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A Look at GOP Congressional Priorities as U.S. House Forgoes Debt Ceiling Fight

January 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The U.S. House voted to extend the nation's debt limit for another three months. Can the Republican party use fiscal issues to regain its footing? Gwen Ifill talks with Susan Page of USA Today and Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call.
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GWEN IFILL: On Monday, the president laid out his agenda for his second term in office. Today, House Republicans took their first step to position themselves for a series of upcoming fiscal battles.

MAN: The gentleman is recognized.

GWEN IFILL: On the House floor today, Speaker John Boehner called the Republican bill pretty simple.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: It says that there should be no long-term increase in the debt limit until there’s a long-term plan to deal with the fiscal crisis that faces our country.

GWEN IFILL: Today, the House opted for short-term, temporarily lifting the debt ceiling until May 19, then resetting the cap to cover any borrowing over the current limit, $16.4 trillion. And for now, Republicans will not force immediate spending cuts.

The party’s new strategy would achieve that goal by forcing Congress to pass a budget.

House Budget Committee chair and last year’s vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan:

REP. PAUL RYAN, R- Wis.: And here’s the point. We have a law. It’s called the Budget Act. It requires that Congress passes a budget by April 15. All we’re saying is, Congress, follow the law, do your work, budget. And the reason for this extension is so that we can have the debate we need to have.

GWEN IFILL: As added incentive, the House bill says, if there is no budget, lawmakers won’t get paid. After it passed today by a bipartisan vote of 285-144, Speaker Boehner said he’s optimistic that will happen.

JOHN BOEHNER: If both chambers have a budget, Democrat budget from the Senate, Republican from the House, now you have got competing visions for how we address this problem. Out of those competing visions, we’re going to find some common ground.

GWEN IFILL: But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said linking the budget to congressional pay was a ploy, and 111 House Democrats ended up opposing it.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif.: This linkage is a gimmick. It is a joke. It’s not right. It’s designed to put people on the spot and say, either you get — you don’t get paid, and in order to get paid, in order for member of Congress to get paid, you must cut benefits for seniors, and their Medicare guarantee, Medicaid and the rest.

GWEN IFILL: Ultimately, the House Republican measure is aimed at the Democratic-controlled Senate, which hasn’t debated a budget since 2009. But, unlike Pelosi, Senate Democrats said they would support the House bill, which they claimed as a victory.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: President Obama has consistently said he’d refuse to negotiate around the debt ceiling. His strategy is vindicated now that the Republicans have backed off their threats to take the nation into a default. The president stared down the Republicans. They blinked.

GWEN IFILL: Congress still faces other fiscal fights. Automatic spending cuts are due to kick in on March 1, and funding for the government runs out March 27.

So, can the Republican Party use fiscal issues to regain its footing?

For more on the political fights ahead, we turn to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call.

So, as Chuck Schumer just said, the Republicans blinked. Did they blink, Susan, and does it matter if they did?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: I think a big recalibration on their part.

 They really find themselves on the defensive on — on the defensive when it comes to this debt ceiling issue. And they — remember how they vowed they would only raise the debt ceiling by a dollar for every dollar that was cut in spending?

Well, now they say, never mind on that. Let’s push that down the road to May. And the big fight will not be on the debt ceiling. It will be on these sweeping spending cuts that go into effect on March 1 and on the government funding that runs out on March 27. March is going to be the month to watch, and it’s a month that could end in a government shutdown.

GWEN IFILL: But is it the kind of fight the Republicans want to have to redefine themselves, Stuart?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: I think they do.

Gwen, I think you have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. And, yes, the Republicans folded on this wisely. Finally, they — I think they got some smarts on this. You have to pick your fights. They need a breather now. They have been on the defense for a year on tax cuts for millionaires, on toughness, shutting down the government, they’re not going to compromise.

They need to recalibrate here, a reset button that we see being pushed in — it seems like in every aspect of government and fight on future spending, not on obligations already incurred.

GWEN IFILL: So, in the inaugural address this year — this week, we saw the president lay out his goals for what he wants the next four years or the next year or so at least to be. What is the Republican counter to that?

SUSAN PAGE: I think the Republicans have recalibrated their tactics, but not their end goals. They’re as fervently in favor of cutting spending without new revenues as they were.

We were both at a breakfast with Paul Ryan this morning where he said no new revenues. The president has gotten all the revenues he’s going to behavior. And they have in fact doubled down on spending cuts. They now say they will have a plan that balances the federal budget within 10 years. You can only do that without revenues if you have really devastating cuts on all kinds of domestic programs. And we will see if they’re willing to deliver on that.

GWEN IFILL: Both one Democrat today and Republican Paul Ryan used the same term today about what’s happening, which is, they’re buying time.

STUART ROTHENBERG: No, I think that’s right.

You know, this is about positioning and symbolism and messaging. I think Susan’s exactly right. It’s not that the Republicans are changing their principles here. It’s that they have decided they have lost these arguments because of the way they are making their case, or not making it, and they have been outwitted by the Democrats.

And what they want to talk about for the next six months is deficits, debt, spending. And I think this gives them a chance to do that.

GWEN IFILL: But the possibility of sequestration, these unpopular across-the-board tax cuts — I mean, spending cuts, or a government shutdown looming, I think the term that Democrat Dick Durbin used was confrontation fatigue. Do they run the risk of confrontation fatigue?

SUSAN PAGE: Yes, I think some of these Republicans do not have confrontation fatigue.

I think confrontation is what energizes them. This is a really conservative group, especially in the House.

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, 33 Republicans voted against this plan today.

SUSAN PAGE: And they really relish confrontation.

If you’re looking for places where they’re modifying their position, on immigration, yes, I think so. We could see a deal there that is — that we have been unable to reach in this town for a decade. But on these fiscal cliff issues, I just think we’re in for a period of really pitched warfare like the one that we have had over the past year.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think, for the Republicans, you know, they have their own fights, but it’s not over principle. It’s not over where they want the country to go. It’s over strategy and tactics.

And you have the folks at the Club for Growth and the anti-tax people, and it’s just they want to dig in. I think Republicans now realize — I don’t know if they can carry the day on this, but I think they now realize that a smile, a lighter touch, talking about compromise, but staying tough to principle, repositioning themselves, that could do a world of wonder.

I think they just need a break now. I think they need the focus to be on the White House, the president and the Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: So, what they’re counting on then, you’re saying, is that not that the vision will change, but that the implementation will be so unpopular for the White House, that they will then be able to regain their footing there that way?

SUSAN PAGE: And, in fact, the country is very concerned about spending. They’re concerned about these huge deficits and the debt.

That’s an argument that maybe Republicans can get some traction on. I thought this was a good day for John Boehner, who has had a lot of bad days in leading the House. This was a case where they had a retreat last weekend. It was — the people who were there say it was a very somber retreat.

And they agreed to back the speaker. That wouldn’t seem remarkable, except that in the past sometimes they have not been willing to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Here’s, I guess, the big question, is whether — when they say they want to reach across the aisle, when they say they want to talk to Democrats, they want to engage, is that real? And is it even necessary?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think I think they want to engage as a way, as part of the process of achieving their ends. You know, this day and age, everybody says they want — you know, let’s sit and talk.

But, at the end of the day, let’s talk, and then you agree with me, and then we will move on to the next subject, and you can agree with me there as well. I think that’s the way both parties operate. I just think the Democrats did it much better over the last year. The Democrats got a lot of mileage about attacking the Republicans for not compromising, and yet most members of the Congress, Democratic members, seemed willing to go over the fiscal cliff to get what they wanted.

 At the end, it was — the White House was unwilling to do that, but a lot of people on the Hill would have been happy, Democrats happy to go off of the edge.

SUSAN PAGE: Here’s one possibility for Republicans.

Did President Obama over-reach in his inaugural address? That was just about, I think, the most liberal or progressive message I have heard him deliver in two terms, in a term — and two elections and a term in the White House, including talking about climate change, which is going to be a very tough battle.

And I think some Republicans think he did over-reach, that he now thinks he doesn’t have to run for another election. This is something we have seen affect other second-term presidents. That might be a bit of an opening for the GOP.

GWEN IFILL: What I hear is Democrats saying, here are these great sweeping things we can accomplish now, and Republicans saying, here are these incremental accomplishments we can — notches we can get on our belt month after month after month, kind of a slog.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I think you’re right. I think the president is emboldened. And we will see whether he will over-reach.

The problem for the Republicans is, strategically and tactically, they have been outsmarted by Democrats for an extended period here. And although they now have a breather, a chance to reset and reposition and begin with a new strategy, the Democrats are not going to sit quietly and allow themselves to be rolled either.

Somehow, they have always been able to be, over the last couple of years, a step ahead of the Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned strategy. It’s not — it’s not — it’s all going to be fiscal policy. It’s not going to be climate change necessarily or immigration, or is it?

SUSAN PAGE: I think these next three months are going to be all about fiscal policy, by necessity. But I think immigration is going to get an early start.

We will see, with the State of the Union address on Feb. 12th, what the president says he’s going to pursue first, but I think the expectation is that it will be immigration.

GWEN IFILL: That will be the next big fight.

Thank you both very much, Susan Page of USA Today, Stu Rothenberg, Rothenberg Political Report.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.