transcript

Feb
25
2011

MS. IFILL: Toil and trouble in Libya, now in the throes of civil war, and in Congress and state capitals with showdowns plenty, plus a surprise decision on gay marriage, tonight on “Washington Week.”

Muammar Gaddafi grows increasingly erratic and governments around the world abandon Libya.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and is unacceptable.

MS. IFILL: What can the U.S. or anyone else do?

At home, Democrats and Republicans prepare to square off at the U.S. Capitol and around the nation.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: What we’re doing right now is not about union-busting – not at all. It’s about balancing our budget.

PAT EIDING [AFL-CIO PHILADELPHIA PRESIDENT]: They’re not trying to balance the budget. They’re trying to destroy collective bargaining.

MS. IFILL: And President Obama reverses himself on gay marriage, but not completely. Covering this eventful week: Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Major Garrett of “National Journal,” Karen Tumulty of the “Washington Post,” and Pete Williams of NBC News.

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.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. For weeks, we have been transfixed by the falling dominoes in the Middle East and Northern Africa. From Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain to Libya, we have witnessed real-time upheaval with real-life consequences. Tonight, Libya appears to be on the brink of, if not fully engulfed in a civil war, as its mercurial leader Muammar Gaddafi clings to power. This is how one of Gaddafi’s sons describes the standoff.

SAIF GADDAFI: We have plan A, plan B, plan C. Plan A is to live and die in Libya. Plan B is to live and die in Libya. Plan C is to live and die in Libya.

MS. IFILL: The State Department suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli today and the White House announced new sanctions against the Libyan government.

JAY CARNEY [White House Press Secretary]: It’s clear that Colonel Gaddafi has lost the confidence of his people. He is overseeing the brutal treatment of his people, the fatal violence against his own people, and his legitimacy has been reduced to zero in the eyes of his people.

MS. IFILL: Been reduced to zero. That’s fairly strong language coming from an administration which has been of sixes and sevens over all of these different upheavals in the last couple of weeks.

MS. RADDATZ: But if you look at all of these upheavals, Gwen, Libya is so terrifying because they are – Muammar Gaddafi is firing on his people with heavy weapons. Egypt, there were horrible things that happened, but this is opening fire with huge military weapons, sending fighter jets up, sending helicopter gunships up. And the reports out of there – that’s the big difference, too – we don’t really know what’s going on in Libya. We especially don’t know what’s going on in Tripoli, but the reports we’re getting from citizens there are just terrifying. They truly are. Thousands dead, some people said. Hospitals crowded. We really don’t know what’s going on. But from what we’ve heard, it is like no other place there. And you have a leader who’s clearly losing it, if he hasn’t lost it already.

MS. IFILL: And the U.S. usually – people look to us to say we’re going to fix this or we’re going to intervene, or we’re going to at the very least assemble an international group to somehow get this back, do something, but what?

MS. RADDATZ: Well, they talked about sanctions today, obviously unilateral sanctions, multilateral sanctions, all these sanctions. And I thought today, isn’t that a bit late? You’ve got a leader there who’s saying just crazy things to his people. Again, you’ve got the weaponry. And you’ve got big parts of the country that have already fallen to these protesters. You have no one in charge. You have an incredibly weak military there. Totally unlike Egypt. This is not a respected organization. You have defections of generals. You have militias. And they have worked for Gaddafi for years. That’s how he’s maintained power. He wanted a weak military because he didn’t want to be overthrown in a coup, like he did in 1969, so he’s kept his military very weak. And it is very weak and they’re defecting. But he’s got these militias. He’s got Africans coming in to help him out, who he trusts, but you’ve also got a lot of –

MS. IFILL: Mercenaries, he pays them.

MS. RADDATZ: Really truly mercenaries. He tried today by saying he’d give every family $400. That is not going to do it at this point.

MR. WILLIAMS: The things he said this week have been pretty nutty. Al Qaeda is putting hallucinogenics in people’s coffee –

MS. RADDATZ: The Nescafe, yes.

MR. WILLIAMS: For those of us who don’t hang on his every word or haven’t before, is this a sudden change in the way he is or is this just the way he’s always been and we’re just paying more attention?

MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think probably if we weren’t watching the dominoes fall, we would – over the last few weeks, we wouldn’t pay as much attention, but if you look back at Gaddafi’s history, he’s already – always been pretty wacky. Somebody said to me of all – and cruel – of all the wacky people there, he is the wackiest. And let’s remember he has, as Major said, a very, very cruel and brutal background. But –

MR. WILLIAMS: So it’s not that he’s losing. It is that he’s lost it long ago.

MS. RADDATZ: Yes, I think he probably lost it a long ago. The U.S. clearly tried to deal with him and the international community as well, especially over nuclear issues, because they wanted him to give up a nuclear program. So they got what they want, so they had to engage with him. They had to engage with the family, but I think also, when you have somebody who’s already losing it under pressure like this, they lose it even more.

MS. TUMULTY: But one of the ideas we keep hearing about is to sort of put the lid on the military is to establish some kind of no-fly zone. Is that practical and how quickly could something like that be done?

MS. RADDATZ: I love that they keep talking about this no-fly zone. I can’t imagine that that could happen because, first of all, you’d really have to have the UN. It would be tantamount to an act of war if you went in and had a no-fly zone. The same reason you can’t really land in Libya. It’s still a sovereign country and if you don’t have permission to land there, you can’t do that. So I think a no-fly zone is not a reality here.

But they’re also – they’re panicked in some ways because they want to do something. If you’ve got people just slaughtered in there and it gets worse and it gets more panicking, what do you do?

MR. GARRETT: Two other questions, Martha. One, there’s been some sense the administration hasn’t been as forceful either rhetorically on in action. Has one of the underlying reasons for that being concerned about getting the U.S. citizens out?

MS. RADDATZ: Absolutely. That’s the exact reason that they’ve backed off a little bit on the rhetoric. They didn’t really name Colonel Gaddafi by name. They didn’t want to personalize it. They didn’t want him to be more unstable. So they’ve been very careful with that. Now, we do have the Americans out. The U.S. embassy has suspended operations there. You got the charge d’affairs out of there. So they really pretty much shut down things and gotten people out, so we’ll have to see next stage.

MR. GARRETT: One other issue.

MS. IFILL: Briefly.

MR. GARRETT: How much is this complicated by what’s going on in Egypt and how much less stable Egypt is? If Egypt was stable –

MS. RADDATZ: Neighbor right next door.

MR. GARRETT: – would it be easier for us to know what’s going on or having more influence?

MS. RADDATZ: I’m not sure. We probably would and probably Mubarak could have – in that sense, I guess it would, but the whole region, as you know, is blowing up in so many ways.

MS. IFILL: Well, that’s – that couldn’t be sure. But we now turn from the trauma in Libya to the drama in the nation’s capital and in state capitals as well. The hand-to-hand combat over budgets and spending and collective bargaining rights spread from coast to coast this week. And the one thing they all seem to have in common is that no one anywhere seems prepared to compromised, starting here in Washington, where there is much talk of a looming government shutdown. How, Major, did it come to this?

MR. GARRETT: Well, on the shutdown scenario, House Republicans want to be very aggressive, taking what they believe was a mandate from the midterm elections, to cut federal spending at the discretionary non-defense level. They put a little defense cuts in there, but mostly discretionary spending. And Senate Democrats, at least up until today, said they weren’t interested in going as far as House Republicans.

Now, today, Senate Democrats have changed their attitude, at least in the short term. I’m here to tell you tonight, there’s not going to be a government shutdown. It just won’t happen. It’s not unlikely. It’s not going to happen. Senate Democrats are moving in the House Republicans way. The White House is more than willing to look at this $4 billion set of cuts over the next two weeks in large measure because 70 percent of earmarks and 30 percent of the things taken from the president’s own budget to terminate federal projects. That’s not a tenable position for the White House to ignore or reject.

MS. IFILL: So have we –

MR. GARRETT: We’re going to get a deal on that smaller matter. The larger issue about how much to cut this year still has to be teased out and sorted out, but the shutdown clock – we have one at nationaljournal.com – we may take it down. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: So has it been – is this one of these cases where it was in everybody’s interest to do the finger pointing and say, no, that guy’s more irresponsible. That guy is more irresponsible. Is that what we had going on?

MS. TUMULTY: Yes, there’s a big difference between now and 1995 and 1996.

MS. IFILL: The last time this happened.

MS. TUMULTY: Right. And one thing, the federal deficit is 10 times as big as it was at that point, but also it’s very clear that if this happens this time, there’s not going to be a winner, that the responsibility – we don’t have Congress entirely controlled by one party, as we did back then. And we have a situation where the public knows they’ve seen this movie before. And again, it’s very clear. You look at the polling. There was a Gallup poll out this week, where essentially people were blaming – they were saying they are not particularly approving of either side’s way of cutting the deficit and they do want them to get to an agreement of some kind.

MS. IFILL: There seems to be ideology at the root of not only the dispute here in Washington, but also dispute in places like Madison, Wisconsin. Even though some of this may be about finger pointing and politics, there’s something real underneath all of this.

MS. TUMULTY: You really do have to separate the issue in terms of the actual issue, versus the political agendas that are out there because the fact is every single state in the country just about, right now, is dealing with a really terrible deficit and a long-term structural deficit as well. But you look at a place like Wisconsin and people are – remember Rahm Emanuel’s line during health care. You can’t let a good crisis go to waste. Well, that’s the question, I think, that a lot of people have for instance about Scott Walker. Is he trying to forward a political and ideological goal, which is to end collective bargaining, in the name of solving a fiscal problem?

MS. RADDATZ: One of the things it’s the focus has been so much on government workers. Why is that – do they have some great deal that we don’t know about? Why is it so focused on them?

MR. GARRETT: Well, in the case of Wisconsin, what Governor Walker has said is, look, our legacy costs are built into the state budget in part because of collective bargaining. Pensions, health care benefits, salaries have been negotiated and if we don’t change the way they’re negotiated and that power structure, the unions will constantly badger the state legislature into increasing their legacy costs. Well, that’s a theory. It’s not really proven out. And the budget crisis can be solved with concessions that the labor unions have already said they’re willing to make. They just don’t want to have their union collective bargaining rights either constrained or destroyed, depending on your perspective.

MS. TUMULTY: But we are seeing public employees sort of under the gun everywhere, including in places like New York, where Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, is saying they’re going to have to be giving up some major concessions. And it’s in part because so much of state and local costs are salaries and benefits. And it’s in part, I think, because a lot of people in the private sector have seen their own benefits cut back. And so they’re saying, I love my –

MS. RADDATZ: (Inaudible.)

MS. TUMULTY: – right, it’s I love my teachers, but you know what, I have to pay for my health care.

MR. WILLIAMS: But as a practical matter, what are the numbers? Do government workers, do teachers, for example, have more favorable benefits than the average American does?

MS. TUMULTY: It depends on how you slice and dice these numbers. Generally, if you adjust state and local workers and federal workers salaries for age and income – age and education, because they tend to be older, they tend to be more educated, they’ve sort of balanced out to what private sector salaries are, but the benefits are better and the benefits are particularly better after you retire.

A lot of government workers, most of them now, have real pensions. Only one in seven workers in the private sector.

MR. GARRETT: But as many teachers have pointed out, to become a teacher, you have to be certified Bachelor’s, Master’s degree, I should be paid more. They believe they’re a more qualified employee. Yes.

MS. IFILL: But one of the interesting things that underlies all of this, not only the fight in Washington, but the fight in state capitals is that nobody lives in the middle anymore. The word “compromise” is a bad word. We actually heard John Boehner say that in a “60 Minutes” interview. We saw a picture in this issue of “National Journal,” which I just stared at forever. I just thought it was so fascinating. In it, you see on the left Bob Dole, holding a phone and smiling, on the right, Robert Byrd, holding – he was the Senate Democratic majority leader, Byrd was. Dole was a Republican. Behind, there are eight members of the Senate, four Republicans, four Democrats, all of them grinning. You recognize some of the faces. That was 1988.

MR. WILLIAMS: All of them gone, right?

MS. IFILL: Not all of them. Not all of them.

MR. GARRETT: Most of them.

MS. IFILL: But you know what, Dick Lugar is still there front and center. But you know what? It wouldn’t happen again. That picture could not be photographed.

MR. GARRETT: You wouldn’t see that kind of celebratory bipartisanship before. In the mid to late ’80s, there was an idea that bipartisanship was not only effective, but good and politically valuable. That is almost – that concept has almost completely disappeared. In this week’s “National Journal,” we have this year’s vote ratings. And that’s always an interesting story on a year-by-year basis, but what we found is we went back and compared the first year “National Journal” did this, in 1982. Back in 1982, you had some extravagant individualists in the United States Senate, people who were sort of out of the ideological mainstream.

Lowell Weicker was the most liberal Republican in the Senate and Ed Zorinsky at the time was the most conservative Democrat. You take their voting records. Back in 1982, there were 58 senators in between those two poles, okay? In 2010, when you took the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat, there was not a single senator between them. We’ve gone from 58 in the broad middle in 1982, to zero in 2010. In 1982 in the House, the numbers were 344 between the poles, as I’ve just described them; in 2010, seven.

MS. IFILL: Is it because in the end, there’s no incentive, there’s nothing to be gained from getting along, for agreeing? We see John McCain who once was considered the maverick, now among the most conservative members of the Senate.

MS. TUMULTY: I think a lot of it has to do with – and particularly in the House – the way that district lines are drawn. People come from very liberal districts or very conservative districts and there’s no incentive – you’re not going to get challenged in a general election as often as you are going to get challenged in a primary these days. And there’re very few – there’re fewer and fewer swing districts left.

But you know, Gwen, I think ultimately people do expect results from Congress and from Washington. And what we’ve seen is the last three elections over the last four years; some party’s been kicked to the curb because they haven’t produced results. And at some point, people are going to get the message.

MS. IFILL: What is the trend line, though?

MR. GARRETT: Well, the trend line is quite clearly toward partisanship on both sides – embedded, entrenched, reinforced partisanship. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get results. But what you do have are the snapback elections. 2008 created an enormous House Democratic majority and a large Senate Democratic majority. And historians will look back at the last Congress as among the most productive in American history. Whether you like it or not is a separate question. It doesn’t mean you can’t get results, but what happens is when you have that kind of partisan direction set for two years, you have a snapback, which is exactly what we had in 2010, and so voters are moving back and forth, but the politicians are staying true to these ideological rails in ways they didn’t 10 or 15 years ago.

MS. IFILL: Are there snapbacks in state capitals as well?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, certainly one of the reasons I think that you’re seeing so much of this turmoil in the Midwest is that is also where you saw very big gains. New Republican governors, large Republican majorities in these legislatures. It’s kind of the mirror image of what we saw in Washington for the last two years in that they feel like they’ve just been elected to get some stuff pushed through and they’re going to do it.

MS. RADDATZ: But how did the middle collapse? If you look at the last few years, what really happened to do that?

MS. TUMULTY: It’s so complicated and it’s happening on so many levels. Again, part of it is the way district lines get drawn. I think part of it, quite frankly, is our media culture. When so much of the –

MS. RADDATZ: Is divided and all the rest.

MS. TUMULTY: – and cable news and people don’t have to listen to –

MS. IFILL: One another.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well and look at the emergence of the Tea Party pushing Republicans further to the right because they fear they’re not going to get reelected.

MR. GARRETT: And here’s another fascinating paradox. In the ’80s – I’m not saying it was a magical time in 1982, but there’re some numbers there that indicate there was a broad middle. In the early ’80s and certainly before that, parties exerted a lot more control over choosing candidates, allocating resources, shifting money, even picking presidential nominees. And yet, because – even though the parties were stronger, there was more of this ideological diversity under party umbrellas. Now, if you ask any member of Congress, House or Senate, they’re like an independent political corporation. They run all their polling. They run all their messaging. They don’t rely on parties very much at all. So they’re much more independent and yet they’re much more partisan.

MS. IFILL: Yes, yes.

MR. GARRETT: That’s the great paradox in all of this.

MS. IFILL: Well, and we’re going to see it play out I think much more in state capitals even than in Washington, where the incentives are lacking.

Well, as if the week were not eventful enough, the Obama administration (crept ?) closer to endorsing same sex marriage by announcing it will no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in court. Now, how unusual is it, Pete, for a president to decide, I’m not going to defend this law that was enacted by Congress by wide margins signed by a Democratic president?

MR. WILLIAMS: Quite rare and that’s one of the reasons it was such a big deal. But it has happened about a dozen times in the last 50 years or so and the Obama administration says this is one of those rare times when it has to make an exception. So what it said is, we’re not going to defend in court the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the one that’s been defending for two years now. And what the Defense of Marriage Act says – remember, signed by President Clinton – that in states that already recognize and permit same-sex marriage, the federal government will not – cannot recognize the validity of those marriages. Now, it doesn’t say that states have to allow gay marriage. It just says when they do, the federal government will not recognize them. And that’s also true in the states that recognize marriages performed elsewhere.

So what the administration has said here is that this is unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional discrimination. So they told Congress, we’re not going to defend this law anymore. It’s up to you. If you want to defend it, fine.

MS. IFILL: And the understanding is if it’s unconstitutional, that trumps any law that Congress passes.

MR. WILLIAMS: Absolutely because the Constitution’s at the top of the hierarchy. And they said in the letter to Congress, the attorney general speaking to the president, that times have changed in 15 years since the Defense of Marriage Act was passed. You have the Supreme Court removing criminal sanctions against homosexual conduct. You have the Congress approving Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You have additional court rulings. You have a change in public attitude. So they say, when you do all the analysis –

MS. IFILL: Approving the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

MR. WILLIAMS: – right, exactly.

MR. GARRETT: Pete, why now?

MR. WILLIAMS: Why now is because what the administration says is that it was forced to take a position in two court cases, one in California – or one in New York and one in Connecticut. The administration had to say where to set – what the appropriate place is to set the legal bar as you assess discrimination. Different forms of discrimination get a different legal test. And what they say is discrimination based on sexual orientation should get about the same level of test as discrimination on the basis of gender. And they say, when you do that, it can’t pass the test. They say we’ve gone back, we’ve looked at what Congress said when it passed the Defense of Marriage Act, and it seems to be based mostly on moral disapproval and sort of stereotypic thinking. And that’s not enough to get you over that bar. Therefore, it’s unconstitutional.

MS. TUMULTY: But I was surprised by the reaction among some of the Republicans, particularly the ones who were thinking about running for president in a couple of years. They were pretty quiet about this. And it seemed like such a contrast to – as recently as 2004, when the Republicans were going around to every state they could and putting anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot. Is this issue past?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I don’t know that it’s past. And of course, the other show hasn’t dropped here yet, which is whether the Republicans in Congress will step in now and say, all right, we’ll take up the cudgel. We’ll defend this in court.

But I think your perception is right. In other words, most of the republican criticism was, well, how can they do this? It’s the president’s job to defend laws, how can they just pick and choose, rather than, oh, no it’s very important to protect the institution of marriage. It was more of a process statement really than on the fundamental merits.

MS. RADDATZ: Pete, can we go back to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because I was thinking today about this? If it’s found to be unconstitutional – the DOMA, yes, DOMA, then what happens with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Do they then – does the military then have to give more benefits to same sex couples, would it affect the housing then because it would be federal law?

MR. WILLIAMS: No, this is strict – well, this is – no, this is only for people in states where they’ve already recognized same sex marriage. So yes – so no and yes. So if you are a gay person in the military, your spouse then will get military spousal benefits, veterans’ benefits, survivors’ benefits, those sorts of thing. So yes, but that –

MS. RADDATZ: So that would be a big change.

MR. WILLIAMS: – but that’s more – I think that’s more of a change for the Veterans Administration than it is for the Defense Department.

MS. IFILL: And the other shoe that everyone’s waiting for to drop is to see whether the president’s going to come all the way around because he says – his spokesman said he’s still evolving on the idea of gay marriage. Is there a test of that, too?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I don’t think so, but I do think that one of the things that’s going to happen here is this may now – this Defense of Marriage Act battle that’s going on in four courtrooms, this is the one that will probably reach the Supreme Court first. I think now there is a very good chance that it will outpace the big Prop 8 case in California that everyone thought was going to be the one that would bring this issue to the Supreme Court.

MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, we’ll talk to you when it gets to the Supreme Court because you’ll be there, too. Thank you, everyone. That was very full conversation. It has to, unfortunately, stop here, but we have so much more to say and we will on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find that at pbs.org. And keep up with daily developments on air, online on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you right here around the table next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.