STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We are beginning a midterm election year. Every seat in the House of Representatives is up for election, along with a third of the Senate. And in this year, an awful lot of Republicans are retiring or just choosing not to run for re-election.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All right, Congressman Darrell Issa is the latest to make this choice, bringing the total number of Republicans bowing out in 2019 to 31.
INSKEEP: 31 - let's talk about that number with Domenico Montanaro, NPR's politics editor. Domenico, good morning.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.
INSKEEP: Is that a big number?
MONTANARO: It's a huge number. It's more than any party in any midterm since 1994. I mean, that's a long time. And you might remember that's the year of the Republican takeover in the House giving them control of that chamber. It was the first time since World War II that Republicans were in control of the House and gave us Newt Gingrich as speaker and that "Contract With America." Notably though, it's also more retirements than Democrats left in 2010. And, you know, that was the year of the Tea Party.
MONTANARO: And Republicans won 63 seats - and more than 2006 when Democrats took over from Republicans.
INSKEEP: Let's figure out what is going on here on a basic level. I guess, we assume that incumbents are considered stronger. They've got the fundraising. They've got the name recognition. You'd rather have your incumbents run for re-election and just have safe seats. But when you have a lot of retirements, does that mean a lot of politicians are looking around and thinking, even as an incumbent, I don't think I can win this district?
MONTANARO: Well, yeah, I mean, there's part of that. And then also they're looking at their president. And when the president's approval rating is in the 30s, then they wind up looking around saying, is this something that I want to do? Is this where I want to be? And I always judge politicians through the lens of the way they think about themselves which is, can I win?
INSKEEP: Well, can Republicans win a majority in the House of Representatives in spite of all these retirements?
MONTANARO: Well, there's certainly the possibility still for Republicans that they will maintain the House because - you know, just because Democrats have this one fundamental advantage, there are a lot of other fundamentals that favor Republicans. You know, the economy is good. The - there is no hot wars going on that are going badly like in 2006 for Republicans. And the playing field frankly favors them because of the way these districts have been drawn after Democrats lost so many governorships and state legislatures over the past decade.
INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, absolutely, I'm thinking about these state legislative elections in Virginia. Correct me if I'm wrong here. Democrats in the election last November won something like 55 percent of the vote and still don't have control of the Virginia legislature because Republicans were the ones who got to draw the districts.
MONTANARO: Well, that's how it works when you win the state.
INSKEEP: And that's going to be a situation for the House of Representatives. I guess we should mention there's also the Senate. But Republicans are considered to have an advantage there.
MONTANARO: Absolutely, they are. And, you know, there are almost a dozen seats that President Trump - 10 seats that President Trump had - states that Trump had won that Democrats are trying to defend.
INSKEEP: OK, let me ask about something else here while I have you, Domenico, because President Trump has been asked again about the possibility of being interviewed by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. The president said some months ago - he was asked would you testify - would you testify under oath. He said 100 percent. He was asked again and didn't say that - said his more vague formulation of, we'll see what happens, which he says about a lot of things.
MONTANARO: Right, and he said it's unlikely you'd even have an interview because he said this is a Democrat hoax, and there was no collusion. And look. Like any other president - or any other citizen, he could invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to testify against himself - but, boy, almost zero percent chance of that happening because the political risk that that would carry would be huge in the way it would look to the American public. Instead, his lawyers are trying to negotiate something like written answers to questions rather than a sit-down face-to-face.
INSKEEP: OK, so he can't really say no, but he can try to game the system a little bit.
MONTANARO: Right, and it would be pretty rare in modern times actually for a president not to be deposed actually. We've seen that happen quite a bit. But he would be the first president to have to take questions about himself and his own conduct since Bill Clinton, of course.
INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.
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INSKEEP: We have an update now on the Iran nuclear deal - you know, the deal that President Trump once called the worst deal ever.
MARTIN: So this was the basic bargain. Iran agrees to limit its nuclear program. And in exchange, the U.S. and its partners agree to lift some tough economic sanctions. And even though he has criticized it time and again, President Trump has repeatedly upheld this deal by signing a waiver that keeps those sanctions lifted. He has to do this every few months, and tomorrow is yet another of these deadlines.
INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon has covered all the deadlines. He's on the line. Hi there, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Has the president signaled what he might do this time?
KENYON: Well, reports out of Washington say he's being advised to keep on waiving the sanctions and continue to work on other measures against Iran. And what he does should be known pretty soon. As you said, tomorrow's the first deadline. That one's on crucial oil and banking sanctions. I can tell you one way Iran is responding. The foreign minister was in Moscow yesterday talking to Sergey Lavrov. Today he's in Brussels meeting with diplomats from the U.K., France, Germany. So Tehran seems to be thinking, we should look to Europe and Russia and maybe China for help because we're probably not going to be getting any from the U.S.
INSKEEP: You know, this has got to be an awkward situation for the Iranians though, right? They want sanctions to be lifted - to remain lifted. They want to have economic activity with the rest of the world. But even if President Trump never reimposes sanctions, there's this uncertainty every few months. There's the question mark out there, and businesses have to think about that.
KENYON: That's right. And it is holding back European companies and banks. And there's some question as to whether Congress is going to rewrite the law that includes all those deadlines. But in the meantime, Iran has been facing all of these anti-government protests. And that actually could work in favor, at least in Washington, of this argument that maybe we shouldn't impose new sanctions. Maybe we shouldn't go back to that because you've already got Iranians blaming their own government for their problems. Why should we distract from that by putting back nuclear-related sanctions now when everyone says Iran is holding up its end of the deal?
INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute - because if the U.S. were to reimpose sanctions, it gives the government a chance to blame the United States for things. Is that what you're saying?
KENYON: That's right - not that they aren't trying that already. But if the sanctions come back on, that could lend some real weight to those claims.
INSKEEP: Let me circle back to something you said at the very beginning. You said that the U.S. has kept the nuclear deal while pressuring Iran in other ways. What are some of those other ways?
KENYON: Well, what they're trying to do is get - writing up of new sanctions. They're trying to rally Western ally support for either new talks or new sanctions or new pressure on issues, like the behavior in Syria, in Yemen, in missiles. So the question is can the alliance work on a new way to pressure Iran without crumbling this nuclear agreement.
INSKEEP: Peter, thanks as always.
KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon.
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INSKEEP: Just last week, it looked like Florida's coastline would be opened up to oil and gas drilling.
MARTIN: This week - not so much.
MARTIN: Florida got an exemption from the Interior Department's controversial new permitting guidelines, so its coastline will remain pristine. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who's a Democrat, is calling the move a political stunt.
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BILL NELSON: The administration and Secretary Zinke shouldn't be playing politics with an issue that is so important to all of our futures - but especially so to Florida's future.
MARTIN: He's talking about interior secretary Ryan Zinke there. Zinke took Florida off the list after meeting with the state's Republican governor, Rick Scott.
INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen is on the line from Miami. Greg, good morning.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, so why really change course when it comes to Florida drilling?
ALLEN: Well, you know, Florida always - drilling has always been banned off the coast of Florida here because our beaches are kind of a key part of our tourism economy down here, and people are pretty much opposed to it. Last week when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke unveiled this plan to greatly expand offshore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, it led to immediate opposition here, including from our Republican Governor Rick Scott who said he immediately contacted Zinke, said he wanted a meeting this week with Zinke. He flew to Tallahassee, had a short meeting with Scott. And then he quickly came out and announced that Florida will be, in his words, taken off the table. That led to charges that this was a bit of a political move, one that would boost Scott in his expected run against Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent for the Senate later this year.
INSKEEP: Oh, Scott is finishing his governorship and thinking about other offices he could run for, OK.
ALLEN: That's right. He's finishing his second term now. And he hasn't indicated yet, but he's been raising a lot of money. And it seems like he's going to be running against Bill Nelson.
INSKEEP: But wait a minute. If I'm hearing that Florida is being exempted from offshore drilling, and I'm a tourism official in South Carolina, I might say wait a minute. What about Hilton Head? If I'm from North Carolina, I might say wait a minute. What about the Outer Banks? Is every other state going to want to be exempt too?
ALLEN: Just about every other state on the coast - the West Coast and the East Coast - have said they want the same treatment. They kind of brought quite of an uproar yesterday. And we've heard this from Democrats and Republicans. And South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster there says their beaches need protection for the same reasons that Florida beaches need protection. You know, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Oregon, California - you name it. They're all saying the same thing. And this raises questions about the arbitrary and capricious manner - is what some people are saying - that the way this decision was made and whether that could stand up to legal challenges if the states want to go to court here.
INSKEEP: This is the second time this week we've had this phrase arbitrary and capricious applied to the administration. It's just the idea that they must apply the law in a fair and sensible way, right?
ALLEN: Right, and this is a long process to be going forward. It will take lots of public comment. A spokesman for Zinke says a lot of people will be able to make question - make public comment here, and governors are welcome to come and meet with Zinke and express their concerns. And they'll see how this goes forward.
INSKEEP: Greg, thanks as always.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONMA'S "BONFIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.