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Should Congress Stop 'Drawing Lines In The Sand'?


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, for more than a century, the National Urban League has advocated for equality and better living conditions for everyone. We'll ask President Marc Morial whether it's still reaching the people who need it the most. That's in just a few minutes. First though, there's been a lot of talk about politics this week.

President Obama is making the rounds with some new and some old ideas on our economic recovery. And if you thought the Supreme Court had settled the battle over the healthcare law, well, you were wrong. Here to help us sort through all the noise are two trusted commentators. Callie Crossley is an Emmy award-winning journalist and host of WBGH's "Under the Radar with Callie Crossley." Hi, Callie.


HEADLEE: And Lenny McAllister is a Republican commentator, author of the book "Diary of a Mad PYC (Proud Young Conservative)." Hey, Lenny.

LENNY MCALLISTER: What's going on? Good to hear your voice again.

HEADLEE: Nice to talk to you both. Let's sort through some of this stuff, and then let's begin with President Obama and the speeches he's been making about the economy. He talked about it yesterday at the Jacksonville Port Authority in Florida and he blasted Republicans for not doing more to help the recovery. Let's take a listen.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm not going to let gridlock or inaction or indifference to the plight of families get in the way of this country. So where I can act on my own, I'm going to act on my own. I won't wait for Congress.


OBAMA: 'Cause the choices we make right now will determine whether or not every American will have a fighting chance in the 21st century.

HEADLEE: Lenny, let me take this to you first. I mean, that's a bipartisan thing there. I mean, that's always going to be an applause line, to say you're going to go around Congress 'cause they're historically unliked in the United States right now. But what do you think? Is his best option in certain things, like infrastructure problems, to go around his own Congress?

MCALLISTER: I think it's very interesting that President Obama has an opportunity to read speeches that was written in 2009, and he hasn't had to really change them ever since. These are the same exact things that he's said but then gets sidetracked, whether it's over the gay marriage situation or it's over Obamacare, which was what he focused on when he had the power of Congress behind him, or it's the midterm elections or it's his own reelection. This is the same theme we keep hearing and then something else comes up. Now he's saying this, but he's going to have to go back to Washington and the big thing there is immigration. And we're also talking about the Voting Rights Act and other things that are going on.

So this is really great as far as a stump speech, but when it comes back to actually having to work with this Congress and focus exclusively on jobs, we have yet to see this president do it. And he's been in office now for one full term and already a year into - or going into a year in his second term.

HEADLEE: Although, you know, I think it'd be fair to say that any president is going to get distracted by national issues that come up. Jay Carney says that what you're talking about, hearing the same old thing, is just the president being consistent.

MCALLISTER: Well, you can make that argument, except for the fact that we still are looking at unemployment over 7.5 percent. In his home state of Illinois, it's over 9 percent and it's been that way for quite some time.

That was supposed to be job number one when he walked into the presidency in January 2009, with the Congress behind him, from a partisan standpoint and a whole lot of political capital in his back pocket, and he wasted both of them focusing on other things. So it's very hard to make that argument now in a convincing way when you had everything you needed lined up for you and you got sidetracked.

HEADLEE: Callie, what do you have to say to all this?

CROSSLEY: Well, what I have to say is that he's ended up in a situation, which he referred to and I don't, you know, you can argue whether or not he's giving too much weight to this sort of nasty partisanship that has just frozen Congress's ability to work together. And so that's a real thing. And now here he's facing another real number - September the 30th, when the government will shut down, if they don't come up with some way to deal with all of these issues. And particularly now, we're starting to hear how those sequestration cuts have affected so many people, the ordinary folks that are the ones that are hurting the most.

We're now starting to hear about people losing their jobs in places we hadn't thought about. We headed off the TSA cuts, but lots of people are still in the crosshairs of these weird across-the-board cuts, which were never supposed to happen. So something has got to happen. Now, is what he said something that he's repeated before? It is. Is it also true that he's dealing in a kind of odd way of, you know, trying to get Congress to do something by threats really at this point - saying, I'll just go around you. And we've seen him go around Congress in other ways. So I don't know what to say here except somebody's got to get off the dime, literally.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned threats and the government shutdown let's talk about Obamacare, because more than 60 Republicans signed a letter this week saying they will not support any spending bills that fund implementation of the law and that includes keeping the government running as of that September date.

So not all Republicans are on board with this plan, in fact, North Carolina Senator Richard Burr said, and I'm quoting, I think it's the dumbest idea I've ever heard. So, Lenny McAllister, tell me, either defund Obama or we won't fund the government. What do you think of that?

MCALLISTER: Richard Burr is somebody that I've had the opportunity to know for about 10 years and he's pretty much a straight shooter. And I have to, pretty much, sign on to that. Drawing these lines in the sand...

HEADLEE: ...Signing on to the fact that it's a dumb idea to make this threat?

MCALLISTER: Yeah, drawing the lines in the sand is not how you legislate. I know that it riles up everybody's base to do this, but at some point in time, people have to understand that this isn't about getting a paycheck and it's not about getting perks at your favorite restaurant when you go home on recess. This is about legislating and leading. So to start throwing down the gauntlet already in July when we're looking at this September 30th deadline and saying this is what we have to do or else we're not going to work with you, I don't think's the best course of action to go with.

Now President Obama and his administration isn't making it easy for some of these hard right-wing conservatives to back away from the ACA when he keeps rolling back the law. He keeps, basically, admitting that we rushed this legislation into place, it wasn't what it should have been and we have to keep, in essence, self-repealing this.

HEADLEE: Although...

MCALLISTER: Which just makes them continue to salivate on this law.

HEADLEE: Well, he hasn't exactly admitted that. Callie, what do you think? Is part of the problem the way that the Obama administration is implementing the law? Are they bungling it?

CROSSLEY: I would agree with most of what Lenny said except when he got to that part to say. So what's happened is it's not necessarily the bungling of the law, it's failing to explain it well and also to unroll it in a way that makes sense to folks that they can, you know, sort of follow along. It's complicated. I mean, it was always going to be complicated. But if the implementation and the execution is extra complicated then you have to, sometimes, step back and say, OK, let's do these three things and let's hold on this one thing. Was that the best way to do it? Probably not. But that's what's happening and that's the real world. Hence, why he decided he would give some of the employers a break for a year while they tried to figure out how to execute it.

Let's go back to the dumbest thing that's happened. I think, politically, this is just so unwise, which is what the representative was saying there for Republicans. You know, you're going to shut down the government to make a point about Obamacare? Really? Come on. I mean, lives are hanging in the balance here. And it'll be even more people eliminated by sequestration by the time we get to the September 30th and now you're talking about just shutting down the government to make a political point. I don't think it serves the Republican Party well. I think it does show that there's continuing division around some of these leadership issues. And, you know, President Obama is the one that comes out the winner if that happens.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're catching up on the week's political news with journalist Callie Crossley and Republican commentator Lenny McAllister. Let's move to voting rights. Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would scrutinize Texas' voting procedures for possible discrimination. He says this action in Texas will not be our last. So, Lenny McAllister, obviously the Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the Voting Rights Act last month, an enforcement portion. Do think this is an overstep by the Obama administration?

MCALLISTER: I've always said, about the VRA, you have to apply it to all 50 states for a small period of time, maybe five to 10 years or you have to repeal it for all states. I think that focusing on specific states and - Attorney General Holder talked about Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alaska - they're all four states run by Republican governors. There are two states in there that, over the next 10 to 15 years, could turn purple. North Carolina is already there. Texas with an increased population of Latinos there can eventually become purple over time.

HEADLEE: Wait one second, Lenny. There's a lot of states that are run by Republican governors, but these four states, what they have in common, is very recent court actions in which courts have agreed there is evidence of voting discrimination.

MCALLISTER: So same with Pennsylvania. And I was with the NAACP voting - going against their voter ID law - the version of their voter ID law in 2012, which was eventually struck down. Which is why I say, if there's a problem with how the VRA has been implemented or we're really concerned about making sure that citizens have access to suffrage in a very fair way we should be applying this to all 50 states, rather than handpicking states, because that's when this starts going from a civil rights issue to possibly being just a partisan issue. And I would caution the Obama administration from making sure that that line is clearly delineated because when it is, they're on the side of what's right.

HEADLEE: Let me give Callie a response here. Callie, what do you think?

CROSSLEY: Well, Lenny is correct in this, there was discrimination going on in Pennsylvania and guess what, they were able to use Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to beat that back. So it's clear that the Voting Rights Act, with all of its parts active - it's really, really important legislation. Since Section 4 has been eliminated now, I think Eric Holder is looking to see, how can I address recent discrimination? He's got documentation, according to him, that from 1970, certain areas in Texas have been doing this kind of stuff even with preclearance. And so he's asking the federal court to say, listen - they need to be checked because it continues to happen.

Unfortunately, some of the most egregious stuff happens in the states that have been articulated. I don't disagree that there are other states that could benefit from it as well, but to quote President Obama - don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good - or the other way around. You know, let's address what we have in front of us right now, if it is possible, so that everybody can vote. And in states like Texas, with huge population and demographic change, it's certainly - it crosses all kinds of political lines and I think discrimination needs to be addressed. Hey, I'm for it everywhere else too, don't get me wrong...

HEADLEE: ...Yeah.

CROSSLEY: ...But if it's clear there, then let's use the law...

HEADLEE: ...Right.

HEADLEE: ...As it was intended to be used and let's stop it.

HEADLEE: And we're going to hear more about this from Marc Morial, head of the Nation Urban League in just a few minutes. Thanks to both of you. In the meantime, Callie Crossley, host of "Under the Radar with Callie Crossley" on NPR member station WGBH in Boston, that's where she joined us. And Lenny McAllister is a Republican commentator author of the book "Diary of a Mad PYC (Proud Young Conservative)." He joined us from number station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks to both of you. Have a great weekend.

CROSSLEY: Thanks, Celeste.

MCALLISTER: Thank ladies, god bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.