ROBERT COSTA: Speaker Pelosi takes charge and divided government begins. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) I pledge that this Congress will be transparent, bipartisan, and unifying.
MR. COSTA: The balance of power shifts as the government remains shutdown.
HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) We’re now entering a period of divided government. But that is no excuse for gridlock or inaction.
MR. COSTA: The first order of business for Speaker Pelosi, reopening the government but refusing to fund a border wall.
SPEAKER PELOSI: (From video.) It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the wall as an immorality.
MR. COSTA: And after a White House meeting, a flicker of progress.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, we had a productive meeting today with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer. We’re all on the same path in terms of wanting to get government open.
MR. COSTA: Some Republicans are cracking and calling for compromise. And another assails the president’s character. We cover it all next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening and happy new year. After two years of Republican dominance in Washington, Democrats have taken control of the House and Nancy Pelosi is once again speaker. Pelosi will preside over the most diverse House in history at a tense national moment. The federal government remains partially shutdown tonight, and the special counsel probe is ongoing. The markets have been volatile, although new jobs numbers on Friday showed hiring surged in December, even as the unemployment rate ticked up to 3.9 percent.
Joining me tonight to discuss this new era of divided government: Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of Andrea Mitchell Reports; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.
Dan, happy new year.
DAN BALZ: Same to you.
MR. COSTA: What a scene there at the White House. The Rose Garden, the president after a two-hour meeting with Democratic leaders, including the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, struck a somewhat upbeat tone in his remarks to reporters. What does that tell us about this new era of divided government?
MR. BALZ: Well, it came right after the Democratic leaders had talked about a very contentious meeting. And so he decided, I think, to say, well, we thought it was productive. And I think he was trying to suggest that he is being reasonable at a time when he knows that he could be in the long run, and in the short run, blamed for what’s going on with the shutdown. During that long Q&A with reporters, he laid out practically every possible option. This could go on for months, maybe years. Or, it could be settled in a matter of days. I could invoke a national emergency and have the wall built. Oh, but I’m not necessarily going to do that. I mean, he kept every option open that he possibly could. He seemed a little bit more relaxed about it as he was talking to the reporters. He obviously, you know, enjoys going on and on. But I don’t know that we found anything that suggests they are any really much closer to a deal than they were before that meeting.
MR. COSTA: Andrea, how significant was it when the president talked about sending troops to the border, declaring a national emergency to build a wall?
ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, he’s been trying to create the narrative that this is a national security issue. And having them in the Situation Room twice now, having Kirstjen Nielsen when she was down at the border calling in on a secure video phone. But they are not having any of it, because they know that those are not the facts. And you can’t create a false narrative all the time. I mean, he’s got the greatest megaphone, of course, from the White House. But the facts are it isn’t a crisis, other than what they’ve created through a series of policies that have created backups at different crossing points and the separation of children, and the rest.
But it is self-created to a great extent. They don’t have facts on their side about terrorists. You don’t have 10,000 terrorists or 3,000 terrorists or however many thousands a day. It’s just how many people are on the watch list on airplanes, not even at the border. So it has to be really carefully factchecked. And they’re not going to be able to win that argument, at least with the Democrats. Whether they win it with the public is another question. It does seem that the president, every time he is not near a television, you know, screen, runs out to find the cameras, because he’s clearly watching a lot of publicity about Nancy Pelosi. And we’ll talk about that.
MR. COSTA: And today’s meeting, Carl, was not broadcast to the American people. What do you know about what happened inside of the room? The president wants $5 billion for his border wall. Where is the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, right now in these negotiations?
CARL HULSE: Yeah. Here’s what I hear went on in that room. The White House is worried about Republicans getting nervous and defecting and joining the Democrats and pushing for some of these bills that will reopen the government while they fight over the wall money. So the White House, they want – the president wants to convey, hey, we’re moving along, and things are OK. So the president wanted to set up this working group over the weekend to give this impression that there was going to be high-level talks. Nancy Pelosi, not budging here at all, she’s feeling her power right now I think, and she and Chuck Schumer say, well, we’ll go along with that. If you promise to open the government by Tuesday we’ll have talks.
The White House doesn’t want to do that. So they say: We’re not going to engage in these talks. The staff can keep talking. We don’t want to feed the impression that things are moving along OK. They’re hoping – we’ve seen some breaks already in the Senate, Susan Collins, Cory Gardner. They’re hoping that at the end of the day the solution to this is with Republicans in Congress who say, boy, my constituents can’t take this anymore. We need to get this fixed. And it really is Congress’s job to fund the government. So they were – Nancy Pelosi wasn’t ready to play Donald Trump’s game today.
MR. COSTA: So the Republicans could buckle, and the Democrats could be waiting for that Nancy. But if there is going to be a deal at any level, what would it look like?
NANCY CORDES: You know, it’s almost harder to say now than it was two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I probably would have said, oh, you know, they’ll put some more funding in there for border security and they’ll call it, you know, wall-adjacent. (Laughter.) And the president will, you know, and everyone will sort just of say, oh great, you know, we took care of it, and move on. And it would be sort of a face-saving mechanism. But the president certainly appears to be more dug in now than he was a couple of weeks ago, and maybe not willing to go along with that. In fact, he said in the latest meetings not only was he starting at 5.6 million (dollars) and willing to negotiate, now he says that’s the least amount of money – 5.6 billion (dollars), rather. Big difference.
And so, you know, this is a very unusual shutdown in the sense that we’ve seen short shutdowns and we’ve seen longer shutdowns. But normally you sort of know what the endgame is. You know where everyone’s going to get to in the end. In this situation, they’re more dug in and it’s hard to see. If Nancy Pelosi says she’ll do one dollar and Donald Trump says he’ll take 5.6 billion (dollars) at a minimum, you know, where do they meet in the middle?
MS. MITCHELL: And the other thing about the meetings over this weekend, they’re going to be led by the vice president and staff from the other sides. Well, the vice president’s already been weakened by having said to Mitch McConnell, oh, the president will go along with the bill, you know, when they unanimously voice voted it. And then discovered – they discovered to their shock, and I’m sure his dismay, that the president wasn’t going to go along. And he pulled the rug out from his own vice president. So for Pence to be leading these talks also indicates that they’re not high-level enough because –
MR. HULSE: Not a lot of confidence in him at this point.
MS. MITCHELL: In whether the president will agree to anything they discuss.
MR. BALZ: I think one aspect of this is up to now – and I think we’re still in this stage – each side sees it as a win-lose. I win, you lose. I’m going to dig in and get what I want. And ultimately there’s going to have to be some give on that, whether it’s, you know, papered over in some way or whether there’s a real compromise on some money aspects.
MR. HULSE: Yeah. We have all covered a lot of these. And there’s usually – the Democrats, you know, they like government. And they usually are trying to figure out a way to resolve this. Right now, they think they’re in a pretty good spot and they’re not about to give.
MR. COSTA: Well, what breaks them? Could it be getting the IRS stalled at a staff level with providing tax refunds for Americans? Could it be problems at the airports?
MS. CORDES: Sure. It could be any of those things. And also keep in mind, when we talk about 800,000 federal workers, people think of federal workers as being in D.C., but a lot of them aren’t. They are all – you know, they’re in every single state. And so you already have, as Carl mentioned, two prominent Republican senators saying that they’re not comfortable with these people remaining out of work.
MR. COSTA: Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine.
MS. CORDES: The president’s notion that the people should just ask their landlords if maybe they’ll, you know, let them be late on their rent for a few months, maybe a year, who knows, if the shutdown –
MR. HULSE: Because he would have, as a landlord.
MS. CORDES: Right? (Laughs.) So –
MS. MITCHELL: And both of those senators are up for – up in 2020. So that pressure will build. Also, you’ve got these small businesses all across America – a lot in this area, yes, but all across America – around federal installations who are really hurting.
MR. COSTA: Where is Leader McConnell in all this, Carl?
MR. HULSE: Well, he is – he got burnt. He had the Senate before the Christmas break go along with a clean CR and to move this into February. They left town. And the president decided to not follow through, the House Republicans. So Mitch McConnell is not somebody who wants to get burned and embarrassed twice. He’s sitting back going: We need to figure this out. But he will – you know, he’ll stand up for the president. But he’s watching this to see which way he needs to go.
MS. CORDES: And think about how unusual that is. I mean, we’re talking about Mitch McConnell, who really cherishes his image as being always, you know, three chess moves ahead of everyone else and the ultimate dealmaker. And he has said point blank this week: I don’t have a role to play here. I mean, he’s basically washing his hands of this and saying: This is the president’s fight. You know, Mitch McConnell didn’t plan to go to the mat over border wall funding. The entire Senate unanimously said that they should fund the government without it. So this is not his fight.
MR. COSTA: What I’m trying to understand, Dan, is we have on one side the president threatening a national emergency and sending troops to the border and have the Army Corps of Engineers start to dig and build a wall. And then we have a president who says, well, we could have steel instead of concrete. He said that today as well.
MR. BALZ: See-through steel.
MR. COSTA: See-through steel. (Laughter.) So which Trump is the real Trump here?
MR. BALZ: Bob, I don’t think we know. I mean, I think one thing that we’ve seen with the president in these kinds of situations is he keeps throwing out stuff. Some of it is factually incorrect. Some of it is just him –
MS. MITCHELL: His steel numbers are incorrect. I mean, we’d have to import the steel from China to build what he wants to build and pay a tariff on it. I mean, that’s how crazy this is.
MR. BALZ: Yeah, so –
MR. COSTA: You know, we’re talking about President Trump, President Trump. And we’ve been doing that for the last two years, every Friday night. He dominates the show. But we have another character in Washington who is – who is rising in a historic way: Speaker Pelosi. Carl, we were at the Capitol together talking about this. She’s the first two-time speaker since Sam Rayburn, who has a building named after him on Capitol Hill. Talk about the meaning of Pelosi’s ascent to the speakership again.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, it is a – say what you want about her politics – remarkable achievement. She’ll go down in history as one of the great congressional leaders, no doubt about it. She worked her way up at a time, basically, when it was tough for women in politics, for sure, as the leader of the California Democratic Party. Comes here, becomes a Democratic leader, gets elected speaker, has a pretty amazing run with Obama with Affordable Care Act, the stimulus. Not so amazing with the climate change bill. But is in the wilderness for eight years and comes back. People just don’t do that. And she came back, got a majority back, and beat back a serious internal challenge. I mean, it’s an incredible political story.
MS. MITCHELL: And you did this after being vilified by Donald Trump and the entire Republican establishment in way on social media that no previous speaker – there were ads against Tip O’Neill, but nothing in this modern day –
MR. HULSE: Where she was their main target.
MS. MITCHELL: She was their main target.
MR. BALZ: Well, one could argue that Newt Gingrich got a lot. It wasn’t the era of social media, but –
MS. MITCHELL: But it wasn’t the – it was the era. And he actually invited it, because of his personality and the way he had taken over from Bob Michel, his predecessor.
MR. BALZ: Well, because he had – because he had done it to the Democrats.
MS. CORDES: And you talk about the art of the deal. I mean, she basically had to negotiate with her own party to retain her position. And it was – you know, she had this planned, down to the smallest detail. The minute the elections were over, you just saw the plan start to unfold. And day after day this member of Congress got what they needed, and this member of Congress got what they needed. And at the same time, she had to sort of give on all these issues without weakening her leadership to the point that she was going to, you know, enter this speakership with one hand tied behind her back. So it was a very delicate balance.
MR. COSTA: And President Trump isn’t her only political headache. (Laughter.) She saw this week her own new members are causing her problems. I believe you came here tonight after following that story.
MS. CORDES: (Laughs.) Rashida – following Rashida Tlaib all around the east front of the Capitol.
MR. COSTA: Who said – explain what happened this week. (Laughter.)
MS. CORDES: Well –
MR. COSTA: Don’t use the word. Don’t use the word. This is PBS.
MS. CORDES: So Rashida Tlaib got sworn in, and then she swore about the president at a victory party. (Laughter.) She said: We are going to impeach that bleep. Democrats were horrified. Partially because, you know, they didn’t appreciate the language. Partially because, you know, Nancy Pelosi and a lot of other Democratic leaders would rather not use the I-word. They don’t want to talk about impeachment, especially right now. They want the focus to be on their agenda.
MR. COSTA: Can she contain them, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party – the new New York member calling for a Green New Deal? Others calling for impeachment?
MR. BALZ: I don’t think she can – she can’t control them. She has to manage them. And one thing we’ve – you know, we’ve known about Nancy Pelosi is she knows how to manage her caucus. This is a different problem than she’s had before. These are – this younger generation are very skillful with social media. They want to move the system from the outside. There are some people in this new class who will work from the inside, but the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and that contingent will work from the outside. And they will push her, and push her, and push her.
MS. MITCHELL: But she is, so far, so adept, the tone and the way she’s handled it. I believe in freedom of speech. It’s generational. I wouldn’t use that language. And she has just, without putting Tlaib down, she – and saying she’s got the right to say what she wants to say, but I wouldn’t do it that way, and separating herself, and I think ignoring. There’s going to be a lot of ignoring and, you know, not taking it too seriously, not making it a cause célèbre.
MR. HULSE: I do think she handled it well. But here’s the problem for Nancy Pelosi. The progressives are getting a lot of the attention. This majority was made in swing districts around the country, in California and Virginia. She has to look out for these people that are going to have to run again in districts that Trump won. And, you know, it’s a difficult balancing act. But, you know, she has shown that she can pull it off.
MR. COSTA: And there are forces at play beyond just the new members in the House. You have a 2020 presidential race, Nancy, that kicks off this week. Senator Warren from Massachusetts in Iowa tonight. You have other people pulling the party to the left.
MS. CORDES: Right, in the House and in the Senate. And they’re all looking to grab the limelight. Particularly challenging in the Senate when you’ve got so many senators who are all thinking about a run, but they’re in the minority so they have a very difficult time sort of, you know, making their mark. You know, I think the Democrats are getting a taste of what it was like for Republican leaders the last eight years dealing with the tea party and the Freedom Caucus. One of the wonderful problems you have when you’re in the majority is you’ve, you know, got a large tent and you’ve got people of every political stripe. And, you know, some of these outsider independent types, who won because of that characteristic in House races across the country, are not necessarily interested in following the party line. And, you know, that’s – I think that that just goes along with having a larger party.
MR. COSTA: She was tough on President Trump this week in her interview on The Today Show. She questioned whether the president even knows that Hawaii – Nancy’s home state – is actually a state. At the same time, you wonder, she’s tough, the president’s tough. Could they actually work together on prescription drug legislation? Could they work together on infrastructure? Or is the well poisoned?
MS. MITCHELL: I think they can work together. This – certainly this shutdown controversy, the fight over the wall, is making it much more difficult. I think there are areas where they could work together. But look where she is on climate. She is satisfying her own – her own beliefs and her colleagues beliefs with the climate change. You know, their rules – what they passed is an impressive list of priorities. And not just on the shutdown, but they went through a whole series of things, including climate change, to show that this – there is a new sheriff in town. Of course, they can’t get it through the Senate. But on some of these things, there might be some purchase in the Senate.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, definitely on, like, infrastructure. You know, there’s always room to negotiate in Congress. You can find something – everybody at the end of the day wants to produce something. So maybe they can do it. But it’s going to be pretty tough.
MR. BALZ: But if – I was just going to say quickly – but if we’re in the middle of a series of investigations of the president, as he made clear late last year, that changes the game.
MR. COSTA: The Mueller report, it hovers. Whenever it comes, if it comes, that hovers over everything. But talking about challenges for Speaker Pelosi, President Trump is also facing new challenges in his own party, and not from the usual suspects in the Senate. Mitt Romney was sworn in as Utah’s junior senator this week, and days before published a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post that sparked discussion about whether the president could be vulnerable to a 2020 primary challenger. Romney wrote that Trump had, quote, “not risen to the mantle of the presidency.” President Trump told reporters that he wishes Romney would be a team player. And Romney, he had stood by his essay.
SENATOR MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): (From video.) If the president were to say things that were divisive of a significant nature then I’d call him out on that. And I have, by the way, with regards to Charlottesville, attacks on the media, the Roy Moore endorsement, the Khashoggi approach.
MR. COSTA: Dan, we’ve been talking about the Senate Republicans maybe starting to crack amid the shutdown and pressure on 2020. More broadly, are we seeing a cracking in the Republican Party? And is Romney the hammer that’s trying to make that even wider?
MR. BALZ: I think that’s still an open question. I think that former governor, now Senator Romney, wanted to put down a marker as he came in. But in talking to people who are close to Romney, they suggested that this is not the beginning of a crusade. This is a way to say: Here’s where I stand. Here are the issues where I’m going to differ with him. And I’m willing to speak out. But for the short term, he’s going to try to become a senator. But I think it opens up the question of how much cracks will actually be enlarged as we go through the year and as the president runs into problems.
MR. COSTA: But he showed the hawks in the Republican Party don’t like the foreign policy being conducted by this president.
MS. MITCHELL: And Lindsey Graham very upset about the pullout from Syria, trying to slow that down. Upset about what happened to Mattis with the president this week saying, incorrectly, I fired Mattis, which really offended a lot of people. Mattis quit over principle. And so there is a growing group – Marco Rubio. Mitt Romney will agree with the president, I think, more than he will disagree with the president – although, he did list a long list of disagreements there in that hallway encounter rather than where they agree. He’s a true conservative. But he has the benefit of extraordinary popularity back home. He’s got six years. He’s not going to be primaried in Utah. And with his popularity, he can say almost anything he wants about Donald Trump, and pick his fights.
MR. COSTA: When you think about Senator Flake, just retired from Arizona, Senator Corker, just retired from Tennessee, they’ve left the door open to a possible 2020 campaign. How real could it get if President Trump’s approval rating ever started to dip?
MR. HULSE: I think there’s always somebody who’s looking for an opening. And I thought from the beginning that Mitt Romney coming into the Senate is someone who could capitalize on this, if there was a collapse of Trump support or an opening. I think there’s still somebody out there. I do know that the RNC is trying to make that harder and harder for that to happen. But it’s hard for me to imagine that someone as sort of polarizing as Trump, even within his own party, isn’t going to attract some kind of challenge.
MS. CORDES: But what we still don’t know is will Romney be a thorn in the president’s side and criticize him verbally or will he actually use legislative levers to constrain his power? You know, Flake and Corker criticized the president a lot over the first two years. But it was really only at the end of those two years that they started to actually try to send a message to him by refusing to vote on certain things. They really – you know, to the great frustration of a lot of the president’s critics out there in the country – they weren’t willing to vote against him, to truly send him a message. And so what we still are waiting to see when it comes to Mitt Romney is, you know, he’s clearly willing to take up that mantle of being critical of the president. But will he make legislative moves as well?
MR. HULSE: And he did say that he would back the Republicans on the wall. And so that’s his first vote.
MR. COSTA: That’s right. That was revealing, because you have Romney saying, I like the wall. He just doesn’t like the president’s character and conduct.
MR. BALZ: But he has a record on immigration that is hawkish. He can’t walk away from the record he compiled as a candidate in 2012.
MS. MITCHELL: What could be unifying is Vladimir Putin. Not Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia – Vladimir Putin. The president’s bizarre statements in favor of Russia could unify the Republicans against him on another vote, like the vote on Syria.
MR. HULSE: And he’s going on the Foreign Relations Committee. So that’ll give him a bit of a platform.
MS. MITCHELL: The Saudi issue.
MR. BALZ: I think he’s playing a longer game. I think he came in and said: I’m going to make clear where I stand, which is I have real disagreements with this president, though I may vote for a lot of things that all Republicans support. But he doesn’t know what’s going to happen with the Mueller report. He doesn’t know how strong the president’s going to be in, you know, a year or 15 months. I think he’s leaving open the possibility, not necessarily that he wants to run, but that there will be something different come 2020 for the Republicans to choose from.
MS. CORDES: And, you know, having Romney around serves a purpose for a lot of Senate Republicans. They may not admit it publicly, but they like the fact that there’s someone there who is, you know, willing to challenge the president publicly, so they don’t have to. They want those points to be made, but for a variety of reasons they don’t feel that they can always make them. And, you know, he’s willing to take the heat.
MR. COSTA: And what makes him different is that he has political capital, a former presidential nominee. He’s not just a senator like Flake, or Corker, or even like Ohio Governor John Kasich. He’s a former nominee.
MS. MITCHELL: He’s a former nominee. And I think because of what happened with Mattis, because of the Saudi issue, and some of the things the president has been saying on foreign policy, the president has crossed a line with a lot of people overseas and domestically. And it could be a very different game.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. Four chiefs here at the table, lucky me. (Laughter.) Thanks. And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find it on your favorite app or watch it on our website.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend and thank you for joining us.