GWEN IFILL: Cliff diving in front of the cameras and behind the scenes, plus tea party politics and the deepening crisis in Syria, tonight on “Washington Week.”
The president and the speaker square off at the edge of the fiscal cliff.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) That is a bad strategy for America, it’s a bad strategy for your businesses, and it is not a game that I will play.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From tape.) The president has adopted a deliberate strategy to slow walk our economy right to the edge of the fiscal cliff.
MS. IFILL: Who will be blamed if negotiations break down? The surrogates are talking tough.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From tape.) There’s nothing going on privately. There’s nothing going on publicly.
MR. : Is the administration prepared to go over the fiscal cliff?
SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY TIM GEITHNER: (From tape.) Oh, absolutely.
MS. IFILL: Behind the scenes, tea party pressure, as the movement’s most prominent senator builds a new platform.
SENATOR JIM DEMINT (R-SC): (From tape.) A lot of my role in the Senate has been stopping bad things and saying no to bad things, but we need to do more than that.
MS. IFILL: Abroad, tensions in Syria on the rise. Can the U.S. intervene, should we?
Covering the week Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, Eamon Javers of CNBC, Amy Walters of ABC News, and James Kitfield of National Journal.
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. It’s hard to believe, but we’ve been here before. First, negotiators pledge to work together, then they test what the other side is willing to give. Then they submit plans they know the other side will reject. And then – only then – a deal is struck, maybe, but not yet. And with every day that passes, Congress and the White House edge closer to raising taxes, cutting spending, and sending the nation back into recession. Here are the arguments.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The Speaker’s proposal right now is still out of balance. You know, he talks, for example, about $800 billion worth of revenues, but he says he’s going to do that by lowering rates and when you look at the math, it doesn’t work.
REP. BOEHNER: (From tape.) This week, we made a good faith offer to avert the fiscal crisis. And that offer included significant spending cuts and reforms and it included additional revenue. And frankly, it was the balanced approach that the president’s been asking for.
Now we need a response from the White House. We can’t sit here and negotiate with ourselves.
MS. IFILL: Against that backdrop, new signs today that the economy is strengthening, with the jobless rate dropping to 7.7 percent, its lowest in four years. But even that’s a mixed bag, isn’t it Eamon?
EAMON JAVERS: Yeah, absolutely. This was a good but not great jobs number today, because we created 146,000 jobs in this country in the month of November, but the unemployment rate goes down to 7.7 percent for the wrong reasons. And that’s because a lot of people left the labor force. And what you’d rather see is more people coming into the labor force who’ve been sitting on the sidelines saying, hey, I think now is the time I can actually get a job. Also, they revised the previous couple of months downward, so they’re going back and adjusting those previous numbers that we thought were really blockbuster. Now, maybe we learn they weren’t as blockbuster as we thought.
So a strong number that definitely gives the president some political momentum, but not as strong as it appears if you just see the headline, hey, unemployment’s down to 7.7 percent.
MS. IFILL: But political momentum is exactly what this administration’s looking for right now, Jackie. So does this help give them the political momentum they have to move off the dime on this fiscal cliff debate?
JACKIE CALMES: Well, the president is in this debate with a greater leverage, by virtue of his reelection and the fact that he’d campaigned on the very issue that’s at the core of these negotiations, which is raising rates on high income. But – so this report I don’t see is really changing the dynamic much at all. It just – you know, it was one of these reports that both sides could and did, you know, take from it what they wanted to. And – and it’s not – still – even at 146,000 is not at a level high enough to be bringing back into employment a lot of the people that lost their jobs.
MS. IFILL: So let’s talk about the dynamic that you’re talking about. There’s a public dynamic, which we just saw. The president and speaker, both the – only two guys in the room, we’re told. Then, we hope, we assume there’s a private dynamic going on. What do we know about that?
MR. JAVERS: Well, if you talk to the people of the House and his staff, they say that there are negotiations going on between the speaker’s office and the president and that they had a call between the two principals on Wednesday, and then on Thursday, we know that the staffs actually met and hashed some things out. The speaker kind of pooh-poohed that a little bit today, but I’m told that they are going to continue those talks through the weekend now. So there’s something going on here behind the scenes. What it is, we don’t know, but publicly, they continue to fire off these artillery barrages at each other.
Part of that is because they can’t admit that they’re about to get a deal until they have that deal nailed down. And until then, you’re going to continue to see this. And what’s been fascinating from a Wall Street perspective is to watch – more so last week than this week – but how quickly the Dow is reacting to every one of these speeches by these congressional leaders up on Capitol Hill. You see the Dow going up 50 points here, down 80 points. Every indication that things are optimistic or pessimistic, the Dow is rollercoastering on this. And that has been something that I think Washington is paying attention to and understanding that there’re real economic stakes here if they can’t get this deal done.
JAMES KITFIELD: Is there a timing issue? I mean, obviously, they don’t want to get a deal too early because they think the leverage gets better as you get closer to the cliff. But is – I mean, is there a timeframe when it gets really dangerous. That you’re getting so close that they might not have time to actually work a deal out.
MS. CALMES: Well, there’s two weeks left before the Christmas holiday, and so that’s a real short amount of time, when – that would mean they sort of have to put a deal together next week, because then you would need the following week to sell it. At this point, I don’t see any real chance that we’re not going to be back after Christmas and be right up to – right up to January 1st. And the other – the other thing is, for all this attention, like in the clips you showed, of the issue being the top rate, whether the top rates for high income will go up to the Clinton-era rates again, or as Republicans would like to keep them as close as possible, if not at the current Bush era rates. That – even if they settle that issue, there are a lot of other issues out there. Those rates, those top rates will raise about – even if President Obama gets everything he asked for – about $400 billion –
MS. IFILL: And they need –
MS. CALMES: And he wants $1.6 trillion. So that’s one quarter of the revenues that he’s seeking.
MS. IFILL: But politically, that seems like the fight that he wants to have about the rates.
MR. JAVERS: He definitely wants to put the Republicans in the box as being the party that’s willing to go over the fiscal cliff and cause all this economic damage on behalf of millionaires and billionaires. He wants to put them in that tight box, let them feel the political pain that comes with that, because his position on this – polls very well – most people in this country say they want the president’s solution. And the trick is that Republicans on Capitol Hill know that and now the question is can they find an artful way to come to a deal where they don’t have to be too badly humiliated here? They’re going to lose on the politics eventually, I think everyone thinks at this point. Can they do it and lose gracefully and will the president let them out of that political box.
AMY WALTER: Well and how much power does the speaker have over his conference? They’ve been very quiet. You haven’t heard a lot of sniping. We haven’t heard a lot of leaking. But when do they start getting antsy?
MS. CALMES: He’s never had more power – influence than he has right now over them. He’s really – they had a rough two years and one of the worst reputations of any Congress in history for its achieve – lack of achievement. And he, you know, through that past two years of back and forth, throughout 2011, you know, they pretty – they were on a high learning curve, but they learned that, you know, you do need revenues. And your only way, you know, you’re going to get revenues or get to the deficit number that they want is to have both revenues and spending cuts. The only way to get the spending cuts in entitlements from the president that they want is to give him some higher revenues.
MR. JAVERS: Fascinating political dynamic here. When John Boehner made his offer to the president that included $800 billion in new taxes, there were signatures of all the Republican leaders on that letter, including Eric Cantor, the man who’s said to be his biggest challenge, and also Paul Ryan, the man who ran for vice president and is viewed as the potential future presidential candidate among the Republicans. So by locking down those signatures on that $800 billion offer of new taxes, he has now blocked those guys from opposing him on caving in at least at that level. So that was very savvy politics. They locked all that down inside the Republican conference before they made that offer.
MR. : He cracked a whip.
MR. KITFIELD: Didn’t he – didn’t he by pulling some of those conservatives –bounced off the Budget Committee –
MR. JAVERS: He did. He bounced a couple of conservatives off of key committees in order to demonstrate his power. I think, you know, Boehner has been here a long time. He was here during the Speaker Gingrich era. He saw the coup attempt against Speaker Gingrich by members of his own party. And he knows that he has to hold those people together if he’s going to be able to negotiate with the president. And he saw a little bit of wiggle room this week with Jim DeMint coming out early in the week and saying that he thought the $800 billion tax offer was an outrage and was going to cripple the American economy. From the right, there was a little bit of this brush storm and you could see the speaker kind of very quickly tamping that out with his boot.
MS. IFILL: Well, let me ask you something about tax rates, this whole tax rate discussion, because the president has not always been where he is on this now. He has said in the past that maybe the tax rates should not be raised and that would be bad for the economy. What changed?
MS. CALMES: Well, the economy changed. The economy’s better. I mean, this is why a lot is made of the fact that the president caved two years ago, December of 2010, when he – that was when the Bush-era tax rates first expired. And he agreed to a two-year extension, which is why we are where we are now. And he did that. And yes, he caved, but on the other hand I think in fairness to the president, he got a lot for it and the economy wasn’t doing so well, which is why he wanted stimulus in the first place. So in return for expending them then, he got the payroll tax cut for all workers that is now also expiring and he got an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, among some other tax breaks for small businesses and individuals. And so it was a pretty good package when you – more than he should have expected coming off, if you remember, December 2010 was a month after Republicans has swept the elections and taken back control of the House.
So there is history here, but now the economy is good enough that he feels he can say this is it. I’m standing my ground. We’re going to end these rates. And yet, he still wants some stimulus, because he’s asked for it in his deal, infrastructure spending.
MS. IFILL: This is one of these interesting moments where we’re not actually hearing a lot from either side, which you can read one or two ways. Either they are keeping it to themselves because they’re actually making progress, or they’re keeping it to themselves because there’s nothing to say. Which is more likely?
MR. JAVERS: I think they’re keeping it to themselves because they’re making progress. There’s something cooking behind the scenes that we’re not aware of.
MS. IFILL: Why do you think that?
MR. JAVERS: Well, because you saw last week when the president made his first offer to Speaker Boehner, Boehner’s office, it seems clear, leaked that out almost immediately to the press, and suddenly we all knew what the president’s offer was. And then McConnell’s office leaked out the fact that McConnell had laughed at Tim Geithner, as they sat across the table from each other when Geithner presented him with this offer.
So that kind of leaking is a way of rejecting resoundingly an offer that you don’t like. The fact that we’re not seeing it and we’re seeing very tightly coordinated statements between the White House and the Speaker’s office, both in terms of the wording of the statements and the timing when they describe their negotiations, is an indication that they’re cooperating for now. What they’re cooperating on and whether it will last is the other question.
MS. IFILL: We’ll see. Well, this has been, as you can tell, a lot of fun for us, because there’s no question that the Democrats and Republicans are playing a kind of a game of high stakes fiscal chess or chicken, depending on how you look at this. But within the Republican Party, recalibration is definitely underway. Listen to South Carolina senator and tea party leader Jim DeMint.
SEN. DEMINT: (From tape.) One of the mistakes I think the Republican Party made the last two years is trying to make Obama the issue without sharing with America bold reform ideas that get people inspired to get behind us.
MS. IFILL: DeMint’s surprise solution – to get out of the Senate and set up shop at the conservative Heritage Foundation. So is this just about Jim DeMint or is it about something bigger that we’re missing here, Amy?
MS. WALTER: We could probably see a little bit of both. You’re right. Jim DeMint is the de facto leader of the tea party, but the tea party really isn’t a movement either. It’s a leaderless sort of entity. And look, he’s been a thorn in the side for leadership and for the establishment Republicans –
MS. IFILL: As Eamon was just referring to –
MS. WALTER: – for quite some time, as we have noted, right? He comes whenever there’s a potential for what he sees as compromise or caving, he stands up. He’s obviously gotten involved in a lot of intra-primary fights, most famously Charlie Crist as – I’m sorry – Marco Rubio – has been a great success. He beat Charlie Crist in a primary. And then, of course, one of his biggest failures is Christine O’Donnell. So he’s not afraid to get into the mix. And let’s face it, he didn’t want to be here much longer anyway. We knew that he was only going to be here through the end of this term. He was going to be out in 2016. So he was ready to go. So you’re right. The question is what does he do with this new perch. She said he’s going to use it to really positive agenda, right? We’re going to just tell America what we stand for. Or, as many Republicans we all talk to, especially those in the establishment, are worried about is he’s actually going to use that perch to punish Republicans who don’t toe the tea party orthodoxy. He’ll have money. He’ll have a chance to do that.
MS. IFILL: What is the tea party – we saw that FreedomWorks, which was a big tea party group, parted ways with Dick Armey and paid them a lot of money basically to go away. We have seen lots of shifts and move. And in fact, even Jim DeMint’s departure from the South Carolina Senate seat raises the question of who replaces him.
MS. WALTER: Right, and there’s a tea party governor –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. WALTER: – elected in 2010. There’s a lot of talk that the person that she would – she should appoint for that seat is Tim Scott, also a tea partier elected in 2010. He’s also African-American. So the idea – first of all, I mean, on one hand, what a great rebranding opportunity for the Republican Party, right? They got criticized for not diversifying. They didn’t talk to anybody who wasn’t white during the election. Now, you have an Indian-American female governor appointing an African-American Republican –
MS. IFILL: African-American since Reconstruction.
MS. WALTER: Right. In South Carolina.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. WALTER: Right? I mean, that just has to sort of blow your mind. But the other piece so is, getting to the point about where the tea party is, at the same time, you talk about all this rebranding. We’re going to re-shift. We need to have a positive agenda on all of this. And yet, you guys know this very well, too, every single one of those Republicans who are sitting at the table right now listening to Boehner talk about what the deal’s going to be, they are much more worried about a primary challenge than they’re worried about what this is going look like in terms of their overall brand to the rest of the country. And so if Jim DeMint decides to use his perch – oh, and by the way, he’s also making $1 million in this new job potentially, so that’s not bad either – if he decides to use that perch to raise money and punish those Republicans who stray by compromising, that’s – the tea party still stays in power.
MR. JAVERS: What does this tell you about the institution of the Senate, though? He came out this week and said, you know, he thought he could be maybe more effective outside the Senate than inside the Senate. That would horrify senators of a generation ago. What – is there something going on in the Senate that makes this a logical move?
MS. WALTER: Well, and I think for people like him – and this is what’s interesting, too. You have that whole generation that came in in 2010. These were the people that they were the outsiders. They were going to change Washington. They didn’t want to be here in the first place, but they had to come because, you know, they needed to shake things up. Most of them stayed around. And what was interesting, though, is how hard they fought to hold on to their seats, right? If you really just want to come here and make change and then you say, all right, I’ve done my – I’ve done my time, I’m going to leave. These folks, I think are getting quite comfortable in it. And let’s face it. He’s leaving a pretty impressive legacy behind, whether it’s Marco Rubio, now Ted Cruz from Texas.
MS. IFILL: Not legislatively, but –
MS. WALTER: But not legislatively; in terms of the people he leaves behind. And as I said, I don’t know that he loved it all – all that much in the first place, so this seems like a much better fit.
MR. KITFIELD: We talked about – I’m sorry – we talked to Republicans who are feeling pressured by their possible primary challenge. I mean, as junior – the junior Senator Lindsey Graham seems to be one of those. How does this impact his thinking and his sort of prospects of being challenged from the right?
MS. WALTER: Well, Lindsey Graham has been a target for the right for some time. He’s up in 2014. Now, this is when that new senator who’s appointed by Governor Haley would be up as well. So some of the thinking, initially, when this news broke was, uh, good news for – if you’re Lindsey Graham, right – he did a sigh of relief here because conservatives are going to focus on that Senate seat instead of on him. But if she chooses somebody like Tim Scott, who everybody in the tea party likes. He’s adequately conservative. If he doesn’t do – make any mistakes, do anything wrong in his first couple of years, well, they’re going to train their sights back on Lindsey Graham’s seat. And you know, look, he’s survived challenges before. He’s very well liked, but again, it’s a Republican primary in a time when you’re going to have so much energy.
MS. CALMES: But doesn’t Lindsey Graham’s sort of behavior on the Senate floor and his prominence in some of these issues really taking on the administration suggest he’s running scared and scared in his own primary?
MS. WALTER: Yes. And that’s – we’re seeing this on a lot of other issues. Every single 2014 – Republican up in 2014, if you’ll note, also voted against Bob Dole’s bill. He wanted to see a disability bill through the Senate because they were worried that’s going to upset the tea party folks.
MS. IFILL: Fascinating. Well, they’re not as weak as they may seem at first glance.
Well, this may have been the week where the U.S. decided it can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines when it comes to Syria. The tipping point, chemical weapons.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From tape.) This is a red line for the United States. I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people, but suffice it to say we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.
MS. IFILL: But given the lessons of Libya and of Egypt, places where we intervened and felt that we had, what does take action mean?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, the lesson of those two interventions is probably to lower expectations about what we can achieve by an intervention, but I’ve said for quite a few months that the situation in Syria was getting such that inaction would – the costs of inactions were coming so high that they outweighed the risk of doing something. And clearly the administration has come to that tipping point.
The radicalization of the opposition is one big point. They worry now that if he loses control of those weapons, it might fall into the hands of an al-Qaida type group. They also worry that that group might be the strongest group post-Assad, and that sort of segues into sort of an Afghanistan kind of nightmare.
So for a number of reasons – it is also spilling over to all the neighbors, many of whom are close allies of our – Jordan, Turkey – so for a host of reasons, I think the administration felt like it really had to take a lot more assertive action. And they’ve been doing it for about a week.
MS. CALMES: What is the – the pressure’s on Russia, on Moscow about – to deal with this because they’ve been backing their ally, Syria, and as the violence just gets this much worse, where are they?
MS. IFILL: Secretary Clinton has had some meetings.
MR. KITFIELD: Secretary Clinton met with the foreign minister of Russia just a couple of days ago. Obviously Russia has backed another loser, which is its propensity in these things. And I think they even see that now and probably the best case scenario is that there’s some sort of a soft landing where Assad is offered an exile deal, gets out of the picture. And there’s not a power vacuum created with him falling and being strung up on a lamp post. And then you start the retribution massacres, and it could really devolve into something extremely ugly, even after Assad goes. So the hope is Russia will finally get on board and be constructive here. We haven’t – you know – and he’s – the foreign minister said some good things, but we’ll see what Russia does.
MS. WALTER: What does an intervention look like?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, if there’re chemical weapons used, I think intervention looks a lot like the air strikes that we used in Libya and in some other places, no-fly zones over Iraq. I think you have to destroy some of those major stockpiles of chemical weapons. If they start to lose control of them and there’s fears that Hezbollah might get their hands on them, a terrorist group, I think they might have some Special Forces boots on the ground. They’re very resistant of doing that, but the idea of chemical weapons, especially for close allies like Israel, getting in the hands of the Hezbollah is really frightening to them and is really frightening to us. So I think that would be the thing that would actually prompt military action.
Even short of military action, we’re seeing – we’re going to recognize the opposition next week, Hillary Clinton is. We’re sending Patriot missile batteries to Turkey for the border there. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes just short of actually intervening.
There was a question about arming the Syrian rebels. I don’t think that’s an issue now because they overrun so many bases, the rebels have overrun so many bases that they’re getting weapons that are being left behind. So they apparently have enough weapons now to sort of turn the tide of this.
MR. JAVERS: How does the U.S. know who we’re dealing with over there? Isn’t it the same problem that we had in Libya, where you go in on the side of these rebels, but you don’t really know who’s going to emerge from their own power structure and who these people who are going to take power of a very important country?
MR. KITFIELD: Right, and we’ve held our – you know – them in harm’s link because they’ve been so fractious of an opposition that we just didn’t feel comfortable with any side of moderates that we could support. You know, we didn’t have enough confidence that those were the ones that would actually come to the floor. You know, in Doha, a week and half ago, we twisted a lot of arms to get a more inclusive umbrella opposition group that has now been recognized by almost all our allies and Europe. Like I said, we’re going to recognize them next week. There’s a sense that they have – they’re moderate mostly. They are not, you know, Islamic radicals. And they also have ties to these military councils throughout Syria, so they actually have some weight inside the problem. The previous iteration, if you will, it was mostly exiles, you know, from around the world, who didn’t really have any tentacles and any skin in the game inside Syria.
MS. IFILL: And there’s a refugee problem, especially in –
MR. KITFIELD: Huge refugee – I mean, there’s maybe a million, many of them displaced internally, but hundreds of thousands in Turkey, in Jordan, in Lebanon, and they’re destabilizing all the places they’re going because the ethnic fracture between the Shia and the Sunnis or the Kurds, they take with them to wherever they go. So you know, the Kurds in Turkey are very restless. They – we’ve seen fighting between the Shia and the Sunni in Lebanon. Jordan’s terrified because they have 180,000 refugees there. They don’t have really the infrastructure to take care of them.
MS. IFILL: To support it. It sounds like a story which is only getting worse as we watch it this holiday season.
Thank you, everyone. Thank you very much. The conversation has to end here, but we will continue online, where we’ll talk about some of the other problem spots around the world, including Egypt. And while you’re online, be sure to see what else our panelists are reporting on, including today’s Supreme Court decision to hear a challenge to California’s gay marriage law.
You can find that in our Essential Reads section at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
Keep up with daily developments with me over at the PBS “NewsHour” and we will see you again next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night and Happy Hanukkah.