PETE WILLIAMS: The president and Congress prepare for the battles to come. The Justice Department breathes new life into the voting rights law. The NSA leaker tries to get out of the Moscow airport. And Anthony Weiner says, oops, I did it again. I’m Pete Williams in for Gwen Ifill, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I say to these members of Congress, you can’t just be against something. You’ve got to be for something.
MR. WILLIAMS: The president draws battle lines against Republicans. And they push back.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) The speech turned out to be all sizzle and no steak.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: (From tape.) At some point, the campaign season has to end and the working with others season has to begin.
MR. WILLIAMS: But are both sides forgetting that Americans are fed up with Washington? The attorney general flexes his muscles on voting rights.
ERIC HOLDER [U.S. Attorney General]: (From tape.) Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected.
MR. WILLIAMS: A new chapter in the saga of Edward Snowden.
JAY CARNEY [White House Press Secretary]: (From tape.) Mr. Snowden is not a dissident. He’s not a human rights activist. Mr. Snowden ought to be expelled and returned to the United States, where he faces felony charges.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is the tug of war over his future straining U.S. relations with Russia? And will the latest admissions by Anthony Weiner doom his try at a political comeback?
ANTHONY WEINER [Former U.S. Congressman]: (From tape.) There’s no question that what I did was wrong. This behavior is behind me. I’ve apologized to my wife, Huma.
MR. WILLIAMS: If his wife can get over it, should New Yorkers too?
HUMA ABEDIN [Wife of Anthony Weiner]: (From tape.) I love him. I have forgiven him. I believe in him.
MR. WILLIAMS: Covering the week, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times; Carrie Johnson of NPR; Martha Raddatz of ABC News; and Molly Ball of the Atlantic.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Pete Williams of NBC News.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening. President Obama this week challenged Congress to follow his path for fixing the economy. And the Republicans said, forget it. The president took his case to three cities across America and said improving the lives of middle-class Americans is his highest priority.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) If you’re willing to work with me to strengthen American manufacturing and rebuild this country’s infrastructure, let’s go. If you’ve got better ideas to bring down the cost of college for working families, let’s hear them. If you think you have a better plan for making sure that every American has the security of quality, affordable health care, then stop taking meaningless repeal votes and share your concrete ideas with the country. (Applause.)
MR. WILLIAMS: But the response from Republicans was curt.
REP. BOEHNER: (From tape.) The president says he’s going to go out and pivot back to jobs. Well, welcome to the conversation, Mr. President. We never left it.
SEN. MCCONNELL: (From tape.) Look, this president is a terrific campaigner. We all recognize that. He’s got a way with words too.
MR. WILLIAMS: This all comes with the backdrop of a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showing not only Congress’ disapproval rating soaring to an all-time high, but also the president’s disapproval rating hovering near his highest as well. That same poll showed just 29 percent think the country is on the right track. That’s the lowest in almost two years. So, John, any reason to think the White House or Congress will do anything differently?
JOHN HARWOOD: Well, the president said, let’s go to Congress. It is clear from the bites that you just played from John Boehner and Mitch McConnell there’s not a lot of giddy-up for the president in this – in this current Congress.
But, look, the public is disgusted with Washington. They have seen a president get reelected. There was a brief honeymoon. You had the fiscal cliff deal. The president was over 50 percent. And, over the last several months, you’ve seen not much happen. Did have an immigration bill get through the Senate, stalled in the House. But a lot of fighting, a lot of scandal talk, and not results that the American people have been looking for.
And so 12 percent approval rating for Congress, 45 percent for the president, both of those are lame numbers. The Congress number is the worst that we’ve ever seen in the NBC-Journal poll.
And what the president is trying to do with these speeches is move the needle, change the nature of the conversation in advance of these big fights that we have coming up in the fall over spending on the budget, continuing resolution, or perhaps a new budget, new spending bills. And we’ve got to raise the debt limit again. And if we don’t do that, we’re going to be back in the potential for a debt crisis like we had in 2011.
MR. WILLIAMS: And he seemed very eager to take this message outside of Washington. But did the needle move?
MR. HARWOOD: No. And it’s not likely to move very much, in part because the president’s goals are somewhat limited in the sense that – you know, for the current standoff heading in the fall, what he’s really hoping is not to hurt the economy. He doesn’t think he can get much of anything.
I talked to Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York this week, and he said, realistically, none of these things are going to pass the Congress this year. But the president’s playing for the long term, trying to affect the conversation. And what he’s got to hope is that he can get through the debt ceiling, which is something that Republicans backed off on early this year. He hopes that they’ll do it again. They say they won’t. And hopes he can get through the spending fight. You’ve got some Republicans now saying, well, we’re going to shut down the government if they don’t defund “Obamacare.” The administration is not going to go there.
MOLLY BALL: And are Republicans actually prepared to do that? Do you think they really will shut down the government over “Obamacare”?
MR. HARWOOD: No, I don’t think so. I think there’s a lot of bluffing going on. And you have some on the right who are looking for a cause to rally themselves around right now, including Marco Rubio, who pushed through that immigration bill that generated some flak for him on the right.
But you’ve got other very voluble Republicans stepping up and saying, as Richard Burr, the senator from North Carolina said, that is the dumbest idea that’s ever come down the pike, because when a government shutdown ends, we’re going to come back into session; Barack Obama’s still going to be president; “Obamacare” is not going to go anywhere. That’s not where we bet our chips.
MARTHA RADDATZ: John, it really seems to me, when you watch this, nothing really ever changes. I don’t see how the needle does move. So what does the president do differently? What do the Republicans do differently to try to change those poll numbers?
MR. HARWOOD: They’re not doing much differently. What the president is trying to do is do it with more consistency, a louder volume outside the country. But when you talk to people in the White House –
MS. RADDATZ: And he gets status quo, though, from that.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, you do get status quo, but part of their belief is that if he, in fact, spends every minute of the rest of his term, like he says he did in his speech this week in Illinois, making this argument, maybe they can influence the argument, even if they can’t achieve it – more spending on infrastructure, education, job training, manufacturing – even if they can’t achieve it during Barack Obama’s presidency, they’re hoping that’s going to seep through around the country perhaps for a future president, future Congress.
MR. WILLIAMS: OK. John, thank you very much. It was exactly one month ago that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, one month ago this week. And exactly one month to the day, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an aggressive move to keep the law alive. He told the National Urban League that the Justice Department would go after Texas for the way it drew new boundaries for its congressional and legislative districts.
MR. HOLDER: We believe that the state of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices. (Applause.)
Now, this is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found.
MR. WILLIAMS: Governor Rick Perry of Texas said the move showed utter contempt for the legal system. But, Carrie, did the Supreme Court leave the Voting Rights Act alive after all?
CARRIE JOHNSON: The act is alive but it’s limping. As you said, a month ago, in this case involving Shelby County, Alabama, the heart of the law was gutted, the formula for covering states and requiring them to get federal permission before making election changes is now essentially null and void.
But two important sections of the law remain. And Attorney General Eric Holder this week signaled he’s going to take full advantage of both of those. What’s going on here is that plaintiffs in the state of Texas, Latin-American groups, African-American groups and other lawmakers in the state, who want to protect minority voting rights, have sued the governor over this redistricting plan. The Justice Department says it’s going to intervene in the case.
And if there is a finding of intentional discrimination under Section Three of the Voting Rights Act, a part that’s still intact, the Justice Department wants Texas to have to serve 10 years in the federal penalty box. Before it makes any kind of election changes whatsoever, it’s got to get Eric Holder’s blessing and whoever takes that office after.
MR. WILLIAMS: So they would get the same kind of preclearance they would have gotten before the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act, but instead of it being automatic, you’d have to go to a court and get the judge’s authority to do that.
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah. There are a couple of things that are important here. One is that the old part of the law that’s been struck down put the burden on the state. Now the burden is on the U.S. government or the challengers, the minority plaintiffs.
The second thing that’s going on here, Pete, is that you have to prove intentional discrimination. That’s a really high bar. This Justice Department thinks it can do it because there are some findings of fact in a different case that went their way.
The third thing that’s going on is that the penalty may not be as vast as it could have been before. In other words, a judge could say, I’m going to require Texas to undergo federal scrutiny, but only for five years or only for three years or only for statewide changes, not every single electoral change.
MS. RADDATZ: So, Carrie, the Justice Department feels pretty good about the likelihood of success, correct? But if not, then what happens next?
MS. JOHNSON: If not, it would be a huge blow not only to civil rights groups, but also to the prestige of the Justice Department in a lot of ways. This is a personal crusade for Eric Holder, the attorney general. And it’s very important for the Obama administration as well to stand behind minority voters, especially because, Martha, we saw only last year long lines at the polls, lots of very controversial voter ID laws, and what some people considered to be voter suppression efforts, particularly in minority communities.
MR. HARWOOD: Carrie, on the point that Perry made, which other Texas politician, John Cornyn made, shows contempt for the Supreme Court, was there anything about what the Justice Department did that in fact was a slap at the court or are they simply using another avenue that was left open to them by the court to try to achieve the same goal?
MS. JOHNSON: John, the latter. This was an avenue that the Supreme Court left wide and clear. And even the person of Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican from Wisconsin, who helped reinvigorate this law and reauthorize it back in 2006, came out and said that the attorney general was working the way he should, and that voter suppression remains a problem, and that exercising these parts of the Voting Rights Act were totally legitimate. This, I think, rhetoric from Texas about doing an end run around the Supreme Court and disrespecting people in Texas, was more of a cowboy-hat rhetoric than a reality.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, in fact, the Supreme Court’s problem was that the old law, the old map was not up to date. So isn’t this system – you’d have to get permission from a judge, presumably you have to show up-to-date evidence.
MS. JOHNSON: Absolutely. You have to demonstrate a recent history of intentional discrimination. So, in some ways, people think Congress will not be successful in rewriting the old part of the law that’s been struck down, but this could be a new tool moving forward.
MS. BALL: We saw all these problems at the polls in 2012, but there’s a feeling that it actually invigorated a lot of minority voters and got them angry, got them out to vote. But how much of this do you think is political and what do you think is the political upside or downside of what they’re doing?
MS. JOHNSON: I think there is a significant element in this administration, the first African-American president, the first African-American attorney general, that they want to put a lot of power behind these kind of statements. But they really do believe in protecting minority voting rights as well.
Finally, picking a fight with Texas is not a bad fight for this administration. You know, they’ve picked a fight with Texas before and I think they’re going to do it again over the Texas voter ID law.
Also important to note that, as Eric Holder was announcing this, the state of North Carolina passed one of the most restrictive electoral laws in the country, something that would eliminate early voting in many periods, eliminate same-day registration at the polls, force people to line up, and even once they’ve lined up on the actual election day, if the lines are long, this new measure says that state officials can just decide to close the polls.
MR. WILLIAMS: As well as photo IDs.
MS. JOHNSON: Absolutely. Photo IDs, but not student IDs.
MR. WILLIAMS: OK. Carrie, thank you very much. This week brought another odd twist in the saga of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who’s been holed up in the Moscow Airport for more than a month now. His lawyer brought in a copy of the famed Russian novel, “Crime and Punishment,” whose main character commits a crime for what he believes is a higher purpose but ends up sentenced to Siberia. So, Martha, is Snowden any closer to getting out of that airport?
MS. RADDATZ: He might be a little closer to Siberia at this point. But, honestly, Pete, he must be a little closer to getting out of that airport, but I don’t really know where he’ll end up.
I think during this week we all heard his lawyer in Russia talking about the fact that he would probably be released any day. He wants temporary asylum. The Russians have kind of given this mixed message, if he stops leaking material, perhaps he can stay. On the other hand, President Putin does not want to interfere with whatever relationship remains with the United States.
So I think it’s possible he could get out of the airport soon, but I think they do not want him staying there permanently. This is a problem the Russians don’t really want. On the other hand, I don’t see them carting him onto an airplane and sending him own.
MS. JOHNSON: Martha, how does this impact the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, which was already very rocky to begin with?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think that’s the key point. Russia is playing kind of both sides of this. The administration has obviously kind of thrown hints out there that a summit in the fall might be cancelled; others have talked about the Olympics, you know, the United States shouldn’t go. So the threats are definitely out there and they’re very clear.
But Putin, on the other hand – we don’t obviously have an extradition thing going on with the Russians, so they would have to deport him – so he’s in a difficult position. And Snowden has already said he wants to stay there. He wants to get a job. He’s learning the language. He’s reading “Crime and Punishment” so he can be familiar with Russian literature.
MR. HARWOOD: Martha, given all of that, the pressure on the relationship, the pressure the United States has put on Latin American countries, when you think about all of the factors involved in the case, what are the chances that Snowden ends up back in the United States and goes to trial?
MS. RADDATZ: I actually think they’re pretty darn slim, because I think he’ll go elsewhere and, eventually, somebody will take him. Eventually, he’ll fly somewhere. There’s so much drama. You know, what’s really –
MR. HARWOOD: You don’t see an outcome where the Russians put him on a place back to the United States?
MS. RADDATZ: I can’t see that happen. I just don’t see it.
MR. WILLIAMS: And didn’t they say today they’ve never extradited anybody and they’re not going to do that now?
MS. RADDATZ: They’ve never extradited anybody. They’re not going to do that now. And that’s pretty much what it would take, having security officials go in there and put the guy on a plane. And I don’t see Putin going that far. I mean, but Snowden has really become this story. The attention has really drifted from actually what he exposed to him as a personality.
MS. BALL: Well, and speaking of what he exposed, I mean, we do have an ongoing controversy now over the surveillance that Snowden exposed. And there was a vote in the House this week. What do you think we learned from that? Very interesting though.
MS. RADDATZ: A very, very close vote in the House with Representative Justin Amash and an amendment put on, saying, let’s do away with the funding for portions of the NSA surveillance. Very, very close vote; very mixed vote. Lots of Democrats, lots of Republicans; I think 40 percent of the Republican conference voted to get rid of the funding. So it narrowly missed passing. So certainly –
MR. HARWOOD: Both party leaderships put their shoulder heavily to wheel to try to stop that.
MS. RADDATZ: Both party leaderships – yeah. Heavily. Yes. Nancy Pelosi put her shoulder heavily to the wheel on that.
MR. WILLIAMS: Attorney General Eric Holder sent the Russians a letter this week, saying, we promise, if you send him back here, we won’t torture him, we never do; and we won’t subject him to the death penalty, even if he faces new charges. Is that going to make any difference?
MS. RADDATZ: And that’s one of those things that’s like, back at you, Vladimir Putin. Because what Snowden has been saying is, look, I can’t go back. You have to protect me because they’ll torture me and they’ll put me to death. And Eric Holder made very clear that would not happen. So, once again, the ball is in the court of the Russians, which is why they don’t really know what to do with the ball at this point.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Martha, thank you very much. Finally tonight, Democrat Anthony Weiner’s campaign for mayor of New York got even stranger this week, when he was forced to admit that his online sexual dalliances, the very conduct that forced him to quit Congress two years ago, actually continued for another 14 months after he resigned with as many, he now says, as three women. Even so, he insisted his misbehavior is behind him and that he’s not dropping out.
MR. WEINER: (From tape.) I’m waging this campaign on a bet. And the bet is, at the end of the day, citizens care more about their own future than about my past with my wife and my embarrassing things.
MR. WILLIAMS: Adding to the drama of his disclosures was the presence of his wife, Huma Abedin, a longtime Hillary Clinton staffer and adviser. She spoke up to say she forgives him.
MS. ABEDIN: (From tape.) Anthony’s made some horrible mistakes both before he resigned from Congress and after. But I do very strongly believe that that is between us and our marriage. We discussed all of this before Anthony decided to run for mayor.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, Molly, lucky you. At this point, what is left of his campaign?
MS. BALL: Well, Pete, I believe the technical term is a wing and a prayer. You know, he called it a bet. I think it was a gamble for him to ever get into this race. He was gambling that more things like this wouldn’t come out.
Now, part of his explanation, if you can call it that – he didn’t actually explain very much, if this in fact can be explained – but part of his explanation was, well, I told you this was going to happen. You asked me before if there were any more women out there. And I said that there probably were. So who’s even surprised by this? Is this even news? But I think it was news to a lot of people.
And we had, you know, this woman that he had this online relationship with after he resigned, going on television, calling him perpetually horny. I mean, none of this is mayoral in stature, if you will.
And so, you know, the problem is that even if people believe him and accept that it is some kind of compulsion, that makes it even harder to believe that he’s ever stopped or ever will stop.
MS. RADDATZ: Could he have just said that? I mean, did he handle it in the right way? Could he have just said, I have an ongoing problem? I’m going to try to get help for that, instead of saying, it’s behind me, since he’d already said that?
MS. BALL: Well, I think it might have been about as believable to say that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s, again, mayoral – that people would want that, would want a sort of admitted continuous online sex addict in Gracie Mansion, in New York.
MR. HARWOOD: Molly, one of our colleagues from New York magazine wrote a piece this week saying that we’re all shocked and outraged by the behavior and scandalized by the news. But for Anthony Weiner, this may have been a step on part of his plan that is for a comeback, that he knew that stuff like this was going to come out, and he might have known that this campaign wasn’t going to be successful, but he’s playing a longer game, trying to put things behind him to preserve his political future. Does that make sense?
MS. BALL: I don’t think this is all part of a grand strategy. What we’re seeing is – certainly this press conference, he didn’t seem like he knew what he was doing. Now, does he want to have a political future? Sure. That’s why he’s running. I mean, I think part of –
MR. HARWOOD: Can he?
MS. BALL: I think part of the problem with his candidacy has always been that he didn’t have a really compelling way to explain what he was offering besides a political future for Anthony Weiner.
MS. JOHNSON: What do you think the impact is going to be on Eliot Spitzer, who’s resigned over his own set of scandals and is now running again in New York as well?
MS. BALL: If anything, this has taken the spotlight back off of Eliot Spitzer, who sort of in turn stole the spotlight from Anthony Weiner when he jumped into the race. You know, it kinds of makes Spitzer look mild by comparison because we haven’t had new eruptions, revelations from Spitzer.
There’s such a circus-like atmosphere to New York politics right now. I do think voters are considering the races and the candidates individually, but you’ve got to think, the less front page New York Times headlines about your sex life, the better you’re doing as a candidate. I think that’s a good rule of thumb.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, Weiner’s latest disclosures add to the announcement by San Diego Mayor Bob Filner that he will seek behavioral therapy in response to allegations of sexual harassment. The House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi talked this week about men behaving badly.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA) [House Minority Leader]: The conduct of some of these people that we’re talking about here is reprehensible. It is so disrespectful of women. And what’s really stunning about it is they don’t even realize it. You know, they don’t have a clue. And it is really – if they’re clueless, get a clue. And if they need therapy, do it in private.
MR. WILLIAMS: And it always seems to be men.
MS. BALL: Well, there just aren’t that many women politicians. I hesitate to say that women are not capable of this kind of behavior, because I like to think women are capable of anything.
But it is men behaving badly. You have Filner in San Diego. I think this all just contributes to the public’s cynicism about all of this. They have to just think, well, everybody’s doing it. When someone can come out and say, well, I’m going to be cured in two weeks of this pattern of behavior that multiple people have attested to, this disgusting behavior, I mean, I’m going to come back and serve you honorably, I mean, does anybody believe that?
MR. HARWOOD: And, of course, Filner and Weiner are both former members of Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic Caucus.
MS. BALL: Absolutely.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, what about the presence of his wife though? That seemed to make this a lot different for many. Did it make it better or did it make it worse?
MS. BALL: I think there’s always been this uncomfortable dynamic, where, you know, we see politicians being criticized for dragging their wives up on stage the way Eliot Spitzer did, and she didn’t speak but she sort of wordlessly stood by her man. And there’s a sense that that’s sort of torturing the poor woman.
But there’s a weird sort of Rorschach test with Huma, where a lot of people see her as a victim, but since she did speak up for herself and since she did make a vocal case for his candidacy, others see her as sort of a mastermind in this situation, that she’s almost putting him up to it. Especially with her connection to the Clintons, there’s never been a shortage of conspiracy theories about the Clintons.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Molly, thank you. Thank you all.
Finally, tonight, we remember a legendary journalist who left us this past week. White House reporter Helen Thomas covered 10 presidents, beginning with JFK during her nearly 50 years in Washington. She broke many barriers along the way, among them becoming the first woman bureau chief for UPI and the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association. Helen Thomas was 92.
That’s it for tonight. This reminder, Gwen will be online next Thursday for her monthly web chat. And she’ll be joined by a special guest, Dan Balz, the author of that new chronicle of the 2012 campaign, “The Collision.” That’s Thursday, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. Go to our website, pbs.org/washingtonweek if you’d like to submit a question.
And, remember, our webcast extra is streamed live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, while we hear a first-hand account from Martha Raddatz of her trip to the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.
I’m Pete Williams. Gwen is back at the table next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.