ROBERT COSTA: A divided country elects a divided Congress. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
The history-making class of freshmen lawmakers in the House upends the balance of power in Washington. Will there be bipartisanship or political war?
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) A Democratic Congress will work for solutions that bring us together because we have all had enough of division.
MR. COSTA: As Democrats vowed to also be a check on President Trump, House Republicans prepare to be in the minority for the first time in eight years.
HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) We will work with anybody across that aisle if they are there to work to move America forward.
MR. COSTA: And the president issues a warning to Democratic investigators.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They can play that game, but we can play it better.
MR. COSTA: We discuss the new era of divided government, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening, and thank you for sharing your Thanksgiving weekend with us. Can a divided Congress work together and with President Trump? Tonight, on this special edition, we look ahead to January, when Democrats will take control of the House and Republicans will continue to hold power in the Senate.
Joining me are four top-notch congressional reporters. They roam the marble halls and they know the key players: Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour, Jake Sherman of POLITICO, Erica Werner of The Washington Post, and Manu Raju of CNN.
Let’s start with the issues. There are many fronts for possible bipartisanship, from infrastructure and trade to health care, but the most challenging issue is likely to be immigration. President Trump is threatening a partial government shutdown next month if Congress doesn’t agree to his terms for funding for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) When you look at the caravans, when you look at the mess, when you look at the people coming in, this would be a very good time to do a shutdown.
MR. COSTA: Before we talk about bipartisanship possibilities, Jake, what are the possibilities right now for a shutdown in December over immigration?
JAKE SHERMAN: I’d say pretty good. The president is facing a very tough scenario for him. He’s going to lose a chunk of Washington come next year, and he has put off this fight on the border wall now for two years. And if you talk to his defenders in Congress, they will say quite simply the president ran on a promise to restrict immigration and to build a physical barrier on the border with Mexico. There was no ambiguity. He has not done that two years into his presidency with an all-Republican Washington.
MR. COSTA: What are the – what’s the gap here, Erica? Where are the Democrats? Where is President Trump?
ERICA WERNER: Well, the Senate has agreed to 1.6 billion (dollars) for the wall for the 2019 fiscal year. Trump wants 5 billion (dollars), which is also what House Republicans want. And as Jake said, I think there are a few factors that make a shutdown possible, if not likely. Of course, it all will come down to Trump and what he wants to do, but you also have House Republicans in their last gasp of power, about to go into the minority, and you have a number of conservatives saying we need to seize this moment and try to push for that wall funding while we still can. We also have the president. He’s about the travel to the G-20. He often has conflicts on the international stage where he can be embarrassed by other world leaders. Coming back from that he might have a motivation to make a stand here on the home front, and it will come down to what he wants to do.
MR. COSTA: Lisa, what about a deal? Could the Democrats ask for protections for DREAMers, undocumented immigrants, in exchange for some funding for the wall – maybe not 5 billion (dollars), but something?
LISA DESJARDINS: Absolutely, and I think that was the Democrats’ governing hope for a long time. There are some in the Democratic caucus who think now that House – the House will be controlled by Democrats it will move the whole tenor of the debate more toward the middle. With Republicans controlling both chambers, things were moving too far to the right for any deal to make it through the more moderate Senate. So there’s a hope that maybe a limited deal with Democrats coming into power could get through. But could that happen by December 7th and with Democrats having their own dynamics that they’re working through? It seems unlikely. And at the same time, conservatives also want to get something done. So it’s just the ground is a little bit choppy right now for any kind of deal, but it’s not impossible.
MR. COSTA: Manu, what’s your read on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and how he’ll handle this?
MANU RAJU: Well, he does not want a shutdown. He’s made that very clear, increasingly so, for weeks. And after going to the White House last week, he came back and told reporters in the Capitol hallway – which he doesn’t do very often, but he did there – he said there won’t be a shutdown. Now, of course, a couple days later Trump said, well, a shutdown may not be such a bad idea. So it’s obviously, as Erica was saying, not ultimately McConnell’s call. The question is can they cut a deal between that $1.6 billion in funding and the $5 billion in funding.
I talked to Lindsey Graham last week about this, too. He said that perhaps there’s a deal for the DREAMers and funding for the wall. However, that – they tried that already in this past Congress and that has already been rejected. That’s going to be very difficult to get done. At the end of the day it’s going to come down to funding.
MR. SHERMAN: And one more element: Could Nancy Pelosi be a part of any of these deals? And my read on the situation is probably not. She’s about to come into power. She’s facing a(n) uncertain bid for the speakership. Can she have her hands on any deal that results in a border wall being built up with Mexico?
MR. COSTA: Aren’t moderates pressuring her inside of the House?
MR. SHERMAN: Yes. I just think that anything on – when she’s on the cusp of power, any sort of outside the bounds of the Democratic platform, so to speak, is going to be difficult for her to pull off.
MS. DESJARDINS: And one factor that may help a shutdown happen is the stakes are lower. This would be a partial. It would be a smaller shutdown. This would affect just a few agencies – some big ones like Homeland Security, Agriculture, and the State Department, but we’re not talking about the Defense Department. We’re not talking about the majority of the federal government. Some big ones, but not the whole thing. People could try and ride that out for a few days, maybe.
MR. COSTA: Where’s the Freedom Caucus inside of the U.S. House?
MS. WERNER: (Laughs.) They are irrelevant or about to be completely irrelevant. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Why? Why is that?
MS. WERNER: Well, the Republicans are going to be in the minority. Any member of the minority in the House is basically irrelevant. It’s a messaging job. But the Freedom Caucus especially so because they’ve had the ability in the majority to block legislation; they will not have that ability in the minority. And if you look at Mark Meadows, he’s walking around looking very dejected, frankly, knowing that he’s about to go from being a very key player to much less than that. He still will have President Trump’s ear, which has been important to him and to his ability to throw his weight around, but they’re going to – that group’s going to go from a group that we talk about a lot to a group that we barely mention.
MR. COSTA: When you think about the president and immigration, he can do a lot with executive authority. How is Congress going to handle the president if he continues to do that?
MR. RAJU: It think he will have to do stuff with executive authority in the new Congress. In particular, it’s hard to see any sort of deal getting through. It’s been such a(n) intractable issue in Congress for such a long time. The president has such a hard line on this issue compared to, say, Nancy Pelosi, who may very well be the next speaker. That is going to be a very difficult thing for them to deal with. He is going to face a prospect of a lot of focus from House Democrats who do want to investigate his handling on, say, the separation of families in particular, so that is a pressure that they’re going to put on him. But legislatively, any sort of big deal, so hard to see that happen.
MR. COSTA: There are, though, many issues where there may be an opportunity for compromise. One is infrastructure. There has long been bipartisan consensus that Congress should address crumbling roads and bridges and highways and transit systems, as well as tap water that poses public health and safety problems. The snag, of course, how to pay for it.
MS. DESJARDINS: Always how to pay for it, and especially there’s going to be bigger money problems in the next year as they’re hitting potential budget cuts coming up. So the Democrat who’s probably going to lead the House Transportation Committee, Peter DeFazio, has said he wants to do this. He wants to get a bill to the American public they can look at in the first six months of next year. He’s talking about $500 million (sic; billion) for just surface needs. The president’s talked about $1 trillion. And of course, the trillion-dollar mark, as you hear a lot, but DeFazio’s talking about raising the federal gas tax potentially. That is something that Republicans already have a big problem with, so a Mitch McConnell Senate is not likely to pass that, at least at this point. It’s going to be difficult.
MR. COSTA: Could some Republicans get behind a gas tax, Chamber of Commerce types?
MS. DESJARDINS: It’s hard – potentially. We haven’t heard – I haven’t heard any yet. And I think that’s a more – on the local, that’s more safe than it is in Congress right now.
MR. COSTA: Lisa’s point about where the money comes from is an important one, Erica. The president really wants public-private partnerships on infrastructure to get up to that $1 trillion mark.
MS. WERNER: Right, that was his proposal, something like $200 million (sic; billion) in public funding that he thought would unlock all of this private funding, which Democrats basically laughed at. And as we know, the idea of infrastructure week, when there would be an infrastructure bill, just became kind of a joke over the past Congress.
On the gas tax, the president himself, we’ve reported at The Post, in some private meetings early in the year actually threw out the idea of raising the gas tax, that he could be open to it. I mean, the way this president operates he can change his position on a dime, and you could see him coming around to that. As Lisa said, it’s not something McConnell would want to do, and it would still be a hard sell, but you could see Trump getting onboard with that or some other funding mechanism that Democrats like and trying to make a deal that – you know, where everyone wins on an infrastructure deal.
MR. COSTA: Do they – does the president want a deal, Jake? People inside of the White House often say, well, we should have started with infrastructure back in 2017. Now, with divided government, could they actually push for something?
MR. SHERMAN: Well, he can thank Paul Ryan, who convinced him not to start with infrastructure and set off what a lot of people thought was a cascading set of failures legislatively.
Now, I do think that infrastructure is the singular issue where the president wants a deal, actually, and doesn’t want the issue to bang Democrats over the head with, but Mitch McConnell has said forget it, we’re not even going to do a $900 billion infrastructure deal. So –
MR. COSTA: Why not? Why is McConnell not interested in doing that?
MR. SHERMAN: He’s interested in infrastructure. His wife is the transportation secretary, so he has both the – perhaps both the personal and professional interest in it. That said, he knows what can get through the Senate and he’s not going to put his senators on the record for a huge spending project. And I think Congress, what you’re going to see – and you can say whatever you want about the motivations – but there is going to be a kind of, I think, downtick in spending, or at least an effort among Republicans to pump the brakes on spending.
MR. COSTA: On health care, Manu, are we going to see the Democrats in the House push for something like Medicare for All?
MR. RAJU: I doubt it. I mean, you probably will see factions of the House push for that. I don’t think you could see that get approved by even this House – incoming House Democratic majority. Look, they’re probably going to have 234, maybe 235 seats. That means that they could lose 17, 18 votes – 17 votes if the have 235 seats – at the most, and there are a lot of members who are coming in from conservative districts. That’s how they came into the majority; they beat Republicans in traditional Republican strongholds. And these same conservative members don’t necessarily go along with people who are pushing the Bernie Sanders Medicare for All type package. So just doing it alone, even if they were to get it out of the House, no way it gets out of the Senate. So this, you know, issue will have to be done on a bipartisan basis, which raises a whole other slew of questions.
MR. COSTA: And you’re right, when you look at the map a lot of moderates won as House Democrats. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, newly elected, young congresswoman, a lot of passion on that side of the party for big change.
MS. WERNER: Right. She’s the big star, of course, of the incoming freshman class. And I think just what you alluded to is going to be become a dynamic that we see over and over in the new Congress on health care, immigration, other issues, where there are divisions internally in the Democratic caucus about how far to go, what to do on any given issue, how far to push Trump. Do we push to impeach him? Do we do Medicare for All, or do we just focus on preexisting conditions? Do we do a big immigration bill or just something for DREAMers? I think it’ll arise again and again, and it will cause some very interesting conflicts and dynamics.
MR. COSTA: What about negotiating drug prices? The president talks about it. Possible on Capitol Hill?
MS. DESJARDINS: Oh, absolutely possible. I think that’s something that Democrats are hoping to bring up very quickly. That’s one of the first bills, I think, that we could expect out of them on health care. They’re also looking at a bill by Frank Pallone, who’s likely to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, that would bring back some subsidies for health insurers. That’s something that a few Republican senators, like Susan Collins, are interested in doing. However, that’s exactly the same situation, where it doesn’t – I don’t think a McConnell Senate passes that in the end. But that’s somewhere where Democrats could have a more moderate type of approach that could gain some steam, but again, some other Democrats will think that doesn’t go far enough. I think they’re going to try that first and then see how far that goes, and then see what happens with those progressive voices.
MR. COSTA: There’s more than just McConnell as a backstop in the Senate, Manu. You have people who may run for president on the Democratic side – Senator Harris of California, Senator Booker of New Jersey. They could shift the debate.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, no question. You’re going to see these guys trying to out-position themselves for a long time, trying to show themselves to be more aggressive, more liberal than other members, not just Harris and Booker but even people like Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, Elizabeth Warren of course.
MR. COSTA: Who’s not running?
MR. RAJU: You know, who’s not running? (Laughter.)
MS. DESJARDINS: Right.
MR. RAJU: So this is going to be a constant issue for Chuck Schumer. But again, they are in the minority and they are going to be – try to block most of the things that the Republicans are going to try to do in the Senate. Watch for that Republican Senate to do a lot what they’re doing in this Senate: try to confirm judges, a lot of judges, which they can do with a simple majority. They don’t need those Democratic support at all in order to get something through.
MR. COSTA: So we’re talking about a shutdown showdown this December. There’s a lot of possible bipartisanship early next year. But all of us as reporters are always thinking about the other cloud that hangs over all of these discussions. Democrats say midterm voters sent a clear message that they want a check on President Trump’s administration. A number of committee chairs in the House, the incoming chairs, said they will use their newfound oversight power to investigate the president and members of his team. That’s the scene next year. Are tax returns – the president’s tax returns at the top of the Democrats’ list?
MS. DESJARDINS: They’re near the top. We actually know what’s close to the top also. We saw a letter this Tuesday come out from Jerry Nadler. He’s going to be one of the big investigative forces, chairing the House Judiciary Committee next year for Democrats. He wrote a letter to the acting attorney general, among others, saying we will investigate how you have handled detaining immigrants and also separating families. So it’s not just going to be about Trump’s record. We will see the tax returns. We will see also things like his policies. And I think many of his Cabinet decisions, including the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is going to come up very quickly. I would expect hearings on that fast.
MR. COSTA: Who are the players? Who should we be paying attention to on the Democratic side, these chairs?
MR. SHERMAN: First of all, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who’s going to chair the – we expect to chair the Oversight and Government Reform Committee – somebody who has been in partisan warfare before on that committee against Darrell Issa, who was the Republican chairman during Barack Obama’s administration – Jerry Nadler at Judiciary are the two big names. But I also – I think we should even take a deeper look, which is regular hearings, just appropriations hearings and regular humdrum business of these committees, is going to turn into partisan warfare. I mean, they’re not going to be – if a Cabinet secretary comes to Capitol Hill for a hearing about budgetary matters, they’re not going to only get asked about budgetary matters; they’re going to get asked about policy. This is going to be a daily thing for the administration. This is not going to be a periodic dynamic; this is going to be a daily dynamic for an administration that’s going to be under fire from House Democrats almost every day.
MR. COSTA: Do Democrats risk overreaching?
MS. WERNER: Right, and I do think that that will be a tension, as we’ve been talking about, and it’s something that the leadership is very mindful of and wants to avoid. And they – some of these committee chairs who are very experienced, who have been around for decades – Cummings, Nadler, Rich Neal that is going to chair Ways and Means – they do not want to seem to be overreaching, and they will try to, you know, pump the brakes on going too far. But as Jake was just saying, I mean, we cannot overstate how much the House is going to change from a body that has protected the president from – and his administration from answering any uncomfortable questions, to one that will be asking uncomfortable questions every single day. And we’ll have a lot to cover.
MR. COSTA: If the House is going to be aggressive with President Trump, is the Senate now the citadel for President Trump? Think about Senator Lindsey Graham, likely the chair of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. Yes. You know, they – Erica is exactly right. The Senate Republicans have been much like the House Republicans in the past two years. They’ve protected the president for the most part. There have been some bipartisan investigations. The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. That’s mostly done behind closed doors, the Russia investigation. That’s going to continue in the new Congress.
MR. COSTA: Will they call to protect Robert Mueller, the Senate Republicans?
MR. RAJU: Well, no. (Laughter.) You know, right now there are a handful of Republicans who want to go that way, but not enough to actually force the issue. You’ll see Democrats try to force an issue like that and put pressure on Republicans to join them. So you’ll see Republicans try to defend the president in a lot of ways. And Lindsey Graham, who’s going to chair the Judiciary Committee, told me that he does want to look into the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation. That’s been, of course, a big target for the president.
MR. COSTA: I just want to explain the laugh a little bit, because you’re really saying that the president has so much political capital still with his party that people don’t want to break ranks.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. No question about it. I mean, I think one of the lessons that Senate Republicans have drawn is that they don’t want to get on his bad side. And when he’s on their good side, he can be helpful more than hurtful with their base. Now, the broader electorate, that’s another question.
MR. COSTA: Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee, what do we expect from him?
MR. SHERMAN: He’s going to be empowered. And he’s a close ally of Nancy Pelosi. And if she’s speaker of the House, that’s going to be somebody who we have to keep an eye on. The Intelligence Committee had turned into – has turned from being a place where bipartisanship was really in the DNA to another kind of battleground between the two parties with very partisan members. Devin Nunes of California who has – like Manu said – has protected the president and has gone to great lengths to protect the president. And Adam Schiff, as the president now knows, has gone to great lengths to antagonize the president. So this is going to – that’s what this is going to be about.
MR. COSTA: And we talked already about Cabinet officials coming up to Capitol Hill, but also it could be members of President Trump’s family. Ivanka Trump this week, her email use – private email use under scrutiny. She could be called up as well.
MS. DESJARDINS: Absolutely. The idea that Ivanka Trump, who spent years, you would guess, reading stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails, her use of private email, is now herself conducting her affairs for the government using private email, is something that a lot of Democrats have been emailing me about. But I think all of this taken together, thinking about this for this show today, this is a political and cultural moment both coming together. And it’s a choice especially for Democrats going into this, because the country says they want less toxicity. You know, that’s why they watch shows like this. However, it’s a little bit like saying we want to be healthier. (Laughs.) You know? Does the country really want to go to the trouble of exercising, or are we sort of all addicted to this kind of internal fighting? And can Democrats push that back and actually be bipartisan?
MR. COSTA: And what’s the real agenda here, based on what Lisa just said? At the end of the day, does President Trump want a foil for 2020 in the House Democrats? And do the House Democrats want a foil in President Trump?
MS. WERNER: I think Trump absolutely wants a foil. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he’s been offering, sincerely or not, to help Nancy Pelosi become speaker, and to find votes for her if she needs them. You know, I think that House Democrats are concerned about Pelosi being the face of the party. And when you ask them about that, even those who support her, they will say, no, no. She’s not going to be the face of the party. We’re going to have a nominee ultimately, and that’s who the president is going to be focused on. But in fact, you know, whatever – Nancy Pelosi has many amazing attributes and has achieved a lot. She’s not great in public. She’s not someone who’s very popular. And she will be a good foil for the president.
MR. RAJU: I mean, you’ve already seen the president blame House Democrats, saying that the stock market has gone down because of the prospect of new investigations, which of course is completely false. But the president is looking for someone to blame. And you talk to Democrats too, they will tell you the one thing they’re concerned about is re-electing Donald Trump. So they are going to have to balance both being an antagonist, and also working with the president, but also not working with him too much to anger their base. That’s going to be a complicated task for them. But both sides see a useful foil.
MR. COSTA: Final thought: Divided government, often a time for deals but also a time when many things stall.
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah. That’s right. And voters prefer divided government. And we see that because they keep electing two different parties to control Congress. And I think over the next two years, we’re just going to see more gridlock.
MR. COSTA: Any key lawmaker to watch, who may try to cut through it?
MR. SHERMAN: I think – no. (Laughter.) I don’t think there is anybody who’s going to try.
MR. RAJU: That’s our hope for the future.
MR. COSTA: That’s a veteran congressional reporter right there saying: I don’t have any answers for you on that.
We’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks, everybody. And please, stay tuned for a special message from your local PBS station.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.