JOHN HARWOOD: The House Republican leadership race becomes a meltdown, Hillary Clinton splits with President Obama, the United States gives up on one key strategy in Syria, and a polarized Supreme Court sits down to argue again. I’m John Harwood in for Gwen Ifill tonight on Washington Week.
REPRESENTATIVE KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) I think I shocked some you, huh?
MR. HARWOOD: Chaos in the House as the presumed successor to Speaker John Boehner drops out of the running.
REP. MCCARTHY: (From video.) We should put this conference first. And I think there’s something to be said for us to unite. We probably need a fresh face.
MR. HARWOOD: But who might that fresh face be? All eyes are on this man. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, again, distances herself from the president, this time on his Pacific trade pact.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) What I know about it as of today I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.
MR. HARWOOD: Flip flop, evolution or political calculation? Overseas, the U.S. admits training Syrian rebels against the Assad regime isn’t working, while at the same time Russia steps up its engagement, upsetting the U.S. and its NATO allies.
NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: (From video.) It’s unacceptable, it’s dangerous, and it’s reckless behavior. It adds to the tensions.
MR. HARWOOD: The strategy shift in Syria, now that Putin’s military is fully engaged. And at the Supreme Court, the first Monday in October brings a docket with politically charged cases on voting rights, affirmative action, and abortion – a look at the new term.
Covering the Week, Reid Wilson, chief political correspondent and Congress editor for Morning Consult; Anne Gearan, political correspondent for The Washington Post; Michael Crowley, senior foreign affairs correspondent for Politico; and Joan Biskupic, legal affairs editor for Reuters.
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, John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times.
MR. HARWOOD: Good evening. If you were shocked two weeks ago when House Speaker John Boehner announced his resignation, well, House Republicans were just getting started. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy looked like the clear heir apparent, but he angered his party by suggesting in an interview the House Benghazi Committee was designed to damage Hillary Clinton politically. And then, conservatives revolted.
REPRESENTATIVE TIM HUELSKAMP (R-KS): (From video.) Well, but we were looking at how do we work together? We’re looking for a speaker who works with the conservatives rather than against us.
MR. HARWOOD: Those hardliners forced McCarthy to abandon his bid for the speakership, but they attracted acrimony themselves.
REPRESENTATIVE CHARLIE DENT (R-PA): (From video.) Should not appease those who make unreasonable demands. There are a number of members of our conference who simply cannot get to yes on anything.
MR. HARWOOD: That leaves Republicans scrambling and struggling to find a consensus candidate. Now, Reid, this revives memories of the late 1990s when the Republicans lost Newt Gingrich and his successor back to back. How did it happen again?
REID WILSON: It happened against because there is a significant portion of the Republican conference in the House that is simply unwilling to accept that negotiations need to take place between the Republican-led Congress and the Democratic-controlled White House or the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Senate, where Democrats hold a filibuster-proof minority.
MR. HARWOOD: It's about whether you negotiate, not about ideology?
MR. WILSON: That's right. It's about agreeing with Democrats to get something done. There are so many big issues that Congress faces right now, must-pass deadlines that are coming up before the end of the year. And a significant number of Republicans were – have this feeling that their leaders in Congress simply aren't fighting hard enough. That's what cost John Boehner his job two weeks ago. It is now what has cost Kevin McCarthy his shot at a speakership, a job that he's wanted for most of his adult life.
MR. HARWOOD: Which, of course, the fact that it cost McCarthy the speakership keeps John Boehner in the speakership longer.
MR. WILSON: Which is – which is one of the ironies, right, is that one of the possible outcomes here is that the guy that conservatives really wanted to kick out, John Boehner, is going to be there for possibly another couple of months as they to figure this all out.
JOAN BISKUPIC: So what happens now? I know there’s a lot of pressure to have maybe Paul Ryan step in, but if it’s him or anyone else, won't they face the same sorts of things that the two past – John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy faced?
MR. WILSON: The math is not on their side at the moment. There are 247 Republicans in the House Republican conference. It requires 218 votes to be elected speaker of the House. That means you can only lose 29 before you can't be elected speaker on the first ballot. The conservative House Freedom Caucus said that they would not be – they would be endorsing a different candidate, Congressman Dan Webster from Florida, over Kevin McCarthy.
So McCarthy could have won a majority of House Republicans, but not necessarily a majority of the House at large. That would have forecasted a floor fight. Now, just in the last couple of days, we’ve started to hear some House Freedom Caucus members questioning Congressman Paul Ryan's conservative credentials, which leads one to think that he might – his honeymoon might be over before it even began.
ANNE GEARAN: Do you think anyone can do this job?
MR. WILSON: In a word, no. (Laughter.) It is – it is very difficult to see how anybody shepherds a very divided Republican conference. On one side, you've got sort of the institutionalists, the people who are – who come to show that the Republican Party is able to govern, is able to pass its legislation, even if President Obama is opposed. On the other hand, you've got some people who want to see President Obama have to veto everything. They want to see the Affordable Care Act – I mean, every Republican in the House wants to see the Affordable Care Act passed.
A handful of them, however, recognize that that's not going to happen with President Obama in the White House, with 46 Democrats in the U.S. Senate. There is – there is a divide here between the people who see the political writing on the wall and the people who want to go fight and die on that hill anyway.
MR. HARWOOD: Reid, to Anne's question, is there any reason to take seriously the idea that you may have, for the first time that I've ever seen, a situation where the majority of Republicans would make common cause with some subgroup of Democrats and elect a speaker who would serve and bypass that rump group that won't go along?
MR. WILSON: That has been suggested by Charlie Dent, the second person you saw in the voiceover there. And they've identified some possible candidates. There are some members who are retiring who might make for a good temporary speaker at least. Congressman John Klein of Minnesota’s name has come up. Congresswoman Candice Miller of Michigan’s name has come up, and a few others here and there. But, you know, it is possible to get to 218 with Democratic votes if that's just sort of a caretaker position. But remember, though, that the last time we got a caretaker speaker it turned out to be Dennis Hastert, and he was speaker for eight years.
MICHAEL CROWLEY: And what does this all mean for the possibility of a government shutdown, another crisis over the debt limit? Is this chaos going to spill into those really substantive issues?
MR. WILSON: I mean, this is the big threat that the House faces now. The leadership election that was supposed to take place on Thursday would have ultimately led to a new speaker being elected on October 29th. Just a week later, the nation's going to hit its borrowing limit. Now there is no speaker – there’s no speaker, other than John Boehner. So there are still these giant, massive deadlines. The Highway Trust Fund is about to run out. The government funding ends on December 11th. There are these huge issues on the table, and nobody who's really grabbed the leadership mantle. The benefit of having John Boehner there, though, is that he can take a lot of political heat and just get everything off the table, and he won't have to answer to a lot of Republicans.
MR. HARWOOD: Is that what you expect to happen?
MR. WILSON: That's what I expect to happen, at least for the short term, for John Boehner to stick around. And in some cases, that's good news for people who are worried about the country hitting the debt limit. He’s able to take the political heat, because he’s not seeking reelection.
MR. CROWLEY: Jump on the grenade.
MR. WILSON: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MR. HARWOOD: Reid, thanks very much.
How, what a week for Hillary Clinton. She got a huge political gift from Kevin McCarthy’s comments on the Benghazi Committee, which she quickly turned into a campaign ad.
MR. : (From video.) The Republicans finally admit it.
MS. : (From video.) Republican Kevin McCarthy saying the committee investigating Benghazi and Clinton's emails was created to destroy her candidacy.
MR. HARWOOD: Then, after the president announced completion of his Pacific trade pact, Hillary Clinton reversed her previous support and told Judy Woodruff she opposes the deal.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Well, I have said from the very beginning that we had to have a trade agreement that would create good American jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security. And I still believe that's the high bar we have to meet. I have been trying to learn as much as I can about the agreement. But I'm worried.
MR. HARWOOD: And the words that keep ringing in my ear are Hillary Clinton saying “gold standard” over and over.
MS. GEARAN: Yes.
MR. HARWOOD: What happened?
MS. GEARAN: Well, in 2012 when she called this Pacific trade deal the gold standard of modern trade deals, she also specifically said that it would build in job protections. And she is now hanging her reversal on the fact that according to her there aren't significant or enough built-in job protections. If anything, what happened between 2012 and now is that some of those things got actually more worker friendly, more U.S.-worker friendly. So what she – what happened is she announced for president, and she's got a debate coming up next week, and all of the other –
MR. HARWOOD: Zero chance that this is driven by the substance and the merits?
MS. GEARAN: Well, I can only say what she says, which is that it's driven on the substance and the merits. However, there really isn't a specific substantive thing that – forensically, if you go through the deal that you could point to that would be different enough that would appear to support that switch. It certainly appears to be a political switch, not unlike the one that she made on NAFTA when she was running in 2007 and 2008. And the timing is important here.
Every other Democrat on that debate stage on Tuesday has said that they are against it. And the Democrat who likely isn't going to be on that debate stage, Biden, is for it. And not only for it, he’s been a point man for the administration in trying to round up Democratic support – a thankless task, by the way. But, you know, she will be boxing him in. By now saying she is against it that puts her – that sort of neutralizes it as a debate issue and it also means that he’s now the outlier.
MS. BISKUPIC: So, is this a more significant break from the Obama administration than other past things, you know, that we've talked about on recent shows – you know, on immigration policy or on the health care so-called Cadillac tax?
MS. GEARAN: Yes.
MS. BISKUPIC: I mean, so this is more meat for her to bring in on Tuesday?
MS. GEARAN: Yeah, I mean – absolutely. That's a really good question. I mean, in several other instances where she has done something different than the White House, it's been different by degree for the most part. She supports almost the entire Affordable Care Act and lauds it to the end of the Earth, but she would go against this one piece of it, the Cadillac tax. This is an about-face. This is a 100 percent rejection of something that not only is it a huge deal for the White House, it's something that she worked on directly on and championed when she worked for them as secretary of state.
MR. WILSON: As they approach next week’s debate, how concerned is the Clinton campaign that somebody is going to have a break-out moment, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley?
MS. GEARAN: They're clearly worried about it. And those are the two against whom they are practicing. Yes, she’s having debate prep. And those are the two that they think will try to seek a moment. I mean, it’s going to be – it’s basically going to be them against her – all other four of them against her. And they'll all try to take shots at her. They'll all try to make her look bad. They'll try to make her get mad or say something embarrassing.
MR. CROWLEY: And how about this upcoming appearance before the Benghazi Committee that ad sets the stage for? Is this all kind of prelude to that operatic moment? Is that going to be a huge turning point?
MS. GEARAN: Well, I mean, the campaign actually now thinks it's a good thing. I mean, they have sort of pretended to say that it's a good thing in the past, like we want to be transparent. She'll go out there. She’ll answer every question. She'll stay until, you know, the last dog is dead, all night if they want her to stay. She'll answer every question.
But that was before the Kevin McCarthy, you know, gift-wrapped cupcake that they got where, you know, they used to have to say – they, being Hillary Clinton and her aides – used to have to sort of say that this was the real thing, this – you know, her Benghazi appearance was actually sort of maybe in the service of finding facts. And now, they can go back to saying what they really have thought all along, which is that it's a political exercise. And they think she comes out on top.
MR. HARWOOD: And the other thing she did this week is announce some Wall Street regulations. That’s an issue where he's been flanked to the left by O'Malley and Sanders. Is she now believing that she could actually lose this nomination? We've all been operating under the presumption of course she's going to be the nominee. And you see these kind of moves, and you wonder, are they nervous?
MS. GEARAN: Well, they are nervous. And they should be. I mean, she's had a terrible slide in poll numbers in the two states where she’s spending the most money and the most time, the first two states that vote. That’s been the basis of their campaign strategy, is shore up Iowa and New Hampshire. You know, have a rock solid position in both of those places. And she doesn't. She's losing in New Hampshire and she’s barely winning in Iowa. So I mean –
MR. HARWOOD: She’s got a bunch of Southern primaries after that, though, where she’s –
MS. GEARAN: Absolutely. So now their fallback is – yeah, but then every state after that, she's good. And she is ahead in every state after that. And if you look, you know, particularly at the Southern Super Tuesday, the March 1st and March 15th states, she’s in very good positions there. However, it would not be a good solid front-running position to go out and lose either or both of the first two states.
MR. HARWOOD: First test on Tuesday. It’s going to be a fun to watch.
Now, in Syria, the stepped-up Russian military engagement continues to confound the U.S. and its allies. They worry Russia is targeting American-backed foes of the Assad regime instead of the terrorist network that has spread over much of the country. That would put President Obama's objectives at odds with Vladimir Putin's. Then today, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the American effort to train Syrian rebels isn’t working.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: (From video.) I wasn't satisfied with the early efforts in that regard. And so we're looking at different ways to achieve basically the same kind of strategic objective, which is the right one, which is to enable capable, motivated forces on the ground to retake territory from ISIL and reclaim Syrian territory from extremism.
MR. HARWOOD: So, Michael, where does that leave the president’s Syria policy? (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: Well, you know, I would say that it would be kind of ending with a whimper, except it's a bang. The bang is Russian bombs and missiles falling on Syria and really confounding the White House. I mean, President Obama over the last couple years has had two major foreign policy crises.
One is the quagmire in Syria, what do you do about it? And the other is Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, how do you deal with this resurgent Russian nationalism? Well, the two of them have merged in this perfect storm. And there are just no good answers coming out of the White House. I think you have to be sympathetic, even if you think they’re not handling it as well as they could. This is so confounding.
On that training program in particular, it's been clear for a while that it wasn't working. President Obama announced it a year ago when he announced this – we were leading this multi-nation campaign to try to degrade and destroy ISIS. Primarily, that's been through airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but we were also going to train these vetted Syrian rebels who we knew were not radicals, and send them onto the battlefield.
MR. HARWOOD: Which the White House says, well, we were kind of pushed into that by all our critics, right?
MR. CROWLEY: That’s right. Look, I think President Obama has always felt that there's really very little we can do on the ground in Syria. And a key thing about the program is that it was never designed to go after the Syrian dictator, Bashar Al-Assad. Those rebels were supposed to only be fighting ISIS. In a way, that was actually more about Iraq and stabilizing the Iraqi government, and preserving an Iraqi state, and stamping out ISIS across the border in Syria. It was about that, and not trying to topple the Syrian dictator. President Obama really doesn’t feel that that’s something America can viably do.
So goodbye to this program, or they're slightly repurposing it and they’re keeping it alive by sending equipment to some rebel leaders in the field. But fundamentally, it's a failure. And the timing is really less than ideal for this announcement because it comes at a moment when it looks like the Obama administration is on its heels. Putin has the initiative in Syria. It has nothing to do with what Putin is doing, actually. I think they were ready to close down this program for a while. But just in general, it looks like we're on our heels. And that is a problem, because there is a psychological component to this duel with Putin, whether or not President Obama wants to admit it, and he’s losing psychological war right now.
MS. BISKUPIC: Does that mean – go ahead, Anne.
MS. GEARAN: I was going to say, do you think that the war actually can end during the Obama administration, or is the next president going to have to deal with it?
MR. CROWLEY: I think almost certainly the next president is going to have to deal with it. In fact, I think – you know, I talked to a former administration official today who was saying, you know, this problem’s going to be handed off in an even worse state than it – than it is right now. It’s probably only going to get worse. There’s not enough time for the president to really resolve it in a very positive way.
And you know, you start to – I think there’s no question that they’re talking about the president’s legacy right now at the White House. And there was – they had – they had a real high note in the middle of the summer when they did the Iran deal. That will definitely be part of President Obama’s historical legacy.
MR. HARWOOD: His trade pact, too.
MR. CROWLEY: And the trade pact, yes. They were really riding a high. But I think increasingly it’s looking like Syria will be right there at the top of the list in the – in the down-arrow column, and they have to be concerned about that.
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, then let me ask you about another spot you mentioned, the Ukraine. There was news this week, a little bit better than what’s happening in Syria.
MR. CROWLEY: So yeah, and you know, no one’s talking about Ukraine, and it’s mostly been kind of frozen in place where the pro-Russian separatists in the east continue to hold territory and there’s a ceasefire that’s tenuous, the problem isn’t really resolved. There was actually some good news. One of the president’s key agenda items when he met with Vladimir Putin in New York at the United Nations a couple weeks ago was to try to get the separatist rebels not to essentially, long story short, undermine local elections in a way that was going to cause huge problems. They were going to hold their own elections. That had the possibility of pulling down this whole fragile ceasefire and having the situation there escalate. The rebels will postpone or have abandoned that plan, and that’s actually a little bit of good news.
MR. WILSON: So what else is – what else is the next step in Syria? I mean, as you say, it sounds like things are getting much worse before they get better.
MR. HARWOOD: Quickly.
MR. CROWLEY: So yeah, basically they’re dusting off old plans, revisiting old options. But that I’m told is a lot of ideas in play, but nothing really – there’s no silver bullet. No one really feels like there’s a clear light at the end of this tunnel right now. The question is, how do you reassert America in the region without risking a shooting conflict with Russia that could be very dangerous?
MR. HARWOOD: Tough moment for the national security team. Thanks, Michael.
It’s the first week in October, and that means a brand-new term for the Supreme Court. The last one ended with tension among the justices over major decisions on same-sex marriage and the fate of Obamacare. Now we’ll have fresh arguments on more politically charged topics like affirmative action, voting rights, and potentially access to abortion clinics.
Joan, last session made clear how polarized this Court was. Is it about to get worse?
MS. BISKUPIC: Last term, that was just the warmup. We’ve got – just think of what we’ve got headed into the election year. As you said, John, abortion could be on the agenda. But we already have affirmative action, voting rights, the power of public-sector unions, a lot of big cases already there with others coming, and will be taken all the way through January and all come home to roost in June, right before we’re going to have the conventions and then the November election.
I’ll mention what they’ve already got. Affirmative action on campuses, case back there brought originally by a young woman by the name of Abigail Fisher – didn’t get into the University of Texas at Austin, ended up at LSU. She sued, saying that the reason she was excluded was because of a(n) admissions policy that the University of Texas has that in some cases would favor someone based on their racial background. The justices had this case back in 2012-2013, essentially punted. They at first were going to rule, actually, against the University of Texas. Justice Sotomayor wrote a scathing draft dissent that caused the conservatives to back down a bit. They ended up with a compromise ruling, sent it back down to a lower court, and that lower court said no, we still think the University of Texas plan is OK. It’s back up there. And affirmative action, like all racial policies at the Supreme Court, really divides these justices.
Separately from Texas, a good voting rights case that tests the one person, one vote principle, and in the end could shift power away from urban centers, where there are more Hispanics, out to more rural, whiter areas.
So those two cases for starters. And then abortion coming down the pike, too.
MR. HARWOOD: When do we find out if they’re going to take that case?
MS. BISKUPIC: OK, abortion. This is another Texas case. Why does everything start in Texas? (Laughs.) This starts in Texas also. It’s a law that they – legislators passed a couple years ago. The key things there that have – are under challenge, one is that if clinics have to be – physicians who do abortions at clinics have to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and they should be ambulatory surgical centers, too. The challengers say, look, this is going to cause so many clinics to shut down. It already has caused some clinics to shut down in Texas. Both sides have now submitted their briefs. The state says, look, we’re just interested in the care of women. The challengers say, no, you really want to end abortion. We’ll know by the end of the year.
MR. WILSON: A decade ago, when John Roberts was going through his confirmation hearings, he promised he’d be the umpire rather than a partisan judge. Now, though, more Americans than ever think that the Court is partisan and polarized. How has his decade on the Court changed that?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, it’s been a little bit mixed. But I’m telling you, on things like race – like we have coming up with affirmative action and voting rights – he has been consistently where you would have seen him back in the Ronald Reagan era, when he was working for Reagan. He does not like racial classifications. He says that the way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race. Justice Sotomayor rejoins to that, no, we got to talk about it.
MR. CROWLEY: And in the last term the liberals had some decisions they were really happy with, and wow, it’s a liberal Court. But maybe that’s not going to last?
MS. BISKUPIC: Liberals had their best term in years. That will not last. I think it was the nature of the cases. We knew where the justices were headed on same-sex marriage, for example. The challenge to Obamacare was pretty much to the extreme. But now, Michael, we’ve got enough challenges where key vote Justice Anthony Kennedy is likely to move more to the right.
MS. GEARAN: Do you foresee any retirements this year? I mean, we’ve got a couple of justices who are up there and maybe not in the best of health. We’ve got Justice Ginsburg this past year had a bit of – how many health crisises is this for her?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, she’s a survivor, though, Anne, as you remember as a colleague who used to cover the Court. She’s 82. If any of them go before the election, it will be not of their own accord because they all know the political dynamics. If they leave, I think Republicans could run the clock and not have somebody succeed them. So right now everybody is healthy and everyone looks like he and she are staying there, yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, that’s quite a feat because the Supreme Court may even be older than the Senate. I’m not sure.
MS. BISKUPIC: In terms of the people –
MR. HARWOOD: The United – in the United States Senate, the average age of senators is pretty well up there, and the Supreme Court’s even higher.
MS. BISKUPIC: Oh, yeah. If you’re in your 60s at the Supreme Court, you’re really young. Chief Justice John Roberts –
MR. HARWOOD: You kid. (Laughter.)
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. I’m not kidding – (chuckles) – no, no; 60s, 70s, that’s nothing. John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, he was 90, and he could have kept going. (Laughs.)
MR. HARWOOD: Thanks, guys. Thanks, everybody.
That’ll have to wrap it up for tonight, but the conversation continues on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we’ll discuss how Hillary Clinton is prepping for a possible Joe Biden candidacy. That posts later tonight and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m John Harwood. Gwen’ll be back around the table again next week on Washington Week. Good night.