ROBERT COSTA: A government on the brink. Talks continue tonight and a shutdown looms. I’m Robert Costa. Federal programs and those who depend on them are wondering what’s next, and both parties do too, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) There’s never been a better time to hire in America, to invest in America, and to believe in the American Dream than right now. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: President Trump marks the end of his first year in office celebrating the strength of the economy, and faces a potential government shutdown as the Friday deadline looms.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) We could get this done in a few short days and not kick the can down the road. This is the fourth CR that we have done and accomplished nothing.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Democratic senators’ fixation on illegal immigration has already blocked us from making progress on long-term spending talks. That same fixation has them threatening to filibuster funding for the whole government.
MR. COSTA: We discuss it all with Dan Balz, The Washington Post; Kelsey Snell of NPR; Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We are now just hours away from a potential government shutdown. But negotiations continue. And the Senate is scheduled to vote tonight at 10:00 p.m. We’ll get to that shortly. First, how we got here. This afternoon, President Trump summoned Democrat Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, to the White House for a one-on-one meeting.
SEN. SCHUMER: (From video.) We discussed all of the major outstanding issues. We made some progress, but we still have a good number of disagreements. The discussions will continue.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From video.) I’m not going to vote for a CR. The Democrats seems to be willing to increase military spending, many Republicans are willing to have a DACA fix, and those who don’t want to combine the two are just, I think, very naive.
MR. COSTA: White House officials, they blame Democrats for the impasse.
OMB DIRECTOR MICK MULVANEY: (From video.) The military will still go to work. They will not get paid, OK? The border will still be patrolled. They will not get paid. Fire – folks will still be fighting the fires out West. They will not get paid. All of these people will be working for nothing, which is simply not fair.
MR. COSTA: So you’ve heard the talking points. But this is, perhaps, not just a political moment tonight, but a civic one – the U.S. government on the edge of a shutdown, parties clashing, yet another fiscal standoff in a decade full of them. What explains it – not only this latest drama, but the struggle for those in power to govern? Dan?
DAN BALZ: Well, the fact that we see this again and again and again over the past few months is, as you say, indictive of the breakdown in general in the way Congress – Republicans or Democrats, doesn’t matter who controls it – approach these issues. The deep partisanship in this country at this point has reached – has reached a level that makes it almost impossible for the leaders of either party to go against their core supporters. And that’s what we’re seeing play out. We’ve seen it in the past. We’re seeing it again this time.
MR. COSTA: Kim, is that because of the partisanship in Congress? President Obama, when he came into office, he thought he could break through it. President Trump was seen as a different kind of politician. He could break through it. Yet, again and again these fiscal standoffs revert to partisanship, to bickering.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yeah. I mean, I think we’ve seen increasingly the partisanship just grow more and more with every year in Washington, with no sign of abating. And that leads us to this crisis. I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a crisis – leadership by crisis is what we’re seeing. We’re pushed to a point where there is a breaking point, whether it was the sequester or budget fights. We see that come over and over again, where this fight is really political. I mean, if you look at it – I think Senator Graham is right. When you look at DACA, I think on policy the two sides – it’s not an unbridgeable gap. There is a deal to be made there. But there is a political – there’s no political incentive for the sides to come together. And that’s why we are where we are.
JEFF ZELENY: And one thing that is clear, as Dan was saying, we have seen this for several months, and really for several years. One thing that’s always constant, even though the people in the different offices move around, there’s an erosion of trust, erosion of credibility. And it seems like nothing in this town can get done unless it’s in a stress situation. I would call this a stress situation tonight. And Kimberly’s absolutely right, on DACA some eight in 10 Americans agree that something should be done to those – the DREAMers, 800,000 or so people who are here, those young immigrants.
But the reality here is that Trump – President Trump is the new player in this drama. So there was a sense, and maybe there still is a sense, you know, that he can lead people through this. But he is someone who had been on sort of both sides of every issue. And that actually could be an advantage in this situation, but still unwilling, as we’ve seen over the last eight or nine days, from saying: I’m willing to take the heat to not willing to do it at all, calling it a Schumer shutdown here. So we’ll see what breaks the fever here, but it’s one of there’s no trust and credibility.
KELSEY SNELL: I mean, that speaks directly to the trust questions. You talk to Democrats, they say that they don’t know what to trust about this president and they don’t know how to trust their negotiating partners in Congress because they keep returning to the president. They often say: We saw the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, say just Wednesday that they didn’t know what to cut a deal on because they didn’t know what the president wanted. And that’s an untenable situation, I think, when you’re only two days from a shutdown.
MR. COSTA: And it’s not, Kelsey, just about that erosion of trust, it’s the erosion of the budget process, which you study as a reporter, you cover at the Capitol. I was at the Capitol on Thursday night and so many lawmakers on both sides were complaining to me, they said: What happened to the way we used to appropriate, the way we used to budget?
MS. SNELL: Right. And some of that might be people feeling wistful for a time that didn’t entirely exist. The appropriations process has never been particularly functional. But, yeah, they – there was a time when they did a better job of getting the 12 regular appropriations bills through, and there was some relationship between a budget and what they spent. There is absolutely no relationship at this point. And for all the efforts that people have made to reform that, it hasn’t really gone anywhere.
MR. COSTA: And there’s more at stake here, Kim, than just the political points, because there are vulnerable populations across this country, people who count on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the DREAMers who are concerned about their fate. You think about the DREAMers in particular, who Jeff mentioned, you’ve mentioned as well. There’s a March deadline for their status, for whether they keep their permits or not. What’s on their mind tonight?
MS. ATKINS: I mean, I think they have to be thinking about their future. I mean, yes, the deadline is March, but you have to remember there are incremental deadlines for a lot of these people that have already come up, that are coming up. They are making decisions. They can’t go to school, they don’t know where to work. It’s really affecting a lot of people’s families. But, at the same time, you have a shutdown, that will affect a lot of people too. I have a lot of friends who work for the federal government who have been texting me all day trying to understand what will happen if they stop getting their paychecks.
There are people who are protected by the CHIP program, young children, that expired back at the end of September. I mean, there has been a lot of consternation over that for a long period of time. But you have – think about it, all the time that we’ve had to work on DACA, to work on CHIP. And yet, we’re here at this, you know, four-hour – little less than four-hour deadline where everything is pushed to the brink, and there are real lives at stake and real human beings on the other side of this.
MR. BALZ: Bob, you mentioned, you know, the issue of power. And I think that that goes to the heart of what we’re looking at here. We are in a period, and have been for some time, in which control of both the House and Senate are seemingly generally in play. And when you have that environment, the incentive for the leadership and even the rank and file is to do whatever they can to maximize their advantage for the upcoming election rather than solving problems as they come forward.
The idea that the CHIP program has been in abeyance for months – everybody’s known it. They keep putting it aside thinking we can deal with it later. They know they have a March deadline on DACA, and yet it’s – they go through this cycle month by month saying, well, we really don’t have to do anything. And they’re trying to squeeze out whatever they can in terms of an agreement to make the other party look like they’ve caved, to put the other party in a bad spot.
MR. COSTA: And talking about that election dynamic, Jeff, you think about the leadership in both parties, seem to be angling for their party’s base – to make sure those base voters are revved up for the 2018 midterms. At the same time, some of these vulnerable senators, red-state Democrats like Joe Donnelly of Indiana gave an intriguing floor speech today. He said that it’s our basic duty – our most basic duty, our job, to keep the government open. So amid all these base dynamics there are some moderates in each party who are saying: Keep it open.
MR. ZELENY: No question about it. And Joe Donnelly is one of those blue Democrats who comes from a red state. And there’s actually – it has increasingly become somewhat of an extinct species, certainly in the House of Representatives. You know, the Blue Dog Democrats were, you know, essentially wiped away in the 2010 midterm elections. But that is certainly a dynamic to watch tonight and into the weekend, as I believe this shutdown discussion will continue here. What do those – the red state Democrats do? And I think by and large, most of them will vote yes on this, because they do not want the shutdown to affect them.
But you’re right, the politics of this are uncertain. Democrats, of course, have less to lose here, because they don’t have the majority at all. You know, and Republicans certainly will probably get more blame. But individually seat, by seat, by seat, some of these Democrats have a lot to risk here. But we all should – also shouldn’t forget about the Republicans who are saying they are going to vote no. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders this evening has been calling out individually senators by name – Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, don’t you want to support the troops? At least as of this moment, she’s not mentioned the Republicans, like Lindsey Graham, who also are opposed to this CR.
MR. COSTA: So, Kelsey, 10:00 p.m. tonight, after an 8:30 p.m. Friday meeting of Senate Democrats, there’s a scheduled vote in the Senate. This will be taking up the bill that was passed on Thursday by House Republicans. And it extends the government funding for about a month. What do you expect from that Senate vote tonight?
MS. SNELL: That is – I think it all hinges on what happens inside that room with Democrats at 8:30. If Chuck Schumer can go in there and tell them that he has wrested some sort of victory from President Trump, or that he expects that President Trump will come out and say that, yes, they can – that there is some deal, there will be an opportunity for a vote on DACA, on a number of issues in the next month or so, then it’s possible that they could break off a few more people. But it’s entirely dependent on whether or not they can claim a victory enough so that Schumer can walk away and prove to his base that he’s satisfied their desires to fight really hard on DACA, while also satisfying the number of people who believe that they are, like you said, there to govern. There’s a large portion of the Democratic Party who view themselves as having a responsibility here.
MR. COSTA: Kim, regardless of what happens on Friday, whether it’s a few days they extend the government, if it’s a shutdown, maybe they extend the funding for a month, there’s still going to be ongoing talks about immigration. Jeff mentioned Senator Graham, he’s opposed to this kind of short-term deal. He’s been clashing with Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a hardline conservative on immigration. Will the Republicans be able to come to grips with the DACA issue that the president has at times supported, doing a deal on that? Will they come to a deal, do you think, in the coming weeks?
MS. ATKINS: I think that it depends on what the president does and says. I think the ball is really in his court here. He’s the one who is in the position to bring the different factions and parts of his party together and say, look, we’re going to cut this kind of deal, this is what you get and this is what you get. I mean, he’s The Art of the Deal guy. This gives him the opportunity to do that. And I think you’re exactly right. I think even tonight it depends on what the president was willing to give to the Democrats if there’s any movement tonight. And I certainly think he’s the one who’s going to take centerstage there.
MR. ZELENY: And it’s coming up on a year, I mean, one year since he’s been in office. I was looking back at what he said a year ago January 20th about DACA specifically. In a conversation with Senator Durbin he said we’re going to take care of those kids.
MS. ATKINS: Right.
MR. ZELENY: You know, we’re, like, a year on here, so it’s incumbent on ‒ he still has a chance to change this dynamic here. We’ll see if he does it.
MR. BALZ: But I think that ‒ I mean, I think his instinct is to want to try to do something on that front, as he showed at that meeting that was televised at the White House. And yet, there are people around him who have a different view of what the bottom line should be in terms of a deal. And I think that the Republicans on the Hill see John Kelly, the chief of staff, as their ally in holding the president’s feet to the fire on a deal to make sure that they get the provisions they want on border security along with a DACA agreement. And I think that’s part of the tension that we’re seeing play out.
MR. COSTA: What do you make of the tension, Dan, with General Kelly, the White House chief of staff? We see he had some tension with the president this week about comments he made in an interview, kind of walking back the wall pledge for the president; the president was unhappy with that according to various reports. But they still seem to be working together.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think that there is a working relationship there. And General Kelly, you know, in a sense, got into a ‒ got into a corner in that private meeting up on the Hill and said some things that the president was unhappy with. We know the president doesn’t like to be talked about in a negative way behind his back. But nonetheless, I think he recognizes what Kelly has been able to do at the White House, which is to certainly calm things down. And he has confidence in him on this immigration issue. Remember, he came from Homeland Security and the president had great confidence in the work he was doing there before he brought him over to the White House.
MR. COSTA: Kelsey, the military is at the center of this debate as well. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, he spoke sharply on Friday in Washington about shutdowns and about these continuing resolutions, the CR as we call them. He said it would have a terrible impact, he said a huge morale impact, affect facilities. But it’s not just Mattis’ comments that we were paying attention to, it’s the military spending debate on Capitol Hill. Where does that stand amid all this political drama?
MS. SNELL: Right. So the big issue here is that Republicans say they want to increase military spending as part of a long-term spending deal. Democrats generally agree with that idea. They view North Korea as a very serious threat and they think that it makes absolute sense that the military would need more money. But they are advocating for there to be an equal increase in domestic spending, in part because there are some programs within the domestic side of the discretionary budget that are growing at a very rapid pace, in particular the Veterans Choice Program, which was created so that veterans would have other options for getting health care, is growing at a tremendous rate and is taking up a larger portion of what is becoming a smaller part of the spending pie.
So that is difficult, but it sounds like, even talking to Democrats, that that deal is much, much easier for them than DACA. They think they’re pretty close on that.
MR. COSTA: The military seems to want ‒ Republicans, too, on Capitol Hill want to ease these spending caps. There seems to be an appetite for that. But they’re also angry at this fiscal standoff because they’re not addressing the issue.
MR. ZELENY: No question. And, you know, the military, once again, as we’ve seen again and again and again in these fights, regardless of who’s in charge, the military is sort of held up as an example of, you know, Democrats are going to try and hurt the military. I mean, the reality is ‒ I was having an email conversation with someone I know who’s in a military family today and they are sick of this actually. I mean, yes, they will still get paid, but it’s the spending and it’s these short-term situations.
And what you don’t really hear from this president and administration as much is that, you know, the war in Afghanistan, we’re sending more troops there. That’s actually escalating. We don’t talk nearly enough about the substance of these numbers, what’s behind them and then actually using the military as a weapon if you will. So I think that, you know, it’s been a fairly ugly debate in the last couple of days, sort of using the military as a weapon.
MR. COSTA: But, Dan, what’s the political cost of all this kind of paralysis on Capitol Hill? You think about the shutdown in 2013. Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, was the crusader in that fight. People thought Republicans would face immense consequence in 2014, yet the Republicans ended up winning the Senate the next year. It’s unpredictable to see how this all plays out with the midterms.
MR. BALZ: You know, go back to 2011 when we had the big battle over the debt ceiling and the effort on the part of then President Obama and then Speaker Boehner to cut a grand deal, which blew up. It was the White House calculation going into that that if it blew up it would ‒ all the fallout would end up on the Republicans. That wasn’t the case. President Obama took a hit at that moment, as did the Republicans.
I went back today and looked at some of the polling in 2013 about the shutdown. Approval of Congress dropped nine points between the September before the shutdown and October after the shutdown. The Republican numbers went down. And yet, as you say, you know, as everybody was predicting dire consequences for the Republican Party in the moment, by the time you got to the November elections bigger forces had taken over and they were able to have a big victory. So calculating what the long-term impact of this is, beyond the fact that it creates further distrust and disgust of Washington, it’s very hard to tell.
MS. ATKINS: And given the news cycle in a Trump administration where a new headline at any given day can completely change the conversation, as soon as the government is back up and running, within hours it could be a nonissue to what’s going on, and certainly by the time the midterms roll around it may not be a factor at all.
MS. SNELL: November seems very far away.
MR. COSTA: For the Children’s Health Insurance Program, this has had such bipartisan support. Are we really looking at a long-term fix this year? Or is this again going to be a political football as these CR debates perhaps continue?
MS. SNELL: Well, the very shortest version of an extension that we’ve been hearing about is six years. And that is what is included in the bill that would be coming up for a vote at 10:00. There, like you said, bipartisan support for this. It was created in part by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. He just announced that he is retiring. And he would very much like it to be part of his legacy that this is a longstanding fix.
MR. COSTA: And people who sometimes don’t qualify for Medicaid count on this program.
MS. SNELL: Right, right.
MR. COSTA: Prescriptions, doctor visits ‒
MS. SNELL: X-rays ‒ it’s capped at about 5 percent of a family’s annual income. That’s the most that they would pay for services under this. And it’s about 9 million kids.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, if the government does shut down, what does that mean for people who are federal workers or those who rely on federal programs? Is it sweeping, do they turn all the lights off?
MR. ZELENY: Not exactly, and especially because it’s happening on a Friday evening, the White House believes it gives them a little bit more breathing room. I was talking to Mick Mulvaney, who is the director of the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, this evening and he said, look, you know, we may not meet the deadline by midnight. And the reality here now is something extraordinary would have to happen for a vote to happen before midnight. But they do believe that they have a couple more days over the weekend.
But the reality is things do start happening. So all the agencies have submitted their reports, their shutdown plans. The White House says, you know, there’s going to be minimal disruption, so national parks will still be open. If this goes into next week, should it shut down, that’s where you’re really going to see things. Important things like the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, there is a flu outbreak, an epidemic going on, 30 young children killed, some 63 percent of workers would have to be furloughed the agency said today. So there are actually real consequences. Yes, people get paid at the end of the day.
Some conservatives are fine with it shutting down because they believe government is too big anyway. But you will start to feel it at some point, but not immediately.
MR. COSTA: And I was just doing some research today. The Postal Service does continue.
MR. ZELENY: It does.
MR. COSTA: You get your mail because the 500,000 Postal Service employees are exempt from the furlough because it’s self-funded. If you are a recipient of Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Unemployment Insurance, those programs’ spending is not dependent on Congress’ explicit funding. The IRS, though, is going to perhaps have to have some people not available as they try to figure out this tax bill.
But, Dan, back to politics. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York again appears on the scene meeting with the president one on one at the White House, this New York Democrat getting along with a former Democrat in the White House. What does it tell us?
MR. BALZ: Well, I mean, the optics of it are striking. They clearly do have a relationship. They have sparred a lot this year. And yet, there is some history between the two of them. And as we know, that’s important to Donald Trump, those prior relationships do have an impact.
I think what was interesting was he went down there, there were no Republican elected officials in that room. They had a conversation, but as you showed at the beginning of the program he had – Schumer had a message that went in two directions: well, we made some progress, but we still have a lot of deep differences. Well, we’ve gone through the day and it looks as though those differences have not exactly been resolved. So the dealmaking president wasn’t able to make a deal with, you know, a very practical-minded majority (sic; minority) leader who also is worried very much about his base.
MR. ZELENY: It was still interesting, though, as that meeting was going on, some House Republicans I was talking to were suddenly worried that, oh, Chuck Schumer’s in the Oval Office for 90 minutes with the president; we’re going to get rolled here. So it is very interesting that they made the decision – the president made this decision. Four people in the room: the president, his chief of staff, Senator Schumer, and his chief of staff. No one else. That’s the first time that I can remember that happening in this administration, and this president famous for filling up every seat at the boardroom and sitting at the middle of it and having these televised meetings. Pretty extraordinary.
MS. SNELL: Those circumstances certainly caused some panic on the Hill. I was in the halls there, and there was a moment where you could – it was palpable. And there were a number of chiefs of staff texting, saying, what do you think’s going to happen? They’re going to take – they’re going to take away our bargaining power. They were very worried.
MR. COSTA: They were asking the reporters.
MS. SNELL: They were. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: And what did that say, that the Republican Party just passed a major tax bill with President Trump a month ago; a month later, they’re worried about him going over to the Democratic side?
MS. ATKINS: It’s true, and nobody’s talking about that tax bill right now. I mean, I think a lot of American people right now are saying, well, how can – how is Congress celebrating passing a bill that gives tax cuts to companies when the federal employees may not get paid starting in a week or two? I mean, it’s a real bad juxtaposition. It really steps on a message. Not just that; the economy is doing really well, and it is the anniversary of the president’s inauguration. So all of these things are being completely stepped on. These great talking points for the president and the Republicans are getting stepped over by this.
MR. COSTA: OK. Thank you so much, Kim, Dan, Jeff, Kelsey. We’ll turn back to watching the floor in a few minutes.
And thanks, everybody, for watching. Don’t go anywhere because the Washington Week Extra is coming up next on most PBS stations. I’ll get to talk to two investigative reporters, two of the best, about the Russia probe, and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon getting two subpoenas this week. Plus, we’ll explain why many Medicaid recipients will soon have to work to qualify for health benefits. And if you miss the show or the Extra, you can always watch it online Friday nights and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And tune into the PBS NewsHour this weekend for the latest on the government shutdown.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.