MR. HARWOOD: Immigration policy and the fight for Latino votes. The White House and Congress wrestle over documents and political advantage, and can the U.S. and Europe prevent economic disaster? I’m John Harwood sitting in for Gwen Ifill, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): I will prioritize efforts that strengthen legal immigration and make it more transparent and easier and I’m going to address the problem of illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner. We may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Your speaker from yesterday has a different view. In a speech he said that when he makes a promise to you, he’ll keep it. Well, he has promised to veto the Dream Act, and we should take him at his word. I believe that would be a tragic mistake.
MR. HARWOOD: Dueling philosophies and dueling pitches to Latino Voters. Did President Obama’s bold move on immigration settle the fight or can Mitt Romney convince Hispanics he’s got a better plan?
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA (R-CA): The ayes have it and a contempt report is ordered to – ordered reported to the House.
MR. HARWOOD: A showdown between the White House and House Republicans who’ve targeted Attorney General Eric Holder. Can executive privilege blunt the investigation of that controversial Mexican guns program?
And the countries of the Euro zone keep struggling to resolve their debt crisis.
TREASURY SECRETARY TIMOTHY GEITHNER: Because of the crisis in Europe and the softness you’re seeing in growth outside Europe, that means in the U.S. we’re not growing as fast as we need to grow.
MR. HARWOOD: Can a new Greek government and bigger bailouts keep Europe’s economic trouble from worsening ours in the U.S.? Covering the week, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal, Major Garrett of National Journal, and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.
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, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times.
MR. HARWOOD: Good evening. The presidential campaign this week moved to Florida, where both President Obama and Mitt Romney competed for support among Hispanic voters. The backdrop, that group’s growing influence in the president’s big immigration policy shift of a few days ago.
PRES. OBAMA: We announce that we’re lifting the shadow of deportation from deserving young people who are brought to this country as children. We should have passed the Dream Act a long time ago. It was written by members of both parties. When it came up for a vote, a year and a half ago, Republicans in Congress blocked it.
MR. ROMNEY: After three and a half years of putting every issue, from loan guarantees to his donors to cash for clunkers, putting all those things before immigration, now the president has been seized by an overwhelming need to do what he could have done on day one, but didn’t. I think you deserve better.
MR. HARWOOD: Now, Jeff, this was Romney’s first big chance to respond to that new administration policy and try to repair his party’s damaged position with Latino voters. Was it a promising start?
MR. ZELENY: I think it was an okay start, but Governor Romney, as we saw, is really trying to walk a fine line here, not entirely of his own doing, but some of it is his own doing. He really took a hard right stance during this Republican primary nomination. It wasn’t all that long ago that he thought that Governor Rick Perry of Texas was a big rival of his, so he had to sort of be on the right of him on immigration. So he had some work to do her. And you could just share by the audiences down at this organization meeting in Florida that most of these Latino leaders are with President Obama. So governor Romney knows that he’s not going to win the majority or the lion’s share of Latino votes –
MR. HARWOOD: I think some of the people in that room remembered the self-deportation line that he used in one of the debates.
MR. ZELENY: Well, that’s exactly what he used and it was actually in a debate in Florida. He said that he thinks that the illegal immigrant should self-deport. So it was almost as striking what he did not say in his speech this week as what he did say. He really tried to modulate his rhetoric and neutralize his tone against them, but he knows he has to do that because the Republican Party knows that it has to expand its reach to Latino voters and he’s not going to do that by himself. His biggest burden here is congressional Republicans who are on the opposite view, some of them on the opposite view of this Dream Act proposal.
MR. HARWOOD: Laura, let me ask you from the White House perspective how confident are they that with this move the president, who hadn’t pushed immigration reform earlier in his term has locked in the big advantage he had among Hispanics and maybe energized that constituency.
MS. MECKLER: I think they think that they went a long way towards that goal. As Jeff said, Latino voters already do favor the president. He won about two thirds of those votes in 2008, and he – polling shows he’s still doing that well with them. But the problem for the White House and for President Obama is they really have to energize them and they have to get a big turnout from Latino voters in some really important states like Colorado, Nevada, Florida, maybe Virginia to a lesser extent.
MR. HARWOOD: And that economic argument that Romney can make is a real one.
MS. MECKLER: Exactly. And the wind is – you know – at his face on the overall economy, on a lot of other factors in this race. So what they need to make sure is that immigration is still a threshold issue for Latino voters, which most people in the community, in the Hispanic community say that it is. And so they really – President Obama was with them, but there was a little bit of questions around him, both because, as you said, he didn’t really push immigration reform during most of his term, and also because he’s done some pretty tough line stuff, too, a lot of border security and record deportations.
MR. HARWOOD: He’s been walking a fine line as well.
MS. MECKLER: Exactly.
MR. GARRETT: Jeff, do you get the feeling from the Romney campaign that their first priority is to try to first neutralize this issue, at least create an area where he can have a later conversation with Latino voters and in so doing for himself and for his party kind of keep the lid on other Republicans from straying off and saying things that could complicate both his approach to having another conversation with Latinos and maybe a broader party conversation as well?
MR. ZELENY: Without a doubt. I mean – and it’s one of the reasons that he did not directly answer the question, the very simple question of what would you do if elected president with this order that President Obama signed last week. He has to keep his party sort of even on this. He cannot go too far and agitate conservatives. Even though they’ve all rallied behind him and it’s been sort of extraordinary how Republicans across the spectrum have rallied behind him. His level of support among Republicans and conservatives is not that deep. And so he needs to keep them sort of on board, but at the same time he’s sort of leaving his options open. I don’t necessarily doubt and I think most people don’t doubt that he, if elected president, would like to pursue some type of immigration reform, but we’ve seen two presidencies how difficult it is. George W. Bush wanted to do this as well. Senator Obama wanted to do it and found that he was unable to do it. So I think that –
MR. HARWOOD: He pointed that out in this piece today that he joined with George W., Bush, John McCain, Ted Kennedy, in trying to make it happen.
MR. ZELENY: And so that’s the big problem here for Mitt Romney is his own party here. He cannot get too far out front of this because he has Senator Rubio on his side who is sort of backing him up on this, but there are louder voices who are really concerned with illegal immigration, border security, other things. The Steve Kings of the world, the congressman from Iowa, who have loud voices on this.
MR. MCMANUS: Laura, from the president’s standpoint, let me ask you to tackle the question that Governor Romney kind of posed. What took so long? I mean he has been president for three years. Latinos have been complaining about deportations for some time. The Dream Act got blocked in the Senate some time ago.
MS. MECKLER: Well, I think that there’s two sides to this and I think they’re both legitimate. On one hand, you know, President Obama had a lot of priorities. He pushed all sorts of things. He’s a long list of legislative achievements and this is not on that list. He never really made a full scale effort for this. He gave one major speech and that’s about it. But on the other hand, they knew that they needed some Republican support to get this through. And even when they controlled the Senate with a large number, they did not have every Democrat with them, so they needed some Republicans.
So there was an effort in the Senate to try to make that happen, but there was exactly one Republican who ever came forward to say he would support it, Lindsey Graham from South Carolina. He was the only one who was really talking about it. So on one hand, you can kind of understand the White House calculus. They were trying to push a lot of the things to push the thing that doesn’t seem to be able to be going anywhere. On the other hand, sometimes you find that report once you really get out there on it.
So I do think is a little bit disingenuous of Republicans to say, well, this is the Democrats’ fault. They ran things and they didn’t get it done, when there is, as I said, virtually no Republican support and when the Dream Act did come up for a vote in late 2010. They needed 60 votes for it to advance. They got 55. Of that there were three Republicans. So –
MR. HARWOOD: Jeff, Romney, before he gave his speech, put out a factsheet with his proposals on immigration. Was there anything new in there that he hadn’t said before?
MR. ZELENY: He was amplifying some things that he did not say in the primary. One is that he is saying that he believes any illegal immigrant who has served in the military should get citizenship. He also said in his speech this week that he believes anyone who receives an advanced degree should have a green card stapled on the back of that degree. So those are some things that business leaders –
MR. HARWOOD: Family members of people who do have green cards, he said he was going to accelerate their ability to get to the United States.
MR. ZELENY: Right. And he’s not said that before. So these are some things, sort of some softening around the edges that – and there are things that the business community by and large supports in some degree. I mean, the idea that someone would come here and get a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. and then have to leave the country is sort of absurd by most people’s standards. So I think he did offer some new proposals in that respect, but it was sort of around the edges, things that most people, most moderates on this issue already agree with.
MS. MECKLER: I think that what the people in the Republican Party who are really focused on this and want to try to improve the party standing with this – (inaudible) – will say is that they need to be defined as the party that’s for legal immigration, not just against illegal immigration. And I think a lot of Romney’s speech seemed to be along those lines. Here’s what I’m for. Now, the stapling the green card to a Master’s degree in technical field is something that President Obama has proposed long ago. So – and there is bipartisan consensus around something like that. But I think that’s a lot of what Romney was doing, was really – when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. And he did stop digging. His rhetoric was softer and he started talking about what he could support.
MR. HARWOOD: I thought it’s also –
MR. ZELENY: And he’s done it sort of gradually since he won the nomination.
MR. HARWOOD: I thought it was – well, speaking of the nomination, I thought it was also interesting that Mitch McConnell, when he was asked about this issue this week, said we’re waiting for Mitt Romney. He’s the leader of our party now. More and more it looks like Republicans are going to try to define their party through Mitt Romney and maybe cure some of the PR problems they’ve got on the Hill.
MR. ZELENY: I think that’s right. I think that’s their best sort of chance forward. I mean, they’re all sort of in this together or not. They’re going to rise or fall. But that does not mean that Mitt Romney’s still not going to have some problems with the baggage from the House Republicans on some other things, some other proposals. But on this issue specifically, all Republicans know that it’s in their best electoral interest to try and put the economic argument forward to get more Latino voters on their side.
MR. MCMANUS: How does the raw politic of this work in swing states? Does this move Arizona or Colorado or Nevada into a different column than it was in before?
MR. ZELENY: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, if every Latino voter out there decided to register and vote and voted with President Obama, it would, but that is a big if. I mean, only about half of all eligible Latino voters actually voted four years ago. But the Obama campaign believes that they still have enough Latino voters support on their side, but if Mitt Romney begins just eating into it even somewhat, that’s a big problem for them.
Arizona, I still think most independent analysts believe that it’s still a big reach for Democrats just because a lot of the Latino voters there aren’t voting. But we’ve still the big Supreme Court decision coming up. I mean, it’s one thing that the Obama campaign is going to go after fairly hard.
MR. HARWOOD: This fight’s not going away the rest of the election year. Thanks, guys.
Now, House Republicans and the Obama White House have been at war for a long time. This week, it got worse. The reason, a House committee’s investigation of the since abandoned gun-walking program that allowed high-power weapons to cross our southern border so they could be traced to Mexican drug cartels. The Justice Department refused to turn over some documents and then the White House claimed executive privilege.
Now, the committee’s voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, which the full House may consider next week.
Major, how did it come to this? Where are we headed?
MR. GARRETT: This is about a 16 months investigation and there has been back and forth largely unproductive between the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which has subpoena power. There’s a lot of questions, but originally it started in the Senate by Charles Grassley, who many people regard in Washington as a Republican, but a very stern, competent, bipartisan investigator. But he didn’t have a subpoena power. So he handed it off to Chairman Darrell Issa in the House. And for a long time, the Justice Department was nonresponsive and the White House position was we had nothing to do with this at all. Don’t call us about this thing. This is a Justice Department thing and they barely knew anything about it.
Well, in dribs and drabs, investigatory information has come out that indicate or at least raised significant suspicion to minor House Republicans that people in the Justice Department did know more than they originally represented about this program.
Now, one thing to say about this. There’s a lot of things that are typical in Washington investigatory scandals. There’s allegations of a cover up, incompetence, some documents, executive privilege, congressional investigatory powers, all of those are very similar. There’re also things about this that are unique, it seems to me. You have a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, who was killed in southern Arizona, December 2010. Two of the weapons found at the scene were gun-walked weapons. So now you have a government authorized program that allowed illegal weapons to cross the border and they ended up at the murder scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
There’s also an attorney general from Chihuahua state in Mexico also killed. Guns found at that murder scene also linked to Fast and Furious. So that gives an emotional resonance to the story. It gives it real – a different kind of thing that’s not typical in Washington. It’s one of the things I think will continue to keep this story alive and from the eyes of the House Republicans, justify their level of intense inquiry on this matter.
MR. HARWOOD: Now, is it true and how relevant is it to Republicans and others that the idea that this – a program similar to this was executed under the Bush administration before Obama took office?
MR. GARRETT: Two programs. One, Operation Gunrunner, started in the mid – 2005 or so. This has long been an issue, guns moving across the border. Operation Gunrunner was mildly successful, did not have the numerous gun-walking elements that Fast and Furious did, and it had terrible communication between agencies. Then, there is a refine of that, Operation Wide Receiver, which did have some nominal gun-walking components to it. Operation Fast and Furious was different in kind and magnitude. And what sets it apart is the widespread violence linked to these guns that walked. We don’t have a positive, 100-percent verifiable number. Someone says 300. It’s certainly more than a handful. It’s in the dozens or at least 100 victims of gun cartel, drug cartel criminals using weapons that walked across the border.
MR. ZELENY: In terms of the House action, the contempt vote, are there negotiations underway at all to not have this reach a full House vote? And how is this viewed politically on this? I mean, is this feared by the White House or the campaign?
MR. GARRETT: Two questions, very simple answers. The first one, no. I was at the White House today, met a very senior person very close to the president, said we’re not talking. Our position is our position. That’s it. And everyone close to Chairman Issa told me right before we came on air, we’re not talking. So this is heading toward a logjam.
And the political aspect of it is the White House thinks, look, the country is just beginning to get to this story and what they see is Republicans in Congress focusing on something other than the economy and having a big, intense fight over documents. And the representations of the Justice Department seem rational. The White House is perfectly comfortable with that political frame. As long as that political frame exists, they’re comfortable with it. Similarly, House Republicans say there’s a Border Patrol agent dead. Their family is not satisfied. There’s a foundation now supporting him. We’re going to lean on the family and their inquiry and we’ll live with those politics as well.
MS. MECKLER: And are any Republicans concerned at all that this is taking, you know, the message off of the economy and toward something that’s in a bit of left field.
MR. GARRETT: I would say that the answer to that can partially be found in the scheduling of the vote next week. It may happen on Wednesday or Thursday. I think all of us sort of agree there’s something also likely to happen. It will be mildly newsworthy Thursday or Wednesday of next week. The health care decision coming down from the Supreme Court. It will be bookended by a very big decision on the Arizona immigration law. Scheduling wise this will be done. It will be held. The vote – (inaudible) – but it will also be within the context of a lot of other news, which tells me that the leadership is supportive, but they positioned in a way where it will not be the dominant driving force of news in this.
MR. MCMANUS: Major, what happens after the vote? I mean, presumably – tell me if I’m wrong – look, you have a majority of Republicans in the House. They’re going to vote yes if it comes up. So there will be a contempt citation against the attorney general. And then I guess that contempt citation has to be enforced by the Department of Justice of the United States, which is run by the attorney general, so how does it work?
MR. HARWOOD: Quick answer.
MR. GARRETT: Yes, that is true. There is one other option. The House can go before a U.S. district – a circuit court in the District of Columbia and say, evaluate the president’s executive order assertion: as a legal matter, does it stand up to scrutiny? And that option is open and the House is prepared to spend the money to have the lawyers represent them in circuit court in District of Columbia to challenge that executive order assertion.
MR. HARWOOD: Thanks, Major. You’ve been watching for a while.
For the struggling economies of the United States and Europe, there were three new tension points this week. One was the Greek elections, which had markets watching nervously for signs of hope or gloom in resolving Europe’s debt crisis. The second was a gathering in Mexico of leaders from the world’s largest economies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Obama.
PRES. OBAMA: Resolving the issues in Europe is difficult. The sense of urgency among the leaders is clear. And so what we have to do is combine that sense of urgency with the tools that are available and bridge them in a timely fashion that can provide markets confidence.
MR. HARWOOD: And back in Washington, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke once again tried to calm fears of economic stagnation here at home. Doyle’s just back from a reporting trip to Europe, which for months now has been the center of global economic jitters. Doyle, what did you find?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, President Obama is right about one thing, John, that – and that is that the leaders of Europe do share a sense of urgency. The only problem is that’s about all they seem to share at the moment. They’re still stuck in this – in a new version of the same log jam they’ve been in for months. The four – the leaders of the top four countries of the Euro zone met just today to try and work on some new elements. France, Spain, and Italy, all wanted to come up with a new fund that would automatically buy bonds of governments that are having troubles in the bond markets, because that’s the next big crisis that could happen. It’s not Greece. It’s Spain and Italy when their bond rates shoot through the ceiling.
Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany, who is the one who has to pay most of the bills for this, said she wasn’t ready to go that far, that there’re still being –
MR. HARWOOD: I was going to ask you why, but is they pay the bills part the reason?
MR. MCMANUS: It’s the pay the bills part and it’s also that, you know, these others wanted this to be automatic. They didn’t want there to be new austerity targets that they were going to try and hit. Angela Merkel wasn’t ready to go that far? Why? Well, there’s a lot of politics going on here, too. Angela Merkel’s taxpayers are getting very impatient with the idea that they keep paying the bills. Okay, so you’ve still got Europe’s stock in this mode of austerity and what I found in my time there – a tough job to go to Europe and look at this, but somebody’s got to do it – is as one businessman I met with said the problem with austerity is it’s austere. You aren’t getting any growth. You’ve got Southern Europe in a full-blown recession. You’ve got Britain in a recession and the German economy is being pulled down. And what does that mean for us? Well, JPMorgan says that if the European economy slows down by 1 percentage point, our economy slows down by about half a percentage point. So we have some real skin in the game.
Now, they’re going to have a summit meeting next week, among these same leaders. This was a preparatory meeting today. You know, the hope is that Angela Merkel will feel some more of the pressure, will loosen up a little bit more, that has been the ammo until now. But if you want a kind of an American analogy for this, when we went through our financial crisis, we sort of bit the bullet on TARP, on the bailout of the banks in two rounds. We hated it. It made for terrible politics. Nobody liked the idea of bailing out the banks, but we’re kind of past that now, okay?
In Europe, they’ve been doing their TARP a drip at a time. Every few months, they come back with a new TARP. Some people pay higher taxes. Some people, like the Germans, pay higher bills to bail it out, but it’s made them miserable, both personally and in their politics.
MR. ZELENY: Obviously this is a central discussion at the G20 meeting. But does President Obama really have any sway in this? Can he – is there anything that he can do in these private conversations to influence any of this?
MR. MCMANUS: Not really. I mean, this has been going on for so long, Jeff. All of the players know what’s on the table. Angela Merkel knows her own politics. She and President Obama apparently have a quite cordial personal relationship, but it sure hasn’t seemed to loosen her up a whole lot.
MR. GARRETT: Two words, one medical, one vaguely suggestive: contagion, exposure. Is this a contagion that can come to the United States and how – which exposure to U.S. based banks, which are multinational obviously, have to this?
MR. MCMANUS: In terms of contagion, yes, it’s that recession problem. It’s that if the European economy continues to slow down, that’s going to pull us down further. It’s already having an effect on our economy and on China and on India, so yes, you do have the specter of another global recession, so they better act.
Exposure, yes, that’s the other problem here. this is not about – that’s why Greece is sort of a side show. This isn’t really about Greece. It’s about all of the banks in France, in the U.K., here, that are holding bonds in all of these countries.
MR. HARWOOD: Guys, we’ve gotten to the point where the amount of time available for this show is limited by severe austerity measures – (laughter) – so we have to stop. Thanks for your contributions tonight. That’ll wrap it up for us. Gwen’s back here next week to talk about some major decisions from the Supreme Court on President Obama’s health care law and Arizona’s controversial immigration statute. I’m John Harwood. Have a good night. But before we go, here’s Gwen on tape with an announcement about something else for next week.
GWEN IFILL: Hi, I’m Gwen Ifill. Can we talk, really? I’d love to hear from you during my next online chat. It’s your chance to discuss politics, policy, the 2012 elections, or anything else on your mind. Mark your calendars and join me on Thursday, June 28th, between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. And if you can’t make it, you can submit questions ahead of time. Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy the discussion.