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As House GOP Unveils Budget, ‘Asymmetric Polarization’ Grips Washington

March 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A budget proposed Tuesday by House Republicans was met with stiff resistance from Democrats -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insisting it would not pass. Judy Woodruff and the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein discuss the ongoing partisan standoff and another fight over a stalled transportation bill.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to the ongoing gridlock in Congress, where House Republicans today rolled out their budget plan, and Democrats immediately objected.

A new election year battle took shape at the U.S. Capitol today, this one over the budget. House Republicans laid out their counterproposal to the blueprint that President Obama put forward last month.

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.: This is a path that we believe reignites and renews the American idea. It reclaims the opportunity society with a safety net, which we do believe must exist for people who cannot help themselves, for people who are down on their luck so they can get back on their feet. But we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The GOP proposal would slash the deficit by $3.3 trillion over the next decade. That would be on top of the $4 trillion in savings in the Obama budget.

Among other things, the Republicans make substantial reductions in Medicaid spending and repeal the president’s health care law. They also seek cost savings in Medicare, imposing changes for future recipients, those now under age 55.

The full House is expected to vote on the plan next week, but that’s as far as it will go.

In the Senate, the Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, made clear today that the House plan faces certain defeat in his chamber.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: We all recognize all that does is make the rich richer and have bigger hits to the middle class. And it ruins Medicare as we know it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama administration also objected to the Republican proposal, saying it lacked fairness.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: What the Ryan plan fails to do is in any way meet the test of balance that every credible person in this debate has said must be met if we’re going to deal with our fiscal challenges in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Ryan argued that if the Republican plan turns out to be an exercise in futility, it’s only because Democrats refuse to engage.

REP. PAUL RYAN: This budget process stops and ends if the Senate continues to do nothing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The two sides have also deadlocked over transportation funding for roads, bridges and rail lines now due to expire at the end of this month.

Last week, the Senate passed a two-year bill costing $109 billion with broad bipartisan support. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner has been unable to line up Republican backing for a larger five-year bill. With no agreement in sight, House Republican leaders today said they would offer another short-term extension of transportation funding.

For more on what’s behind this standoff over the budget and the fight over the transportation bill, we are joined by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He’s co-author of the forthcoming book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”

That’s a grim title.

(LAUGHTER)

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: And we’re getting more evidence every day, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Norm Ornstein, thank you for being with us again.

What is behind — peel the layers back for us. What’s behind what has led Congress yet again to be at this state?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, we’re facing as close to real gridlock as we have seen in a very long period of time.

And a good part of it is, in an overall sense, we have parties acting like parliamentary parties. What Paul Ryan’s budget put out was a partisan attempt to put a marker out there. We don’t have a parliamentary system. And when you’ve got divided government, it means that you come to a stop.

At the same time, if we look at the transportation issue, we’ve got some of the old verities that we have seen, which is the House and Senate differ often as much as the two parties do. So, here we have a different vision of what to do with transportation, a broad bipartisan majority, 74 votes in the Senate, passing the bill to do highways and mass transit.

And the House Republicans disagree with their own Senate Republican counterparts as much as they do with the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, so, is this any different from what we have seen over the last few years where they haven’t been able to agree on much of anything?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, what we had in the first two years of the Obama administration was a parliamentary system working in a sense, where Democrats, without Republican votes, passed a major share of legislative accomplishments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When the Democrats were in charge of the House.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Democrats were in charge of everything.

But, in a parliamentary culture, everybody accepts the legitimacy that the majority can do that and the minority will oppose. In ours, if it’s not done in a broad bipartisan way, half the country believes it’s illegitimate. So we have gone from a spate of accomplishments viewed by half as illegitimate to no accomplishments at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, talk about what’s going on underneath, and in reverse order, the transportation bill, which we mentioned then.

As I understand it, there has not been a transportation bill passed by Congress that’s been funded, except in a temporary manner, for the last five years.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s going on there?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And, you know, we simply have different party visions of what to do with transportation. And that means infrastructure more broadly.

How are we going to fund it? We fund it through a highway trust fund that is gasoline taxes. An unwillingness to raise those taxes, even to take into account inflation, has put that into jeopardy. We have questions about whether we’re going to fund mass transit in that fashion and an attempt to cut back dramatically overall.

But with the party differences, we have not been able to get anything done. Remember, the Federal Aviation Administration deadlock that resulted in a partial shutdown was a similar phenomenon. And what this means is that any attempt to do long-term planning out in the local areas is foiled.

And now we’re going to get yet another short-term extension and very little likelihood that we will come to an agreement next month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s happening in the House, though? As we mentioned, Speaker Boehner trying to get some agreement here, he’s having difficulty even with his own Republicans, who have a 50-seat majority there.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The House Republicans have put out a transportation bill that basically cuts mass transit funding off from a steady stream of revenue from the highway trust fund.

Even conservatives from urban areas are not terribly happy with that. At the same time, even though the House has about a third less funding for these highway measures than the Senate bill does, many conservatives think it’s still too much money being out there.

So he can’t keep his own party together on this one. And he’s unwilling to do a bill. That includes the Senate bill that, if it came to the floor, might get 218 votes, but would probably have more Democrats supporting it than Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a similar dynamic at work with the Paul Ryan proposal, which the Democrats have already said, no, we’re not going to go along with this?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There’s one little element of the Ryan budget that reflects some of this dysfunction that we haven’t talked about.

At the insistence of conservatives, freshmen, well as some of the more conservative senior members, they’ve cut spending in the discretionary areas, the non-entitlement programs below the deal that was reached on the debt limit last year. And that’s going to cause another potential shutdown in the government. It’s breaking a bargain that all the leaders agreed to.

House Republicans are saying, we only set a ceiling. We didn’t set a floor. But even Mitch McConnell has said that that was the deal. So, to mollify his own base, Boehner and Paul Ryan have had to go along with something that will probably get the 218 votes in the House, but is not going to get anywhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s at the bottom of this? Is one party more at fault here than the other one?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, we have both parties that have acted in this fashion, but the fact is, it’s asymmetric polarization, Judy.

Right now, what we have seen is an unwillingness by a minority party, defined as a party that doesn’t hold the White House, the Republicans, to provide any votes for anything that President Obama would support and an attempt to repeal what was done in the first couple of years of the administration.

So, at this point, the balance has clearly tilted more in one direction than the other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and you were saying earlier today, yes, this always happens in an election year. But you’re saying, this year, it’s even worse.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We always get an attenuated process.

In a presidential elect year, there’s a natural inclination to tread water and wait. But there are must-things that have to be done. That includes things like transportation. With a weak economy, you want to do something in infrastructure and you want to make sure we can keep things going.

So real gridlock in this case shouldn’t be the rule of the day. But it is right now. And the unwillingness of the parties to try and figure out how you can reach any common ground, even to lay out markers that are so far apart, is a sign of a different times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the prospects for anything changing this?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, in December — at the end of December, after the election, but before a president is inaugurated, we have a perfect storm. We have all the Bush tax cuts expiring, the deal that we reached on the payroll tax cut and the doc fix expiring. We have these sequesters taking effect and possibly another debt limit vote.

All hell could break loose in December, and maybe that results in a jar and people do something, or maybe it gets even worse than you — than it looks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot to look forward to.

Norman Ornstein, thank you very much.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thank you, Judy.