MS. IFILL: This was the week when the best laid plans went awry – on energy and immigration policy, on the Wall Street crackdown and Florida politics. We’ll explain the hows and the whys tonight on “Washington Week.”
JANET NAPOLITANO, Secretary of Homeland Security: This is a spill of national significance.
MS. IFILL: Hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil, threatening a huge natural disaster in the Gulf.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Local economies and livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast, as well as the ecology of the region is at stake.
MS. IFILL: Wind power, nuclear, clean coal, offshore oil drilling – do the risks outweigh the benefits?
And thanks to a tough new Arizona law, will energy reform also be knocked off-course by a renewed debate over immigration?
GOV. JAN BREWER (R-AZ): Decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.
MS. IFILL: In Florida, one rising Republican star gets knocked off course and out of his party by another.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (Independent-FL): My decision to run for the United States Senate as a candidate without party affiliation in many ways says more about our nation and our state than it does about me.
MARCO RUBIO, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate - Florida: I know this campaign is not about me, it’s about what I’m running for and what I’m running on.
MS. IFILL: And a proposed Wall Street crackdown gets knocked back on course after a dramatic Capitol Hill showdown.
SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI): Should Goldman Sachs be trying to sell – (inaudible)?
MR. SPARKS, Goldman Sachs executive: (From tape.) Well –
SEN. LEVIN: Can you answer that one?
MR. SPARKS, Goldman Sachs executive: I won’t use those words –
SEN. LEVIN: Can you answer that one? Can you answer that one? Yes or no?
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Margaret Kriz Hobson of National Journal; Naftali Bendavid of the Wall Street Journal; Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post; and Eamon Javers of Politico.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, his is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with National Journal. Corporate funding for “Washington Week” is provided by –
ANNOUNCER: Additional funding for “Washington Week” is provided by Boeing, Exxon Mobil, Pepsi, the Annenberg Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The news just keeps getting worse in the Gulf of Mexico, with 200,000 gallons of oil gushing each day from far beneath the sea. Last week’s oil rig accident has suddenly changed the calculus for a national energy policy. A president who endorsed additional offshore oil drilling and who just this week backed a plan to build energy-producing windmills offshore as well, is now on the defensive.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson was part of a phalanx of federal officials dispatched to the Gulf today.
LISA JACKSON, EPA Administrator: We will stay as long as we need to to make sure that we are ready and able to be partners in response to support all the local governments who are out there, who are trying to stand up to the people and get their communities ready for this response.
GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R-LA): We think it’s best to hope for the best while we prepare for the worst.
MS. IFILL: At the same time, the great tripartisan Senate Energy Bill we talked about last week hit an unexpected pothole this week. How much is this oil spill changed policy and politics this week, Margie?
MS. HOBSON: Well, it was starting to go downhill even before this – the oil spill got to be the big headlines. You had last weekend one of the main people who was writing that bill, the only Republican involved with it decided to withdraw because he was afraid that climate change was going to be overpowered by immigration law and all of the other –
MS. IFILL: Lindsey Graham.
MS. HOBSON: Lindsey Graham –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. HOBSON: Lindsey Graham – and – so he said, I’m out of here. Until you guys take immigration off the table, I’m going to withdraw. Well, that left two guys, Kerry – Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman – who were feeling like, well, if we don’t have a Republican it’s kind of hard to introduce anything, so –
MS. IFILL: And that was before the oil slick –
MS. HOBSON: Absolutely.
MS. IFILL: – became so big that it completely turned everything upside down.
MS. HOBSON: Right. So at that point, everybody was saying, well, you could –still might be able to get a climate bill going but then the oil came.
And President Obama specifically included oil drilling in his plan in this State of the Union address. It was in the bill itself and it was – the whole purpose was to attract Republicans. But now, you have Democrats saying if there’s oil spill – if there’s oil drilling in this bill – if you were allowing more oil drilling in the bill, then I’m out of here. So you had all of these New Jersey Democrats and coastal state Democrats saying, we have to stop this right now.
MR. JAVERS: Why was it that nobody sort of saw this coming? I mean, this – we heard about the spill, it seemed to be a minor thing and then suddenly, it exploded into a big national story and we hear about these massive amounts of ocean that are covered with oil. How did it go from so small to so huge?
MS. HOBSON: It is a deep well. It is – when they called ocean, they mean it goes a mile down in the ocean. This is an area where there’s – the oil is so far down, it’s way deep into the area that it’s just – it just doesn’t – nobody knows exactly what’s happening down there. I mean, you had the whole thing collapsed. It was starting to come out of the ground, but nobody knew just how much was coming out of the ground. So it wasn’t until it started to percolate up into the – onto the ocean that you started to see it.
MS. TUMULTY: So is this Barack Obama’s Katrina moment? How is this administration responding this, and you know, how competently are they responding to this?
MS. HOBSON: Well, I think they’re doing a pretty good job at this point. They let BP handled it at first because BP said they could handle it. They said it’s really not that bad. We have the booms and things like that to put around the oil spill.
MS. IFILL: So this – wait a second. We allowed the company that’s behind the problem police itself and we said okay for how long?
MS. HOBSON: For about a week. As long as we thought that it wasn’t too bad. We sent the Coast Guard down, we had all kinds of people down there. But today you saw about half of his cabinet go down, make a big scene about it all.
And what the president is saying now is there’s not going to be any new oil drilling offshore until they do an investigative – investigation of the whole thing. However, he’s not saying that it stops any new oil drilling off the coasts.
MR. BENDAVID: The administration aside, I mean, the whole “drill, baby, drill,” that was one of the big slogans of a lot of the Republican candidates. And I’m wondering how those people are reacting to this kind of a disaster.
MS. HOBSON: Well, they’ve disappeared. (Laughs.) For the most part, you have a lot of Republicans who are simply not available anymore, or who are expressing concern about this. Mary Landrieu, who’s the Democrat from Louisiana, is expressing a lot of concern, even though in the past she said this kind of a spill could not occur.
MS. IFILL: Well, but then we have, of course, Sarah Palin from Alaska who was Miss “Drill, Baby, Drill” and she came out today and said this isn’t the kind of drilling she was talking about, but she’s – her state was also the one that suffered when the Exxon Valdez accident happened 20 – more than 20 years ago. How does this compare to that?
MS. HOBSON: This is now being looked at as potentially as bad or worse than the Exxon Valdez. We won’t know until they really start to calculate how much oil is coming out and how long it stays open without being capped. They don’t know how to do that when you’re talking about this deep ocean drilling.
MS. IFILL: One of the things that was different is that Exxon Valdez was a ship and this is something coming from underground and we don’t know where it ends.
MS. HOBSON: Absolutely.
MS. IFILL: Thanks so much.
So how many balls can Washington keep in the air at once? Not many. But this week saw immigration suddenly back on the front burner as an Arizona law designed to help seal that state’s border with Mexico upended the Washington debate.
PRES. OBAMA: I think it’s a mistake is when we start having local law enforcement officials empowered to stop people on the suspicion that they may be undocumented workers.
GOV. BREWER: We must acknowledge the truth. People across America are watching Arizona, seeing how we implement this law, ready to jump on even the slightest misstep.
MS. IFILL: She’s right, everybody is watching Arizona. What is it about this issue – never goes away, comes up periodically in Washington and it shakes everything up? Why?
MR. BENDAVID: Well, as you say, it’s always an emotional issue. And I think the reason is that it goes so directly to what kind of a country we think we are. You know, the people who want tight immigration restrictions talk about having shared values and shared culture and that sort of thing. The people who favor more relaxed immigration laws, talk about being a welcoming country that opens its arms to people who are downtrodden and who are needy.
But there’s additional things going on now. For one thing, we’re at a time of great economic unease and distress and at those times, I think it’s not unreasonable to expect that immigration issues are going to come to the fore. People are going to be more worried about that sort of thing. And then this Arizona law came along and just kind of lit a fuse and the whole thing blew up.
MS. IFILL: So the fuse was always there and we can assume that the administration did not – based on what the president was saying – did not have it high on its list of things to do this year. But now it was forced to handle it in some way and that’s why the Democrats stepped up yesterday?
MR. BENDAVID: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a lot of it. I mean, you know, they – the – a lot of people in the Hispanic community were expecting and hoping that the administration would do more faster to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. But the fact is it was kind of at the back of the line, behind healthcare and behind redoing the financial industry, and then – excuse me – this bill in Arizona just kind of blew up and forced the Democrats’ hands and they felt like they had very little choice but to respond and to show the Hispanic community, which is a big supporter of Democratic candidates, that they were going to take action about this.
MS. TUMULTY: And are they looking for action, or are they looking for an issue here, the Democrats? What really are the chances, with so much else going on, of something actually getting done this year?
MR. BENDAVID: I mean, I think the chances are pretty small, to tell you the truth. For one thing, it’s not clear to me at all that they have the votes. They don’t have a single Republican that’s in favor of this bill the Democrats are talking about now. It’s not clear that they have all the Democrats. And it’s an inflammatory issue. It always generates huge emotions. You know, they just did healthcare. They’re doing banking regulations. I’m not sure necessarily that they want to do immigration reform right now.
And beyond that, there is a timing issue. You know, the Senate has to confirm a Supreme Court justice. They’re still doing banking regulations. There’s an election coming up. You know, there’s a lot of things on their plate. Congress isn’t good at doing a lot of things at once. And my sense is that this is something that they’ll use perhaps to energize the Hispanic community, but isn’t something necessarily that’s going to pass this year.
MS. HOBSON: Is this going to be difficult for the Republican Party? I mean, it could be political poison in some areas.
MR. BENDAVID: Yeah, you know, it’s volatile terrain for both parties, but I think the Republican Party is particularly split and they have – they’ve had prominent Republicans, for example, like Jeb Bush, like the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, come out against this Arizona law, whereas others, John McCain, for one, coming out in favor of it.
And just politically speaking, there’s a couple different pressure points, if you will. On the one hand, a lot of their base, a lot of Republican activists are in favor of tough immigration laws. But they also know that the Hispanic community is a big, growing part of the electorate and alienating them for the foreseeable future isn’t something that they’re going to relish doing.
MR. JAVERS: But Bill Clinton came out this week and he said, we need more immigrants in this country. He made it sort of a fiscal thing, you know, getting the nation’s finances back in order. But can Democrats be the party that says we need more immigrants going into this election? I mean, isn’t there a huge risk there for the Democratic Party?
MR. BENDAVID: It is, absolutely. I mean, I think there’s a risk for both parties and that’s why you’re seeing both parties tread somewhat carefully. Because again there’s a certain amount of emotion and a feeling against relaxed immigration policy, especially at a time like this when we have very high jobless rate, people are feeling not only economic unease, but like the country is on the wrong track. And at times like that, all the concerns that people feel about as they see it opening the floodgates to a whole bunch of new people, all those concerns get accentuated. So you’re seeing both parties tread with a certain amount of care.
MS. IFILL: How draconian is the Arizona law itself really? And now there are other states which are – already said that that they might follow in its path.
MR. BENDAVID: There are other states that are signaling that they are considering it. And, in fact, in a lot of states, particularly in the South, the discussion has arisen about is there something that is appropriate to out states. So again, you have the governor of Texas coming out and saying, I respect what the people of Arizona did, but it’s not necessarily right for Texas.
I mean, the thing, I think, that’s grabbed people’s attention about this law is one provision among many that says that police, if they have a reasonable suspicion –
MS. IFILL: Reasonable suspicion.
MR. BENDAVID: – reasonable suspicion – and that is not specified in the law what might go into making that determination – it’s very vague – you know, that they then have to question that person and determine if they are, in fact, illegal. And that’s conjured up all kinds of images, particularly among civil libertarians about, you know, brown-skinned people being stopped, people being stopped on the basis of how they look, just some police officer thinks this person might be an illegal alien. So it’s engendered a huge amount of – a huge reaction. It’s certainly going to be settled in the courts and people are reacting very strongly to it, including the president, as we saw.
MS. IFILL: We have a couple of questions that we’ll talk in our webcast about that very issue, “how does this affect me” kind of question. We’ll get to them.
Well, as you can tell tonight, political upheaval is not limited to Washington. In Florida, a once popular governor’s fall from the voters grace is demonstrating what a free-for-all this fall’s elections could turn out to be. So what does Charlie Crist’s defection from the GOP tell us about what we can expect to see in the next few months? You’re just back from Florida, Karen, tell us all about it.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, it’s – it tells you in one state you see so many extraordinary things that are happening in this political year. Charlie Crist a year ago was all but a lock for the Senate race. He was the Republican’s first-round draft pick. He was the only non-incumbent to be endorsed by the party out of Washington. He was ahead of his only primary challenger, Marco Rubio, a former House speaker, by 30 points. Marco Rubio is now – was ahead by 20 points.
MS. IFILL: Wow.
MS. TUMULTY: And I think what we’ve seen is a couple of things, probably three big factors that are going on, I think, in varying degrees across the country. One is a radical change in the political climate. This is not a year when you want to be the establishment candidate. It’s not a year when you want to be an incumbent.
Second of all, he got caught in what has become a struggle within the Republican Party for its own soul. Not only is he in trouble, but in Arizona we’ve seen John McCain essentially having a primary race where the question is whether the man who was the presidential nominee in 2008 is conservative enough. In Utah, Bob Bennett, a longtime senator, is – may not get his party’s nomination.
And then finally, there were some things that Charlie Crist himself did, some apostasies that were just too much for his party, starting with his embrace – literal –
MS. IFILL: Literal embrace.
MS. TUMULTY: – and figurative – of Barack Obama early last year when the president came to Florida to sell his stimulus plan, and more recently his veto of an education bill that was really championed by Florida conservatives.
MS. IFILL: Now, by the time he vetoed that bill, isn’t it now widely assumed he’d already made his decision, he’d signed his own death warrant with the Republicans?
MS. TUMULTY: That – that veto was, in effect, a sort of goodbye note to his party.
MR. BENDAVID: (Laughs.) So Karen, the question then it seems like a lot of the Democrats are asking and others is whether there’s still a place in the Republican Party for moderates? You hear a lot about the demise of the Rockefeller Republicans and that’s just the question that inevitably is going to come up.
MS. TUMULTY: Ironically enough, the Republicans stand to make some big gains in the Senate this year in part because they are nominating moderate candidates like Congressman Kirk in Illinois could be – could win Barack Obama’s old seat. Congressman Mike Castle in Delaware could win Joe Biden’s old seat. And certainly Scott Brown in Massachusetts, as much as the conservatives rejoice over that victory, this is a guy who is for Rove v. Wade, has a really good environmental record, and his second vote in the Senate was to block his own party’s filibuster of a jobs bill.
MS. IFILL: And Kirk in Illinois as well?
MS. TUMULTY: That’s right. I mean, he’s standing a good chance of winning Barack Obama’s old seat.
MR. JAVERS: Can this possibly work for Crist, though? I mean, you know, he’s going to lose all the fundraising advantage you have of being in a major party and Republicans aren’t going to write checks to him. It’s going to be an expensive campaign. How can he do this?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, Florida – well, Florida remains, as we all learned in 2000, one of the most closely divided states in the country politically. What this has done is opened up a three-way race between Marco Rubio, the Republican; Charlie Crist, the new Independent; and a Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek, a Miami area congressman who people didn’t think had much of a shot even a few weeks ago. Now, he is a real contender. And I think the outcome of this race is anybody’s guess.
MS. IFILL: Is it possible this is his best week ever – Kendrick Meek? (Laughter.)
MS. TUMULTY: Well, actually – and he got a primary opponent today –
MS. IFILL: Yeah. So maybe not this week’s.
MS. TUMULTY: – a billionaire named Jeff Greene. By the way, there’s an interesting ethnic element in all of this in that Marco Rubio is a Hispanic, Kendrick Meek is an African-American. There’re just so many levels of Florida politics going on.
MS. HOBSON: So is he the Republican’s version of Joe Lieberman, who was a Democrat and moved to the Independent line?
MS. TUMULTY: There are some big differences. I mean, Joe Lieberman actually ran in the primary and lost it. Charlie Crist walked away from it and a lot of people in Florida are very bitter about that, particularly people who contributed to his campaign. I mean, they – a lot of Republicans think he should have just sort of, you know, taken the hit, just made it through the primary.
MS. HOBSON: So that’s going to hurt him.
MS. TUMULTY: It could. It depends on how many of his fundraisers walk away from him, how many – and how much of his campaign staff – a lot of them –
MS. IFILL: A lot of them left.
MS. TUMULTY: – are – and are going to continue to do this.
MS. IFILL: You know what the lessons are for Republicans as they try to figure their way through this moderate-conservative axis, but what about for Democrats? Are there lessons nationwide for Democrats from these kinds of races?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I think that what this has done on both sides is make people turn to their base and which again goes back to why you’re seeing immigration come up. I mean, Democrats are realizing that with the Republicans so energized this year, they really have to do something that energizes their voters. There are a lot more Democrats in Florida than there used to be, but that’s because of Barack Obama. And it’s – there’s a real question whether those people will actually show up for midterm elections.
MS. IFILL: Well, we move on to Capitol Hill, where there was a lot of high dudgeon as if there wasn’t every place else – (laughter) – especially when senators trained their fire on Goldman Sachs.
SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-MO): All of you were lemming-like, you were chasing each other. What you worried about most was a bad article in the Wall Street Journal, not a regulator.
MICHAEL SWENSON, Goldman Sachs Managing Director: There’s things that we wished we could have done better in hindsight, but at the times that we made the decisions, I didn’t think we did anything wrong.
MS. IFILL: And that was the clean stuff. (Laughter.) In the end, the Goldman Sachs wrist slap did serve one purpose. It caused Republicans who were delaying action on the Financial Regulatory Reform Bill to blink. Why did they blink?
MR. JAVERS: Well, part of the reason why was because they had to leave that hearing and walk over to the Senate floor and cast votes. They were going to be portrayed as votes for Wall Street and here they are beating up on Goldman Sachs inside the hearing room. It was a very fascinating moment and it was more than a moment. This was an 11-hour hearing. The first panel, as you just saw there, those four guys testified for five hours straight without a bathroom break. I mean, it was an astonishing grilling that we saw.
MS. IFILL: And admitted to nothing during –
MR. JAVERS: And they didn’t crack. They didn’t move off of the Goldman Sachs talking points at all during that entire five hours. It was really a thing to watch.
MS. IFILL: I’m curious about the three consecutive defeats of the Democrats appeared to suffer when they were trying to bring the bill to the floor. In the end, when the Republicans blinked, it began to look like maybe that was part of the design. They wanted to force those votes from Republicans.
MR. JAVERS: It was. The Democrats wanted to use those votes to say, hey, the Republicans are the party of big Wall Street. Remember the bailouts, remember the bonuses, remember AIG.
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible) – Republicans three votes before they figured that out?
MR. JAVERS: Well, because a lot of Republicans really resented the fact that this was being drawn up by Democrats. They wanted a seat at the table and they were saying, this isn’t a vote for Wall Street, this is a vote for a bipartisan bill. That was their line. But after three votes, it became sort of untenable. They just didn’t want to be in that position to cast – to continue to cast those votes. And Democrats threatened to keep them in overnight, vote after vote after vote. And so they cracked and they finally said, uncle.
MS. TUMULTY: Winning by losing, an old Washington technique.
MR. JAVERS: That’s right. (Laughter.)
MS. TUMULTY: But there’s been a lot of speculation about the timing of this Goldman investigation and it certainly couldn’t have come along at a better time for the Democrats and for the administration.
MR. JAVERS: Absolutely. I mean, a lot of folks at Goldman Sachs, you know, have been muttering privately that, hey, wait a second, Barack Obama’s SEC files civil fraud charges against us, you know, the week before he’s making this big push in Congress for this financial reform bill. Could that be anything but a coincidence, and what the White House –
MS. IFILL: If they hadn’t been writing those damning e-mails, they probably could have gotten away with that.
MR. JAVERS: (Laughs.) That’s right. I mean – and what the White House has said, I mean, it would be an astonishing thing if the White House has actually interfered with the SEC which is an independent agency. And they have said, of course, you know, we didn’t do that. This is just the result of a long-running SEC investigation.
MR. BENDAVID: How has the president handled this whole thing? I mean, has he used it in some way politically?
MR. JAVERS: He has but he’s been – he’s had to straddle this, right? Because on the one hand, you know, he wants to say this an independent SEC investigation, I have nothing to do with it, my administration has nothing to do with it. But on the other hand, they’re sort of gleeful that Goldman Sachs is on the hot seat right as they are bringing this bill. The timing does work for them in a big way. So they’re – they’re sort of tempted to take shots at Goldman even while saying, you know, we had nothing to do with this.
MS. HOBSON: So what happens going forward? How fast is this legislation going to be brought up, and can something like this pass?
MR. JAVERS: It can absolutely pass. I think it will pass. I think a lot of Republicans will end up voting for it in the end for the same reason they ended up voting to begin the debate and break that filibuster, because it’s just untenable with the amount of anger that’s out there with Wall Street right now.
But in terms of timing, now, there’s some folks who’ve said Memorial Day – that’s probably a little early. But it’s going to pass relatively soon because I think Republicans have said, you know what, this thing is a done deal. Let’s move on.
MS. IFILL: Eamon, you and I were both at a fiscal summit because we are wonks at heart this week.
MR. JAVERS: (Laughs.) That’s right.
MS. IFILL: And one of the speakers was Bill Clinton, the former president, who was asked about all of this and that said, he said – maybe it’s because he’s married to the former senator from New York, but he didn’t sound like he was that damning of Goldman Sachs in all of this.
MR. JAVERS: In fact, he sounded a lot like he was an ally of Goldman Sachs and this was an astonishing political moment as you have Bill Clinton, the former Democratic president, coming out and throwing a little cold water on the SEC that’s run by an Obama appointee. What Bill Clinton said was he’s not so sure they broke the law when did what they did in this derivatives case. That’s an astonishing pronouncement from a former president.
MS. IFILL: Isn’t the problem that if they didn’t break the law, that maybe it should have been?
MR. JAVERS: Well, that’s one of the things that folks have been saying up on Capitol Hill. And interestingly, Susan Collins, the Republican senator, whose vote is being much courted in this, was really after Goldman Sachs and she wants to know why they didn’t have a fiduciary responsibility, a loyalty to their own clients in this. Now, you can see some of that is going to move – find its way into this regulatory reform bill in an effort to get her vote among others.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, so much to watch about – so many moving parts. We love that. Thank you, everyone.
The treadmill never stops here in Washington; we must. But the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. We’ll take your questions and answer a few of our own at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
Later tonight on most PBS stations, you’ll be able to watch the final installment of “Bill Moyers Journal.” Bill’s decided to step away from weekly television and with that, step away from our living rooms. But I don’t believe for a minute he’s really going away. He’s voice and his attitude have never been needed more that they are right now. So I don’t say “goodbye,” Bill, just good night, and see you next week on “Washington Week.”