Budget Deal: The White House View
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JIM LEHRER: Now to separate Newsmaker interviews with key players on both sides of this deal, beginning with a view from the White House and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. Mr. Panetta, welcome.
LEON PANETTA: Nice to be with you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: From the President’s point of view, what does this 1996 deal mean? What is it from your all’s point of view?
MR. PANETTA: Well, it’s, it’s a final hope that we can resolve as we have in this agreement the ’96 appropriations. My goodness, we’re almost seven months into the ’96 year. We’ve been through 13 continuing resolutions, two government shutdowns. To be very frank, I think this is an agreement we could have achieved six months ago if the Republicans were willing at that time to sit down and negotiate on the President’s concerns with regards to priorities. We’ve always indicated that we’re willing to get savings. We’ve got $23 billion here in savings. That was really not the issue.
The more fundamental issue is where the cuts were made. They tried to eliminate the National Service program. They tried to eliminate the program involving summer jobs for kids. They tried to cut Title 1 programs in education by almost a billion dollars. They had environmental riders that basically allowed for greater timbering and logging in our national forests, undermining our wetlands enforcement.
They had provisions that gutted the 100,000 cop provision that the provision had put in place. These were the major issues that we had said were not acceptable. They were willing fortunately to allow the administration to restore those priorities, and that, frankly, opened the door to getting this agreement.
JIM LEHRER: So you got everything you want from the President’s point of view? He got everything he wanted out of this negotiation.
MR. PANETTA: Well, in a negotiation there’s give and take. You never get everything you wanted, obviously, in this kind of negotiation. We didn’t want to give up some programs. There were some environmental issues we didn’t want to fully give on that we were willing to compromise on. The population provision that was added by Sen. Hatfield that we supported he had to give up on because the House would not accept it, so it’s never everything you wanted, but very frankly, this goes a very long way to restoring the President’s priorities, and frankly the priorities of the American people.
JIM LEHRER: Why did it take so long to get to this point?
MR. PANETTA: I think the real answer to that, Jim, is that the Republicans made the wrong decision about how they would use their appropriations bill. I think they always thought that they could use this in a way that would basically blackmail or force the President through the threat of a government shutdown to basically accept their overall budget recommendations that they were pushing in their budget, and that they felt that if they could use the appropriations process to force the President to either make a choice between shutting down the federal government or accepting their priorities in their budget, the $270 billion cut in Medicare, the cuts that they had in education, almost $30 billion in education cuts, as well as some other tax increases on working families, that suddenly the President would back away and accept that.
That didn’t work. It didn’t work. We went through two shutdowns. We went through, as I said, almost 13 continuing resolutions, and I think it frankly was the strategy that blew up on the Republicans. But I think that’s the main reason we’re here where we are seven months into the ’96 appropriations year is that they really thought that if they continued to push on this, that ultimately the President would give, and that didn’t happen.
JIM LEHRER: Does this signal the end of the Republican revolution?
MR. PANETTA: Well, let me put it this way. I think that what the Republicans need to understand in the Congress is something they didn’t understand in the, in their first year in power, which is that you don’t get everything you want, and you certainly don’t do it by using bullying tactics on the President or on the American people. They have legitimate positions to advance. They’ve got arguments to advance, but in the end, when you’re legislating, when you’re dealing with the President of the United States, you’ve got to sit down and work these issues through. It has to be a bipartisan effort in the end. It can’t be a partisan effort.
You can’t get everything you want in this business, particularly when, when a lot of their positions were extreme in terms of the American people overall, so they needed to sit down, they needed to negotiate, they needed to understand what the constitutional and legislative process is all about, and finally they’re beginning to understand some of that.
I think the ability to get a terrorism bill through, passed overwhelmingly, signed by the President, the ability to get a health care bill through, the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill, passed a hundred to zero in the Senate because it was basically worked out on a bipartisan basis, and here you’ve got a budget agreement now worked out on the appropriations bill that passed almost by close to 400 votes in the House. That happened because there was a willingness to sit down in a bipartisan basis and come to an agreement. If they learned that lesson, then we can make this a productive session. If they haven’t, if they’re going to go back to partisan politics, if they basically decided they’re still going to go back and try to do their own thing, very frankly, it’s not going to work.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s move to the next step. Within an hour or so ago, the Republican leadership had a news conference on the Hill and said that they were not prepared to sit down yet and negotiate with you all about the seven-year balanced budget plan. How do you read that?
MR. PANETTA: That’s unfortunate. I read that as basically a decision that they want to repeat the mistakes they made in 1995, in this kind of go-it-alone, try to shove it to the President and country kind of approach. That doesn’t work.
JIM LEHRER: Is that what they’re trying to do? Do you think that’s what they’re trying to do?
MR. PANETTA: Well–
JIM LEHRER: Shove it to the country?
MR. PANETTA: I think the problem is that when they, when they decide that they’re going to do it themselves and not recognize that you really have to sit down and negotiate these issues through, if you really want to get something done, then I don’t understand what their strategy is.
Are they trying to just make a statement to the country? Are they trying basically just to say that regardless of where the President and the American people are we’re going to cut Medicare deeply, we’re going to get rid of the entitlement in Medicaid, we’re going to raise taxes on working families? If they take that position, we’re going to see all of the, the, I think, the tragic events of those last few months repeated. That, that is not what the President wants, frankly. The President has said let’s sit down and negotiate and try to get to a balanced budget; let’s do it the way we did it on this budget agreement that we arrived at on appropriations. That’s the model for what we ought to do on a seven year balanced budget plan.
JIM LEHRER: What they said a short time ago was that the President wasn’t serious about a seven, a seven-year balanced budget, and that the figures weren’t honest, the approach was not honest, and that’s the reason they weren’t willing to sit down right now.
MR. PANETTA: Well, what I’m hearing now, frankly, is a lot of bobbing and weaving, dodging, and maneuvering that I don’t think makes a lot of sense. The President has presented a budget. Even in the negotiations that we had with the Republicans, we were at a point where we had $700 billion in common savings that had been worked out on both sides.
That was more than enough to balance the budget. The President’s budget, incidentally, now has been confirmed by the Congressional Budget Office, their Congressional Budget Office, as achieving balance, not only achieving balance but doing it with a surplus. So, so if they’re saying that it’s phony, then they’ve got to say that their own CBO is phony in the way they analyze these budgets. I, I don’t think that, that they’re trying to honestly look at what the President has put on the table and try to work with it. I think right now that they’re a little bit undecided as to what their strategy is going to be, and it shows.
JIM LEHRER: How much do you think Presidential politics are driving this?
MR. PANETTA: Well, I’m sure there’s some of that involved here. You’ve got the Majority Leader of the United States Senate who’s the nominee for the Republican Party and the President of the United States representing the other party who’s the other candidate. But, you know, the President has said and I have said that there is plenty of time here in which to run a campaign.
We’ve got almost three, four months before the national conventions, and then we’ll have a campaign that’ll run through November. There’s plenty of time to fight out the issues in the campaign. Right now, we’ve got a very unique opportunity to do some good things for the American people. We showed that we could do it with the terrorism bill, and the President signed it. We showed that we could do it with the health care reform bill, the Kennedy-Kassebaum Bill. We showed, frankly, that we could do it with this appropriations agreement that was just enacted today.
So if they sit down, we can do it on a balanced budget, we can do it on welfare reform, but it has to be a two-way street. There’s got to be a willingness to negotiate. Each side has to give a little, and that’s how you do the job under our process.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. Panetta, thank you very much.