transcript

Apr
08
2011

MS. IFILL: Averting a government shutdown, the debate, the tradeoffs, and why we’re not out of the woods yet, tonight on Washington Week.

SENATE CHAPLAIN: Lord, save us from ourselves.

MS. IFILL: Much talk, little action.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): The Republican House leadership have only a few hours left to look in the mirror and snap out of it.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): There’s only one reason that we do not have an agreement as yet, and that issue is spending.

MS. IFILL: A standoff that once seemed out of the question –

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX). : I’m embarrassed. This is the most dysfunctional place I’ve ever been a part of in my life.

MS. IFILL: – turns into high noon.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For us to go backwards because Washington couldn’t get its act together is unacceptable.

MS. IFILL: But with compromise elusive and positions entrenched, the federal government lurches towards shutdown. We tackle all the outstanding questions tonight with Michael Duffy of Time Magazine, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, and Jeanne Cummings of Politico.

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. If you’ve been following the ups and the downs of the budget standoff in Washington this week, you are by now understandably dizzy. Short story, as of late in the evening on Friday night, there is no deal, but all week there has been plenty of finger-pointing.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R-IN): It’s time to take a stand. We need to say to liberals, this far and no further. To borrow a line from another Harry, we’ve got to say the debt stops here.

PRES. OBAMA: I remain confident that if we’re serious about getting something done, we should be able to complete a deal and to get it passed and avert a shutdown, but it’s going to require sufficient sense of urgency from all parties involved.

REP. BOEHNER: But we’re not going to roll over and sell out the American people like it’s been done time and time again here in Washington. And when we say we’re serious about cutting spending, we’re damn serious about it.

SEN. REID: They can keep their word and significantly cut the federal deficit, or they can shut down America’s government over women’s access to health care. If that sounds ridiculous it’s because it is ridiculous.

MS. IFILL: Before this remarkable standoff is over, the week’s budget debate will have touched on almost every imaginable political and policy third rail, but the question is, how did we get here? How did we get here, Michael?

MR. DUFFY: Just watching this tape all over again makes me not sure myself. The – I think if you look at this deal that has yet to really be iced, you have a relatively small amount of money, maybe one one-hundredth of the federal budget, so it’s really not about the money, it really wasn’t about all the riders, various, that were attached to the bill in the end. It’s really about a dry run, a dress rehearsal for a fight that’s going to go on all year long. And that’s about the longer-term structural deficit and debt problems we face in the country, what to do about entitlement spending, and whether both sides, who can barely make progress on this very small amount of money, can actually tackle this larger problem.

MS. IFILL: Let’s bring our viewers up-to-date on what’s been happening here, which is to say not much here in Washington late on Friday night. Lots of closed doors meetings, lots of promised announcements which failed to materialize, which leads me to believe that the deal was not as simple as they thought it might be.

MS. CUMMINGS: Oh, it’s been a complicated process. That’s for sure. The rough outlines, it appears as though there’ll be a short continuing resolution so that they can put the finishing touches on about $40 billion in cuts. And they seem to have resolved some of the rider issues on climate change, clean water, and abortion with perhaps studies that would come and probe those issues in more depth. Those are the rough outlines we know about now. It – the Speaker has got to sell this now because he has said he wants to pass this with Republican votes. He wants 218 of his 240-odd voting for this and so he doesn’t have a lot of room for error and it may take him a while to really bring everybody on board if indeed this rough outline we’re aware of now is indeed what the final product becomes.

MS. IFILL: And that’s the truth. There is no deal until there is a deal and there have been sticking points all week long which have made the deal further and further out of reach.

MR. DICKERSON: Right. There’ve been – there’re two parts of this deal. There’s the number we’ve all been talking about. And that number’s grown a little bit and Republican –

MS. IFILL: On what –

MR. DICKERSON: – last week, it was $33 billion it looked like both sides were – and John Boehner wouldn’t admit to that number. And here’s why. Republicans wanted to get him to say, here’s a number and say, all we have to do is meet that number, however we choose to meet it, that’s fine. Boehner –

MS. IFILL: Number being the amount of money that would be cut.

MR. DICKERSON: Exactly, the amount of money that would be cut in this budget, which, we should remind everyone, is just to run the government for the rest of this year. So that was the size of the cuts. And Boehner said, it’s not just about a number. It’s the kinds of cuts in there. And there’s these riders we’re talking about, some of them very important to certain members of his Republican conference. And those dealt with the Environmental Protection Agency, health care, with Planned Parenthood. And every time the Democrats said, we want those riders to go away, those special proposals that have to do with these hot button issues, then the amount of cuts had to go up because Boehner – it was like a seesaw. He knew that in order to get his caucus – to get all of them to vote for it, he would have to buy them off one way or the other. And if he was going to disappoint them and say, you couldn’t get what you wanted on abortion, then they’d say, well, you better brought us something, which in this case means greater cuts.

MS. IFILL: So the debate that we – as far as we know tonight – was to get this Planned Parenthood rider, the rider that would deprive funding for Planned Parenthood, which they argue that they actually provide health services to women, and Republicans argue that part of those health services are abortions, whatever, the point being in order to get that out of there, which Democrats and women in Congress object to, they’re saying, you’re going to have to come with some more cuts.

MR. DICKERSON: Right. And the cuts that you’re going to have to come up with are going to have to be greater in number than – the Planned Parenthood proportion was a cut itself, but the cuts to buy it off essentially – in order to remove it, you’re going to have to get a larger amount of just total cuts to basically –

MR. DUFFY: Ransom.

MR. DICKERSON: Yes, exactly, to buy off the –

MS. IFILL: It was a $300 million cut roughly for Planned Parenthood and it might be three times that in order to –

MR. DICKERSON: – in order to buy it off.

MS. CUMMINGS: It does look like that and that’s why I think also this week, when you had – and especially today, when you had Democrats saying they’re going to shut the government down because they’re fighting over abortion and women’s health issues, social issues, and you’d have the rhetoric from the Republicans, no, we’re talking about cutting spending. That’s what we’re fighting over. That the last sticking points are about spending cuts. And both sides were talking about the same issue, but from their own perspective because –

MS. IFILL: Well, and for their own reasons.

MS. CUMMINGS: Exactly. Because the cut to Planned Parenthood was that – that was the Republicans saying that’s $350 or $300 million we want to cut and the Democrats framed it as, but it’s women’s health that you’re cutting.

MR. DUFFY: And all those details are obviously right and yet I sometimes have thought, watching this unfold, that it had far less to do with the details than it did to the context that both sides were operating. And let’s not forget, this is really the first test between President Obama and the House, now run by the Republicans, led by John Boehner, who know they have a long year and maybe two years at least of battles to come, not just about fiscal stuff, but about other things. And this is really the first time they have clashed, met on the battlefield, so to speak, and both sides are very conscious, I think hyper-conscious, of who blinks first. Who is the one who is seen by their own right flank or their own left flank, if they’re the White House, to have conceded?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, and you’re exactly right. And that’s why these small amounts of cuts – what John Boehner is getting challenged from his right, those folks are saying, hey, this is our – if we buckle on this, we’re going to buckle on these bigger issues, so we really got to stay strong. But then what House leadership was saying is wait a minute. This is our first big test. We have been saying we’re the adults in Washington. On our first big test, we have to meet the minimum standard of adulthood, which is keeping the government open. So don’t get – their first test was to show responsibility as new leaders in Washington. So that was the way the Republican leaders saw it.

MS. IFILL: We’re just hearing now that some of the networks are reporting that they have come up with a short-term deal that they’re going to vote on in the middle of next week. And that’s the indication we saw, a short-term deal to keep the government running, but not necessarily solve the long-term problem, right?

MR. DUFFY: No, this may just give them time enough – a short-term deal gives them time enough to approve this thing or some requirements that it takes. And this is merely for, as John was saying, the current fiscal year. They have to come back and look at the next fiscal year in a fairly short order, and before that they have to solve an even trickier problem with raising the debt limit. And that’s not at all really addressing the long-term structural debt problem. So they have a laddered set of challenges. That is another reason, I think that they – if they come to an agreement, on Friday night or on Saturday, they’re mindful that they’re going to have to turn around and make an agreement again.

MS. IFILL: You know what’s really a dilemma for both John Boehner and Barack Obama – the Republicans and the Democrats; let’s take the persons out of it for a moment. If they were going to get to the point tonight where the government shut down, there were never going to be any winners in this kind of debate, so why wasn’t there greater incentive earlier on to get to where they ended up tonight?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I think everybody needs a deadline. I think deadline pressure is always –

MS. IFILL: Focuses the mind –

MS. CUMMINGS: Yes, it does in a negotiation like this. Now, they really have pushed it to the wall in part because of this last deal that had to be made. And judging from what we were hearing a few hours ago and what we hear now, it looks like Boehner got a billion dollars for the Planned Parenthood $300 million. So that’s not such a bad deal if indeed that’s what it is.

So I think part of it is that. I think – I think there was incentive for all three of these leaders: the president, the speaker, and Harry Reid over in the Senate. They had great incentive to not shut the government down. And the president, obviously, is worried about the economy. It’s slowing down. And he wants to be the grown up in Washington, too. And so he wanted to be able to say he shepherded the Congress past this crisis.

Boehner knew what happened in 1995. He doesn’t want to reset the political landscape, so Obama’s on a flight plan to reelection, when his fragile new majority is also up for reelection. And Reid, of course, has many vulnerable players for 2012 as well. So there was indeed great incentive for the leaders to get this done and they never left the table. And they never attacked each other. And that, I thought, was really interesting in this. Reid attacked the Tea Party, but he didn’t attack Boehner. Boehner said good things about Reid and the president.

MR. DICKERSON: And they did those joint appearances as they were negotiating all along, which something changed for Democrats here. When they did the first extension of government, several weeks ago, Democrats were saying, we are under pressure because the country thinks we don’t even think there is a spending problem. So when Republicans say that Democrats aren’t even serious, that hurts. As one advisor said to me, the country is in an axe-cutting mood. And we’re – we need to get to that place.

Well, once they started having negotiations and there were all these pictures of Harry Reid and John Boehner, it was clear that Democrats were serious enough to be at the table and not be laughed out of the room and not have John Boehner attack them. And so that made it a little bit harder for Republicans to say they’re not serious at all. It then became about the specific kind of cuts, which made it a less easy political position for Republicans to really paint the Democrats as out of touch.

MR. DUFFY: But having watched a bunch of these deal-making conferences over the last 15 years, I can tell you that the deal makers have a way of getting separated from their caucuses. And even though they can come out of days of frustrating negotiations and sometimes go back and not actually be able to sell what they have wrought. And that’s one of the downsides of this last minute deadline Perils of Pauline tactic stuff both sides are playing, which is that it really doesn’t leave you time to miscalculate. And these are – these kinds of judgments you make – I’ll take a three to one turn, I’ll take a five to one – you’re really playing a very high stakes game. So we’ll see if they can get this passed now.

MS. IFILL: All of us were covering Washington in 1995, at the time of the last big government shutdown. And it seems there are some similarities here. It’s natural for us to immediately compare it to what we know. But it seems like there’re a lot of dissimilarities here as well, not least among them, the fact that the economy itself is so weak and that there was an argument that the White House attempted to make – I’m not sure if they did effectively – that this shutdown would not only close the zoo, but would also hurt the economy.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s right and the problem with that is that while the White House thought that this would hurt the way people thought about Congress and maybe even congressional Republicans in the short term and that they couldn’t get their act together, they knew that if this hurt the economy and they weren’t quite sure – you talk to economic advisors in the White House and they say, well, we’re not – we don’t really know how this is going to play out. But they worry about this kind of squishy thing business confidence and the idea that if it looks like Washington can’t get its act together on this, how can Washington possibly get its act together on the bigger debt question and that will affect business and the way it makes its choices, hiring, investment.

MS. IFILL: Also very basic, the Federal Housing Administration would not be able to close loans and –

MR. DICKERSON: Those are direct – yes. There would be direct costs and there would 800,000 federal employees affected and so this was spooking them. And that was always something that really was pushing the White House to get involved here. And then as we said, John Boehner, too, nobody wanted to be stuck with that.

MS. IFILL: Did the White House get effectively involved?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, they certainly were involved more so than it may appear. Obama himself was not sitting at the roundtable. But his OMB director, Jack Lew, was definitely in the meetings and in very close contact with the senior aides who were negotiating on behalf of the congressional leaders. And so the White House was as involved as – in all the details. And then there were times when the congressional leadership actually said, look, we just want to talk with each other. Would you all please go down the street and –

MS. IFILL: Go get a burger or something.

MS. CUMMINGS: – go have lunch, yes. So – I mean they were definitely involved. I think when you mention the differences with ’95 and today, a couple of other big ones – the wars. We were not in wars in 1995 and so this late pressure that came on Congress about the payments to soldiers was a really powerful point.

MS. IFILL: And Newt Gingrich and John Boehner are just not the same person.

MS. CUMMINGS: Very different people.

MS. IFILL: And a lot of what happened in 1995 and the reason why it backfired had to do with Newt Gingrich and his personality.

MR. DUFFY: The fact that Gingrich had gone forward gave Boehner a roadmap about where not to go. He has, in some ways, a more unruly, more difficult caucus on his right flank than Newt Gingrich did, which is saying something. But his –he had the advantage of having followed Gingrich down this path and probably – it’s a little early to say, but he probably knew were to stop, whereas Gingrich never saw stop signs, saw himself as almost an equal partner, saw himself as the government in 1995, and dared Clinton to go all the way to the wall and shut down; and in fact, I think, gloried in the idea of a shutdown. Boehner never has done that.

MS. IFILL: And what do you see that’s alike or different from ’95?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, the president’s role in this. In ’95, it was Clinton and Gingrich across the table from each other. In this instance, we have the president – President Obama was sort of irritated this week, when he came out in his press conference and said he had to get in the middle of the spat that was going on between these children. And he was irritated, but of course, that’s kind of his pitch. We saw this in the – last year, when there was a debate over extending the Bush tax cut. The president came out and said, this is ridiculous – that both sides – and he positioned himself in the middle between two squabbling parties.

Well, and also remember, the Democrats are very angry, the ones in the Senate, in particular, that the president hasn’t gotten involved and picked up the fight here. And we must note here that Republicans have gotten from Democrats – Democrats have now signed on to cuts in spending that are as large as the ones that House Republican leaders initially proposed themselves. And so there’re a lot of Democrats who say, wait a minute, if the president was helping us make this case, then we would have not had to accept so many large cuts.

MS. IFILL: Democrats think they got rolled in this.

MR. DICKERSON: They think they got rolled and they think the president was complacent in it. And now the White House, what they say, is look, we didn’t want to get involved in this tiny little fight, as Michael said, over a little tiny bit of the budget. We are thinking about – since the State of the Union, the large budget, the big thing about entitlements and investments and America’s future and jobs. And we want to have the big conversation and have the president ready for that, so we didn’t want to get involved in a little one.

MR. DUFFY: But we don’t know when we’re going to have that conversation.

MR. DICKERSON: Right.

MR. DUFFY: And one of the things that’s happened this week because of the proposals laid down by Paul Ryan is that –

MS. IFILL: House Budget Committee.

MR. DUFFY: – House Budget Committee chairman, who is proposing much broader series of structural changes to the federal – to federal spending, federal taxes, welfare reform, health security – is that he is forcing the president’s hand perhaps to get back involved in a dramatic way and be very specific. Don’t forget, we’re in about chapter two of the Obama presidency. The first chapter was when he was very much involved in health care reform and he was sort of pilloried for that until he pulled back, and now he’s in the I’m going to lead from the back stuff, whether it’s overseas or here at home on this.

Well, one of the things that the Republicans are pressing on, not just in terms of timetable, but in terms of the demand that we do something about the structural deficit, long-term, is they’re saying, you’d better get back in the game. And it’ll be really interesting to see if he does.

MS. IFILL: Go ahead.

MS. CUMMINGS: It’s interesting how the White House reacted to Paul Ryan’s recommended budget because they were very careful on what they said. They didn’t necessarily attack him in the way that congressional Democrats did attack his budget document. And part of that, I think, as Michael says and John is saying, is that the president’s got to go there, too. And if you look at Ryan’s broad budget, cutting $6 trillion from the government over 10 years, inside that –

MS. IFILL: This continuing resolution fight seems so tiny.

MS. CUMMINGS: Yes, and inside of that document is basically the Republican version of health care reform and the Republican version of tax reform and the Republican version of –

MS. IFILL: – entitlement reform.

MS. CUMMINGS: – of entitlement reform and energy reform. It is one big document. And there’re going to be pieces of that, especially tax reform, that the president has said, I’m rather interested in that. So he has to be careful not to attack the whole if he wants to pull pieces out.

MR. DICKERSON: It is worth, just as a viewer’s guide, remarking on what we’re about to get into here. We’re about to talk about the role of government in the lives of Americans. What the purpose is? Do we have a safety net? Who is it for? Taxes, how much should they be and what’s fair? What is the American role in the world and by the way, what does the federal government have to do with the economy? I mean, every single philosophical –

MS. CUMMINGS: And what is our government’s responsibility to the old and the poor and the handicapped.

MR. DICKERSON: – yes in a time of huge deficits.

MS. IFILL: So when you look at a week like this and you look at the way the president – periodically we say, this is Obama’s big test and then we run that trap. And here we are now, now another one of those big tests. If we look at the way this week played out and we look at what awaits him, how well did he score on the test?

MR. DUFFY: Well, I don’t think we know yet. I think – David Walker, who ran the GAO, said that this week was like fighting over the bar tab on the Titanic. And the way the small board fight is connected to the big one is as follows. The bond market, overseas investors watch the United States, the people, its government, and they say, these people can’t fix their problems and if they can’t fix their problems, then I am exposed here in a very big way.

And I think one of the things we saw this week that’s important and Obama will have to respond to it, the way John’s talking, is that I think the timetable the White House thought it had to deal with the long-term structural problem, which I think they hoped to be pushed into 2013 or 2014, maybe a second term, has really shrunk here. And they are going to have to deal with this now, at least make a start before the election. And that is not what they wanted. And to that extent, I think this is not something the White House had hoped would come as – be a result of this. But I think it is one outcome, even if they get a deal.

MS. CUMMINGS: I think the fact – if they succeed in walking away from this brink and the government doesn’t shut down, I think that all of them will be better off than had it shut down because if the government is shut down, then the public would have been looking to point the finger at somebody. And the early polls, the polls we have now suggest that the landscape was shaping up a lot like ’95, where the – there’s an NBC poll that was done, where 37 percent of the respondents were going to blame the Republicans in Congress, 20 percent were going to blame Obama for it.

MS. IFILL: But either way, there was going to be a lot of blame.

MS. CUMMINGS: There’s going to be blame. That’s right. And so I think if they walk away from this, then they all will come out all right, but then they go into the biggest brawl. And the debt – lifting the debt is another big vote out there. So –

MS. IFILL: You know, what I was just thinking about debt is White House officials were laughing about the possibility this would even be a debate not long ago now. It looks like it’s real.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, and this is not a debate the president can avoid because in his State of the Union and in all these speeches he’s been giving, while this fight has been going on about the continuing resolution, the president’s out there talking about energy, he’s talking about all of the – education – he’s argument is, yes, I’m serious about the debt, but we need to make smart choices about investments. So he engaged already in this big, huge debate, so he can’t all of a sudden say, oh, I’m not going to do it now. He’s got to fight for this argument he started.

MS. IFILL: Well, as we sit here tonight, it looks like they have a deal. John Boehner and Harry Reid have both come out and said they’re going to vote on a deal tonight. So you all can stay up and watch that somewhere else because we’ve got to go. But thank you everybody for helping us understand what this week was about. As we wait and watch for all of it to finally get sorted out, you can keep up with breaking news around the clock online at the PBS NewsHour, and if you want to look back at how Washington Week covered the same story back in 1995, go to our website and click on “The Vault” to hear Alan Murray, Mara Liasson, and Steve Roberts talk about how it looked to them back then. You can find us at pbs.org.

We’ll keep covering the news and then meet here again to make sense of it all next week on Washington Week. Good night.