GWEN IFILL: Shutdowns and showdowns over budget politics, diplomacy and threats of every kind, tonight on “Washington Week.”
BARRY BLACK [Senate Chaplain]: (From tape.) Deliver us from governing by crisis using judicious compromise for the mutual progress of all.
MS. IFILL: Praying for compromise with none in sight as tea party Republicans use a debate over the budget and the debt ceiling to try to derail the health care law.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From tape.) Madam President, I rise today in opposition to “Obamacare.”
MS. IFILL: Republican leaders are less than thrilled.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: (From tape.) I just don’t happen to think filibustering a bill that defunds “Obamacare” is the best route to defunding “Obamacare.”
MS. IFILL: And Democrats are pushing back.
SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI (D-MD): (From tape.) You can huff, you can puff for 21 hours but you cannot blow the Affordable Care Act away.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) No Congress before this one has ever, ever, in history, been irresponsible enough to threaten default.
MS. IFILL: While at the United Nations compromise does take center stage, on Syria.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From tape.) I was pleased to have a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
MS. IFILL: And on Iran.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I believe we’ve got a responsibility to pursue diplomacy, that we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.
MS. IFILL: We keep track of the moving parts for you tonight with Gloria Borger of CNN, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, Kimberly Dozier of the Associated Press, and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.
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. Washington was split in two this week with one eye on the unfolding drama on Capitol Hill over the Republican effort to derail the health care law and the other on the United Nations, where there was tangible movement on Iran and Syria.
We start on the Hill, where the Senate voted today to turn aside a Republican effort to strip funding for the health care law from the budget. The vote divided Republicans, threw the bill back to the fractious House, and set the stage for more health care fights to come.
One unanswered question: if the House does not agree with the Senate approach, will the government be forced to shut down when the fiscal year ends, Monday at midnight?
Ted Cruz, who tried to delay the vote by talking for 21 straight hours, said the Senate is not listening to the American people.
SEN. CRUZ: (From tape.) When we’re home on the campaign trail, we say we listen, and yet something about this Senate floor, something about Washington, D.C. – I don’t know if it’s the water, something in the air, the cherry blossoms, but people get here and they stop listening to the American people.
MS. IFILL: The president took it to the campaign trail.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Congress needs to pass a budget on time. Congress needs to put an end to governing from crisis to crisis. This is not about the fortunes of any one party. This is not about politics. This is about the future of our country.
MS. IFILL: So we know the arguments. What happens next, Karen?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, what happens now is I think all eyes are on John Boehner and whether he can come up between now and the beginning of the new fiscal year, midnight, October 1st, that’s Tuesday, with some kind of bill that could keep the government open.
Now, that’s going to mean appeasing his tea party members on his side of the Capitol and also coming up with something that is acceptable to the Senate. And, otherwise, we’re – you know, we’re into shutdown time.
And, ironically enough, the government would shut down but “Obamacare” would proceed on that very day and enrollment in the exchanges would begin whether or not the government shuts down.
MS. IFILL: You know, we – it’s interesting to me that this has been bounced back and forth, little ping pong ball between the House and the Senate that as we sit here at 8:00 p.m. on Friday night, they both left town. There’s no all-week long discussions and meetings that we know about trying to figure this out before Monday at midnight.
GLORIA BORGER: What’s stunning to me and I think all of us have covered these kind of on-the-brink sorts of things is that there really aren’t many behind-closed-door discussions at all between Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans are busy and they’re going to have a meeting at noon on Saturday trying to figure out how they can get their own caucus together.’
MS. IFILL: On the House side.
MS. BORGER: On the House side. But there is no sort of closed door negotiations, White House staffers, Hill staffers, how do we work out X, Y and Z – zero, nada, none of that because the president has said, we are not going to negotiate on this, period. We don’t negotiate, as he put it, with somebody who’s trying to burning your house down or whatever. I mean, they’re using really strong language over at the White House, hostage-taking, that kind of thing.
MS. IFILL: Bomb strapped to the chest.
MS. BORGER: Bomb strapped to the chest. They’re just not talking.
MS. IFILL: But is there a difference between the strategy that’s playing out here on the debt ceiling, which happens – which runs out October 17th, our ability to pay our bills, and the budget, which has to be funded by October 1st. Are there different strategies? The White House seems more upset about the former than the latter.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, because the – well, the consequences of the debt ceiling going into a default are much, much greater than the consequences of shutting down the government for a few days or even a few weeks.
What happens with the debt ceiling is – first of all, it’s important to remember the debt ceiling is not about controlling spending or controlling the deficit. It’s about whether you pay the bills you’ve already run up. And once you hit the debt ceiling, things like Social Security checks would cease to go out and our creditors around the world – there is a real chance of a global financial meltdown.
MS. IFILL: So we’re talking about two separate fights.
MS. BORGER: Well, right. But, ironically – here’s the interesting thing about public opinion on all of this: public opinion is – on the first fight, the one we’re facing right now is don’t shut the government down. We don’t want you to shut the government down.
But if you look at the polls on the debt ceiling, people believe it should actually be tied to some kind of budget compromise because the feeling naturally is, if you can’t pay your credit card, OK. You’ve got to figure out a way to tighten your belt, right? And even the president today, when he made comments about this, said, remember the good old days two years ago when we had that fight over the debt ceiling, at least then we were talking about reducing the deficit.
But he’s saying, now, this isn’t about reducing the deficit, although Republicans would argue with that because they think “Obamacare” will add to the deficit. They said, this isn’t about reducing the deficit. This is about an agenda that you’re trying to attach to the debt ceiling. And that’s wrong.
DOYLE MCMANUS: Let me ask you, Gloria, to go one step further into the polls, because one of the things that struck me in this entire debate is both sides keep saying, here’s what the American people want. The president says, the Democrats say, the American people want the government to stay open, and that’s what the polls show. Ted Cruz, tea party Republicans say, the American people want “Obamacare” delayed or defunded come what may. Now, they can’t both be right, or can they?
MS. BORGER: Yeah, they could. (Laughter.) They could, right? I mean, the polls show that it’s not very popular. People are confused by it. They don’t know what to expect. It’s something that was voted on years ago but is now coming to fruition, and they’re – like anybody, you don’t really pay attention to something until it’s sort of in front of you and you have to kind of look at it. So, in a way, they may both be right.
MS. TUMULTY: But the polls are very consistent. Even the Republicans’ own polls are very consistent that, yes, people do not like “Obamacare” by about a 10-point margin. What they like even less is the idea of shutting down the government to stop it.
MS. IFILL: So the question becomes how far are Republicans willing to go on this? Let’s listen to Ted Cruz a little bit because he was the ringleader this week, and, apparently tonight continues to be.
SEN. CRUZ: (From tape.) Every Republican has been outspoken and eloquent against “Obamacare.” And when the House stands up and does the right thing, I think it will present a terrific opportunity for any – every Senate Republican to stand arm in arm with the House Republicans.
MS. IFILL: He’s speaking – he’s sending a pretty strong signal there.
MS. TUMULTY: And what we found out today, something truly extraordinary, a report in the National Review was that even as John Boehner was in the House trying to figure out what to do next, Ted Cruz was in a meeting talking to House Republicans telling them to rebel against their own speaker, which was really – you know, Speaker Cruz.
MS. IFILL: Unheard of.
MS. TUMULTY: Really extraordinary.
MS. BORGER: That’s a no-no. That’s a big no-no trying to do that.
KIMBERLY DOZIER: So I’m wondering, if the government shuts down, midnight, Monday night into Tuesday, who will get the blame? Who will be the villain here from the public’s point of view?
MS. TUMULTY: Right now, the polls suggest the public is sort of evenly divided, but I think if you talk to anyone who lived through this the last time and – you know, we’re talking about less than one fifth of the House – of the House Republicans, they are pretty clear that they know which side has the bully pulpit and which side is going to get blamed.
MS. IFILL: In the meantime, the Democrats all are saying – professing sadness rather than anger, and they are saying, this is a terrible thing the Republicans are doing, whatever shall I do?
Let’s listen to Harry Reid today. We’re hearing a lot of words from the president, people like Harry Reid, and they’re using strong language.
SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [House Majority Leader]: (From tape.) The people want to work with us to improve “Obamacare.” We’ve done that before. We’re happy to work with them, but not in some slam-bang, force us to do it – (inaudible). We’re not going to be extorted.
MS. IFILL: We’re not going to be extorted. Harry Reid means to say the strong languages in the most mildest possible way. But what do you do about that? What do the Democrats do, just sit back and let it happen?
MS. BORGER: Well, first of all, they’re sitting back and letting it happen because the fight is on the Republican side for a change and they kind of like that. So they’re –
MS. IFILL: We saw the spectacle of Bob Corker, the senator from Tennessee taking on Ted Cruz on the floor.
MS. BORGER: Right. And they’re kind of stirring the pot, obviously, because they believe that they’re not the problem. They believe that the public doesn’t want to shut the government down. They believe they have a very good case to make, that they’re not shutting, you know, the government down.
So I think what Harry Reid is doing is saying, you know, don’t look at me; it’s not us; washing his hands of it. That’s exactly what we heard the president do when he spoke in Maryland the other day and today.
And I think, you know, this is a White House that believes right now that they’re on the better side of this argument. I would argue, in the long term though, in answer to your question about who does the public blame, at some point people expect the president to lead. They believe the energy for some kind of resolution, if you don’t find it, if you don’t find the adults in the Congress, they’re going to believe that the energy had to come from the White House.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, I want to ask, on that question about the debt ceiling because everybody understands, as Karen said, that the consequences of a debt ceiling breach could really be terrible, but as I understand it, in the House the Republican leaders have said, that’s the main event. Debt ceiling is the main event. We’re really going to dig in our heels on the main event. President Obama says he won’t negotiate. Doesn’t he have to negotiate?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, he says – one thing he says is –
MS. IFILL: Not today.
MS. TUMULTY: So one thing he says is sort of inaccurate, where he says – you know, he indicates that this – you know, negotiations over a debt ceiling have never happened before. I mean, we’ve all seen them happen. But I do think that the president negotiated over the debt ceiling in 2011 and ended up with sequestration and a lot of other things. And I think that that has soured him.
MS. IFILL: And unreturned phone calls from John Boehner as I recall.
MS. TUMULTY: Right.
MS. BORGER: We ended up in the fiscal cliff, remember, as a result.
MS. TUMULTY: Right.
MS. IFILL: Is crisis the new normal now in Washington?
MS. BORGER: Yeah. I mean, look, I think there’s no penalty for people not compromising. And, in fact, if you live in those 40 or 50 districts we’re talking about in the House, you’ll be penalized if you compromise.
MS. TUMULTY: But the problem is, though, all these crises never settle anything.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MS. TUMULTY: All they do is set you up for the next crisis.
MS. IFILL: And, in fact, we’re talking about short-term solutions that – that anything is on the table tonight.
MS. BORGER: And they may just kick this can down the road, by the way.
MS. IFILL: Exactly.
MS. BORGER: If I were a betting person –
MS. IFILL: Our favorite metaphor, it’s back.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MS. IFILL: Kicking the can down the road.
MS. BORGER: Absolutely.
MS. IFILL: Thanks everybody. A lot of moving pieces this week on the international stage as well – the players, the presidents of the U.S. and Iran and the U.S. secretary of state, and his counterparts from Iran and from Russia. The president spoke by telephone to Hassan Rouhani today, the president of Iran, and said afterward he sees an opening.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Now, we’re mindful of all the challenges ahead. The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and an Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.
MS. IFILL: This was quite the charm offensive this week, Doyle, and not just from the Iranians, also from the U.S.
MR. MCMANUS: Yeah. It was a charm offensive on both sides. But it really was an amazing charm offensive from the Iranian side, from Hassan Rouhani. We’re not used to an Iranian president, a Muslim cleric, treating us this way. He did more media in the past week than some presidential candidates within a month.
MS. IFILL: I met with him. You’ve met with him. So (we were ?) very popular.
MR. MCMANUS: Dinners. He did everything but fundraisers. Twitter feed. It was quite astonishing, almost overkill actually, maybe a little bit of overexposure, on the edge of it.
There was a little bit tentativeness at the beginning. Remember, on Tuesday there was the question of whether there would be a handshake between President Obama and President Rouhani. By the end of the week that kind of got fixed up. The phone call was arranged. The Iranians gave the signal, said, yeah. Let’s do a phone call. President Obama actually placed the call. Interesting question: what changed in the course of the week?
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. MCMANUS: And Rouhani said at a news conference on Friday – he gave an interesting answer. He said, you know, one of the things I’ve learned while I was here is that the attitude of the United States and these other outside powers that we, the Iranians have been so concerned about for years, it’s changed. It’s a new day because they’ve changed. Now, if you ask people in the Obama administration, have you changed, they’d say, no, we haven’t changed.
That was a big signal from Rouhani to his boss, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and to his peers in the Iranian government that, you know what? I think these people who we’ve been calling the great Satan, they’re people we can do business with; cut me some slack.
MS. IFILL: It seems to me that what really changed is the sanctions that have been in place all these years are really beginning to pinch a lot more.
MR. MCMANUS: And that is – that is absolutely the big change. If you look at the Iranian economy, it is a mess. The most recent set of sanctions – well, there are two things: the banking system – they don’t have access to the world banking system anymore; and their oil sales have been going down, and that is really killing them. They need to find a way out.
MS. TUMULTY: But which of these gestures do you think were just gestures? And what was significant in this?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, that’s, of course, the $64 billion question because on the substance of the nuclear question which we’re talking about, neither side moved very far. The Iranians said, we’re still going to insist we have the right to enrich uranium. The United States and other big powers said, no, you’re out of compliance. You have to stop enriching uranium now. What did they actually do that gives you a sense of optimism? I think the best thing they said, the Iranians said was, time is short. We want to get this done in a year or six months.
Now, why is that important? Because in the West, everybody has always worried, and Israel has worried that the Iranians are playing us for time, that they want to make the clock go slower so they can keep developing nuclear – if they’re willing to move fast, and if they deliver on that, then that’s a change.
MS. BORGER: Well, but how do you know? You know, the president today said it’s got to be verifiable. That’s sort of the key word here both with Iran and with Syria. And how do we verify and how do we trust, not to use Reagan’s phrase, but how do we do that? And if we can’t trust them, doesn’t this become a political problem for the president at some point?
MR. MCMANUS: Trust is exactly the right word. And you’re going to have to build trust over time. Over the long run, you verify by having lots and lots of inspectors and cameras and sensors and stuff. But in the short run, which is really the question we’re looking at, actually there’s going to be a meeting in Geneva in the middle of October in – what – three weeks. And the Iranians have said, we’re going to come forward with a concrete proposal then. So, actually, there’s going to be a pretty early test of whether there is any substance behind all the charm.
MS. DOZIER: But how about Israel? I mean, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke this week. It sounded like his watch was running a lot faster than the U.S.’s.
MR. MCMANUS: Yeah. His watch is still running at its Israeli pace. And, yeah, the Israelis, certainly the Netanyahu government, are pretty frantic about this whole thing because they see all of the different ways that the Iranians could be pulling the wool over our eyes.
And, of course, that is – that leads us to where a lot of the political problem will be in the United States. You know, I mentioned Rouhani’s got political problems at home in Teheran. You want to sell this to Congress. You want to sell this in Israel. A lot of the sanctions – if you ever want to bring sanctions off – were imposed by Congress. Congress gets a vote in taking them off. And, Congress, as we know, moves very quickly and efficiently. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Can I ask you really quickly? We talk about this big, historic phone call. What was said? Do we know?
MR. MCMANUS: What was said in the phone call?
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, not a whole lot. They only talked for 15 minutes. There was interpretation. They did touch – we’re told; we weren’t given any real substance or nitty-gritty, but they did basically say to each other, yeah, let’s do this. We have more confidence in each other. They both worked hard on the atmospherics. And how do we know that? Because at the end of the call, President Rouhani said in English, have a nice day. President Obama said in Persian, in Farsi (foreign phrase), which means God protect you.
MS. IFILL: Oh, my goodness. Well, that’s huge. And then he Tweeted it all, which is the most remarkable –
MS. BORGER: Well, that’s a whole other thing.
MS. IFILL: That’s a whole other thing. OK. Well, let’s move on because we’ve just heard a few minutes ago that the U.N. Security Council actually gave the administration another claim to partial foreign policy victory this week, voting unanimously on a resolution to start checking on Syria’s chemical weapons. So the United Nations finally took these steps to rein in Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Realistically, it’s doubtful that we would have arrived at this point had it not been for a credible threat of U.S. action in the aftermath of the horrific tragedy that took place on August 21st, where chemical weapons killed over 1,000 people, including more than 400 children.
MS. IFILL: Less than a month ago, we seemed to be on the verge of military action – war. What happened, Kim?
MS. DOZIER: Well, Secretary John Kerry, the secretary of state, John Kerry misspoke or –
MS. IFILL: Whatever it was he did.
MS. DOZIER: Whatever it was he did, answered a question at a press conference when he was asked what would head off a U.S. strike against Syria, what can Syria do, he said, well, they could declare all their chemical weapons and disarm, but they’re not going to do that. Within hours, Russian officials responded saying, we think we can make that happen. And a few hours later, Syria said yes.
Fast-forward, the U.N. this week, there was a lot of politicking behind closed doors. And Russia and the U.S. came to an agreement. It doesn’t have the teeth in it that the U.S. wanted.
Now, this imposes sanctions – sorry. This requires Syria to disarm its chemical weapons to allow inspectors unfettered access, but it doesn’t have either sanctions or military action as a punitive response if Syria –
MS. IFILL: But the president suggested that that was the promise of it or the threat of it which even got them this far. Is he right?
MS. DOZIER: He’s right. According to some of the officials that you speak to, Syria knew that its back was against the wall and it wanted a way out. Russia wanted a way to establish that it has more influence in the Middle East right now than the U.S. does. And so they saw an opening for a deal.
But if you step back from all of this, yes, talk to some Republicans on the Hill, they say this is an embarrassment for the White House; they gave Russia the high ground on this.
Big picture, I can remember sitting in briefings where Pentagon officials were trying to figure out, there are 50 or 60 weapons sites. We know that the al Qaeda splinter group wants to capture them. How can we get them under lock and key? This deal could do that without putting any U.S. boots on the ground. Could it also result in months of delays, perhaps more chemical weapon strikes? Perhaps.
MS. BORGER: You guys are the experts on this so you’ll have to tell me. Is it your interpretation of this that the United States still reserves the right to use force if this should all fall apart?
MS. DOZIER: Yes. And there’s also the option that they can go to the U.N. Security Council for a second resolution to punish Syria.
MS. BORGER: So they could do it unilaterally or –
MS. DOZIER: Or through U.N. action. It could come also in the form of sanctions at the U.N.
MR. MCMANUS: But, as a practical matter, Kimberly, doesn’t having gone all the way through this U.N. process make it a little harder for the Obama administration to say, oh, never mind the Security Council, where we were last month, we’ve now decided to go at it alone?
MS. DOZIER: It would be pretty extraordinary when they’ve signaled to the U.S. and the world that doing a punitive strike against Syria is the last thing in terms of effectiveness. They indicated that it would be short and sharp, would hit some of the Syrian regime’s command and control centers and some of the areas that they used to develop these chemical weapons, but it didn’t have much of a plan B on that. And that’s what I was hearing on the Hill. Their frustration with this was, OK, well what do you do then? At least this way, now the U.S. has brought Russia into this deal such that now Russia bears the responsibility if this falls over.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because nobody knows if they can trust Russia either. So this is all – all of these questions, all these conversations we’re having tonight are about compromise that nobody knows –
MS. DOZIER: And trust.
MS. IFILL: And trust, which seems to be in short supply. Thank you all so much. Welcome to “Washington Week,” Kimberly.
We have to end it there, but the conversation will continue online, on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” at pbs.org/washingtonweek. The live stream starts at 8:30 p.m. Go fire up your computer. It continues all weekend long.
And the news doesn’t stop so we don’t either. Hari Sreenivasan anchors the brand-new PBS “NewsHour Weekend.” Check your local listings for the time. And I’ll see you during the week on the PBS “NewsHour” and here again next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.