GWEN IFILL: Headaches and challenges in Ukraine, on health care and at the Vatican. We’ll cover it all tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.
MS. IFILL: Gauntlet thrown, but no sign that Russia is backing down. As NATO closes ranks, the next move is Vladimir Putin’s.
In Rome, the first African-American U.S. president meets with the first Latin American pope.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or coalition with any political figure on any issue. His – his job is a little more elevated.
MS. IFILL: The differences and the similarities.
At home, 6 million people have signed up for the federal health care exchanges, but the government is giving them even more time.
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From clip.) Last night brought us yet another delay of “Obamacare,” another deadline made meaningless.
MS. IFILL: But the White House says it’s good news.
And at the high court, the fight over abortion rights is back.
MS. : (From clip.) We believe that Americans don’t lose their religious freedom when they open a family business.
MS. : (From clip.) Religious freedom gives us our right to beliefs, but it doesn’t give us the right to impose them on others.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Peter Baker of The New York Times; Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times; Alex Wayne of Bloomberg News; and Joan Biskupic of Reuters.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. It feels like we are on the brink of something with Russia. The unyielding standoff over the annexation of Crimea has become a critical new test for the – for Obama administration foreign policy. The president addressed the issue almost every day this week as he traveled through Europe.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) There is still a way for Russia to work with Ukraine and the international community to de-escalate the situation through diplomacy. That’s the only way that the issue will be resolved. If Russia continues on its current course, however, the isolation will deepen.
MS. IFILL: But so far, the threat of isolation has done little to change Russia’s calculus. Why is that, Peter?
PETER BAKER: Well, the sanctions so far haven’t been the kind of measures that have actually bitten very hard in the Russian economy. President Obama has tried to say, look, this is what we’re doing just for starters; we could do a lot worse.
There was kind of a little bit of a momentary possible breakthrough this afternoon, nobody knows quite what to make of it, in which President Putin called President Obama. He hasn’t been doing that very much lately; it was the other way around most of time when they talk. He says, look, these ideas that Kerry, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been talking about, maybe we should talk about them.
MS. IFILL: Well, what was interesting about that phone call, or at least the accounts of the White House and then the Kremlin put out about the phone calls, is that the president said, ah, it’s – we’re about to pursue diplomacy again. And I didn’t get that reading the Kremlin’s statement.
MR. BAKER: They didn’t sound like the same phone call if you listen the – watch the two statements, right. The White House emphasized the notion of a possible, you know, movement toward diplomacy. The Kremlin’s statement talked about how Putin railed against the extremists that are in Ukraine and basically justifying his actions in effect. But if you look at the Kremlin’s statement, there was a sentence in there, it said, and as a result of that, the president proposed, you know, some diplomatic conversation. So the question is, is the president of Russia trying to back down, you know, but covering it through, you know, inflammatory language to make it look like he’s still strong, which is some ways he is, or is he just using this as a way of trying to get leverage over President Obama?
JOAN BISKUPIC: Well, and Peter, there is a question of what is President Putin’s game plan here. He might not want to appear to be backing down, but what if he’s not only not backing down but going forward someplace else? I mean, what do you think is happening?
MR. BAKER: He might be. In fact, if anybody in American government tells you they know what Putin is up to, they’re not really telling the truth here, I mean, because nobody really knows. He has these troops on the border with Ukraine. Is he going to go in? Some intelligence reports say maybe he’s likely to. In the statement today where he talks about diplomatic possibilities, he mentions Transnistria. That’s a very obscure –
MS. IFILL: I was going to ask – explain that.
MR. BAKER: Yes, that’s an obscure breakaway pro-Russian area of Moldova, another country you probably never heard of, but on the border of Ukraine. The fact that he throws that into the mix seems like another predicate for more escalation of something. He’s saying, you guys in Ukraine are blocking Transnistria. It’s not fair to them. We might have to in effect come to the rescue. There are a thousand Russian soldiers already in Transnistria, which itself might want to be part of Russia honestly, even if you had fair elections. So this thing could kind of spiral in lots of different ways.
DOYLE MCMANUS: Peter, when those sanctions first started, we kind of learned two things. One was Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said, you’re going to be able to see if these are affecting the ruble and the stock market. So I guess my first question is, so how’s the stock market look like in Moscow? And then the second was, but it’s not really going to bite unless the Germans and the Europeans get in whole heart. So what’s the status of the sanctions?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, the sanctions haven’t had any kind of – enough effect to have a genuine impact on President Putin’s decision-making; at least nobody thinks so. The ruble’s not as good as it once was. The economy obviously isn’t as good as it once was. The markets have some up and downs. And you see some Russians beginning to pull back on their money abroad in fear of worse sanctions to come. It’s not these sanctions that will make the difference. It’s if they go to the next step: do you go after more banks; do you go after the arms industry, which President Obama has threatened; do you go after whole sectors of the economy.
And what the president said in Europe this week was, we won’t do this, in effect, if you don’t do anything further. He’s holding back any further sanctions in case of escalation by Russia.
ALEXANDER WAYNE: Peter, the Ukrainians have these thousands of Russian troops on their border. They are presumably not defenseless. If Putin were to make a move into eastern Ukraine, would they fight?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. They pretty much are defenseless. (Laughter.) I mean, they only have apparently 6,000 troops who are armed and ready and so forth in eastern Ukraine who in theory could put up a fight. That’s not going to it against Russia.
MS. IFILL: Margaret Warner interviewed the Ukrainian prime minister this week on NewsHour, and he said – Yastenyuk – and he said, we will fight. And it sounded very patriotic and very – but with one ship left in the navy or something.
MR. BAKER: Exactly. And that ship’s been kind of swinging around the harbor trying to avoid the Russians like the plague. It’s a very lopsided situation there. And Ukraine has actually done a remarkable job of being restrained so far and not buying into any of the provocations, not giving the Russians an excuse to do something further by fighting back, by cutting off electricity and water to Crimea, by doing anything that would give President Putin the predicate to go further. But like you say, if he actually moved into eastern Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine them sitting back and not at least doing something.
MS. IFILL: You wrote a really good piece this week about the fact that Vladimir Putin has managed to bedevil not just this president but three presidents, U.S. presidents in a row. Why? How?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. I think – I think American presidents and American officials and journalists probably really wanted to see in Putin something he wasn’t. He know, they hoped he was Boris Yeltsin’s successor, who would consolidate and bring some order to the democracy and capitalism that Yeltsin had brought to the old Soviet Union – a modernizer, perhaps. And he wasn’t. He turns out, in fact, to have been, you know, a creature of his upbringing, KGB officer, and greatly distressed grievance that animates his actions. He feels that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century; that’s what he said. And so you have to remember that as you evaluate his actions. And every American president I think saw him through American lens rather than through his own lens.
MS. IFILL: Well, it’s possible we’re riding that same danger, again interpreting everything that happens through American lens.
OK. Thank you, Peter.
The standoff with Russia may have been front of mind for the U.S. president, but another interesting tableau unfolded abroad this week as well. The liberal Democratic U.S. president met with the conservative Catholic Argentinian pope. Everything seemed cordial enough. But afterward, one side chose to emphasize what the two had in common while the other focused on areas of difference. Each had its own domestic reasons for that approach, didn’t they, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: They did, Gwen. I – we don’t often talk about the pope as a political leader with a domestic constituency, but you can kind of make that analogy.
Let’s start with President Obama, though, because he’s easier. He needed one thing out of this meeting. He needed a nice picture of himself smiling next to the pope, the most popular person in the world right now – not Barack Obama, the pope – with the pope’s – (inaudible). (Cross talk.) But he got that. He got all the pictures. They were lovely. And then the president afterwards gave his readout of the meeting. And it was sweetness and light. It was about the common ground on poverty and the common ground on world peace and the fact they were going to work together.
And then a little after that the Vatican, as it tends to do, put out a very spare statement that – it had points of common interest in it, it had all the international stuff as well that they had talked about, the Middle East and so on, but it also had this line saying, the two sides also discussed their differences on religious freedom, life and conscientious objection. And what that is, is Vatican-speak for abortion and the exemptions that Catholic institutions in this country want from the Affordable Care Act requirement that they cover contraception. Incidentally, that weird phrasing was also because the Vatican did a kind of a good cop, bad cop act. The secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, was the one who did the tough stuff on abortion.
MS. IFILL: Right. But also – but also, when you talk about the pope’s domestic constituency, it’s American bishops in this case, right?
MR. MCMANUS: That’s right. I mean, it’s wrong to think of the pope as a politician in the sense of having a political agenda, but he does have a specific political and bureaucratic agenda, which is quite far-reaching reform of the Vatican. And part of that is empowering bishops conferences in each country. So even though we don’t know how much he agrees with the approach the American bishops have taken, he does want to defer to them and back them up, and that’s exactly – (inaudible).
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, on that question, though, in terms of what President Obama could do possibly with the pope, he made those comments that we just saw about, really, there’s no practical partnership that might come out of this, but what about any kind of opportunities for diplomacy, I would think, given the personalities we’ve (got here ?)?
MR. MCMANUS: That actually is there. And if you think of it, of course, the high water mark in a sense in modern times was President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, and they did a whole lot of stuff in Eastern Europe. There’s probably not as much opportunity here, and in fact, the two – the Vatican and the White House disagree on some issues in Syria, for example. But in the Middle East, the Vatican is quite engaged. They can do – they can do some work there. It is – the Vatican is trying to get the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad to be more forthcoming in negotiations. They’re not having any more luck, though, than the Russians are.
MR. BAKER: The president gave him, the pope, a gift. The pope gave him a gift back. We always read probably way too much into these things, but what can we take from the choice of presents that they gave to each other?
MR. MCMANUS: Oddly enough, I’m mystified by the White House gift because it was a set of vegetable seeds from Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden, and we don’t really know whether the pope is a gardener or not. I’ll have to –
MR. BAKER: There was a handmade seed box – (inaudible).
MR. MCMANUS: And there was a handmade seed box.
MR. BAKER: Made from a –
MR. MCMANUS: So – and it was made from the timbers of the first Catholic cathedral in the United States –
MS. IFILL: In Baltimore.
MR. MCMANUS: – in Baltimore.
The pope did popes what usually do, which was he handed over a copy of his last major communication. In this case, this was the apostolic letter that got famous because the news lead of it was this was the one where the pope condemned trickle-down economics. The president said, this is wonderful; when I’m frustrated in the Oval Office, I’ll read this and it will calm me down. (Laughter.) Well, Mr. President, maybe it will or maybe it won’t because that document is, in the first case, most of it is an exhortation to Catholics to go out and evangelize more. Be interesting to see the president take that one on. But it does have a pretty full-throated defense of traditional Catholic church teaching on abortion and these other issues of life.
MR. WAYNE: Doyle, you mentioned the Affordable Care Act and this controversy over contraception coverage. To the Vatican, does that issue outweigh any broader moral value of expanding health insurance coverage in the United States?
MR. MCMANUS: That is a terrific question. And probably the theologically sound thing for me to say is that the Vatican would not want to say, we prefer A over B, that Catholic moral theology is a “seamless garment”; that’s actually the term of art. But it is interesting to note that in other countries, actually, Catholic institutions pay taxes that actually cover contraception, in some cases, even abortion. It is possible to try and make a guess on this that the pope would –might – this particular pope might put more emphasis on the coverage than on the contraception issue because he has downplayed – it’s a difference of emphasis. But I’m way out on a limb. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Father McManus weighs in with his technological stylings. (Laughter.)
MR. MCMANUS: I’m going to hear from a number of – (inaudible) – any minute now.
MS. IFILL: And it won’t be good.
The rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges has encountered several well-documented problems. But this week, finally, good news: More than 6 million people will have signed up by Monday’s deadline, and anyone still in line gets an extra couple weeks to enroll. But a lot of questions still remain: who’s signing up, who’s paying the premiums, and is it too soon for the administration to be running a victory lap. First – last question first to Alex.
MR. WAYNE: I think they can take a short victory lap. This is a big milestone considering where they started from back in October and November. They had the health insurance exchanges across the country that didn’t work. Nobody could enroll for practically two months. They managed to catch up in four months to just shy of the original projection for enrollment under this law. But as you noted, there are a lot of outstanding questions, how many of these people, these 6 million, have actually paid their premium to an insurer, and how many of them were uninsured before they went into the exchanges.
MS. IFILL: OK, tackle one at a time. Start with the first one about premiums.
MR. WAYNE: Sure thing. We – both of these questions, I should say we don’t really have very good answers. We know that some fraction of people who have signed up for the Affordable Care Act through the exchanges didn’t pay a premium to an insurer, and we don’t know why. It could be that they signed up initially in the exchange, and then they decided, you know what, I’m just going to deal directly with an insurer and sign up that way.
The uninsured question is a – is a real stickler. The administration hasn’t given us any information on that, of course. So we’re trying to glean little hints. For example, New York today said that in their exchange, about 70 percent of the folks who are signing up previously were uninsured. It was sort of a surprising number for New York, which doesn’t have a lot of uninsured people to begin with.
MR. BAKER: What about the White House? I mean, the House really has made this a priority. The president is on a trip, he’s, you know, confrontation over the Cold War, meeting with the pope, but every day they’re tweeting, they’re talking to sportsmen. What are they doing to try to get people enrolled?
MR. WAYNE: Yeah. So this week they’ve had officials from the administration dispatched all over the country to do whatever they can do to help I guess people get enrolled on site in places like –
MS. IFILL: That, too, when the – when the 6 million mark was hit, the president actually made sure he announced it from Italy. (Laughter.)
MR. WAYNE: Yeah, he did. He – in fact, they put him on a conference call with several thousand workers, volunteers and paid workers, who were helping to sign people up for this law, and then they proceeded to take their victory lap.
MS. BISKUPIC: There’s such a disparity among the states in terms of numbers of people who have signed up. Does so much depend on the machinery in the states, the competence of the states and, more politically, whether the state leaders are buying into it?
MR. WAYNE: It does to some extent. But there are some curious things happening around the country. In Florida, for example, a lot of people have signed up for this law. Florida is actually I believe the third most signups – correction, the second most in the country – despite having a governor and a legislature that oppose the law.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yeah. Is that an age thing, maybe, older people?
MR. WAYNE: It might be – it might be more people prone to support the president, honestly. The president won Florida in 2012, of course.
MR. MCMANUS: Alex, let me ask you a real kind of nuts-and-bolts question. What happens to the people who missed the deadline? I mean, there’s been really interesting polling that shows –
MS. IFILL: Which deadline do you mean? (Laughter.)
MR. MCMANUS: All of these deadlines. No, I mean, there’s been some really interesting polling that shows that uninsured people often are kind of low news information people. Lot of them didn’t know the deadline. There was an interesting poll in Texas; a lot of people thought that it wasn’t available in Texas because the Texas state government was so hostile to it. OK, if they figure out next month that they should have done this, are they out of luck for the year, do they just have to pay a penalty, or what?
MR. WAYNE: Well, if you’re – if you’re fortunate enough to live in a state that’s expanded Medicaid, and you’re eligible for that program, you can actually sign up year round. That’s – there’s no cutoff for that program. But if you need to sign up for private insurance – you make more than the poverty level, essentially – the deadline is March 31st, and supposedly, you won’t be able to sign up until November for coverage in January. But that deadline keeps getting a little bit – a little bit slippery. They said this week that they’re going to offer an extension not anybody who claims to have had technical problems during this enrollment period. Presumably, we’ve asked several times what happens if somebody goes to the exchanges on April 3rd for the first time ever and says, yeah, I had some technical problems, I’d like to sign up for insurance. Are there consequences if they lie? They wouldn’t this question – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: Well, because we know there are none. (Laughter.) I was listening to that same phone call. They found a way not to answer that question about a dozen different ways.
But let me ask you something. In order for this program to work generally, you need younger, healthier people to sign up. Is there any sign that among these 6 million, that what percentage of them are those younger, healthier target audiences?
MR. WAYNE: So here is something to keep in mind. The insurance pools, the way they work, each company combines the people they sign up on the exchange and the people they sign up off the exchange. It’s all one big pool now. And off the exchange, it looks like the enrollees are younger than folks who are signing up on the exchange. Don’t exactly know why except perhaps wealthier younger adults are choosing to deal directly with the insurance companies or a broker.
MS. IFILL: Oh. Well, that’s interesting. And that’s a good way to add up whatever it is they need to do (now ?).
MR. WAYNE: They – still not as young as they’d really like before the law launched.
MS. IFILL: Well, they also didn’t think they were going to get to 6 million, so there you go.
Thank you, Alex, and welcome to Washington.
MR. WAYNE: Sure. Thanks.
MS. IFILL: At the Supreme Court, a different fight about health care but also about abortion and freedom of religion and how corporations are defined; not too much in one plate, right? The arguments lasted only 90 minutes, but the fight has been going on for years. How did it play out this time at the court, Joan?
MS. BISKUPIC: It was great, Gwen. And in fact, when you just said, only 90 minutes, you know, that’s 30 minutes more than we usually have up there for a case, so – (laughter) –
MS. IFILL: It seemed like a lot – like a short time to us, but not to you.
MS. BISKUPIC: Right, right, for – you know, it was great. You know, 90 minutes on – you know, look at all that comes into this battle. We’ve got – this is the first time we’ve had a challenge to the Obama-sponsored health care law since 2012. This one involves religious rights; it involves corporate rights that invokes the 2012 Citizens United ruling that’s so defined this Roberts court; reproductive rights, shades of abortion overhanging this. So there was just a lot going on, which is one of the reasons the justices extended the time.
We also had two familiar advocates up there: Don Verrili, who’s the solicitor general of the United States, again against Paul Clement, who had challenged the health care law back in 2012 and is the – was the solicitor general under George W. Bush.
The question was whether for-profit corporations can claim a religious exemption to the contraceptive mandate based on the employer’s religious views. Now, everybody should know that right now churches and other religious entities already have an exception from the requirement under the Obama law that you provide insurance coverage that includes birth control. But these are companies that are for-profit. They just happen to be run by people who have very strong religious views. And in this case, they say, of all the birth control that we’re supposed to cover, there are some methods that they felt were akin to abortion.
Now, the science – there’s a lot of disputes over the science, but for purposes of this case, the federal government is saying, yes, these people have deeply felt religious views, but we still don’t think that they should be exempt because for-profit corporations shouldn’t be exempt from this; you know, this is a comprehensive scheme; public health is at issue; and there are other ways that – they should not be able to exercise their religious rights this way.
MR. BAKER: We’re talking about the employers’ religious rights. It’s understandable. It’s obviously something that goes back a long ways. What about the employees’ religious rights? Does that come into play? Is there somebody advocating here for them?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, outside on the courthouse steps, there were plenty of women’s groups talking about equality and women’s rights to birth control.. But for the legal question, it really comes down to what these employers can assert, notably under a 1993 law that says that government can infringe on religious freedom. And it’s a question of, do these people qualify for it? But there’s really conflict there.
In fact, you know, what the Obama administration says is, you know, this is a matter of women’s public health. It’s very important. We all know how important the reproductive rights can be to families, to employees, to – you know, to, frankly, the nation’s overall public health. But the question was more, what do – what’s there for religious employers.
It’s interesting, Peter, though, that – because your question goes to part two. If the court says that these employee – employers can be exempt, at least bring a claim, a second question kicks in. And that’s whether the government then still has a compelling interest to say, no, you still have to abide by it. So it’s kind of a two-part question, and your question comes in on the second part.
MR. MCMANUS: Joan, does it matter the kind of corporation we’re talking about? I mean, I gather this was a closely held, sort of family-held corporation. So you got the gamut from, you know, a sole proprietorship drugstore to General Motors.
MS. BISKUPIC: Right. Right. And these are two families. One – you know, family-run companies, closely held. One in Oklahoma, based on Oklahoma, Hobby Lobby, an arts and craft store, run by people who are evangelical Christians. The other, a woodworking family in Pennsylvania run by Mennonites. And Chief Justice Roberts, who seemed very sympathetic to the – their claims, did stress, well, this would be for closely held corporations; we’re not talking about for GM.
MR. WAYNE: The liberals on the – on the court raised this issue that if this – if this ruling were to go in the favor of these companies, it might open the door to other companies deciding not to cover things like vaccinations or maybe even surgery for some faiths. Was there any response?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, that question was asked by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. And going back to the government’s – to Paul Clement’s position about, you know, just whose rights are we talking about here, he just brushed them off, saying, no, that would not – we’re not talking about that kind of slippery slope here as the government is contending because we still have to look at whether the government would have a compelling interest in vaccines, and that’s no question here.
MS. IFILL: It should be so with Justice Kennedy and that swing seat again. It sounded like the court was leaning more sympathetic to the corporations.
MS. BISKUPIC: It was. And Gwen, Justice Kennedy was the one who brought up abortion, saying, you know, wouldn’t – if we – if we rule for you, federal government, wouldn’t we be saying you could then down the road allow – force companies to pay for abortions?
MS. IFILL: Fascinating . Its’ going to be a great decision – (inaudible) – pieced – pull it apart and pull it back together again. Thanks, Joan. Thank you, everyone.
Nat (ph), we have to go, 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. Among our topics, will “Obamacare” cover same-sex spouses? Keep up with developments now seven days a week on the “PBS NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.