transcript

Feb
28
2014

GWEN IFILL:  The ground is shifting in Ukraine, on gay rights, in Congress and in society.  We explore it all tonight on “Washington Week.”

(Plays clips.)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY:  We believe that everybody now needs to step back and avoid any kind of provocations.

(End of clips.)

MS. IFILL:  By everybody, the American secretary of state means Russia.  As tensions escalate in Ukraine, the standoff is looking more Cold War than Arab Spring. 

Back at home, other shifting sands, as Arizona debates whether one group’s rights can violate another’s.

In Washington, congressional brain drain as one long-serving member after another opts out.

(Plays clip.)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN DINGELL (D-MI):  Like many of you, I have found great disappointment in this Congress.

(End of clip.)

MS. IFILL:  And at the White House, the president reaches out to the private sector to address public ills.

(Plays clip.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  I could see myself in these young men, and the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving.

(End of clip.)

MS. IFILL:  Launching a new effort to help young men and boys of color.

Covering the week, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, Pete Williams of NBC News, Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post and Michael Scherer of Time magazine. 

ANNOUNCER:  Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill.

Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL:  Good evening.  We start tonight with an update on Ukraine, where an East-West divide is growing, an uncertain government has formed and Obama administration officials now suggest Russia has troops on the ground.  The president today issued his sternest warning yet.

(Plays clip.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world.  And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.

(End of clip.)

MS. IFILL:  But even before the president spoke, the U.S. was already stepping up its criticism.

(Plays clip.)

SEC. KERRY:  There are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and not to send the wrong messages.

(End of clip.)

MS. IFILL:  I spoke to Indira Lakshmanan about that earlier today from the Bloomberg News Washington bureau.

(Plays clip.)

MS. IFILL:  Indira, welcome.  When John Kerry talks about “beware of messages,” sending messages, what’s he mean?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:  Well, I think there are two messages here.  One is directed very squarely at Russia, and that’s trying to put on the record for everyone in the whole world to hear that the United States does not want Russia doing a military intervention here.  Let’s keep in mind this has echoes of the 2008 crisis with the intervention by Russia in Georgia.  The same kind of language preceded that, with Russia talking about how it was in – its national interests were at stake.  So the U.S. doesn’t want to see that happen.  Neither does the EU.

MS. IFILL:  When we first started talking about this, this was about a conflict with – involving the European Union and Russia.  Increasingly, it seems to be a conflict involving the U.S. and Russia.  Is that a correct reading?

MS. LAKSHMANAN:  Well, I think that a lot of people have jumped on this as an example of what they’re calling a new Cold War, and so it all depends on the lens through which you’re looking.  And we’ve seen some editorial pages in Washington talk about that, a new Cold War.  The Obama administration is very keen to get away from that notion as much as possible.  Why?  Because Obama knows that he needs Putin and Russia’s support on other key international issues like Iran, like Syria, like North Korea.  So they don’t want to burn all bridges.  At the same time, they are, you know, trying to figure out ways to cooperate, and that means that an IMF bailout package would hopefully be paired with Russian loan assistance as well.  And the U.S. has offered its own $1 billion in loan guarantees.  And so that this point, as John Kerry said a few days ago, this isn’t “Rocky IV.”  You know, he’s trying to make the point that this is not a new Cold War.

MS. IFILL:  Are there dollar signs?  There usually seems to be money involved in these kinds of conversation, these kinds of negotiations.  Are there dollar signs attached to this conflict?

MS. LAKSHMANAN:  Very much so.  I mean, the Ukrainian economy is in crisis.  Investors are pulling out.  The government has said that it needs $35 billion in bailouts to keep its economy afloat; then, later, they said that’s for two years; they need at least $15 billion for the first year from the IMF.  The IMF is sending a team there to do some fact-finding, figure out what’s possible.  But let’s not forget:  The IMF has been burned twice already.  Since 2008, the two previous governments, Tymenshenko and Yanukovich both did not keep up their end of the austerity bargain, and the current acting prime minister, who has promised that he will do austerity, has also admitted that it could be a very politically kamikaze move.  He could be signing his own political death sentence if he does stick with austerity.

MS. IFILL:  Who carries the weight in these arguments?  Russia?  The U.S.?  EU?  Or – and are we expecting another shoe to drop soon?

MS. LAKSHMANAN:  (Chuckles.)  Well, that’s the $15 billion question, right?  I mean, we’re talking about a country that sits in a very key strategic place, right on the border of Russia on one side, on the border of NATO on the other side.  And the whole thing that precipitated this, remember, was the decision by the government to pull out of what was supposed to be an association agreement with the European Union last year that would have allowed them to eventually seek membership of the EU, and he decided to back out Yanukovych and ally himself more with Russia.  So there are a lot of people who feel that it’s right there, you know, at the seam of Europe and it’s very key which way it goes.

Now, don’t forget.  Through Ukraine are key critical gas pipelines through which half of the gas that Russia exports to Europe goes through those pipelines in the Ukraine.  So there are money issues, geopolitical issues.  It’s all wrapped up in this one place.

MS. IFILL:  It’s all fascinating, and we’re going to keep watching it because I get the feeling there’s a lot more left to unfold.  Indira Lakshmanan, thanks for joining us tonight.

MS. LAKSHMANAN:  Thank you.

(End of clip.)

MS. IFILL:  So back in the US-of-A, shoes do keep dropping, but when it comes to expanding rights for gays and lesbians.  Just this week, there was a big veto in Arizona, a gay marriage ruling in Texas and new guidance from the U.S. attorney general.  In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer killed a measure that would have allowed businesses to use religious belief as a defense against discrimination lawsuits.

(Plays clip.)

GOVERNOR JAN BREWER (R-AZ):  I sincerely believe that Senate Bill 1062 has a potential to create more problems than it purports to solve (and ?) could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine, and no one would ever want.

(End of clip.)

MS. IFILL:  But even though this was a gay rights debate, the roots of the law really had nothing to do with that, Pete.

PETE WILLIAMS:  No, not really.  I think you could fairly say this starts two decades ago in Oregon, with two men who worked at a drug rehab center who were fired for smoking peyote at a Native American church service.  Now, they said it was part of a tribal religious ritual, so they said the laws against smoking peyote shouldn’t apply to them.  But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.  It said there was no religious exception to laws that generally apply to everybody.  And that infuriated Congress, which responded by passing something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which barred the government from, in the phrase of the law, substantially burdening somebody’s exercise of religion. 

Now, Arizona’s one of many states that have passed laws like this intended to keep the government from interfering with an individual’s religious practices.  So what was different about this Arizona law is that would have expanded the law to apply not just to individuals but to businesses that get sued by someone in a private lawsuit, someone that they refuse to serve.  And what got the sponsors of the bill concerned was a decision last year in neighboring New Mexico, when the Supreme Court there ruled against Albuquerque photographers who refuse to photograph the commitment ceremony of two women, and this issue of whether a business can have religious beliefs, can assert them in court, is exactly at the heart of this challenge to the “Obamacare” law that the Supreme Court will hear next month.

ED O’KEEFE:  Gwen rattled off sort of this week’s different developments, but I’ve lost track.  I’m sure a lot of people have at this point because you’ve got fights in state houses and in courthouses.  What else is going on in other states?

MR. WILLIAMS:  Well, we had some pretty significant court rulings this week.  A Texas judge became the latest to strike down a ban on same-sex marriage, saying that it’s – there’s no good reason to keep it.  We have a –

MS. IFILL:  How many states are we talking about now that have done that? 

MR. WILLIAMS:  Well, let’s see.  In terms of court action, I guess it’s six or seven.  We have 17 states now that – in which same-sex marriage is allowed.  We had a trial that started this week in Michigan over its ban, and this – just this week, a Kentucky judge made his ruling final, saying while Kentucky doesn’t have to allow same-sex marriages to be performed, it has to recognize marriages performed in other states.

MICHAEL SCHERER: So how is Attorney General Eric Holder getting involved in these discussion?

MR. WILLIAMS:  Well, we gave a very interesting speech this week before the National Association of Attorneys General, and what he said is that he doesn’t – he thinks that any law that makes distinctions based solely on sexual orientation should be viewed with suspicion, and he praised the attorneys general in other states who have declined to defend their states ban on same-sex marriage.  Now, he didn’t tell the attorneys general, you should do that too, but that was sort of the message.

MS. IFILL:  But isn’t it weird to have the nation’s chief law enforcement officer basically advising a lot of other law enforcement officers, don’t worry about that; just let it go?

MR. WILLIAMS:  Well, many of them thought so – (chuckles) – Republican attorneys general were somewhat critical of the speech afterwards.  But he – this was what he did when the administration had to decide whether to defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act.  And if you look back in history, there are lots of examples where both U.S. and state attorneys general have declined to defend laws that they think are unconstitutional.

MR. SCHERER:  Does he have a lot of sway with these state attorney generals?

MR. WILLIAMS:  Well, you know, it – to some extent, his remarks were acknowledging something that’s already happened.  In Nevada, in Pennsylvania, in Virginia, state attorneys general have declined to defend their laws even before the attorney general’s remark.  So to some extent, they’re already kind of on a roll.

MS. IFILL:  Feels like a lot of these laws are barreling straight to the Supreme Court.

MR. WILLIAMS:  Well, we’ll see.  I mean, generally speaking, the – you know, so far, most of these laws are striking the bans down.  I – the main reason the Supreme Court would take a case is if there’s a split among the court – the circuits, and we’ll have to see if that develops.

MS. IFILL:  OK.  Thanks, Pete.

John Dingell spent six decades in Congress.  His father, who preceded him, spent another two.  But as long-serving lawmakers head for the exits, more are willing to say Congress is just no fun anymore.

(Plays clip.)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN DINGELL (D-MI):  The president should not have to tell that august body that if it cannot do its tasks, he will do it by executive order.  That is not the way the country is run.

(Clip ends.)

MS. IFILL:  All told, the retirements of Dingell and others so far add up to about 300 years of congressional experience.  So this is a big shift or not, Ed?

MR. O’KEEFE:  It is.  And it continues a trend that’s really been going on now for the past few years where the older generations of lawmakers, who are totally unaccustomed to the 24/7 rancorous nature of politics these days, are saying, forget it, get out of here.

MS. IFILL:  Yeah, the old bulls used to go in the backroom and figure it all out, right?

MR. O’KEEFE:  And now that’s verboten for the most part.  I think the fact that you saw really the dean – and he rides around on a motorized scooter with a little license plate that says “THE DEAN” on it – (laughter) – you know, basically said this week that it’s obnoxious up there.  To have him say it certainly confirms it.

Consider the fact he came to office in 1955, 12 days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Birmingham bus, and he was in office 12 years before this show started.  That’s how long he’s been in Washington.  (Laughter.)  And he made a really interesting comment to Bloomberg News in an interview that’s airing this weekend where he said the president he most admired was Lyndon Johnson, and he considers Newt Gingrich a very close friend.  Most of his colleagues would turn their – you know, would find that very odd and, frankly, read about those guys in textbooks and never served with them.

MR. WILLIAMS:  But it says something about the era of bipartisanship that I guess he grew up in.  But what’s the tally now?  How many people with that kind of experience are heading for the exits?

MR. O’KEEFE:  Well, he’s one of 32 members of the House and Senate so far who’ve said, I’m retiring, not running for higher office but leaving entirely.  That’s a combined 660 years of experience between the House lawmakers and the Senate, closer to 700 if you add the House experience that some of those senators had.

MR. WILLIAMS:  And you’re saying most of those are people who are not worried about getting re-elected; they’re not leaving because they’re afraid they’ll – (inaudible) –

MR. O’KEEFE:  No, in fact, many of them come from safe seats.  And those numbers are on par with 2012.  There were about, what was it, 35 that year.  So we’re just three short of 2012, when really, that wave was the signal that a lot of these older people are leaving.  You’re losing people this year, though, the brain drain, a lot of Democratic committee chairmen in the Senate, for example, Carl Levin of Armed Services, Jay Rockefeller, Max Baucus, who’s now on his way to Beijing, and Tom Harkin, Tim Johnson.  So them clearing out creates a very interesting dichotomy where you have people who’ve been serving in the Senate for about 12 to 14 years now being seen as senior.  I had a senator remind me today, there are 45 senators currently serving in their first term.  And that is unprecedented.

MS. IFILL:  Wow.

MR. SCHERER:  This just seems to me like another win for the cynics.  You’ve already got an institution that has got, what 12 percent approval nationwide.

MR. O’KEEFE:  Depends on who you’re asking.

MR. SCHERER:  Right.  When does it turn around?  When can the optimists claim a victory here and say that Congress is going to become a better institution, will get more done, will function better?

MR. O’KEEFE:  Yeah, I – there is genuine frustration, I think especially in the Senate, about the fact that they’re sitting around doing nothing.  We’re going to see some modest attempts at that in the next few weeks in the Senate at least.  They’re going to try to move some small-ball things related to manufacturing and child care, maybe some proposals on sentencing reform, nothing that makes the top five on the to-do list, but modest attempts to get things moving.

MS. IFILL:  But if you believe in term limits or you believe in fresh blood and you believe in bringing in – breaking out of the strictures of Washington, isn’t this a good thing?

MR. O’KEEFE:  Yes.  In fact, if you talk to most of those Democrats who are serving in their early years in the Senate, they’ll say, look, the filibuster, for example, totally doesn’t make any sense when you think about it.  If a majority of the country wants it done and a minority of the Senate can hold it up, you know, that’s just a principle that should be done away with, and it was in the case of nominations.  They’re still pushing to change it when it comes to legislation, but the old bulls are saying, wait a second; that totally violates hundreds of years of congressional history.

MS. IFILL:  What would John Dingell, after all of those years in Washington, say were his chief accomplishments?

MR. O’KEEFE:  Certainly his work on clean – what is it, the Clean Water Act, working for Medicare – the health care reform, though, obviously the biggest achievement.  His father had fought for that.  He served through all those Democratic presidents who tried, and in the years when Congress was controlled by Democrats, to see it done – I think he would consider that probably his biggest one.

MS. IFILL:  And now his wife, Debbie Dingell, is running for his seat, so maybe it will stay in the Dingell family.

MR. O’KEEFE:  If she serves nine terms, that seat will have been held by a Dingell for 100 years.  (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL:  Wow.  By blood or marriage.  (Laughter.)

The East Room of the White House yesterday was full of titans of industry, philanthropist, boldface names and a handful of young men who are the face of the president’s latest initiative.  It’s called My Brother’s Keeper, and it’s his boldest effort yet to reach outside the confines of partisanship and government budget battles to address what he considers to be important.

(Plays clip.)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  While there may not be much of an appetite in Congress for sweeping new programs or major new initiatives right now, we all know we can’t wait.  And so the good news is folks in the private sector who know how important boosting the achievement young men of color is to this country – they are ready to step up.

(Clip ends.)

MS. IFILL:  Is this approach, reaching outside of Congress, reaching outside of the problems in Washington to stop things from happening – is this part of his new approach to life, Michael?

MR. SCHERER:  It is.  He knows he’s now in his fifth year.  He – or sixth year.  He knows that this town is not working, for reasons we’ve just discussed.  And he’s decided late last year, with his aides, that he’s going to move forward on an agenda where he doesn’t need Congress and where he doesn’t need new money.  And this is a clear example of this.  They talk about the pen and the phone is the way they’re going to reach out to the country.  The president continues to have an enormous convening ability, and he has a big soapbox.  And you saw that here.  He was elevating an issue.

The most important thing he said, I think, in that – in that address was this issue of young men of color not having the same opportunity that other young people have is as important a national issue as any issue I deal with.  And that’s a – it’s a big deal to have a president of the United States say that.  And even if the money that he’s talking about, which is about $200 million over the next few years, will be funded by industry and philanthropies and may have been spent anyway – I mean, these are philanthropies that were already in the business of spending this money to help this community – the fact that he’s elevating it and that he, as the first black president, can speak directly to these families and to these young men about his experience means that I think he will be able to push this some and will have a little bit of a legacy.

MR. WILLIAMS:  And what’s going to be done with the money?  It’s for what?

MR. SCHERER:  There are a number of things that he identified at this event.  He’s going to – and these are all things, actually, that have already been happening in the philanthropic world.  There’s a big effort to get minority families to speak more with their children.  There’s real research now that shows toddlers, young toddlers in minority families just don’t hear as many words, 3 million fewer words than young white children, and that means they’re at a huge disadvantage when they get to elementary school.  There’s another issue of literacy.  This community is not reading as well going into fourth grade as young white people are reading, and there’s going to be a push there.

There’s an issue that the president has been working on with the Department of Education to deal with school discipline.  There was a zero tolerance school discipline effort that came much through the ’90s and has continued in recent years, and research now shows that disproportionally affects this community.  And the Department of Education has been encouraging schools to revisit those policies.  And then there’s a criminal justice reform element.  There’s also an issue of this community being channeled from suspensions in schools into the criminal justice system.  If you’re a white suburban kid and you get caught with a little bit of pot in your backpack at your school or at your private school, it’s not clear that the cops are going to be called, but if you’re –

MS. IFILL:  Which the president has a little experience with, it turns out.

MR. SCHERER:  Right, yeah.  He did say – (inaudible) – the first president to say, I got high – (inaudible) – (laughter) –

MS. IFILL:  I don’t think I’ve ever heard that from a president’s lips.

MR. O’KEEFE:  You know, a lot of people thought when he was elected that this would be something he talked a lot more about.  Some, I think, surmised that he wasn’t going to talk about it until he got re-elected because of the – you know, the history-making nature of this.  What took so long?  And is there a sense that this is going to be what he talks about when he leaves office?

MR. SCHERER:  I think that last point is probably right.  This will definitely be one of the issues he takes with him when he leaves office.  In 2007 he gave a speech, and he said, if you elect me, I will bring a new dawn of justice to America, and he said he would be courageous and take on these issues that other people hadn’t taken on.  And then we got the economic collapse of 2009, we got the health care fight, we got the deficit battles, and there really wasn’t much bandwidth. 

And then he had a very difficult reelection.  If you remember just a month before the reelection, he gave an interview with Black Enterprise Magazine, in which he said, I’m not the president of black America.  He didn’t want that idea out there that he was favoring one particular group. 

And then I did an interview with him shortly after his reelection, and before that interview I found out that when he had come down with his senior aides just weeks after being reelected, he had a yellow notepad of what he wanted his priorities to be.  And even though this wasn’t an issue that he had ever really talked about during the reelection campaign, he put criminal justice reform on there, and he started pushing this.  And –

MS. IFILL:  We’ve got to go.

MR. SCHERER:  OK.

MS. IFILL:  (Laughs.)  But – no but there’s more, and you can read more in Michael’s story in Time magazine – it’s fascinating – about it, no more colorblind solutions.

Thank you, everybody.  We have to leave just a few minutes early to give you the chance to support your local PBS station, which in turn supports us.  But our conversation will continue online on the “Washington Week” webcast extra.  It streams live at 8:30 Eastern time and all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.  That’s where you also find my take on why 1967 was such a big year for “Washington Week.”  We’re accepting birthday wishes.  Keep up with daily developments on the “PBS NewsHour,” and we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.”  Good night.