GWEN IFILL: What’s working in Washington and what’s not, and why? From debt debates to health care disputes, this week has been a case study. We explain why, tonight on “Washington Week.”

All is in the eye of the beholder, whether it’s about the health care law –

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I think 10 years from now, five years from now, we’re going to look back and say this was a monumental achievement.

REPRESENTATIVE LYNN JENKINS (R-KS): (From tape.) Just when we thought the rollout of this law couldn’t get any worse, the White House decided to delay the employer mandate again. This must what a year of action looks like.

MS. IFILL: – whether it’s about increasing the debt limit –

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) Our members are not crazy about voting to increase the debt ceiling.

SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [Senator Majority Leader]: (From tape.) A few reasonable House Republicans were willing to join Democrats to avert a catastrophic default on our nation’s obligations.

MS. IFILL: – whether it’s about raising the minimum wage.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Today I’m issuing an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From tape.) To argue that raising the minimum wage is going to create upward mobility is, quite frankly, silly. I mean, $10.10 an hour is not the American dream.

MS. IFILL: The debates that could define policy and politics for the next big elections. Joining me to assess Washington’s house of cards: Molly Ball of the Atlantic, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, and Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post.

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. On this Valentine’s Day, why is there no love for Washington? Could it be because everything seems so partisan? This was Vice President Biden speaking to House Democrats at their retreat today in Maryland.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: (From tape.) I wish there was a Republican Party. I wish there was one person you can sit across the table from, make a deal, make a compromise, and know when you got up from that table it was done. All you had to do was look at the response of the state of union. What? There were three or four? Now, I’m not being facetious. And so I think we should just get a little focused here.

MS. IFILL: And here’s Republican Senator John Cornyn earlier this week talking about how the health care law – well, he wasn’t really talking about the health care law.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): (From tape.) It’s the president’s responsibility to enforce the laws that Congress makes and that he signs into law. But this president and this administration enforce the laws they choose to enforce and ignores the laws they want to ignore for political expedience. This is the very definition of lawlessness and something that the American people do not tolerate and will not tolerate, nor should they be required to tolerate.

MS. IFILL: Lawlessness, intractability, general unhappiness on both sides of the aisle; in short, not a lot of love. But sometimes when you dig a little deeper, you can discover that, yes, a lot is not working in Washington, but some things are. The question is, how and why? The answers are almost always rooted in politics.

Let’s start with this week’s debt ceiling debate. In the end, the Senate joined the House in agreeing to raise it until next year but the path to that agreement was a tortured one, starting in the House, Molly.

MOLLY BALL: Yes, well, what originally happened – if you’ll recall, the last time we raised the debt ceiling was in the aftermath of the government shutdown so that was when Congress sort of hit bottom and the House in particular sort of vowed not to go through that again. And we’ve seen in the ensuing months John Boehner sort of try to take back control of his majority in the House.

So this time around, even in the weeks preceding this debt limit deadline, you had some of the most conservative Republicans sounding a sort of fatalistic note, saying, well, I’m not going to vote for it, but I know this is going to happen. This is something that has to be done. Well, I’m sure John Boehner would like to send that memo to the House Republicans of 2011, who were in no way resigned to this having to take place. Various gambits were floated. Republicans sort of felt like they ought to get something out of it, but they couldn’t decide on what. But they weren’t going to push this to the brink.

And so, in the end, with a snowstorm looming, 28 Republicans joined almost all of the Democrats in the House to pass a clean raise of the debt ceiling and that’s effective for an entire year. So this can’t happen again until next March.

MS. IFILL: And there was another snow storm looming when the Senate decided to act. Maybe it’s acts of God that require – that force action in Washington. But the Senate was even more complicated because it seems to me that it was more about fights within the Republican Caucus once again.

KAREN TUMULTY: OK. So in the House – and it’s reached the point where like averting catastrophe is considered a huge success in Washington these days. That’s how low the bar is.

But, in the House, it was a situation where the Republicans were all voting against something, but counting on it to happen. Ted Cruz – once again, Ted Cruz – decides that he is going to try to prevent this debt ceiling increase from even coming to the floor, therefore, he forces a lot of his Republican colleagues, some of whom have primary challenges – hello, Mitch McConnell; hello, John Cornyn – to vote in favor of increase – of letting this proceed to the floor, which is –

MS. IFILL: Which normally would be – 50 votes would be all that you needed.

MS. TUMULTY: So, as a result, you know, this blocks the filibuster and then it can pass on 50 votes. But, nonetheless, we now have a bunch of Republicans who potentially have difficult primary races on the record as allowing a debt ceiling increase to go through. So Ted Cruz is not the most popular person in the Republican Caucus this week.

MS. IFILL: It doesn’t seem like a terribly collegial thing to have done. Meanwhile, the president goes to visit the Democratic House retreat today. And among other things, he praises the Democrats for their courage, unity and discipline. Is he doing kind of a victory lap after a week like this?

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: He’s trying to be the cheerleader for a very nervous Democratic conference in the House. And he’s trying to stick – at least in the discussion he had with them in public today – to what their agenda is, what he thinks he can lead them on, which is this idea of opportunity and responsibility, minimum wage and raising unemployment insurance, extending it if they possibly can – education, all of those things.

He very, you know, narrowly tried to negotiate around things that divide Democrats so he didn’t bring up trade. He did not bring up the idea of any environmental disagreements that they have, and they do have some. He didn’t bring up any of the national security intelligence differences that they have. He didn’t talk about international policy. You know, he very much tried to stick to the things that he argued bring them together.

MS. IFILL: To their credit, the administration has been saying, ever since the government shutdown of last year, this debt ceiling debate was a dead letter. It was never going to happen. If the Republicans wanted to make this a fight, they were going to lose it. And it can be safely said the White House was right.

MS. TUMULTY: I think it was a good – you know, it was a good, for instance, for the Democratic Caucus in the House, where, you know, they – it was their votes that really put this over.

But, interestingly, when the president came to congratulate him on this victory, what he almost didn’t mention in that speech was the fact that this is an election year and that House Democrats have a really tough go ahead, and where in the past the president has been at these events as sort of a cheerleader, this time all he could say is, you know, basically, good luck, guys.

MS. IFILL: Let’s listen to what both Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid had to say at least after the House vote this week and then talk about it on the other side.

REP. BOEHNER: (From tape.) This is a lost opportunity for America. We’ve got – we’re on a spending trajectory that’s unsustainable. The president knows it. Every Democrat and every Republican in this town knows it. And it has to be dealt with. And so it’s a disappointing moment, I can tell you that.

SEN. REID: (From tape.) I commend Speaker Boehner for doing the right thing. He voted for this and he got enough Republican votes to get it done. I’ve said often that he has a difficult job – if not the most difficult, certainly one of the most difficult jobs in Washington. Unfortunately, Republicans on this side of the Capitol are forcing us, obviously, to jump through procedural hoops to alleviate the threat of a debt.

MS. IFILL: So the procedural hoops, Molly, this was not an unexpected – or was it an unexpected thing?

MS. BALL: The drama on the senate floor that Karen was talking about before was relatively unexpected. This was not something that Ted Cruz had to do. And I think if Ted Cruz hadn’t done it, there wasn’t anyone else who was prepared to do it. And it didn’t have any consequences for the Senate Democrats. They’re not the ones who were hurt by this.

I think that’s why so many Republicans are angry at Ted Cruz about it is it forced Republicans, some of them vulnerable Republicans, to take a tough vote. The Democrats were all going to vote for this anyway and it would have been easier for Republicans to criticize them for it if the Republicans hadn’t had to join them in the vote.

You also had a sort of miniature revolt of some of the Republican moderates in the Senate, people like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who are the ones who are always the sort of fallback votes for the Democrats when they’ve got to get above 55. And they sort of said, look, we’re sick of doing this for you; we’re sick of always being the ones that they go to. You, Mitch McConnell, you’re the leader. You, John Cornyn, you’re also in the Republican leadership. Why don’t you suck it up for a change?

MS. TUMULTY: But could we go back to the argument that Speaker Boehner made that this was about controlling spending?

MS. IFILL: Right.

MS. TUMULTY: Lifting the debt ceiling is not about controlling spending. It is whether you are going to pay the bills that you have already run up. The conversation that Washington is not having is the one about controlling spending, and especially about the real driver of the national debt, which is entitlements.

MS. IFILL: But he says that for a reason. There is a political reason why both John Boehner and Speaker Reid – I’m sure he’s thinking, God forbid – and Senator Reid made the point they made after these votes, which is they are trying to send a message to someone outside of Washington, to a larger audience.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Yeah. And one of the things that I think was really interesting at the White House, from their perspective was, yippee, yippee, yippee because anything that gets Republicans briefly off of the Obamacare assault and gets them talking about the divisions within their own conference is a good hour or a good day or potentially a good week at the White House and among Democrats.

So listening to Majority Leader Reid, he’s basically turning the knife in and saying, oh, what a tough job you have because you’re so divided. And, of course, he knows that whether it’s on trade or some of the other issues I just talked about, his conference is too.

MS. BALL: And, in the big picture, I think one of the biggest reasons the Republicans did get this done when they’ve had problems uniting in the past is because they do want to put it behind them. They don’t want to get distracted. They don’t want to let the Democrats sort of dangle shiny objects in front of the tea party and have these divisions be the story again. When the story is “Obamacare,” Republicans are winning, and they know that.

MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about “Obamacare.” There’s some developments – interesting developments on that this week. We had two things actually: the administration decided to delay, again, a small business mandate, and they came out with new numbers – good news – that show that they’re pretty much on track to end in the ballpark of where they want to do new enrollees in the program. So yippee at the White House?

MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, that’s another great example of the two sides of what good and bad news in Washington can mean, as Karen and you were describing.

So in the Affordable Care Act, you could celebrate the idea that the trend is momentum towards good enrolments. The downside of it is, you know, that all kinds of the (undergirth ?) of this program still has lots of vulnerabilities. We don’t know how many people have paid for the premiums, how many people are really insured. They’re concerned about the number of young people. We’ve still only got a quarter of the people who are enrolling are in that young demographic they’re looking for. It’s skewing more towards women, which is good except women cost a little bit more.

We don’t necessarily know whether there are a sufficient number of these software programs that they’re trying to write so that they can account for the employers who are supposed to be reporting. All these things are all the back story of what could be going wrong with the Affordable Care Act.

MS. IFILL: What about the younger, healthier people that they were targeting, is there any sign that they are beginning to sign up in greater numbers?

MS. TUMULTY: A little. There’s a little improvement in that mix, but certainly not what they were hoping to see. The White House is arguing and they’re saying, for instance, the Massachusetts experience would suggest that young people are going to wait until the very last moment to sign up. At this point, all we know is they’ve got their fingers crossed.

MS. IFILL: I read today that there’s actually been some – they’ve actually documented some reduction in the number of uninsured from like 16 percent to – from 18 percent last year, that it’s beginning to go down, which you would assume that this is the goal of the – that is the goal here. Is this something that the White House is prepared to trumpet, because goodness knows people running for office in 2014 don’t seem to be?

MS. BALL: Yeah. I think what we’ve seen is, even as there have been some incremental improvements and as the Federal Exchange in particular has begun to function. Although a lot of state exchanges are still in trouble, I think we’ve mostly seen Democrats sort of drop this pretence that they were prepared to campaign in favor of “Obamacare” just as vigorously as Republicans were going to campaign against it. There’s a Democratic congressional candidate released an ad this week talking about how he’s fighting to fix “Obamacare;” not saying I’m so proud of “Obamacare” and I’m so excited about it.

MS. IFILL: Mary Landrieu is saying the same thing in Louisiana. Yeah.

MS. BALL: Exactly. And so Democrats need to show that they’re on the side of, and presumably they’ve got the polls to back this up, voters who feel betrayed by this turn of events and don’t feel like it has been a good thing. We really see Democrats scrambling to get on the other side of “Obamacare” and then scrambling to talk about absolutely anything else.

MS. IFILL: Anything else except every now and then, every week it seems, something else, a new weapon is handed to the Republicans or people who want to keep it alive. In this case, it was the administration’s decision to once again roll back the implementation of the mandate for small business – medium – small and medium-sized businesses.

MS. TUMULTY: Fifty to a 100 employees.

MS. IFILL: Fifty to 100 employees. Let’s listen to some of the debate about that.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The purpose of the law is not the punish them. It’s simply to make sure that they are either providing health insurance to their employees or that they’re helping to bear the costs of their employees getting health insurance.

SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): (From tape.) To me this, this speaks to the fact that millions of Americans were going to get letters realizing that they’ve lost their insurance before the election and the president wanted to do anything he could to prevent that second batch of cancellation letters from coming around and across the country.

MS. IFILL: The White House said, nothing to see here. Keep moving along. We’re just trying to make a good thing better. And the Republicans come back and say, this is another example of a disaster waiting to happen. Who’s right?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, imagine we had a President Romney and he had suddenly decided that this law was not going to apply to businesses for another year. I think the Democrats would have been just absolutely outraged. And this is an acknowledgment that they are having trouble getting this part of the law to work.

A number of people have said, well, then how come you’re implementing the individual mandate? And that – a number of Democrats are even saying, look, if these mandates are being delayed – people like Joe Manchin, candidates like Michelle Nunn in Georgia – if they’re being delayed, we ought to delay them for individuals as well.

MS. IFILL: But the White House can’t afford to acknowledge, to give even that much up because they know that “Obamacare” or a roiling entity is too big a bat to hand anybody.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And the truth lies somewhere in between because there is absolutely no question that by extending this past the midterm elections and trying to mitigate some of what could be expected to be either glitches in the software – we’re talking about developing a system, the government is still trying to develop a system – as Molly was just saying, some of the state exchanges are way behind and are still having problems.

Trying to get some of that – the employers part of it way past the election and also the unintended consequences, because, as you know, one of the brickbats Republicans use is these employers are deciding to push their employees into the exchanges or downsizing the size of their companies so that they go underneath, in the smaller employer category so that they are not compelled to have to provide insurance.

So the administration is trying to say, we’re giving employers choice. Part of the reason is that statistics say that employers who have more than 200 employees – almost all of them already offer insurance. So we’re talking about a smaller group of employers who still are not offering this.

MS. IFILL: You know, one of the interesting things about the way things work in Washington is a lot of – sometimes you have to look at what’s not happening or what’s happening at the edges as well as the big debates.

And there are a lot of things that were off the table this week. Among them, the president decided – and he said this in the state of the union speech, that he was going to start around Congress, find ways to use – people got caught up with the executive action part of this.

But there are two things that he and his administration acted on this week. One was to fulfill the promise that he made at the state of the union of raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour from, I think, $7.25. How many people are we talking about here? Is this just around the edges as far as we know?

MS. BALL: It’s a very small number of people. It doesn’t even apply to existing federal contractors. It’s only for newly hatched federal contracts in the future. I think more than anything, it’s a symbolic gesture. Democrats would very much like and are almost certainly not going to get an increase in the federal minimum wage through the Congress, but this is an issue that voters like. It looks – you know, the polling is very good for it. Even Republicans like the idea of raising the minimum wage in a lot of polls. And it’s something that they would like to campaign on, again, rather than campaigning on some of the most toxic issues.

MS. IFILL: But Republicans like the idea of raising the minimum wage, but they like the idea – that’s a very small part of what they want to do. They don’t think that that should be the foundation for this economic revival they’re talking about.

MS. TUMULTY: It’s interesting because the terms of art that are being – I mean, Democrats these days are talking about income inequality and Republicans are talking about mobility and your ability to move from one class to another. So I think both sides are trying to sort of frame the debate –

MS. IFILL: Actually, Democrats have started appropriating the opportunity and mobility language too. It seems like they’ve almost caved in on that argument.

Another thing that happened this week, which is interesting, is at the Department of Justice, they decided to grant felons their voting rights back. What’s interesting to me about this is that there’s not that big a fight between Democrats and Republicans. Listen to this.

ERIC HOLDER [Attorney General]: (From tape.) These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they’re also counterproductive. By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood – increase the likelihood that they will commit future crimes.

SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From tape.) I’m also in favor of giving people back the rights to vote in my state. My state’s one that never gives you the right to vote back. So I’ll be testifying next week in Frankfort before the state legislature and I will be testifying in favor of restoring voting rights for non-violent felons.

MS. IFILL: Everybody is together, right, except that I think that Rand Paul went from there to suing the government on NSA secrecy probably moments before or moments later. Is this a sign of – it seems to me that everyone is in search of a sweet spot where they can kind of agree?

MS. BALL: Well, I think it’s important to point out that this is an area where Rand Paul is a relatively iconoclastic Republican. Not all Republicans are aware he is on – particularly on civil liberties issues in general and then on specifically these issues of felon disenfranchisement in particular.

But it is true that, you know, if you think back to a time when crime was one of Republican signature issues and being tough on crime was something that almost every Republican ran on, you have an increasing number of Republicans who now say that we’re spending too much on prisons, that these sentences are too long. They’re actually – there is a sentencing reform bill that looks like it actually has a chance of passage on a bipartisan basis.

And so you have seen, now that this issue is not as hot and not as partisan, quite a bit of agreement being carved out with this – again, this sort of more libertarian leaning Republicans, people like Rand Paul, and the spending hawks with Democrats who would like to see the system be a little more merciful.

MS. IFILL: Is it necessary at this point in a second term to find a way to reach out for those things, those little tiny things perhaps that you can agree on in order just to get through the day anymore in Washington because you can fight yourself to a draw on everything else?

MS. SIMENDINGER: If you’ve called it the year of action, you’re going to be knitting, you know, small little stitches. So –

MS. IFILL: Is that what we’re doing? Is this a small-ball year?

MS. SIMENDINGER: That is not an uncommon thing to find in a second term. You know, we all remember Bill Clinton, and President Clinton in a different economy and, obviously, with a different set of opposition forces in the Republican Party found that voters responded well to this idea of you’re working every day for me.

MS. IFILL: Does that mean that there is room around the edges of big, contentious issues like immigration reform to find common ground?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, I do think that these are very, very concrete steps that people who are affected by them know they’re affected by them. For instance, earlier this week, we had Eric Holder announce that, you know, that the federal judicial system was going to recognize gay marriages and that, you know, for instance, a spouse would no longer have to testify in court against another one.

MS. IFILL: This takes not a single piece of legislation anywhere.

(Cross talk.)

MS. TUMULTY: But it’s also following public opinion about gay marriage. And I think that, again, these are concrete steps that they can take. And there are things that people can really understand.

MS. IFILL: Briefly, before we go, I just wonder how optimistic or pessimistic the three of you are about the ability to govern in this manner, bit by bit by bit, you know, step by horrible step along the way between now and the election, and even into 2016.

MS. BALL: Well, fortunately for this Congress, they’re pretty much done for the year. I think they’re pretty much preparing, beyond some sort of technical or administrative measures, to pretty much pack it up. I don’t think they’re planning on doing any more sweeping legislations here. They got the budget done so the government is funded. They lifted the debt ceiling so we can’t default. And so they can just go campaign from here on in.

MS. IFILL: Alexis?

MS. SIMENDINGER: I think it’s just so depressing to think that because we’re going to have election, this town, this community has to grind to a stop and we all have to wait on big problems.

MS. TUMULTY: I don’t know. I’m willing to go with averting catastrophes being progress.

MS. IFILL: Well, on that optimistic note – averting catastrophe is progress, I’m for that, too. Thank you everybody.

We have to go now, but, as always, the conversation is going to continue online. As you can tell, we have much else to talk about. The “Washington Week Webcast Extra” streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, where we’ll be talking about President Obama’s upcoming foreign policy pivot and also, do Democrats have a tea party? You can find it all week long at, where you’ll also find links to the rest of the stories our panelists are reporting.

Keep up with developments now seven days a week on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here next week, on “Washington Week.” Happy Valentine’s Day and good night.