GWEN IFILL: Counterterrorism, credibility wars, movement on immigration, and disaster politics, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) From our use of drones to the detention of terror suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.
MS. IFILL: The president defends his approach to a new world of war, pledging to limit the use of drones and close the prison at Guantanamo. Meanwhile, the IRS remains under fire.
STEVEN MILLER P [IRS]: (From tape.) I did not lie, sir, in the answer to this question.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH (R-UT): (From tape.) Well, you lied by omission. You knew what was going on. You didn’t – and you knew that we had asked. You should have told us.
MR. MILLER: (From tape.) I answered the questions. I answered them truthfully. We were not politically motivated in targeting conservative groups.
LOIS LERNER [IRS]: (From tape.) I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHER (R-OH) [House Majority Leader]: (From tape.) Drip, drip, drip. Every day there’s something new.
MS. IFILL: The Senate moves oh, so slowly on immigration reform.
MR. : (From tape.) It passes.
GROUP: (From tape.) Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
MS. IFILL: And in the wake of a devastating tornado in Oklahoma, the debate in Washington turns to who pays for the recovery.
SENATOR TOM COBURN (R-OK): (From tape.) What I don’t want to do is help the career politicians pad their pockets.
MS. IFILL: Decision and debate. Covering the week, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; Dan Balz of the Washington Post; Fawn Johnson of National Journal; and Charles Babington of the Associated Press.
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. We’re frequently alerted in advance when the president is to deliver what the White House calls a major address. Yesterday’s national security speech, in which he tackled longstanding criticisms over how we prosecute wars, target threats and imprison suspects, actually was one. Chief among its themes, a defense of the administration’s program using drones to target enemies.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes. So doing nothing is not an option.
MS. IFILL: The president also demanded Congress allow him to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. John McCain at least agreed with him.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From tape.) In light of the president’s speech today, we will pledge our willingness to work with the president of the United States to see that Guantanamo Bay is closed.
MS. IFILL: So what, if anything, did the speech change, Doyle?
DOYLE MCMANUS: Well, actually, Gwen, it did change a couple of things, which is unusual because we often cynically look at a speech and say, well, this is only words and it’s not going to change anything. In this case, there are some – let me start with the concrete ones.
First, President Obama changed the rules for targeted killings for the – for the drone war. Until now, it was a pretty broad rule – a suspected terrorist who was a threat to American interests. Now it’s a tighter rule. It’s a continuing and imminent threat to Americans. So that doesn’t cover somebody who might be, for example, a threat to the government of Yemen, which had been the case before. The president said that there has to be a near certainty that there won’t be civilian casualties. That’s a tighter rule than we’ve had before.
On another front, he did say he’s going to lift his moratorium on sending Guantanamo detainees back to Yemen. There are about 60, I think, Guantanamo detainees who have already been cleared to go back to Yemen. But the president himself pulled that back after the underwear bomber in 2009 because of fears that Yemen wasn’t stable enough. He can do that on his own.
And then, in a broader sense, of course, the president tried to change the framework of the war on terror and get us to think about what happens when the war actually ends. So that’s a broad one. But there are – there are things that –
MS. IFILL: I also curious about the timing of it. Why were we having – (telling ?) the speech? Is it a nagging problem or was it a problem that we don’t know about that this is bigger the way the world is looking us?
MR. MCMANUS: It’s a whole bunch of cumulative loose ends, if you like. It’s a whole bunch of pieces of the legal framework of the war on terror that have gotten out of synch with where things are now.
But a lot of it comes from the fact that I think President Obama is deeply uncomfortable with the fact that he started out as a civil libertarian. He still thinks of himself as a civil libertarian. But somehow, he’s the guy who escalated the drone war. He’s the guy who’s being accused – justly – of causing civilian casualties. He’s the guy who is still holding 166 detainees in Guantanamo four years after he promised to close it down.
And, incidentally, that’s one of the things that’s probably not going to change. No matter what comes out of this, there’s still going to be some detainees that the United States is going to hold even if Guantanamo is closed, those people are supposed to move here.
DAN BALZ: But that raises the question, Doyle, of – on Guantanamo. He enunciated as a candidate, he enunciated right as he came into office in 2009 and then clearly was unable to get it done. What has prompted him to come back to this? And are – I mean, you suggest that prospects for doing it are not significantly better.
MR. MCMANUS: And it’s partly that it has stuck in his craw. But, of course, there’s that hunger strike at Guantanamo. And it is undeniable. The president and White House aides like to walk around this problem. But the fact that you have dozens of detainees at Guantanamo, who have already been cleared for release, some of them as long ago as the Bush administration, and they’re stuck there and there is no path for them to get out. There’s no way for them to appeal this, led them into the hunger strike. The hunger strike is an untenable situation. It has been a remarkably successful, in a sense, hunger strike in terms of compelling not just our attention but the president’s attention.
FAWN JOHNSON: Well, and Doyle, I mean, one of the things that came across in this speech is just how forceful the president has been, particularly in the use of drones. What does that – I mean, isn’t that part of what his presidency is like and how does the – I don’t know if you want to call them attacks but the investigations into the media play into this?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, actually, you’re right. This is all of a piece. If you wanted to look at Barack Obama’s approach to the war on terror in general, he really did spend most of his first term proving how tough he was. And the increased drones was part of that.
And, in a sense, the leak investigations were part of that – more leak investigations under this administration than any previous administration. And the most recent case against Jim Rosen of Fox News, in which the Justice Department named him as a coconspirator – that was something the Bush administration threatened to do against journalists, but only the Obama administration has actually done it.
Now, on that, that one seems to have crossed a kind of a trip wire for the president. He has now ordered Eric Holder to go back and review it. And he sort of said it in terms – he said journalists should not be targeted for doing their jobs. He sort of told Eric Holder what the outcome of that investigation – that question ought to be.
MS. IFILL: Except that he also (hired ?) his attorney general to investigate himself, which is not always –
MR. MCMANUS: Is not going to work very well.
MS. IFILL: Is not always going to work very well.
OK. We’re going to move on to another nagging policy problem, the targeting of the political sort. And that’s at the IRS. The official in charge of the mess took the fifth rather than testify before Congress, then was placed on paid leave. But the uproar continued, and in the end you could be forgiven for not knowing whom to trust. With all the shifting accounts surrounding this, is government losing the credibility wars in this, Dan?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, Gwen, there are a lot of angles, you know, from which you can look at this IRS scandal, but that’s clearly one of them. Even before this, we know that the trust in government was at a low ebb. The Pew Research Center did a survey that came out a month ago or so that said the image of the federal government was at the lowest that they had ever found. The trust in government to do the right thing most of the time is at or close to its historic lows. That was all before this.
You know, I had a conversation with President-elect Obama in December of 2008. And one of the things I asked him was, in essence, do you think your election meant that there is greater receptivity to bigger government and more activist government. And he said to me at the time – he said, I don’t think it’s a question of bigger or smaller government. And he said, I think there is skepticism of government that’s kind of been baked into the system since Ronald Reagan or if not a little before. He said, the real question is, can we have smarter government or more effective government?
And I think if you look at where we are today, you have to say he’s failed that test. I mean, you’ve got the IRS problem. You’ve got the – you know, the Defense Department under scrutiny because of sexual assaults that they’ve not been able to bring under control; the State Department because of Benghazi and the lack of security. You’ve got – you know, you’ve got a variety of big, important agencies that have either ethical lapses, legal problems or managerial flaws that the public is seeing. And I don’t think there’s any way that in this environment people are going to say, I have a lot of confidence that government is going to do good things or the right things.
CHARLES BABINGTON: Dan, it seems like there’s still a lot of things we don’t know about this whole scandal, including exactly why the IRS people in Cincinnati did what they did on these tax exempt applications. What have we learned and what are still the big unknown questions out there? What do you think the chances are that they will be answered?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, I think the big questions are still as unanswered as they’ve been from the beginning. I mean, we know in general what happened. We know there was targeting of conservative groups, and the argument or the claim is that this was all done in the Cincinnati office.
We had hearings this week before House committees and Senate committees. We had the former commissioner of IRS testify, the former acting commissioner testify, and Lois Lerner give a statement. But we did not really learn anything further about how this all transpired.
And I think that until that begins to come out, until we hear from more people, I think there’s going to be a lot of questions, legitimately asked, about how it happened, because I think people are rightly skeptical that there wasn’t some kind of political motive of this. I mean, it may have been incompetence, but, again, why was it incompetence against the president’s opponents?
MS. JOHNSON: Well, I was curious also what we know – what should the president have known about this? I mean, is this something that he – that should rise to the level of the White House?
MR. BALZ: It’s a really good question. And the White House had a lot of trouble –
MS. IFILL: Because we know the chief of staff knew about it and the White House counsel knew about it. They didn’t think it was worth telling him.
MR. BALZ: Which we didn’t know until this week.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. BALZ: I mean, until this week, all we were led to believe was the counsel’s office had gotten a kind of a heads up in a general way that this report was coming. Instead, we learned that she got more than a general heads up. She knew basically what the broad conclusions were that she shared that with Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, and other unnamed senior officials in the White House. And they collectively decided that the president should know.
Now, their argument on this is that there was no reason to tell the president because until the report was done and filed, there was nothing he could do and it might put him in a compromising position of making it look like he was trying to interfere.
I talked to some people who were in previous administrations and basically said, did the White House chief of staff owe this to the president. And a couple of people said to me they think that under these circumstances, it would have been wise for Denis McDonough to go to the president quietly and simply say, heads up. This is coming. There is nothing to do about it now, but we need to be ready for it because it’s going to cause a big problem.
MS. IFILL: But then he wouldn’t have had the plausible deniability of saying he knew nothing about it.
MR. BALZ: I understand that he wouldn’t have had that, but – and that’s part of their concern. On the other hand, they might have reacted more forcefully, more quickly and they spent three days before the president actually went out to express any personal disapproval of what happened.
MR. MCMANUS: The other problem, Dan, is it seems to me the White House is trying to prove a negative, that they did not interfere in what the IRS – order what the IRS is doing, but meanwhile, they can’t quite get their stories straight. Is there – are they – are they really ready for this kind of hard ball?
MR. BALZ: Well, based on the performance this week, I would have to say no. And, you know, I think there – you know, we had a story in the paper the other morning that began. You know, the White House changed its account of (thus and so ?). Anytime you have that, you’ve got a bad situation. And so under these circumstances, I think that their credibility is still up – you know, being questioned.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, Dan. Well, if you’re one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. and you’re seeking a way out of the shadows, there was movement this week after a Senate committee approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was rare bipartisan praise.
SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [Majority Leader]: (From tape.) Although neither Republicans nor Democrats will support each and every aspect of this legislation, it is gratifying to see the momentum behind these reforms that will make our country safer and help 11 million undocumented immigrants get right with the law.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Minority Leader]: (From tape.) I think the gang of eight has made a substantial contribution to moving the issue forward. And so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate.
MS. IFILL: And both sides are keeping an eye on numbers like these. In a new Washington Post poll, 58 percent of Americans said they support a path to citizenship. So we turned a corner, Fawn?
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah. I think we have. And, you know, we saw some unusual bipartisanship in the Senate leaders. This is not often the case that you see both Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell saying that they would like to move forward on this issue. You know, you saw at the beginning of the program the massive cheers that went up when the committee finally reported out the bill.
MS. IFILL: When’s the last time Pat Leahy had anyone chanting his name?
MS. JOHNSON: Exactly. And it was – it was actually a really great moment just for democracy in general. As the members were uttering their closing remarks, a lot of them complimented the chairman, Patrick Leahy, for how he conducted this markup. It went for five days. Some of the days were very long, in the 12 and 13-hour range. They considered hundreds of amendments. Everyone was very respectful. There were – there were advocates sitting in the room who sat there with children for the entire time. I was very impressed with that.
So, yes, I think that this was – this was a really good move forward for the Congress in general. But it’s not – it’s only the beginning. And as much of a corner as we’ve turned, there’s a brick wall that can be run into at any given point.
MS. IFILL: But there was a – there were sticking points along the way.
MS. JOHNSON: Right. Yeah. And so the kinds of questions that came up in the – in the mark-up we’ll see them again on the floor of the Senate next month and then we’ll see them definitely in the House. They involve largely border security.
There is very little faith among the skeptics that the promises of increased border security are actually going to be kept and that’s something that we saw in the House later in the week with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, asking witnesses, you know, is there anything that requires the president to actually do all the things that this bill requires?
The other question that we have is benefits for the immigrants, those people who are going to get legal status, how much do they actually get? Do they get any kind of welfare benefits? Do they get any kind of health care benefits? And that has become an extremely emotional debate. So we have to deal with that.
Then, in the House, we also have the gang – the gang who is putting their own bill together. You know, they have a deal, they don’t have a deal. They have a deal, they don’t have a deal. It’s not entirely clear what’s going to happen in the House and what procedures are going to take place. So there’s a lot left to have happen, but this was still, you know, a very good moment for members of Congress.
MR. MCMANUS: Talk some more about the benefits problem, particularly health care. Where is that in the Senate bill, and is that something that could derail the whole thing?
MS. JOHNSON: You know, I wouldn’t have said so until this week, that I thought that this could be a new – a new hurdle for derailing the legislation. But the problem is essentially that since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, you have this – this essentially – it is a government program. And the idea in concept is that if you’re going to give a bunch of these undocumented immigrants legal status, you’re going to give them a gift, they shouldn’t be taking something else from the government. And the only problem is how do you do that?
So, initially, the question was, well, are you not even going to allow these undocumented immigrants to get emergency care, for example. Well, you can’t do that. That’s against the law. Then, and the next question is, well, are you going to not allow them to buy their own health insurance on the exchanges? And what do they do then?
So I think what they’re trying to do is work that out, but what you’re starting to see is particularly in the House, among the Democrats they are protesting in there saying, wait a minute. Hold on here. You are going way too far out of the realm of immigration and into the health care law. And I don’t know how it’s going to get resolved.
MR. BABINGTON: Fawn, in the Senate committee, right up to the last minute, there was suspense about a provision that we thought Leahy might introduce about a benefit for same-sex couples. Talk about that.
MS. JOHNSON: Right. Yeah. That was probably the most emotional moment in the – in the markup. Chairman Leahy has had this bill for a long time that would essentially give same-sex bi-national couples the ability to sponsor their partner for a green card. And it’s very important to the gay and lesbian community. And it’s extremely important to Patrick Leahy. But the Republicans who have been sponsoring this bill all along have said from the very beginning it’s a deal breaker.
So Leahy gave this long impassioned speech about how he didn’t want to break the deal, he didn’t want to stop, so he talked about the amendment and then he did not offer it. And then, the member – the other Democrats on the committee offered these huge apologies to the gay and lesbian community about this.
I think we’re going to hear more about this, but keep in mind that we’re still waiting for a Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, which could clarify things.
And then, the other interesting point is that there are almost 260,000 undocumented gay or lesbian immigrants in the country. And one of the points that immigrant advocates are making is those guys will be helped extremely just by the legalization piece in this.
MS. IFILL: Well, and we have to remember, guess what, it’s still go to get through the full Senate and then it’s got to get to the House.
MS. JOHNSON: Right. Yeah.
MS. IFILL: So we’re going to be watching for all of that as well. Well, hurricanes, tornadoes, super storms and oil spills may be unpredictable, but Washington’s response almost always is. The president will visit Moore, Oklahoma, this weekend while some members of Congress debate the limits of disaster relief. Using last year’s New Jersey disaster as an example, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, put it this way.
SEN. COBURN: The Sandy supplemental had $40 billion worth of money that’s going to get spent that wasn’t an emergency that’s going to get spent two to five years from now. And it was a politician’s Christmas tree do to things. It was a stimulus bill.
MS. IFILL: Nobody wants a politician’s Christmas tree, even though, why can’t they have Christmas tree – war against Christmas. I’m sorry. What I was trying to say here really, Chuck is, why – when did this become a football?
MR. BABINGTON: The field for this football was set, Gwen, about four years really with the birth of the tea party and an intense and sustained focus in Congress on deficit spending. And so you had a lot more conservatives, especially in the House, who really made an issue over and over on all types of things – are we going to keep doing things on the government credit card or are we going to pay for these things?
And then, on October 29th of last year, super-storm Sandy hit the East Coast, some of the most densely populated areas, did a tremendous amount of damage. And there was an immediate and understandable call for help from the federal government.
And in the past, Gwen, these things usually weren’t that controversial. The help would be given; if they needed to appropriate more money, it would be – you would just do it and you’d put it on the deficit. And this time, a lot of conservatives said, no. We need to pay for this. We need to stop doing it this way. And they were also bothered by the fact that there were some other items in that.
MS. IFILL: Including, significantly, conservatives from Oklahoma.
MR. BABINGTON: Exactly. So that became a huge issue. Finally, after a lot of wrangling and some very bitter feelings within the Republican Party, the Sandy bill that Senator Coburn there was talking about was passed in January. A lot of people on the East Coast felt it was too late. And so now we have this Oklahoma disaster rekindling this debate.
MR. BALZ: How divided are Republicans over this one?
MR. BABINGTON: They are divided, Dan. You saw a very bitter division on Sandy because you had these Northeastern – there are still some – believe it or not, some northeastern Republicans – Peter King of New York was the main one.
MR. BALZ: And Governor Christie was (hot ?) about it.
MR. BABINGTON: Exactly. And Governor Christie, you know, got a lot of attention, good and bad, for embracing the way that President Obama offered this help. So now, it is going to be an ongoing debate within the Republican Caucus. I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon. And it really does split geographically when a storm comes in, but a lot of these members of Congress now being on the record as voting against funding these things without funding cuts somewhere else.
MS. JOHNSON: How are the Democrats reacting? Can they ride it out?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, the Democrats traditionally have had no problem with this. And they say, look, this has been a long tradition in Congress and it’s the proper, you know, tradition is what they’re saying. But now, if you look at Oklahoma, a very conservative state, has a conservative governor. And this governor, as Chris Christie did, is welcoming the federal aid.
MS. IFILL: Governor Mary Fallin.
MR. BABINGTON: Governor Mary Fallin, right. And there are some Democrats who are saying, see, there you go. You know, you Republicans complain about the spending, but when you need it, you want it and you don’t make apologies.
MS. MCMANUS: Well, you have to give credit to Senator Coburn, who was against it on Sandy and he’s against it now in his own – his own state.
MR. BABINGTON: He’s consistent. Absolutely.
MS. MCMANUS: But there are other traditions that have gone by the board as well.
MR. BABINGTON: Well, Doyle, as you know, there used to be – believe it or not, Congress would raise the debt ceiling with maybe a – you know, some fussing back and forth, but it used to be pretty much an expected thing.
You know, the minority – the party other than the president used to vote to confirm the president’s nominees to all kinds of cabinet level positions, the Supreme Court. We’re seeing these types of bipartisan traditions fall by the wayside time and again. I frankly don’t know how we’re going to go back to a more bipartisan, more friendly type of atmosphere in the Congress. I think it’s going to be very hard to go back.
MS. IFILL: Well, if you can’t agree when people are suffering to do something right away, then that may be the touchstone. And also, we don’t know yet what’s going to happen with sequestration because that’s – theoretically would affect the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well.
MR. BABINGTON: We’re going to see these debates over and over.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. OK. Well, thanks, everybody. Before we go tonight, we have some sad news to share. We’ve lost a member of the “Washington Week” family.
Haynes Johnson, a longtime panelist and retired columnist for the Washington Post passed away this morning. Haynes was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a best-selling author, a teacher, and our friend. Here, during a 1989 “Washington Week” appearance, he drops a bit of prescient knowledge about how the world would come to view Ronald Reagan.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And I think Reagan, as he recedes, will be seen as both a much stronger president and a president within which there are many more consequences to come from: the debts you talked about; the idea that he made America feel better but there’s enormous debts to be paid yet to come; the country unprepared maybe to deal with the education, the environment, all these, they’ve been postponed and they are coming up very much in the ’90s.
MS. IFILL: As usual, he was completely right. Thanks, Haynes. And our condolences go out to his wife, Kathryn.
Stay tuned but online for more of our roundtable conversation at pbs.org/washingtonweek. That begins streaming at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. And we’ll see you next week on “Washington Week.”
Our respect to all who’ve served. Have an observant Memorial Day. Good night.