MAY 16, 1997
Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot and columnist Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe join us in this week's Political Wrap and focus on the budget deal and partial birth abortion.
JIM LEHRER: Now, our regular Friday night political analysis. "Wall Street Journal" columnist Paul Gigot is here. Mark Shields is off. Columnist Tom Oliphant of the "Boston Globe" is his substitute. Paul, the new budget agreement, can all sides really claim victory the way they are doing so and get away with it?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: That's when you really have to look at the fine print, Jim. I think that the President, frankly, can claim the biggest portion of victory here. In fact, as I look at this deal, it's hard for me to find anything he really didn't get. What he had to give up was bigger tax cuts than he would have liked to, but that was the price that Republicans wanted. But let me just give you one number, a couple of numbers. He proposed spending, total spending of $1.687 billion in a budget--trillion at the beginning of this year. The Republicans gave him a compromise that gives him $5 billion in more spending. If you'd have told me in January that the Republicans would hail a victory that gave the President more spending, I'd have said he's spending too much with Tom Oliphant.
JIM LEHRER: But Tom Oliphant, it were the Democrats today on the House Budget Committee that voted against these. They were the only ones who did.
TOM OLIPHANT, Boston Globe: Exactly. Before getting to Paul's fine print, it might help to get to the roll call in the House Budget Committee which says everything. Every single Republican votes for this thing which is supposed to help President Clinton more than them. And the Democratic vote was just as significant--11 to 7 in favor--which is comfortably ahead of the over 50 percent goal that the President had. This would appear to suggest that somewhere in Washington, D.C., there is a thing called the center. And it is boring. It believes some ploddingly in progress, kind of exalts at things like balanced budgets and words like "reform," but 31 to 7 is a very powerful vote , particularly in the House, where I think opposition to this has tended to be more vocal before this test vote. And I think in the Senate, whose budget committee will take this up next week, this is a slam dunk.
JIM LEHRER: But the liberal Democrats in the Senate are being very quiet about this too, aren't they?
TOM OLIPHANT: Very much so. I think there's something going on that's very interesting. I think in the Democratic world there seems to be attention right now to the budget cuts that are in this agreement, believe it or not, and more attention toward perhaps trying to make some alteration in the tax cut part of this deal, which interestingly is where I think a lot of the Republicans have concentrated their efforts.
JIM LEHRER: Why did the Republicans buy this, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: I think I would call it a form of protection money. I mean, the Republicans came out of 1996, saying, we got ripped on Medicare. We want some protection now on Medicare, so we're going to--we want--
JIM LEHRER: Explain what you mean when you--
PAUL GIGOT: They passed a budget that had Medicare cuts in it, reductions in growth, excuse me, spending in Medicare, and reforms, and the President just beat em up, beat em up bad. And they think that they lost the election on Medicare. I happen to disagree with them, but you talk to the members and they believe that that is now rote viable history for them. And so they want cover. They've made a strategic decision that they're better off with the deal; that they're better off with the President's approval, laying on of hands, going into the 98 election, because they don't think they can beat the President in a head-to-head battle as long as he has the bully pulpit, and they want to survive in 98. I think that they've traded some of their principles and much of their agenda in return for that protection.
JIM LEHRER: So you don't agree with Tom that this is a victory for the center, for the great middle?
PAUL GIGOT: There are budget cuts. They're all in the future. You know, some future Congress is going to have to make the tough decisions. The budget in 1998 grows spending by 4.3 percent over 1997. That's more than the Democratic Congresses raised spending in 93, 94, and 95.
JIM LEHRER: And of course the way to get away with that, of course, is because the economy is doing better than expected.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, yes. Perhaps another way of saying that is that the Democrats and the Republicans have been consistently ignoring the strength of the American economy. Now in this agreement they have taken advantage of these narrow recognized strengths to spread a little largess out in the country, and perhaps there is not a conservative revolution occurring, but I do believe that the Republicans have bought into one notion of President Clinton's that is not ideological. It's a dance step. I call it the two-step. The first step is let's balance this budget for now. It'll marginally help the economy. It'll probably help us politically. It's not a bad thing. And then we will discover that there is still plenty of room preserved for all kinds of political fights about tax reform, about additional initiatives in areas like health care.
JIM LEHRER: But fight em one at a time.
TOM OLIPHANT: Francis --is not going to come around and write the end of history.
JIM LEHRER: You better explain who he is.
TOM OLIPHANT: He wrote an essay after the Berlin Wall came down suggesting that now history was ended, and that would be the end of everything. Well, that's not going--it didn't happen in foreign policy. It ain't gonna happen in domestic policy either. The two-step is a way to have a short-term goal that everybody can sign onto that might be marginally helpful for the country but still preserves all of these grand issues for debate and fighting later.
PAUL GIGOT: But I think that actually helps what President Clinton is trying to do to redefine the Democratic Party because Bob Kerrey, the Senator from Nebraska, said something interesting to me about a month ago, which was that we can't be Democrats again until we balance the budget. What he means by that is we can't really begin to--have the credibility to do it with voters until we--we pass that hurdle.
JIM LEHRER: Let's move to the Gingrich decision to pay half of his $300,000 ethics penalty and borrow only half from Bob Dole. What happened?
JIM LEHRER: He changed his mind.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, he changed his mind a bit. I mean, he re-jiggered the loan agreement a little bit, reduced. And he figured a little more cash in the till to pay out himself, three $50,000 installments, and I think he cut a deal with the two members who are now still on the Ethics Committee, a Democrat and a Republican, chairman and vice chairman, that nobody else wants to serve on it, smart people over there, but the two people who are on it, must have dragooned them to get em in, they signed off on the loan with just a little bit of tinkering for what looks to me now to be a fairly straightforward commercially viable loan.
JIM LEHRER: Tom.
TOM OLIPHANT: About all you need to know about the acceptability of this is that the Captain Ahab of this whale hunt, David Bonior, says it's okay, it's okay.
JIM LEHRER: We're not going to hear about this anymore?
TOM OLIPHANT: As such no. Now, there are still some issues involving taxes and ethics that are somewhat unresolved, but, no, that is about it. And I think this just shows the extent to which the Speaker was willing to go to end this. And I think in some ways he took this beyond where he really needed to go. We knew four weeks ago there was going to be some collateral for this loan. He put some in.
JIM LEHRER: That's right.
TOM OLIPHANT: We knew that there would be some payments almost immediately. He maybe front-loaded a little bit more than we thought. Actually, I don't think it's all that big a deal.
JIM LEHRER: He just wanted it done.
PAUL GIGOT: Absolutely, absolutely. And smart. I mean, I think, though, it really does show that the Democrats at the time this was announced who said this was somehow a sweetheart deal for Bob Dole and his lobbyist, David Bonior, George Miller, these critics, and said it was--nobody else could get this are really--they owe the speaker an apology.
TOM OLIPHANT: Of all the charges about excessive rhetoric that fit, Paul is exactly right. Those statements that were made at the time this was announced were really unfair.
JIM LEHRER: The late-term abortion debate, the Daschle amendment was defeated. Now what happens on that issue?
PAUL GIGOT: I think the real--this was a significant week in the--in abortion politics in this country because I think the important thing about the Daschle amendment was not that it failed but that it was offered because for the first time what you had, leaders, Democratic, pro-choice politicians who favor abortion rights saying we don't think it's politically possible anymore to defend late-term abortions, so Tom Daschle came out and actually proposed a ban on abortions after--to the point of viability. Now we don't know when that is exactly, but they can work that out 22 weeks, 24 weeks. That's the first time since Roe V. Wade that a government has proposed to actually ban abortions. It's a big victory, in my view, at a strategic level for the pro-life movement.
JIM LEHRER: Do you view that the same way?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. As a matter of fact. In fact, I go further. I think what remains to be seen, though is whether the pro-life forces can recognize a victory in front of them and take advantage of it even though it gives them less than they want just doing political analysis here because even more than the way Paul put it, I would say that this is the first time a leader in the Senate but most importantly President Clinton who signed on--
JIM LEHRER: He signed onto the Daschle thing, right?
TOM OLIPHANT: --has supported something I think most people would agree takes a nick out of the essence of Roe Vs. Wade. It--by using the concept of viability Sen. Daschle was suggesting that an abortion would be okay if a woman's health were seriously in jeopardy but it created a wall between physical health and mental health. And Roe V. Wade has always been interpreted as meaning both. So it was a very--but there's one key point that wasn't made. Nothing is going to happen the way this board is set up unless--
JIM LEHRER: Because that leaves--
TOM OLIPHANT: There were 36--that's right--
JIM LEHRER: Not enough members to get this actually enacted.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thirty-six votes for Daschle.
JIM LEHRER: The ban, I mean.
TOM OLIPHANT: Against Daschle were at least three or four Democrats who are pro-choice and disagreed with him. So it looks like a veto can still be sustained.
JIM LEHRER: And the debate goes on about abortion.
PAUL GIGOT: The veto can still be sustained, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if after that veto was sustained, some of the pro-lifers don't sit down with Tom Daschle and others and try to work something out that can really make some progress on this.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to go. Thank you both very much. Tom, thank you for being with us.