GWEN IFILL: Guns, budgets, and politics, a toxic brew that might actually be going somewhere, tonight on “Washington Week.”
On guns, rare consensus on Capitol Hill.
SENATOR JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): (From tape.) We have an agreement on an amendment to prevent criminals and the mentally ill and insane from getting firearms and harming people.
MS. IFILL: But agreeing to vote doesn’t mean agreeing to enact background checks.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): (From tape.) We should try to work together to find ways to address this, not in a symbolic sort of way, but in a real way that offers a solution.
MS. IFILL: Just like submitting a White House budget doesn’t mean passing one.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) When it comes to deficit reduction, I’ve already met Republicans more than halfway.
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From tape.) President calls this his compromised budget, but his bottom line is this: my way or the highway.
MS. IFILL: Still, everybody’s talking and that, at least, is good news. We explain why with John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times, Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post, and Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Ignore the headlines. The real stories this week could be found in the fine print, as the Senate took a baby step forward on gun control and the president shifted Democratic priorities with a new budget plan. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi summed it best.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From tape.) It’s about guns and budget, guns and budget. You don’t know this, but when many of us were in college, it was guns and butter. Now, it’s guns and budget, and that’s what’s in front of us now.
MS. IFILL: We start tonight with the budget. What the president is proposing and why and if it matters? So give us the nuts and bolts of it, John.
JOHN HARWOOD: Gwen, I think we need to look at the budget as three different things going on at the same time. The first is a reflection of what has happened and what has happened, surprising to some people, is the deficit has come down dramatically, in part because of what Congress and the president have agreed to cut so far, in part because the economy is recovering. So 2009, as the president takes office in the financial crisis, the deficit turned out to be $1.4 trillion. It’s half that now. It was 10 percent of the size of the economy. Now, it’s 4.4 percent. The president’s spending levels as a share of the economy are slightly higher than when Ronald Reagan left office, but his revenue is slightly lower. So the deficit’s moving in a good place at the moment, although it will get worse as baby boomers retire.
So that having taken place, if we don’t have any more deficit reduction, the budget shows ways the president would like to change priorities. So he says I want a new preschool program, universal quality preschool for all four-year-olds. That costs $76 billion. And I want to raise the federal cigarette tax to pay for that by $78 billion.
MS. IFILL: Doubling the tax.
MR. HARWOOD: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: On a pack of cigarette.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly, over 10 years. There’re various tax breaks he would get rid of. The tax break that hedge fund managers have for carried interest. He’d limit the tax benefit from IRAs, from people who have a lot of money and to use that money for childcare, for education programs, for other benefits. He’s got a pot of money that he says he would use to reform the corporate tax system if Congress, in fact, wants to do that and he sets aside a bunch of loopholes he would close.
So those are the things he would like to do and may not get done. Then, there’s one more effort he’s trying to make, which is to get Republicans to make a big deal for more deficit reduction. And the relevant policy proposal there is the effort to reduce the inflation adjustments for social security and other federal programs. It’s called chained CPI. It just means you have a lower level of inflation. That means Social Security benefits, over time, would grow more slowly. It also would change the income tax bracket, so that more people would pay a little bit more money because they wouldn’t be pushed down into lower tax brackets.
MS. IFILL: And that’s what got the Democrats –
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: – we’ll get back to in a moment.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: So John, I was thinking about the term “cut and invest.” The president is following two months after the Senate has adopted a budget framework, a blueprint. The House has its own budget. What is the cut and invest tactic that the president is trying to inject into the system? How is it being received by the two chambers and what would be the progress of getting it to the finish line this year?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, here’s how it’s distinguished from the House and Senate budgets. The House, of course, has a more austere budget. They don’t want to raise taxes. And so they want to spend less across the board. They embrace the sequester. The president would get rid of the sequester. The Senate would raise more taxes than the president would to fund more investment. So it’s a little more tax and spend than the president is in favor of.
But essentially what he’s trying to do, and chained CPI is part of this, he’s trying to induce Republicans to negotiate with him on a grand bargain to limit the cost of those entitlement programs benefiting seniors. Why? Because the baby boomers are retiring. Seniors are consuming more and more of the federal budget. And the president’s trying to say, we need to spend a little bit less on that, a little bit more on things for younger people through education, through job training, through ways to make the economy grow. And the question is can he get Republicans to go along with him on that? On some things, maybe. On most probably not.
JOHN DICKERSON: Democrats, very angry about this idea about shrinking the cost of living adjustments, the chained CPI that we’re going to hear about over and over again. What was the substantive critique from them? Why don’t they like it?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, first of all, they don’t like it because it means lower Social Security benefits for some people and there’re a lot of Democrats, who believe as a matter of ideology that middle class people in the society, whether they’re seniors or younger, aren’t doing well enough and we shouldn’t squeeze them more. As an alternative to that, let’s raise more money from people at the top. There’re questions about whether the new inflation formula is the appropriate one or not. You know, the argument for chained CPI is we’re overestimating inflation. The people who are for this, some of them, say it’s a technical adjustment that makes the inflation adjustments more accurate.
Whether it’s a better adjustment or not, it means less money for those people, and that’s part of the critique. But off course, all that squawking from Democrats is a good thing for the president if he’s going to persuade Republicans that he’s serious about taking on problems. We’re going to see whether he can do that.
ED O’KEEFE: You mentioned the cigarette tax, which is something that a lot of governors have used in the past. Were there any other surprises that we saw in this new budget because I remember that’s been a lot of the same?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I’ll tell you what surprised me about the budget was that the president, after signing a permanent fiscal cliff deal to extend the – allow higher tax rates for people at the top, extend the Bush tax cuts for people in the middle, and alter the federal estate tax, again, a permanent change in the estate tax is now saying, well, actually, in 2019, I want to raise that estate tax again. So that 40 percent level that he signed in the fiscal cliff deal, he said in 2019 should go to 45 percent. Now, of course, he will not be president in 2019. So it’s a bit of a fanciful exercise, but still, if I were Republican, I would say if we just made a permanent deal, why are you proposing to change it?
MS. IFILL: Does it feel like it’s the step toward the grand bargain everybody keeps talking about, or is it just what we have all covered dozens of times, the annual federal budget, do it the way it’s always been done, dead on arrival?
MR. HARWOOD: It is a step toward the grand bargain. The only question is how many more steps will be required to get there and will you fall down in a hole before you get to the finish line. Anybody betting on a grand bargain – and I have – over the last couple of years – just gone broke with those bets. (Laughter.) So I wouldn’t –
MS. IFILL: But you also bet on Dukes, so –
MR. HARWOOD: That’s correct. (Laughter.) So I wouldn’t assume it’s going to happen, but I do think the body language, the response that you’ve gotten from Republicans, from John Boehner to Paul Ryan, suggests that at least it’s made an impression on them it might work.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, John. There was real movement on gun policy this week, if only around the edges. Emotions dovetailed with compromise, and the Senate is now willing to at least debate placing limits on who gets to buy firearms. Sixty eight senators voted to begin debate. So how big a deal was that? Sixty eight didn’t sound like a lot to the families of Newtown, but –
MR. O’KEEFE: It didn’t, but 16 Republicans went along with this, basically agreement to talk. And so next week, they’re going to launch into what promises to be a week’s long conversation about a host of different ideas. I thought most notable not only 16 Republicans, but 21 senators of both parties, who have an A-plus, an A or A-qualified rating for the National Rifle Association, also voted to continue debate.
MS. IFILL: But that vote happened because they were under pressure or because they dealt now – seen the light and they are going to then support this when it actually comes to a real vote?
MR. O’KEEFE: I don’t know they saw the light, but they saw the polling over that two-week Easter recess that showed nine in 10 Americans support an expansion of the background check program. And I think the types of Republicans you saw come back to Washington and say let’s at least talk about this: John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, are the types of sort of pragmatic Republicans that say, look, you know, I see that. We should have at least a discussion. And Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, of course, credited McCain for going on “Face the Nation” last weekend and saying we really shouldn’t block this because the American public would at least like a conversation.
MR. DICKERSON: It was the polls and then we also had these visits from the families whose children had been killed in Newtown, and there was also former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. What role did those two play in this lobbying effort?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, first, the family, I mean, we know they dramatically flew black from Connecticut with President Obama, Monday night, to begin their lobbying effort. And really he lobbying effort – and Saturday morning, with the radio address, the president is handing it over to one of the mothers of one of the children that was killed. But they spent the entire week on the Hill, meeting with Senators of both parties. At one point, Harry Reid said, I met with them and I didn’t want. And by that, he meant he knew this would be a very painful conversation. But every lawmaker who’s on the side of stricter laws has said they are the most effective advocates. It’s great that they’re here to do this because in many cases they’ve been the missing piece over the last few years when it comes to discussions about guns.
As for Giffords, she wasn’t in Washington this week, but we discovered over the course of learning about this deal that was cut between Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey that her new group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, actually played a key role. They essentially identified in separate meetings with both of those senators that in fact they were pretty much in agreement. And so that group appears to have put them together and helped sort of push that conversation along, which, you know, to their credit, did it very quietly, and it shows you that she, perhaps more than any other advocate, really does have bipartisan appeal and that offices are willing to talk about it.
MR. HARWOOD: Ed, can I ask you about the substance of that deal? I have heard people say this week that no assault weapons ban, doesn’t look like we’re going to get limits on the high capacity magazines. This bill is weak, pathetic, won’t do anything. On the other hand, you hear people say, no, a substantial increase in the background checks will be a big deal, will make a difference. Will it?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, you know, it remains to be seen. It’s notable that one of the Republicans who had been involved in the conversations, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, actually said I still have concerns about this deal because while the background check program would be expanded to gun shows and to all internet sales and to all commercial activity, he said, notice there’s a loophole. If a gun dealer were to email someone who’s interested, that wouldn’t require a background check. He said, what’s to stop someone from walking into the gun show, picking up the gun dealer’s business card, walking outside, emailing the gun dealer, and saying, find me in an hour in the parking lot. Call it the gun show parking lot loophole.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s a very good point. So was this something that was negotiated into it in order to win people over?
MR. O’KEEFE: No, because that’s still a loophole. They’re saying that the agreement that was cut leaves that loophole.
MS. IFILL: On purpose, though.
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, yes, because it was – you know, these private conversations between people, you can’t have the government going into someone’s email or you can’t use email to necessarily prove it, it’d be like picking up the phone.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Ed, one of the things that we – has got lost in the discussion is kind of where we started off in December, in Newtown, and that is with the mental health portion of this. We saw the president take executive action, tried to talk about what the administration can do within the federal dimension of the executive branch. What is this legislation emerging out of the Senate likely to do that relates to mental health?
MR. O’KEEFE: Sure. Nothing in the current piece of legislation that was moved to debate says anything really about mental health. But there are several different proposals. There’s a big bipartisan proposal being led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow that would increase federal funding and sort of with a focus on military veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, the most callous of us might say, well, of course, you invoke the veterans, how can you vote against it? But in reality, they see this as a big concern in the states, because a lot of these soldiers, they’re coming back and they – we know they’ve had serious problems. So they’re trying to find a way to include that –
MS. SIMENDINGER: As amendments.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, as amendments. And it is believed that the Democrats are willing to allow those types of things to go forward.
MS. IFILL: What – where is the NRA in all of this, because – on one hand, you could argue that the NRA had a big victory. They beat back the more stringent proposals. On the other hand, there was supposed to be a big filibuster to stop this from even coming to a vote that kind of went away at some point, before the week even began.
MR. O’KEEFE: You talk to Joe Manchin, who cut this deal, he says, this is the best deal the NRA could have asked for because they’ve got several different things in here that they wanted. For example, the ability of someone from a state that has broader gun laws being able to carry it into a state with stricter gun laws on their way somewhere else. That’s – you know – traveling with a weapon basically has always been a big concern.
There were sort of a lot of other details that were sorted out, but he said, in this moment, with the people who cut this deal, the NRA couldn’t have asked for anything more.
MS. IFILL: What happened to the registration, this idea of registering people who –
MR. O’KEEFE: The idea of sort of a national registry –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. O’KEEFE: – that’s seen as a bridge too far for too many members of both parties. That akin to a national gun registry –
MR. HARWOOD: But under this deal, they do have to keep the records.
MR. O’KEEFE: That’s correct. And that was a big – a big necessary for Democrats. Chuck Schumer, the senator of New York, especially said that will help law enforcement more than anything.
MS. IFILL: Thanks , Ed, and welcome to “Washington Week.”
MR. O’KEEFE: Great to be here.
MS. IFILL: Politically a lot was at stake for the players in this week’s hot debates, and that’s why it was impossible to identify traditional winners and losers. On the budget, Democrats were mad at the Democrat in the White House, while some Republicans couldn’t agree on the president’s promise to cut entitlements. And the disagreement on the guns, which has raged for years, put gun owners and gun control advocates alike between rocks and hard places. The watch for at the White House seemed to be compromise. Maybe because they’re reading a few of the polls over there, John?
MR. DICKERSON: They are. You know, it’s interesting to watch the president on these three different things he’s been negotiating on, and also to see how he’s changed from right after the election, where they felt like they had the high hand in the White House. The polls were showing the president doing much better than Republicans, and he was being more confrontational, with Republicans.
Now, let’s look at immigration. He has largely stayed out of the immigration negotiations. It’s happened with these senators and also a group in the House. The president has kind of jumped in at the moment, when it looked a little bit wildly, but has let them do their work.
On the stricter gun laws, he’s been very much out in the front – he’s been keeping it on the agenda, giving these emotional speeches, but not getting involved in the nitty-gritty –
MS. IFILL: Saying we want to vote, but not necessarily saying what the vote ought to be on.
MR. DICKERSON: That’s right. Early on, he did say what the vote should be on, but since then, he pulled back a little, said we just want a vote. And then, on the budget, he’s been much more specific. He had another dinner this week, the dinner theater that’s going on here with the president and Republican senators. He had one about a month ago at the Jefferson Hotel. This is an effort to work out negotiations. On that, he’s being quite specific.
And this chained CPI that we talked about was explicit effort to build trust because these Republican senators he’s trying to build a budget deal with need to be able to say to their constituents, look, I wrung something from this president. Now, while these entitlement cuts the president’s offering, he’s been offering for years behind the scenes, saying them publicly, allows these Republicans he hopes to make a deal with say, look, he is being serious. We have gotten this from him. And that might be a tiny basis for further negotiation.
MS. IFILL: And there’s a calculation, I gather, at the White House, Alexis, that it’s not such a bad idea to have Bernie Sanders mad at you.
MS. SIMENDINGER: No, there’s a thought in mind that that’s going to provide a certain level of, I guess, concept of centrism. If you get everybody mad at you, you’re somehow weaving between your flags. The thing I thought was interesting is, as John was pointing out, the president’s effort this week to try to find different incentives, the incentive game, and try to play all of those at the same time. In guns, his incentives are weaker. In the budget, he spent a lot of time, as John was suggesting, trying to find a sweet spot where he can entice Republicans to work with him, to get that off his blotter. On immigration, he knows Republicans want to get that off their blotter. He’s trying to play that incentive with them. And as John was saying, the style is, you know, in each different issue very different.
I should also point out. It was interesting to me the president’s dinner (d’état ?) efforts. Thirteen of the 16 Republicans who crossed over to break the filibuster have had dinner with the president recently. I’m not saying they’re connected, but his identification of what he calls the common sense caucus, he might be doing the right thing in trying to bring those senators and in trying to find a way to then apply pressure to the House.
So the politics of it, the style of it, and this idea of angering your left flank, the White House was a little concerned, though, that that might backfire if this – you know – progresses anywhere seriously. You can push it so far. And obviously, the president is doing a lot of fundraising for Democratic candidates and we’re seeing folks on his left say we’re going to primary these folks. If you vote with the president on Social Security cuts or Medicare cuts, we are going to rebel against you. And then you could see on the Right, there’s also this concern, too.
MR. HARWOOD: Alexis, I’m interested in the role of emotion in this gun debate, in particular the first families’ emotion. Remember, the gun violence was not on the president’s agenda till after Newtown. And he seemed to feel that it was his responsibility as a father –
MS. IFILL: Said it was the worst day of his presidency –
MR. HARWOOD: That’s right. And he seemed to be expressing a little bit of remorse that he hadn’t placed that higher earlier, but this week, Michelle Obama gave a speech highly emotional. I don’t think I’ve seen her that way. Talk a little bit about how the White House look to Michelle Obama as somebody able to move the ball down the field. She’s very popular.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, before I get to Michelle, let me just say, this was a week of really great personal emotion, as you say. The president started out in Connecticut with the Newtown families, and he was screaming almost stand up, stand up. He wanted that vote.
Then, by the middle of the week, we also heard the vice president telling this very emotional story to law enforcement, making it very personal, almost breaking up crying and relating his own personal loss of his wife and his child, and talking about the Newtown families, how that had affected him.
Michelle Obama, the first lady, went to Chicago, her hometown, and much like the president’s done, she said that Hadiya Pendleton, the young girl who had been a drive-by shooting victim at the peak of her life, with every sort of promise, she said, I am her. She connected, not just to her town or to South Chicago, but she was connecting to this young victim.
MS. IFILL: But once again, this was an example of how the White House uses Michelle Obama. They wanted to tell everyone who would listen that this was not about policy. This was about her own personal connection. So when she does speak, that’s what she speaks too.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But what was vibrant about her speech was that she also said, you know, my president’s working – or my husband is working very hard for this vote. We need to get this vote. And she put herself into that “we need this vote” debate.
MR. DICKERSON: So here’s some of the cold water on this – on the gun bill, this compromise between the Democrats, Senator Manchin, and the Republican Senator Toomey. The whole point was Manchin had been on a hunt to find a Republican who had credentials with the NRA to give some cover to the other senators, some of whom, five Democrats in red states, who are in – up for election in 2014. The NRA has said this is no compromise. We don’t like this Manchin-Toomey compromise. And what’s the problem? And Senator Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma, not only has talked about the parking lot loophole that Ed mentioned, but he says that essentially there’s a tax because under this provision what happens is if you’re going to do a deal at a gun show, you have to go to a licensed firearm operator. And that licensed firearm operator is going to charge a fee to the gun show people. And that’s a $20, $30, $40, $50 fee. That will make those people who are at the gun show say let’s do the deal in the parking lot, skip the background check.
He also says that this records issue, which is in the compromise right now, is a deal killer for a lot of the senators who need to vote. And for the final bill, we still need 60 votes to pass. It still needs 60 votes. So Harry Reid needs to find at least five Republicans, probably more because there’re going to be some Democrats who vote against what Harry Reid puts forward.
So this notion of a record being kept anywhere, Republicans and Senator Cruz said this week, this is the first stop to a national gun registry and that inflames those Second Amendment voters. And that’s where the real thing to watch here for is for this bill.
MR. O’KEEFE: And do we – we’re talking about guns. We’re talking about budget. Next week, we expect the bipartisan immigration proposal to come forward. You touched a little bit on the strategy regarding money and regarding guns. What about immigration? Is the White House keeping tabs? Are they prepared to endorse this?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, there – at the White House, they’re much more optimistic about the glide path towards something potentially this year on immigration than the struggle with guns. They always thought that that would be a challenge from the beginning, obviously.
What’s interesting, though, is that the White House was really, this week, trying to tamp down the rosy scenario where they’re kind of feeling like we’re making so much progress, trying to tell people we have a long way to go. And on immigration, they know that that is the case as well. There has been this sense at the White House, and all of us know this, that Senator Marco Rubio is at the center of this and we’re expecting Senator Marco Rubio to step up and do all seven shows, you know –
MS. IFILL: Sunday talk shows, yeah.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Sunday talk shows, with water, I hope. (Laughter.)
MR. HARWOOD: And in two languages.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And put himself fully behind this effort to try to get a legislation, a compromise bill through –
MS. IFILL: And we only have a little bit of time left, but I’m also curious about this idea that the president may be giving away too much too soon. He came out and said, compromise is the watchword. I’ve come half way. And the Republicans said, oh, no, I don’t think you came any way. And I wonder if that doesn’t backfire.
MR. DICKERSON: A lot of Democrats are saying there’s a tactical – you made a tactical mistake here. You’ve given up some on entitlements, and Republicans aren’t going to give you – the reason the president’s giving up on – giving something on entitlements is in the hopes of getting Republicans to agree to some tax increases. A lot of Democrats think they’re never going to make that agreement.
MS. IFILL: OK, well, thank you all very much. There’ll be a lot more to talk about. We’ve got to go for now, but the conversation will continue online streamed live on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. You’ll be able to find us at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time still talking about immigration, gay marriage, pot, and Kentucky politics, really, at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And the next week, the immigration debate, as we mentioned, will begin in earnest. Keep up with daily developments over at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here again next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.