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The Week In Washington


An extraordinary week in Washington, D.C., even by recent standards with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and several key decisions from the Supreme Court. But the halls of Congress are quiet. Members have gone home for the Independence Day recess after the House failed for the umpteenth time to pass an immigration bill.

NPR's senior editor and correspondent on the Washington desk joins us now from Milwaukee, Ron Elving. Thanks so much for being with us, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: We're going to talk about the Supreme Court major decisions on government unions, President Trump's travel ban. We've got to begin with the sad and appalling killings this week of colleagues, really, at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.

ELVING: Yes. Scott, the five journalists killed on Thursday represented journalism at its best - a passion for the political news in the state capital, where they lived, and a commitment to the local news that mattered to their readers. They gave their lives as they had lived them - working on deadline.

SIMON: Yeah, and got out the paper. Paper came out the next day, and it's out today.

ELVING: Yes, indeed.

SIMON: And let's get to the Supreme Court. A lot of news this week.

ELVING: There was a major decision this week affecting public employee unions, saying those who wish could opt out of paying union dues while still receiving any of the pay and benefit increases negotiated for them by the union. Surely a blow to labor unions in the sector, where they've seen growth in recent years and generally for labor unions overall.

SIMON: And in many ways, that decision was just about overshadowed by the announcement following the decision by a few hours that Justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring.

ELVING: Yes, a turning point in the court's history to be sure. Kennedy had often been the swing vote between the court's liberal and conservative blocs, although he usually voted with the conservatives and did so in all the major cases decided in the waning days of this court term. Still, his replacement will almost surely be more doctrinaire and less tolerant on issues such as abortion rights and certainly same-sex marriage. I mean, Kennedy wrote the decision in four key cases establishing gay rights in America over the last several years. But he also wrote the Citizens United decision that has brought more corporate and union and super PAC money into campaigns.

SIMON: Another story that maybe got a bit overlooked because it was a week of such remarkable news. In the House of Representatives, Republicans failed to pass an immigration bill despite support from House leaders and the president. In fact, the vote wasn't even close, was it?

ELVING: Not even close. This was supposed to be a compromise written to unite the various factions of the Republican majority in the House. And it was once thought to likely get over 200 votes. But instead, it got crushed - only 121 votes for more than 300 votes opposed. So for Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership team to lose on a bill like this, as you say, with the support of the president and half their own party members voting no - that is simply devastating.

SIMON: Of course, the speaker's on his way out. But why did it fail so horribly?

ELVING: The House Freedom Caucus - that's the hard-core conservatives - could not be mollified even after they got a vote on their own preferred bill and lost the previous week. They weren't reconciled. They have firmly held out, saying that any kind of amnesty for the people who were brought here as minors by their parents - anything of that nature was unacceptable. And the further that the leaders went in trying to get them onboard, the more they lost the moderates, the House members from districts more supportive of immigrants and immigration. And that dynamic has been enough to interfere with even routine and unrelated business like the farm bill that got voted down and then passed by just two votes.

SIMON: I mean, you've got to ask. They have a majority in the House of Representatives, and there's probably never been greater public attention to some of the issues being raised about immigration than ever before. Why can't they get it passed?

ELVING: The Republican Party has been going through a transformation for more than 30 years on this issue of immigration. It has become quite a dividing line for them in just the last 10 years. And they didn't even manage to pass something to deal with the short-term issue of family separation and child detention. They say we'll come back and try to do that later.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.