MS. IFILL: Crazy consequential politics, a stew of ultimatum, accusation and policy prescription. We cover it all tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: No matter which approach you favor, I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on healthcare reform.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: The only thing that will be bipartisan about this proposal is the opposition to it.
MS. IFILL: Healthcare heads towards high noon. Will the president’s plan to forge ahead without Republican support work? Should it? Plus, what are they putting in the political water? The House Ways and Means Committee chairman steps aside.
REP. CHARLES RANGLE (D-NY): I should not do anything that would impede the success of other Democrats.
MS. IFILL: A freshman lawmaker quits under a cloud. New York’s governor teeters on the edge of resignation.
GOV. DAVID PATERSON (D-NY): When the truth comes out, I’m confident that I’ll be vindicated.
MS. IFILL: And a retiring Republican holds the Senate hostage for days over a jobs bill.
SEN. JIM BUNNING (R-KY): It’s not a filibuster when you object.
MS. IFILL: All in a week when the nation’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly stuck at 9.7 percent. We explain the story behind the stories with Jeanne Cummings of Politico; Michael Duffy of Time magazine; and John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times.
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. The president laid down a new healthcare reform line in the sand this week but we’ve seen deadlines come and go before. Several House Democrats threatened to derail the bill over abortion, but we’ve seen that before too. Now congressional leaders have decided to use a parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation to force what will almost certainly be a partisan vote.
SEN. MCCONNELL: This is outrageous on two counts: first, because the method they’re proposing has never been used on such a sweeping piece of legislation; and second, because Americans have already told us loud and clear that they don’t want this partisan approach.
MS. IFILL: But the president is all in.
PRES. OBAMA: Every argument has been made. Everything there is to say about healthcare has been said and just about everybody has said it. So now is the time to make a decision about how to finally reform healthcare so that it works not just for the insurance companies, but for America’s families and America’s businesses.
MS. IFILL: So after all this time, Jeanne, did the ground finally shift on healthcare this week?
MS. CUMMINGS: It definitely did. I mean, since for months now, there’s been talk about when is the president going to engage. And in the last six to seven days, he engaged in important ways and really reset the stage for this final phase on healthcare reform. The first thing he did was in his initial remarks to the nation he changed – he ended some policy debates within the Democratic Party. The public option is gone. The president used it – the lack of it as an argument for reform. And so that was a debate that continued to roil the Democrats. It’s over. He also then started to set the stage for the political fight ahead by bringing in the Republicans – that was the first step – accepting their ideas – that was the second step –
MS. IFILL: Some of them.
MS. CUMMINGS: Some of them.
MS. IFILL: Some of their ideas.
MS. CUMMINGS: But they – the Republicans – responded with “no, thank you” in both cases. And that was laying the groundwork for reconciliation that the Republicans have made clear they are not going to play on any terms and that is giving passage to the Democrats to then move ahead because that’s the only way to get to a vote.
MS. IFILL: Now the Democrats call reconciliation, which is an awful Washington term, they call it a simple majority up or down vote which does kind of resonate in a way. It sounds like democracy. And the Republicans keep calling it reconciliation which sounds like the worst of the sausage making.
MS. CUMMINGS: Reconciliation sounds like a trick.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. CUMMINGS: Like, you know, there’s some sneaky backdoor way of trying to get this done. And it is true: under reconciliation they can pass it with a simple majority vote. There can’t be a filibuster. So it does take just 51 votes to pass it. I think this language is good for the Democrats because we saw it used very effectively by President Bush when he was concerned about his Supreme Court nominees. And over and over again all we heard was they deserve an up or down vote and that resonated with the public, a sense of fairness. And that was the way Obama tried to frame healthcare that the healthcare reform debate after all of these months deserves a final up or down vote in the Congress.
MR. HARWOOD: Jeanne, you mentioned that Republicans said no. And I think the White House expected that, Democratic leaders expected that. But it’s still difficult to get the 51 votes in the Senate for reconciliation and even more difficult in the House to get a majority. They’ve lost some members – John Murtha passed away and a couple of members have quit. Talk about that challenge, how many they lose over the abortion issue, for example, and where they make up that ground.
MS. CUMMINGS: Absolutely. It remains a chess game. It was the first time. Each chamber voted on these measures and nothing much has changed since then. And there are about 11 members who are caught up in the abortion fight. Nancy Pelosi needs those 11 and if she can’t get them – what she’s trying to do now is maybe negotiate within the 11, try to grab five of them or six of them. There are some conservative Democrats who opposed the original House bill because it had the public option. Well, now, it won’t have it. Some of those they’re trying to bring in. And surprisingly, some of these resignations might help because there is at least one conservative member from Tennessee who is now saying, I’ll take a look, whereas if he were running for reelection again he could not utter those words. But it is a chess game to try to get to 217 and over in the Senate equally difficult.
MR. HARWOOD: The leaders say that they can get the votes. Is there reason to believe them?
MS. CUMMINGS: There’s no reason to believe that they have those votes today. Is there reason to believe that they might have them someday when they call a vote? Probably a pretty good chance by the time they do that.
MR. DUFFY: Jeanne, can you take a minute to score the bipartisan dance we just went through here, you know, that he had the Republicans in. Was that for real? Was it a charade? If it wasn’t for real, why did he do it? And if it was, why aren’t those Republican things that he suggested he would take likely to be in the final product?
MS. CUMMINGS: There are probably – he accepted four ideas of the Republicans. And I talked to some senior Senate aides today and a couple of them may well get in. They may –
MS. IFILL: For example.
MS. CUMMINGS: For example, they might boost reimbursements to doctors for Medicare and Medicaid patients. They might expand the use of savings accounts -- health savings accounts, which are very popular. Both of those came from Republicans.
MR. HARWOOD: Does the crackdown on waste, fraud and abuse count as three concessions or just one? (Laughter.)
MS. CUMMINGS: Just one. It’s tort reform that may not get in in the end. If a Republican isn’t going to stand up and vote, then –
MR. DUFFY (?): They’re not going to give them that.
MS. CUMMINGS: -- they’re not going to give them tort reform. So there may be one or two of these that do get in.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, we’ll be watching because it feels like the drip, drip, drip of it becomes something kind of addictive for all of us. Well, onto the next thing. You can take your pick of indignity this week. Political upheaval manages to taint lawmakers at every level from one of the most powerful members of Congress to one of its lowliest backbenchers to the governor of one of the nation’s biggest states. You add a dollop of political hostage taking on the floor of the United States Senate and an anti-Washington election as big as the state of Texas and you have the week that was. Michael, which of these has some sort of long-term consequential effect?
MR. DUFFY: I think that decision probably goes to Charlie Rangel, who stepped aside this week as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after a House Ethics Panel admonished him for accepting corporate paid travel to the Caribbean as it turns out. How that happened is kind of interesting. Republicans decided they were going to introduce a resolution to unseat Rangel in this very powerful committee. And interestingly enough, Democrats, young Democrats in particular signed on pretty quickly because I think they’re a little more sensitive to the anti-Washington mood in the country than perhaps their leaders.
MS. IFILL: And there are other shoes that are potentially going to drop with Charlie Rangel.
MR. DUFFY: Yes. Probably the plane tickets alone wouldn’t have been enough to do it but he faces a host of other ethics – this Ethics Committee probe of Rangel has been going on for months. It’s one of the longest ever and the most mysterious. There are five or six other allegations some involving use and potential abuse of his office, even using the tax writing provisions of House and Ways to help some of his benefactors possibly. Rangel said this week that he was stepping aside temporarily. There’s no one who believes that. They don’t think he’s ever coming back, but his downfall moved in almost weird parallel in time to the same thing that was happening with the governor of New York who had earlier announced he would not seek a first full term as governor. He’d been named to that job in 2007.
MS. IFILL: David Paterson.
MR. DUFFY: David Paterson. Excuse me. But he disclosed this week that he allegedly lied under oath about seeking and receiving tickets to the World Series, again, another small sort of – (inaudible) – that could threaten to go down. He also faces a larger probe involving a much more serious case: witness tampering in a domestic abuse case. He also has said as late as today that he would not resign. We’ll see if that sticks.
MS. CUMMINGS: Michael, I really wonder if you could tell me which is worse: taking the tickets to the World Series for free or interfering with a potential sexual harassment case?
MR. DUFFY: This is a tough question.
MS. CUMMINGS: Which one is worse?
MR. DUFFY: You know, as we know: it’s always the little –
MS. IFILL: But you know the things that bring you down.
MR. DUFFY: It’s always the little things that get you and it looks like both of these men have had little things to spark larger moves both in their ability to stay in office but also within the power structure. You know, it’s interesting. Oftentimes it’s not the central crime that does politicians in. It’s the little mistakes or the small things.
MS. CUMMINGS: The cover up.
MR. HARWOOD: But let me ask you about the World Series thing. Don’t high-profile politicians, mayors of big cities, governors of their states show up at hot-ticket sporting events all the time? Should we assume that they all bought those tickets at the box office?
MR. DUFFY: You know, I’ve never been a governor, but I’m just guessing –
MS. IFILL: I think the New York State Ethics Commission has its own rules and this is not one of the rules.
MR. DUFFY: Right. This is – (inaudible). I suspect it could be possible to breeze right now.
MS. IFILL: And that he misled them when they asked him about it.
MR. DUFFY: That’s right. You saw that. But there’s a baseball connection to the next story which is that the only person who’d ever been elected to Congress and to the baseball hall of fame –
MS. IFILL: Jim Bunning –
MR. DUFFY: – Jim Bunning, the senator –
MS. IFILL: – senator from Kentucky.
MR. DUFFY: – from Texas. I’m sorry. From Kentucky – virtually shut down part of the government this week because he asserted personal senatorial privilege, said that he wanted to put a hold on unemployment benefits for four or five days to millions of Americans as well as (shoving ?) down the Federal Highway Administration into the bargain. Bunning has a point. He thinks Congress spends too freely, too easily but all that did was give Democrats a chance to change the subject.
MS. IFILL: They didn’t seem really unhappy with the idea of what he was doing.
MR. DUFFY: No, they were thrilled.
MS. CUMMINGS: They were unhappy it ended.
MR. DUFFY: They were thrilled that they could point to Bunning who’s a controversial figure in the Senate anyway and was coming to the end of his term and point and say, you are a classic Republican obstructionist which is a larger theme they’ve been trying to advance given their difficulties at passing legislation among themselves. And Republicans scrambled to get Bunning to back down.
MR. HARWOOD: But isn’t the point Bunning was making that there’s too much spending and it’s not being paid for central to the Republican argument in this election?
MR. DUFFY: Oh, and he really did I think expose that central weakness in the way the Democrats talk about that and that was that he wanted basically to hold up unemployment benefits and some other government functions until the Senate led by the Democrats could find a way to pay for these emergency expenditures. As you know, the president and the Democrats have been making a big deal lately out of the famous pay as you go provision which was enacted 20 years ago and has since been shot through with holes, exceptions and these were under the exceptions, were not paid for. He said, come up with a way to pay for it.
MS. IFILL: I want to get to two more things. One, of course, is Eric Massa, a congressman most of us had never of but who is being forced to resign under an ethical cloud but there’s a significance to why – aside from whether he’s guilty of what he’s being investigated for or not of why it matters that he resigns right now.
MR. DUFFY: In long-term consequences. He voted against healthcare and that vote will matter more now as Nancy Pelosi tries to come up with the votes in the House to pass this thing. That’s one less vote she has to overcome. So that’s one significance.
MS. IFILL: And one more thing.
MR. DUFFY: Yes.
MS. IFILL: Texas. We have Rick Perry, the governor, defeating Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the senator who was running for – went back home to run for governor and he defeated her by running against Washington.
MR. DUFFY: Yes and beat her 51 to 30. Again, that goes back to this question of anti-Washington sentiment. Not only did he run against a woman he called Kay Bailout Hutchinson because she voted for some of the bank bailouts. We also saw in this remarkable turnout huge GOP turnout in Texas, huge numbers of new voters, people clearly unhappy with Washington and the way things are going. So again, another sign in a Republican primary of a relatively restive and volatile –
MR. HARWOOD: Was that a tea party surge?
MR. DUFFY: Well, interestingly, there was a tea party candidate in that race. She got 18 points. Most people think – they expected more but that’s not a small number.
MS. IFILL: And if you’re an incumbent in America today, you study with Rick Perry, an incumbent –
MR. DUFFY: All of us.
MS. IFILL: – an (incumbent ?) did in that race and try to do it yourself. Thank you. We got through a lot, but we have more. The nation’s capital held its breath today in anticipation of the release of the latest jobless numbers. And when they came they were neither up nor down: 9.7 percent unemployment, the same as last month, not good but not as bad as expected either. The president was willing to take whatever he could get.
PRES. OBAMA: Yes, people who are out of work right now need some immediate relief. Yes, we need to extend unemployment insurance and COBRA to help Americans weather these tough times. And yes, we’ve got to do everything we can to help the private sector create jobs right now.
MS. IFILL: So how do numbers like that and also those things the president said he has to get done, how do they affect the president’s ability to get them done?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I’ll tell you, when a president looks at a 9.7 percent unemployment rate as good news because it didn’t go up, that tells you what a bad year it is for the Democratic Party and Democrats in Congress as well. They’ve got plenty of motivation all year long to talk about jobs and do whatever they can to bring that rate down. So they’re not going to pause in any way because of these numbers. You saw the House this week passing a $15 billion tax credit bill that the Senate had earlier passed. It’s still got to go back to the Senate because of some changes the House made. But they’re going to be on the subject of jobs, COBRA, the extended health benefits for people who lose their jobs, unemployment benefits, the president’s green jobs weatherization initiatives that he talked about earlier this week. That’s going to be on their agenda and so is financial regulation, the desire in this bad economy to respond to the public anger of Wall Street. And you know, that’s the flipside of anger, Washington is angry at Wall Street.
MS. IFILL: And perhaps the last remaining hopeful chance for real bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, it is because the public sentiment is so strong. You know, if you look at other elements of the Obama agenda and Obama himself, they’ve become less popular over the past year because he’s been associated with Washington, people are concerned about spending and too much government involvement. You look at the polling – people say they don’t want Washington to exert more government control over the economy. That number has gone way down.
But if you ask people, do you want stricter regulation of Wall Street, that hasn’t changed at all. One of the Obama advisers from the campaign said people are angrier at Wall Street than they are at the drug companies, the big oil, other sort of boogie man of the Democratic argument. So that has impelled Republicans Richard Shelby of Alabama, Bob Corker of Tennessee to negotiate with Chris Dodd, the banking chairman. We don’t know yet whether they can make a deal but Democrats are confident that even if they can’t make a deal, they can force Republicans to go along with this bill.
MS. CUMMINGS: But, John, it’s gotten very confusing about whether there really is – who’s doing the bipartisan negotiating here? First it was Shelby and Dodd and then Corker comes in the room and then the talk but Shelby is writing his own bill which could be a competitor to the so-called bipartisan bill. Sort it out.
MR. HARWOOD: I think what happened was Dodd and Shelby, chairman and ranking member, were trying to work it out. They came to an impasse. Bob Corker stood up and said, I’m not willing to let this die. I’ll negotiate. Every once in a while a member of Congress can get some attention in Washington for good reason for saying I’m not going to accept the stalemate. I’m going to try to work it out. But gradually, the Republican leadership has reasserted itself in this process, tried to reel Corker in and now it’s sort of a coordinated effort with the leadership to negotiate which is one of the reasons they might not be able to make a deal because you’re talking about not just Dodd and Bob Corker individually. It’s a broader conversation than that.
MR. DUFFY: It’s not clear to me either that the White House actually wants a bill if they can’t get one. It might actually take some of the issues they’re involved in. I was going to ask you about the unemployment number, 9.7. As you talk to people on both sides of the aisle, do you find anyone who feels that Washington can do very much about this, getting this number down other than at the margins of some of these small pieces of legislation?
MR. HARWOOD: Only at the margins. Mark Zandi, the independent economist, who’s listened to both sides on Capitol Hill – he advised John McCain’s campaign last year – says if you spend another $200 billion of economic stimulus, maybe you bring down the rate half a point by election day. He still expects this to be a double-digit unemployment circumstance during the fall campaign. That’s a tough equation for Democrats. They know they’ve got to fight through with whatever steps they can take and whatever rhetoric they can offer to let the American people understand that they’re concerned trying to do something.
MS. IFILL: So how much is the president’s agenda whether we’re talking about healthcare or financial regulation or the economy, his broader economic – how much of that hangs on things like this unemployment rate?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think healthcare is moving in its own orbit right now. He makes it as part of his economic argument saying that healthcare is part of a new foundation for the economy. He does the same thing with energy even though that is a much more politically problematic thing to try to pass. But the president’s got a lot of impetus, a lot of wind on his back on financial regulation and these jobs measures are going to be central to the debate. I think Democrats know that the more they talk about jobs, whatever the debate is with the Republicans about paying for the measures or whether there are additional spending programs, that is a good conversation for them to be having.
MS. CUMMINGS: John, there is a debate rather than a conversation about whether the $800 billion stimulus helped with the economy and helped produce some of the recovery that we’re going through. Fifteen billion dollars – this is the new (jobs ?) bill. What real impact – I mean, is this all about optics or is this going to have a real effect on the economy?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think it is partly about optics and partly about an effect. But again, as I was saying to Michael a moment ago, it’s only on the margins. You can’t change that much in a short period of time. The administration is confident that the economy is beginning to grow again. These jobs numbers today, the 36,000 jobs lost that may have been in positive territory if not for the bad weather that we had over the last month –
MS. IFILL: But we don’t really know.
MR. HARWOOD: We don’t know but they’ve got to keep talking about it whatever the reality.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, John.
Well, before we go, we need you actually to weigh in on another of those things that happen in Washington that makes us ask what were they thinking. In this case, the “they” were the fine minds of the Republican National Committee who let slip their behind the scenes strategy for raising money. As first reported by Politico, two Republican finance officials shared a 72-page document that suggested fundraisers feed on the fear that President Obama might drive the country into socialism, helpfully illustrated with pictures of the president as the Joker, Nancy Pelosi as Cruella De Ville and Harry Reid as Scooby-Doo. Real grown up stuff.
RNC Chairman Michael Steele said he knew nothing about the pitch and he condemned it, but we want to know what you think, especially you Republicans out there. What were they thinking? Post your comments on our website pbs.org/washingtonweek. Thanks everyone.
If it seems like we’ve been racing, it’s because we have to leave a few minutes early tonight so you can support your local station which in turn supports us. But the conversation continues online. Check out our “Washington Week” webcast extra. As always, keep tabs on the daily developments every night on the “PBS NewsHour” and then we’ll wrap it all up for you around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.