GWEN IFILL: Drought, flooding and the challenges of climate change, plus the Supreme Court on prayer, the U.S. in Nigeria and is the tea party fading tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) This isn’t something in the distant future. Climate change is already affecting us now.
MS. IFILL: Temperatures are rising, streets are flooding, and Washington’s debate about climate change has reached a fresh crossroads.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From clip.) This debate shouldn’t be about alleviating the guilt complexes of liberal elites.
MS. IFILL: Will a dire new report make the difference?
In Nigeria –
NIGERIAN WOMAN: (From clip.) We want our girls back now!
MS. IFILL: – the fate of hundreds of missing schoolgirls sparks debate around the world.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (assistant secretary of state for African Affairs): (From clip.) They are basically a group of bandits that are hiding among populations, and it’s made it very difficult for the Nigerians to capture them.
MS. IFILL: But who is behind the kidnapping? And is there anything the U.S. can do?
At the Supreme Court, a decision to allow prayer at public meetings. Does that end the debate?
STATE REPRESENTATIVE THOM TILLIS (R-NC): (From clip.) Well, we did it. (Cheers.)
MS. IFILL: And as voters head to the polls, what do this week’s winners and losers tell us about 2014 and 2016?
Covering the week: Coral Davenport of The New York Times, Hannah Allam of McClatchy newspapers, Pete Williams of NBC News and Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
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, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening.
Americans like to talk about the weather, to watch stories about the weather, to express shock and amazement at pictures of landslides, wildfires, snowstorms and floods. But do they think it has anything to do with climate change? Polls show not so much.
So the White House stepped up its game this week, enlisting a panel of scientists to release a sobering new report linking the warming planet to human activity. Today the president was in California, making the case that climate change is about more than just bad weather.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) It’s affecting every sector of our economy and our society – more severe floods, more violent wildfires. It’s already costing cities and states and families and businesses money.
Here in California you’ve seen the effects firsthand.
MS. IFILL: So, Coral, how different was this report that came out this week than what we’ve known about this before?
CORAL DAVENPORT: Gwen, this is the most specific, detailed, granular study of the impact of climate change on the United States that we’ve ever seen. Until now the most authoritative reports on climate change have been produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change you’ve heard – the IPCC. They’ve come out with a number of really big authoritative 2,000-, 3,000-page reports that talk about the global impact of global warming. Usually one section of those reports is devoted to the impact of global warming on North America. This report delves deeply and gets very specific on the impact of climate change on Cedar Rapid, Iowa; how it hits Highway 1 in Louisiana; the impact on the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve never seen that kind of impact – that kind of detail.
And the other thing that’s really new about this report is it talks about the impacts that are already being experienced now. That’s new.
And finally, it doesn’t just go into regions; it goes into sectors of the economy. It talks about the impact of climate change on agriculture, how it hurts crops and raises food prices, how it affects infrastructure, how it affects, you know, roads, buildings, bridges. So all of those are really a new piece of the climate debate in the United States.
MS. IFILL: OK, but there’s been a climate debate for some while – some time. Why this specificity now?
MS. DAVENPORT: So this report has actually been awhile in the making. Under 2000 law the White House is supposed assign scientists to prepare a report like this, put it out every four years. The Bush administration skipped this.
So under law, it was – the last one was out in 2009. They were overdue to put this out. Scientists worked on it for four years. So the – they needed to put this out, but there is clear political timing going on here. Next month, in June, the White House, is prepared to unveil the biggest gun in President Obama’s effort to fight climate change without any help from Congress. We’re going to see the Environmental Protection Agency unveil a major new regulation aimed squarely at coal-fired power plants, number one cause, number one contributor to global warming and greenhouse gases. This is going to be a huge rule with major effects on our energy economy. It’s going to be tremendously controversial.
And so what the White House is doing is saying, OK, we’ve got this report –
MS. IFILL: Laying the groundwork,
MS. DAVENPORT: – laying the groundwork. And because it’s got so many details on how climate change is hurting Americans in their backyard, the idea is get this out there, go on the road, drum up urgency and try to build the political support for this very controversial regulation.
PETE WILLIAMS: So people who have always thought that this was the cause of weather change are going to say, see? I told you so.
Has it changed other minds?
MS. DAVENPORT: Well, that’s what we’re going to see. The report came out just this week. What is interesting about this report is it’s assembled by a team of 300 American scientists and researchers. They worked with 13 federal agencies. It was reviewed by the National Academies of Science, so really strong science here.
But each of these – the regions that – you know, the study on how it affects North Carolina and South Carolina was prepared by researchers from Duke University, from UNC, from, you know, South Carolina, and the study on what’s going to happen in Florida prepared by researchers from Florida. And those – the researchers, the names – the names of the schools, the names of the institutions, the names of the scientists are right up at the top of the report. And I think for the part of the debate when you have lawmakers who say, broadly, oh, these scientists are making it up; this isn’t real, you know, they’re kind of talking about this broad, faceless world of scientists. But if – you know, if you have a scientist – a lawmaker from Florida looking at this report saying, you know, here’s what’s happening in Florida; this is the research; this has been – these are the names of the researchers here at the University of Miami who have put this together, I think that makes it harder for politicians to say this isn’t real.
DAN BALZ: Coral, do you think that the president thinks he can use the report to change minds or that he will use the report to do things he wants to do and cite that as the reason he has to act, even if he hasn’t changed public opinion?
MS. DAVENPORT: Well, in terms of what he wants to do, it’s already become clear that he can’t do anything with the help of Congress. He’s already tried and failed once to pass a major climate change bill through Congress. Nothing else is going to happen on that front in the rest of his administration.
So they’re using the tool that they have. They have the authority to put out this regulation through the Environmental Protection Agency. The White House itself has said this is a blunt instrument. It’s sort of their last resort, last backstop. It’s going to be tremendously politically controversial. We saw the line about Mitch McConnell. He’s going to come – you know, the Senate Republican leader from coal-heavy Kentucky, you know, he’s going to open up the whole attack that this is a war on coal.
MS. IFILL: His – right. And shoes are just going to keep dropping.
We just have to move along here.
One of the more arresting stories of the week involved the kidnapping and possible enslavement of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls an entire month ago. A social media campaign has now caught fire, and so have demands that the U.S. do something.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From clip.) The images from Nigeria this week have captured the public’s attention about extremism in faraway places, and it has also helped to focus the world’s attention on Boko Haram, a concern that we have been focused on for some period of time.
MS. IFILL: Secretary Kerry’s remarks raised a number of questions: Who is Boko Haram? In what ways have we been focused on them, as he says, and what is the U.S. or Nigeria, for that matter, prepared to do now?
HANNAH ALLAM: Well, as Secretary Kerry said, this is certainly not a new group to Africa watchers, to counterterrorism experts and certainly not to Nigerians themselves, who have seen this group really escalate its attacks in scale and boldness and in deadliness in recent years.
But really this abduction – this mass abduction has propelled it onto an international stage in a way we’ve never seen. And in fact that was one of the – one of the fears initially of people studying what to do: How should the U.S. respond? Was – you know, would this kind of publicity only legitimatize it? Would it – it would drive recruitment and give credibility to some of its claims?
So – but now, with this media campaign, the U.S. has really been forced into taking steps, and we’ve seen just today, I think, eight U.S. personnel arrived in Abuja. These are primarily AFRICOM military personnel, I think a State Department person as well –
MS. IFILL: If I might just step in, eight doesn’t sound like a lot. A dozen doesn’t sound like a lot.
MS. ALLAM: And it isn’t. There will be a few more, I think, coming tomorrow, but really, yes, just a handful. And I think this is probably in keeping with both what the Nigerian government is comfortable with – there’s been a history there of U.S. assistance offered and sometimes accepted and sometimes – and sometimes not – as well as this administration’s goal of really, especially in African conflicts, taking a step back, letting this be a Nigerian-led operation and not entangling the United States in kind of an intervention that does not directly, you know, threaten U.S. national security interests.
MR. BALZ: Why are the Nigerians so hesitant, reluctant, whatever the word is, to accept outside help or to accept offers of help from the United States or anyone else?
MS. ALLAM: Well, we’ve heard about this in probably more detail than ever before as U.S. officials current and former actually have explained this this week. And it’s really – part of it is this Nigerian national pride that they have professional force, they have an intelligence service, and thank you very much, we’ll handle this on our own, but also there’s a reluctance because oftentimes the U.S. assistance will come with admonitions about the decidedly checkered, you know, human rights record of the Nigerian government. And you know, I don’t think they want to hear a human rights lecture in how they wage their counterterrorism operations.
MS. DAVENPORT: And is Boko Haram affiliated with al-Qaida? What’s the story there?
MS. ALLAM: This is also a matter of debate. It’s not an affiliate of al-Qaida. And again, U.S. officials have maintained that, you know, while there have been some – there’s been some limited contact or coordination with some affiliates – I think specifically Shabab, the Somali affiliate, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is the North African affiliate – there is no real –
MS. IFILL: Coordination.
MS. ALLAM: – coordination, no – although there’s not a lot of daylight in the ideology. The other difference is that, you know, even some in the jihadist community have become – begun disavowing Boko Haram. And I think this raises an interesting question, because we’ve seen this kind of split among jihadists in Syria. Now we’re seeing it with Boko Haram’s, you know, really brutal tactics. And I don’t know – what is our counterterrorism strategy for dealing with a group that’s to the right of al-Qaida?
MR. WILLIAMS: What about these claims that the Nigerian government or at least the local officials knew this terror group was coming to those schools and just was afraid to engage them?
MS. ALLAM: Right. Well, we heard today – I think it was an Amnesty (International) report – that the government had something like five hours’ notice. I think the government disputed and said it was more like two. Either way, we’re talking about this region of Nigeria that’s very harsh terrain. It’s arid. One of the factors to the local discontent is actually climate change, as we were talking about before, the desertification of that area, a marginalized population. And there just isn’t a presence there. It was really hard for them to mobilize that –
MR. WILLIAMS: So they’re saying even though they knew they were coming, there was nothing they could do?
MS. ALLAM: Right. They did not have the readiness to get there in the time needed.
MS. IFILL: We only have a few seconds, but I want to say, why is it that Boko Haram was not declared a terrorist organization before now? I mean until last what, oh, November, October.
MS. ALLAM: This was a big fight within the State Department – a big debate, rather, where, you know, one camp said, it’ll give us more insight into their banking and into their – and it’ll help us with surveillance, and the counter to that, which eventually won that debate, was that no, it’ll backfire on us; it’ll align us with this government with a human rights – poor human rights record, as well as very heavy-handed tactics against Boko Haram, and will just give this group a limelight that might actually drive recruits and turn it from a local insurgency to a broader – inter-, you know, continental jihadist movement.
MS. IFILL: Now has the limelight, whether for good or ill.
Thank you, Hannah.
Big doings at the Supreme Court this week as the justices ruled that voluntary, not coerced, prayer is a perfectly acceptable way to open government meetings. The challenge came from Greece, New York, but its impact could play out all over the country.
Pete, I heard it changed the rule – the law in Carroll County, Maryland, this week.
MR. WILLIAMS: It’s certainly going to change how local governments open their meetings. The Supreme Court says you can open a government meeting with a prayer. They’re exactly 9-0 on that. After all, it was the Founding Fathers who wrote the religious freedom into the First Amendment and also hired the first chaplain in the Congress.
But the issue here in the town of Greece, which is a suburb of Rochester, New York, was that the prayer at the beginning of their meetings was almost always Christian, and on that the court divided 5-to-4. The majority said, that’s fine; the government can’t be in the business of censoring religious speech or requiring that governments water it down so it isn’t offensive to anyone. Justice Kennedy said in his opinion, as long as the prayer doesn’t “denigrate other faiths or nonbelievers, threaten damnation or preach conversion,” it’s acceptable. And the –
MS. IFILL: I’ve sat through a couple of prayers like that, by the way.
MR. WILLIAMS: I’m sure you have. (Laughter.) But the interesting thing here is what it may mean beyond prayer. Even though it’s all about prayer, it does give us maybe some insights into how the court will view this in the larger issue of religious freedom.
MS. IFILL: But here’s the thing: If people get used to the idea of these church-state arguments playing out either with crèches on statehouse lawns or even a conversation about whether – what – to what limit the Senate chaplain should go, but this was different.
MR. WILLIAMS: It was, but – and in fact the dissenters said, if the Town of Greece had done what Congress did, it would probably be OK – that Congress tells its chaplains, try to be sort of ecumenical in your prayers; Congress invites rabbis, imams; they invite people of all faiths to give these prayers – and they say that’s where the Town of Greece fell down. It’s not praying; it’s how they did it.
MR. BALZ: Pete, how – what does this say about the future of prayer in schools and that issue?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, probably nothing. You can’t be certain about that. First of all, the court said it’s different for children. They’re captives. Adults can come and go. As a matter of fact, this seemed to be one of the reasons they thought it was OK. If you didn’t like to prayer (sic), you could stay out of the meeting until it started; you could leave while it was going on.
But there is an interesting case that will be coming to the Supreme Court. It’s a challenge to a practice in a suburb of Milwaukee that put a graduation in a church. And the question will be, did – does that violate religious freedom. Was that government endorsement? We’ll have to see how they handle that case.
MS. ALLAM: Has the court been consistent on these rulings?
MR. WILLIAMS: This is one of the most mercurial, foggy, anything-goes areas of the law. (Laughter.) There was a famous time when the Supreme Court on the same day said it was OK for one state to display the Ten Commandments in one place, but not another to display it someplace else.
They have a test. They sometimes will use it. They sometimes don’t. They ignore it. They don’t like it. So it’s a very inconsistent area. And there are many people who say here, we go again.
MS. IFILL: Well, and is it a slippery slope that we’re talking about? That’s what this – that’s what some of the objectors said, and so the dissenters said that once you start down this path, what’s to stop you?
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, and what the dissent really says is that people who object to a prayer or don’t like it are – they shouldn’t have to sit through a prayer they don’t approve of when all they’re trying to do is seek a service from the government. Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent basically said that we’re all equal before the eyes of the government and we shouldn’t be made to feel somehow less worthy if we don’t like a prayer.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you very much.
Now we’re going to move on to politics. Ideology, money, demographics and good old politics played out on the primary stage this week in three states: Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina. And guess what. Incumbents won everywhere and establishment-backed challengers gave lie to notion that a divided Republican Party will help Democrats in the fall. This was Republican primary victor Thom Tillis.
REP. TILLIS: (From clip.) It’s not the end of the primary. It’s really the beginning of our primary mission, which has been the mission all along and that is to beat Kay Hagan and to make Harry Reid irrelevant in American – (cheers, applause).
MS. IFILL: Now that was in North Carolina, but that is also an emerging theme coast to coast. Let’s start with that question of ideology, Dan.
MR. BALZ: Well, we’ve talked a lot for the past couple of years about the power of the tea party and the Republican establishment being on the defensive. This was a very good week for the Republican establishment.
In North Carolina, you had a race – Senator Kay Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, is quite vulnerable. You had a Republican primary that was kind of the spectrum of ideology within the party. Thom Tillis is the speaker of the house in North Carolina. He’s the establishment candidate. He had one opponent who was backed by the tea party. Senator Rand Paul went in the day before the primary to campaign for him. Another opponent had support for the evangelical base of the party. He was backed by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.
This was a real test. The establishment went in on behalf of Thom Tillis. They propped him up with some money. The key was –
MS. IFILL: Not just some money, a lot of money.
MR.BALZ: Not just some money. The key was could he get above 40 percent and therefore avoid a runoff, which would have been costly, potentially debilitating. It would have been harder to bring the party together. He got 46 percent of the vote. It was an impressive victory for him.
And as we looked around, in Ohio there were a number of tea party challenges in the state legislature. John Boehner had a challenger. The incumbents and the establishment won across the board. And we’ll see whether this a pattern as we go forward.
MR. IFILL: And this is kind of a cautionary tale, not only for Kay Hagan, but for other Democrats too.
MR. BALZ: Well, it is. I mean, the Republicans have an opportunity to take back the Senate. And the establishment of the party – and I say that broadly. I mean, it’ll – across the ideology of the party, they are worried that if they don’t put up the best candidates possible, they will lose some of these races.
We’ve seen over the last several elections in which tea party-backed candidates managed to get through the primary, in some cases defeating an establishment incumbent, and proved to be woeful candidates in a general election. And there are three, four, five seats now held by Democrats that you could argue the Republicans would have had if they’d had better candidates. And that’s part of what the establishment has been trying to do this year.
MR. WILLIAMS: You said the Republicans have an opportunity to take the Senate. How does it look now? Does it seem like it’s probably going to happen?
MR. BALZ: Well, it’s a good opportunity. They have to win a net of six seats to take control. There are – there are well more than six seats that look like they will be in play this fall. You know, it’s still a little early. These races will develop more as the summer goes along. There are some primaries left to be had.
We now have in politics real handicappers: Nate Silver in FiveThirtyEight, our own Monkey Cage – (laughter) – which is run by some political scientists who are very good; they’ve got a predicting – predictive operation – all of these predictors now say the Republicans will have the Senate by the end of November. We’ll see, but they have a very good opportunity to take it, no question.
MS. DAVENPORT: Dan, what are some of the other primaries to watch? You know, if we’re looking to see how this pattern’s going to play out, what are the hot races?
MR. BALZ: Well, Coral, there are – there are still five incumbent Republican senators who have tea party challengers. The next up is Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader in Kentucky. That race will be later in May. He has a tea party challenger, but the tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, has not really gotten much traction. And that’s what we’re seeing in other states where the incumbents have some opposition, Thad Cochran in Mississippi is one, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Pat Roberts in Kansas, Lamar Alexander. In none of those cases, at this point, does it look the tea party is doing well.
MS. IFILL: And matter of fact, haven’t we – didn’t we see a poll this week showing that a lot Republicans and Republican-leaning independents no longer identify with the tea party?
MR. BALZ: Well, the tea party is less popular, if you look at the polling, than it was.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BALZ: But one of the things that, you know, if you talk to tea party supporters or some of the outside groups that help fund some of these tea party candidates, they make an argument – and I think there is some real truth to it – which is they’re kind of winning this argument because the establishment has moved –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BALZ: – to accommodate the tea party. Thom Tillis is speaker of the house of a body in North Carolina that put through one of the most conservative agendas in the country.
Now, this will be portrayed in two strikingly different ways as we go forward. The Democrats will claim it’s way out of the mainstream, he is way out of the mainstream. The Republicans will say that this is what good conservative small-government governance will bring you, and if you give us the presidency in 2016 and the Senate in 2014, this is what we will be able to do for the country.
MS. ALLAM: So it’s not the force that it was before, though. Is it mainstream? Certainly it’s still not mainstream.
MR. BALZ: No, but the Republican Party is still a fractured party. And we are going to see skirmishes play out in a number of these races. But we’re also going to see in 2016 a real debate within the party as to how conservative can they be or should they be in order to be able to win the White House. So this is not a debate that’s going to be settled this year.
I think what we’re going to see this year is a conclusion, as we began to see this week, that the establishment has figured out how to comport themselves in a way to fend off intraparty fights. But the question of what the party will stand for and how that will affect their nominees in 2016 is a – is an entirely different question.
MS. IFILL: No more Christine O’Donnells, no more Richard Mourdocks, no more Todd Akins.
MR. BALZ: Or Sharron Angles.
MS. IFILL: Or Sharron Angles. (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: That’s right. No, that’s what they’re trying to avoid.
MS. IFILL: That lesson they’ve learned.
OK. Well, thank you, Dan. I know you’ll be out there keeping track of it for all of us. (Laughter.) Thank you.
We have to go now, but as always, the conversation will continue online. The “Washington Week” Webcast Extra streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and you can find it all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek where, among other things, we’ll be talking the renewed congressional preoccupation with the Benghazi uprising.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the “PBS NewsHour.”
And we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week.
And you know who to call this weekend. (Laughter.) Tell her Gwen says happy Mother’s Day. Good night.