GWEN IFILL: The race to recess. Lawmakers scatter to the four winds, but not before creating a little chaos. And the tensions with Russia and the fighting in the Middle East are tied up in knots. We explain why tonight on "Washington Week."
REPRESENTATIVE VIRGINIA FOXX (R-NC): (From videotape.) The House will be in order.
MS. IFILL: House Republicans fight among themselves over immigration reform, and with Democrats by voting to sue the president.
REPRESENTATIVE PETE SESSIONS (R-TX): (From videotape.) Our system of government is in a bad place when one branch of government is compelled to sue another branch of government for failing to play its proper constitutional role.
MS. IFILL: But will they energize their own base, or the Democrats'?
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From videotape.) This is a tactic that is anti-governance, anti-science and anti-Barack Obama.
MS. IFILL: In the Middle East, U.S. condemnations grow more harsh at ceasefire after ceasefire collapsing.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) I think it's going to be very hard to put a ceasefire back together again if the Israelis and the international community can't feel confident that Hamas can follow through.
MS. IFILL: And Russia refuses to back down in Ukraine or flinch at new sanctions. A hot summer grows hotter.
Covering the week, Robert Costa, national political reporter for The Washington Post; Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine; and Elise Labott, global affairs correspondent for CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation's capital, this is "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill."
MS. IFILL: Good evening.
Getting out of Washington for the congressional break at summer's end is often a messy affair. There are transportation bills to pass, veterans' hospitals to fix, and always, always, some nasty bit of politics to take care of. It's hard to know where to start. Oh, I know - immigration.
REPRESENTATIVE HAL ROGERS (R-KY): (From videotape.) We have a crisis on our border with Mexico right now. It can't wait. It's a humanitarian crisis. It's also a failure of our border. It's an open border now, unless you fix it.
MS. IFILL: But it turns out it can wait, in part because no one can agree on what Congress should do and could do about it. Let's amend that. House Republicans can't agree.
Robert, what's going on with the House Republicans?
ROBERT COSTA: We've seen House Republicans have a very difficult time this year to pass much of anything. But what's happened on the border bill this week is that the center of gravity within the House Republican conference has shifted so far to the right that even if it's a small group, it's a vocal group - Michele Bachmann, Steve King.
They're connected to the grassroots, and these conservative leaders like Ted Cruz over in the Senate. And what they say matters. Other House Republicans who maybe want to vote for this border bill listened to them, and they were able to get this bill changed. And also there was a struggle to pass it because of them.
MS. IFILL: Molly, what has happened? We used to always expect back benchers or people like Michele Bachmann, who's not even running for reelection, to not have that much power in the House. The way it was constructed, it was very top-down. It doesn't work that way anymore.
MOLLY BALL: I mean, it's a combination of things. And in a new way, right, this is sort of deja vu all over again. This is just the latest example. Think back to the shutdown and the Plan B vote; all of the votes where John Boehner has not been able to herd the cats in his caucus to get the votes to pass a Republican bill.
And so, you know, like Bob says, it is this center of gravity that's very far to the right. These House Republicans who are conservative, but most of them do want the compromise, do want to govern, are still afraid of what the Republican primary voters back home are going to think if they're not on the side of the sort of most flamboyant conservatives, the Michele Bachmanns of the world. What does that say about them? Does it mean they're a squish? Does it mean they're a traitor to conservatism? So they're going to fall on that side if they don't have a strong incentive not to.
Boehner has a laid-back style as speaker. He also doesn't like to pass things with Democratic votes, although he's had to do that several times. And so that means that he's had to repeatedly yank these bills that he didn't have the votes for.
ELISE LABOTT: Well, I'd just love to hear some of the behind the scenes. Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall of what was going on between Bernie Sanders and Jeff Miller? Or what did Boehner have to do to kind of bring this to a vote?
MR. COSTA: Well, Jeff Miller of Florida and Bernie Sanders were able to cut a deal on Veterans' Affairs. That was one of the rare bipartisan moments this week. But on the border, I sat down this morning with Congresswoman Bachmann and Congressman King, and they told me on Thursday night Boehner and the leadership brought them into the basement room in the Capitol and told them, in essence, you can rewrite the legislation for us. And I think Boehner's unwillingness to challenge -
MS. IFILL: What is his point? What is his point? He just wants to get anything done?
MR. COSTA: Right. Well, he doesn't seem to want to really make a major effort to try to get a bipartisan, bicameral deal. If you're going to King and Bachmann at the 11th hour, that's not the way to get a major deal in Congress. I think he's afraid to confront the right. He doesn't want to risk the outrage of those who are the grassroots activists. And that's, I think, diminished Boehner's political capital. It's crippled his ability to get anything through his own chamber.
MS. IFILL: And he puts them in a position to be mocked by the president, who said today they know they're not going to get it through the Senate, and I'm going to veto it anyway. So what's this about?
MS. BALL: Well, so, let's not forget, though, that the Senate also did not pass border legislation. The Senate failed to pass a bill on Thursday and went home, leaving it in the House's hands. The House is not going to pass anything resembling what the Senate passed.
And so the House's action was purely symbolic. And the only reason for them to pass something is to look like they're doing something. So there's sort of dysfunction on both ends of the Capitol, right. It's not as if the president's party in the Senate is in control enough to make it happen there either.
YOCHI DREAZEN: Ted Cruz obviously has his backers in the Senate. Many of them seem scared of him. What's his role here? How common is it for a senator to reach down and help lobby in the House as well?
MS. BALL: It's pretty extraordinary. But, you know, in Ted Cruz's worldview, there sort of are no rules. And he has not -
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible) - as we've come to know them in the United States Congress.
MS. BALL: Right. Right. Well, he's a lawyer, right, a very, very skilled constitutional lawyer who's argued before the Supreme Court. And so where does it say that he's not allowed to run the House caucus if Boehner, in his view, isn't doing it? So - but, you know, Ted Cruz's end game here is essentially that he's running for president. For all intents and purposes, we know that that's what he's going for.
And so his whole image is predicated on this tactic of sticking his finger in the eye of leadership. He has this joke he loves to tell on the trail about how, when his little daughters gang up on him and attack him, he feels like he's around Mitch McConnell. And so he gets a lot of political mileage out of this. And he expects that he can translate that into a large vote with the Republican base.
MR. COSTA: Real quick on Senator Cruz, I think he's a very cagy political operator. I sat down with him on Thursday afternoon and I asked him about his meddling in House affairs, and he denied that he did anything directly to cause Boehner's bill to stumble. And I think this is how Cruz operates within the Senate, how he operates within national politics. He meets with House conservatives. He clearly influences them. But at the same time, he doesn't like the heat. He doesn't like all this attention from Democrats calling him Speaker Cruz. And that's going to be a challenge for him as he maybe thinks about a White House bid.
MS. IFILL: You know what's interesting is that the Congress did get some things passed. They got this VA compromise passed through both houses. There was a partial extension of the transportation bill. But the other big thing that happened this week was they actually voted to sue the president. It was one of these things which empowered, technically empowered, the House speaker, John Boehner, to sue him. And essentially that was for dereliction of duty.
Some Republicans had been talking impeachment, which polls show to be broadly unpopular. So Boehner had to knock that down.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From videotape.) We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans. Listen, it's all a scam started by Democrats at the White House.
MS. IFILL: And Democrats do seem to be oddly energized by the oust-Obama efforts. The president today appeared happy for the chance to push back.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) They can't even pass their own version of the bill. So that's not a disagreement between me and the House Republicans. That's a disagreement between the House Republicans and the House Republicans.
MS. IFILL: By the end of the week, there was only a little bit of clarity.
First off, is anybody really suing anybody? Is that going to happen?
MR. COSTA: No. The climate in which this lawsuit happens is that there are a lot of conservatives who would like to impeach the president, at least on the far right of the party. Boehner knows this, and he's trying to manage a very unruly caucus. And so he goes kind of halfway by suing the president.
And he focuses on executive orders related to health care. But it hasn't done much to calm his ranks.
And I think the president has been able to use this to his political advantage. And you just look at the millions Democrats have been able to raise since this lawsuit happened. It's a potent thing ahead of the midterms for them.
MS. LABOTT: I think what's really interesting here is one day they're talking about suing the president. The next day Republicans are saying, oh, there are things that the president can do in executive order, which is why they're suing him in the first place, on the immigration issue. So I'm not really clear whether the divisions within the Republicans themselves are more important at this point or larger than the divisions that they have with the White House, with Democrats.
MS. BALL: Well, and there was a lot of mockery of the House Republicans for that being their response, right. After the Congress collectively failed to do anything about the border, they said, well, this is all because the president hasn't done his job, and there are still things he can do, at the same time, as you point out, as they are potentially suing him for executive overreach and too many of these executive orders.
So there is a very rich irony there, which has not gone unnoticed. And, you know, this is - this comes politically at a point where everything was going really well for Republicans. There's increasingly a conventional wisdom that they're poised to retake the Senate. There's no way they lose the House. They're sort of on a glide path to November as long as they don't screw it up. So of course they find a way to sort of step on their own feet.
MS. IFILL: You know, a couple of weekends ago I was in Wisconsin, working on a story. I went to a town-hall meeting for Jim Sensenbrenner. And here are the two things that came up in this comfortable Milwaukee suburb - impeachment and immigration. They were angry. And I wonder, as these folks go home now for their district work period, as they like to call it, they're going to hear a lot more of this. And this is going to energize them, even if the leadership thinks it's a losing deal.
MR. COSTA: It is. And when I was at the Capitol this morning, you hear from the conservatives, the rank-and-file members of the House Republican conference, that their constituents, at least on the right side of things, they really do believe the president is lawless. They're talking about impeachment. As you say, they're talking about immigration. And this is creating a culture within the House GOP where they really can't govern. And I think that's one of the reasons they had to try to pass this border bill Friday night. They need something to talk about, to say they're taking on President Obama.
MR. DREAZEN: The fact that they may not be governing, do they care, or do they wear that as a badge of pride because they've stopped the machinery?
MS. BALL: It depends who the "they" is that you're talking about. The sort of Republican establishment, Republicans in D.C., professional Republicans, and, you know, the majority of the Republicans in the House and Senate, they do worry about this. And they know that that's the missing piece. They know that if you look at the polls, people are fed up with the president. People are not really thrilled about the Democrats. And the last piece of reassurance that people need to vote Republican is to feel that Republicans could govern.
MS. IFILL: You know, there's one thing that happened this week which we don't want to skate over, which is the Republicans - the Democrats made a lot of money on this. They raised almost $5 million from angry Democrats who thought that somebody was really trying to impeach the president. And we heard Boehner call it a scam. Democrats are not unhappy about this fight. This may be their big chance.
MR. COSTA: Well, the Democrats are relishing this moment, because they're dealing with an unpopular president. Most Democratic Senate candidates are not inviting President Obama to hit the campaign trail with them. And so they've got to get President Obama's popularity up, if not with voters at large, at least with the Democratic base.
And when President Obama seems like he's the victim of House Republicans who are going over the top with this impeachment talk, that gets Democrats in places like Georgia excited, places where there are other key Senate races. That's important to Democrats.
MS. LABOTT: I thought one thing was interesting last night is -
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible.)
MS. LABOTT: Sorry.
MS. IFILL: No, that's OK. Go ahead. Finish your thought.
MS. LABOTT: I thought one thing interesting last night, that the Senate was able to confirm the Russian - the U.S. ambassador to Russia but not the ambassador to Guatemala, where this whole crisis is stirring.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, exactly. Well, we're going to move - that's a nice segue, because we're going to move to foreign policy, because world conflict has gone from concerning to terrified. And right in the middle of it all, the U.S. struggles - unsuccessfully, for the most part - to force action.
The president reflected on that today.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) I think any of us recognize the dilemma we have. On the one hand, Israel has a right to defend itself, and it's got to be able to get at those rockets and those tunnel networks. On the other hand, because of the incredibly irresponsible actions on the part of Hamas to oftentimes house these rocket launches right in the middle of civilian neighborhoods, we end up seeing people who had nothing to do with these rockets ending up being hurt.
MS. IFILL: Today's disturbing development - the apparent abduction of an Israeli soldier in Gaza. So where do we stand on this tonight, Elise?
MS. LABOTT: Well, the Israelis are saying that they're going to increase their offensive. They're looking for this soldier, obviously, going house to house. They've told citizens in Gaza to evacuate certain areas. And they show no signs of stopping.
I think clearly the ceasefire talks are dead right now. They hope that they can get them up at some point. But the question, I think, right now is how does this change Israel's strategy? They had said that the strategy was really a sustained calm, and that meant getting rid of the rockets, destroying some of the tunnels. But now is their longer-term goal of getting rid of Hamas, of really crushing them, going to be the immediate strategy right now?
MS. IFILL: Yochi, it seems as if we sit around this table every week and we look for a different way of answering the same question, which is what is the way out? There are some actors who are usually at the table here in these kinds of conflicts who are absent this time.
MR. DREAZEN: It's fascinating. Normally the way these wind down is Israel fights, Hamas fights, Egypt steps in and Egypt's the mediator. That's not happening now, because Hamas doesn't trust Egypt, because Egypt is hitting Hamas as hard as Israel does.
So you have these divisions that never existed before. We always think that the division that matters is Iran-Arabs. What matters now is Arab-Arab. It's Egypt on the one side, close to Israel - closer, arguably, than ever before; Qatar, on the other, closer to Hamas than ever before. And that's the clash.
MS. IFILL: It doesn't even sound like Hamas is completely unified. On one level, they seem to take credit for things like the abduction of these Israeli - this Israeli soldier. And on the other hand, they seem to say we had nothing to do with this; this is another Palestinian faction.
MR. DREAZEN: Right, because they're not sure. How far do they go before they've caused so much suffering in Gaza that people start to blame them? At a certain point it twists. At a certain part, the narrative there goes from we're being massacred by the Israelis to we're being massacred because of you.
MS. LABOTT: And you've heard, like, some of the Arabs now - it used to be when these crisis - all the criticism was of Israel. Now it is - criticism of Israel is very muted. Even the Saudi king today came out and talked about kind of joint terrorism, whether it's a state or whether it's an organization.
And it's, as Yochi said, these kind of regional shifts of politics that you'd have the Egyptians and the Saudis and the UAE and the Gulf states on one side, Qatar and Turkey on the other side, and they really think that this is all kind of involved in Egypt and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. It's really interesting political dynamic that's now playing out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
MS. BALL: In terms of America's role in all this, how has Secretary of State John Kerry's conduct been evaluated? What has been the criticism or the praise of what he was trying to do?
MS. IFILL: He's taken some big hits, right?
MS. LABOTT: Well, I mean, there were some reports in the Israeli press that called Secretary Kerry - Secretary Kerry's proposal of a ceasefire a, quote, "strategic terrorist attack." He's a friend of Hamas. He's ruined everything. And I think, for U.S. officials that you talk to, they really were just kind of outraged by all that.
You know, the U.S. gives so much support to Israel, stands alone at the United Nations and takes all this abuse from the world community on behalf of Israel. And, look, John Kerry may be not always the most artful diplomat. Maybe he steps in it sometimes. But he's really working his tail off. And to insinuate, as far as U.S. officials say, that he doesn't have Israel's best interest at heart or he's a friend of Hamas, I think, was just really offensive. And that's why finally today you heard this full-throated defense of Secretary Kerry by President Obama.
MR. COSTA: When you listened to President Obama today at the podium, he sounded quite pessimistic, it seemed, about the conflict and about the ceasefire. How do you think his press conference today will be interpreted in Israel and by Hamas?
MR. DREAZEN: It's an interesting thing. So before the press conference, John Kerry put out a statement. The words were ultimately the same. And what was striking was it did not mention Hamas at all - excuse me - it did not mention Israeli conduct at all. The press conference and the release were both Hamas violated; Hamas was outrageous; this is all on Hamas.
Part of that, to get to your point, Molly, was they know they're hated and mistrusted in Israel, and they're trying to tamp it down a little bit. But you watch it today, and there's sort of resignation on the face of the president, who was talking about how some of these conflicts have gone on for decades. We, the U.S., can't solve them; talked about Northern Ireland. You don't hear from them a sense that there's momentum; there's some grand plan. You hear a sense of, mmm, we tried and we failed.
MS. IFILL: So what is the status, if there is a status, of any effort for a ceasefire? I mean, the assumption is that nothing can happen unless people stop shooting at each other, but I don't see a way to that.
MS. LABOTT: It's really interesting, because when the Egyptians, during President Morsi in 2012, negotiated the ceasefire, they said we'll guarantee the ceasefire. We'll make sure. Now they're saying, listen, the parties need to guarantee the ceasefire. We need you to come and take a commitment and be responsible for a better future for your people. So Egyptian officials I talked to today said, listen, we're not disinviting them, but we're not going to sit down and talk to them until they're ready to stop fighting.
Obviously the hope is if you can even get, like, a 12-hour ceasefire or a four-hour ceasefire, start getting the parties together, and that could be extended. But I don't see that happening while this Israeli soldier has been captured, is not freed, which - I mean, the Israelis say that they have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting this soldier freed. So they're really digging their heels in for the long term. And I think you're going to see a lot more heavy-handed operations by the Israelis, and unfortunately a lot more casualties.
MS. IFILL: Let's go to another intractable problem -
MS. LABOTT: (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: - because we're stuck there - and that's in Ukraine, in which this week we and the Europeans once again stepped up sanctions; the idea that if you punish Russia, they will stop massing those 12,000 troops on the border. I don't see any sign of that.
MR. DREAZEN: No, none. Elise and I were both this past weekend at a security conference in Aspen - a tough part of the job, admittedly - and one of the points that was made there by a senior U.S. general was Russia, before the Normandy celebration, trying to get good will, had 28,000 troops at the border, withdrew 27,000, to say to the world, look, we're done; we're friends. Since then it's put back at least 14,000. That number is rising.
There is a real fear that he might now intervene militarily in a way that he might not have felt the need to -
MS. IFILL: Putin.
MR. DREAZEN: Putin, excuse me - that his feeling is the West has pushed him. He does not like being put into a corner. We know that about him. He doesn't like feeling like he's been put into a box. Russians - pro-Russian separatists will again say to him we need help. And there's a palpable sense that you might actually see Russian troops openly, openly in Ukraine, not shelling from the outside, not sneaking in - openly operating in Ukrainian territory. That would move us to a whole other level.
MS. LABOTT: And there was a concern that originally maybe he was kind of, you know, on one hand, trying to play with the West, trying to seem conciliatory, willing to talk, to avoid some of those sanctions. Now there's just a real feeling that he's digging in. His popularity at home is so high over this; can't save - he needs to save face with the Russian public and is afraid of how the opposition might play this at home if he does back down.
MS. BALL: As you say, I mean, he's so popular. It almost seems as if, even if he wanted to back down, he couldn't. I mean, is there any way for him to extract himself from this conflict that has isolated him?
MS. IFILL: And when the president calls him, as he did today, what's the point?
MS. LABOTT: Well, the president is just once again, I think, just trying to keep that diplomatic channel open. He knows that nothing that the president is going to say is going to really change his mind. But I think what - you know, and again, we heard this at the - there were a lot of high-level generals and stuff at this conference in Aspen. And General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was saying, listen, my big concern is that he's going to light a fire that he can't control.
There's so much fervent nationalism among these pro-Ukrainian separatists - pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, Russian nationalists, that maybe he's going to go too far; then he can't stop. And he's going to see a situation where he can't walk back even if he wanted to. And that could spread to other areas of Europe. I don't think anyone thinks that he's going to go into a NATO country. But there is a lot of concern within NATO members that perhaps he's going to start something he can't finish.
MR. COSTA: We heard from the president today that he seems like he's exhausted his options with sanctions and he says America has, in some ways, done a lot. One, is that true? And is there anyone who's outside of the United States in Europe who is taking perhaps a more confrontational approach to Vladimir Putin?
MR. DREAZEN: No and no, unfortunately. The sanctions that were announced, they were more than they've been before, but they have giant loopholes. And that's by design. So, for instance, one of them said you can't sell weaponry to Russia. Well, actually, what that means is new weaponry. If you have deals in place, you can. France has a multibillion-dollar deal to sell warships to Russia. It's already said it will continue to go through with that deal. Europe has said we may not buy energy from Russia. China will. China just signed a 30-year energy deal with Russia not even a month ago.
So, yes, the sanctions are escalating. But if you're Putin, you're looking at this and you're saying, this is all you can do? There was this fascinating moment, just briefly, on Twitter. The deputy prime minister of Russia tweeted out this photo yesterday of Vladimir Putin stroking a leopard and Barack Obama stroking a poodle. (Laughter.) And in English, the text of it was we have different values. This, of course, went viral. But this is the deputy prime minister -
MS. IFILL: Poodles versus leopards? Is that the different values?
MS. LABOTT: Or maybe he thinks President Obama is a poodle and Putin is a leopard here.
MS. IFILL: But is there any - briefly, is there any consensus among other nations that Putin is right?
MS. LABOTT: Well, listen, he's part of this BRICS country - Brazil, Russia, China, and any of these industrialized nations. You have the G-20 nations. A lot of them are very cognizant of the fact that this is a country that is poking its eye at the West and the whole western order. And I think, while certainly in Europe and the United States he has a lot of problems, there are a lot of countries where he does have support.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we're going to be watching that, because that may be where the worm turns next.
Thank you all so much; another eventful week. We have to go for now. But, as always, the conversation will continue online.
The "Washington Week" webcast extra streams live at 8:30 p.m. eastern. And you can find it all week long at PBS.org/Washington Week, where, among other things, we'll talk about the president's admission today that the U.S. tortured people - or tortured folks, as he said - after 9/11.
Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS "Newshour." And we'll see you here next week on "Washington Week." Good night.