senate. He doesn't respect boundaries, let's just say.
This happened, of course, in the run-up to the government shutdown last October when Ted Cruz began having these meetings in a little Mexican eatery just off Capitol Hill called Tortilla Coast and he started meeting with very conservative House members and kind of rallying the troops. In that case, he was rallying them to say, we will not pass any spending measure to fund the federal government unless it kills Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. And by rallying what became known as the Tortilla Coast Caucus, he shut down the government.
You know, the Republican leadership was really angry at Ted Cruz and they said it too; it was not a surreptitious thing. They were out, really blasting away and he kind of quieted down. But in the run-up to this immigration confrontation on the House floor, again, Ted Cruz met with a group of conservative House members and told them, vote no on anything - do not let this bill go through unless it really reflects conservative priorities.
And again, Ted Cruz showed the sway that he holds and his willingness to go to the other side of the Capitol. This is just usually not done. The House does its thing, the Senate does its thing. They don't try to influence each other like this.
DAVIES: Jonathan Weisman is a congressional correspondent for The New York Times. We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with The New York Times congressional correspondent Jonathan Weisman. We were talking about the frantic efforts of House Republican leaders to come up with a bill to deal with the crisis of migrant children along the Mexican border before Congress's summer recess. When Speaker John Boehner found conservatives were prepared to block any bill that didn't reflect their priorities, he let the House's most conservative members write the legislation. All right, so the conservatives ended up crafting the legislation. What did it provide?
WEISMAN: So what the changes that they made were - they made it even more difficult for unaccompanied minor immigrants to get a day in court before an immigration judge. They set up a process that would basically make sure that most children who came to the border would not be brought into the United States to await a hearing before an immigration judge. That was one change. And then, the other change was in - to the president's executive order for illegal immigrants brought into the each country as children, so-called dreamers. That executive order, passed right before the 2012 election, has been, obviously, very controversial in very conservative Republican circles, although it's very popular among Latino voters. And actually, a lot of Republicans have kind of looked the other way because they understand it's really something to take these kids on. These are kids that basically were raised in the United States. They didn't - they came over into the country not of their own volition. They were brought over by an adult, probably their parents, and they're stuck here. They don't even speak Spanish. So the change that, really, Michele Bachmann and Steve King demanded, was that this executive order be phased out, that it cannot be expanded to other types of illegal immigrants and that anyone who has not actually received their deferred deportation order through this executive action will not be able to seek one, either.
DAVIES: So that was a bill that was obviously going to go nowhere in the Senate should it pass the House. What happened?
DAVIES: What happened in the House?
WEISMAN: That was the odd thing. This was all really for show. Many House members, the majority of House Republicans, wanted to be able to go home over their August recess and say, well, we did something to confront this crisis at the border. But it wasn't going to become law. There's no way it would pass the Senate. Even if it did, there was no way President Obama was going to sign it. So in order to just be able to say, we did something, they did something that probably will have very negative long-term political impacts because, you know, these are the kind of things that on English-language media, you know, they come; they go. They've probably already been forgotte. But you know what? On Spanish television, Spanish radio, these aren't forgotten. They are kept. They are mulled over and over and over. And they will have an impact on the Latino vote. It's going to be very hard to get from under this, and it really was just for show.
DAVIES: Right. So the Republicans who seek to reach out to Hispanics, including presidential candidates, are probably harmed here. But a lot of the conservative members who voted for it don't have a lot of Hispanics in their districts and - what? - don't care.
WEISMAN: That is absolutely right. This is the conflicting political needs of a gerrymandered House of Representatives and the rest of the Republican Party. Republican senators who have to deal with an entire state, and certainly presidential candidates who have the broad U.S. electorate and a bigger electorate during presidential years, have a very different constituency than House Republicans, very, very few of whose districts actually have a large immigrant population or Latino population. So what was firstly not harmful to most Republican House members and helpful to many House Republican members will be harmful to their broader ambitions to take back control of the government.
DAVIES: The House passed a bill, before it left, authorizing a lawsuit against the president. What's that about?
WEISMAN: Yes, the House lawsuit against the president is basically saying that he has overstepped his bounds, his constitutional authority, with various decrees, executive orders, from the White House. This lawsuit is very narrowly tailored. It just points one executive decree, an executive order that delayed for a year the implementation of the employer mandate, which says that employers of a certain size, over fifty employees, must offer insurance to their - health insurance to their employees or face a penalty. A lot of employers said they just weren't ready to implement this, and the Obama administration said, OK, we'll give you another year. Now, you would think that Republicans liked that because they don't like employer mandates. But they chose this as their best legal authority. That's not really the story. This isn't a legal story. This is a story about House Speaker Boehner trying to respond to a clamor in the right to do something to limit - to clip the president's wings. Some people were talking about impeachment. Boehner does not want to impeach the president of the United States. He knows what happened when the Republicans tried to do that, or did do that, to Bill Clinton. So he was to let the air out of that impeachment balloon by suing him instead.
DAVIES: Does anybody think the suit will get anywhere?
WEISMAN: You know, I guess in this strange legal environment we live in, who knows? I mean, who really thought that some of these lawsuits against Affordable Care Act would get as far as they did? But let me just say, there was one hearing before the vote to sue the president. There was one hearing about this lawsuit. And the Republicans brought in a - brought in a law professor who said, yeah, I think you can probably make this happen. But earlier in the year, that same law professor had actually written an essay saying it's never going to work because Congress doesn't have standing, meaning Congress can't show that it was personally hurt by a delay in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. So chances are no, it doesn't. What President Obama would love is to have the case just simply dismissed out of hand. What John Boehner would like is that some judge says, yeah, you can go ahead with it. I don't think it's going to work, but just go ahead - because he would like to just have this meandering through the courts until President Obama leaves office.
DAVIES: Jonathan Weisman is a congressional correspondent for The New York Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New York Times congressional correspondent Jonathan Weisman about the partisan battles clogging up legislation in the House and Senate and about what to expect in the midterm election.
Jonathan Weisman also writes for the Times' government and politics blog, "The Caucus."
House majority leader Eric Cantor, who a lot of people thought stood to become the speaker some day - would have been the first Jewish speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives - was defeated in a stunning primary upset in June by a conservative tea party-backed candidate. First of all, why did he lose?
WEISMAN: You know, in politics there are very few real surprises but that was a very real surprise. I think I was shopping for anchovies at the time when I got the call that said, you better get to your computer.
WEISMAN: You know, Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio talk show host, latched onto the immigration issue and Cantor's support for some kind of action on immigration. And I think that that was something of a rallying cry, but in talking to people from his district, there really was a sense that Cantor had drifted away from the District. He was spending all of his time in Washington or raising money on Wall Street. He was really the Republican leadership's conduit to Wall Street and big business. And it was Shakespearean. Cantor, in some ways, had made himself the tea party's guy in the leadership. And he also helped draft new boundaries when they were gerrymandering the Virginia House districts, to make his district safer and more Republican. But in making his district more Republican he also made it more rural, more conservative and kind of out of step with him, culturally. And he didn't see this coming. No one saw it coming. It really was a shock.
DAVIES: And low turnout primaries can make for strange results.
WEISMAN: That's right. You never can trust polling, you know, even your internal high-priced polling because you don't know who's going to show up to vote that day.
DAVIES: You have this wonderfully telling detail in a story that you and I think Jennifer Steinhaur wrote, about Eric Cantor having - you know, being perceived as somebody who cared more about Washington and Wall Street, about his steakhouse tab on his campaign finance reports.
WEISMAN: That's right. He spent more money on steakhouse dinners in Washington than his competition, Dave Brat, spent on his campaign.
DAVIES: Close to a couple hundred-thousand dollars. Although, Cantor did put money into the campaign, right?
WEISMAN: He did. And a lot of people did realize he was in trouble the day that voters were voting in Virginia. I was working on a story that I would have written the next day saying, Eric Cantor's scare - what does Eric Cantor's scare mean for immigration? We thought that it was going to be close, we just didn't think it was going to be a defeat. In fact, it wasn't even that close; he was soundly beaten.
DAVIES: You wrote the next day, I believe, that the defeat of Cantor would reverberate to the speakers' office and that his demise would pull the top echelons of the House even further to the right and most likely doom any ambitious legislation, possibly through the next presidential election.
We're seeing, kind of, the conservative wing's top guy go down. Why does that pull everything to the right?
WEISMAN: Eric Cantor's defeat pulled the leadership to the right because even if there are all sorts of extenuating circumstances and idiosyncrasies in a defeat like this, the message that members of Congress take is wow, we really have to watch our right flank. Kevin McCarthy is a congressman from California and was the number three Republican. He moved up to the number two slot to take Cantor's spot. And then that opened up the number three slot, and the number three slot ultimately went to a Tea Party guy, to a very conservative member named Steve Scalise from Louisiana. And Steve Scalise's whole pitch was we need to give voice to our right flank. And that's what we've seen so far. And I think that it really did pull the leadership to the right and that's what we saw with the immigration bill at the end of this session.
DAVIES: We spoke earlier about the action and inaction in the House on immigration issues. What happened in the Senate on immigration?
WEISMAN: The Senate has been an absolute mess. The Senate did pass an immigration bill, and it passed some fairly big legislation at the very beginning of the year. You know, passed the immigration bill last year, passed a major transportation bill - a big transportation bill - not the little stop-gap measure that just passed. It passed the farm bill, got that through. But then what happened was Harry Reid pulled what's known as the nuclear option. Should I walk you through the nuclear option?
DAVIES: Yeah. We've heard about this, but nobody understands it. Yeah, go ahead.
WEISMAN: That's right. Harry Reid and President Obama were getting very frustrated that they simply could not get the president's nominees through the United States Senate. Everything needed sixty votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. So judges, deputy secretaries of housing, even generals. I mean, people who used to routinely go through the Senate basically by voice vote were suddenly gummed up. And you needed 60 votes and Republican assent for any nominee. And Reid got frustrated and he would threaten to say, you know, I'm going to change the rules of the Senate to say you only need fifty one votes - just a majority - to confirm a nominee of the president. And he would get right to the edge of that and then the Republicans would buckle and make concessions and pass a slew of nominees and everybody would feel better - it would kind of let the air out. But there was this big fight over what's known as the D.C. Court of Appeals. The Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals is really considered the second most powerful court in the country, just next to the Supreme Court. And there were three vacancies that President Obama had wanted to fill and he just could not get any judges through, no matter how conservative, no matter how centrist, no matter what the appeal was because basically the Republicans simply did not want to fill those slots. They didn't want to tip the balance to Democratic nominees on the D.C. circuit. And finally, what Harry Reid said was I don't care. I'm not going to negotiate anymore. I'm going to do what's become known as the nuclear option. I'm going to change the rules of the Senate by a simple majority. So basically he was kind of breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules. So it's the nuclear option because you can do it on anything. In this case, he did it on a fairly limited thing. He said it only applies to the president's nominees for judgeships and for presidential cabinet positions. It would not apply to Supreme Court justices. But what Harry Reid did was somewhat dangerous because if the Republicans take control of the Senate, they could do the exact same thing. But they can broaden it to cover legislation too, that you could no longer filibuster legislation. So 51 Republican votes could do away with gun control forever.
DAVIES: All right, so this provoked enormous alarm and outcry among Republicans. How has it affected relationships and the operations of the Senate?
WEISMAN: The Republicans warned that if you do this - if you do this, we will never ever give consent to anything or virtually nothing. The Senate works on something called unanimous consent. So when the Senate majority leader says I want to bring up this slate of nominees, usually very uncontroversial. It could just be a slate of generals, you know, nominees from the Pentagon. And usually there's - nobody objects. They say you have unanimous consent, it passes, no problem. But the Republicans said we're not going to give unanimous consent anymore and you're going to have to run the gauntlet on every single nominee. That means we know we're going to lose every vote, we know you're going to get fifty one votes for - at each step of the way, but you're going to have to do every station of the cross to get every nominee through. And so what used to be able to be gaveled in a matter of seconds now takes three or four days. So every judge takes four days of time on the Senate floor. Every nominee takes an enormous amounts of time. So if you turn on C-SPAN now in the United States Senate, you're more likely going to see nothing. Nothing is happening. They're just running out the clock on the latest judge to be confirmed. And it's completely turned the Senate into a joke. It's a silent chamber.
DAVIES: Wow. So there's this trench warfare on these nominations. But what about substantive legislation that people agree, you know, needs to be enacted? Like, for example, reform of the Veterans Administration?
WEISMAN: Yeah, there are occasional lightning strikes, right, when basically both parties understand that something has to be done and that it's not acceptable to just have this kind of trench warfare. So this summer when this scandal broke out in the Department of Veterans Affairs, where as it turned out, veterans who were seeking healthcare were having enormous waits, months long, to get their first appointment with the hospital, everybody knew that something had to be done. The Republicans wanted a bill that would allow the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to basically roll heads and fire people. The Democrats wanted a bill that would actually give more money and authority to the department to hire more doctors and nurses and open more facilities. They got together and in that case, the Senate said all right, let's free up the floor, we both need this. And we've seen that. We saw it with a stopgap spending bill for the Highway Trust Fund to make sure that the Highway Trust Fund didn't go broke in August, which it almost did. But usually nothing is happening. Really, nothing is happened And I don't know how they're going to unstick this. If the Republicans take control, I think that there will be an effort during the lame-duck session to try to come to some accommodation, some sense that the United States Senate just has to start operating again.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jonathan Weisman. He is a congressional correspondent for the New York Times. And we'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jonathan Weisman. He covers Congress for The New York Times. Congress deals with a lot of really important and interesting policy issues, and I can tell from your writing you're interested in policy debate. And I wonder, is it hard to cover policy in a place where politics just seems to trump everything?
WEISMAN: I must say, my job can be demoralizing at times. I mean, I can remember a time when covering Congress was a very edifying experience. You were on the front lines. You were covering the really big issues of the day - you know? - immigration reform. And I'm not talking about the political fights of today but, like, the big fights in 2006 and 2007, the fights over, you know, the tobacco settlement or the Iraq war. There were really powerful political and policy fights that really reverberated. And that - things would actually happen. There were laws that were passed that changed this country. I remember having a discussion with colleagues during the fiscal cliff fight or the government shutdown fight and saying, wow, we used to cover really big policy issues. And now we're just trying to make the government function. And that felt desultory, but now when you look back, you think, well, at least they did do something. They did stop all of the Bush tax cuts from expiring on mass and possibly sending us back to recession. But now I look - not even that's happening. I mean, and really, nothing is happening. If you turn on - if you go into the Senate chamber and see nobody on the floor, you really feel like, what am I doing here?
DAVIES: You know, this could be so dispiriting. You know what I want to hear from you? I want you to tell me that there are some people in Congress who are smart and who hire good staffs and want to make good policy and aren't just, you know, craven political animals afraid of deviating from the party line and are willing to risk reelection to do the right thing. There have to be some people down there like this.
WEISMAN: There certainly are. There are people in both parties who really do understand that they are not doing their jobs and that - they're in constant conversations. They're trying to figure out how to make this work better. Most of them, I must say, are in the Senate (laughter) because senators represent entire states. And by definition, they have to think about a broader electorate. But there are smart House members who understand that they were elected to actually implement policy, not just stop policies from being implemented. And this is a dialectic. Things go back and forth. And I think in political years - this was a particularly bad year because the president's approval rating was very bad. It is still very low. And Republicans understand that this is an opportunity to take control the Senate if they can get their act together. So they were going to go into this year in a very - with a very political mindset - we need to take back the Senate in 2014. And they need to do it because in 2016 they're really going to have a tough slog because a lot of members who were elected, senators who were elected during the 2010 Tea Party wave, are up for reelection for the first time. There was a witch's brew of things that made this year bad. And so I don't think that the 113th Congress is what we will have for the rest of time. But it is going to take a concerted effort to try to unstick this and make our institutions work again.
DAVIES: I'm sure there are a lot of people who, in private conversations, feel very frustrated with the way things are. But I always draw a distinction between someone who'll say something in private and someone who will take a political risk by opposing their party leadership and reaching across the aisle. Are people doing that? Feel free to name some names. Give us somebody we should be encouraged to know is in Congress.
WEISMAN: Look at Senator Bob Corker. He's a Republican of Tennessee. Tennessee obviously has a tradition, actually, of having lawmakers who are dealmakers. But it also has a strong conservative Tea Party wing as well. Bob Corker, just weeks ago, went to the Senate floor with a Democrat, a liberal Democrat, Chris Murphy of the Connecticut, and proposed raising the gas tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund and said, look. We cannot deal with the crumbling infrastructure of our country on the amount of money that is being generated by the current gas tax because our cars are more efficient, the demands of an aging infrastructure are raising - are rising. We need to do something. It took a lot for Bob Corker to propose raising the gas tax. And, ironically, a whole lot of Democrats ran screaming from the room just as Republicans did. Claire McCaskill, a senator from Missouri, has been conducting a series of meetings to try to get new Senate rules implemented after the election. And basically, what she's trying to do is get a bunch of Senators together. She's working with Angus King, who's an independent senator of Maine. And what they're trying to do is get senators to hold hands and vow, maybe sign on a dotted line, to say, we're going to make these Senate rules changes regardless of how this election goes and, you know, commit to that because obviously, if the Republicans take over, they're going to want a different set of rules. If the Democrats take - keep control, they're going to want to keep the same rules. So this bipartisan group is trying to find a way to say now, before the election, here's how we want the Senate to run. There are efforts. The problem is with the leadership. Will the leadership of the House, the Republican leadership of the House, and the Democratic leadership of the Senate let these ideas percolate from the bottom and get to the top? So far, they haven't.
DAVIES: Well, Jonathan Weisman, it's been great to have you back. Thanks so much for your time.
WEISMAN: Thank you very much for having me.
DAVIES: Jonathan Weisman is a congressional correspondent for The New York Times. He also writes for the paper's government and politics blog, The Caucus.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Last month, the PBS mystery series "Poirot" began presenting the first episodes in that show's final season. But the show's vanished on PBS. And the remaining episodes, which began appearing this week, are much harder to find. Our TV critic David Bianculli solves that mystery and has some reflections on the long-running "Poirot" series.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Agatha Christie published her first novel "The Mysterious Affair At Styles" in 1920. It featured fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who proved most popular of all her mystery-solving characters. Hercule made his final appearance in 1975 in the novel "Curtain." And this month, nearly a century after he first appeared in print, the mystery series completes its lengthy run as a TV series, still starring David Suchet in the title role. But as the final episodes of television's "Poirot" provide closure, they are for the moment somewhat of a mystery themselves. But in this case, it's not a whodunit, it's a where-are-they? That's because for the 13th and final season of Agatha Christie's "Poirot," the show's producers and distributors have staged a sort of new media bait-and-switch. Suchet began playing Poirot, with his waxed mustache and elegant walking stick, on the PBS mystery series way back in 1989. Suchet has been playing the detective ever since. Referring to himself in the third person, always referring to his brain powers as his little grey cells and invariably holding court at the end of each episode to both solve explain the mystery at hand. This year's final season of "Poirot" presents the last five of the seventy episodes produced for TV, a video canon covering virtual all of Christie's Hercule Poirot novels and short stories. This seasons last hoorah began as usual on PBS. But after two episodes were shown, the series vanished earlier this month. The final three appear beginning this week - not on broadcast TV or even on cable, but on a streaming site called Acorn TV. Later this fall, the last three stories in the "Poirot" TV canon will indeed show up on broadcast television, distributed to local public TV stations. But if you're impatient, especially if you're a loyal fan who has watched and enjoyed this series for a quarter century, enjoying it as I do as the TV equivalent of comfort food, the only way to get satisfaction for now is to seek out www.acorn.tv. What you'll get, once you get there, are these three stories, unspooled weekly - "Elephants Can Remember," available now, features Zoe Wanamaker making her sixth and final appearance as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, Agatha Christie's thinly veiled version of herself. "The Labors Of Hercules," has Hercule fighting depression after failing to catch a killer. And the final episode, called "Curtain: Poirot's Last Case" is precisely that. It features the return as Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings, who basically served as Dr. Watson to Poirot's Sherlock Holmes for the TV show's first eight seasons. They reunite at the same estate, at Styles, where they solve the first case together. But this time, both men are decades older and Poirot is in a wheelchair and in ill health. But he still has enough fire to complain. When being steered on a stroll around the grounds - about the lodgings, the food and even the way his old friend pushes Poirot's wheelchair.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POIROT")
HUGH FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) And how are you?
DAVID SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Me? I am a wreck - no, ruin. I cannot walk, I am crippled and twisted. I have to be tended to like a baby. But the core Hastings, that is still sound.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) You have the best heart in the world, Poirot.
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Heart? No. But the brain - as magnificent as ever. Hastings, too fast. It's not a wheelbarrow.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) Sorry old chap. So is it good to back after all these years?
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poroit) The food, it is disgusting.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) Rationing, I suppose.
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) No, it is the English cooking. And the water - always so tepid and the towels so thin. They have no use at all.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) Then why did you come? >>SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Because when I see the advertisement in the newspaper and discover your daughter, she will be here. I conceive of a plan, I will persuade my old friend Hastings to join us and we should all be together on family. That is most agreeable, n'est-ce pas?
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) You're up something, aren't you? I knew it, otherwise why come back to the scene of our first murder. >>SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Because mon ami I feel it will soon be the scene of another.
BIANCULLI: Poirot's last case ends like any other - with a detective patiently and proudly explaining the facts and exposing the murderer. The key difference in this episode is that he's doing it from beyond the grave. And if you think I should've prefaced that with some sort of 40-year-old spoiler alert, we have very different ideas about how long a mystery should be kept a secret. But since these are absolutely the last TV episodes featuring Suchet as Poirot, they do provide a satisfying conclusion to a very long running viewing experience. The actor has grown into the role, sporting wrinkles to match the wisdom and perfecting the twinkle in his eye whenever, as the detective himself would put it - Poirot has finally solved the case as only Poirot can. And think of it, the actors of the current movie "Boyhood" have gotten lots of praise for filming and playing their roles over a 12-year period. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot has done the same thing for twice as long. He's done it so long in fact, that he's ending his run on a medium that didn't even exist when he started. Wrap your little grey cells around that.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website tvworthwatching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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