GLORIA BORGER: Congress inserts itself into the Iran deal. A question of legacy in new relations with Cuba. The president gets passionate over his attorney general pick. And expected players jump in to widen the field for campaign 2016.
I’m Gloria Borger, sitting in for Gwen Ifill tonight on Washington Week.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From video.) Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal. We shouldn’t just count on the administration, who appears to want a deal at any cost.
MS. BORGER: Capitol Hill flexes its muscle on Iran, saying any nuclear deal must have congressional review, and the president goes along grudgingly.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) You’ll have ample opportunity to review it and opine on it, but right now we’re still negotiating, so have some patience.
MS. BORGER: Why didn’t the White House put up more of a fight?
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama pledges to take Cuba off his terror list and the post-Cold War legacy the president wants to leave behind.
Plus, campaign 2016 in full swing.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday. Yesterday is over.
MS. BORGER: The state of the race with two new high-profile candidates as GOP White House hopefuls and Hillary Clinton head to New Hampshire to start warming up the voters.
And whatever happened to the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) Get her confirmed. Put her in place. Let her do her job. This is embarrassing.
MS. BORGER: Covering the week: Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for Politico; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.
Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Gloria Borger of CNN.
MS. BORGER: Good evening.
There’s no doubt that the tensions are high between the White House and Capitol Hill over any number of issues: executive power, the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general, and, of course, the recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Congress has made it very clear it wants to review any deal with Iran, especially when it comes to sanctions.
SENATOR BOB CORKER (R-TN): (From video.) I believe Congress should play a role in ensuring that all the details that need to be in place are there.
MS. BORGER: That’s the message from Republicans, but how do Democrats see it?
SENATOR BEN CARDIN (D-MD): I think this is the right way for Congress to be – to take up this issue. I think this is congressional prerogative. And we are the ones who imposed the sanctions; we’re the ones who are going to have to take it up for permanent changes.
MS. BORGER: And so, with bipartisan agreement, Congress will get the review authority on any deal with Iran. And somewhat surprisingly, the president seems to be going along.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) Both Senator Corker and Senator Cardin, at least in my understanding, agreed that there’s not going to be a whole bunch of poison pills or additional provisions or amendments added to it, and that they will be protective of this being a straightforward, fair process for Congress to be able to evaluate any deal that we may come up with and – and then register its views, but that it’s not going to be tilted in the direction of trying to kill the deal.
MS. BORGER: So why the presidential change the heart, Peter? The president’s been saying, no, no, no, no, no, Congress can’t intervene at all, and now he’s at yes.
PETER BAKER: Well, whatever else you want to say about President Obama and his White House, they do know how to count. (Laughter.) And in this case, the count wasn’t even very hard. You know, by all – by all measures, Senator Corker, who we saw there, had assembled a pretty strong bipartisan majority for some sort of bill, possibly a veto-proof majority. And the last thing the president wanted was to be overridden, especially with his own party turning against him.
The other thing they didn’t want was to have this continue to drag on, because next week negotiators will return to Vienna and they’ll begin talking about the next phase of this negotiation. They need to put this agreement in writing by June 30th. And to have this legislation hanging over them, what will it do? They felt like that would just sort of complicate things with Iran, and that, you know, they couldn’t tell Iran that they could actually deliver on the deal they were trying to –
MS. BORGER: Well, the Democrats were even telling them they were overreaching, right?
MR. BAKER: The Democrats told them they – look, this is a really interesting moment. Gridlock, for one day, was over in Washington. The problem for President Obama, who wants gridlock to be over, is it was against him. Both sides –
MS. BORGER: Alert the media. (Laughter, laughs.)
MR. BAKER: Both sides agree he was wrong.
So, you know, they don’t necessarily agree on the substance of the deal. I think, in the end, the president is counting on the idea that this legislation is structured in a way that he will still be able to proceed with a deal. But as a matter of principle – as a matter of principle, where he says Congress shouldn’t play a role in this at this stage, he had to give in.
MS. BORGER: Well, let’s talk, Manu, about the way the deal is structured and the backstory of how they actually structured it to get the president to go along.
MANU RAJU: Yeah, it’s interesting because really it all – things started to move in this direction a couple weeks ago, when the Senate Democrat who is the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, was indicted on federal corruption charges. He had to step aside from that post, and in his place came Ben Cardin. He’s a Maryland Democrat. And the differences in the politics and the views on this issue between Menendez and Cardin – Cardin was more on the administration’s side on this issue, while Menendez is a guy who has really been at war with the president on this. And, you know, he said famously a few months ago that the administration seems like their talking points are coming from Tehran – (chuckles) – not from out of Washington.
MS. BORGER: And let me emphasize that’s a Democrat saying that.
MR. RAJU: That’s a Democrat, exactly.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. RAJU: So Cardin comes in here and starts to play a really constructive role as middleman between what the White House wanted in this deal, if they were to accept something, and what – in being able to negotiate a middle ground with Bob Corker. So the administration got some concessions that were – that allowed them to save some face in this deal.
For one, what it essentially does is it’ll – it’ll halt sanctions for about 30 days while Congress – halt the ability for the president to prevent those sanctions from going forward for 30 days while Congress has an opportunity to review this going forward. But it also has certain concessions such as it will not – the initial bill said that if Iran was engaged in terrorism-related activities, then sanctions would be reimposed. That was opposed by the administration. Now they got rid of that in this final deal, and that helped bring along more Democrats.
Moreover, the threshold is such that only 34 Democrats the administration needs to keep on its side in order to allow a final deal to get approved. If they cannot keep 34 members of their own caucus – in the – in the Senate Democratic caucus on their side, then the final Iran nuclear deal would get killed. And that’s going to be pretty easy for the administration, presumably, unless whatever deal they cut with Iran is incredibly unpopular.
MS. BORGER: Well, and let me go with Dan for a moment, because you’ve been out on the campaign trail. Whatever deal they cut, is it going to play with Republicans?
DAN BALZ: No.
MS. BORGER: (Laughs.)
MR. BALZ: No. Republicans are going to be opposed to this. But I think that, you know, as you all are explaining, I mean, the real problem that the president had was with his own party. And Senator Corker obviously did a very good job and had been lining up that support as the negotiations were reaching the agreement point.
Peter, I wanted to ask you about the president’s press conference today, going back to this issue of sanctions and how quickly they might be lifted.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MR. BALZ: He was asked explicitly about that today and seemed to move on that in the direction of where the Iranians had been.
MS. BORGER: Well, as if on cue, I actually have that bite – (laughter) – right here for us to listen to. So thank you for introducing it.
MR. BAKER: Great minds.
MS. BORGER: Yep, great minds. Let’s listen.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) I would just make a general observation, and that is that how sanctions are lessened, how we snap back sanctions if there’s a violation, there are a lot of different mechanisms and ways to do that.
MS. BORGER: So, muddy.
MR. BAKER: Well, look, he’s trying to shift the debate, right, because the Ayatollah Khamenei said we can’t accept any deal that doesn’t get rid of sanctions on the day we sign the agreement. Nobody on the American side would accept that; even the president doesn’t want to accept that. And he – but he did not repeat his position that he has said in the past, which is that they would be phased in over time as the Iranians complied with its obligations. Instead, he said there are going to be creative negotiations, and he tried to reframe the debate by saying, look, the really important thing is this what we call snap-back. That is, if they cheat, we put the sanctions right back on. He says, that’s my main concern, that’s what we should thinking on. He’s trying to give a little wiggle room, I think, to John Kerry as he goes back to the negotiating table in Switzerland.
MR. RAJU: It was very important for the administration to change the debate from whether or not Congress should have a role to the merits of the agreement. I mean, and that really will help the administration with its own party, because people like Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat, he wanted a congressional review. He was pushing very hard for this congressional review process. But if you ask him, what do you think about the framework, he’s actually kind of on board with it.
MS. BORGER: Exactly.
MR. RAJU: S he’s not going to vote to kill it. And there are probably a fair amount of Democrats that are in that camp, even if they support a congressional review process.
MS. BORGER: And let’s turn for a second to another sea change in American foreign policy which occurred this very same week, which is the president’s decision to take Cuba off the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. Dan, let me ask you, is there a political risk in doing that at this point for the president? Because two-thirds of Americans support reestablishing some sort of ties with Cuba.
MR. BALZ: I think the risk is minimal for him politically, and probably for Hillary Clinton if she’s the Democratic nominee. I mean, I think that there is a part of the country, a small part of the country, a small part of the population, that cares a lot about this.
MS. BORGER: And lives in Florida. (Laughter, laughs.)
MR. BALZ: And lives in Florida.
MS. BORGER: Important state.
MR. BALZ: But I think of an older generation, not necessarily the younger generation. And we know what some of the Republicans, particularly those in Florida, have had to say about this. But I don’t think it – it doesn’t rise to the level of it being a big, major issue, and it’s not something that you hear people talking about.
MS. BORGER: Let’s talk about this generational point that you raise about Cuba, because the president seemed to be making that last weekend. And let’s take a listen to it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) On Cuba, we are not in the business of regime change. We are in the business of making sure the Cuban people have freedom and the ability to participate and shape their own destiny and their own lives and supporting civil society. You know, part of my message here is the Cold War is over.
MS. BORGER: Peter, generational, but not talking about lifting sanctions, which would be a real problem.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, well, of course, he can only go so far on his own in this case, and he has done some things to make it easier to travel to Cuba, to make it a little bit easier to do business in Cuba. And he wants to open embassies there; that’s the big thing. But to lift the overall trade embargo still requires an act of Congress.
At this point it doesn’t look like there are the votes there for it. You’ve got Marco Rubio, obviously from Florida, running for president now – generationally, by the way, not from the older generation, but harsh on this deal with Cuba. And it’ s – you know, but this is what the president wants to be his legacy. He wants to transform relations with some of our enemies, in this case Cuba and Iran.
MS. BORGER: Well, and the Republicans on the Hill make the point that’s exactly what he wants to do, transform relations with some of our enemies to our own detriment, you know.
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. And the Republicans will have a chance to weigh in if they want. They have 45 days to try to block this effort to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror list, as well as the appropriations process. Certainly watch the State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill. That’s where they can add any number of riders to either prevent the president from moving or potentially, as Peter mentioned, opening embassies overseas.
MS. BORGER: And I want to talk for a moment about the president we saw today at his press availability. And I call – I think of it as the “all drama Obama.” (Laughter.) We’re used to – we’re used to this president being kind of calm, cool and collected. And then he started speaking about the stalled nomination of his attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) And I have to say that there are times where the dysfunction in the Senate just goes too far. This is an example of it. Go – it’s gone too far. Enough! Enough! Call Loretta Lynch for a vote.
MS. BORGER: Dan, for President Obama, that’s a tirade. (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: It is, although, as we have watched him over the past two or three years, we have seen him grow more and more impatient with things that are going on on Capitol Hill and particularly his willingness to lash out at Republicans. It pops up from time to time. So in a sense, this today I felt was totally in character. I don’t know what your reaction was.
MR. BAKER: No, I thought it was. And I think that he and the White House were particularly annoyed at Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who this week said, well, gosh, if they really cared about Loretta Lynch, they would have put her through in the lame-duck session last year when the Democrats still controlled the Senate. And the White House remembered very vividly that Chuck Grassley said last year, hey, they ought not to put her through in the lame duck; they need to wait for the new elected Republican Senate. So they felt like he was playing both sides, and in fact, the White House called him duplicitous, which is not the usual to use about a senator.
MR. BALZ: Yeah.
MS. BORGER: That’s pretty – that’s not diplomatic.
MR. BALZ: And suggested he might have stayed in Washington too long. (Laughs.)
MR. BAKER: Little too long, yeah.
MS. BORGER: Yeah. Well, we’ve heard that.
MR. BAKER: And it’s – you know, and her – and the thing is, her nomination is not held up because of her qualifications. It’s held up for two reasons. One is a fight about a trafficking bill not related to her and they want to get that done. Senator McConnell, the leader of the Republicans, says he will have a vote next week on that. And the second thing is immigration, because she supports the president’s immigration policy.
MS. BORGER: But, Manu, don’t the Republicans think this has gone on a bit long at this point, even in terms of their own PR?
MR. RAJU: It depends on who you ask. I mean, some certainly feel that way. You heard Jeb Bush say this week that they should confirm Loretta Lynch. But if you talk to –
MS. BORGER: Well, he said they should vote on her, right? (Laughs.)
MR. RAJU: Right. He said vote on her, exactly. Should have a vote on her. But, you know –
MR. BAKER: Well, he’s got the executive point of view, though.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, he does have the executive point of view. But you talk to some Republicans – like I talked to John Cornyn, the number-two Senate Republican, and I asked him specifically, are you feeling pressure to confirm Loretta Lynch? His answer? No.
MS. BORGER: But Harry Reid says, I’m going to bring it up no matter what. I can get 51 votes to bring it up. And that is abandoning and attacking Senate protocol, which, you know, is kind of unheard of.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, it is. He –
MS. BORGER: Will he have to do that, or?
MR. RAJU: It sounds like that they may be able to avoid that because, as Peter mentioned, there’s talk about this – it’s all wrapped up in this fight over this trafficking bill, and it sounds like they’re probably close to getting a deal on that, and then that could lead to the confirmation of Loretta Lynch. But certainly if Harry Reid goes this route and forces a vote and tries to, I mean, really undermine Mitch McConnell’s prerogative in setting the schedule, which is huge in the Senate – everything is about allowing the majority leader, giving him the right to set the schedule – if Harry Reid were to do that, it would sort of blow up that prerogative and really create howls of protests from Republicans.
MS. BORGER: Well, and you know, this fight is really why everybody hates Washington. (Laughter.) It’s sort of like, you can just have a vote on something, you can vote for her, you can vote against her. But for a lot of people, I think, it’s this question of, inside Washington, these skirmishes, why don’t you just bring Loretta Lynch up for a vote? And –
MR. BALZ: I think that that was one of the things that you could see Jeb Bush expressing –
MS. BORGER: In the present – yeah.
MR. BALZ: – when he was up in New Hampshire and asked about it on Thursday night. As Manu said, he was expressing – or you said – an executive point of view. His view was, I’m not going to going to say whether she’s the right person that I would have, but I think a president ought to be able to name his own Cabinet members, and absent some grievous situation – you know, corruption or criminal activity or something like that – there ought to be votes on them, they ought to be able to put them through.
MR. RAJU: And that shows really the divide within the Republican Party right now, because on the other side Ted Cruz is saying don’t confirm anybody until the president drops his executive action on immigration. So – (chuckles) – completely opposite.
MR. BALZ: Well, and that –
MS. BORGER: Well, and that’s – and that’s a part of it.
But let’s move outside of Washington. You were lucky enough to be – (laughter) – to be outside of Washington this week, where you were in Iowa with Hillary Clinton, where she had what I would call sort of a soft launch of her campaign, no big rally. Listen to her.
MS. CLINTON: (From video.) I think it’s fair to say that, as you look across the country, the deck is still stacked in favor of those already at the top. And there’s something wrong with that.
MS. BORGER: So that’s the newer, more progressive Hillary Clinton doing one-on-one meetings, small groups, kind of getting to know you listening tour, again?
MR. BALZ: Yes. Yes. I mean, it’s Hillary Rodham Clinton 2016 versus Hillary Rodham Clinton 2008. She announced through social media, through a video, a video in which she didn’t appear for more than a minute. It was about other people and things that they were getting ready to do, and she finally came on and said I’m getting ready to run for president, I’m going to run for president. She went out to Iowa in a van. She didn’t go out in a – you know, a private jet, a van –
MS. BORGER: Scooby – what’s it called? The Scooby –
MR. RAJU (?): Scooby van, mmm hmm.
MS. BORGER: Scooby van.
MR. BALZ: Scooby van, a van driven by Secret Service because she has Secret Service protection as a former first lady. And it kind of pointed up the paradox of all of this.
On the one hand, she is trying to do it differently, and that was the purpose of this trip to Iowa – low key, low to the ground, no big rallies. She had meetings in coffee shops. She had a couple of roundtable discussions – one with students, one with small-business people – in two different venues. Those two were open to the press. The other events were not open to the press. And it was designed to overcome this notion that she’s taking this for granted, that she feels entitled, that there is some presumptiveness on her part. And in Iowa in particular, it’s also designed to say: I learned the lessons of what I did wrong eight years ago, and I’m determined and my campaign is determined not to repeat them.
MR. BAKER: Dan, you interviewed some people that you had previously interviewed, I think, right, in a focus group maybe a year ago. What was the difference? Did they buy into this? Are they – are they convinced?
MR. BALZ: They were – they were pleased with what they saw. Phil Rucker and I went out to Cedar Rapids about a year ago this time and sat down with a group of local activists, some people I’ve actually kind of been tracking for 10 years now, and they had bad memories about the campaign. They had – they had a fair amount of respect for her personally, but they were very unhappy with the kind of campaign they – that she ran that time.
Several of those people were in a meeting that she had, an unannounced meeting she had in Mount Vernon. And I talked to one of them afterwards, and he was previously an Obama supporter, very progressive. I said, what did you think? And he said he thought that she had a different attitude about it. He was struck by some of the things she said on issues. He thought they were more progressive, and he liked that. He said he asked her specifically about the way the campaign had been run last time, and she said – he said she assured him that this time it would be very much a grassroots campaign, and in contrast to eight years ago the Iowa staff would have a real voice and they wouldn’t have to be fighting headquarters all the time. So he came away feeling much better. And he also said, you know, they’re really already starting to organize. They’re getting ready.
MR. BAKER: That’s amazing.
MS. BORGER: So how does she – when she’s a celebrity – I mean, she’s the most famous woman in America, certainly – maybe in the world, I don’t know. And how do you take that celebrity and say, I’m not really a big shot; I’m just like you? She schlepped her own bag through the – through the airport.
MR. RAJU: Going into Chipotle, yeah.
MS. BORGER: That’s a technical term. Right, went to Chipotle. I mean, we’ve all been out there. You’ve been out there.
MR. RAJU: Yeah.
MS. BORGER: How does she do that?
MR. RAJU: It’s going to be a challenge – (laughs) – to say the least. And it’s not just her trying to connect with regular people – which, of course, is going to be a key part of her campaign, whether or not she can appear to be in touch with those common voters – but it’s also how she’s changing her rhetoric to appeal to that segment of the Democratic base that is not satisfied with her. And you’ve heard that already this week, when she’s adopting a lot of this Elizabeth Warren-style progressive populism, railing on the amount of taxes that hedge fund managers pay, actually hiring Gary Gensler, really a tough Wall Street regulator, as her CFO, as part of her campaign. These are things that Clinton clearly realizes that she has to do to appeal to that segment of the base that’s skeptical of her.
MS. BORGER: Dan, there’s another candidate, a very high-profile candidate who announced this week, Marco Rubio of Florida. Let’s take a listen to what he said very explicitly about drawing a contrast between the generations.
(Begin video segment.)
SEN. RUBIO: I’ve heard – I’ve heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn.
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: No!
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It’s your turn!
SEN. RUBIO: But I cannot, because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake and I can make a difference as president.
(End video segment.)
MS. BORGER: OK, Dan, it’s your turn. (Laughs, laughter.) What’s he meaning here?
MR. BALZ: Well, he’s running against Jeb Bush in the battle for the Republican nomination, and if he is successful he’s likely running against Hillary Clinton. And he’s trying to draw the contrast between the old and the new, arguing that we are in a point now where the – where the ideas of the 20th century are no longer adequate for the 21st century, and he is trying to push that. His problem, of course, is that he’s a first-term senator with limited experience, and so he has to fight off the notion that he’s not going to get into the office and not know what to do while making the argument that he is the future.
MS. BORGER: And I should also point out that Chris Christie was out there this week in New Hampshire and that the candidates now – it’s begun, guys. (Laughter.) So get ready.
MR. RAJU: Did it ever really end?
MS. BORGER: No, it never did. (Laughter.)
Thanks, everyone, for being here with us tonight. There’s a lot more to say, but no time to say it except online, where our conversation continues on the Washington Week Webcast Extra where, among other things, we’ll have more on the accomplishments – that’s right, accomplishments – between the White House and Congress. You can find that later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Gloria Borger. Thanks for joining us. Gwen will be back around the table next week right here on Washington Week. Good night.