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Shields and Gerson discuss the budget breakthrough, Boehner’s backlash

December 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Shields / Gerson
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away tonight.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Glory be. Congress has passed a budget.

Mark, is this something — does this mean the gridlock is coming unlocked, or is this just a one-time thing?

MARK SHIELDS: Hold the champagne, Judy. I mean, Congress hasn’t passed a budget. The House has passed a budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, by — that’s what I meant.

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MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

And perhaps for the first time since 1997, the Congress will pass a budget. I mean, that — Bill Clinton was president, Trent Lott was Senate leader, and Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House.

It’s baby steps. It’s not a giant stride. It’s not to be confused with the Connecticut Compromise, which led to the adoption the United States Constitution, or the Missouri Compromise that postponed the Civil War for 40 years. But it is — we had no bar, as opposed to a low bar, but an act of civility and compromise and leadership on the part of particularly Paul Ryan in the House, the Republican, and Patty Murray, the Democrat, in the Senate gave us at least encouragement that the Congress could, in fact, act positively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, Michael, do you see sunshine and cooperation down the road, or is this…

MICHAEL GERSON: I think that would be highly desirable and highly unlikely.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL GERSON: Paul Ryan and Speaker Boehner sold this to their own caucus in the House by saying, we need to keep attention on the failures of Obamacare and not draw attention to our own divisions by having another counterproductive budget fight.

That argument is hardly the prelude to ambition, OK? This deal succeeded in many ways because it was small. It had small reduction — reductions in entitlements, non-medical entitlements. And it had small increases in discretionary spending. This is the reason it could pass both sides.

And that — I think what we have seen is a truce in the budget wars, and not a new governing coalition, unfortunately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, when it comes to bigger fiscal issues, tax reform, this doesn’t mean that that may be any easier now, right?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it means anything for tax reform, quite frankly. I think tax reform is a long way off.

I mean, we didn’t go to either party’s core concerns here. I mean, the Democrats didn’t give up anything on entitlement reduction or curtailment. The Republicans…

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, they stayed away from that.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And the Republicans stayed away from a tax increase. It was, you won’t go near mine, I won’t go near yours. And they met in the middle and dealt over the territory they could. But I don’t see that.

I do think, Judy, both parties needed a win, and they were — coming in. The rollout of Obamacare had been botched, is the euphemism, but it had been disastrous to Democrats in recent polls. And, quite frankly, the closing of the government had been brutal to the Republicans, so they could not in any way risk that.

And I think the chances of the debt ceiling, which we’re looking at in another three months, I think the chances of the Republicans going to the mat, mattresses again on that is very remote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one interesting thing that did come out of all this, Michael, was Speaker Boehner made a point two days in a row to take after these conservative, outside conservative groups that were opposing the deal, telling Republican members not to vote for it.

In fact, we want to show, remind everybody of something the speaker said when he talked to some reporters yesterday. Here’s just a portion of what he said.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: Frankly, I just think that they have lost all credibility.

You know, they pushed us into the … to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government. Most of you know, my members know, that wasn’t exactly the strategy that I had in mind. But, if you will recall, the day before the government reopened, one of the people — one of the … these groups stood up and said, well, we never really thought it would work.

Are you kidding me?

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael, what does this tell you? The speaker is going after people in his own party.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, narrowly, this was clearly a backlash to the manifest failure of the shutdown strategy, which I think most people recognize.

My friend blogger Peter Wehner says that Republicans have apocalypse fatigue. They are just tired of confrontation in this way. But there is something broader going on here. I think the leadership has decided, it tried to appease Tea Party groups, the activist groups. But they are unappeasable. They criticized this deal before it was printed.

And there’s very little incentive to accommodate a group that is going to criticize you anyway. So I think the leadership has made the decision that this is an important part of the coalition, but it can’t define the Republican Party and it can’t bully the Republican Party. And that’s — this is just the beginning of an institutional reaction to Tea Party activist groups, it seems to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of this? Is this the beginning of a serious split, or just a momentary thing?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Judy, first of all, in the speaker’s statement, he acknowledged that he had been bullied and pressured into the closing of the government. They forced it upon him, that they had capitulated. The Republican Caucus had capitulated to the demands of those who wanted to close the government and the repeal of Obamacare.

What was fascinating in the entire debate — I was up watching the House debate — was that there was no mention at any point of the repeal of Obamacare. There was none of that language. It was all common ground and all of rest of it.

This was a declaration of independence by John Boehner from — from these groups and sort of reasserting his leadership of the caucus. I mean, I think it’s fair to say, for the first time in this session, he’s really acted like the speaker. And I think that was — that was clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is that going to have repercussions, though, for other things he tries to do as the leader of his party?

MARK SHIELDS: I think his position — I think his position is stronger within the caucus. I think there’s — I mean, you had a budget deal that was supported by Eric Cantor, by Paul Ryan, by Nancy Pelosi, and by President Barack Obama, which is — I think, probably strengthens the position of the speaker.

MICHAEL GERSON: And, Mark, by 66 percent of the Republican Study Committee in the House of Representatives…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, which is conservative.

MICHAEL GERSON: Most conservative group.

This was a huge victory, personal victory, a small deal, but a huge personal victory for the speaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you see — Michael, just quickly, do you see this leading to problems going forward for the speaker and his own Tea Party members?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the problems existed.

The question is whether the leadership was going to push back or not. Now we have seen Mitch McConnell push back. We have seen Paul Ryan push back. We have seen Speaker Boehner push back. We have seen the Chamber of Commerce in key races fund more mainstream Republicans. I think this was a serious response to what is going on.

MARK SHIELDS: I would just point out, Judy, that the Republican leader of the Senate has come out against the deal, Mitch McConnell.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: So has the Republican whip in the Senate, John Cornyn, both of whom face Tea Party challenges. Six of the seven Republican candidates in the House now running for the Senate have opposed this deal. So there is still fear and apprehension.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the budget is still — is in some question?

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: I think, right now — I think the Senate is — we think of the House as the real problem. I think, right now, the Senate is a lot more of a problem for the passage of this than is the…

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL GERSON: They’re very close to culture. They have — he has supporters for cloture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning — meaning closing…

(CROSSTALK)

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, closing the debate, right.

MARK SHIELDS: Getting to 60, it’s — but it is really tricky at this point.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, while — just before we leave the subject altogether, watching all this, the president — and we have watched new — a number of new polls come out this week showing his approval rating down, the lowest of his presidency, in the last couple of weeks, Michael.

There are some staff changes at the White House. What does all this say about what is going on one year into the second term?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the deal was an example, to some extent.

The president had almost no influence on the deal. He was marginal to it. It didn’t embody any of his legislative priorities, very much a bystander in this. Now, you can never count a president out. President Bush in his second term, at a low point, did the surge in Iraq. This is an inherently powerful position.

But the president faces real challenges. The Senate is very much up for grabs, which would be a huge blow to the president. There are increasing questions in the polling about his credibility, particularly because of some promises on Obamacare, and his competence. These are long-term challenges for the president as he tries to, you know, reconstitute his influence.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, what the president has going for him right now with the reservoir, is people do like him. But he’s taken a hit, make no mistake about it, Judy.

You have got 54 percent now in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll disapproving of the job he’s doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Highest ever disapproval.

MARK SHIELDS: The highest ever.

And you have also got half of voters saying they’re disappointed or dissatisfied in his performance in office. So, there is no question. The people he is bringing back, John Podesta was a superb chief of staff under Bill Clinton.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bringing him back as a senior adviser.

MARK SHIELDS: And Phil Schiliro is a gifted congressional liaison, knows the Hill very well.

But even as he’s bringing these people, which is an acknowledgment that he had to do something, he’s never gone really out of his comfort zone. He’s never done the equivalent of reaching out to a Jim Baker, who had run the two campaigns against Ronald Reagan…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who was Ronald Reagan’s — right.

MARK SHIELDS: … and bringing him in as a chief of staff.

And I think — you know, I think that still remains a little problem. It’s still an insular operation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This kind of thing, though, Michael, can make a difference for the president in getting his agenda…

MICHAEL GERSON: It can.

But I’m afraid his problem, his main problem is not a personnel problem right now. It’s the implementation of Obamacare, which is a huge challenge, with very disappointing uptake, with dislocations in insurance markets because of regulation, with new taxes coming on in the new year.

This is the substantive challenge he faces that’s not going to be solve by personnel issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The last thing I want to ask you both about is, we know tomorrow is the anniversary of the terrible shootings at Newtown, Connecticut. Today, on the eve of that, another terrible school shooting in Colorado, where the shooter took his own life.

Mark, do we look for anything to be done about these school shootings? There have been 27, I believe, since Newtown around this country.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, I was — I was so wrong about Newtown.

I just thought the size, the dimension, the scene of Newtown, of the slaughter of the innocents would really move public opinion. It hasn’t. I don’t know what it will take.

MICHAEL GERSON: It is extraordinary the mixed influence this had on the states.

In some blue states, you have more restrictive laws, in some red states, less restrictive laws. It just shows how geographically and culturally polarizing this issue is, but increasing agreement on the issue of mental health. The administration made the announcement this week — 37 states have increased funding for mental health.

That’s a common ground issue and a real issue that I think needs to be confronted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, again, our — as we have said, our heart goes out to the families of everyone involved in Newtown.

Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, we thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.