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Debate Over Spending Choices Intensifying as the Economy Slows and the Surplus Shrinks

Aired August 17, 2001 - 17:00   ET

KING: We all know the saying, "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." But what do politicians do? Our Bill Schneider braved the elements to tell us -- Bill.

SCHNEIDER: John, it is now official. Washington is a disaster. No, the news is, it's not a political disaster; it's a natural disaster. For the first time in history, the president has declared the District of Columbia a major disaster area. Now, smart politicians know how to turn a disaster into the "Political Play of the Week."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Four days of searing heat followed by two days of torrential rainfall. The result: A foul mix of flood water, mud and raw sewage surged through the nation's capital last weekend. Homes were flooded, businesses shut down, trees collapsed, and cars were swept away. Washington's 130-year-old sewer system couldn't take it. A ruptured sewer line opened up a 25-foot-deep sink hole that ultimately swallowed up an Oldsmobile.

And that's not all. How's this for a new urban horror? Exploding manholes. Nearly 50 of them have blown their lids in Washington so far this year. This is a city where you can walk down the street and get whacked by a flying manhole cover.

Georgetown restaurant owner Carol Ross Joynt describes the experience.

CAROL ROSS JOYNT, RESTAURANT OWNER: They don't just flicker; they shoot up in the air. It's sort of like -- it's a violent flame, and smoke comes billowing out, and you can hear it. It's like a roar.

SCHNEIDER: Headline: "Washington goes to hell! Only the brave dare venture out."

JOYNT: Here's a manhole cover. Stand on it, Bill. Maybe we'll make some news.

SCHNEIDER: Last week's heat wave drove up the city's power consumption, which overheated the electrical cables, which got soaked in the downpours, which then short-circuited, which caused more manhole explosions, which knocked out the power just a few blocks from the White House. Where was the president?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm on my vacation.

SCHNEIDER: He tried to dissociate himself from the capital, without success.

BUSH: You know where I'm from?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Washington, D.C. BUSH: That's right. Right now. But guess where I was raised?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Washington, D.C.

BUSH: That's one state going east. What's the state that's right next door to you?

SCHNEIDER: What do politicians do when faced with disaster? Get out of town.

(on camera): All of the Congress, the president...

JOYNT: They're all gone, all the lobbyists, you know. When Congress goes, so goes the lobbying field. And when the White House leaves, the press corps leaves, so there's nobody here.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Except the poor, bewildered tourists wandering around the empty Capitol building and the deserted Mall. The mayor's still around, of course, but that's his job.

MAYOR ANTHONY WILLIAMS (D), WASHINGTON: Well, we haven't had the locusts yet, but we pretty much have had a lot of different plagues hitting the city, and we're trying to manage them and get on top of them. It's part of what a mayor does.

SCHNEIDER: If you were smart this week, you got out of Washington. If you stayed in town, there were a few consolations.

JOYNT: Bill, your very own exploding manhole cover.

SCHNEIDER (on camera): And you invented this?

JOYNT: I did. Cheers.

SCHNEIDER: Cheers.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): To those who have fled, cheers, and the "Political Play of the Week."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And that includes certain CNN anchors who have made themselves scarce during Washington's week of woe. Not you, John, you are at your station, steering this ship. But watch out for the manholes.

KING: Watch out for the manholes and watch here for the return of Judy Woodruff on Monday. INSIDE POLITICS will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: That's all for this edition of INSIDE POLITICS. But\ of course, you can go online all the time at CNN's Allpolitics.com. AOL keyword: CNN. Our e-mail address is insidepolitics@cnn.com.

I'm John King. Thanks for watching. In a special footnote: thanks to the INSIDE POLITICS staff for putting up with their rookie anchor this week. "FIRST EVENING NEWS" is next.

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