transcript

Oct
18
2013

GWEN IFILL:  Government at its most dysfunctional.  Whose way?  Which highway?  We examine the fallout from the latest showdown, tonight on “Washington Week.”

SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK):  (From tape.)  There’s a deal.  And that deal should give America hope.  But it doesn’t get us out of the mess that we’re in.  

SENATOR HEIDI HEITKAMP (D-ND):  (From tape.)  We have taken what little confidence the American public had in this institution and our institution in the United States Congress and once again shook it.

MS. IFILL:  The government reopens.  

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:  (From tape.)  Welcome back, everybody.

MS. IFILL:  The debt ceiling is raised.  Some Republicans and some Democrats are actually talking to one another.  

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY (D-WA):  (From tape.)  We’re going to find the two common – the common ground between our two budgets that we both can vote on.  And that’s our goal.

MS. IFILL:  But has the latest crisis left Washington permanently broken?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  (From tape.)  Let’s be clear.  There are no winners here.  

SENATOR MIKE LEE (R-UT):  (From tape.)  The media keeps asking, was it worth it?  My answer is that it’s always worth it to do the right thing.

MS. IFILL:  We look at the deal that averted global calamity and why it could all break down again with Chuck Babington of the Associated Press, Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, 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.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER:  Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL:  Good evening.  It’s tempting to look at how October has unfolded in the nation’s capital and think only of the personalities.

SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [Senate Majority Leader]:  (From tape.)  When after weeks spent facing off across a partisan divide that often seemed too wide to cross, our country came to the brink of a disaster.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]:  (From tape.)  This is far less than many of us had hoped for, frankly, but it’s far better than what some had sought.  Now it’s time for Republicans to unite behind other crucial goals.  

SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX):  (From tape.)  The answers are not going to come from Washington.  Washington is broken.  But the answers are going to come from the American people.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  (From tape.)  That’s not a surprise that the American people are completely fed up with Washington.  At a moment when our economic recovery demands more jobs, more momentum, we’ve got yet another self-inflicted crisis that set our economy back.  And for what?

MS. IFILL:  For what indeed.  That is among the questions we’ll be tackling tonight, but first, a question so many Americans are asking:  How did it come to this?  Dan?  Yeah.  I thought you’d know the answer to that one.

DAN BALZ:  Well, I mean, it’s been building for a long time, as we know.  And I think there are three elements that came together in this particular moment.  

One is the growing polarization – we’ve talked about this repeatedly around this table – the sorting out of the two parties, one farther apart from the other than we’ve seen in a long time.  And we see that definitely in the House of Representatives.  

The second is a vast difference now in how people view certain issues, how the two parties view the certain issues.  There is very little common ground on some of these big issues.  It’s either we’re all for it or we’re all against it.  

And the third, frankly, is the rise of the tea party and the arrival of a faction of new members in the House of Representatives who were determined not simply to slow down the direction of a country that they think was going in the wrong direction, but to reverse it, and to use extraordinary methods which they used in this case, to try to stop it, and then it led to the shutdown.

MS. IFILL:  Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY:  I think Dan’s right.  And the thing I was struck by over and over and over these last, I think it was 16 days, but this has actually been going for a month.  I mean, this debate really started mid-September.  

And I would always ask, as I was walking through the halls of Congress, ask these tea party Republicans, you know, is this worth it?  Are you making your case?  And I was struck by one thing I kept hearing.  You know, on health care, it seemed like this had been (litigate ?).  This started out as a fight over “Obamacare,” and, you know, the 2012 elections seemed to sort of litigate that, but to a person, these tea party Republicans who were elected in the wave of 2010 said, no, no, no.  The 2012 election was not about health care.  The only election that’s been about health care was 2010, and that was a strong referendum against it.  

So I looked some of these members of Congress in the eye, Raul Labrador or Idaho, specifically, he said, this is a referendum on health care.  We’re sent here to do this.  And they really thought it was worth it.  Even at the end of all this, they were still saying it was worth it.  That’s what I was really sort of struck by because the establishment – and Mitch McConnell just said it wasn’t worth it, and there’s huge disconnects still.

MS. IFILL:  Yeah.  There’s disconnects within the Republican Party.  There’s disconnects across party.  Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, was talking about what she sees as cynicism on the other side.  Let’s listen.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA) [House Minority Leader]:
  (From tape.)  Cynicism is about the fact that government was closed for 16 days, that the full faith and credit of the United States of America was in doubt, and why?  Because the anti-government ideologues in the Republican Caucus was the tail wagging the dog.

MS. IFILL:  So, Chuck, was an underbelly revealed here or was this truly a deep split, an underbelly of just stubbornness, I guess?

CHARLES BABINGTON:  When Nancy Pelosi talked about anti-government Republicans – and, in truth, a lot of especially House Republicans are elected in Republican primaries, which are all that matter really in their districts, by people who are very anti-government.

MS. IFILL:  So they would agree with her.

MR. BABINGTON:  I think they would.  And the thing that, you know, Jeff was talking about, the big disconnect, I’m always struck – I talked to a lot of House Republicans as well.  And we’ve been seeing all these polls lately, oh, the Republican Party is taking a pounding; the Republican Party is getting really clobbered.  You talk to a lot of these members and they don’t relate to those polls at all because they’re focused on their district, which is, for all the reasons Dan talked about – the sorting out and the gerrymandering – are very, very red.  And these national polls don’t really –

MS. IFILL:  But I tell you who’s reading the polls: at the White House, Democrats at the White House.

JACKIE CALMES:  Oh, yeah.  And yet, you know, it’s hard to see, despite the president’s increased leverage coming out of this, that really he has a way forward.  The same dynamic is out there.  As Jeff alluded to, the really hard-line conservatives in the House and Senate, the lesson they’re taking from this is that they just weren’t conservative enough, and they weren’t united enough to push their way, which doesn’t suggest that they’re chastened at all.  

And, you know, it’s just – I think the – it’s interesting because we talk a lot about redistricting.  Dan started out referring to the polarization.  And that explains the House, that you have these very well-constructed districts where everyone’s packed in with likeminded voters, and, in this case, very conservative ones.  But it doesn’t explain the Senate.  And we’re seeing that change in the Senate.  I mean, who are we talking about?  Senator Cruz.  You had Mike Lee.  And both of them beat establishment Republicans to get to the Senate.  So it’s a combination of redistricting and big money and activism on the far right.

MS. IFILL:  But explain to me and explain to a lot of people who watch this casually how it is that the mainstream Republicans, to a man and woman said, this is craziness; we shouldn’t be doing this, and yet, they weren’t able to stop it.  Where were Mitch McConnell and John Boehner in all of this?  Just being rolled?

MR. BALZ:  Yeah, to some extent.  I mean, there is a clear absence of leadership.  And, in part, it is because, as we all know, the speaker was at risk, presumably, of his speakership or certainly felt and acted as though he were if he didn’t do these things.  I mean, I think a lot of people thought at the beginning he would try a couple of things to satisfy the hardliners in his conference, and then sort of say, well, we fought a good fight but we don’t want to go all the way to a shutdown.  And, in fact, he let it go well beyond that and wouldn’t give in.  And then, you know, it then became a kind of a test of wills between the two sides and some personal animosity that I think existed.  

But the power of the outside forces that now dominate a lot of politics, in this case Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, the Conservative Fund, these are groups which hold considerable sway in these districts and even in – you know, they can in Senate primaries, and it has intimidated, I think, a lot of Republicans.

MS. IFILL:  Let’s listen to – John Boehner only gave one interview to a Cincinnati radio station after this vote went down the other night.  And let’s listen to what he said.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]:  (From tape.)  We’ve been locked in a fight over here trying to – trying to bring government down to size, trying to do our best to stop “Obamacare.”  And we fought the good fight.  We just didn’t win.  

MS. IFILL:  He did not sound in that interview like a guy who was swept along like other forces.  He sounded like he was leading the charge.

MR. ZELENY:  Following the charge, I think.  And it was clear – and how do we know that?  Because we saw him at several points along the way where, A, he said the government would not shut down; B, he signaled that this was not his strategy.  He was trying to bring them along.  You know, but at the same time, he does emerge from this whole process with the support of all or certainly most of members of the Republican conference.

MS. IFILL:  They support him but they won’t follow anywhere he leads.

MR. ZELENY:  Well, they won’t, but – and that’s some of the disconnect here.  But I think that he is still – I mean, for all the – you know, John Boehner definitely did not win the week.  If he’s the biggest loser in the week, I don’t quite think so, but, you know, even people at the White House –

MS. CALMES:  Who is?

MR. ZELENY:  – I talked to today and throughout the week said, you know, John Boehner is not the perfect speaker, obviously, but he may be the best speaker for this time.  This is not a Speaker Boehner problem in and of itself.  I think if he would have tried to stop things earlier, he would have gotten rolled, and then what would have happened?  There would have been a huge like leadership vacuum and change, explosion perhaps.  And that might have made things worse.  

So I think that, you know, he is – he’s dealing with the hand that he’s dealt here.  I don’t want to be too sympathetic to him, but he is – you know, he’s dealing with the group that’s in front of him.

MS. IFILL:  Well, and part of the group he is dealing with were led there by someone from the other chamber, Ted Cruz, a freshman Texas senator, who – he signaled this week that he’s not going anywhere.  Let’s listen.

SEN. CRUZ:  (From tape.)  And this fight, this debate will continue until collectively the American people can make D.C. listen, can get real relief for all of the people who were hurt because of “Obamacare.”

MS. IFILL:  Is he the best thing that ever happened to the White House, especially when it comes to “Obamacare”?

MS. CALMES:  Well, at least in the memory – he is just amazing.  You know, when he talks about the people, the people, in the face of all these polls that have been done in the past month, and it just makes you wonder which people is he talking about.  Well, I think we sort of know, if we want to be a little bit cynical, is that he’s built his mailing list and his donor list down the far right and, you know, there’s – most thinking is this is not a man who’s going to run for reelection for the Senate.  He’s going to run for president, for the Republican nomination.  

MS. IFILL:  But he’s just a face of it.  There were more than – more Republicans voted to keep the government closed than open the other day.

MR. BABINGTON:  Right.  It’s not just Ted Cruz, Gwen, but a lot of these House members.  When they go home and rail against “Obamacare,” they get thunderous applause; they get campaign contributions.  It is not a bad political issue for them.  

And a big question is – a lot of the critics say, well, they don’t know how to legislate.  Well, the question is: are they really trying to legislate or are they trying to make a point?  And you can be cynical and say they’re trying to raise money and move ahead in their campaign.  

But you can also say that there’s – you know, you had Mike Lee in the lead-in say, it’s the right thing to do to stand – and probably all of us at one point or another said, I’m proud that I stood up for a principle, but when you apply that to a legislative context, it becomes very problematic.

MS. IFILL:  Dan, this provides, as you wrote today, perhaps a pivot point, perhaps a cover for a health care plan that didn’t roll out very smoothly, but certainly an opportunity for the White House.

MR. BALZ:  It is an opportunity for the White House, but it’s a tricky opportunity for the White House.  I mean, what I wrote and said was, yesterday was like a third inauguration day for President Obama.  It’s very unusual for a president to sort of be able to reboot in the middle of a term.  And yet, this moment was so cataclysmic in a sense that it creates an opportunity.  I think the question is, is there anything that – there may be nothing that the president could do.  It may be that there’s enough opposition on the right in the Republican Party that they will be able to frustrate almost any effort at compromise.  

I think the question is: can the president be successful in a strategy in which he splits off enough of the establishment Republicans from the tea party?  And will he do things in terms of negotiations and ideas that he’s prepared to put forward that make it easier or harder for them to come to him rather than stick with the tea party?

MS. IFILL:  And the three things he’s talking about are the budget negotiations, immigration reform, and the farm bill.  Are these winnable battles?

MR. ZELENY:  I mean, I think on immigration reform, it’s really hard to say – I mean, he is not likely to give Republicans too much because what is the biggest thing in 2014?  Boy, Democrats sure want to keep control of that Senate.  If they do – or if they don’t, the rest of his second term changes just tremendously.  So, I think Dan’s right.  I mean, he does have another opportunity here but it’s a tricky opportunity.  

More interestingly I think is what are those Republicans doing?  Is there a group of Republicans in the House who think, boy, this was a bad – a bad way to conduct business.  The Peter King Caucus, let’s call them, he’s been out there since the very beginning, Republican congressman of New York, and saying, we cannot be led down the Ted Cruz valley of death.  He kept saying that.

MS. IFILL:  I hope he has someone who tests his speech for him.

MR. ZELENY:  But he hasn’t had many people behind him though.  We’ll see if that group grows, because people are afraid of primary challenges.  The primary filing deadlines for House members are not until next year.  Boy, people are afraid of that.

MS. CALMES:  But there are not enough moderates in the House for that dynamic to take hold.

MS. IFILL:  Whatever moderate even means.  

MR. ZELENY:  But don’t call them that because no one will agree to being a moderate.

MS. CALMES:  Yeah.  And, you know, you talk about whether this could be a reset for the president.  We saw a very similar situation in the mid-’90s.  It was indeed a reset for President Bill Clinton, who was going into 1994, when the Republicans took over Congress, and then immediately after, he was in a much worse shape than even President Obama is.  

But there was a difference, that once he, you know, went face to face – or head to head with the Republicans over a shutdown and won, he was facing a Republican Party in which about one third or more of the House Republicans were from districts in which – that he had won.  There are very few.  Somebody here might know.

(Cross talk.)

MS. CALMES:  I knew it was under 20.

MR. BALZ:  Seven percent.

MS. IFILL:  Yeah.  

MS. CALMES:  Seven percent.  And that just tells you there are no – and Charlie said, when they go back to their districts, it’s not – you know, there’s no centrists there telling them they ought to be compromising with Bill Clinton – with Barack Obama.

MS. IFILL:  Let’s listen to his reasoning though.  The president did come out and talked yesterday at the state dining room about what he thinks lies ahead.  And let’s listen to a little bit of that.  

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  (From tape.)  I recognize there are folks on the other side who think that my policies are misguided.  That’s putting it mildly.  That’s OK.  That’s democracy.  That’s how it works.  

We shouldn’t fail to act on areas that we do agree or could agree just because we don’t think it’s good politics, just because the extremes in our party don’t like the word “compromise.”

MS. IFILL:  The president has a talent for coming out kind of swinging but not sounding like he’s swinging until you think about it later.  And it sounds like he could have been much more – he could have been much more conciliatory if he wanted to be, but he’s decided not to be.

MR. BABINGTON:  Yeah.  I think that’s true, Gwen.  And I think the president and his team kind of got fed up.  And we saw them stay much tougher on this debt ceiling situation than did two years ago.  They felt like they learned their lesson two years ago.  They tried to negotiate.  The Republicans would not move along.  And that’s when he said, never again on this.  Now, we’ve gotten past this.  I think it’s probably unlikely that the Republicans will look for an exact repeat of this in January of February.  

You mentioned immigration, a huge issue – it’s going to be very, very tough.  John Boehner finally got this bill across the finish lines the same way he did the fiscal cliff bill and that is with the minority of his Republicans.  It would be very tough for him to do that on something else.  You know, he doesn’t like to do that.  I can’t see him doing that on immigration.  And there’s just still so many Republicans who don’t – back home, immigration is very unpopular among their primary voters.

MS. IFILL:  So is the White House and are Democrats – Harry Reid is an interesting figure in all of this.  Is there a plan to dare these guys to walk off the cliff again and then hope that they get the spoils of victory?

MS. CALMES:  I think we’re going to have to see what this new budget conference, how the Senate budget conference comes up with first.  I think there’s going to be this lull, sort of has – reminds me of the Super Committee of October and November of 2011, and that came to nothing.  But, you know, if that can – they’ve lowered their sights.  There’s no more talk of a grand bargain.  If they can just, you know, come together on a limited package that will end, for instance, sequestration, these automatic, across-the-board cuts.  

So I think to know what’s next, we have to know what this committee comes out with.  And they have to report something by December 15th, in time for – or December 13th in time for final action by Congress on January 15th so that the government does not shut down again.

MS. IFILL:  Which everybody has sworn is not going to happen.  

MS. CALMES:  Well, not everybody.

MR. ZELENY:  I think that’s really interesting.  When you ask those people, was this worth it, there were some very different answers.  

MS. CALMES:  Right.

MR. ZELENY:  Senator Ted Cruz says, yes, it was worth it.  He would do it again.  Not Mitch McConnell.  He says there will be no shutdown.  He said, there’s no education like the second kick of a mule.  (Laughter.)  

MS. IFILL:  And he thinks this is the third one.  

MR. ZELENY:  And the first was in – yeah.  This is the third one.  So he says never again.

MS. CALMES:
  Can I say something about Mitch McConnell too?  We’ve gone this whole year – this is mid-October – and we were saying that Mitch McConnell was sidelined because he’s up for reelection.  He’s worried about a tea party vote.  Well, he got a tea party vote.  The tea party has endorsed his rival.  And he’s in some ways liberated.  You can tell by his actions this week, he’s looking to the general election and sort of welcoming the opportunity to look like he’s somebody who’s bipartisan and gets things done.

MS. IFILL:  But it’s important to remember that the red line in this case never was to shut down.  In the end, it was about the threat of the debt ceiling.  That is what pushed everybody back.  So that also has been kicked – I hate to use this term.  I’m not going to use it.  It’s been delayed.  How can I say that – you know, the canned phrase.

MS. CALMES:  That canned phrase.

MS. IFILL:  So how about that?  What about the potential for that?

MR. BALZ:  Well, I think Jackie is right.  We’ll get a sense in these budget negotiations.  I think that’s the real test of what the effect of these last weeks has been.  I mean, when you think about what we have been through for the last month to six weeks, all it has been about is process.  I mean, I know that the idea was to defund “Obamacare,” but that was a losing strategy from the start.  Everything has been aimed at simply let’s get the government reopened and the debt ceiling issue pushed this so we can then get to substance.  And we keep putting off the substance.

MS. IFILL:  But is that part of the reason why – every poll shows this to be despair and exasperation on the part of the American people, that it’s unclear that this is about anything but process.

MR. BABINGTON:  It is about different things.  And I think that’s part of confusion here is, you know, defunding “Obamacare” was a hopeless cause, if you really and truly in your heart thought, oh, I’m going to get him to defund “Obamacare.” And so a lot of what was going on was sort of a different thing, fire up your base, perhaps, you know, set up a chance to run for president.  And that’s what’s frustrating but also I think confusing the American people because we’re really talking about two different things.

MS. IFILL:  Ideology versus process.

MR. BABINGTON:  Right.  Crusaders versus legislators.

MR. ZELENY:  It has shown though that the energy in the Republican Party still exists on one side, which we knew, but, I mean, going into a midterm election year, it is a frightening proposition to any Republican who is afraid of a primary challenge.  

MS. IFILL:  Fasten your seatbelts.  Thank you, everybody.  

Before we go tonight, we have some more business to take care of because we wanted to take a few minutes to acknowledge the passing of former House Speaker Tom Foley.  He served in Washington for 30 years, the last five of them as speaker of the House, until he was defeated in the Republican House sweep of 1994.  Many of us at the table covered Tom Foley during that time.  What kind of leader was he, Jackie?

MS. CALMES: 
He was a – you know, he wasn’t the best speaker, but he was a great member.  And he was truly well respected, as you’re seeing in the tributes to him tonight.  He was what we call a man of the House, a true institutionalist, who put the House above party, really.  

When he was speaker, he would meet weekly with the Republican Leader Bob Michel, and they would alternate offices, one week in the speaker’s office, one week in the Republican leader’s office.  And they had – you know, they had huge fights but they also got along.  They didn’t surprise each other.  

He was a man of his times.  He was a liberal.  He was elected on the landslide of 1964 and he was kicked out on the Republican landslide of 1994.  He brought to the job this Great Society liberalism on domestic programs, but sort of centrist to conservative Democrat on the foreign policy defense things, like his mentor, Scoop Jackson.  

And if I could just say one thing that puts it in the present, he was the Agriculture Committee chairman at one point.  And he with Bob Dole, bipartisan, devised the farm bill, which was a combination of farm subsidies for the rural people and nutrition programs and food stamps for the cities and the poor.  And we’re seeing that today come apart.

MS. IFILL:  Can anybody imagine that sort of figure being able to flourish in the current environment?

MR. BALZ:  Very, very difficult today.

MS. IFILL:  Really?

MR. BALZ:  I mean, we’re just in a – you know, the way things used to work don’t work today because of the structural changes in the politics that we have.  And the personal animosity that we see from one side to the other, which, again, we saw in this fight – I mean, it just kept spilling out.  And so people can make deals when their backs are against the wall or, as Mitch McConnell said, when you’re under the two-yard line and you’ve got to try to punt, which was the way he felt he was on those final negotiations.  

MS. IFILL: 
Wasn’t Tom Foley in some way a victim of that very thing, of the –

MR. BALZ:  Yes, he was.  He was a victim of the Gingrich revolution in 1994.  But a fascinating figure.  I met him when I first came to Washington.  I was covering agriculture for National Journal.  And I went up to interview him.  And, you know, he gave me a lot of time and taught me a lot.  I mean, he was very patient.  I knew very little about it.  And he was always that way throughout his career.

MS. IFILL:  OK.  Well, thank you all very much for that, memory of Tom Foley.  You can hear more about him in his own words in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” which streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.  

Also online, next Thursday at noon, “Washington Week” regular Peter Baker of the New York Times joins me for my monthly chat to talk about his excellent new book, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.”  

In the meantime, keep up with daily developments now seven days a week on the PBS “NewsHour.”  And we’ll see you right here again, next week, on “Washington Week.”  Good night.