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MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue one: The first of the first 100.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From videotape.) Issues related to public schools are not a Republican issue or Democrat issue. It's an American issue.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The start-up of George Bush's first 100 days in office focused on three big issues: education, taxes, and overseas U.S. government-funded abortions. The first 100 days ritual is a trendy media yardstick to gauge whether a fledgling presidency will fly or will fall or will flutter in place. The education of our youth is clearly uppermost in the president's priorities and in his consciousness.

PRESIDENT BUSH: (From videotape.) My focus will be on making sure every child is educated.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: During the week, Bush held meetings with schoolchildren, with experts, and with leaders of both political parties. On Tuesday President Bush presented his $48 billion education plan that is designed to, one, give states more power to spend that money; two, increase literacy funding; three, testing of students nationwide, to see which schools are failing; four, federal ed money, or vouchers. If the schools flunk the new test, then Bush gives $1,500 in federal cash to parents, so that they can enroll their children in other, better schools of their choice.

Question: Is education still the politically hot issue it was during the campaign, Michael Barone?

MR. BARONE: John, I think it's even hotter. I mean -- and it's important to realize the big difference in education policy that George W. Bush's program means. If you flash back to seven years ago, the Democrats were talking about standards, but they had these so-called opportunity-to-learn standards, which was just another word for pumping more money into a failed system with no accountability.

What Bush is talking about is taking the direction that the states are already moving -- towards more standards in testing, having tough tests every year, with real accountability. We know from the private sector that when people are held accountable, they behave better and perform better, and I think that we're going to see that in this system.


MS. CLIFT: Well, first of all, he's produced a plan that barely mentions vouchers, and it has a form of national testing. He gets around the conservatives' objections to national testing. It's a plan that Democrats are happy with. In fact, it's a plan modeled after what Senator Joe Lieberman introduced. And Ted Kennedy has given it its blessing. This could not have been a better week for George W. Bush. Kennedy endorses his education plan. Greenspan blesses his tax cut.

And John, the ban on family planning funds is not U.S. money that pays for abortions. U.S. money has not paid for abortions overseas since the '70s. This is family planning funds to organizations that use their own money to counsel abortion. But he's going to get away with that as well. I mean, this has been a charmed week for the new president.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think of Eleanor's appraisal, especially the alleged bipartisanship of Kennedy? Do you think he should be cautioned by that?

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, a little bit. Look, to answer your first question, yes, it's still a hot issue. But party polling is showing that economics is now -- and the economy -- is beginning to slip above education as the number-one concern.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Right. You hear that, Michael? Education is no longer the sizzler; economics is.

MR. BLANKLEY: It's number two. It's a strong number two, and it's an important issue.

But -- and he's had a wonderful week. But the fact is that if he has to give up vouchers -- and he's still fighting for it -- but if he has to give up vouchers, then it's very easy to slip off his yearly testing, because the only reason you need yearly testing is in order to determine three years in a row of bad performance to go into the voucher program. And I think he could slip easily into a fairly Democratic-looking bill.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You know, it doesn't surprise me that people like O'Donnell and Clift like this education program. Forty-eight billion dollars is in there too. We're not forgetting that, are we? Plus this national testing. You love that. You love the plan, don't you?

MR. O'DONNELL: It's a pretty good plan. But the most important power that it has has been it's created this incredible charm offensive for George W. Bush with people like Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller, the extreme liberals of the House and the Senate, walking out of the White House this week, standing on the White House lawn saying, "Very reasonable man, very reasonable proposal, we can work with this president."

MR. BARONE: Even though if they were in power themselves, they would be doing, as the Democrats did in '94, something very different. Joe Lieberman, on the one hand, has definitely proposed something like this, but what Kennedy would have been for would be very different.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You don't think Kennedy, "Mr. Kind Guy" and "Mr. Bipartisan Guy" this week on this education plan was giving himself some cover for his nasty, demagogic behavior with Ashcroft?

MR. O'DONNELL: He doesn't need any cover in Massachusetts for the way he cross-examined John Ashcroft. He has lots of --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I'm talking about with his fellow Democrats. They really didn't like the way he performed with Ashcroft; true or false?

MR. O'DONNELL: Ted Kennedy, long-time chairman of the Education Committee, Labor and Education Committee in the Senate, this is his issue. And when he talks about this issue, he's not trying to get credit for anything he's done on anything else. It's a very serious moment when he comes to an agreement --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, here's a question from a'er. "Liberals are so beholden to teachers unions that they will do nothing to challenge the status quo and teachers' job security. If Microsoft monopoly is bad for consumers because it stifles innovation and improvement, then what possible reason would the government have for encouraging a monopoly in education?" So says Chris Watts of Toronto. What do you say to Watts, Tony? Do you follow his point?

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, I do, and I take his point.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think the teachers' unions have kind of a monopoly?

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, on the Democratic side of the aisle, very few Democrats don't pay a lot of attention to the National Education Association, teachers' unions. That's why they're going to vote en bloc against vouchers. And that's going to be the test whether Bush is able to hold on and get enough Democrats to vote with him and to keep the vouchers component.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That brings us up to the exit question. On a probability scale of zero to 10, zero meaning zero probability, 10 meaning metaphysical certitude, what's the probability of Bush's getting vouchers through the Congress? Michael Barone.

MR. BARONE: I think Eleanor's right. It's a small part of this bill and I don't think its elimination would eviscerate the bill. I think accountability is important. I'd give it a four.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And you think that this is a sop to conservatives, anyway, isn't it, vouchers, and that George W. is willing to give it up? He believes in it himself, but he's also willing to give it up to get his main plan through, isn't he?

MR. BARONE: I think he's going to fight it, but if it comes out of the bill in votes in the House and the Senate, he's not going to veto the rest.


MS. CLIFT: His chance of getting it is 000.2.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MR. BLANKLEY: I suppose his chances are fairly slight, but I'm going to say about a four. I think he's going to make more of a fight of it than most people think.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean a full vouchers bill?

MR. BLANKLEY: The proposal he has, that after three years, parents get the special ed money to take to any school they want, public or private.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It was brilliant of him to phrase the voucher request that way.

MR. BLANKLEY: Voucher.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No, no, no, that the schools fail. That's what gives it the plausibility and the justifiability, wouldn't you say?

MR. O'DONNELL: As welcoming and supportive as Ted Kennedy has been on George W. Bush's education proposal, he will, if he has to, filibuster the vouchers. The vouchers have about a 1.5 chance of ever becoming law.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No, I'll tell you how Kennedy is going to be permitted, and other liberal Democrats, to vote in favor of vouchers. It will be a voucher demonstration.

MR. O'DONNELL: And voted against that already.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Can I finish?

MR. BARONE: Lawrence --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: A voucher demonstration project, carefully hemmed in -- that's what he'll get. And that will be the camel's nose under the tent.

When we come --

MR. O'DONNELL: The Democrats have killed that already .

MR. BARONE: No, they -- I mean, that was a different situation and different setting, Lawrence. They can't just count on a Clinton veto anymore. They can't count on having the bully pulpit. I think that they may be shifting on this, as they have on some other things.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: On a demonstration project basis -- that gives them their cover with the unions.

When we come back, why did President Clinton issue a pardon to a fugitive financier who will now get away scot-free with $48 million in income tax evasion? Did Marc Rich buy himself a pardon?


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue two: tax cuts. Return to Sender.

(Music: "Return to Sender," sung by Elvis Presley.)

SEN. ZELL MILLER (D-GA): (From videotape.) Remember that old Elvis Presley song "Return to Sender"? That's what we're wanting to do right here. That's what we're wanting to do with this overpayment of taxes.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That's Democratic Senator Zell Miller, giving President Bush a big bipartisan boost for his other first 100 days' top priority, namely, tax relief.

Last Monday Democrat Miller joined Texas Republican Phil Gramm as co-sponsor of Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut. Miller supports the tax cut for the same reasons that Gramm and the bill's principal author, George Bush, does.

SEN. MILLER: (From videotape.) I was not prepared for the shock of just how matter-of-factly Congress ate into the surplus, gobbled it up without hesitation.

And it became clear to me that if we don't send this overpayment of taxes back to those who paid it, much of it will be just frittered away.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Bush's plan was given another green light this week by an even higher authority: the sainted Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Fed.

(Music: "The Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah.")

ALAN GREENSPAN (chairman of the Federal Reserve): (From videotape.) If long-term fiscal stability is the criterion, it if far better, in my judgment, that the surpluses be lowered by tax reductions than by spending increases.

Should current economic weakness spread beyond what now appears likely, having a tax cut in place may in fact do noticeable good.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Alan has changed his mind. In the past, he's said the surplus should be used to pay down the debt. Now he says there's plenty of room for tax cuts as well.

How big a change is this for the fabled Alan? I ask you, Eleanor Clift.

MS. CLIFT: Well, it's not as big as everybody is making it seem. He initially testified he would prefer the money go to pay down the debt, but if it were to be spent, he would prefer it on tax cuts. Now he's looking at the numbers that everybody else is looking at, and saying, "Well, if we're going use this money, better for tax cuts than spending those."


MS. CLIFT: He had lots of caveats. But nonetheless, he's a huge ally for Bush.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Unbelievable!

MS. CLIFT: I don't discount that.

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, but not -- Eleanor, you're wrong in one regard. Greenspan's analysis saying that with the surplus now looking into the trillions of dollars, that it's dangerous to the economy to have the government keep that money -- that suggests not only this first $1.6 billion tax cut, but maybe next year, if the surplus continues to be projected that high, another one, because he's saying there's a positive danger to having a surplus --

MS. CLIFT: Right.

MR. BARONE: Yes. Well, he's brought us down back into the discussion of looking -- what it would look like. Al Gore was talking during the campaign about how great it would be to have no federal debt anymore. Alan Greenspan is bringing us back to the reality, which is that the Treasury needs to have a certain amount of debt in order to basically clear the government's books, that Treasury bonds are a useful benchmark investment which should be available to investors and without which the investment world will be worse off, and that if the government gets the surplus and eliminates the debt, it's going to then buy up the private market, which is not desirable.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Gore went even beyond that. Gore said it would be irresponsible and economically ruinous to have a tax cut. No one can say that anymore. Alan has spoken. (Laughter.) It could yield noticeable good.

MR. BARONE: Well, someone can say it --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think? Isn't this an invaluable gift?

MR. O'DONNELL: Yeah. Not only is no one going to say that anymore, but the Greenspan testimony gives Democrats who wanted to vote for something close to the Bush tax cut all the cover they need to start emerging and saying so. And you see perhaps one of the most important Democrats in the Senate on this subject, Max Baucus, who is the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, saying he's ready to go most of the way on Bush's tax cut.

MR. BARONE: And whose state was carried 58-33 by George Bush.

MS. CLIFT: Wait a second! There are very few, very few people who believe that Bush is going to get a tax cut of the magnitude we're talking about, and the latest tabulations have it up to $1.9 trillion.

MR. BLANKLEY: Oh, look --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Wait a minute! Where did that come from?

MR. BLANKLEY: No, look. Gephardt --

MS. CLIFT: You had it 1.6 --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I see 1.3, I see 1.6. The original is 1.6 Now you're --

MS. CLIFT: Because it's so backloaded into the --

MR. BLANKLEY: No, no. Eleanor --

MS. CLIFT: Excuse me, Tony. It's so backloaded into the --

MR. BLANKLEY: You're excused. But, Eleanor --

MS. CLIFT: Excuse me!! I want to finish my sentence.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Let her finish.

MR. BLANKLEY: You are finished. (Laughter.)

MS. CLIFT: No I'm not. It's backloaded into the future years. But the point is there's going to be a tax cut. It's going to be sizable --

MR. BLANKLEY: Okay, now --

MS. CLIFT: -- but it's not going to be as massive as Bush expects, if he wants to pay for everything else.

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, Dick -- Dick --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Wait! Tony's in pain!

With your gentlemanly clothes, you've got to behave with a certain amount of chivalry towards this lovely lady.

MS. CLIFT: No, he's got to prove himself to his conservative colleagues! (Laughs.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Now what do you -- what's your point?

MR. BLANKLEY: Dick Gephardt, this week, said he could go for $800 million in tax cuts. That's up from --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: They're climbing. They're all climbing.

MR. BLANKLEY: So that is now the bottom from which to go --

MR. BARONE: Well, but Gephardt is obviously reflecting what he's hearing in the Democratic Caucus.

MR. BLANKLEY: I think he's going to get very close and maybe get the full amount. But one point. Right now he's got a little problem with the House Republicans who want to break up the bill. And I think they're going to go to a retreat next week, and the White House is going to be lobbying the back benches in the Republican House to persuade their leadership to go with the whole package one at a time.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All right, I want to get to the pay dirt question -- this affects you.

With Greenspan in his corner, will Bush now be able to get the income tax broad-based rate cuts he outlined in his campaign: 39.6 percent -- highest rate to 33 percent, 28 to 25 percent, and 15 to 12 percent. Will he be able to get them?

MR. BARONE: I think he'll get something very much like those numbers, although not necessarily identical.

MS. CLIFT: He'll get across-the-board rate cuts --


MS. CLIFT: -- but he's got to move the rewards down the income scale in order to get the Democratic vote.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, the fight is going to be over the top bracket, the worthy top bracket of hard-working, productive people --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Who pay 3 percent of everything.

MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah. And we'll see. I think the Democrats are going to be resistant at lowering the top rate.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think it's going to drop to, that top rate?

MR. BLANKLEY: Thirty-five.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Thirty-five? Oh, there's still hope.

MR. O'DONNELL: Look at how the debate has shifted. The Democrats were willing to go, during the campaign, to $300 billion; no rate cuts whatsoever; all targeted. There's now no question that there will be rate cuts, the tax cut will be huge, and most importantly now, if Bush gets to do it in a reconciliation package, the entire bill in one reconciliation bill, they don't need a single Democratic vote -- not one.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All rates will be cut?

MR. O'DONNELL: All rates. All rates.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You know that Clinton didn't go for a lot of this. Does that mean that the Democrats are going to just push Clinton over the side, say that was Clinton's idea; we have our idea?

MR. BARONE: With Alan Greenspan's testimony, you now will have a feeding frenzy for tax cuts. You've got a minimum of 60 votes in the Senate right now for Bush tax cuts.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Ah, things are looking up all over. You're all correct.

Issue three: Clinton's clemencies. Hours before leaving office, former President Clinton issued a final round of pardons and commutations, 176 in all, to tax cheats, swindlers, frauds, embezzlers, influence peddlers, racketeers, left-wing radicals and assorted felonious others, and half-brother Roger. Not since the opening of the gates of the Bastille have so many criminals been liberated on a single day, as some have observed.

So, do we now have a fresh Clinton scandal brewing? Here's a sample of a Clinton pardon: Fugitive financier Marc Rich, wanted by the FBI and on the lam for 17 years in Switzerland, accused of 51 counts of conspiracy, racketeering, a $48 million tax evasion, and for trading with the enemy, Iran, during the 444 days when 52 U.S. citizens were held hostage in Tehran. "Indefensible" is what the New York Times calls it. The prosecutors of Rich are stunned, notably New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Mayor of New York): (From videotape.) Oh, I'm shocked that the president of the United States would pardon him. After all, he never paid a price.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Pardons routinely go to those who have spent time in jail, and pardons are usually recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice. But not for Rich. No jail time, no Justice Department. But Rich's lawyer was Mr. Clinton's lawyer, Jack Quinn, Clinton's White House counsel, who passionately pled Rich's case to Clinton.

Why did Clinton say yes to Rich? Some say because Rich's ex-wife, Denise, gave over $1 million to the Democratic Party, including $7,000 to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign, plus the very recent $7,300 to furnish the Clinton's new $2.8 million Washington, D.C. home. Over the past year, Denise reportedly visited the Clintons -- get this -- 100 times.

Question: Why did Clinton pardon Marc Rich, a fugitive financier, who now gets way scot-free with $48 million in income tax evasion? Tony Blankley. Why did he do it?

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, it's not only $48 million, because it's interest over 18 years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What's the total amount?

MR. BLANKLEY: About 300-and-some million, when you count the interest, 1 percent a month, that you pay as a penalty to the IRS.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Not bad, huh?

MR. BLANKLEY: So it's a huge sum of money. It's not yet obvious, although there are suspicions as to the motivation. Jack Quinn did his lawyerly job of presenting the legal case. The more contentious question is whether the money coming from elsewhere had a role or whether there's some payoff yet to come.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean for Hillary.

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, who knows?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Because Denise has become practically the Pamela Harriman of New York, so she could certainly -- she could swell her coffers, couldn't she?

MR. BLANKLEY: And there's already an investigation being started in the House by Chairman Dan Burton to look into how this deal came about.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think about this?

MR. O'DONNELL: Well there's an unmentioned element in this. The money, the huge money and using Jack Quinn as the lawyer got access. And Jack Quinn specifically got this right into the president's face in a way that was a horrible misuse of his previous position in the White House. But what --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Quinn has used his previous position?

MR. O'DONNELL: Yeah. He went too close to the ethics line. The ethics line says you're allowed to go in there and plead on a pardon. But should, really, a former White House counsel be pleading pardons to the president of the United States under any circumstances?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: There's going to be much more at stake than just Quinn's persuasion.

MR. O'DONNELL: But the underlying mistake of the Clintons here that's going on is it's a fundamental misreading of what they believe is New York Jewish politics. All of the letters for Marc Rich were coming from Israel. All of the support on releasing him that -- many of those letter writers didn't know that these were being presented to get pardons --

MR. BARONE: Well, it's Hillary's campaign that was concerned about it, of course.

MR. O'DONNELL: They misread what they think the Jewish vote in New York turns on, and this is --

MS. CLIFT: Well, this is --


MS. CLIFT: Well, this is bad taste, it's bad politics, it's bad legacy-building, and it's a very bad start for her in the Senate.

But there are some mitigating factors. First of all, the Justice Department was aware -- Eric Holder, the number two, knew this was coming and he didn't do anything about it --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Wait a minute! Wait a minute!

MS. CLIFT: -- and that's going to be something that --

MR. BARONE: The Pardon Office wasn't aware.

MS. CLIFT: Wait a second! That's something that the Congress is going to explore, correctly so.

MR. O'DONNELL: He was aware of it a couple of days before it happened.

MR. BLANKLEY: No, that's not true.

MS. CLIFT: Secondly, if Mr. Rich does come back to this country, just like O.J., they're going to get him in a civil case and they're going to -- and unlike O.J. Simpson --

MR. BARONE: But he gains a lot of defenses --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Wait a minute! Let her finish!

MS. CLIFT: Unlike O.J., he's going to have to pay real money. So maybe we'll get some satisfaction that way.

MR. BARONE: But he gained some defenses and some advantages and that kind of a thing that he would not have without the pardon.

Look, I think --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He's not off the hook.

MR. BLANKLEY: Look, John --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He can be gone after on a civil basis.

MR. BARONE: The Clintons have shown the system works. Everybody did well out of this one. The Clintons got a million dollars into the Democratic Party, Hillary got a sofa and some chairs, Marc Rich got the use of $48 million to amass $300 million, or whatever it was. You know, this is just the system. Of course the Justice Department and the Justice system --

MS. CLIFT: And the Clinton-haters get --


(Cross talk.)

MR. BLANKLEY: I want to get one point in here. Jack Quinn obeyed the law, the lawyer's exception to the five-year rule. He's perfectly entitled to make the legal case --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's an executive act; it's not a judicial act. His excuse folds.

MR. BLANKLEY: No, you may go as far as a lawyer. And also, he informed the Justice Department on, I think, November 29th. So Quinn is perfectly -- it's Clinton --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What was his fee? How much was he paid?

MR. BLANKLEY: I don't know. It's Clinton we should be looking at, not the lawyer who is just doing his job.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I'm hearing his fee was $4 million from Rich. How's that?

MR. BLANKLEY: I don't know. That's a wonderful fee, if he can get it.

MS. CLIFT: Well, Jack Quinn, as a loyal Democrat, should never have put President Clinton in this position.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Never. Never.

MS. CLIFT: And Clinton should have been smart enough not to get into this position.

MR. BARONE: Well, the fact is, this just goes to prove what we all know, which is that these people, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, are trash.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, the Clintons gift caper. When they left the White House, the Clintons took with them $190,000 in gifts. The gifts were given in such a way so as to allow Hillary to avoid Senate ethics restrictions.

Question: Did Senator Clinton frustrate the intent of the Senate's ethics rules when she registered her gift preferences like a bride-to-be -- furniture, china, flatware -- and the timing of the gifts, receiving them after her election in early November, during that two-month span, before taking the senatorial oath of office in early January, when even her friend, Ms. Pynoos out there in California said if you make a donation -- if you donate a gift to her, make sure you get it in before she takes her oath of office. And Clinton didn't even know what the gift was.

What do you think of all that?

MR. O'DONNELL: Well, you know, the gift ban applies once you're in office. And also, these gifts, they're mostly from people like Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson. They're people in Hollywood who make absolutely no claim on government. You can't suggest for a second that $5,000 worth of tables and chairs from Steven Spielberg --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, what do you think of it from the point of view of --

MR. O'DONNELL: -- is either a sizable contribution from him, because it isn't, it's nothing, it's pennies -- or that it could have any influence over Senator Clinton is just preposterous.


MR. O'DONNELL: He's asks nothing of the -- these donors ask nothing of the government.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You don't think there's a quid pro quo?

MS. CLIFT: But it looks terrible. It looks terrible.

MR. O'DONNELL: No, there's no quid pro quo.

MS. CLIFT: She's about to get $8 million for a book. You know, why didn't she wait and buy her own flatware with her own money --

MR. BARONE: From a company controlled by CBS --

MS. CLIFT: -- instead of handing Michael and the right wing all of these weapons --

MR. BARONE: No -- (inaudible) --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think, except O'Donnell, we're collectively wringing our hands here.

We'll be right back with predictions.


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Out of time! Bye-bye!





MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue four: Unlimited calling.

In today's relentless, 24/7 culture, a new survival sine qua non is the wireless phone. Nationwide over a third of the population now has some kind of wireless phone, and the number is growing. Every 1.5 seconds a new wireless customer signs up.

The future of such phones is breathtaking -- i.e., their linkage to the Internet and, with it, e-mail, stock quotes, e-commerce, et cetera -- all in the palm of your hand, no wires.

But besides their blessing and promise, wireless phones also have their rich annoyances.

Item: health. German researchers released the first study directly linking wireless phone use to cancer of the eye.

Item: safety. Using a wireless phone while driving quadruples the risk of accidents. Suffolk County, New York, recently outlawed the use of cell phones while driving.

Item: unreliable service. One in eight wireless phone users complain of dead spots, calls dropping off in mid-conversation, punitive fees for cancelling even faulty service, and other shortcomings and abuses.

Item: public nuisance. Restaurants, churches, theaters, shopping centers suffer rude disturbances from calling alerts, whether rings, jingles, buzzes, or whatever, and high-decibel yakking, leading some establishments -- get this -- to install metal mesh screens in walls and ceilings to simply block all audio transmissions.

All of which has led Congressman Anthony Weiner, Democrat from New York, to put a measure before Congress setting basic standards of quality and consumer protection for wireless phone users, including an FCC complaint hot line.

REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D-NY): (From videotape.) If you wanted to shop around to see where the service was good or bad, you couldn't do it. No one will tell you.

I think it's time for the FCC to at the very least start to compile complaints, start to require the cell phone companies to report where their service operates.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Is Weiner right? Should the government step into the world of the wireless phone, thus provide meaningful federal reassurance and protection of consumers? (To Mr. O'Donnell.) I ask you.

MR. O'DONNELL: Weiner is right. It's a good idea. But in the more sophisticated markets, like Los Angeles, the most important cell phone market in the world, every cell phone vendor will show you a map of exactly where they work, where they don't work, where they partially work. And they can't compete without having that map in the more sophisticated markets. But yeah, they should have it nationwide.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: If you call up and you ask them, they won't tell you. I tried it.

MR. O'DONNELL: Well, in my market they do. They're very good about it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Really? In L.A.?

MR. BARONE: John, it's just -- (off mike) -- sophisticated enough customer.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Those are sweet people out there.

MR. O'DONNELL: They are.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. They wear the chain, too, around their necks, right?

MS. CLIFT: Look, I'm always for more sunshine for consumers, but John, are you calling for more government regulation?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I am. I do feel --

MS. CLIFT: We have a Republican administration now. Maybe if Ralph Nader had won, you might get some relief. But I wouldn't count on it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think meaningful federal oversight to protect consumers in this area is necessary.

MR. BARONE: Well, John --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: All he wants -- he's got no gripe against the cell phone itself, only against the distribution signals --

MR. BARONE: Well, John --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: -- and he wants the FCC to collect complaints, so that we can do what we do with airlines: we can know what the rate of lost baggage is, on time, not on time. That would help clean things up, believe me.

MR. BARONE: John, that's a modest suggestion and probably makes good sense. And I think Lawrence is right; as the market grows, you're going to have an incentive for people to show their system absolutely works.

I can show you -- you know, don't try, when you're in a cab in Washington, to make a cell phone call if you're within a couple blocks of the White House, particularly if it's been --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: If you try to retrieve a message, once you've pressed that for one second, you're billed for one minute.

MR. BARONE: Well, the fact is, this is a --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: One second, whether you get the message --

MR. BARONE: If you go back and find out what -- you know, government has been involved in the cell phone business from the beginning, because government, among other things, assigns frequencies, as it must. This government, the FCC --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you have roam privileges?

MR. BARONE: The FC -- I'm not going to talk about my personal life. (Laughter.)