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Shields and Gerson on Debt Bill Scramble, Reid’s Next Moves

July 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson dissect the week's top political news, including lawmakers' race against the clock to avoid default.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away tonight.

And a few moments ago, the House of Representatives did, in fact, pass the Boehner bill by a vote of 218-210. They needed 216 to pass. All — there were no Democrats among those 218.

Michael, what words would you use to describe, as a result of that vote a few moments ago, where we are now?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it would be fascinating, if it weren’t so frightening.

We have a situation where about 10 percent of the Republican Caucus in the House wanted to humiliate their own speaker in order to get a vote on a balanced budget amendment that is symbolic and completely irrelevant to the process. I think that’s a sign of weakness on the Republican part.

It undermined their negotiating status in the Senate. I think Harry Reid now has a lot of cards. I think he’s gone to Mitch McConnell and said, what do your people need to support my approach, the Reid approach? And that’s likely to be the main approach that’s taken, and then the House will have to look at it again. And they have to pass it with Democratic support.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what happened? What’s happened?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the irony, Jim, is, one week ago, we were on the cusp of $4 trillion in deficit reduction. We are not tonight anywhere near that. At the same time…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, this — the bill, the Boehner bill has $917 billion over 10 years.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, and then a trigger…

JIM LEHRER: Then it triggers more.

MARK SHIELDS: … to go through this again in six months, which is really appealing, attractive.

JIM LEHRER: Fun thing to think about.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think that is its most endearing feature.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: But and at the same time, it also included — the deal that the speaker and the president worked on — lower cuts in budget spending right now, when you can least afford budget cutting right now, because we have got an economy, as we learned today, that is struggling, that is wounded, that is sluggish, that’s hurting.

And there’s no — you can make an ideological argument to cut spending, but at this time, you cannot make an economic argument to do it. So I think, as it heads to the Senate, I think Mitch McConnell will emerge. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are the last two standing trees in this forest.

A week ago, it was the president of the United States and the speaker of the House. They have both been effectively sidelined by the events of the past week.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree it’s up to those two guys now?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I completely agree.

I think that Sen. Reid has the initiative right now. I think that there will be modifications in his approach in order to get some Republican senators. But that’s the likely course here.

But I do think it’s a real challenge to Boehner, who has shown weakness, but now may have to get, I don’t know, 60-some Democratic votes, at least, in order to pass whatever happens. That’s going to be itself a pretty difficult task.

JIM LEHRER: You’re assuming something comes out of the Senate and goes back to the House.

MICHAEL GERSON: Back to the House. And there won’t be much time to make any adjustments in this process. We’re on a tight time frame.

JIM LEHRER: Explain — pick up on what you said earlier. Just explain it one more time, while this whole constitutional amendment thing is symbolic and it will have no effect at all on anything we’re talking about now, that they’re talking about.

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I completely agree with that.

You’re instructing the Senate. The House is instructing the Senate to have a two-thirds vote in order to get a future increase in the debt deal for a constitutional amendment. I don’t think you can instruct the Senate to do a two-thirds vote on the sun rising in the east effectively. They’re not going to accept that under any circumstance. And so it was entirely symbolic.

JIM LEHRER: And that, even if they did get that vote, it then has to go to the — there’s a long process to amend the Constitution of the United States.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s illusionary. It’s — they’re kidding themselves.

But it’s a fig leaf that — to bring on conservatives who are against the original plan, to give them sort of a rationale that they could go back to their people and say, we got this balanced budget.

Jim, it doesn’t even say — it doesn’t say what the balanced budget amendment is. It says a joint resolution called a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. It doesn’t say what it is, whether it requires a two-thirds vote, as one of the proposed ones did. To raise any taxes at all, a two-thirds vote would be required.

So it’s ludicrous, if it weren’t so reckless. We’re trifling right now with the well-being of the United States economy, which is in tough shape, and with the good faith and credit of this country, which has never been tampered with in 222 years.

JIM LEHRER: All right. How does Reid play this now? What can he say to McConnell to get — he’s got — he’s only got 53 Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Reid does. So he has got to get seven more, because he’s got to have 60 in order to make this thing work. Where is he going to get those seven?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and is he going to be sure to get all those Democrats, too? Because Democrats who are up for tough races, do they want to vote for something like this?

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Harry — this is what Harry Reid was born to do. Harry Reid is one of the great inside players. And he’s not a compelling public presence on a platform, but he understands it.

Michael and I had a session with him, what, three weeks ago, and I got to tell you, he was clairvoyant.

JIM LEHRER: You mean you had a — you just sat down and talked to him.

MARK SHIELDS: Just the two of us.

JIM LEHRER: Just the two of you.

MICHAEL GERSON: And he described exactly what would happen.

MARK SHIELDS: What would happen.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, is that right?

MICHAEL GERSON: It was really pretty extraordinary.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it was — and this was the time when the president, and the summit, and all these big deals, and Biden and everything else.

And he just understands. So he’s got to get something — not only…

(LAUGHING)

JIM LEHRER: In other words, just to make sure I understand what you are saying, what you guys are saying…

MARK SHIELDS: Sure.

JIM LEHRER: … he told you all that it’s going to come down to something like this?

MARK SHIELDS: He said there will be no — he said there would be no — nobody will touch a single gray hair on the beautiful head of Medicare or Social Security and there will be no revenues, because the Republicans won’t vote for revenues.

MICHAEL GERSON: That’s the way it worked out.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s where we are right now. That’s what president endorsed essentially last Friday, when he endorsed the Reid plan.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, what can Mitch McConnell do? Can Mitch McConnell turn his back on the Boehner bill on behalf of Republicans?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think to some extent, he has to. It’s not the basis of the negotiation anymore. House Republicans added a poison pill that discredited this…

JIM LEHRER: Would that be a poison pill for McConnell?

MICHAEL GERSON: The constitutional amendment?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: I don’t think — I think it’s a nonstarter.

There are some big issues here.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MICHAEL GERSON: The defense spending issues are going to be very large, I think, for McConnell, because the Reid approach has some serious cuts in defense spending.

And then, you know, I think — but McConnell’s already proposed some ideas that are likely to be incorporated in the Reid — in the Reid bill that will allow the president to do kind of a second tranche of increases in the debt limit without Congress having much of an influence over it.

MARK SHIELDS: Congress voting against it.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, Congress would have to vote against it.

So I think that the elements of a deal are here. You know, the problem from my perspective is, this is the easy stuff, because it doesn’t deal with taxes, because it doesn’t deal with entitlements. The question is — it doesn’t even solve the deficit problem. But it’s been such a problem just to get the easy stuff.

The question is that the rating agencies, the credit rating agencies and others have, can they do the harder stuff right down the road? That, I think, is the real difficulty.

MARK SHIELDS: One of the things that hasn’t been addressed, Jim, is — and Republicans stand guilty of this, quite frankly — this is the first time anybody has ever done this with the — raising the debt ceiling.

JIM LEHRER: Use it to do…

MARK SHIELDS: Use it as a non-negotiable terrorist demand. And if anybody…

JIM LEHRER: Non-negotiable terrorist demand?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s essentially — that’s essentially what was done in the House of Representatives.

If you put a penny…

JIM LEHRER: Paul Krugman in The New York Times this morning called it extortion.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, if you put a penny of revenue, a penny of revenue, if you even suggest that a registered nurse in an emergency room and a New York firefighter shouldn’t pay taxes twice the rate of a hedge fund manager, we leave. We’re not going to be a party to that. That’s — that’s basically where they were.

But more important than that, to use this vehicle, to think this is only a one-time precedent and that next time that there’s a Democratic Congress and a Republican president that this isn’t going to be used again vengefully, I mean, you talk about the poisoning of the Washington well, this does it in spades.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree; the well is poisoned beyond…

MICHAEL GERSON: I think it helps poison the well.

This is a reflection of the 2010 election, where Republicans…

MICHAEL GERSON: … got a lot of ideological momentum, and they were not going to accept taxes in this process.

I think that there is fault on both sides here. I think Democrats have sat back and hoped that Republicans would self-destruct, which is a pretty good bet. I think that Republicans have been too ideologically divided to support their own speaker in the negotiations.

So it’s a serious problem in our whole political class. If you were a Martian coming into this process, you would see a dysfunctional political process, where nothing is really working. The world is looking at this, the Eurozone in crisis, the American political system not particularly functional.

There’s not much economic leadership on a global level right now. Those are serious things.

JIM LEHRER: But, if you all — if you’re right, then who exercises leadership over the next three days and gets this thing finally done?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it’s the Senate. And there are a lot of adults in the Senate. That’s the place that often we go to for this kind of…

JIM LEHRER: So you think it will be done?

MICHAEL GERSON: I do. I think it’s ugly, but likely.

MARK SHIELDS: Remember this. Mitch McConnell has kept a low profile, in large part because he didn’t — in no way wanted to be seen as sabotaging Boehner’s plan. But now it is — it is.

JIM LEHRER: But he has been supportive of the Boehner plan, rhetorically.

MARK SHIELDS: But that’s what I mean. He has been totally supportive. But he knows now it’s dead on arrival.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: So, it is. It’s Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. It comes down to them.

But whatever they pass in the Senate, they’re going to have to get, I would say, close to 100 Democrats in the House, because they’re not going to lose — they’re going to lose half the Republicans, Boehner is. And to get them…

JIM LEHRER: With the new…

MARK SHIELDS: There has got to be revenues in there. You are not going to get — you might 30 Democrats to vote for it just on the basis of it’s the right thing to do.

You’re not going to get the necessary number of House Democrats to vote for it without revenues in there somewhere. And that is going to be a real stumbling block for a lot of Republicans. And it’s going to be tough work in the Senate.

MICHAEL GERSON: I would only add that the big economic news of the week may have been the revision downward of the economic growth number, OK?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: That is a long-term political problem for President Obama. It makes the next set of jobs figures likely to be really disturbing.

It also complicates the deficit problem in the future, because all of these plans assume maybe three percent growth. We’re not even at two percent growth in our economy. These are going to be a serious complicating factor in our politics moving forward.

JIM LEHRER: And there was another thing that you wrote about in your column today, the Pew — the new Pew study on the gap, the wealth gap of the United States. It has gotten larger and larger. That’s what we should be talking about tonight, right, instead of this other stuff, theoretically, at least?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Michael is absolutely right. And his column is well worth reading.

But when the top one percent in this country economically control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, it tells you something about a gap there.

MICHAEL GERSON: In the 1980s, the gap between assets between whites and African-American families was about 12-1, which was bad enough. It’s about 20-1 now.

That’s really not a sustainable circumstance over the long run for the justice or even the stability of a society. It’s the kind of thing that you do want to address in public policy. Get reasonable Democrats, get reasonable Republicans to do it. It’s almost inconceivable in the current political environment.

MARK SHIELDS: This whole experience, Jim, of this deficit and debt ceiling has so diminished everybody involved in it.

I saw embarrassment, total professional and personal embarrassment, on the part of members of Congress this week that they were a part of this. And that diminishes confidence and trust and optimism about the government’s ability to do anything. That’s one of the casualties of this.

JIM LEHRER: And does it also, to use your word, Michael, poison the atmosphere for 2012, an election year, presidential and otherwise?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I agree with that. I think that it creates an impression that our whole political class is incapable of dealing with the fundamental problems of our country.

Now, a Republican presidential candidate will come into this, which doesn’t exist in this process…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MICHAEL GERSON: … try to propose some answers, try to get some momentum. But I think it’s…

JIM LEHRER: It’s going to be there. It’s going to be there no matter what.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK. Thank you both very much.

Good to see you again, Michael.

You, too, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Jim.