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JIM LEHRER: Suspend, define suspension as it is being used to describe what happened here today.
SUSAN DENTZER: I think they literally mean what they say, just that they’re going to stop these in-the-White-House, face-to-face discussions that they’ve been holding over the past several days, and, indeed, weeks and really go back, of course, the President wants to go to Bosnia, the Senate Majority Leader wants to go out and campaign in Iowa. They’ve got some other things on their agenda, and there’s a desire really to let a couple of forces play out at this point to see whether the two sides can’t move even closer on their areas of disagreement. One is to say that the Republican and Democratic governors are continuing to talk about ways to finesse the disagreements between the two parties on Medicaid. That’s a very important set of disagreements that has to be bridged. And secondly, there are efforts all over Capitol Hill at this point to reach bipartisan compromises on the size of tax cuts and these Medicare/Medicaid cuts, intra-party coalitions forming to discuss all of that, and, in essence, what seems to be happening is that leaders of both parties are saying let’s see if we can’t see a compromise develop out of Capitol Hill that will save us from the very hard-edge positions we’ve taken in our negotiations.
JIM LEHRER: Earlier this afternoon, when the word started leaking out of the meeting at the White House, the word was that these talks had broken down, and then they said, no, no, no, they haven’t broken down, they have been suspended. That’s a terrific difference, is there not?
SUSAN DENTZER: Yes, indeed. I think there are still many people in both sides who want to see them broken down, and who think that-
JIM LEHRER: And just declare them ended.
SUSAN DENTZER: -an agreement is impossible, declare them ended-
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Forget it.
SUSAN DENTZER:-and take the issue on to the campaign trail for November. But as you saw, from the very conciliatory remarks that the President and the Republican leaders have been making, they really do feel that they’ve made some progress. Essentially what’s happened, Jim, is the two sides really are dug in in key ways. The President is dug in on the size Éof Medicare and Medicaid cuts, and even though they, the administration had been working on some proposals to increase the savings that could be gained, they essentially concluded that politically the President would be a loser if he proposed additional savings.
JIM LEHRER: So he’s got to stay where he is.
SUSAN DENTZER: He’s got to stay where he is, and by the same token, the Republicans officially have to stay where they are on their latest proposal for the size of tax cuts, which is now somewhere between $185 billion and $240 billion, even though Émany Republicans, I’m told, even some of these so-called rabid House freshmen are saying, wait a minute, we really can’t afford a tax cut, we really have to make our first objective now to balance the budget first, and then we can talk about tax cuts, so both sides are so officially dug in that they’ve got to let a compromise come from outside. It’s kind of like a labor negotiation where management can’t make a proposal that the unions like, the unions can’t make a proposal that management will like but some sort of third party could come in and present them with something they might be able to live with.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll come back to that in a minute, but explain another thing to me. I watched all this and Kwame’s report summed it up very well, but I watched it all unfold today on television, and, and the first thing the Republicans spoke first and Sen. Dole said the next move is up to the President. All right. Now, a few minutes later from the White House, the President says, the way it ended is, I gave them a proposal, and it’s now on the table, now I’m waiting to hear back from them. Now, that is two and two and it doesn’t add up to four.
SUSAN DENTZER: Yes, but I think it’s also important to listen to something else that Sen. Dole said-
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SUSAN DENTZER: -which is, we’ll see if something else develops.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
SUSAN DENTZER: And the something else developing there is going to be this effort to, to show that there are enough votes in Capitol Hill in both parties, and particularly, it’s important to show that this is the case in the House. It’s been true for quite a while in the Senate, that there probably was sufficient support to pass a kind of a bipartisan budget plan that did not have tax cuts in it, or had a very small amount of tax cuts in it, and had some bigger Medicare/Medicaid savings numbers than the President had proposed. It’s important now to establish that that’s true in the House, that there are a sufficient number of House Republicans. Speaker Gingrich has said he would not bring to the floor any budget proposal that could not get 218 House Republican votes. That has seemed to suggest to many that a proposal more along the lines of that has been advanced by the coalition, the so-called coalition.
JIM LEHRER: The blue-dog Democrats.
SUSAN DENTZER: The blue-dog Democrats, that that could never see the light of day on the floor, but it’s important now to see if people are willing to back down from these positions and not have anybody be presented as having officially caved on it.
JIM LEHRER: I see. So it’s conceivable then when we talk about this magic thing that might develop on its own, what they’re really talking about then is a proposal that both sides could say, hey, look, this is the only thing that can be enacted into law. It’s not what we want. Yes, I’m not going to back down. No, you’re not going to back down, but if we want to have a budget proposal, this is it, and nobody endorses it, but everybody votes for it and signs it?
SUSAN DENTZER: That’s exactly right. I spoke this afternoon to Congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas, one of the leaders in the blue-dog coalition, snowed in in his home in Virginia, but he said that he personally believes that if they could get the coalition proposal onto the floor, which is a big “if”, of course, they’ve gotten no signal whatsoever from the Speaker that that would be allowed at this point, but they’ve made efforts beginning late last week to try to do that. They want this proposal brought to the House floor under a so-called open rule, that is to say subject to all kinds of amendments, let everybody pitch in on it. He believes that if they were able to pass it in the House, and he thinks that they possibly could, that the President would sign it, and that is the suggestion that, indeed, people are looking for a way out of this.
JIM LEHRER: Would it be correct then to say that what they have resolved after these 50 hours of discussion is that neither side can in their own politica from their own political bed, at least, put it grossly, cannot move any further?
SUSAN DENTZER: That’s right, and I want to emphasize-
JIM LEHRER: This is it.
SUSAN DENTZER: -Sen. Dole said on the clip that we saw that this was about policy, not about politics. Obviously, we disagree. There’s a lot of politics in this. There is policy in it, and that is where we get back to this discussion about how we will resolve the debate over Medicaid, because again the Republican governors have insisted that the program’s entitlement nature has to be ended, that block grants have to be the way this thing is structured. Money sent to the states, you could do with it what you will subject to some constraints. They have to bridge that also very important policy difference, as well as some other policy difference. There are some smaller things on the horizon, student loans and the Republican desire to end the program that the President introduced for direct student loan lending. Those things are important, and those do represent much more policy differences than political differences, but, in essence, you’re right, the political difference here is what has caused the suspension to be necessary.
JIM LEHRER: But they have- but that is -that is an arrival play; that is a destination in and of itself, that neither side can move any further, so no negotiations__further negotiations don’t make sense, so that’s why they have to go this other route, is that correct?
SUSAN DENTZER: That’s right. I think they’re essentially in the same paradoxical place they’ve been in for weeks. It’s utterly clear that they will reach a deal. It’s utterly clear that they have no idea yet how to get there, and so there’s this need now to let something kind of form outside the negotiations that have taken place in the White House.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, the question of tone. What brought on all this niceness and politeness today? I mean, every time in the past when something has been “suspended” or recessed or broken down, each side went to their briefing rooms and beat up on the other, but today they wouldn’t- nobody would take any bait at all. What’s going on there?
SUSAN DENTZER: Well, a couple of things. What I think, a sense that everybody has of just mutual disgust at the way things proceeded over the last few weeks, but it’s also a five-letter word called polls. Everybody’s numbers dropped over the last few weeks over the course of the partial shutdown. A very large segment of the public blames both parties here, but a larger segment blames the Congress. That’s a lot of the reason for the new Republican niceness, and I think there is genuinely a sense that the differences in the great scheme of things can’t be unbridgeable and that really we are at an important point in America’s fiscal history where we really do need to bridge them. When you have two sides talking about differences in Medicare, Medicaid, and other things that amount to a so-called staggering $100 billion in the context of annual federal budgets about $1 1/2 trillion, and an economy which will in a matter of years be $10 trillion in size, these are obviously not unbridgeable differences, and there is the sense very much that the American public expects them now to bridge these differences.
JIM LEHRER: And that point is not made often enough, where people can make a big thing about the ideology and the philosophies that are involved here- I’ve got to defend this, or I’ve got to fight for that- the numbers really are not that- taken in the context that you just laid them out- are not that far apart.
SUSAN DENTZER: Certainly not in the great scheme of things, that’s right.
JIM LEHRER: All right. And in the great scheme of things, we’ll be back to this story, I’m sure. Thank you very much, Susan.
SUSAN DENTZER: Thanks, Jim.