GWEN IFILL, "WASHINGTON WEEK" MODERATOR: We’re turning the page tonight to 2015, a year that holds the promises -- as Mario Cuomo once said, a politics as poetry and governing as prose.
That’s tonight on WASHINGTON WEEK.
IFILL (voice-over): The promise of a blank page. Can the president use the New Year to restore his popularity and complete an unfinished agenda?
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, you’ve got Republicans in a position where it’s not enough for them to simply to grind the wheels of Congress to a halt and then blame me.
IFILL: Will the new Republican Congress replace his plans with their own?
Could the Supreme Court change course with critical rulings on health care and gay marriage?
And who will emerge in the best position to win the 2016 presidential nomination, old names or new?
Here with the preview of the news we’ll be watching this year: Molly Ball, political correspondent for "The Atlantic", Joan Biskupic, legal affairs editor for "Reuters", Ed O’Keefe, congressional correspondent for "The Washington Post", and Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for "Real Clear Politics".
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capitol, this is WASHINGTON WEEK with Gwen Ifill.
Once again, from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
IFILL: Good evening.
Tonight, we bring you a handy guide to what to watch for this year, in the three branches of government, and as we gear up to cover another potentially historic presidential campaign.
First to the White House where polling from CNN shows the president’s job approval rating is at its highest point in nearly a year, but still under 50 percent, at 48 percent. The president seems to sense this as well, telling NPR’s Steve Inskeep that the rebounding economy has helped.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: What is true is that I’m in a position now where with the economy relatively strong, with us having lower the deficit, with us having strong growth and job growth, for the first time, us starting to see wages ticking up, with inflation low, with energy production high, now, I have the ability to focus on some long term project, including making sure that everybody is benefiting from this growth and not just some.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: Alexis, "long term project", the president’s term. What is he talking about? And does he have the leverage to get any of it done?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: It’s a great question. The president, as you can tell from the tune of his voice, it's a real mix of resignation and that sort of reservoir of ambition that he still has to fill the last two years.
SIMENDINGER: So, it’s a mix of -- I’m going to go through my checklist of unfinished business. I’m playing for history. He's talking more about legacy, trying to finish up the unfinished business.
What he has leverage to do is really going to be interesting and I’m going to be interested what Ed has to say about this, because he has never been in this terrain playing with Republican-dominated House and Senate. So, this is all new to him. He's going to have to be a broker, a horse trader. He’s going to have to be working from a position of somewhat weakness with his own party. And he has not necessarily been that great doing that up to this point.
IFILL: It looks like you’re just did the juxtaposition of ambition and reservation.
IFILL: I don't know how those two things co-exist.
SIMENDINGER: In Barack Obama, they exist very naturally, actually.
SIMENDINGER: So, what I mean by that is his resignation he understands the terrain is different. He understands what he has not been able to do effectively. But the ambition is, look, the economy is getting better. I still have some traction from these issues -- you know, tax reform.
He thinks that Republicans want to work with him on tax reform. He thinks that on the idea of trade that Republicans want to work with him on trade. He thinks on the international terrain that he and the United States has this indispensable nation, the engagement that he started is what he's going to carry through on. So he is a man with still lingering ambition.
JOAN BISKUPIC, REUTERS: Well, Alexis, how will that play out? Let’s just take trade and taxes for example. What kind of proposals do you think can possibly bring some compromise?
SIMENDINGER: So, tax reform, we're talking about corporate tax reform, which is very interesting. The president before Christmas time did talk to Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate majority leader. They talked about how they might be able to trade proposal, actual concrete ideas. From all the folks that I’ve talked to who have also been Democratic advisors to President Obama, this is much harder when you get down to the brass talks, than just talking about the idea that Republicans and Democrats want to come together.
And the president has this idea that he can leverage some of his pet projects, which should be infrastructure spending, roads and bridges, let’s use some extra revenue for Democratic ideas, and find some partners that the business community wants to do that.
On trade, he's ready to defy some of the Democrats on his party on this. And you know, I’m old enough to have covered the NAFTA fight during the Clinton years and I remember how tough that is with your fellow Democrats. And they're already laying some tough markers on whether -- first of all, he has to negotiate that with 11 nations, and then you have to go to the Senate and get them to OK that.
MOLLY BALL, THE ATLANTIC: Alexis, the president has been burned so many times before when he thought he was getting good signals from Republicans, could work with them on things like entitlement reform or the fiscal grand bargain. Why does he think this time is different? Does he have a new strategy? Is there something that leads him to believe it can be different?
SIMENDINGER: It’s -- one of the things that interesting about Barack Obama is he looks at the landscape and he tries to figure out, he thinks he's got this idea of whose political interests are going to fit in with his political interest. In the tax reform, he thinks Mitch McConnell, for instance, has two years and that Republicans want to show that they can govern. He thinks that an incentive for them to work and develop some sort of ideas if Mitch McConnell wants to show two years of his leadership facing a tougher calendar in 2016 for Republican senators wants to hold that majority, he thinks maybe they can work with that and use that and work across the aisle.
But it is truly a good question because, you know, the devils in the details and we haven't seen a whole lot of evidence of it.
ED O’KEEFE, THE WASHINGTON POST: Real quick, are there any other executive actions or memos or orders up his sleeve that are going to infuriate Republicans?
IFILL: He's dealing with Guantanamo this week.
SIMENDINGER: So, on Guantanamo, unfinished business and something the president definitely wants to complete as near as he can before handing it off to a successor. He's got 127 detainees left and still moving them out. We saw today the president had executive action on sanctioning North Korea.
So, we're going to see the president continue to use his executive power where he can.
IFILL: OK. Well, next to Congress, as Alexis was mentioning, the leaders there are preparing to create an agenda of their own.
So, let's go back and look at the polls. CNN/ORC asked an interesting question. Do you think the policies being proposed by Republican leaders in Congress will move the country in the right direction or the wrong direction? Forty-three percent said the right direction, 49 percent said the wrong direction.
But what policies are we talking about? And who are those pollsters talking to, Ed?
O’KEEFE: Well, they're going to start with an easy one, with the authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline. This lingering issue which really isn't a big deal policy-wise, but, politically, it certainly has become quite a big concern.
There's a lot of Democratic support for this, so Republicans are eager to get it done in both chambers very quickly, and send it to the president and remind him, look, dozens of Democrats agree with us. Why would you ever stand in the way of this? But he’s expected probably to do so.
From there, at least in the Senate, they’re going to move on to another issue with big bipartisan support, stronger sanctions on Iran. This is something that the White House asked Senate Democrats to hold off on last year, as the talks with Tehran continued. Now, Democrats and Republicans want to move on it, and that very well could be an early issue as well.
Bottom line, they want to do something and they want to make Americans like the Republican Party ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.
IFILL: Don't Democrats, even though they’re now the majority, want to do something, too?
O’KEEFE: Some of them do. You got to look at sort of the guys in the middle who will become instant power brokers, guys like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and others who have said for years who are very eager to make deals. That’s the whole reason they came to the Senate in the first place. Well, now is their chance.
Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, was talking the other day. He’s been in the minority his entire Senate care, and he said I’ve told the Democrats, now is your moment. Now, you will become relevant, because you are now in a position to help cut deals and get things to 60 votes that can prevail.
So, they'll turn to people like Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia and other moderates who are probably willing and certainly able to cut deals with them.
BISKUPIC: Well, you know, that sounds like something for the Senate in terms of bipartisanship. Don't we have a record numbers of Republicans now like more than we’ve had in, you know, seven decades or something like that?
O’KEEFE: Two hundred forty-seven, which is the most since the 1928 election. So they're --
BISKUPIC: So, can Republicans work with other Republicans?
O’KEEFE: That's -- that's a big question. And that's partly why the first few months of the House calendar at least are going to look like a lot of the last few years because they're going to push some of the bills that passed that sat on Harry Reid's desk. How many times did we hear about over the course of the campaign, because now, they'll clear Mitch McConnell's desk and probably get send on their way to the president who either veto them or perhaps sign them and actually find some ways to cut some deals.
SIMENDINGER: As I was listening to the president talked about how he's going to use his veto pen much more than he has. We know he's done it twice before in the years he's been president. He is expecting to use it for forcefully. In the early rush of the Republican leadership sending bills for the president to veto, how did they anticipate that that’s going to be perceived to the public? Is that for their base only, or is that a demonstration of governing?
O’KEEFE: I think it's both. The first test will come by February 27th. Remember that they passed 11 of the 12 spending bills at the end of the fiscal year, but funding for Homeland Security expires at the end of February. Republicans salivating at the opportunity to finally now take a legislative response to what the president did.
There already you've seen the White House, you know, talk about the fact that they think it's weird that Republicans want to hold up funding for airport security and port security and other elements of Homeland Security over some executive actions that the president took.
So, that will be an early test. Later on, it will be issues with the budget and appropriations, both certainly an ability for them to draw a contrast. And you're right. It will be a question of do we really want to hold the government so significant in the grand scream or do we want to -- grand scheme or do we want to make a political point?
BALL: What about the Democratic leadership? I mean, Republicans just won a big election. They arguably have a mandate. But -- now, after the Republicans been blocking so much for so long, don't the Democrats want at least some of them to sort of give Republicans a taste of their own medicine, given that Republicans are going to need Democrat votes for some of this stuff, and Democrats have an opportunity to say, well, it’s stuff, you didn't give us what we wanted back then?
O’KEEFE: Yes. That’s the big question that Democrats haven’t answered. You talk to them about what they want to do. They talk about income inequality, relieving student loan debt, immigration reform, women's rights, things that they run and have been prioritizing for the last several years. And you wonder, well, is that going to work given the new environment.
Again, I think because so many are going to side with Republicans on a lot of this, it could be very difficult for Harry Reid. But inevitably, there will be differences and we’ll see whether or not they’re willing to block it.
IFILL: Can I ask you briefly about the House Republicans? We saw this week that that stuff about Steve Scalise, the third ranking Republican in the House, who 12 year ago, according to his history, unwittingly spoke before a group of racists in Louisiana? He survives?
O’KEEFE: For now. If there's more evidence of something else, some other speech, or perhaps video of this surfaces, or there’s evidence of him consorting with David Duke and other white supremacists in Louisiana a little more often, that will be a problem. Top Republican leadership aides admit that. But for now, he will go on the job.
They move very quickly and decisively on this, and Republicans have gone through great lengths to point out when it comes to scandal, John Boehner moves fast. Michael Grimm, the tax-cheating Staten Island Republicans, he’s gone. Remember Trey Radel, the one who got caught up with drugs last year was gone very quickly. Chris Lee, a Republican from New York, also was gone very fast.
They say that's an interesting contrast with Democrats who have allowed several members with lapses to stick around.
IFILL: Well, it helps to be convicted to be convicted of something, I think. It's a lot easier to move around when someone's actually being convicted as opposed to just under a cloud. But we’ll see. We’ll see what happens with Scalise.
But with only three or four major rulings, the real key is going to be at the Supreme Court, which could render a lot of White House and congressional priorities moot, whether it's the future of the president's signature Affordable Care Act, or the prospect of rolling back laws in dozens of state that now permit same-sex marriage. This promises to be a consequential area.
What tops the docket, Joan?
BISKUPIC: Yes, in some way, it's a sequel of what we've seen before.
BISKUPIC: We have our best two cases involved Obamacare and then same sex marriage, which the justices are going to say in just about week whether they’re going to take it up again.
Start with the Obama sponsored health care law from 2010, back under another challenge. This one, a much more practical challenge to the core provision that says that there will be federal tax credits to people who buy health insurance and exchanges. The law itself actually refers to state exchanges. So, the question is, can people who buy insurance through federally facilitated exchanges, which is the majority, can they also get these tax credits?
The Obama administration argues they should be able to do this. The IRS has interpreted this law as written to extend all exchanges, whether they’re run by the states, or the federal government has stepped. The challengers say, hey, we're looking at the clear language of it and it does not allow these tax credits for exchanges setup by the federal government. That is a core part of the whole thing.
In fact, if you all remember from 2012 when we had the constitutional challenge, it was a broad-based challenge. It was something that went to the heart of the individual mandate. But this actually goes the practicalities and as one dissenting judge in one of the cases below said, it could gut everything if the Supreme Court ends up ruling that it would only allow tax credits for state exchange.
SIMENDINGER: Joan --
SIMENDINGER: -- the administration has been really touting in the second year of enrolment what a high percentage like 87 percent of those who are enrolling or reenrolling are getting the subsidies.
Are they playing to a particular member on the court? Who's likely on the court to have a decisive decision-making power here?
BISKUPIC: Well, last time, it was the 5-4, with the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, casting the deciding vote, defying conventional wisdom that it would be Anthony Kennedy, our usual decider, but it was the chief who witched over and voted with the four liberal members of the court to uphold Obamacare. This time, it's a closer call. As Gwen remembers, we remember, we predicted that. And I actually thought the chief would switch that time.
This time, I think it's harder, because it’s a statutory case. And in some ways, the more conservative members can say, well, Congress, if we say this only applies to the state, you can fix it You can rewrite it. As we know, Congress is not going to rewrite anything having to do with Obamacare at this point.
I still think it could fall to the chief. He’s -- speaking of f somebody who’s concerned about his legacy, John Roberts is concerned about his legacy. This would be a major, major move if the Roberts struck down this key portion of the Obama law.
BALL: What about on same sex marriage? You know, they previously in this term, declines to take some of the challenges to same sex marriage that we’re coming out of the states? Do we think that there's going to be a case that they can take up now?
IFILL: Advocates that have let up -- breathed a sigh of relief. They thought they were over the hump. But now --
BISKUPIC: No. OK, this is where we were in October. Five states have -- there were cases from five states saying, you know, come and decide once and for all whether there's a constitutional right to same sex marriage. The Supreme Court surprised many of us by saying we're not going to come to that right now. But this is what’s changed since then, there were 19 states that allowed same-sex marriage back in October.
Now, we have 36, if you count Florida, which starting next week is going to allow it. We also didn't have a split among lower appeals court on this. The appeals court that had been ruling on same sex marriage had all said that there should be a constitutional right. Now we have a ruling from the my Midwest from the sixth circuit covering Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee saying those people are not it into told a right of same-sex marriage.
I think it really does force the Supreme Court's hand this time. As I said, the earliest they might tell us would be January 5th.
O’KEEFE: Real quick.
O’KEEFE: One of the things we always wonder about the court is how is everyone doing and who might be hanging it up any time soon?
BISKUPIC: Well, there was a lot of pressure on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is our eldest justice, 81, to step down, just in case the Republicans took the Senate, which they did, and just in case something could happen, that would make it harder for President Obama to replace her or we have a new president in 2016, a Republican.
But she's healthy. She's hanging in there. She gets regular cancer checks. She has survived two serious bouts of cancer.
Our next eldest justices are Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, both 78. And they don't look to be going anywhere soon.
IFILL: OK. Well, it's part of your job, the ghoul watch who might retire.
And finally, everything that happens or doesn't happen this year will inevitably play out against the background of the next presidential campaign. Just this week, Jeb Bush resigned from all of the board he served on, presumably clearing the decks for a run. Hillary Clinton remains the major Democratic contender. But at least half dozen others were lining up on the chance that lighting will strike and they can displace the frontrunners.
Against this backdrop, consider the CNBC economy survey, showing that 53 percent of Americans are pessimistic about the current and future economic situation, while only 23 percent are optimistic.
So, who's best in position to win that fight right now, the people we know who are thinking about this, Molly?
BALL: Well, it's a really good question. I mean, I think what we're hearing as these candidates start to hone their message, start to come up with the sort of reason for running, they are all going to have to answer that question. They're going to have to figure out how to speak to those Americans who no matter how much we talk about, the Dow going up and the rate of growth in the economy. Obviously, a lot of people still are deeply pessimistic.
And so, you know, it's a very unsettled field right now, as much as many people think, oh, we just finished an election, why do we have to hear about this now?
This is actually the most interesting --
IFILL: It's 2015 now. It’s OK --
BALL: It's OK after New Year’s?
IFILL: It’s now OK.
BALL: It's really the most interesting part of the whole cycle, right, as people look around and talk to their donors and try to make their decision and try to gauge the electorate. And a candidate who is looking at this race, someone like a Rick Perry is going to be taking the temperature as he sees it of what is it that voters are going to be looking for this year and do I have something that speaks to that.
So, I think, you know, we’ve got on the Democratic side it's a one-person race. and on the Republican race it's like a 12-way tie. It's just crazy.
And so, I’ve got my whole list of candidates right here on the Republican side, there are just so many. But I think the top tier right now is Jeb, who you mentioned, who it's almost like he’s a professional. It’s almost like he knew someone who’s done this before.
IFILL: Yes, perhaps.
BALL: The way he's making these moves, coming out, you know, first announcing the exploratory committee and dis-encumbering himself of these entanglement, his professional entanglements, but also I know he knows that not being in elected office he doesn't have the same platform that a lot of these others guys have.
So, he has to inject himself into the conversation. He's doing that very effectively.
I think Chris Christie is still in that top-tier. I think Rand Paul. Ted Cruz looks like he is also going to make a bid for that sort of, the lane that Paul is sort of in which is conservative anti-establishment lane. You've got a couple of social conservatives. Rick Santorum saying he might run again, Mike Huckabee.
Marco Rubio, it's not clear what lane he's in. And I think that's become a problem for him and also Jeb crowding the Florida donor field. And then a lot of other guys, a lot of those governors, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Pence --
IFILL: Everybody in the --
BISKUPIC: But really, it’s anybody’s game on the Republican side. With all that's has developed with Jeb Bush just in the last week or so, have you been able to detect Hillary Clinton acting differently because of his moves? What should we be watching for in that?
BALL: I really think that Jeb has sort of thrown a gauntlet. And that the Hillary world is going to start feeling the pressure as well. You know, she's been scheduling speaking engagements several months down road, which has led people to say, OK, she's looking for a late start.
But at some point, you know, donors are going to get antsy. People on the Democratic side, especially if Republicans start even more openly, declaring their intentions. All these Republicans are running against Hillary already. And at some point, it becomes incumbent on her to respond and to be an actual rather than just sort of spectral sort of presence in the race.
IFILL: Time for one more quick question and answer.
O’KEEFE: I guess, you know, if you look at that list that you have there, if there was someone at the bottom of the pack where you thought had a chance a to jump up towards the top, who might be at this point?
BALL: I think the sleeper candidate to keep an eye on is Ben Carson, who is not a politician, but who is a doctor and a really beloved by the conservative base, and who has a super PAC that's been out there creating space for him, that has raced more money than the Ready for Hillary super PAC.
So, there are a lot of the sort of talk radio crowd, the Tea Party crowd, a lot of these names are all elected officials. That doesn't count. And so, someone like Ben Carson who have some unorthodox views could surprise, even some people who think they support him, that could be --
IFILL: OK, got to go. Thank you.
But before we go tonight, we had to cut a little short because we'd like to send our condolences to the family of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, one of the nation’s larger than life public servants. Our remembrance comes by way of a forthcoming PBS documentary "The Italian Americans" airing next month. In this excerpt, the story of the speech that vaulted him Cuomo onto the national stage.
NARRATOR: At the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Cuomo delivered a keynote address that catapulted him into the national spotlight and marked him as the next great hope of the Democratic Party.
MARIO CUOMO (D), FORMER NY GOVERNOR: Please allow me to skip the stories and the poetry and the temptation to deal in nice with vague rhetoric.
RICHARD BENEDETTO, USA TODAY: I was in the hall when that speech was being made. And usually in the conventions, when there are people speaking at the podium, people are walking around and talking and not paying attention.
CUOMO: But they help lift up generations to the middle-class and higher. So, they --
BENEDETTO: Little by little as he continued to speak, the crowd got quieter and quieter and quieter.
CUOMO: And before that to reach heights that our own parents would not have dared dream of.
BENEDETTO: Until all of a sudden, everybody was sitting down and listening to the speech.
CUOMO: I learned about our kind of democracy from my father, and I learned about our obligation to each other from him and my mother. They were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other tracks where he was born to occupy the highest seat in the greatest state in the greatest nation in the only world we know.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: It was passionate. It was pragmatic, took pride in his Italian-American heritage. I think that remains one of the top 10 speeches in history.
IFILL: (AUDIO GAP) yesterday at the age of 82.
We'll talk about Cuomo a little bit more on the WASHINGTON WEEK Webcast Extra. You can find it at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek later tonight and all week-long.
Also, keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the "PBS NEWSHOUR".
And we'll see you here next week on WASHINGTON WEEK. Good night.