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Lame-Duck Congress: Legislative Logjam or Bipartisan Turnaround?

December 1, 2010 at 4:01 PM EST
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Capitol Hill lawmakers spent Wednesday behind various closed doors, working on the fate of key issues in the lame-duck session such as tax cuts, jobless benefits and the New START treaty. Gwen Ifill gets insight about what can be accomplished before Congress adjourns from Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
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GWEN IFILL: Capitol Hill lawmakers spent today behind various closed doors, working to avoid or guarantee a coming legislative logjam. For now, Democrats and Republicans are holding fast to their positions on nearly every issue.

The skies over the Capitol were cloudy today, and so were prospects for compromise on several key issues. All 42 Republican senators drew their line in the sand in a letter to Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

“Tax and spending cuts,” they wrote, “must take priority over anything on the Democrats’ wish list, including allowing gays to serve in the military, ratifying a nuclear treaty, and extending jobless benefits. While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate’s attention,” the lawmakers wrote, “we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike.”

Senator Reid said the Republican approach is a cynical one.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), majority leader: With this letter, they have simply put in writing the political strategy that the Republicans have pursued this entire congress, namely, obstruct, delay, obstruct, delay action on critical matters, and then blame the Democrats for not addressing the needs of the American people.

GWEN IFILL: But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laid the blame on Democrats.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), minority leader: They have ignored us. The voters repudiated their agenda at the polls. They have ignored them. Time is running out, and they’re ignoring that. The election was a month ago. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to focus on priorities.

GWEN IFILL: While that rhetorical standoff was playing out on the Senate floor, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Budget Director Jack Lew were elsewhere on Capitol Hill, launching negotiations on the tax cut issue.

U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY TIMOTHY GEITHNER: We had a very civil, constructive discussion, very much in the spirit of the meeting at the White House yesterday. No surprises.

GWEN IFILL: On the House side, Democrats are scheduled to vote tomorrow on extending the tax cuts, but just for the middle class. Republicans have insisted on continuing the cuts for everyone, including the wealthy.

Other important measures also remain in limbo, including the president’s push to have the Senate ratify a new START treaty aimed at reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to thank General Colin Powell.

GWEN IFILL: At the White House today, President Obama enlisted former Secretary of State Colin Powell to press his case.

BARACK OBAMA: I very much appreciate the fact that he supports an effort that all of us should support in order to make America more safe.

COLIN POWELL, former secretary of state: I fully support this treaty. And I hope that the Senate will give its advice and consent to the ratification of the treaty as soon as possible.

GWEN IFILL: Also on the docket: Democrats’ attempts to repeal the ban on openly gay members of the military and extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, which began expiring today for two million Americans.

Republicans, like Congressman David Dreier of California, said it’s a matter of where to find the money.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R-Calif.): We feel very strongly about ensuring that the American people who are struggling are able to have their needs met. We also feel strongly that it must be paid for.

GWEN IFILL: But the outgoing House speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, accused Republicans of a double standard.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-Calif.), Speaker of the House: Seven hundred billion dollars in tax cuts to the top 2 percent in our country, and our Republican colleagues say, we should do that and we shouldn’t pay for it. But when it comes to unemployment insurance, and just the renewal we want to have is — costs $18 billion — $700 billion, $18 billion — they’re saying, that has to be paid for.

GWEN IFILL: The two sides have also yet to agree on funding to keep the government running for another two weeks. House Democrats today voted yes, while all but two House Republicans voted no.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill to discuss what Congress can and cannot get done in the next few weeks are Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and John Barrasso of Wyoming, the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Welcome to you, gentlemen. I want to ask you both to prioritize a list I have for you, starting with you, Senator Durbin.

The START treaty, the budget resolution, don’t ask, don’t tell, tax cuts, jobless benefits, what order would you put them in, according to your priorities?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-Ill.): I tell you that I think the top three are going to be the tax cuts which expire at the end of the year, the funding of our government, which has to be done, so that it doesn’t shut down over the next 10 months, and the START treaty.

Now, there are other items. Don’t ask, don’t tell is one that I feel very strongly about, but I would say that would be the fourth on the list. We can do all of them. The point which we’re trying to make to our Republican colleagues is, the Senate chamber is virtually empty. We’re doing nothing.

We should be able to have negotiations about taxes and about paying for our government and at the same time be working on critical legislation on the floor. We should be engaged in the negotiations — or — pardon me — the debate on the START treaty. We should be talking about don’t ask, don’t tell. We can do those things.

But the letter we received today from the Republicans has basically said, no, there will be no business. We’re shutting down, we’re on strike, we’re doing nothing until we do these two issues, one, extending tax cuts to the wealthiest people among us, and, second, trying to find out how we’re going to extend the government’s funding for the next year.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Barrasso, I want to ask you about that letter, but, first, give me your list, your priority list among those five or six items I just listed for you.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-Wyo.): Well, I agree, Gwen, with the top three. We need to focus on the taxes, and not raise taxes on anyone in this country in the middle of these economic times. And we need to make sure that we fund the government.

And then, if Senator Reid wishes to bring the START treaty to the Senate floor, he can sure do that. He can do that today. But the bottom line is, the president said the day after the election, we owe it to the American people to focus on things that are important to them. And that’s jobs.

And we have been in this session now a month since the election. We only have one more month until the new Senate and House is sworn in. And the Democrats have ignored jobs, the economy, the debt, and the spending. And that’s what the American people care about.

GWEN IFILL: So, explain to me what the reasoning was behind this letter, which says nothing will get done unless exactly your priorities are the first ones?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: Well, with 9.6 percent unemployment in this country, businesses need certainty. Individuals need certainty. And the best way to give that certainty, so they can go out and start hiring again, the job-creating sector, is to say that we’re not raising taxes on anyone during these economic times.

And it’s not just me. We have a growing chorus of Democrats who agree with that, five before the elections. And now the two most recently sworn-in Democrats, Senator Coons from Delaware, Senator Manchin from West Virginia, both said during the campaign that we shouldn’t raise taxes on anyone in this country during these economic times.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Durbin, Senator Barrasso just mentioned the 9.6 percent unemployment rate. And, yet, we’re hearing today that the — that the jobless benefits have expired for a couple million Americans.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: How did that happen?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, it happened because we tried to extend the unemployment benefits today. We went on the floor of the United States Senate, after receiving this letter, and said, if you really want to create jobs and help the people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, extend the unemployment benefits.

We know that that’s a good stimulus for the economy, and it helps these people. And the Republicans objected. Why did they object? Because of this letter, this ultimatum, which says: We will do nothing. We won’t even consider helping the unemployed in this country, putting money into the economy to help the unemployed, until we provide tax cuts for the wealthiest people.

That doesn’t make sense. If we truly care about jobs, let’s really focus on those who are jobless who need a helping hand.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Senator Barrasso to respond to your point on that.

Why not at least get this taken care of, even if you can’t agree on other things?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: You know, Scott Brown, senator from Massachusetts, brought a proposal last night to allow the extension of unemployment benefits. There are a couple of things you can do for people that are looking for work. And one is, you can extend those benefits.

Now, right now, we have benefits for people who have been out of work up to 99 weeks, so this goes beyond that. And Senator Brown’s proposal is one that I support.

The other thing you can do is help stimulate the economy, and the best way to do that is to give some certainty. And the way to provide that certainty is to make sure we don’t raise taxes on anyone in this country during these economic times, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Durbin, we have heard, for some weeks now, that there is some movement by Democrats and by the White House to extend all of these tax cuts — tax cuts, but for a limited period of time. Where does that stand tonight?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: It’s in negotiation at this very moment. The position of the president and of the Democrats is that working families, middle-income families, all those who have $250,000 income or less, are going to get a tax break.

That means that a millionaire will get a tax break on the first $250,000. But we don’t want to add to the deficit. We don’t want to create a situation where we’re providing this tax cut for the wealthiest among us, if, frankly, that doesn’t spur the economy.

What sparks this economy is when you give spending power to those in lower- and middle-income categories.

GWEN IFILL: But you say — you say, Senator Durbin, that this is being negotiated as we speak, but it doesn’t sound, from what you just said, that anything has changed in terms of the Democrats’ decision about people who make $250,000 or more.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, that’s our position. And that is what we went into the negotiations with. And those negotiations started today.

You know, so here we have this meeting yesterday in the White House. It turns out that, while we’re having the meeting, the Republicans are circulating this letter saying: We’re not going to cooperate. We’re not going to be part of this conversation.

And now we have the negotiations under way. We’re trying to get a few more things done on the floor of the Senate. I really wish that the message of this last election, which asked us to be more reasonable and more constructive and more bipartisan, was reflected in what we are doing on the Senate floor. But, sadly, because of this letter, it is not.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Barrasso, let’s talk about START.

There has been much discussion. And you — I know that you voted against ratifying START when this came up in September. Has there been any movement, in your mind, on whether this should be ratified between now and the time Congress leaves town?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: Well, and I have an article that I have written in one of the local papers today opposing the START treaty.

I have great concerns, and not so much with Russia, but with our own ability as a nation to defend ourselves, with our own missile defense. And the preamble of the START treaty says that we are limited in our missile defense.

And I’m a lot more concerned about North Korea, where we have seen increased activity of late with the — with their bombing in South Korea. I am worried about Iran and their potential nuclear capabilities. We have just had a scientist back at Los Alamos from — from North Korea who was astonished at the level of the sophistication of what they’re doing with nuclear weapon capability in North Korea.

And I think, as a nation, to be able to defend ourselves, we need to make sure we don’t give anything away in the treaty with Russia that would limit our ability to defend ourselves against others.

GWEN IFILL: So, what you are saying is not so different from what you were saying a couple of months ago. As far — are you speaking for your party and saying there is no chance, no matter what Colin Powell has to say or James Baker or Henry Kissinger has to say or Madeleine Albright, there is any chance that this is going to happen while this Congress is in session?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: The American people deserve a full debate on the Senate floor of the START treaty.

If Senator Reid chooses to bring that treaty to the floor — and he could have done that over the last many months. He’s chosen not to do that. If he brings that to the Senate floor, and we have a full opportunity to debate it, then there will be a vote. And if they get their 67 votes, then it will be ratified.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Durbin, there is some talk here in Washington — I heard Senator Kerry say it last night — there are just a few pieces to be put in place now to get movement on START. Can you tell us what those are and whether there is any movement?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Yes, there is. And it’s a positive development.

I just left a Republican senator in the subway on the way over here. He said, if you call the START treaty, give us some time for debate on it, we can get up to 75 votes or more, maybe even much more. And that is an encouraging thing and something we need to do to keep this country safe.

But we have got to accept the obvious. This is critically important for the defense of America, our national security, and the strength of our president. The Russians have helped us in many ways. Dealing with the Iran nuclear threat, they have been a key and integral part. They attended the NATO meeting just last week, or two weeks ago, where we talked about missile defense, which, I share with John, is an important issue.

We now have a breakthrough, where the NATO forces and countries will support us on this defense, and the Russians have said we will sit at the table with you. This is unprecedented. We have never seen it before.

Let’s not miss this historic opportunity. The Senate could roll up its sleeves and go to work today to make sure that we ratify this treaty. General Colin Powell is right. For the safety of America, we need to ratify the START treaty.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Richard Durbin, Senator John Barrasso, thank you both very much.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Thanks, Gwen.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: Thank you very much.