GWEN IFILL: From climate change to the politics of politics, the post-election world is spinning like a comet. We’ll try to find a place to land tonight on “Washington Week.”
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From videotape.) We’re going to fight the president tooth and nail if he continues down this path. This is the wrong way to govern.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV): (From videotape.) This is not get-even time. We ought to move on to the next Congress with a record of accomplishment.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From videotape.) I had maybe naively hoped the president would look at the results of the election and decide to come to this political center and do some business with us. But the early signs are not good.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From videotape.) I’m here as long as my members want me to be here, as long as there’s a reason to be here.
MS. IFILL: Did congressional leaders learn the lessons of this year’s watershed election, or will everyone pick up where they left off?
Meanwhile, a big climate deal with China signals that this lame-duck president is not done yet.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) When we work together, it’s good for the United States, it’s good for China, and it is good for the world.
MS. IFILL: Plus sorting through the political fallout for candidates already eyeing the next big election.
Covering the week: Susan Davis of USA Today; Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post; Coral Davenport of The New York Times; and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.
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. We called the midterm results a political earthquake just last week. But when the dust settled, the Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill had elected almost exactly the same people to lead them into the future who’ve led them in the past. The battle lines looked familiar.
REPRESENTATIVE GREG WALDEN (R-OR): (From videotape.) We had a big week. We had a big night. And the country sent a big message, and it was about if you catch the bus, you’ve got to govern. You’ve got to drive the bus. And we’re going to do that as Republicans.
MS. IFILL: That’s what happens when you catch the bus.
The pace did seem to speed up, though. The House voted today to force the president’s hand on approving the controversial Keystone pipeline, and Democrats pledged to force Republicans and the president to act on immigration reform.
REPRESENTATIVE JUAN VARGAS (D-CA): (From videotape.) We’re begging the president. There’s urgency to this. You said you were going to do it. Go big. Go big. Allow these families to live in peace.
MS. IFILL: Policy and politics are never that far apart. So it was this week, when the president made not one but two big announcements aimed at fulfilling his climate-change goals. But we’re going to get to that in a moment. First, I want to ask you two guys about how exactly this worked.
This was a big week, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS: Yes, absolutely.
MS. IFILL: Why?
MS. DAVIS: Well, I think we’re starting to see the contours of what’s going to happen after the election. After last Tuesday, both sides sort of came out and said we got the message. We have to work together. And Republicans are saying and that means Barack Obama has to come to the center and work with us. And Democrats are saying we didn’t do enough to appeal to our base, to inspire our voters, and we need to reinvigorate our economic message.
So they both took sort of the broad thematic theme – (laughs) – lesson away from the election, but they’re sort of actualizing that in very different ways. We saw that in the House. They’re moving forward on the Keystone pipeline, which is something that the president is not inclined to support. And we’ve seen it from the president and among congressional Democrats, who are really encouraging him to move forward on immigration reform, which is a hugely risky play in terms of his relationships with Capitol Hill.
MS. IFILL: Well, this is a theme I want to come back to throughout the night, because I’m always curious about whether this is strategy or whether it’s just what landed on the plate. Which do we think it is, at least on Capitol Hill, this week?
ED O’KEEFE: I think it landed on the plate, and they’re just trying to build a strategy around it. I think especially the announcement from China really threw them off. The president’s discussion about net neutrality, and the fact that he’s doubling down and vowing to make moves on immigration in the coming weeks, just totally scrambles everything.
As John McCain told me, that immigration executive action means everything up here is in a holding pattern, because we don’t exactly know what to do. We don’t know how to respond, when to respond, and what to expect. And until that happens, it’s going to cause a lot of confusion, which is part of the reason why there was big hope that there would be one more big spending bill passed that would take us to the end of the fiscal year in late September. But there’s talk today on the Hill that Republicans instead are going to try to get some kind of shorter-term deal, maybe three or four months, taking us right before Easter potentially.
MS. IFILL: Wait a second. Again?
MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, because it’s the only way they think that they can keep the government open - because Mitch McConnell this week made very clear, under his stewardship, the Senate will never shut the government down – but allow them to sort of assess the first few months of the president’s actions and then use that next spending bill through the end of the fiscal year and next year’s budget to start cutting away at the immigration agencies that would have to start implementing the president’s orders.
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible) – new Republican-controlled Congress out of the lame duck.
MR. O’KEEFE: Absolutely.
AMY WALTER: Well, I want to address the Keystone issue for a second. This is an issue that’s had a lot of Democratic support, and there are a lot of red-state Democrats up this year who lost who would have liked to have voted in support of Keystone. So why are they bringing it up now in the lame duck?
MS. DAVIS: That’s a great question. I mean, Mary Landrieu is a Democrat from Louisiana, and she’s facing a runoff. And she sort of sparked – reinvigorated this whole debate this week. She went to the floor. She had the backing of these red-state Democrats. They said we’re going to pick this fight and we’re going to do it now. And it percolated the issue back up.
No one was talking about Keystone last week. And part of the reason that they’re doing that is a lot of Democrats, like Mary Landrieu, think that Democrats made poor choices this year; that maybe if they would have taken some tough votes or advanced some policies that wasn’t necessarily the most popular, it would have helped Democrats in red states like Mary Landrieu.
She – part of why they’re doing this – and it’s worth noting that she’s the sponsor of the Senate bill and her Republican opponent –
MS. DAVIS: - is the sponsor of the House bill; so, like, you cannot talk about Keystone without the politics behind this. And both of them have sort of made this –
MS. IFILL: And when is that runoff?
MR. O’KEEFE: December 6th.
MS. DAVIS: December 6th. And both of them have made this – are making this argument in a state where the oil and gas industry is a huge employer. It’s hugely influential; that I’ve got clout and I’m going to deliver.
Now, the House has passed the bill nine times, and it’s – and Bill Cassidy – Mitch McConnell has said if he gets to the Senate, I’m going to put him on the Energy Committee. And Mary Landrieu said I’m the top Democrat here and I’m effective, and I have the clout. So they’re both kind of vying to take credit for it.
It will be curious to see what happens if Congress can pass it, and then what does President Obama do?
MR. O’KEEFE: And even if he vetoes it, everyone can claim victory, because Democrats who want to distance themselves from the president, Landrieu especially, can say I did everything I could, and I don’t agree with him, and now you have the proof, because I vetoed – he vetoed that big bill.
And then Republicans say our math only gets better next year. We’ll do it again, and we may have a veto-proof majority. But it was really almost romantic to watch this happen on Wednesday – (laughter) – because this is how –
MS. IFILL: By whose standard? (Laughter.)
MR. O’KEEFE: By –
MS. IFILL: This is your idea of romance?
MR. O’KEEFE: Listen, listen. By disgruntled congressional reporter standards, this was great, because this is exactly what’s supposed to happen in Congress. People with clout are supposed to be able to seize control of the place and get their stuff done, and they did. And it’s going to get done. And it sets up a very principled fight with the president. This is regular order.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s – go ahead, Coral.
CORAL DAVENPORT: Well, but in the end, though, how much impact does it actually have on the Louisiana Senate runoff if both candidates effectively sponsor the exact same bill? Both – I mean, doesn’t it – do they come out in a wash?
MS. DAVIS: I think, from a strictly political term, this is a little bit of a Hail Mary pass by Democrats.
MR. O’KEEFE: No pun intended. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVIS: They’re trying – very good point. They are trying to do everything they can to try and save Mary Landrieu’s seat. Barack Obama’s approval rating in Louisiana right now is about 38, 39 percent. She only won 42 percent in the runoff. The idea that she’s going to be able to cross that 50 percent threshold – I mean, it’s certain to say that she’s absolutely the underdog in this race, and I’m not sure this one policy, this one vote, is going to change that.
But, you know, there are other things which are happening, which it seems that everybody’s trying to sort of poke each other in the eye on immigration reform, the president saying I’m going to do it by executive action no matter what; John McCain saying to you I don’t think so, as many other Republicans are saying the same thing.
On health care, they are swearing there’s going to be another vote to roll back “Obamacare,” and the president saying absolutely not. It seems to be everyone is positioning themselves to push. Who’s got the leverage, though?
MR. O’KEEFE: The Republicans, I think, do, because they will control the agenda. But Boehner has been pretty practical, at least in talking about health care. He knows that he will hold a vote to fully repeal the law, and it will pass overwhelmingly in the Republican-controlled House.
MS. IFILL: As it has how many times?
MR. O’KEEFE: We’re about 50 now at this point. It will go to the Senate, where they don’t have 60 votes necessarily to support this. You have to get, I think, at that point six or seven Democrats to join them, and they won’t do that. But they’ll send it to the president and he’ll veto it. And again everyone can say we tried and he didn’t agree with us.
But then they will start picking apart pieces of it specifically – repealing the tax on medical devices, for which there’s a lot of Democratic support, and then some other things. And I think there you will start to see maybe some real constructive work and where the president might have to swallow hard and deal with it or again stand up to Congress and say no.
MS. WALTER: So are we going to get into another government shutdown debate? I mean, is this what we’re going to be looking for in 2017?
MS. IFILL: Except within the Republican Party instead of cross-party.
MS. WALTER: Yeah.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: Well, I think it speaks to the fact that the immigration issue is so hugely divisive within the Republican Party. And I think that’s a huge part of the political motivation among Democrats to force this debate now. Mitch McConnell has said repeatedly since the election we will not shut down the government; we will not default on the debt.
John Boehner this week was asked the same question. He did not – he was not as explicit. I think House Republicans have – if he goes forward with the immigration order, it will divide the Republican conference in ways that I don’t think anything has probably ever, since we’ve had this government and since Republicans took over in 2010. So it is going to poison the well in ways that I don’t think we really know how it’s going to affect what’s going to happen in the new Congress.
MS. IFILL: And, you know, the other thing is, after last week’s big election, we all looked and thought big change, right? Second verse same as the first verse – same exact leadership, except for a few little cracks in the veneer for both Democrats and Republicans.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah, proving that life is a lot like high school. That’s really what –
MS. IFILL: Say it isn’t so.
MR. O’KEEFE: That’s really what you saw here is essentially the student council filled out its officer ranks, at least among Senate Democrats. I know a lot of people were excited and intrigued that Reid packed his leadership team with a few more people, notably Amy Klobuchar, Jon Tester and Elizabeth Warren.
Of those three, the one that has the biggest lift, at least the most obvious lift, is Jon Tester, senator from Montana, who has to go out and recruit and then get elected a bunch of Democrats in 2016. He’ll have an easier go of it than they did this time.
Elizabeth Warren is there. And as Harry Reid said, I want Elizabeth Warren to be Elizabeth Warren, to bring forth all those liberal ideas and to help remind us –
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible.)
MR. O’KEEFE: - that we’ve got to talk about the economic issues. What?
MS. IFILL: That I can then ignore. I mean, it’s –
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, yeah, that’s the point.
MS. IFILL: - (inaudible) – a platform, yeah.
MR. O’KEEFE: It’s just a platform, and not much will happen. But it was also an acknowledgement by him, after nearly a four-hour cathartic meeting with Democratic senators, that they’ve got to make some changes.
MS. IFILL: I do want to ask about those Democratic senators, because a couple of them peeled off and didn’t actually support Harry Reid; and not Jon Tester, because he’s part of the leadership, but certainly Joe Manchin and –
MS. : The Virginia senator.
MR. O’KEEFE: Claire McCaskill, the two –
MS. IFILL: People from red states, essentially; states that have gone red.
MS. DAVIS: Well, and I think it speaks to a sort of broader frustration we see right now in Democrats. It’s not so much that Democrats don’t like Harry Reid or don’t like Nancy Pelosi, but they have – there’s a lot of ambition in the next level of the Democratic Party. And I think there are some people think that there could be time for a change, that there could be some catharsis to the conference.
I think Harry Reid bringing in Elizabeth Warren is a little bit of an acknowledgement of that. I think he knows that they want some new-generation ideas, and they know that the base did not show up last Tuesday. Democrats are not excited right now. And if you’ve ever been to an Elizabeth Warren event or seen her speak, I mean, she is just one of those figures that really lights the base on fire. They love her. She’s big with donors. I mean, they’re really hoping that they can capture the energy that she has and it’s going to help them in 2016. But it’s a big lift.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’re going to circle back to what this is all going to do for 2016. We’re also going to circle back a little bit to – in the webcast to what the new Congress is actually going to look like, including some of the committee chairmanships that you would expect to see.
Well, we talked earlier about the fact that the president has made not one but two of these big announcements about his climate-change goals. One was a $3 billion contribution to an international fund, and the other was a surprise deal with China on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The moves were cheered by environmentalists but greeted much more skeptically by the president’s political opponents back home. So was this another one of those pokes in the eye, or was it just the president following through on his promises? Coral.
MS. DAVENPORT: Well, despite the optics of this, coming immediately after the midterm elections –
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. DAVENPORT: - the elements of this deal have been in the works since the president’s reelection. When he came back into office – you’ll remember that he ran in 2008 on the promise of tackling climate change; wasn’t able to get a bill through Congress. After 2012, he looked at the tools available to him and decided this could be a legacy issue that he could move without Congress.
So we have seen the president working aggressively to put forward a number of environmental regulations without Congress that will curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That has given him the leverage to go abroad to China, the number one greenhouse gas polluter in the world, without whom there won’t be any kind of climate-change deal, you know, to say let’s try and work together.
So Secretary of State John Kerry has been working behind the scenes on high-level talks with China since the beginning of this year to get some kind of deal.
All of this has been – the idea has been for the president to get some kind of big legacy international climate-change agreement without Congress that can make a really big impact.
MS. IFILL: I wonder also whether the president coming off of a big beating one week goes abroad and could be looked at by other world leaders as being weakened. Instead he shows up and he says bing, bang, boom, I’ve got these big announcements. And Ed mentioned there also was a big announcement on net neutrality, and he announced his attorney general nomination. It seems like there was a concerted effort by the White House to say I’m still here.
MS. DAVENPORT: I don’t think they were sure until the last minute –
MS. IFILL: On this one.
MS. DAVENPORT: - that the elements of this deal would come together. They – you know, what I know, actually, is that they actually didn’t expect to announce this deal until March.
MS. IFILL: Really?
MS. DAVENPORT: But then they looked – the president’s senior counselor, John Podesta, who’s been working with China on this deal, with John Kerry, they knew this trip to China was coming up and they said let’s try and see if we can make this happen. This was a last-minute deal.
I can tell you that when we heard that an announcement might come as much as, you know, five and six hours before they made the announcement, I was being told this can still fall apart at the last minute; we are taking all the work that we’ve been doing for the last several months and trying to make this come together. But they absolutely knew the political impact it would have, that it would reinvigorate him, give him some swagger post-election. So this was more a case of taking all the work they’ve been doing and saying let’s try to – let’s try to make this pop for us.
MR. O’KEEFE: But how can he do this? Because it’s not a treaty that requires Senate ratification, and it doesn’t appear that there’s any other sort of precedence for this kind of thing. So how can he do this? And how do we know that China’s going to actually hold up its end of the bargain, which was a big concern among a lot of Republicans this week?
MS. DAVENPORT: So the two things that make this announcement really interesting – in some ways, I think they will be – this wasn’t a legally binding treaty of any kind. This was just the two world leaders coming forward and making promises, essentially.
But the reason that we can take them seriously is Obama, as he’s worked on this, has recognized that this will have to happen without Congress. And his counselor, John Podesta, has looked at all the tools available and said we can do a lot without Congress. We can flex the muscles of existing law, existing executive authority.
And what’s interesting is that we will also see - Obama himself can’t meet all the terms of this pledge. A lot of this is going to be up to the next president. John Podesta, the counselor who came up with this agreement, is about to leave the White House. It’s expected that he is going to work on the campaign of Hillary Clinton. And he basically wrote a plan that will have to be enacted by the next president. In many ways, if you look at this plan, this is Hillary – this is candidate Clinton’s climate-change policy.
MS. IFILL: Yes, it is.
MR. O’KEEFE: But also a Republican could come in and say scratch it -
MS. DAVENPORT: Absolutely.
MR. O’KEEFE: - and toss it out entirely.
MS. DAVENPORT: Absolutely. Yes. This plan depends on the next president continuing the path that President Obama has taken, moving without Congress, using executive authority, using executive regulations. If we were to see a President Clinton, probably the first – you know, we’ve seen so much of President Obama’s big regulation. We will only see more of that in any Clinton presidency.
MS. DAVIS: Coral, if we can forget the politics for a minute – (laughter) – what does it do to actually address the core problem of climate change?
MS. DAVENPORT: So this is a really big deal. Together –
MS. IFILL: And you’ve got 15 seconds to tell us. (Laughter.)
MS. DAVENPORT: The U.S. and China are the two – are the world’s two largest emitters. If they really do follow through on these policies, it’s a very big deal. But another issue in climate change is that everyone looking at this says this will not stave off the worst of climate change. At this point there’s almost nothing that could do that. This will, you know, allow humans to continue to live on the planet. But a new piece of the climate-change debate necessarily is also going to be how do governments prepare to adapt for what’s coming.
MS. IFILL: OK, not only us, but governments around the world.
OK, so we’re going to circle back to the consequence of wave elections. Nancy Pelosi says it wasn’t a wave for the GOP but an ebb tide for the Democrats. I’m not sure how that’s better, but Democratic Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told me on the NewsHour that voters who support Democrats just didn’t vote.
(Begin videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: What is not translating? What are Democrats doing wrong?
REPRESENTATIVE AND DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIR DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): They’re supporting us on the issues. They’re just not – there’s a disconnect on them actually getting out and voting for our candidates in the midterms. And we’ve got to take a really deep dive on what the problem is.
(End videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: She said deep dive, like, five times in that interview. (Laughter.) But while they’re doing that deep dive, the 2016 election has already begun, and there’s no bench in evidence. The Republicans may not be in much better shape, Amy.
MS. WALTER: Well, the first thing is, Debbie Wasserman Schultz was right. The voters didn’t show up. It just looked like a traditional midterm election, where it was the older, less diverse voters who showed up, which are more Republican.
But I don’t think it takes a really deep dive to understand part of the reason the voters didn’t show up. They just didn’t have a message to give to voters, especially on the issues that voters care the most about, which is the economy. People don’t feel particularly good about the economy. I think that’s one reason why a lot of folks who showed up in 2012 thinking the economy was going to get better, they didn’t show up this time because it hasn’t.
So you can do all the – as one Republican pollster said to me, he said, you know, you can have all those fancy Obama turnout operation, right. They had the technology and the data. But if you don’t have a message, you can’t win on turnout.
MS. IFILL: So if you’re Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, the lesson from this is come up with a message first and the –
MS. WALTER: Yeah. You have to –
MS. IFILL: - candidates next?
MS. WALTER: That’s right. You have to have something to say. And for the bench piece of this, it is Democrats actually who are in a very difficult position. Get past the Hillary Clinton 2016 election. There are very few statewide elected officials in big key states – Ohio, Florida – there’s not one statewide elected official in either one of those states. At the state legislative level –
MS. IFILL: Democrats, you mean.
MS. WALTER: Excuse me – Democrat; no Democrat there. At the state legislative level, Republicans picked up so many seats; they now control 55 percent of all state legislative seats in this country, the highest number they’ve had since 1920. So the bench is on the Republican side. It’s Democrats who, five years from now, you know, not only looking for a president, but looking for the next governor, Senate candidates, they don’t have many places to go.
MR. O’KEEFE: So who – (laughs) - so who’s on the bench?
MS. IFILL: Who’s left?
MR. O’KEEFE: But, I mean, Democrats clearly have a problem. Republicans clearly are beginning to get ready for this. You know, there’s Marco Rubio. There’s Ted Cruz. There’s Rand Paul in the Senate, for example. How are they going to be able to develop a message while stuck in a Congress that isn’t necessarily –
MS. IFILL: That’s very dysfunctional.
MR. O’KEEFE: - doing anything terribly creative?
MS. WALTER: Well, right. It’s not creative. And it’s about as popular as a sexually transmitted disease, right. (Laughter.) I mean, nobody likes Congress. So –
MR. O’KEEFE: That’s one way to put it.
MS. WALTER: Right – very subtle way to put it.
MS. IFILL: Have a good time back at work on Monday. (Laughter.)
MS. WALTER: Yeah. So they have a real – they have a real problem there. And to the point that you guys all brought up, which is the fact that there is an intraparty divide between Republicans that’s not there for Democrats, that’s the one thing Democrats have going for them. They’re on the same page on cultural and social issues, on immigration, on the economy.
You look at that Republican conference and the people who are going to run for president in 2016. There is a wide variety of views. And the most important thing that Republicans have to figure out is who are they going to be as a national party? We know how well they do as a congressional party and how they can win red states in midterm years. But we haven’t seen them win a national election in some time.
MS. DAVIS: Have you seen Hillary Clinton discuss any kind of economic policy? In other words, what does the Clinton economic agenda look like?
MS. WALTER: And that’s –
MS. IFILL: Other than we did it right when my husband was president.
MS. WALTER: That’s right. And that’s going to be, I think, a big piece of it. I mean, when you look at the wage growth in this country, it has stagnated basically since 2000. Something else happened in 2000. Well, I believe the presidency ended. So there is a case to be made that, back in my day, things were better. But clearly it’s a different world.
And I think that what we’ve seen from Democrats – they do have a message that plays in the sense that you ask voters, what do you think about raising the minimum wage? What do you think about pay equity? Of course, yes, we like that. We think that’s very important. But is that getting to the core issue, which is economic wage stagnation for middle-class Americans? And quite frankly, neither side has an answer for this.
But Hillary Clinton, I think her biggest challenge is going to be to prove that she has an answer to that question. She can’t just rely on, well, this is how we did it in the `90s. Life is different now. And after eight years of President Obama, how is she going to prove that it’s different? Why should voters want another four years of a Democratic White House dealing with this issue?
MS. DAVENPORT: Do we see the leading – possible leading Republican contenders starting to come out with real messages? You know, the Rands, the Rubios.
MS. WALTER: Right.
MS. DAVENPORT: I mean, are they emerging with something to say? Or are they just positioning themselves?
MS. WALTER: Well, you know, what I think has been really fascinating these last couple of months, right before the election, is you saw Republicans running for the Senate running on a very red-state, red-meat agenda, but the Marco Rubios, Rand Pauls, reaching out. They know they have to look to a different audience.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’re going to be fun tracking them all as they continue to form their messages.
Thank you, everybody.
We have to go now. But as always, the conversation will continue online. The “Washington Week” Webcast Extra streams lives at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, and you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek, where, among other things, we’ll talk about Washington debates over loose-lipped advisers and sexist supporters. That was a good tease.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.