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Post Politics: Health care bills, national security debate, more

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Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota won't seek re-election this fall, party officials say, bringing to four the number of open Senate seats Democrats must defend to protect their majority.

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Michael Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael Shear discussed the beginning of negotiations between the House and Senate on the health care bill, the president's response to the attempted attack on an airliner Christmas day and more.

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Michael D. Shear: Good morning everyone. Well, what do you think? Enough politics to discuss today? From Democratic retirements to the politics of war, we should be able to fill up an hour or chatting this morning. (And let's not forget ANOTHER White House crasher!)

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Des Peres, Mo.: Morning, Michael. While the Dems may lament the loss of Sen. Dodd, don't they gain with a better chance of keeping the seat in D hands? Thanks

Michael D. Shear: Here's a good place to start.

Sen. Dodd's expected announcement that he will not run for reelection is one of those bittersweet moments for many Democrats. He's a respected member of the Senate among his colleagues and so there's lots of expressions of sadness that he's going.

But as you say, his reelection was troubled and so many Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief that they will not have the burden of that heavy lift in Connecticut. Having said that, it's now an open seat, and despite the starting advantages, Dems will still have to fight hard to keep it.

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St Paul, Minn.: Hi Michael -- Thanks for taking questions today. It's looking more and more like the Republicans' strategy for the 2010 midterms is to make a case for the "good old days" post 9/11 when they knew how to protect the country, compared to the current Democratic president, who does not. Never mind that 1) Obama is doing pretty much the same thing Bush did and 2) re: the Christmas Day terror attempt, Bush had one of those as well and reacted pretty much the same way. Do you think that strategy is going to work?

Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure I'd exactly characterize their strategy that way. But it's certainly true that there is a very strong belief among Republicans that they have ammunition to charge Obama (and the Democrats) with being weak generally on national security and specific points of attack on terrorism.

Remember -- one of the chief criticisms of Obama during the campaign, from his Democratic and Republican adversaries alike, was that he would not be ready to keep the nation safe. (Remember the "3 a.m. phone call" ad from Hillary Clinton?) The line of attack didn't work, but Republicans think it may be more successful now, with some "meat on the bones" so to speak.

Will it work? The administration believes the American people will see beyond the rhetoric and conclude, as you say, that Obama has actually not strayed too far from the Bush anti-terror policies, has in fact increased the fight substantially in Afghanistan, and that where he has changed direction, it's been in places that most people support -- like banning torture.

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Rockville, Md.: Based on my undergraduate degree in political science, I expected more of the Conference Committee on the health bill. Traditionally this has been the place to fix bills that did not work.

Has the publicity hampered this normal process? Or do we have collective amnesia about the legislative process?

Michael D. Shear: A a fellow political science degree holder -- and now an observer of the political process -- I can say with confidence that it doesn't always work the way the books describe it.

Having said that, the process they appear to be using is one that is not unheard of. It happens a lot with smaller bills, but perhaps not as much with big ones that everyone is watching. Instead of a formal conference, they will send the bill back and forth between the house and senate.

Democrats are hoping that by avoiding a formal conference committee they can short circuit Republican attempts to slow the process down.

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New York: I want to make sure I am accurately recording your assessment: Since Richard Blumenthal has a news conference today, announcing he will seek the seat, you are saying it will be difficult for him to win against Simmons, et al?

Michael D. Shear: No. I'm saying that most Democrats apparently believe Blumenthal has the edge and is a very popular candidate. I'm just saying that whenever there's an open seat, a lot can happen, and Democratic leaders know it.

For the record, I cover the White House and am by no means an expert on congressional elections. For that expertise, please head on over to The Fix, written by my colleague, Chris Cillizza -- who I think is on four cable news channels simultaneously right now.

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Dunn Loring, VA: Which of the following caused Obama to stop what he was doing on his vacation: (i) an terrorist attempting to kill 300 airline passengers or (ii) a kid experiencing a minor surfboarding accident?

Michael D. Shear: I love this. Well said.

In a nutshell, this shows the difficulty of managing a presidential image in the modern age. And dont forget the brouhaha among conservatives about the fact that Obama didn't wear a tie!

The truth is that Obama's actions in the days after Christmas were more aggressive that former president Bush's in the days after the shoe bomber (Bush was on vacation, then, too.) But Obama has gotten more grief for it, in part because of the new media landscape (bloggers, etc.) and because of Secretary Napolitano's comments about the "system working," which gave critics an easy opening.

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Rochester, NY: Review? Review?!

Did FDR order a review after Pearl Harbor? Did Lincoln order one after Gettysburg? No!

This president needs to recognize that we are at war -- the Salahi dinner attack proves this.

Doesn't the president understand the gravity of the existential threat that we are facing?

Michael D. Shear: The Salahi dinner attack?

I'm guessing Rochester's tongue is in his/her cheek.

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Rockville, Md.: In Connecticut Rob Simmons, if he gets the Republican nomination, will be a strong candidate. He is smart and has a good portfolio. I see him as a future candidate for president, if he can get enough financial support nationally. Right now he just needs money for New York television and to beat the rich candidate for the nomination.

Michael D. Shear: Here's another assessment of the situation in Connecticut. We will have to see whether Rockville is right. That's what makes midterm elections (and any elections really) so much fun.

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Danville: In yesterday's press briefing Robert Gibbs responded to a question about C-SPAN's Brian Lamb's request for permission to cover the reconciliation process with the dismissive "I have not seen the letter."

Steve Scully of C-SPAN was at the press conference. Does Mr. Scully normally attend these press briefings? Or Was Sully there to deliver the letter?

Michael D. Shear: I'm not sure why Steve was there yesterday. I have seen him around the briefing room plenty of times, though not every day. I suspect the dismissive nature of Gibbs' response may have something to do with regretting making that promise during the campaign -- not an easy one to keep.

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Fairfax, Va.: Today the Post reports there may have been a third White House party crasher, and with a possible connection to the Salahis. The Post has given the matter intense, practically daily coverage and far beyond my own interest, but apparently it's selling newspapers. For all the ink spread on the subject none of your writers have raised the possibility it could be part of a dirty tricks campaign to discredit the president. It's not so far-fetched . . . remember Donald Segretti?

washingtonpost.com: Carlos Allen says he was invited to state dinner; his name wasn't on guest list (Post, Jan. 6)

Michael D. Shear: The Salihi situation has, indeed, gotten a lot of ink. Maybe too much. What does everyone think?

As for dirty tricks? No evidence of that, as far as I can tell.

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Abingdon, Md.: Since you cover the White House, what has the "mood" been regarding this whole uninvited guests story? Is this one of those things everybody there thought would have died down by now? Also, why such a delay between finding out about a third "crasher" so long after the first two? You would think all would have been discovered at the same time. Finally, do you think the WH wants to have another State Dinner soon and make all of this stuff go away and present a "see, we can do it right" attitude?

Michael D. Shear: There has definitely been a sense at the White House that the story was overblown from the beginning. They did eventually take note of the seriousness of the Salahi breach, but it took a few days to get there. I would have thought the Secret Service would have wanted to get all the "bad" news out quickly, and would have revealed the existence of another crasher earlier. But the decisions that government officials make often baffle me.

As for another state dinner? I wouldn't look for one anytime soon. (Which probably means another one will be announced tomorrow.)

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Re: the 3 AM phone call: I'm wondering if the whole "3 AM phone call" criticism you mentioned takes on extra weight because of the fact that Obama frequently vacations in Hawaii, which is in a different time zone. Is there concern that a regular 9 am briefing from DC is, in fact, a "3 AM phone call" in Hawaii? Would the president possibly be sleeping or less-than-alert when he gets his morning briefings if they do indeed come at 3 am local time?

Michael D. Shear: Cool question. In fact, I'm told the presidents staff who were in Hawaii did have 3 a.m. conference calls with their counterparts on the East Coast during the Christmas Day bomber incident. (Though I'm pretty sure the president was sound asleep during them.)

But hey, there's also the other way to look at it: If an emergency call comes in at 3 a.m. Eastern Time, and he's in Hawaii, it will still be 10 pm where he is, so he won't be so tired!

Seriously, president's deal with events around the globe in all different time zones. I'm quite sure no one is concerned about which time zone he happens to be in when something happens.

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Boston: What are the chances of getting the bill passed before the 19th, when Massachusetts has its special election to replace the late Senator Kennedy? I know its very unlikely that the Republican will win up here, but I'd prefer no risks...

Michael D. Shear: I think Democrats are not worried much. The race has tightened a bit, but a Republican winning that seat would be a political earthquake.

Still, you're right -- the health care bill is not going to be passed until well after the 19th, so whoever wins there -- almost certainly the Democrat -- will cast that vote.

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Rumors...: A friend of mine in Chicago just called to say her news is reporting that Rahm is leaving the White House to run for Chicago Mayor. I am leaning towards this being opinion/speculation - but have you heard anything about this.

(Also - the study of political science has NOTHING to do with policy. Ever. I almost failed a poli sci grad class I took after working on the Hill because I kept saying that is not how it works and being told, "yes, yes it is".)

Michael D. Shear: Ah, the parlor game of what next. Always fun in Washington.

Rahm is a Chicago guy, and it's not the wildest thing to think that he might want to be mayor. And I'd be surprised if he lasted the entire term -- most chiefs of staff don't. But it's all speculation at this point.

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Roseland, NJ: I thought I'd hear someone remarking on this but I haven't yet...

Can you remember the last time a US president went before the nation a week after an incident of this magnitude and admitted, "We screwed up"? I mean, in the past, it's either been denial, deflection, or the blame-taking has been done by some underling. This seems like a fairly significant thing to me.

Michael D. Shear: This is definitely part of the thinking of the Obama message machine. They believe that among real people, he gets a lot of credit for this approach.

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Baltimore: Re "dirty tricks": If you run a dirty tricks department, you recruit people like G. Gordon Liddy -- maniacally zealous former FBI agents who can keep secrets. You don't recruit people who post their misdeeds on Facebook within minutes of committing them.

Michael D. Shear: Yeah, Watergate would have been so much easier if the plumbers had a Facebook page.

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Too Rich: The left is always good for a belly laugh or two. I'm sure that the Washington Post gossip columnists will be surprised to hear that they are considered part of the so-called "Republican Dirty Tricks" machine. Could their membership to the "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" be too far behind?

Here's why this is a story, folks: Three people who had no business being in the White House not only got into the White House, but shook hands (and took pictures) with the President. We can breathe a sigh of relief that they were nothing more than publicity hounds. I'm sure the people dismissing this security breach as much ado about nothing would be singing a different tune if their intentions were something far more malicious.

Michael D. Shear: One view about the Salahi affair...

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Denver: I see the White House gate crashers and Christmas bomb threat as big wake up calls for security and real opportunities to refine systems. It surprises me though that Obama does not get more credit for his thoughtful approach to problems and his ability to respond in measured, well considered ways.

Michael D. Shear: And another...

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Michael D. Shear: Ok, guys. Time to go. Thanks for all the good questions.

Happy New Year!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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