GWEN IFILL: Fight to the finish on the budget, on immigration, on political positioning, except nothing got finished. We examine why, tonight on “Washington Week.”
SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV) [Senate Majority Leader]: (From tape.) We passed 27 bills, the lowest in the history of this country -- 27 bills.
MS. IFILL: And that was before the majority leader told senators to sit down and shut up. Acrimony, gridlock, and politics as usual.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: (From tape.) It’s almost like there’s a “gone campaigning” sign outside the Oval Office.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I have now run my last campaign. I do not intend to wait until the next campaign or the next president before tackling the issues that matter.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA) [House Minority Leader]: (From tape.) The agenda of the Republicans saying to the president, our agenda is nothing and our timetable is never.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) We’ll take just one step at a time and I’m sure the August recess will have our members in a better mood when they come back.
MS. IFILL: Is this the new normal for Democrats and Republicans to fight among themselves until the next election? We dig a little deeper on that tonight with Dan Balz of the Washington Post; Jackie Calmes of the New York Times; and John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News.
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. Members of Congress fled Washington today, but of course, it is August. And if there’s anything predicting about the nation’s capital, it’s that federal lawmakers are going to get out of town for a five-week recess about this time every year.
We can all agree that it’s good to take a break now and then, but here’s what was left undone: the farm bill, immigration reform, and a long-awaited grand fiscal bargain that could help avoid yet another threatened government shutdown at the end of next month.
So I guess tonight’s question is, with record disapproval numbers being recorded for Congress and the White House, is this just the new normal for politics and governing, John?
JOHN DICKERSON: Well, I think it’s a familiar story with new, uglier details. So the 112th Congress was the least productive Congress and everybody thought that was a record. Well, this Congress is on pace to beat that record and be the least productive.
So they’ve passed 15 bills so far, which is a record in terms of lack of progress. As you mentioned, there are lots of the things that didn’t get done. And if you look at the kinds of things that are getting done, it’s not encouraging.
So, for example, this week in the House of Representatives, they took their 40th vote to dismantle the president Affordable Care Act. And that is an entirely symbolic vote. Members in the Senate who are trying their own gambit to get rid of the president’s health care plan are raising money off of it. This is – when the members go home, they want to talk about their constant effort to beat back what Washington is doing, how it’s trying to reach into your life. But it’s a symbolic vote.
Then there is basically the minimum level that you need to do in the House to do their jobs, which is just to pass appropriations bills, to get a budget going. And they tried to pass a transportation bill, a transportation and housing and urban development bill which, unfortunately, had the name THUD. And that is also the sound it made when it failed because they were unable to do that.
So when they’re able to pass a symbolic vote but not pass something that’s part of the minimum job, that gives you a sense of the way things are locked up in Congress.
MS. IFILL: Is it in anyone’s interest, Jackie, to break through the logjam, or is it in everyone’s interest that the standoff just endures?
JACKIE CALMES: No. It’s definitely in the interest of all of us to break through this because this happens –
MS. IFILL: As citizens, but I was thinking politicians.
MS. CALMES: Well, actually, I mean, if you want to go through your career – if John Boehner, for instance, wants to leave as speaker and Harry Reid as majority leader and have a legacy like this, I guess it would be in their interest. But you’re right in there are a lot of political factors that – you know, some of which have already been alluded, to that keep members doing this.
I think it was – the president said something about the arguments in favor of the things he’s seeking, you know, additional – some additional investment spending in addition to some deficit reduction that’s perhaps backloaded. But those arguments may be the consensus of economist. They may be even the – and they’re popular in the polls with most American people, but not in the districts of the majority, overwhelming majority of Republicans who serve in the House.
So that’s what you have. But the job numbers came out today. And it’s like Groundhog Day, the monthly, you know, Friday -- first Friday of every month where we see there’s a gain in jobs but not as much as people either expected or what we need to really fully recover.
MS. IFILL: And not to gain in workforce participation.
MS. CALMES: And we have a situation that hasn’t happened in my years in Washington, where Washington is presiding over a fiscal policy -- a budget policy that is a drag on the economy. So, you know, they’re partly to blame.
MS. IFILL: The president said to you in your interview – the New York Times interview this week that you conducted, Jackie, that – you know, there are some Republicans with whom he can get along, who can get the – the brilliant ones agree with him. And, basically – and I’m paraphrasing, shockingly here – but there are those who are stubborn, who are the ones who don’t agree with him.
So is there even a potential, an outline for a grand bargain if the president thinks that it’s only my way, which, of course, he says that’s not what he believes. But is there an outline somewhere for them to pursue?
DAN BALZ: Jackie knows this better than anybody else around the table. There’s always been an outline for a grand bargain but nobody can quite get there and nobody’s quite willing to take all of the steps necessary to do that.
Now, there are a handful of Republicans from the Senate that the president continues to meet with, senators – you know, senators who he’s had to dinner, and it’s a smaller group, and he likes them and they seem to like him. But based on the last few meetings, there’s no evidence that they’re really making any progress. And, you know, I think as we head into September, you’d have to say the prospects are pretty dim.
MR. DICKERSON: One thing that is different about this ugly new normal is we used to have our crisis over the budget before they left for vacation. Remember that? There was a long period of time for the last couple of years before July 4th, before August we’d have one of these crisis moments. Well, everybody’s just delayed the crisis moment until the fall. There’s going to be two face-offs: one over funding the government; the other over lifting the debt limit. Where these are going to be – and it’s all been smooshed into the fall, where these decisions have to be made.
And just to give you a sense of it, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came out and said, you know, these sequestration cuts continue. This is the dumb across-the-board cuts that were put in when the president and Congress couldn’t get their act together around the budget last time. Basically, Chuck Hagel said lives will be at risk because of the lack of funding. We’re going to have to either shrink the force considerably or keep the force and have them have old technology.
MS. IFILL: So sequestration is a really interesting example. This is something in which there are some Republicans who think that it’s a bad thing and ought to be rolled back, especially because of its effect on things like the military and the National Institutes of Health. But I don’t actually see any movement happening there either. The president seemed a little bit annoyed at the – suggestion in your question that perhaps he played in role in this by having agreed to it.
MS. CALMES: Right. And he did, but, in fairness, I mean, we are sitting here tonight, at the second anniversary of the deal, the Budget Control Act, that ended the most damaging showdown over the debt limit that we’ve seen. July 2011, it was resolved the first days of August, when they finally got through, and then fled against for an August recess.
So that deal had some immediate spending cuts or set the levels of spending for the coming nine years at levels that immediately took effect for defense and for domestic. But then it also it had this sequester. And at the time everyone passed it. Both parties agreed that this was something that would never happen and should never happen because it would be so damaging, and that in the meantime, before March, or before January 1st of 2013, that they would come to this agreement with the grand bargain of deficit reduction that would have both revenues and savings that they could both agree to for the long term and get rid of sequestration. But, instead, sequestration took effect, and now the Republicans have embraced it.
MS. IFILL: And there’s a real trickledown to other effects. You mentioned the farm bill. And there’s, of course, the big immigration bill that everyone is still searching for a compromise. I talked to John McCain this week, senator for Arizona, who of course was famously defeated by the president, and is now starting to make noises about – unhappy noises about the degree to which the libertarian wing – let’s put it – of the party is stopping things from happening. This is what he said to me about immigration reform.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From tape.) If we don’t enact immigration reform, I don’t – let’s say we enact a comprehensive immigration reform. I don’t think it gains a single Hispanic voter, but what it does, it puts us on a playing field where we can compete for the Hispanic voter. If we don’t do that, frankly I don’t see – I see further polarization of the Hispanic voter and the demographics are clear that the Republican Party cannot win a national election. That’s just a fact.
MS. IFILL: Dan, just a fact?
MR. BALZ: It’s just a fact, but it’s just a pretty significant fact. And it’s one that Republicans seemed to wake up to after the 2012 election when Mitt Romney got just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, and everybody sort of woke up, and said, my goodness, we have a problem with the Hispanic vote. And there was a move on the part of some Republicans, including Senator McCain, to try to do something about comprehensive immigration that includes a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally.
That seems to have stalled particularly because there’s a lot of resistance in the House. No one knows whether it’s going to be able to get through the House. But he’s absolutely right: A, it will not necessarily gain them votes, but it does open the door for a conversation between Republicans and Hispanics that is difficult for them to have now.
MR. DICKERSON: What’s at the base of a lot of this gridlock, it seems so stupid to people watching, but there are philosophical views at the base of all of these conflicts. And let’s take immigration.
When John McCain talks about it in terms of politics, what a lot of Republicans hear is, care about politics? I care about right and wrong. And what’s happened here is people came to this country illegally. There are people outside the country trying hard to get in, standing in line, doing all the right things. Why should we give any kind of pathway to these people who did things illegally when there are people doing it the right way? And so they have a philosophical view that only gets irritated by hearing the sort of political gamesmanship part.
And then there are other pieces too. They want those borders secured. They think a bill based on promises about what the government is going to do is – you know, don’t trust the government, which is a perfectly reasonable position to have. And so the problem is when the conversation takes place on the political plane, it’s not speaking to the people who need to have their minds changed, who are thinking about this in terms of the philosophical view.
MS. IFILL: So the Senator Ted Cruzes of the world and other – and Senator Mike Lees of the world, who are pushing back, the White House looks at them, Jackie, and says, what? They’ll – they’re becoming like the House?
MS. CALMES: I think they do. I mean, in Mike Lee’s case, he didn’t come from the House, but you do have that dynamic in the Senate, where a lot of the Republican senators now are people who came from the House. And one office there in, first, the Gingrich revolution and then the subsequent more conservative waves of election to the House, and they are bringing the ways of the House to the Senate. And not that the Senate’s such a great place and it could use a little shaking up, but these are – it’s very hard now for the – it’s always been hard for the White House to work with the Republican controlled House, but it’s getting equally hard to work with the Senate.
MS. IFILL: Go ahead.
MR. BALZ: I think one other thing that seems newer now is that not only is there polarization between Republicans and Democrats but there are now fissures within the Republican coalition that we are seeing on immigration, on spending, on any number of things.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Just the segue I was looking for, Dan.
MR. BALZ: Well, there you go.
MS. IFILL: Because there’s 2014, there’s 2016, and if you think that we’re the only ones – if you think that – wonder whether there are actual politicians as opposed to political reports who are beginning to lay the groundwork for that, watch what unfolded this week between two Republicans, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. It all started when Christie took a veiled swipe at Paul, criticizing what he described as a dangerous strain of libertarianism running through the GOP. Here is what ensued.
SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From tape.) The people who want to criticize me and call names, they’re precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending, and they are, “give me, give me, give me, give me all my Sandy money now.” Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not letting enough money be left over for national defense.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ): (From tape.) I find it interesting that Senator Paul is saying – accusing us of having a “give me, give me, give me” attitude towards federal spending, when in fact New Jersey is a donor state, and we get 61 cents back on every $1 we send to Washington. And, interestingly, Kentucky gets $1.51 on every $1 they send to Washington. So if Senator Paul wants to start looking at where he’s going to cut spending to afford defense, maybe he should start look at cutting the pork barrel spending that he brings home to Kentucky.
MS. IFILL: It all went downhill from there, talk about who loves bacon more and things like that. But how much was this spat about these two men, Dan, and how much was it about the state of the Republican Party, the same things John was just talking about?
MR. BALZ: Yeah. It is – I mean, it’s a combination of both. I mean, we know both of these men have their eye on running for president in 2016, and they have different constituencies and different bases and, frankly, different needs politically. And so you can see a value in one going after the other.
But it does reflect differences within the party over a variety of things. And we’re seeing it – in their case, it had to do with national security, the difference between a libertarian view of what the United States should be doing versus the more establishment view, the more interventionist view versus the more isolationist view.
MS. IFILL: And your book, “Collision 2012,” which is your deep dive into what drove the 2012 election, talks some of this, including about the basic disagreements that the party had, which made it impossible for them to fight and defeat a streamlined, metadata-driven Obama campaign.
MR. BALZ: Right. I think that – I mean, if you think back to the Republican primaries, and that long series of debates they had, and some of the things that Mitt Romney did and said in order to win the nomination, he was left in a position that he made it much harder for himself to win the general election. The party came out of 2010. It had moved to the right because of the influence of the tea party. And everyone running for president had to figure out how to accommodate to that new party. And Mitt Romney struggled to do that. He was successful in winning the nomination, but it left him in a difficult position against the president.
MS. IFILL: Well, you have – when you look at the midterms, John, you see there are a lot of senators who were being driven or at least could be pressured in that way. There is Mike Enzi, who’s got a tea party inspired challenger in Liz Cheney. There is Lindsey Graham, who now has two challengers in South Carolina. There’s Mitch McConnell, who has challengers in Kentucky. That has to drive outcomes.
MR. DICKERSON: It does. I think if we go back and look at the legislative process, when you’re always looking over your shoulder at a possible – the old cliché is you either – as an incumbent, you either run unopposed or you run scared. But now, being unopposed doesn’t really mean you’re unopposed. It means any minute you might get a tea party challenger.
And so Mitch McConnell, who’s very powerful into the sort of old rules of Washington, is now facing a challenger. And that challenger may not beat Mitch McConnell, probably won’t. Mitch McConnell is a very tough politician. But it puts a structure in place where Mitch McConnell is always looking over his shoulder. And Lindsey Graham is always looking over his shoulder, which means they’re not going to take a risk and make a deal with the president.
Moreover, they may even push their policies to keeping the grassroots happy in the off year election, which is to say a year that a president is not running, the voters tend to be the more die hard members of the electorate. And so the more you have these primary challenges in reality – or just possible. I mean, Mike Enzi, who is a good upstanding conservative, and now he’s being challenged by Lynne Cheney on these grounds.
MS. IFILL: Liz Cheney.
MR. DICKERSON: Liz Cheney. Sorry. Not Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice president, but Liz Cheney, the daughter.
MS. CALMES: I’d like to see that.
MR. DICKERSON: On these grounds, which is that he’s a fine conservative but he’s not aggressive enough. He’s not in there fighting the fight. And so that’s a new level of purity that you need.
MS. IFILL: OK. So if you’re at the White House, where you are covering, and they’re trying to figure out who to deal with – and Denis McDonough, who’s apparently having more – the president’s chief of staff – more success in actually talking to people from the other party, do they have a strategy for how to deal with that kind of politically driven recalcitrance?
MS. CALMES: I think the short answer is no. And they would say, how can you? What is the strategy? If you know it, bring it to us.
You know, Denis McDonough as the new chief of staff is getting really high marks. It’s like hardly a day goes by where someone from the Hill doesn’t say to me that, you know, what a breath of fresh air he is and what a great job he’s doing reaching out and talking to the members.
And yet, you know, Denis McDonough hasn’t been able to deliver. You know, we’ll see – it’s just a matter of – they want to talk to him, but is he going to be able to bring anything in from them? So, you know, we’re running out of time to just have, you know, conversations.
MS. IFILL: And we see what the president is doing is going to the country and he’s going to be traveling again next week. He was travelling this week. And we all keep track of these public disapproval numbers, which are just abysmal for everybody involved in this exercise. Do they? Are they tracking this? Do they respond to it?
MR. BALZ: Well, they’re aware of them, but they don’t think that they’re that meaningful because, you know, the Republicans in the House held the House in the last election despite some of the lowest approval ratings for any party in Congress in years.
You know, and they always say, well, of course the president is higher. And, frankly, the president’s numbers, while they’re significantly higher than members of Congress and the Republicans in Congress, are not that strong at this point. He’s below 50 percent. I mean, this is, you know, in the early stage of a second term. That’s not a strong position for him to be in.
MS. IFILL: So what is leadership in the new normal, at a time when it’s not in anybody’s particular interest to sort these things out, even things that used to be easy to sort out, like appropriations bills everybody agreed they had to pass or farm bills everyone found an interest. Now, not so much.
MS. CALMES: The president’s trying to go to the country. And he is – and, you know, I think that’s what you have to do. And he has that – he has that resource that the members of Congress don’t have -- the national megaphone.
MS. IFILL: Sure.
MS. CALMES: But in a polarized country it’s of limited use. It was interesting to me – this week, there was a breakfast with Sylvia Mathews Burwell, his new budget director. And she inevitably faced the question from the reporters at this breakfast sponsored by the Wall Street Journal as to, you know, how do you – after all this time we’ve tried to get Republicans to agree with the president on a grand bargain, on a budget, how do you get that and how do you – even if you get a deal with these Senate Republicans who are showing some willingness to compromise, how do you take that product, were you to get one, and bring it through the House? And she said – you know, she recognized the hurdle, but she said, you create your own reality. Well, that’s –
MS. IFILL: Who does? Who gets to create their own reality? I mean, what’s real?
MS. CALMES: Right. And that’s – that’s the reality. You know, it was interesting coming from a newcomer. And you’d like to think that, you know, it could happen. It’s good to see fresh eyes, but, you know, I think we’ll come back to Sylvia Mathews Burwell in the end of the year when we’ve gone through the government shutdown and the debt limit showdown.
MS. IFILL: Ask her what the real reality is again.
MS. CALMES: Right.
MS. IFILL: And on the Democratic side, it seems that there’s also another – politically, there’s another reality in that the looming popular and political shadow of Hillary Clinton. Everyone is watching who she has lunch with, who she has breakfast with, and that seems to – I don’t know if that impacts anything at all yet or if it’s just laying the groundwork?
MR. BALZ: I think it’s just part of a – in a sense, the background music that we hear. Everybody in this town is always looking to the next election, and the midterm, and then the presidential election.
MS. IFILL: Not at this table. Not us.
MR. BALZ: No, not at this table. And she looms so large on that front within the Democratic Party. I mean, her popularity is so great compared to anybody else who might run. And a lot of people won’t run because she may run. And so it’s frozen everything.
MS. IFILL: Any risk in that happening too early, quickly?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, the risk if you get sick of the person that you hear about constantly and every day. And Hillary Clinton has had an incredible career, but people know who she is. There is something about politics where they like the new figure. But she’s still quite dynamic and so I’m not sure that will – she’ll be able to go with it.
MS. IFILL: I am proud of you all. We managed to get through this program tonight and it’s a Weiner-free zone. We didn’t have to talk about it at all. Thank you so much, personally. And thank you, everybody.
We have to leave you a few minutes early tonight to give you the chance to support your local station, which in turn supports us.
But before we go, we want to acknowledge the passing of an outstanding woman, a former member of the House, ambassador to the Vatican, mother of our public broadcasting colleague Cokie Roberts and mother in law of longtime “Washington Week” regular Steve Roberts. Lindy Boggs passed away this week at the grand old age of 97. We send out condolences to the family.
“Washington Week” continues online, where you can catch my conversation with Dan about his new book, “Collision 2012,” in a special webcast streaming live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time and available all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
Keep up with daily developments with me on the PBS “Newshour.” And then you can join us around the table again next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.