GWEN IFILL: Shifting sands at the VA, on immigration reform and in politics. We’ll cover the top – (inaudible) – week tonight on “Washington Week.”
MR. : (From clip.) Political interests do not come, do not come before the needs of the men and women who have served and sacrificed for this country.
MS. IFILL: Rare bipartisan agreement –
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From clip.) Treating those to whom we owe the most so callously, so ungratefully is unconscionable, and we should all be ashamed.
SENATOR PATTY MURRAY (D-WA): (From clip.) This needs to be a wake-up call for the department.
MS. IFILL: – as Veterans Affairs chief Eric Shinseki is forced to defend the agency against charges of substandard treatment at VA hospitals.
SECRETARY ERIC SHINSEKI: (From clip.) Whatever comes out of this, whatever is substantiated, actions will be taken. We will take actions on them.
MS. IFILL: So the investigations begin.
On Capitol Hill, tough choices as immigration reform appears to stall.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) We’ve got this narrow window. The closer we get to the midterm elections, the harder it is to get things done around here.
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From clip.) I don’t know whether we’re going to get to it this year or not. I think we should. The appetite amongst my colleagues for doing is is not real good.
Meanwhile, the campaign trail heats up with a new face from Nebraska.
BEN SASSE: (From clip.) This feels good when you’re – when you’re a rookie and you’ve never done this before –
MS. IFILL: And the Clintons jump into the fray after questions are raised about Hillary’s health.
MS. IFILL: Do you think this is their way of inserting her age or her physical capabilities into the 2016 debate?
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I don’t know, but if it – if it is, I – you can’t be too upset about it. It’s just the beginning. They all get better and better at it.
MS. IFILL: Just the beginning.
Covering the week, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times, Molly Ball of The Atlantic and John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
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One again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Nothing spells bipartisan agreement like supporting military veterans. So when reports began surfacing that as many as 40 vets may have died because they were shuffled to secret waiting lists at VA hospitals, it was only a matter of time before Congress and the press too weighed in.
Q: Have you fired any administrators who were responsible for veterans dying due to delayed care?
SEC. SHINSEKI: We have taken action against senior leaders.
SEC. SHINSEKI: I would include, yes, them being removed from VA.
MS. IFILL: It was also only a matter of time before Shinseki himself came under fire with demands for his resignation. And there was a resignation, just not this afternoon – just his – not – just not his thisafternoon; Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health, announced he’s quitting.
So what are the facts so far, Martha?
MARTHA RADDATZ: Well, the facts are let’s talk about this resignation announced today by Robert Petzel. He was on the Hill on Thursday testifying with General Shinseki. They announced the VA put out a press release saying he had resigned, and Shinseki accepted the resignation of Petzel. But –
MS. IFILL: The White House came out with a, yes, we accept it too.
MR. RADDATZ: Yes, we accept it too. But it turns out, Gwen, that he was slated for retirement this year, and his replacement had already been named. So not exactly sweeping out the old guard in the VA. So that – to me, it was so tone-deaf to put out a press release like that and not mention the fact that he was slated for retirement, and the president had already chosen his replacement.
MS. IFILL: Hah. So now, what do we think is the truth of what these reports are?
MR. RADDATZ: Well, I think they do have to figure out what’s going on in these reports. But you’ve heard lots of voices. You’ve heard whistle-blowers. You’ve heard doctors come out from the Phoenix facility and other facilities saying, yes, there was this waiting list, and they tried to hide this wait to make it look like they were doing better than they were.
JOHN HARWOOD: Martha, to what extent do nthese problems reflect something that Eric Shinseki inherited or something that’s accumulated on his watch as he’s got an increasing number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming onto the system?
MR. RADDATZ: You know, the VA has had trouble for a long time. Once you get into the system, once you have health care, there are lots of good things said about it, but that wait started a long time ago. On the other hand, Shinseki has been there 5 ½ years. We were in the middle two wars. Why you wouldn’t predict that you would have all these people and start taking care of it a long time ago – one young veteran said to me, it’s great, they’re making progress now, but it’s kind of like they drove the car into the ditch and now they want credit for pulling it halfway out. So I think we all say, yes, there were lot of old veterans. Can’t you figure that out? And you have millions coming home. And the problem is only going to get worse.
MOLLY BALL: It seems like the – taking care of our veterans ought to be the least controversial thing in the world. It’s not a partisan issue. It ought to be something that everybody can agree on. There ought to be the political will to this. And yet there’s a chronic problem. Why doesn’t it get fixed?
MR. RADDATZ: Well, I think one of the – one of the things is, it’s a really difficult problem. It is not easy. And the structure and the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration is complex, is immense, you do have all these people – (inaudible) –
MS. IFILL: It’s the nation’s largest health care system.
MR. RADDATZ: Largest health care – that’s exactly right, Gwen – nation’s largest health care system.
MR. HARWOOD: Is the bureaucracy more of a problem than lack of money?
MR. RADDATZ: I think it probably is at this point. I think – you know, you can pour all the money in the world, but if you don’t know how to use it and you don’t know how to spend it and you don’t know how to analyze what you’re doing and how many veterans you’ve got and how many are coming in – and these wars produced so many wounded who generations ago would have died. You’ve got these young men and women coming in here who need care, and you still have the older veterans who do as well.
JOHN DICKERSON: On the question of Shinseki, is it that he’s doing a great job trying to fix this, or that he’s blameless? What’s the defense of Eric Shinseki? Because a lot of people are saying he should be removed.
MR. RADDATZ: They certainly are saying he should be removed.
One thing about General Shinseki – and I will say I’ve known him for years, and he’s greatly admired in the military and did some wonderful things as chief of staff to the Army – he’s very impassive. If you saw him on the Hill, he’s very impassive. He never has a lot of emotion when – you know, when he said he was mad as hell, he might as well have been saying, I’m going next door to the coffee shop. That’s his personality. He does not really engage with the press. He doesn’t like to do that. I think – you know, people out there might be saying, oh, who cares if he doesn’t engage with the press? You really have to convince people what you’re doing. You have to talk to the public. It’s not just the press.
MS. IFILL: You have to have a constituency.
MR. RADDATZ: You have to have a constituency, and I don’t think he really does.
MS. IFILL: What do veterans’ groups think about this? And is it divided generationally? Because a lot of older veterans think that veterans care is the best thing going, but I’m not sure if there is a difference.
MR. RADDATZ: Well, I think the younger veterans – I mean, they’re – we have all done so many stories on the younger veterans and trying to care for those veterans. The American Legion, of course, wants Shinseki out, they’ve had it – because this – if you go back a year, two years, it’s still a problem. There was still a problem then. And while they have made progress, it just hasn’t moved fast enough to keep up with those who desperately need care.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, Martha. We’ll be watching that.
One of the politically puzzling questions afoot in Washington is, why, if it is true that the nation is getting browner and browner, Congress is having such a hard time passing even noncomprehensive immigration reform? The long answer is lawmakers have to believe they have something to gain. The short answer is John Boehner. John Harwood wrote this week that at least the possibility of a deal may not be completely dead yet. Really?
MR. HARWOOD: Really. Now, that’s not another way of predicting that it’s going to happen, but I think there is a possibility of it happening. And here’s why. You mention that the country is getting browner. That’s definitely true. The Republican Party, however, is not. This is a party that’s dominated by older whites. And so there is very grave difficulty moving that party, many of their members looking to immigration reform as something that in effect licenses more people to come into the country, change the culture of their communities in ways that feel threatening to them.
But John Boehner knows, like many Republican strategists know, that if they don’t do something big about this problem, that they’re fated to have difficulty in presidential elections as far as the eye can see. It’s not such a big issue in midterms because older whites vote at heavier rate than Hispanics, for example, do in midterms. But in presidential races, that constituency is only going to get bigger. So the question is can John Boehner figure out a way and a moment to move his caucus, enough of his caucus, to accept this happening, perhaps even to get a conference started that finishes after the election? Then that is the window for him cutting some sort of a deal with President Obama and the Democrats.
MS. IFILL: Sounds like a rock and a hard place that the Democrats are happy to see him in.
MR. HARWOOD: Democrats love this dilemma. And Democrats are going to drive a hard bargain. They’ve gotten a bill through the Senate. They had a significant number, fewer than 20, but a significant number of Republican senators, including Marco Rubio, the presidential candidate – so they’ve got something on the table which would provide a path to citizenship, though a long one, for those 11 million undocumented already here, and they’re going to insist on something that legalizes those people. And that’s the tough issue to get over for John Boehner. He said, take a step-by-step approach. There are some bills that have moved through committee in the House. But none’s reached the floor. And the question is, is he going to put one on the floor?
MR. RADDATZ: How long the window?
MR. HARWOOD: I think the window goes through about mid-September because the Congress is going to adjourn in early October to go campaign, you’ve to legislative time in June and July, then an August recess in a few weeks, in the beginning of September. If you take one of those small bills that he’s got or more – a couple of them – there is four that have moved through committee – put them on the floor, then you could begin a negotiation with the Senate that might just happen to culminate in November after that election’s over, and maybe they can get something through then.
MR. DICKERSON: John, what does this tell us about John Boehner as a leader? He’s got to make a call here. What will we learn whether he makes the call or if he doesn’t make the call?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, if he makes this call, it’s something that he has not been willing to do in the speakership so far. The only times that he’s been willing to really challenge strong opinion in his base have been in cases where he had no alternative – the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012. Taxes were going to go up for everybody. He had to do something. So this would be the kind of thing that you would do if you knew that your time as speaker was short and you wanted to accomplish something great and lasting and historic. That might be the motive for him to work harder, press harder than he’s been willing to do as speaker so far.
MS. BALL: Why is this so hard? I mean, the – we know that there are enough votes for it in the House, and it hasn’t been an issue in a lot of Republican primaries. Why not just do it?
MR. HARWOOD: Two hundred and thirty-three Republicans in the House, 12 opposed John Boehner when he was installed as speaker in early 2013. It doesn’t take many more defections to eliminate his majority in the House of Representatives. If you believe – and his staff says they expect him to be the speaker; he said that this week, he expects to be the speaker next year – he can’t afford many more defections. So even a relatively small number of people deciding that John Boehner is taking our party a place where we don’t want to go could oust him.
MS. IFILL: Including, it should be said, his deputy, who’s – Eric Cantor, who’s facing a challenge from the right in Virginia.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: But I want to you about something that – Tom Donohue, who’s the head of the Chamber of Commerce, not known as a left-wing organization, said this week which is if Republicans can’t get their act together on immigration reform, they might as well not run in 2016.
MR. HARWOOD: That’s the sharp version of what I was talking about before, that long-term presidential problem. In fact, one of the former top aides to Denny Hastert, John Boehner’s predecessor as a Republican speaker, said if we don’t pass immigration reform this year, we won’t win any of the next three presidential elections because that constituency is going to get so big, and they’re going to get develop in their gut a feeling that these Republicans are not on their side.
MS. IFILL: Boy, it’s amazing. Talk about, I mean, really rock and hard place.
OK. As primary season begins to unspool in states around the country, we are all on the hunt for signs, signs about what will happen to control of the Senate and in general about the health and welfare of the Republican and the Democratic parties. But week by week we get mixed messages. The latest comes from Nebraska, where the new Republican Senate nominee has been pegged as a tea party candidate, but Molly Ball writes that as is often the case, the label doesn’t tell it all. Molly?
MS. BALL: Yeah. I think, you know, we went into this Republican primary season thinking, OK, sort of conditioned by 2010 and 2012 to think we know what the pattern is: There is going to be a sort of establishment candidate who has maybe come up through elected office and has the resume and is used to cutting deals to get things done, and then there is going to be this tea party challenger with maybe some fringe views but a lot of national support from conservatives online and so on. But that dynamic can’t be imposed on every race. And Nebraska is really interesting because the candidate who ended up winning and who is very likely to be the next senator from Nebraska now –
MS. IFILL: Ben Sasse.
MS. BALL: Ben Sasse.
MS. IFILL: Who is he?
MS. BALL: He is – on paper, he looks like the consummate insider. He is the – he’s a university president in Nebraska. Before that he held a couple of different posts in the Bush administration. He’s got degrees from Harvard and Yale. So this is someone who’s very pedigreed. And he has styled himself as sort of a wonk, a nerd. But at the same time he’s proven very persuasive to that hard right. He got the endorsement of Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin and a whole lot of these right-wing tea party groups. His opponent was the state treasurer, so also someone with a history in elected office, also someone who was trying to style himself as the most conservative candidate and as an outsider but also had a bit of a pedigree. So it was sort of a mixed picture. The tea party is claiming a win because by the end, they were mostly on Sasse’s side, but a lot of them didn’t get there until after it looked like he was winning.
MR. RADDATZ: So what would he be like in office? Would he represent the tea party? What do you think he would be like?
MS. IFILL: Would he be more Ted Cruz or Jack Kemp?
MS. BALL: Right. Well, and so –
MR. RADDATZ: A better question, yes.
MS. IFILL: (Chuckles.)
MS. BALL: And Jack Kemp is who he says his role model is. So in his acceptance speech accepting the nomination on Tuesday night, he talked about Jack Kemp a lot. He talked about finding conservative solutions to problems and saying it’s not good enough just to oppose bad ideas, you have to have your own good ideas. He’s been campaigning very hard in Nebraska on his proposals to replace “Obamacare,” so he very much wants to fuse, I think, the sort of Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell wings of the party; even though Mitch McConnell sort of was linked to some groups that opposed Sasse in this primary, he spoke to McConnell on Tuesday night, he said he will support McConnell for leader, and so he clearly wants to bridge that divide.
MR. HARWOOD: Molly, are we looking at a situation where the establishment Republicans have moved so far to the right that you can’t tell the difference between and the two party – and the tea party anyway? You know, this similar thing came up in North Carolina when Thom Tillis got nominated – very conservative House speaker – and the you know, Rand Paul-backed tea party candidate couldn’t get any traction. But have they merged?
MS. BALL: Well, in a way they have. I mean, I think it’s a combination of things. You’re saying the establishment has changed. And I agree, the establishment has moved to meet the tea party where they are. But it’s also true that the tea party has gotten smarter. The tea party’s gotten more strategic. The tea party is much less popular now than they were in 2010 or even 2012. Even among Republicans, a majority now say they don’t support the tea party. And so the tea party has had to become savvier to sort of rebut this reputation that they have acquired of backing losers. And so I think you see the establishment moving in the tea party’s direction but also the tea party gravitating a little bit.
MR. DICKERSON: Democrats had hoped that these primaries on the Republicans side would have these big civil war-like fights between the tea party and the establishment in the hopes of creating a lot of embarrassing situations. Has that happened yet? Do we see it happening in – as these primaries play out on the Republican side?
MS. BALL: Well, you know, these primary contests, even if they candidate who’s seen as the most electable ends up winning, they’re still very draining, right? They take a lot of money, these fights. The candidates get beaten up and bloodied. And there are still some on the horizon that look very divisive. This coming Tuesday in Georgia is a five-way sort of free-for-all. However, the candidates that the Democrats would have most liked to see win that they saw as the furthest to the right and the least electable, they have sort of fallen in the polls, and the most establishment-oriented candidates have risen. So, you know, Mitch McConnell’s primary –
MR. HARWOOD: Mississippi? What about Mississippi?
MS. BALL: Mississippi, it seems like Thad Cochran’s tea party challenger – and that’s not for a while now, so I don’t think we’ll know – but it seems like Thad Cochran’s challenger has sunk a little bit as he’s been vetted. Mitch McConnell’s primary is on Tuesday, and he looks like he’s going to run away with it.
MS. IFILL: Didn’t Nebraska used to elect Democrats? I mean, now their governor is even as conservative – more conservative, probably – than their Senate candidate.
MS. BALL: Yeah. I mean, Nebraska is an interesting place. I think it’s similar to a lot of states that maybe used to elect conservative Democrats and now elects conservative Republicans. I don’t know that the state used to be liberal. But there is also an interesting tradition in states like Nebraska – and I’m from out west, although I’m from Nebraska’s opponent, Colorado, Nebraska’s nicer neighbor – but there is a sort of tradition of prairie populism in a lot of these states and a sort of libertarian streak. So I do think the conservatives you’re going to elect out of a place like Nebraska is going to be different than the kind of tea party candidate you’ll get out of Georgia.
MS. IFILL: OK. Thanks.
Now for the latest chapter in our favorite political soap opera as the Clintons turn. Hillary Clinton’s visibility has taken a sharp uptick in recent weeks, and we have been following her coy avoidance of the central question everyone always asks; even Barbara Walters did today on the “The View” kind of breathlessly. This week Karl Rove did her a favor. He questioned whether because of her health, she’s up to the job of president. When I asked Bill Clinton about that this week, he was only too happy to answer.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From clip.) First of all, I got to give him credit, you know, that he did – that embodies that old saying that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Laughter.) First they said she faked her concussion, and now they say she’s auditioning for a part on “The Walking Dead.” (Laughter.) I mean, you know, whatever it takes.
MS. IFILL: John Dickerson writes this week that there is apparently a requirement that the political world go periodically insane about the former secretary of state. Was that what we saw happening this week, this was the version?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, normally, the political world is kind of making it up. Hillary Clinton, you know, has a corn chip, and they think it’s part of a strategy in Iowa. But this week, actually, there was something to hang your analysis on because the Clintons – and you saw Bill Clinton sort of luxuriating there and giving an answer that was very political. The Clintons responded to Karl Rove. They did it both formally, with a formal statement – and what was different here was they weren’t just correcting the record saying, you know, Karl Rove is wrong in his diagnosis and here are the facts. They were defending her future political – they were saying this is in line with a series of political attacks she’s faced. And Bill Clinton did the same thing. He defended her as a person who has – is not just a private citizen who’s going to go off and keep her retirement, but he was defending her as somebody who’s going to have a political future and was framing the response in that context. And so it felt very much like the beginning of something, a new step in the way the Clintons are responding. And as the president Clinton said there, you know, they’ll keep trying, and they’ll get better at it; implicit in that is they’re going to have a chance to when she runs.
MR. RADDATZ: John, I have to say, I covered Secretary Clinton when she fell. And with President Clinton saying she never lowballed the American people, maybe not, but we could not get any information without dragging it out of them. Yeah, they had a few statements that they put out, but boy, no one knew about the eyeglass thing until somebody noticed it on TV and – (inaudible). So that wasn’t (easy to get ?).
MR. DICKERSON: Well, no. And they don’t necessarily want this conversation to be happening right now because she’s in this twilight period. She’s not a candidate, but she’s being certainly attacked as if she were a candidate. And so they have to find ways to respond. You don’t want this story out there running, especially with Karl Rove launching it in with lots of – you know, he raised lots of troubling questions, and you don’t want people making up their own narratives.
MS. IFILL: So is it over?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, no, it’s not over because it’s trying – you know, those who want to raise this issue want to try and do a couple of things. They want to point out that Mrs. Clinton will be 66 when she’s president or – sorry, when she runs – and they want to – they want to raise questions about the future versus the past. You want – and so there’s a lot going on here that will be in this bucket of issues that touch on what Karl Rove was talking about this week.
MR. HARWOOD: How can the rest of us avoid brain damage following this story for three years as Hillary Clinton prepares to run and then perhaps runs?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s the tricky thing for her is that at the moment, she is unchallenged, really, and the Democratic Party is lining up behind her. There has not been a situation like this where you had a party nominee rise without much of a challenge since 1908. So that makes her basically like an incumbent president where the entire other side, the entire Republican Party, can just attack her all day long. Now, they’ve been doing that since she was a candidate – or, sorry, was the spouse of a presidential candidate in 1992. But it creates a special situation for her that she’s going to have. And, you know, the Republicans are going to school on something that Barack Obama’s team did, which is they went after Mitt Romney before he’d won the nomination, define them early, go after them early. If nothing else, just keep them pinned down so they can’t talk about what they want to talk about.
MS. BALL: Well, then there is a school of thought that says that Karl Rove is sort of the evil genius here, right, that he achieved exactly what he set to. This was an attempt – a very strategic attempt to sort of poison the well. Did he win this round?
MR. DICKERSON: He might have in the sense that everybody’s talking about – and Martha brings up how difficult it was to get this information out and all of that. On the other hand, you can have people who are looking at the Republican Party and saying, what kind of a party is this? Is it a party full of ideas, or is it a party that’s picking on Hillary Clinton instead of putting forth their ideas? To the extent that this defines the Republican Party for a moment, that might not be so great for Republicans.
MS. IFILL: And we’ll talk a little bit about what the Republicans are up to, including what Chris Christie had to say this week on our webcast tonight.
You can watch my entire interview with President Clinton on our website on pbs.org/washingtonweek.
Before we go tonight, I just want to say a few words about Barbara Walters, really just a few. If she had not done what she did, I could not do what I do. It’s as simple as that. Thank you, Barbara. I hope I can make even a fraction of the impact you have. I think all the women around the table agree.
Don’t forget our webcast extra comes up at 8:30 p.m. where we’ll also preview next week’s primaries in Georgia and Kentucky. Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff every night on the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.