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Weekend Deadline Looming, What’s Going on Behind the Scenes of the Budget Fight?

September 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers on both sides of the budget fight have come out to wage a public war of words and sway opinion, but what's going on behind the scenes? Gwen Ifill gets views from two former Capitol Hill staffers: Jim Manley of QGA Public Affairs and Ron Bonjean of Singer Bonjean Strategies.

GWEN IFILL: As Kwame just reported, high noon appears to be approaching in Congress. But what’s the fight really about? Health care? Funding government? Paying our debts? And who has the upper hand?

For a look at what’s playing out behind the scenes, we turn to two Capitol Hill veterans who’ve spent their fair share of time in the backrooms where the deals are made, Ron Bonjean, who worked as communications director for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and chief of staff for the Senate Republican Conference, and Jim Manley, who was a top adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and press secretary for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

So, you guys have been in the battles before. You’re happily on the sidelines now, but as you watch these two debates, Ron Bonjean, approaching, the budget, funding the government, and the debt limit next month, which is the more potentially damaging for which party?

RON BONJEAN, Singer Bonjean Strategies: Well, right now, I think that shutting down the government would be much more damaging for the Republican Party.

But let me say this. Republicans want to negotiate with the president over avoiding all of this. They want to talk about reducing spending, they want to talk about delaying Obamacare, and the president is saying he won’t negotiate. And to Republicans, that is very surprising considering that the president is saying he will negotiate with Syria, will negotiate with Putin, Vladimir Putin, and his secretary of state will be talking to Iran.

And why isn’t he picking up the phone and calling John Boehner?

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Jim Manley that question.

We have heard the president said, I’m not going to negotiate, and particularly talking about the debt limit, rather than the budget — the budget issue, about the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, and John Boehner said, it doesn’t work that way.

JIM MANLEY, QGA Public Affairs: Well, he’s about to find out that things have changed.

The president learned a valuable lesson after his negotiations in 2011 with Speaker Boehner over the so-called debt limit then. He learned that you can’t negotiate with hostage-takers, and that, probably more importantly, that Speaker Boehner doesn’t have the ability to move his caucus.

So, what they are trying to do right now is attach everything but the kitchen sink and see what sticks. To your question earlier, I think that the debt limit is clearly the most cataclysmic for the Republican Party, again, calling into question the full faith and credit of the United States government, raising the specter of the economy tanking, 401(k)s going down as well. Very, very dangerous game for the Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: Part of what we have been seeing play out on the Hill the past couple of days is trying to prioritize those two fights. What is the current strategy now for the Republicans?

RON BONJEAN: They’re developing the current strategy. As of right now, the C.R. is primary. They are considering delaying …

GWEN IFILL: When you say the C.R., you mean. ..

RON BONJEAN: The continuing resolution, yes. Funding the government is coming first, likely because we believe the Senate will vote on this very quickly and send it back over to the House, where they will have to consider what to do next.

The debt ceiling fight will come after that because Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said that the government treasury will default on Oct. 17. So at this point, we — the two are delinked. We will see what happens. They could be joined together if the continuing resolution is put forward closer to the debt ceiling.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that ties these two issues together is this fight over health care.

Is this — the fight has been so far in the House and the Senate about whether to link defunding the affordable health care act from these two issues. Is there really a connection?

JIM MANLEY: Yes, I respectfully suggest not.

And I say that in part because I spent a lot of time working to put together — that bill together when I worked in the Senate. The fact of the matter is, is that the only reason they are trying to do this is, they’re trying to hurt at — go right at one of the key accomplishments of this president’s agenda.

They refuse to accept the results of the 2008 and 2012 elections, where President Obama won, and they are doing everything they can to muddy the waters as we move towards the Oct. 1 deadline.

GWEN IFILL: Whose hot potato is this really, Ron?

RON BONJEAN: Well, this is going to be President Obama’s hot potato pretty soon, because the Republicans are likely going to have a delay of Obamacare either on the continuing resolution or as part of this debt ceiling package.

And, you know, the Obamacare — the Obamacare law itself is already becoming delayed. We may not have to delay it at all. I mean, today, we had small business exchanges, it was announced that they’re going to be delayed. Yesterday, it was the D.C. exchanges that are going to be delayed.

So I really think that this is going to be in President Obama’s court soon. You can’t say you won’t negotiate with the Republican House. You can until a deal needs to be reached. If we’re on the precipice of defaulting on our debt and Republicans are willing to negotiate, the president is in charge of the country. Americans will be very upset if we went over that cliff.


JIM MANLEY: The president doesn’t have anyone to negotiate with right now. Speaker Boehner is incapable of controlling his caucus. And Sen. McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, is so afraid of facing a Tea Party challenge that he’s all but MIA from the Senate right now.

And, again, the president has said both privately and publicly that he’s not going to negotiate with hostage-takers. So the sooner the House Republicans figure that out and get their act together, the better the country is going to be.

GWEN IFILL: Is this fight among Republicans? We saw a minor spectacle on the House floor — or the Senate floor today between two Republicans fighting about when this vote should happen. It doesn’t seem like the Democrats are part of this fight at all sometimes.

RON BONJEAN: Well, that’s right.

Right now that — you see a side fight going on about how they should proceed behind the scenes, but the fight is over Obamacare. It’s over now most likely delaying it. And Republicans are on the side of the American people. The majority of Americans don’t like Obamacare. They’re very confused by it, and it’s scaring a lot of people.

GWEN IFILL: What do you say to that?

JIM MANLEY: Well, again, the fact of the matter is that what we have seen in the last week is nothing but a waste of time.

Nothing they can do legislatively can undermine Obamacare. It’s going to go into effect on Oct. 1. And any threat to cause the government to default on the debt in mid-October is destined to fail, and they’re going to pay a terrible political price.

GWEN IFILL: Is the government going to shut down?

RON BONJEAN: I don’t think so. I think both sides — both parties will find a consensus on this. President — I mean …

GWEN IFILL: What consensus, if there’s no negotiation?

RON BONJEAN: Well, that’s right, for now.

But I think, as they get closer and closer to the shutdown, I do think that we are not going to shut down. Actually, I have a lot of confidence that they’re not going to shut down. Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball that can tell you that.

But Speaker Boehner said, no, absolutely not. He doesn’t want to shut this down. He wants to negotiate with the Democrats. He wants to negotiate with the president. But the president keeps drawing a red line.

GWEN IFILL: Jim, what is your gut?

JIM MANLEY: My gut tells me somehow — I have no idea how — they are going to find a way to avoid a government shutdown.

Having said that, there are published reports that the House Republicans don’t yet the votes to pass the debt limit plan that they wanted to pass in the next couple days. The fact of the matter is, it’s going to take some time for them to sort it all out. I think we will maybe have a one-week C.R. while Republicans try and get their act together internally.

GWEN IFILL: Buy some time?

JIM MANLEY: Buy some time.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Manley, Democrat, Ron Bonjean, Republican, thank you both.

RON BONJEAN: Thank you.