Full Episode: February 18, 2011

Feb. 18, 2011 AT 8 p.m. EST

Spreading unrest in Bahrain causes a military crackdown while tensions in Yemen and Iran flair up. The Obama administration urges democratic reform while trying to protect strategic relationships. At home, Republicans and Democrats fight over federal budget priorities. Gwen is joined by Doyle McManus, LA Times; Jim Sciutto, ABC News; Jeanne Cummings, POLITICO; and John Dickerson, Slate/CBS News.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

MS. IFILL: Everybody’s up in arms from the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, to the streets of Manama, Bahrain. The debate over dollars and democracy, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What my budget does is to put forward some tough choices.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: When we say we’re going to cut spending, read my lips: we’re going to cut spending.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV) [Senate Majority Leader]: We’re terribly disappointed that Speaker Boehner can’t control the votes in his caucus to prevent a shutdown of government.

MS. IFILL: Tough choices and tough talk everywhere. When it comes to the budget, will it become cooperation or combat?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): I guess I would say debt on arrival, D-E-B-T on arrival.

MS. IFILL: Meanwhile, in nations across the Middle East, protesters follow Egypt’s lead. The result – violence in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Iran. We talk about turning points here and abroad with Jeanne Cummings of Politico, John Dickerson of Slate magazine and CBS News, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, and Jim Sciutto of ABC 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” produced in association with National Journal.

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Lawmakers this week have been debating everything from the future of Social Security to the future of cotton subsidies, the big, the small, and the darn near inconsequential, all in the name of coming up with a working federal budget. The long-term debate is about the $3.7 trillion plan the president presented this week, essentially the launching point for a more sustained debate over priorities.

PRES. OBAMA: Just like every family in America, the federal government has to do two things at once: it has to live within its means while still investing in the future. And that’s what we’ve done with this year’s budget.

MS. IFILL: The short-term debate is over a House plan to cut $61 billion from the federal budget over the next seven months.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: The president’s budget is a clearer sign yet that he simply does not take our fiscal problems seriously. It’s a patronizing plan that says to the American people that their concerns are not his concerns.

MS. IFILL: So let’s start with the long-term budget, John. What is the president trying to do with his budget plan? We expect it every year. It’s always a big deal, and then –

MR. DICKERSON: Well, it’s always a big deal and then it gets shot down by the opposition. And so that happened again. It’s dead on arrival, to use the Washington cliché. Knowing that, the White House tried to do sort of past the minimum bar for seriousness. There are cuts in there. There are cuts that are kind of directed to things that Obama can point to and say, look, they’re community block grants here. I was a community organizer. That’s something that’s not just about the number. That’s something I believe in and I’m even willing to cut that – to suggest that he is serious enough.

But it wasn’t so serious. They know at the White House they’re never going to win a cutting battle with Republicans so they didn’t really try. So they want to show that they’re serious enough but then hold back and hold basically the big negotiations about the long-term questions. The budget is for 10 – you know, within the next 10 years but we’re talking about long-term entitlements. They want to hold those discussions about the long-term growth of the budget deficit in a quieter way, not in a day-to-day melee and hope that they can sort of match the process they used with extending the Bush tax cuts last year, do it kind of behind the scenes, and then deliver it to the public.

MS. IFILL: But, Jeanne, what does this have to do with the thing which is on most Americans’ mind when they think about the budget at all or think about the economy at all, which is job creation? Was there anything in the president’s pitch which spoke to that?

MS. CUMMINGS: Yes. He tried to identify the three areas that he really does want some money to go to. And in terms of job creation in particular, it’s the infrastructure piece of it. He is serious about wanting to improve roads and rail and that sort of thing. And it’s one issue where he has a joint statement from the AFL-CIO president and the head of the Chamber of Commerce on. So he has business and labor backing on. That’s about job creation.

He had two other priorities: education, innovation. Both of those are long-term ways of trying to improve the job market.

MR. MCMANUS: There were two sort of standard Republican critiques, it seemed to me this week, of the budget. One was that it didn’t actually reduce the deficit; it increased it in the short term. And then the second was, as John sort of alluded to, it didn’t actually tackle entitlements. It kicked the can down the road. Either of those are a fair criticism?

MS. CUMMINGS: It’s fair that they did kick entitlements down the road, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security are issues the White House and the Republicans in Congress are basically playing a game of chicken on. Both of them say they’re serious about it, but neither one of them wants to go first because they know it’s politically – could be suicide.

MS. IFILL: Didn’t we hear the Republicans say this week they’re actually going to come up with a plan?

MS. CUMMINGS: They said this week that when they deliver their long-term budget, when they get passed this little brawl that’s going on on the House floor right now, when they get to the long-term budget, that they claim they will deal with entitlements then. But talking about dealing with entitlements and actually dealing with entitlements can be two very different things. So we have to wait to see if a serious proposal is put on the table.

MR. DICKERSON: If that’s a serious proposal from Republicans in the House.


MR. DICKERSON: Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has some thoughts and ideas and he’s put them out in what’s called a roadmap. They haven’t gotten a whole lot of support even among Republicans because they’re quite progressive in terms of being – they’re very exciting. They’ve got a lot of parts to them that can be politically tricky. And so –

MS. IFILL: Like means testing for Social Security.

MR. DICKERSON: Right. Means testing and also changing the shape of the benefit for younger workers. Remember, George Bush tried to do that with Social Security and it was a big failure in part because he lost the support of – or didn’t have the support, I should say, of Republicans. And that’s what the House Republicans are up to. The White House is happy to let them go along.

But the White House, which includes a lot of people who were there to negotiate in 1995 when a Democratic president was negotiating with House Republicans – Jack Lew at the head of OMB, and Gene Sperling, the president’s top economic man inside. And their view is if this is going to get negotiated, don’t start putting a plan out because once you put things out, then you have to put things on the table and off the table. You can’t make a big deal. So let’s try and do it behind the scenes. And the president in his news conference said, you know, a lot of this may happen in a way that you may not see it.

MR. SCIUTTO: Is there any sign that voters are ready for a serious discussion about their entitlements? Is the conventional wisdom that it’s political suicide to even go there, correct?

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, we’re going to see now if the voters really understood the ramifications of the elections and the votes.

MS. IFILL: We’re seeing that right now in Wisconsin.

MS. CUMMINGS: We’re seeing some of it in Wisconsin. And in that case, outrage from teachers who are going to get the cuts. But who we don’t really know about just yet are the independents. And they’re the ones that swung that election. They’ll be the ones to swing the next. And so, how much of a stomach did the independents really have for the kind of budget cuts we’re seeing and for real entitlement reform? We don’t know that yet but that will be the measurement that will be most important.

MS. IFILL: Let me turn the corner to the short-term debate as you said, the debate that’s happening on the floor of the House; hundreds and hundreds of amendments which John Boehner has said, hey, bring it all on, about everything. I mean, today they voted to take money away from Planned Parenthood. They were debating oil, gas leases. They were debating everything. And this is about a budget that has to be passed by – what – in two weeks?

MR. DICKERSON: March 4th, yes. There’s so much going on and it’s fascinating. The question of polling, back to – just start from where we just were – you know, the polling shows that the American people don’t really see a connection between getting the deficit under control and their number one care, which is jobs. And so, what we’re talking about are big cuts right now, fast, in the next two weeks. And the question is whether Republicans – they all say, that’s our big communications challenge, which is convincing people all this cutting we’re doing is going to help them with their jobs.

But what it does help them with is their constituents. They can go back home for this president’s day. They will have voted on these big cuts, $61 billion or so in cuts. And internally what’s happened is process which has kind of been surprising, is John Boehner let 1,000 flowers bloom – amendments coming all over the place, long days of amendments and sometimes crazy coalitions – liberal Democrats with tea party Republicans killing programs here and there. And what this is all about is Boehner is saying to those 87 freshmen, many of them tea party backed, go for it. Knock out as much as you want. Ask for more spending reductions than even we put on the table, and let them see how the process works.

And that, A, allows them, if their spending reductions don’t go down, they can say, well, you know, I tried but there was no market for my ideas. And it also means later, if Boehner has to put together a deal with the White House, which is the only way anything is ever going to get done, he can go back to those tea party freshmen and say, look, I let you do all these things. I didn’t, as leader, stamp down on your and say, you must do it this way. But now we’ve got to put a deal together. And he hopefully will have created some good will – this is the way they see in House leadership – created some good will with this process and then maybe they can get those 87 freshmen to go along.

MR. MCMANUS: What happens when all of this hits the Senate? How much of this sticks? Because we’re talking about some proposals here that are pretty radical. It wasn’t just defunding Planned Parenthood. The proposal was to take the government out of any aid to family planning at all. They’re talking about taking out the whole foreign aid budget.

MS. IFILL: They’re talking about defunding public broadcasting.

MS. CUMMINGS: Well, the Senate has taken a very different approach, as typical the Senate needs to do, and especially so now because the margins are so close. So anything that comes out of the Senate has got to be the first of the bipartisan deal sort of required here. And so, this week, a group of senators, bipartisan, started working together to start thinking through what might be possible. And then, immediately, the conservative right started issuing press releases attacking the Republicans who were in the room. So the Senate has got a different process coming and a very different dynamic.

MS. IFILL: In fact, Mitch McConnell had a meeting with the president at the White House that they didn’t actually tell us about until after it happened.

MS. CUMMINGS: Right. They didn’t want anyone to know. On the Democratic side, the Appropriations Committee in the Senate has been instructed to start to come up with the short-term budget that we’re discussing now, but at levels – at current spending levels. So that means whatever the Appropriations Committee starts within the Senate, it will be $60 billion more than what is in the House because of the cutting that the House is doing right now.

So the big problem that we’ve got here is time because the House is eating up so much time with all of these amendments. And they’ve done a lot of venting and they’ve had a good time over there. But March 4th looms. And the only thing that stops a government shutdown on March 4th is if there’s a negotiated deal between the two and something signed by the president. And to get that done –

MS. IFILL: And since they’re leaving town next week, there’s not a lot of time to get that done.

MR. DICKERSON: They’ve got four days. When they get back, they’ve got four days. And this is where we get into this question of a government shutdown. The Democrats have been saying they’re going to shut down the government, shut down the government, scaring people, trying to anyway, with the idea that the Republicans are to reckless they’ll do that and that brings up images of the – or memories of 1995, the last time this happened.

And Republicans have said – and they had a meeting today where House Republican leadership, with those 87 freshmen and said, look. We’re not going to let the government shut down, just so you all know, all of you who were anxious to cut spending. This is – and it was interesting. Last year when the president was trying to extend those Bush tax cuts, the Republicans had leverage because the president could never allow taxes to go up on everybody. So Republicans always knew they’d have to get a deal. In this sense, it’s reversed. Republicans do not want to have a government shut down, and so, they, when it comes to the question of this continuing a funding of government that’s going to come up in two weeks, Republicans never want to let the government shut down and so that limits their leverage.

MS. IFILL: And they’re watching very closely about things that are happening in places like Wisconsin, which could spread to Ohio, which could spread to Indiana and New Jersey, which is the pushback against the new Republican governors who are saying, I’m going to keep the promises I made during the campaign. Everyone’s watching that very closely as well.

MS. CUMMINGS: And their states are so important. When do we talk about some of these states?


MS. CUMMINGS: Well, about every four years with a presidential. And so, they are very important states. They are swing states. And this is the big debate of the season and it’s an opportunity to test out messaging.

MS. IFILL: The final quick thought.

MR. DICKERSON: And the key question here is how fast you do these cuts because what the president’s arguing is, yes, cut, but do it slowly because the economy can be imperiled and that’s what’s at stake in Wisconsin is the speed.

MS. IFILL: Fascinating, fascinating time. But now we’re going to go to another fast lane place which, of course, is in the Middle East. Last week’s jubilation in Egypt became this week’s tensions in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Iran where versions of the uprising we saw in Tahrir Square continue to play out tonight. The president today condemned the violence and urged restraint. But it’s not at all clear what leverage the U.S. has or whether this really is Egypt redux.

Doyle, it seems like the White House is groping for a way to handle these unexpected conflagrations.

MR. MCMANUS: Well, it is. In a way it’s both surprising and not surprising. When Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, it really did unleash a wave. I mean, Egypt is culturally, historically the most important country in the Arab world. And so all over that region you had a whole lot of old conflicts, different kinds of conflicts bubbling up at the same time. The administration, the president decided in Egypt he wanted to be on the right side of history. I think we’ll look back at that – we already are – as quite a fateful decision because what that means is here’s a wave.

Now, in the best of all possible worlds, we’d like our friends – Jordan, Bahrain – to surf the wave. We’d like those regimes to take advantage of that wave to get to a better place. We’d like that wave to crash right on the heads of regimes we don’t like, like Iran and Syria. That’s not exactly what’s happening at the moment because the Iranians and the Syrians are more repressive.

But what the White House has done is it’s tried to boil its message down. Today the president came out with a statement. It wasn’t on camera. It was a written statement. There’s a little less of the constant talk that we saw during Egypt where there was a lot of criticism about the president being way overexposed and kind of giving a daily weather report. A very restrained statement, very short, one paragraph, basically said there are universal rights out there in every country, including Bahrain, our friend, and Libya, not so much our friend. And the most important thing is for those governments to show restraint. So the White House has sort of come to a minimal message to try and fit all of these different circumstances.

MS. IFILL: Jim, you’re practically off the plane. You’re just back from the region. You’re back from Cairo. And I wonder whether, as the White House struggles to figure its way out, whether it’s possible – is there a one-size-fits-all U.S. response or is there any leverage that the U.S. can apply for all of these different –

MR. SCIUTTO: Absolutely not. And as I was listening to you talk, the one place this message is not getting through to and, frankly, not being listened to is that part of the world. I was in Tahrir Square the night of Obama’s speech. Very well delivered speech and he hit on many of the right notes, but people weren’t listening there.

You have decades of policy up against a few minutes of statements. And the people there are not easily fooled. They know which side the U.S. took in this conflict for years. And one of the principal complaints, if not the principal complaint about U.S. policy in that region for many of these countries was American support for dictators like Mubarak. So they know the history. And as I watched the White House from the region change its statements every day, the reaction from the people I spoke to there was not just skepticism but it was anger, said, this is the best you’ve got?

Now, is it too late? I think that’s a fair question. Probably, but not necessarily because a message of unequivocal support would have value there, but as you’ve seen, words parsed on repeated days, that’s not the message that they’ve been getting. That’s what they say consistently.

MS. IFILL: It doesn’t seem like unequivocal could possibly work in that region.

MR. SCIUTTO: Well, that’s the trouble. I mean, again, you’re talking about history. But we weren’t the only ones who were surprised by this, the U.S. government, right? If you look at the Islamists, Zawahiri having a statement today trying to sort of jump on the bandwagon or somehow create an identity with the protesters, just as the Iranian regime did, claimed it as a follow-on to the 1979 revolution. Both of them are abjectly wrong. You see that in the streets. You know exactly what is behind this and it has nothing to do with ’79, nothing to do with Zawahiri. They were caught off-guard as well and that’s something that the U.S. can leverage, right? This is a huge defeat for the Islamists. Mubarak was in their targets for years. They got nowhere, right, and in a couple of weeks’ time, a bunch of young people, empowered by technology but also anger and a sense of hope arising from Tunisia and other countries have done what neither we nor they could do.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, I wanted to ask you – you talked about that crashing wave and the administration’s attempt to try to shape it – Iran. They are trying to get a lot of that water to go on Ahmadinejad’s head. How did they try to do that this week after Egypt, trying to kind of use Egypt and was it successful at all?

MR. MCMANUS: At the beginning of this week, if you asked any administration spokesman to talk about any unrest anywhere in the Middle East, the answer would come back, Iran. Look at Iran. Look at how bad they are. They ought to be listening to their people. Never mind these other places. Look, Iran’s – and our leverage there is pretty limited. Iran has its own political dynamic that’s been going on for a couple of years. To go back to that thing – the point about unequivocal support, the problem here is that the administration would love to have orderly transitions. Well, that means not speeding the train up in a place like Bahrain, or Jordan, or Yemen. It means slowing it down a little bit, which is kind of equivocal.

MR. SCIUTTO: For sure. You have irresistible forces there: youth and technology, and two responses: either change, reform, or crack down, right? And as we see in a place like Bahrain –

MS. IFILL: You see cracking down.

MR. SCIUTTO: That’s their response which may very well looks like it’s going to backfire.

MS. IFILL: And Libya too.

MS. CUMMINGS: Where are we in Egypt right now, having just got back? What is the state of play? And where does it go from here?

MR. SCIUTTO: A long way to go. I mean, really the work is just beginning. And I think you see that already. You have more demonstrations now. Those are strikes. It’s a lot harder to answer – frankly, in many ways it’s a lot harder to answer those demands now. They’re talking about wages. They’re talking about real issues that – that’s one reason why when I spoke to Egyptian opposition leaders about whether they trusted the military to hand over the power in a timely fashion, one reason they believe them is the military doesn’t want to have to deal with postal workers’ wages, this kind of thing. They want to get back in the barracks. They’ve done their job. They kept the peace. So you have bread and butter issues. You also have the real issues of change and creating a whole new political system. They’ve got to write a new constitution.

MS. IFILL: But as you guys are saying, there’s this crackdown in Bahrain, right? But we also have a lot of military – we have the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. So there’s a different impulse for our involvement there, even though there seems to be something much more brutal happening there, at least it seems that way.

MR. MCMANUS: Bahrain is a very small place. It’s only got 500,000 people. It’s the smallest state in the Gulf. But it’s a really important place.

MS. IFILL: Next door to Saudi Arabia.

MR. MCMANUS: Next door to Saudi Arabia, in the middle of all that oil going by and that’s where the Fifth Fleet is headquartered. Now, that headquarters could move someplace else but if, in the worst case, some kind of Islamist Shi’a Muslim movement – Bahrain is two-thirds Shi’a – were to take over and kick the Fifth Fleet out, that would be a huge symbolic victory for Iran.

MS. IFILL: So there’s a sectarian dispute there that we wouldn’t necessarily have seen in Egypt.

MR. SCIUTTO: True, but I think that can be overemphasized. That’s something that you will hear from Bahrain’s rulers: now, wait a second, this is Iran influenced Shi’a who are doing this. And, remember, blaming foreigners is something that – well, Mubarak’s regime did early on and the Iranian regime. Just having been on the ground in Iran during the election protests and in Egypt during these most recent protests, the parallels are uncanny: violent crackdown and you blame the foreigners. You blame the journalists. You blame foreign influences. But, granted, each situation – you can’t say they’re all the same.

MR. MCMANUS: And you’ve got old leaders who’ve been in there for a long time, the prime minister of Bahrain, who happens to be the king’s uncle, has been the prime minister for 40 years. And he’s a very wealthy man and a lot of people in Bahrain think he’s corrupt. You have the president of Yemen has been the president of Yemen for 32 years and that country doesn’t work very well.

MS. CUMMINGS: Doyle, one thing that I think a lot of people wrestled with this week was how much did we know – could we have foreseen – and if we could, could we have done anything or should we have done something differently?

MR. MCMANUS: And there was a very interesting story this week because it turns out that the White House, the president, the NSC commissioned a study about a year ago of the roots of instability in the Middle East. And it appears to have looked at these countries we’re talking about: Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan, the ones – but the real problem is, okay. That’s great. You can look at the conditions and say, there’s going to be trouble here because of all of these forces, including the Internet, including the revolution of rising expectations. What do we do about it? What can we do about it? American leverage in all of these places is much smaller than we’d like to think in Washington. And these events went much faster than anyone expected.

MS. IFILL: Go ahead.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, Jim, I wanted to ask you about the oil question and in terms of – the way on the ground people are seeing U.S. motives. Do they think that we backed some of these regimes because we just have strategic interests or is it all about oil? How much is that a part of the conversation?

MR. SCIUTTO: Huge part. It depends on the country. If you go to Saudi Arabia, they know that’s why we’re interested. If you go to Iraq, they know that’s why – they assume that’s the only reason we’re interested. In Egypt, they assume it’s peace with Israel, other strategic objectives there. And, again, people are not surprisingly well read, but they’re very well read when you’re there and they know the policy issues. They can quote them back to you and are supremely aware of that.

Of course, they can be exaggerated. I mean, the conspiracy theories abound. But the truth is they’re right, in effect, right? The policy was built on interests there. And we tried to push values as often as possible, push for reform in Egypt, but at the end of the day, this was our ally there. And that’s, of course, another problem we have. You can’t run away from these allies in 72 hours, can you?

MS. IFILL: Is it fair to say that at this stage in this whole uprising, which we can only believe it’s going to continue to spread, that there are pretty healthy backchannel communications going on now between the State Department, even the Defense Department because of our military interests, the White House, and these governments, some of whom – at least the ones that are friendly to us?

MR. MCMANUS: Sure. But they’re not always going to listen because their survival is on the line. So let’s take the case of Bahrain, which has been very close to the United States. The one message the Obama administration has tried to carry very clearly is, don’t shoot at protesters. But the Bahrainis actually depend much more on their Saudi sponsors than on their American sponsors. And the Saudis have a different view of things. They are a little less interested in human rights and a little more interested in preserving monarchies.

MR. SCIUTTO: And there was talk of the Saudis being involved in that crackdown.

MS. IFILL: Exactly. We’ll be watching all of that as well. Well, thank you all. It was a complicated week and I get the feeling it stays complicated for a while. As these stories continue to unfold, you can keep track of it every night on the PBS “NewsHour” on online. And you can send us your thoughts and your reactions. Find us at pbs.org. Plus, I want to say to all the brave reporters risking life, limb, and injury to cover the story around the world, thank you from all of us. See you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.


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