MS. IFILL: Ten years, $858 billion, that’s the price tag on a White House deal that’s managed to anger Democrats and please Republicans. We go behind the curtain, tonight on “Washington Week.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I think it’s pretty clear now taxes are not going up on anybody in the middle of this recession.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I think it’s fair to say that there is a certain amount of unease with the proposal that was put forth by the president.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: If one side takes out what they don’t like and the other side takes out what they don’t like, we’re going to have that.
MS. IFILL: A Washington spectacle with the president and House Democrats in opposing corners as Republicans watch from the sidelines. And the president scolds everybody.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed.
MS. IFILL: Nothing got done, not the tax deal, not the repeal of the ban on gays in the military, not immigration legislation. Will the clock run out? Plus the WikiLeaks fallout continues, affecting U.S. relationships around the world. Will the Justice Department prosecute? Covering the week: Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Jackie Calmes of the “New York Times,” Lori Montgomery of the “Washington Post,” and Tom Gjelten of NPR.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Congress tackled all the big political issues of the day this week: immigration, nuclear security, gay rights. Even the normally placid Harry Reid was irate, though, at the lack of movement.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): What in the world do they accomplish by saying we’re not going to allow you to do the START treaty, the defense authorization bill until the tax bill is completed and spending is done. We know that before we leave here, this year, we’re going to have to do something to finance the government for the next year. And the odds are we’re going to do something on taxes for them to have these, I repeat, artificial roadblocks is foolishness.
MS. IFILL: But nothing stirred the blood like the debate that erupted after the president agreed to extend the tax cuts. Republicans want it for the wealthy, so taxes wouldn’t go up on everybody. To the president the deal was not a betrayal.
PRES. OBAMA: I will be happy to see the Republicans test whether or not I’m itching for a fight on a whole range of issues. I suspect they will find I am. And I think the American people will be on my side on a whole bunch of these fights. But right now, I want to make sure that the American people aren’t hurt because we’re having a political fight.
MS. IFILL: But Thursday, liberals pushed back.
REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D-TX): We were told yesterday by the vice president this was a take-it-or-leave-it deal. We’re saying leave it.
MS. IFILL: And to cap what turned out to be a remarkably weird week, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders commandeered the Senate floor to protest the deal.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): You can call what I’m doing today whatever you want. You can call it a filibuster. You can call it a very long speech.
MS. IFILL: It was a very long speech. It ended eight hours after it began. And then, more, late this afternoon there was another twist. Former President Bill Clinton, back at his old stomping grounds to say everybody’s got to give a little.
PRES. BILL CLINTON: We played political kabuki for a year, had two government shutdowns. We can’t afford that now.
MS. IFILL: This was such a week and I don’t know where to begin, but I’ll start with you, Chuck, where do we begin? What did they get accomplished, what didn’t they?
MR. BABINGTON: Not a lot got accomplished, Gwen, but the table is set for this big tax package. You’ll have a Senate vote. You’ll have a vote on Monday to end debate, and then probably Tuesday or Wednesday you’ll have a vote on the measure itself. It probably will pass. Then it will go to the House. And then that’s where the fireworks are going to happen. As we noted with Speaker Pelosi in there, the House Democrats are very unhappy about this and they’re unhappy with President Obama, both about the policy, the substance of the tax proposal that he cut with the Republicans, and they’re unhappy about the process. They felt that they were cut out. And some of them are very resentful. I think the level of animosity between his normal allies in the House Democratic caucus is quite high.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the policy and the process. I want to ask you about the policy. Give us the bare bones of what this deal was that the White House cut.
MS. CALMES: Well, the bare bones is that originally the core of this is the extension of the Bush era tax rates for all taxpayers for two years. The Republicans want it permanent for everyone, including the rich. The Democrats want it just on income below $250,000 roughly for couples filing jointly. In return for that, in return for the president agreeing to extend the top rates for two years, he got actually more than most people expected. He got a full year’s worth of unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, up to 99 weeks in the hardest hit states. He got expansions of several tax credits that were in the stimulus package of 2009 that benefit low and moderate income people. So by dollar and by millions of people helped, he got a lot more than they did. But it’s hard to – when your side is revving for a fight, it’s hard to see what you got.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s exactly the thing, Lori. A lot of this has stuck in the craw of liberal Democrats who’ve been unhappy in lots of other ways for months, probably. What are the things that really made people so unhappy?
MS. MONTGOMERY: Well, the number one item was the concession on the estate tax. And Democrats in the House and in the Senate are extraordinarily upset. They don’t think that President Obama had to give up the estate tax because this is a tax – it currently has lapsed. For the past year, we have had no tax – federal tax on estates. But it’s about to spring back to life on January 1st and hit estates worth more than a million dollars at 55 percent, which is the toughest estate tax we’ve had since the Bush tax cuts were passed a decade ago. So House Democrats are sitting here going, why did we have to give away the most generous estate tax provisions in decades? They’ve given them – not only will they be taxing only estates that are worth more than $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples, but they’re only going to be taxing them at a 35 percent rate. So right now, you’ve got House Democrats looking at each other, going, should we amend this thing? Should we just amend this thing, send it back to the Senate, and say you fix it?
MS. CALMES: But one of the problems they’ve got is why did the administration have to settle on the most generous of the estate tax measures on the table? Part of the reason is because their fellow Democrats in the Senate from rural states with farms and ranches demanded. And so the Democrats are fighting among themselves on Capitol Hill on this issue, too. So –
MS. IFILL: Is this something that the administration saw coming – when we saw the president walk into the White House press room the other day and give that little impromptu news conference – he continued that all week long. He began to push back. He made a public appearance on this subject up until – up to and including his surprise appearance with Bill Clinton today. And he set out, what, 50 press releases saying, this one supports me. The mayor of Pocomoke – that was my favorite. (Laughter.) Supports it. Did they see this fight coming?
MR. BABINGTON: It seems, Gwen, that not entirely. If you noticed the press conference, that news conference that the president had on Tuesday, he was quite defensive, probably the most defensive that we’ve seen him for a sustained period on camera.
MS. IFILL: He seemed like he had his dukes up when he came out.
MR. BABINGTON: He did. That’s right. Some people felt like that was calculated and some felt it was just sort of more spontaneous. But one thing that happened is the president really with Vice President Joe Biden doing a lot of the direct work because he really negotiated this thing primarily with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. So they didn’t have as much, maybe, interaction with Democrats from the House and Senate as they might otherwise have had and especially on this estate tax, I think perhaps they would have gotten an idea of just how much resentment there would be because generally speaking most of the debate had been about income taxes – that that’s what really the Bush-era tax cuts were about.
MR. GJELTEN: Chuck, I’m curious about that press conference. You say that some people say it was calculated. On the other hand, it seemed to me that he was more passionate in that press conference than just about at any time I’ve seen him. And this has always been the rap against him. That he doesn’t show passion. He sure seemed passionate that day.
MS. CALMES: But on the very last question, wouldn’t you agree? It took till the end of the press conference –
MR. GJELTEN: That four or five-minute bit at the end.
MS. IFILL: It seems that sometimes that he – at that very last question it’s like he says, oh, what did I come here to say? (Laughter.) And he tosses it all in there. But did it seem that way to you? Were you in the room?
MR. BABINGTON: I was not in the room. My colleague Ben Feller was in the room, but Ben got the first question. And I thought actually – and that was about, have you betrayed –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BABINGTON: – your Democrats. And he said, I’ve not betrayed them. And then the thing that really set off some Democrats about that – his performance was he talked about the sanctimonious liberals who would rather be pure and have a Pyrrhic victory than to help the American people. That was the argument he kept making.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the sanctimonious liberals, which is the House Democratic caucus, I suppose, because they are the ones who then promptly went out and said, take it or leave it? No thank you. What happened within the caucus that got them so rubbed up?
MS. MONTGOMERY: Well, I think it’s not just the policy. It’s also the process because they did have that meeting at White House with House Democrats on Monday, where the president was told very specifically. The White House did not acknowledge that a deal had been cut at that point. And Democrats were sitting there going, look, you know, if you go this far on the estate tax, that’s really going to be unacceptable to us, so please don’t do that. And then they’re barely back at the Capitol when they find out that a deal has been cut. So they go into this meeting the next night and they really feel like Joe Biden, a former senator, has just cut a deal that his buddies in the Senate were in on and that Republicans clearly knew what was going on, so we over here in the House Democratic caucus are left out in the cold.
MS. IFILL: Isn’t Joe Biden supposed to be the secret weapon?
MS. CALMES: Well, and in this case you have to wonder. The deal is the administration did get more for this than they ever would have expected and I think would get if they were to wait till January, when the Republicans have more members. What I find interesting about this whole – all these complaints about process is the process has – what they should be – the question of the process is why weren’t they fighting this fight if it’s such a great fight to have for the past 11 months, for the 10 months before the election?
MS. IFILL: What’s the answer to that question? This is not – in fact, all of these issues which are now coming to a head in these last couple of weeks – I feel like we’ve been here before, where the last couple of weeks before the holidays everything comes to a head. But the immigration, the DREAM Act bill has been languishing. START has been languishing. What was the third thing that didn’t happen this week? It just feels like –
MR. GJELTEN: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
MS. IFILL: – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It feels like everybody’s rushing toward a deadline nobody’s going to make it.
MS. MONTGOMERY: On the tax cuts, this is the fault of Democrats. They chose not to go there –
MS. IFILL: Because of the election.
MS. MONTGOMERY: – because of the election, because they had members in moderate districts who were afraid to raise taxes on anybody. And –
MR. GJELTEN: (Inaudible.)
MS. MONTGOMERY: – well, in the House, but in the Senate, they took a poll and they found out that most people didn’t want to vote on it. And so they chose to punt and now here they are, trying to figure out how to –
MS. CALMES: But the poll was taken in September, wasn’t it, after Labor Day in the Senate?
MS. MONTGOMERY: I believe that’s right.
MS. CALMES: And by that time, the polls had continued to just come down against Democrats prior to midterms and you had even some liberal senators who previously were opposed to extending the Bush rates on the high income, who came back and were in such trouble they told Harry Reid, I can vote on this before the election.
MR. GJELTEN: It seems like the Republicans are all in favor of this, right? So could we actually have a situation in the House where this passes, but with a minority of Democrats supporting it and a majority opposing it?
MR. BABINGTON: That’s the most likely scenario, I think, Tom. And it’s really interesting, if you remember the previous Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Republican, he had a rule that he called “the majority of the majority” rule. And it was his own rule. And it meant I will not pass any major legislation unless most –
MS. IFILL: I won’t bring it to the floor.
MR. BABINGTON: – I won’t bring it to the floor, unless most of my caucus supports it. It really made the minority party totally irrelevant. It didn’t matter whether they showed up at all. Now, Democrats criticized that policy at the time saying it was anti-democratic. And so now, they’re saying, hey, we never subscribed to that. But the fact is, Tom, that if a Democratic president and a Democratic majority has to pass a big piece of legislation primarily with Republican votes, it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world.
MS. CALMES: And Gwen, you talk about getting things done or not done, if they were to have that rule, if president Obama were to face that rule in the House, he could look forward in the second half of his term to getting – having a really hard time getting money for the war in Afghanistan, to getting a trade pack like approval of the Korea-U.S. trade agreement.
MS. IFILL: Let’s pull back for a moment because it seems like the debate tonight in Washington and going forward is whether compromise and negotiation is what we value or betrayal and triangulation is what works. And that’s where we saw Bernie Sanders on the floor today for eight hours. Is he representative of this unhappiness or does that go anywhere?
MR. BABINGTON: He’s representative of – mostly, he’s kind of representing more the unhappiness, as you say, primarily in the House. The Senate, there’s just not that much unhappiness. But you’re right, Gwen, in that this is a dramatic change and perhaps in some pivotal moment in Obama’s presidency because what we’ve seen up till now is a solid minority in the Republican Party standing shoulder to shoulder against the things he wanted primarily, health care for example, and they had to push it through only with Democratic votes.
Now, after this election, you see a dramatic turn on the president’s part, where he cuts a deal literally with the Republican chief of the Senate. And I think this is a bit of a shock to the Democrats in the Congress. And it’s a totally different way of doing business.
MS. CALMES: Especially considering that Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader is the person (who’s legislation ?) has been obstructed. He’s taken the lead on that. And it’s interesting to see the House leaders who will be empowered come January 5th, when they return for the next Congress, who are on the sidelines so far of this issue.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Quite happily. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Yes. When you’re up there, watching it, does it feel like a giant game of chicken?
MS. MONTGOMERY: It did, until they cut this deal. Now it feels more like a game of chess. For a long time, it was unclear whether Democrats were going to actually take a chance on letting these cuts expire. And nobody quite thought they would, but there are still folks up there who think they should have that fight – that it’s a winner politically. The polls show people don’t want to give tax cuts to the rich. We should still go for it.
MS. CALMES: Ultimately, this is only going to be a winner politically if the economy improves. And by a lot of estimates of the analysts, like the administration said quite correctly, private sector macroeconomists have revised their forecasts for the coming year for more growth, more jobs. However, that’s in 2011. That would go a long way towards making Democrats a little happier with this administration, perhaps, but it shows the growth you would get in 2011 sort of robs from 2012, which of course is an election year.
MS. IFILL: But isn’t that part of what Larry Summers is thinking, the outgoing head of the National Economic Council? The president’s backing him up by suggesting all of a sudden, there might be a double-dip recession. It’s almost –
MR. BABINGTON: If this doesn’t happen.
MS. IFILL: – if it doesn’t happen, that’s right.
MR. BABINGTON: The big word that’s missing almost entirely from this whole debate is “deficit.” Remember, we’ve just had an election where the deficit was a big deal. We’ve just had this commission, the Simpson-Bowles commission about the deficit and lo and behold we’ve got this deal that was like it’s about to go through that’s going to add $900 billion to the deficit. I frankly have been surprised that there hasn’t been more debate about it. And where are these Tea Party activists who seemed so sincere –
MS. IFILL: Shifting uncomfortably on the sidelines.
MR. GJELTEN: I have a political question. Senator Reid mentioned that the Republicans want the Senate to act on tax issues before taking up these other issues. Will there be time if this does pass in both houses, will there be any time to go back to START, or for that matter to the defense authorization –
MS. MONTGOMERY: Kyl keeps saying no.
MS. IFILL: Not in this lame duck.
MS. MONTGOMERY: Yes. He insists that to have either of those debates –
MS. IFILL: We’re talking about Jon Kyl, by the way, senator from Arizona.
MR. BABINGTON: The White House still hopes there’ll be time for this START treaty. Whether that’s possible, we don’t know. It’s very unlikely that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will pass.
MS. CALMES: And haven’t we seen such an increase in the number of Republican senators who have expressed support for the START treaty that you –
MR. GJELTEN: Not there, right?
MS. CALMES: – right.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’ve got a week that we’ll be able to figure it out because everything is going to come to a head next week. Well and wow, Washington has been transfixed by political warfare. A cyber war has sprung up around the world over the WikiLeaks leaks. Defense Secretary Gates said it’s embarrassing. Attorney General Eric Holder said he’s investigating. And WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains under arrest tonight in Great Britain. But what should we be allowed to know? How should we be allowed to know it? And can the internet truly be free? It seems like these are the tough questions tonight, Tom. What are the answers?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, I think that what we’re learning here – those are indeed the tough questions and I think that what we have learned from this is that we haven’t really thought through the answers. This WikiLeaks episode and the cyber war that has sprung up around it is arguably the first big internet freedom battle that we have seen. And what is happening is that it’s the United States that is suffering the consequences of diminished power and prestige. And I think that one of the things that that shows is that we have not really understood how the internet works, its global power, its reach, its significance.
President Obama went to China just over a year ago and made this dramatic speech about how important internet freedom is. He said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. And then Secretary of State Clinton, two months later, gave her own speech saying very much the same thing – that information networks help people discover new ideas and hold governments accountable.
MS. IFILL: So what’s different this time?
MR. GJELTEN: So what’s happening now is the United States is basically having to dial back those – putting little asterisks after those statements. Well, it depends on what type of information. So the State Department, having just made a big deal about emphasizing the importance of information flowing freely, is this week literally in the position of telling its employees there are certain websites they’re not allowed to look at, certain documents on the internet that they’re not allowed to read. So it really is kind of an embarrassing moment. We talk about how embarrassing these disclosures have been for the United States in terms of what they’ve revealed. I think just as embarrassing is the way that the United States has been shown to be a little bit naïve, at best, and maybe hypocritical at worst.
MR. BABINGTON: But is the technology – what they’re concerned about is classified information being released. And so how is this different from if, in the 1950s, someone leaked classified information that went into a newspaper? Is there something different about either the way to get it out there or I’m not quite –
MR. GJELTEN: Two big things that are different, Chuck. One is the extent to which we’re all networked now. So that the United States and other governments – their information is in electronic form. So it spreads and it’s shared much more quickly. Also they amount of social networking that we – do you remember the Iran-Contra scandal? That actually broke in a newspaper in Lebanon. It took weeks before the rest of the world had figured it out. Nowadays, this would be instantaneous because of the internet. So even though you’re right, there has been disclosures before, they’ve never had the power that they have now thanks to the internet.
MS. CALMES: Well, and the controversy in this country – you said these are embarrassing disclosures for the United States. Embarrassing is one thing. Damaging is another. What’s been damaging, do you think, about the disclosures to date?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, I think the Iraq and Afghanistan war reports were arguably damaging to the extent that they identified sources and methods. I think that in this latest batch, probably the most damaging ones had to do with Pakistan and they revealed very sensitive discussions that were taking place with the government of Pakistan about the transfer of nuclear materials. There is not a more dangerous place in the world than Pakistan and the issue of nuclear materials. So that was arguably, I think, really risky. But I think a lot of them are just simply embarrassing. I think the best metaphor was a blogger who said that the significance of the release of these documents is like the whole U.S. government being put through a full body scanner. (Laughter.) All of its nakedness is displayed. I think that’s what a lot of it is.
MS. MONTGOMERY: But Tom, at this point, what options does the government have for controlling this thing? Can they shut it down? Are there legal options?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, they’re investigating legal options, but it’s going to take some very creative lawyering to figure out –
MS. IFILL: Espionage is not the natural option?
MR. GJELTEN: – the problem with the Espionage Act is it’s very hard to distinguish between what WikiLeaks did and what the “New York Times” did.
MS. CALMES: Oops. (Laughter.)
MR. GJELTEN: And so I don’t think that the administration really wants to prosecute the “New York Times” for espionage. And if they can’t do that, can they really prosecute WikiLeaks?
MS. IFILL: Well, I’m not going to argue on the “New York Times” behalf, but one of these organizations stumped it; the other investigated it, scrubbed it, and then published it.
MR. GJELTEN: But WikiLeaks did not publish those documents. They came out simultaneously on the news organization websites. And it was not WikiLeaks that stole the material either.
MS. IFILL: So that’s what’s complicated about this. Oh, and they’re going to push back, too. We’ve seen that this week. Well, thanks, Tom. Thanks, everybody. This was a good show.
Thank you all as well. The conversation has to end here, but it will continue online in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find us at pbs.org. And tonight, we send our condolences to the family of Elizabeth Edwards, who lost a valiant battle against cancer this week, but left behind lasting lessons on how to be tough, smart, hopeful, nurturing, and forgiving.
Keep up with daily developments online and on the air on the PBS “NewsHour” and we’ll see you right here next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.