MS. IFILL: A week of big wins for the White House for bipartisanship and for a fractured Democratic Party. Is it the end of Washington gridlock or the beginning of a new round? We assess the not-so-lame duck congressional session tonight on “Washington Week.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: 71 yeas, 26 nays, two thirds of the Senate present having voted in the affirmative, the resolution of ratification is agreed to.
MS. IFILL: A new START Treaty.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN): It leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A strong bipartisan vote in the Senate sends a powerful signal to the world that Republicans and Democrats stand together on behalf of our security.
MS. IFILL: A repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
PRES. OBAMA: No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: And even health care for 9/11 responders.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): Well, this is the day we’ve all been working towards and waiting for. Our Christmas miracle has arrived.
MS. IFILL: President Obama’s very, very good week capped an unusually eventful and successful lame duck session.
PRES. OBAMA: One thing I hope people have seen during this lame duck, I am persistent. I am persistent. If I believe in something strongly, I stay on it.
MS. IFILL: How did the man, who survived the political shellacking only last month pull it off? We look at the week’s frustrations, debates, achievements, with the reporter covering them: Peter Baker of the “New York Times,” Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” Gloria Borger of CNN and Susan Davis of “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well where to begin? If anyone had suggested after the midterm elections that we would be sitting around this table for the last show of the year talking about an Obama comeback, he or she would certainly have been laughed off the set. But the president left town for his Hawaiian vacation with a smile on his face for good reason.
PRES. OBAMA: A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. And instead this has been a season of progress for the American people. That progress is reflected – is a reflection of the message the voters sent in November, a message that said, it’s time to find common ground on challenges facing our country. That’s a message that I will take to heart in the new year. And I hope my Democratic and Republican friends will do the same.
MS. IFILL: So let’s explore that common ground, beginning with the president’s victory on getting the Senate, including 13 Republicans, to ratify the new START nuclear treaty with Russia which turned out to be really quite a battle, didn’t it, Peter?
MR. BAKER: Well, it was an extraordinary moment because five weeks ago, the Republican senators that the president had been counting on to eventually help him get this through said “no, we’re not going to do a deal this year.” That’s Jon Kyl of Arizona. And the president had a choice. He could have stood down. Some of his advisors said “stand down; let’s not confront it because if you lose a treaty vote on the floor of the Senate, that’s a devastating moment.” And he decided – rolled dice and took a really, really big gamble and over five weeks managed to overcome this Republican opposition.
MS. IFILL: The president said in his news conference yesterday or on Wednesday that he was a big – he was a big persistent guy. He talked about “I am persistent.” Was that what he was saying? Is that what happened with that?
MS. BORGER: Yes. I think he was persistent. In these lame duck sessions there are lots of balls in the air and one of the things that was interesting was the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. There were some Republicans who said, you know what, if you do that, Democrats, we aren’t going to do the START treaty. So take your pick here. And this was a big issue. What did they do? This was important for Democrats to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And it was the president, I think, who said, we’ve got to do it and we’ve got to do both. And I know that the vice president, who was working on both of these – and by the way an unsung hero in all of this, I would argue – was kind of shocked when Harry Reid decided to bring up Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But they ended up getting both.
MS. IFILL: Well, I’m not a big fan of conventional wisdom, but the conventional wisdom even a week ago was that the president was kind of overreaching on all of this.
MR. BALZ: Yes, it was. And you have to give him credit and I think Gloria is right, you have to give the vice president a lot of credit and Harry Reid I think also, in the way he managed the last days of that lame duck session. Here we are – this is, as some historians say, the most productive Congress in half a century. It’s also a Congress that was voted out by the American people.
MS. IFILL: Maybe there is a connection.
MR. BALZ: It is an odd ending to this remarkable year.
MS. IFILL: Is that what it is, Susan, they came back from this shellacking, as the president described it, and said, well, what the heck, we might as well try to get some things done.
MS. DAVIS: I think that is part of it. I also think there is a correlation between being very successful and being rejected. I don’t think anyone really disputes that this was one of the most effective congresses in terms of product. It’s been often compared to the 89th Congress, 1965-’66, Great Society. And in that midterm election year, in 1966, Democrats lost 50 seats. In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats. And I talked to a member of Congress – the thing I think is really interesting about Democrats on Capitol Hill is there’s this – almost a complete rejection of the idea that anything they did was wrong, it was just a bad economic situation and maybe they didn’t sell it to the public as best they could.
MS. IFILL: Remember Nancy Pelosi saying, I’m effective and that’s why we lost.
MS. DAVIS: No element of this is saying, oh, we shouldn’t have done that or we should have done this. They’re just saying there was elements outside of our control.
MS. BORGER: But I think Republicans also got a message here, which was the American voters said, okay, we’re going to vote you in, but we don’t really love you. We just don’t like the other guys and the way they’ve run the Congress and we want you to get something done and end the gridlock. And so when Republican leaders returned to Capitol Hill – Mitch McConnell chief among them – and he may get some guff for it from his new incoming Republican conservative senators, he decided, okay, we’re going to cut some deals here. He didn’t want to cut the deal on START, but he did get what he wanted on tax cuts and he killed the big spending bill that he didn’t like. But they did move things through. And the public, by the way, is happy about it, right?
MR. BAKER: I think, though, you have to remember there is a big, big caveat here, right? The president got a lot of things through, very important things through – it’s still the Democratic Congress. We haven’t yet actually moved to the new Congress with a Republican House and stronger Republican minority in the Senate. So we have to keep in mind when we say he managed to show and he can still get things done, we haven’t yet tested it. This is still an opening –
MR. BALZ: And I agree with that and would add one other element to that. This was perhaps a unique set of circumstances that allowed all of this to happen. The tax deal, for example. There had to be something done on taxes. So the fact that they got an agreement was significant. There’s no question about it. And yet it was almost preordained that you were going to see that happen.
And I think on some of these other things, the way it fit together – the START treaty, as you’ve written, this got the lowest vote that any major treaty has ever gotten. So in the past, if you had the kind of bipartisan foreign policy and national security support that this treaty had, that’s going to get through.
MS. IFILL: Well, and there’s always the possibility that what happens after you’ve gotten a couple big victories like this, especially with an incoming new congress, is that you have made some enemies along the way. And certainly Mitch McConnell may have cut this deal with the president on the tax cuts, but he didn’t vote for any of the president’s other big priorities. And John McCain, who is worth watching in all of this, has been the perfect example of that. We have a little bit we want to listen to from him on the floor this week in which he talked about this.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): So here we are about six weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side. We are jamming or trying to jam major issues through the Senate of the United States because they know they can’t get it done beginning next January 5th. You can’t do it next January 5th, and the American people have spoken and you are acting in direct repudiation of the message of the American people.
MS. IFILL: So if you are John McCain or any of these incoming members of Congress, people who did not have anything to do with this lame duck session, aren’t you carrying a couple of grudges that you want to act on come January?
MR. BAKER: I think that’s right and I think – I talked to Lamar Alexander, the senator from Tennessee you showed on the clip earlier. He said that actually they got five to 10 votes they lost on the final vote on START, because they are mad about unrelated issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, DREAM Act, and other things that came of that. The mood was poisoned and people are going to remember that into the new year.
MS. IFILL: What about that? There were a couple of things that seemed like slam dunks, like the 9/11 health care bill. And yet that is literally the last thing they got done before they left town. What was the hesitation?
MS. BORGER: Money. It’s about money. And I also think if you’re looking towards the next session, it’s all going to be about money, and that’s why they’re not going to hold hands.
MS. IFILL: They cut $6.2 billion to –
MS. BORGER: They cut it. They had to cut it. They had to limit it to a certain degree. But they ended up – they ended up passing it. But again, when you get to the next session, they spent, one would argue, $900 billion on what you could call a stimulus package, even though we call it a tax cut package. And so these new members coming in, you want to talk them about having a grudge against their leadership – Senator-elect Rand Paul says he’s got $500 billion worth of cuts in his back pocket that he is going to propose when he gets to Capitol Hill. And so it’s going to be a whole new ball game. It may not work as well.
MS. IFILL: Are the Democrats, who were so demoralized after the midterm elections – have they looked at this and thought – and angry after the tax cut deal, a lot of them – have they looked at this and thought, oh, we have more power? Or have they looked at this and thought, well, we got what we could under the deadline?
MS. DAVIS: I don’t think Democrats demoralized after November 2nd are feeling all that much better – (laughter) – particularly, a lot of the Democrats on the House side tend to be more in the liberal caucus, who I think were the ones that were most angry about this tax deal, that feel most alienated by the White House on this. And in the Senate side, I do think – it is a testament to Harry Reid, I do think, a lot of what gone done, because so much of the Senate is just a tactical chess match and what we saw between he and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, was almost sort of a very fascinating power play between how McConnell worked with the White House on the tax deal but I think Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was very much Harry Reid tactically figuring out how they could get this done.
So I think Democrats maybe are a little bit more encouraged by Harry Reid, who I think some, particularly on the left, have been skeptical of him before, but a lot of the victories they chalked up in the lame duck. But Mitch McConnell is going to have six more votes and granted some of them are going to be the Rand Paul type of Republicans who are – the votes are going to be a little unpredictable. But they’re going to be more emboldened in the Senate and you’re going to have a Republican majority in the House. So there’s things that John Boehner, who’s going to be the House speaker, he’s not even going to bring to the floor.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about what the president’s going to do because to some degree this is the president who came out after the election and called Republicans essentially hostage-takers – (laughter) – called the Democrats sanctimonious. Still some bad feeling left over from that or is he the one feeling a little sanctimonious now?
MR. BALZ: Well, he’s –
MS. BORGER: Happy.
MR. BALZ: He’s feeling mostly happy. Gloria is right. He has these contradictory sentiments. He likes the idea of compromise to get things done, he likes idea of saying to the American people, we are making Washington work. One of the reasons that the Democrats lost in his estimation is that they failed on the promise to make Washington work.
On the other hand, when he makes these deals, he makes it so clear that there are lots of parts of those that he really hates that it angers the people he’s making the deals with. So I don’t know how he’s going to work that balance out over a long, sustained period in next 18 months.
MS. IFILL: I heard some of that playing out yesterday – Wednesday in his answer on the question about gay marriage. Now that you’ve got Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, advocates are saying, what about gay marriage? He says, well, actually I’m wrestling about that. Does wrestling mean a personal wrestling match or is he listening now to see what else he can get through?
MS. BORGER: I think it’s a personal wrestling match and if I were his political advisor, I’d say, no, don’t wrestle personally.
MS. IFILL: He said this more than once.
MS. BORGER: Yes, he has and I think it’s clear that he knows it’s playing out. It’s likely to wind up in the Supreme Court and he knows that his position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell could be a contradiction of his position on gay marriage or some could interpret it that way. But I think this is a president who’s sort of found his groove, got his groove back right – is that he now – context is everything in politics. He now has an opponent or opponents. They are the leaders of the House and the leader of the Senate. He used to have to stand side by side with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. They led health care. He followed in health care. And now I think it’s going to be easier for him in many ways to carve out his positions and to lean on them.
MR. BAKER: I would say two things on the gay marriage issue, which is really interesting. When he takes his position in favor of civil unions, not gay marriage, politics were different. Today, Barack Obama is to the right on gay marriage of Dick Cheney and Ted Olson who won the Bush v. Gore case in 2000. The politics have moved –
MS. BORGER: And a young generation.
MR. BAKER: And a younger generation that he likes to motivate and needs to motivate in two years. On his ability to drive the agenda, you saw two different tactics here. You saw on the tax cut or working on a deal with the Republican leadership. On the START, and to some extent, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, where you saw he’s working around the Republican leadership and getting enough Republicans onboard. So he’s taken – he’s testing out in a test drive way different ways of accomplishing things –
MS. IFILL: But the loophole you can drive a truck through is he still believes there should be congressional action, not executive action on something like gay marriage. So he might change his mind, but he still was not going to go out there and force it. it doesn’t sound like it.
MR. BALZ: He seemed to be a more liberated president in this postelection period. After he got through that first several weeks where I think that notion of being shellacked really set the whole White House back, but your point that he had to stand with the Democrats when he came in as president. And now he feels, obviously, I think he can stand somewhat more on his own. And he will try to make his deals where he can and he will try to keep his base satisfied where he needs to.
MS. IFILL: I’m going to try to coin a phrase that I would hope everyone will go viral, opportunistic bipartisanship. (Laughter.) It’s a lot of – it’s a lot of syllables, but think about it. (Laughter.) It’s a chance to be bipartisanship when it serves a larger purpose or a different purpose and to reject it when it doesn’t. What do you think about that, Susan?
MS. DAVIS: I think if you were to describe these two weeks, I think that would be a good way to phrase it.
MS. IFILL: If we could just come up with fewer syllables.
MS. DAVIS: Looking forward, I feel like these two weeks really just set the stage for what’s to come and then you suggested with money. I do think that the battle line has been drawn on spending. Even if you look at what happened. START, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – good accomplishments and bipartisan support for both of them. But these weren’t bills that were whipped. These weren’t testing the party loyalty. They both, at the end of the day, passed with pretty strong margins. The bills that really were contentious were the 9/11 bill, which came down to money, which I think Republicans – you could say –
MS. IFILL: Backed them down on that.
MS. DAVIS: – backed them down. And on the spending bill to fund the federal government, just no deal that I think the Republicans got their way on that. And we’re going to have another big spending fight in March. And this is just – it’s spending, but it’s also very philosophically what do these two parties believe when it comes to the health care bill and funding that and all these things that the money is tied to. So it’s hard to see if the core of the debate is going to be over those issues in the first three months of the year, where the bipartisanship is going to be.
MS. IFILL: Well, and you’ve made an important point – the two things the president didn’t get – or one of them was not necessarily something he was lobbying for – and that was the Omnibus bill, which had all these earmarks in it, but was spending that sank that, and the other was the DREAM Act, his anti-immigration effort, which was just supposed to be – I guess was considered to be the camel’s nose under the tent or whatever, and therefore was roundly rejected.
He said yesterday that that was his biggest disappointment. I was a little surprised to hear that.
MS. BORGER: Not if you saw the Census results. (Laughter.) And you saw the states that have gained the most population with Hispanic voters like Arizona and Nevada for example. I think the president – and by the way, when he talked about the DREAM Act, what was interesting to me it was he talked about it in terms of people –
MS. IFILL: Very personal.
MS. BORGER: – very personal. I know these young kids. They came here. This is no fault of their own. They grew up here their entire lives. This is the only country they know and –
MS. IFILL: That’s the way he talked about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
MR. BAKER: Or gay marriage, right? He wanted staff who were in long-term committed relationships –
MS. BORGER: – so it’s a difference voice from Obama – less policy, more personal – and I do believe that the parties are betting on different sides of this – of the immigration issue totally, not just the DREAM Act, but the Republicans are betting on the backlash and the Democrats are looking for Hispanic voters.
MS. DAVIS: I think the DREAM Act was a policy disappointment, but a political win for Democrats. I think that this is a debate they very much want to have going into the 2012 election cycle because Hispanics are such a core part of who they need to turn out, both for Obama and for Democratic candidates.
MS. IFILL: So it sounds like lessons – this is a good way to segue into the lessons that were learned from this. One of the lessons it seems it’s learned is that the president and his partisans realized that one of his great weaknesses is that he seems a little distant. And so now he is personalizing issues which would otherwise – even the tax cut debate – which would otherwise seem just like inside Washington gobbledygook. Is that one of the lessons White House has learned?
MR. BALZ: I think it is a lesson, but I think it is one that I don’t think they have yet found the real formula. I thought his words, yesterday, conveyed some of that. But he hasn’t yet done it on the fundamental issue, which is the economy. The tax package may or may not help the economy. They obviously hope it will. But that’s where he still got to really connect with people and show people that what he’s doing is producing results.
MS. BORGER: Jobs. I’m going to talk about the jobs that I’m going to create for you.
MR. BAKER: I think that he’s also learning a lesson, I think, from a couple of these things. The tax package is the first time he’s had actually cut a deal with Republican leaders. Everything up until now – health care, financial reform, stimulus – were all about getting just a couple Republicans, enough to get to 60 –
MS. IFILL: And it didn’t work.
MR. BAKER: – that’s right. And this is the first time he had to sit down with the actual leadership and say, what do you need? Here’s what I need. Here’s my bottom line. Where is your bottom line? And it’s – Mitch McConnell, of course, who said famously his first priority is to make sure that President Obama is a one-term president, also said this week, if they think that this was bad, wait till next year. It’s going to be an interesting moment to see whether they can translate that kind of leadership beyond – exigency of the moment, as you say, forced by deadline.
MR. BALZ: But McConnell has been interesting because at times, he has been –
MS. BORGER: Really.
MR. BALZ: – throwing darts at them and at other times, he sounded more – softer in his tone, more willing to work. I think he will be a fascinating person to watch next year. Obviously, John Boehner, the incoming speaker because he has the power, but as the person there with an enhanced minority in the Senate, McConnell is going to be a very –
MS. BORGER: But he’s got an interesting minority because a lot of these incoming senators are people that in fact Mitch McConnell did not support in the primaries initially. They’re Tea Party –
MS. IFILL: Well, Mitch McConnell used to support earmarks, too. Things change.
MS. BORGER: – and that’s interesting because he’s done a total turnaround on that. So he’s going to have a bunch of constituencies he has to please because they need to prove they can govern and get something done along with the Republican-led House, but he’s got these new members.
MS. IFILL: But in the end, are both Republicans and Democrats trying to appeal to those independents? Is that what all of this is about? That is, if you really want public opinion to come on your side that you’re speaking not to the liberals who are mad at the president or the conservatives who are planning to upend the Republicans, but to this great middle?
MR. BALZ: Yes, but I think the White House has a sharper focus on that right now than the Republicans do, well, for the reason that Gloria said, which is that the energy that propelled the election results came much more from the very conservative base of the Republican Party and it has brought people in, who have made a lot of promises to do some very tough things on spending and on health care. So that the Republicans have a difficult balancing act. The president now has a little bit more maneuvering room, which he used to his advantage in this lame duck session to show to independents that he can get some things done.
MS. DAVIS: I do think, though, if you look at one of the interesting modern phenomena of politics, 2006, 2008, 2010, were all sort of wave election years. In terms of long term party control, stability is no longer there. And the House Democrats are probably – about two dozen or more seats they’d have to win to win back the House. The Senate’s going to be divided by single digits. I think we now live in a world where the possibility of control is always up in the air all the time. These ideas of – Democrats ruled the House for 40 years because they had 150 seats majority, I think those days in American politics are over.
MS. IFILL: So you actually have to get along. You have to –
MS. DAVIS: But that middle part of the electorate – I think the American people have proven that they are willing to be fickle. The same bums they voted in one election cycle, they’ll vote out two years later.
MS. BORGER: But if you look at the outsiders, they didn’t like what the Republicans did in this Congress. They didn’t like the tax cuts. They didn’t like START. So –
MS. IFILL: So we’re going to see. Okay. Well, now we’ve set the table. We know where we’re going next. (Laughter.) And we’ll talk about that next week. Thanks, everybody.
Before we go tonight, we’d like to offer a farewell to one of our own, Jeff Bieber, who’s been “Washington Week’s” executive producer, is off to new challenges and rainier climes at our PBS station in Seattle. In nearly 30 years here at WETA in Washington, he’s had a hand in producing historical series, long form documentaries, and even a musical concert or two or three. And he has been our muse up to and including our Peabody winning year in 2008. Thank you, Jeff, from all of your friends here at the table and behind the scenes at WETA.
We’re heading out for our eggnog now, but the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. See you next week on “Washington Week” and Merry Christmas. Good night.