GWEN IFILL: The House, the Senate, and the White House locked in a toxic tug of war. We examine the hows and the whys, tonight on “Washington Week.”
WOMAN: (From tape.) The yeas are 230 and the nays are 189.
MS. IFILL: The House votes to strip health care funding from the budget.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) The American people don’t want the government shut down and they don’t want “Obamacare.”
MS. IFILL: But the fight is just beginning. Next, the Senate.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From tape.) I will do everything necessary and anything possible to defund “Obamacare.”
SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [Senate Majority Leader]: (From tape.) It would be good political theater to watch them self-destruct – and that’s what they’re doing – if there were not so much at stake.
MS. IFILL: Veto threats, personal insults, ideological battle, all are coming to a head in 10 days. And a second showdown over raising the debt limit comes next.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) They’re actually willing to plunge America into default if we can’t defund the Affordable Care Act.
MS. IFILL: What else could be derailed in this train wreck? We explain with Molly Ball of the Atlantic; Christi Parsons of Tribune Newspapers; David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal; and Jeff Zeleny of ABC News.
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, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but we have a little quiz for you tonight. Sometime within the next month, the federal government could: A, shut down; B, default on its debts; or, C, do both. Now, you probably know the answer is C. The question is why. And we are here to help.
This was the scene on the House floor today just before it passed a bill to fund the government only if “Obamacare” is blocked.
REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR (R-VA) [House Majority Leader]: (From tape.) Let’s defund this law now, and protect the American people from the economic calamity that we know “Obamacare” will create. Americans back home are fighting for their families and we in Congress were sent to Washington by our constituents to fight for them. They have put faith in their leaders to do what’s right.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA) [House Minority Leader]: (From tape.) This place is a mess. Let’s get our house in order. We are legislators. We have come here to do a job for the American people. What is brought to the floor today is without a doubt -- without a doubt a measure designed to shut down government.
MS. IFILL: It’s a risky strategy. The last time there was a government shutdown, in 1995, the public did not react well. And some Republicans remember that.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From tape.) In the United States Senate, we will not repeal or defund “Obamacare.” We will not. And to think we can is not rational.
MS. IFILL: House Republicans were cheering today, but Democrats are too.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From tape.) We are not defunding “Obamacare” and we are not negotiating on the debt ceiling. If they think we’re going to back off, they’re wrong.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) It’s like they do this every six months, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t mind them disagreeing with me. They don’t like the Affordable Care Act, they’d rather have people not have health insurance – you know, I’m happy to have that debate with them. But you don’t have to threaten to blow the whole thing up just because you don’t get your way.
MS. IFILL: Fighting words. But how much of this standoff is about policy and how much of it, Jeff, is about politics?
JEFF ZELENY: It’s about 50/50 at this point. I mean, of course, everything on Capitol Hill, in Washington, everything we cover is about politics. But this is a different argument. I mean, we have seen this movie before. Your quiz is right, but, I mean, this is – it feels much bigger. It feels much more important and serious than the last government shutdown.
I think the biggest reason is these things are happening all at one time. I mean, the government shutdown, the government running out of money to operate basic services after September 30th is one thing, but raising the debt limit, which is coming in mid-October, mid to late October, now that really has big implications for the market and some other things. But politics are the underlying sort of current of this, if you will.
I was really struck by so many Republicans in the House I talked to after that vote today who felt a little bit squeamish, I think. And they were – some of them feel like they’ve been pushed into this box, but now they thought today’s vote is a symbolic one.
And there’s a little bit of animosity and the cracks are starting to show among Republicans with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, Republican senators, have been advertising all summer – and Mike Lee from Utah – calling in to the districts and other things, saying, you need to urge your member of Congress to stand up. They were like, wait. We are standing up. We are standing up. And it’s created this whole internal combustion that we’re not sure how it’s going to end.
MS. IFILL: I want to talk about all that, but I want to also talk about how the White House is responding. We heard the president, looking like he had his Wheaties this morning, saying, what are they doing? Are they coming after me? What is the White House – which of these two things should they take more seriously?
CHRISTI PARSONS: Well, he had his Wheaties and he picked up an accent too somewhere during the course of the day. He was out in Kansas City.
MS. IFILL: He was in Kansas City.
MS. PARSONS: Right.
MS. IFILL: I talk that way in Kansas.
MS. PARSONS: I guess so. It’s just – it was a real folksy kind of thing.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. PARSONS: And so I think what the White House is doing is getting the president as far away from this melee as he can. They had him out to Kansas City. He did, you know, the speech that went on and on. He had a lot of kind of hot, fiery lines. But the undercurrent of that, the message to me was, you know, while those guys are back there taking that vote today; I’m out here with you worrying about these things.
Now, you know, the president has changed course a little bit in the last two or three weeks. And people may think, well, you know, maybe he’s ready to do it again to accommodate Republicans on either the debt or the continuing resolution.
But, you know, I really think in this case, the president means what he’s saying. Nothing means more to him than defending “Obamacare”.
MS. IFILL: I want to listen one more bit of the president’s speech today, his folksy speech today in Kansas City, and it will illustrate what you’re talking about.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The debate that’s going on in Congress is not meeting the test of helping middle-class families. It’s just – they’re not focused on you. They’re focused on politics. They’re focused on trying to mess with me. They’re not focused on you.
MS. IFILL: Molly, they’re messing with him. That’s what he says.
MOLLY BALL: Well, they are messing with him. It’s hard to argue with that. You know, I think Christi is absolutely right, that the president benefits from being above the fray.
Let’s not forget he wasn’t doing so hot going into this whole mess. Things are looking pretty bad for him. He got really got brushed back hard on Syria by both parties. His approval ratings have been slouching downwards all summer. And this is I think seen as a chance for him to sort of get his mojo back because the Republicans appear to have no strategy. They’re turned into a circular firing squad. They’re shooting at each other. I mean, Jeff was very polite to call it cracks emerging within the Republican Congress.
You know, they’re openly calling each other names in public. You have one Republican in the House saying Ted Cruz is writing checks with his mouth that he can’t cash, and another one calling him a fraud. I mean, this is some really strong language.
MS. IFILL: Let’s take a listen to some of it, because Ted Cruz, of course, he’s freshman senator from Texas, and he came to town with a lot of wind behind his back. And he’s been, as Jeff mentioned, the prime mover in this, but everybody doesn’t love that.
SEN. CRUZ: (From tape.) I will do everything necessary and anything possible to defund “Obamacare.”
MR. ZELENY: (From tape.) A filibuster?
SEN. CRUZ: (From tape.) Yes. And anything else, any procedural means necessary.
REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R-NY): (From tape.) It will be a major step in letting people know that Ted Cruz is a fraud and he’ll no longer have any influence in the Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: What do you think he thinks? That was Jeff asking that filibuster question and getting the answer. What is the practicality of this? We’ve seen the politics, but practically, what is this about?
DAVID WESSEL: Well, it’s about two things. One is, if they don’t appropriate money to keep the government open, non-essential parts of the government will shut down. You mentioned the ’94, ’95 thing. It will actually be worse than that because at that time, a number of appropriation bills had actually been passed. This time, none of the 12 appropriation bills were passed so there will be a shutdown. It will inconvenience a lot of people. Emergency services will continue.
But I think Christi is right that the one that really scares the administration is this playing fire – playing chicken with the debt ceiling. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the Treasury runs out of cash. If the Treasury runs out of cash, it can’t pay all its bills. That’s a really bad thing to happen.
MS. IFILL: That was part of the point that the president was making in Kansas City. But I also wonder whether the flipside of this, which is the argument that the health care law is flawed and should be stopped at all costs, whether there’s anything to this. Is there anything that’s happened this week which would actually stop the health care law from being implemented?
MR. WESSEL: No, I don’t. And that’s why I disagree with Jeff a little bit. I think this is mostly politics. Do the Republicans really think that having passed this measure in the House today will do anything to change the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare”? I don’t think so.
MR. ZELENY: And this is what they say to that. They say, look, the president has already delayed by a year some of the business requirements for health care. Perhaps if they attach – and they’re going to attach – next week, the House has another road next to – (inaudible) – debt ceiling and they’re going to attach a provision to delay the entire implementation for a year. I don’t think that will happen, but, you know, things aren’t exactly going swimmingly, so he did buy himself sometime on the business aspect.
So I’m not willing to make a ton of predictions on this, but that’s what they hope. They think they can sort of chink away at the armor of this and hope they can delay it for a year.
MS. PARSONS: Well, I could see that, but I also think that the Obama folks feel like they are looking at a hard deadline now because nothing matters more to them than implementing and in protecting “Obamacare.” And they need time for it to work its way into American society so that people, you know, rely on it and won’t give it up very easily. That’s their – that’s their long-term plan I think. And giving it even another year puts that in peril.
MS. BALL: Well, going to David’s argument, though, I mean, I think there’s a couple just sort of logical problems with some of the arguments that the Republicans are making that this can actually happen.
MR. WESSEL: Logic?
MS. BALL: I hate to bring logic into a political discussion, but, you now, first of all, even if they shut down the government, they will not have stopped “Obamacare.” The “Obamacare” spending is mandatory spending. It will be spent, and these – and the exchanges that are supposed to open on October 1st will open even if the government has been shut down.
Second of all, you have Cruz now talking about a filibuster, first telling Republicans pass this bill, bring it to the Senate, and then saying he won’t let the Senate vote on it. That’s not a way to pass a bill.
MS. IFILL: That’s true. But let’s go back to the House for a moment. Where has John Boehner been in all of this? First, he seemed like he was very reluctant and then he kind of threw his hands up.
MR. ZELENY: He’s been on both sides of it. I mean, in an interview – in interviews right after the election last year, he said, look, you know, “Obamacare” is the law of the land.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. ZELENY: The president was reelected. Maybe we’ll make some changes to it. But even as recently as a couple of weeks ago, I mean, 10 days ago, he and other leaders were trying to put forward a plan to not combine these two. But he is following the herd here. He’s not leading the group. He’s following the group. That’s very evident, very obvious.
The real question for him is this: when the Senate likely strips the defunding “Obamacare” part, when it goes back to the House, as the ping pong match that it is, what will he do? Will he allow a vote to come on this, using Democratic votes, violating the so-called Hastert rule named after the former speaker by not having a majority of the majority? He could be in hot water then, but, you know, as of now, he’s been on both sides but he’s following along. Really, what else is he supposed to do?
MS. IFILL: Is the White House secretly happy about all of this?
MS. PARSONS: I think the White House might be secretly happy about all of this. I think that they’re content to sit back and watch this, one of the White House spokespeople called it a civil war going on in the Republican Party. And while they’re, you know, maybe willing to wade into a civil war in Syria if they can remove chemicals, they’ve said, there’s no way we’re getting involved in that civil war.
MR. WESSEL: I think that’s true of the shutdown.
MS. IFILL: I was going to say.
MR. WESSEL: I think they’ll pick the shutdown.
MS. IFILL: But the debt ceiling fight –
MR. WESSEL: The debt ceiling is really serious.
MS. IFILL: – that seems the one they’re really fighting about.
MR. WESSEL: Right. And because we know, the last time this came up, in August 2011, it appears to have really hurt the economy. The markets reacted. There was this big drop in confidence. And they blamed that for slowing down the economy in the summer of 2011.
So there’s two bad outcomes here. One is they take it down to the wire, it hurts the economy. The other is that we go past that red line, dare I say red line.
MS. IFILL: Well, and Ben Bernanke, who last we checked is still the Fed Reserve, Federal Reserve chair, actually talked about that this week, talked about what his worries were. Let’s listen.
BEN BERNANKE [Federal Reserve Chairman]: (From tape.) However, the tightening of financial conditions observed in recent months, if sustained, could slow the pace of improvement in the economy and the labor market. In addition, federal fiscal policy continues to be an important restraint on growth and a source of downside risk.
MS. IFILL: That’s what caught my ear. He seemed like he was talking about the fiscal policy we’ve been talking about here. This could slow the economy.
MR. WESSEL: Absolutely. Absolutely. He doesn’t like the tax and spending policy that they have to begin with because he thinks the economy is not strong enough to take the spending cuts so quickly. He’s worried about long-term deficits, not short term. That would be bad enough. And then on top of that they have to figure out, are you guys going to blow up the whole thing? And will there be – will we be asked again to pick up the pieces of the dysfunction in Congress?
MS. IFILL: So this – but this represents, on one hand, a status quo, just keeping the status quo, keeping things the way they are. On the other hand, just keeping the status quo seems to be a course change for what we have seen before from especially the Republicans in the House and the Senate, who have said they want to spending, they want to make big changes.
MS. BALL: Well, the problem is that you can’t make policy when you are lurching from crisis to crisis. You know, the making of policy could happen if they were actually passing budgets, but they’re passing these short-term continuing resolutions, some of them only for a couple of months at a time. And so, you know, the controversy we haven’t even discussed is where do those spending levels get set? Do they get set at the sequester levels that the government is functioning at now, which Democrats have previously said were not acceptable?
MS. IFILL: Those across-the-board cuts that everybody said were so terrible.
MS. BALL: The across-the-board cuts that everybody hated. They were stupid and machete-like or whatever. So Democrats – and you do have some Democrats saying we don’t like these spending levels. We’d like them to be higher. But nobody is talking about budget policy on a grander level of actually funding priorities in a way that serves some grander vision. There’s no time for it.
MR. ZELENY: You’re absolutely right. And at the end of the day, you know, there’s one thing I’m struck by are the things that we’re not talking about. I mean, the fall was always going to be a bit of a time for immigration debate, we thought.
MS. IFILL: What happened to that? What happened to that? Is it off the –
MR. ZELENY: I asked a – I asked a top Republican, a leader – I was having a conversation after the vote – and this leader said, no, it’s not off the table. It’s going to be easier to do it this year than next year, maybe one small bill. But it’s essentially for all intents and purposes the big plan is off the table.
But, also, every time something like the shooting happened – I mean, the beginning of the week, for the week started with this horrible tragedy here in Washington at the Naval Yard. Suddenly, I heard a lot of Republican senators saying, this is why the sequester mattered. Now, who knew if you can draw a link to, you know, funding of things or background checks or whatnot.
MS. IFILL: General Dempsey says not, but –
MR. ZELENY: He says not, but Senator Lindsey Graham looked a couple of reporters square in the eye, and said, if this sequester level continues, the country is vulnerable to more attacks internally and externally. And that’s kind of a sobering thought.
MS. IFILL: That’s a sobering thing, but the interesting thing to me about the fallout from the shooting at the Navy Yard policy-wise is that we did not hear what we always hear in Washington and in Congress, which is, let’s talk about controlling guns. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that that was supposed to be a priority of this administration. We heard that Vice President Biden was tasked with getting this through. There was the great emotion of Gabby Giffords’ shooting, and not a peep this week from the White House.
MS. PARSONS: Right. It certainly wouldn’t have. After the Newtown shooting, the president, the Democrats, the supporters of the gun control measures pushed as hard as they could. They ran it out and they decided this just can’t be done.
MS. IFILL: What was the difference this time?
MS. PARSONS: You know, I think that they – well, partly, I think Americans are a little inured to the violence now. Even the president himself, on the morning of the shooting, it was still – the facts were still coming out. And the president was already going to the microphone and speaking briefly about it, but then turning to the subject that he had already –
MS. IFILL: A political speech.
MS. PARSONS: A political speech. And then there’s also the pressure of the things that need to get done. Immigration is just being crowded off the table. Gun control doesn’t have oxygen or time. There are these pressing matters. And the president and Congress are turning toward that.
MR. WESSEL: I think that the backdrop of the Syria thing is important here too. That was – the president was weakened by that. It looked like we might actually have a crisis of democracy. Was he going to go and bomb after the House turned down this stuff? So I think that has also led people to shy away from doing anything substantive. If you’re not going to do anything substantive, let’s at least score some points, and that’s what they’re doing.
MS. IFILL: Where is American public opinion on all of this, whether Congress – well, first of all, they’re not crazy about Congress, but, OK. But whether they should act, whether they hate the health care plan, whether it should be taken down at all costs, whether Congress is better off when it acts or when it doesn’t act?
MS. BALL: Well, everybody hates Congress. And I don’t know if there’s a way for Congress to come back from that.
MS. IFILL: We don’t hate Congress here. It keeps us –
MS. BALL: We are very friendly people.
MR. ZELENY: No. It’s employment. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: We’re definitely open-minded here, but skeptical. But, you know, people do not like the health care law. It’s actually gotten more and more unpopular. But, at the same time, people do not broadly support the idea of defunding it certainly. They don’t even really support repealing it in most surveys that I have seen.
I think there’s a weariness with it. People feel like we had the fight. The fight’s over. They don’t like the law. There’s some trepidation about what it’s going to look like when it actually – most of it actually takes effect. But they would like Congress to work together and to fix it instead of continuing to have this fight.
MR. ZELENY: Definitely not worth shutting the government down over it. I mean, every survey says, really, sort of across the board, like, you know, Republicans and Democrats alike, most of them, the majority say, you know, this is not worth shutting the government down.
MS. IFILL: But isn’t there an argument afoot now among Republicans that it wouldn’t be as bad as everybody says?
MR. ZELENY: Well, that’s actually interesting. And a couple of people have raised that point to me this week. Maybe a government shutdown wouldn’t be necessarily blamed on Republicans this time. The whole media landscape has changed since 1995, the rise of Fox News, social media. It’s much easier for people to communicate one-on-one with people.
I asked Senator Cruz that. And he said, I have 1.5 million signatures, e-mail addresses that he’s been gathering all summer through these commercials of his, you know, stop “Obamacare” funding. He said, all those people are with him. But, I mean, of course the base is with him. I mean, the vast majority is not.
But we don’t know that one party would bear all of the blame here. I still think it would be bad for the Republican Party, but it would be different, I think.
MS. BALL: Well, Ted Cruz has actually made the argument that even the 1995 shutdown was not a calamity for Republicans, that we’re sort of all remembering it wrong. Now, Ted Cruz was 25 at the time. I wasn’t in Washington either.
So I went back and I talked to some Republicans who were actually here then, and I said, so are we all remembering wrong? Did this actually not really reverberate that badly on you? And, literally, the quote was, “Oh, God, no.” It was terrible. And anyone who lived through it remembers that.
MR. WESSEL: I mean, you got people like Karl Rove out there saying that.
MS. BALL: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: Well, let me ask – before we run out of time, I want to talk about the story that actually – that you broke last weekend, that Larry Summers is no longer the leader or not even in the race anymore for Fed chair. And I don’t know why anybody wants this job when you see what they’re walking into. But where does it stand tonight?
MR. WESSEL: Well, you’re right. Larry Summers apparently concluded with some help from the White House that he couldn’t get confirmed by the Senate. It seems very likely that sometime in the next couple of weeks, the president will appoint Janet Yellen, the current vice chair. She’s being vetted there, trying to talk her through Congress. She’ll probably get the liberal Democratic vote. Maybe she’ll lose a few Republican votes. It will be seen as continuity with the Bernanke regime since she’s been one of the architects of it.
MS. IFILL: Inside the White House, what went wrong with the likely Summers nomination? And how have they used Janet Yellen?
MS. PARSONS: You know, that’s a great question because they just went through this with Susan Rice back in the winter, when the president made it – you know, it was pretty clear that she was not only the candidate for secretary of state and her name just sort of hung out there and –
MS. IFILL: You would think from that they would have learned to move a little more quickly looking for a candidate.
MS. PARSONS: Maybe move a little more quickly. Or once the president has said his name, which he did a couple of times over the past few months, get out there and sort of help him sell it. And they didn’t do that. I think they – and I think they realized that. But there was such as strong wave of support for Janet Yellen that I think – and there were a lot of people in the White House who wanted to see her as the nominee.
MR. ZELENY: There were Senate Democrats. I mean, let’s be clear about this. Senate Democrats are the ones who blocked Larry Summers. I mean, a week ago, when Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, came out and said he’s against this. So I would think that some at the White House could have made a call on – at least told him to like, you know, keep a lid on it for a little while. But it was Democrats who blocked him. So that’s interesting about this dynamic. The White House is having problems with Democrats.
MS. IFILL: When did the Federal – maybe this is just a stand-in for something else, but when did who becomes head of the Fed become a political issue? Is it about whether the president’s strong or weak?
MS. BALL: I think this is the moment when we really saw Obama become a lame duck, when his lack of influence in Congress, even with his own party was really laid bare, because it was. It was an uprising of liberal Democrats who were sort of feeling their oats, who don’t feel like the White House – like they owe the White House anything and who are willing to stand up and say, we’re not going to let this happen, and to turn it into a political football when the White House, obviously, would have preferred to not let that happen.
MR. WESSEL: I think that part of it had to do with the Fed’s role in the crisis. They are seen as being the architects of the bank bailout. But I think some of it was the president’s fault. He opened the door to this speculation on Charlie Rose prematurely. And Larry Summers became a symbol of the deregulation of the ’90s, of the problems that women have had in the Obama administration, of the elite Harvard thing. I mean, he has a caricature of almost everything. And they couldn’t – as you said, I think it was incompetent political management on their part.
MR. PARSONS: And I think that the president underestimated how strongly people would react to him because he had such a strong level of trust, you know, Larry Summers, to the rest of the world.
MS. IFILL: You mean, he had a strong level of trust in Summers.
MR. PARSONS: In Larry Summers. I mean, Democrats objected to the deregulation that Larry Summers was a part of in the ’90s, and then, you know, what Obama remembers is the history that began with him, which was – he was in that circle of advisers who helped to steer, you know, the recovery that he’s very proud of. And I think he underestimated Democrats on this one.
MS. IFILL: All of this – and it should be said that Ben Bernanke has never said that he’s leaving. He was asked again this week.
MR. WESSEL: It’s true. But he hasn’t said he’s staying either.
MS. IFILL: Which is really what you’re watching for. OK. Well, this has been a fascinating week. We’re going to have a lot of shoes dropping next week. And we’ll be all watching it. Thank you all very much.
We have to leave it there for now, but the conversation is going to continue online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where we’ll cram in everything else that we missed here around the table. Fire up your computers. That streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
You can keep up with daily developments all week and now all weekend too on the PBS “NewsHour” with Hari Sreenivasan. And we’ll see you right here, again, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.