Full Episode: Obama Requests War Powers, Ceasefire Begins in Ukraine, Homeland Security Funding Fight, and Ups & Downs in 2016 Race

Feb. 13, 2015 AT 9:10 p.m. EST

President Obama has formally asked Congress for war powers to fight Islamic State militants, but his request is being met with resistance. Republicans think Obama's three-year proposal is too restrictive with limits on his power, while Democrats want a ban on ground troops. And in Ukraine, a ceasefire deal negotiated by European leaders takes effect this weekend, but the United States is still considering sending military aid to Ukraine if diplomacy fails. Congress is also debating funding for the Department of Homeland Security which is being held up over a fight over immigration and border security. The funding is set to run out in two weeks unless an agreement is reached. Plus, on the 2016 campaign trail, there were a few bumps and stumbles this week. Who's up? Who's down? And what's next?

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

GWEN IFILL, "WASHINGTON WEEK" MODERATOR: Going to war abroad, fighting over domestic security at home, and the elusive search for middle ground -- tonight on WASHINGTON WEEK.
IFILL (voice-over): How we go to war.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our coalition is on the offensive. ISIL is on the defensive and ISIL is going to lose.
IFILL: First, we debated.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: You're not going to destroy ISIL from the air. Somebody has to go on the ground in Syria.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: We give arrows in the president's quiver, we have to match it to the threat.
IFILL: Then, we size up the enemy, as the world learns this week of a death of another American hostage.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kayla has touched the heart of the world. The world grieves with us. The world mourns with us.
IFILL: Meanwhile, European leaders try to bring an end to another, more conventional war in Ukraine.
PETRO POROSHENKO, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Ceasefire. We demand immediate ceasefire without any precondition.
IFILL: But, can it stick?
At home, a showdown takes shape over domestic security.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The House has done its job. Why don't you ask the Senate Democrats when they're going to get off their ass and do something other than to vote no?
IFILL: And 2016 presidential hopefuls embark on a series of shakedown cruises.
Covering the week: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for "The New York Times," Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for "Real Clear Politics", Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for "Politico", and John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens. Live from our nation's capital, this is WASHINGTON WEEK with Gwen Ifill.
Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
IFILL: Good evening.
This week's overriding question at home and abroad: how safe are we? That debate is playing out on three fronts, with the Islamic State, which is far and away the most worrisome player in counterterrorism these days, in Ukraine, where European leaders are trying to head off another cold war with Russia to mixed effect, and in the U.S. Congress, where a fight over a domestic concern, immigration reform, is stalling efforts to get a budget passed for the Department of Homeland Security.
We start with ISIS. The president asked Congress this week to approve a formal war resolution to demonstrate our determination to dislodge them.
OBAMA: The resolution we’ve submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria. It is not the authorization of another ground war, like Afghanistan or Iraq. That's not in our national security interests and it's not necessary for us to defeat ISIL.
IFILL: OK, the president just said what it's not.
What is it, then, Peter?
PETER BAKER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Right. Well, what it is, first of all, is a political statement, right? He's been conducting this war now for about six months. American warplanes, he had about 1,900 targets in Iraq and Syria without Congress weighing in.
So, he believes he has the authority to do what he's doing. But he's asking Congress to do is to weigh in and give him, in effect, a bipartisan endorsement, to say, we're all in this together, a buy-in, in effect, from the political system, arguably, that would help on the international front by saying Americans stand together on this.
But do we stand together? That's a whole different point.
IFILL: Well, Republicans, who you would expect to, reflexively, at least historically, have reflexively opposed whatever the president proposes, are saying, you know, this is fine but he's not tough enough, and the Democrats are saying, hold on a second, where are these chips going to be, where’s the line going to be, what are we doing and how long are we staying?
IFILL: He seems -- I don’t -- that doesn't sound like a recipe for endorsement.
BAKER: Not a lot of consensus right now, in fact. It’s interesting. So, he proposed a war resolution that you don't typically see from a president, one that, in effect, imposes restrictions on him and on his successors. This war can only go on for three years without Congress renewing it. If Congress decided to renew it, that means his successor, one year into his or her administration, would have to go back to Congress if they were still in need to have military conduct there.
And he says, there should be no enduring ground combat operations. What that means is open to debate. But, basically, what he's trying to say is we're not going to go back like we did to Iraq and Afghanistan under the Bush administration.
JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC: Peter, I recognize that it’s going to tricky getting to the finish line, but given the fact that Republicans are the security party, the ones who have been calling for tougher action, and given the fact that Democrats are members of the president's party, is it conceivable that a bipartisan majority would deny him this authorization?
BAKER: Yes, it's a really good question, right? He's not really anxious to get it, in the sense that he doesn't feel like he needs it. So, there's no sense of urgency. You know, Congress just left town for a week and nobody's sitting there saying, we have to do this right away, even though we have this great national security threat, schedule on hearings.
I talked with Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, he says, yes, we're going to get back, we’ll have some hearings on the strategy, and after we talk about strategy, then we'll look at the actual resolution to think about how to work. So, there's not a sense of rush at the moment, and it's very conceivable Congress doesn't pass anything because they couldn’t come together on consensus.
In which case --
HARWOOD: You know, he president proceeds as he’s been.
BAKER: In which case, nothing changes, basically. The president does not admit that he needs any authorizations from Congress. He’s got two resolutions from 2001, 2002 he can rely on, he can also argue that his inherent power in the Constitution is enough. So, he doesn't plan to make this actually chain what he's doing.
MANU RAJU, POLITICO: And I wonder, you know, seems like no matter what gets through the Republican-controlled Congress, they're going to allow for the president to have more authority, they're going to take away a lot of those restrictions. I’m curious how far the president's willing to go and let them do that before he issues a veto threat?
BAKER: Can you imagine why the president saying, no sorry, don't send me that bill, you're giving me too much power?
RAJU: Right.
BAKER: That doesn't happen a lot of times, right, and yet he doesn't want to have his own Democratic allies in the House and Senate alienated voting against this kind of thing. He does want them brought together. So, I think he has some interest in finding some sort of middle ground, but it does put him in a very odd position, yes.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Peter, bring us up-to-date on what happened on the ground today. There was an attack, an Islamic State attack in Iraq. Does that change the dynamics of the conversation or the debate?
BAKER: It's a very interesting study that tells us where the limits might -- they want to impose limits and where reality might actually be. So, we're training Iraqi troops in the air base on Anbar province in the west. And today about two dozen Islamic state militants dressed like Iraqi military soldiers charged the base and tried to attack it.
Now, no American soldiers were actually anywhere near this at the same time, according to the Pentagon, but it shows you what could happen, how, you know, in the service of being advisers to the Iraqi troops, even though you're not having combat, you could very easily find yourself into a firing fight and things could expand.
IFILL: Well, and -- it also -- you know, we're talking about an old-fashioned notion, the War Powers resolution. It’s not like any president, a lot of presidents have gone to war with that, to use on a new fashion war against non-state actors. So, I’m not sure what one has to do with the other ultimately.
BAKER: Well, that’s right. Look, one of the complaints some Democrats have for instance is the resolution says he can go to war with ISIS and associated persons and groups, what does that mean? A very elastic definition could be found here.
And while the president vaulted into the middle of a war debate here at home, he chose to stay pointedly on the sidelines in another one. Instead, he left it to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to try to calm a bloody war in Ukraine that has morphed into a test of Russian power.
OBAMA: It is true that if, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options. What other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin's calculus? And the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that's being examined.
IFILL: Almost no one is optimistic this latest ceasefire will hold. So, what is the U.S. really prepared to do, Alexis?
SIMENDINGER: Well, the administration is talking really about four things in the wake of this pact being signed, and the four things they're talking about is --
IFILL: The Minsk accord.
SIMENDINGER: The Minsk 2 actually.
IFILL: That’s right.
SIMENDINGER: The administration is talking about the desire diplomatically to support this, right, to support the pursuit of this and to support the actual outcome of it. They're talking about to support the actually monitoring of it, once the truce gets underway and it actually goes into effect, if it does, to offer the OSCE, which is the monitoring organization, help -- technical help or whatever.
The third thing is, the president is talking, and you could hear this, let’s keep the pressure, we want to keep the actual sanctions pressure or the other costs, you know, out there. And the administration is saying that relief will not come for Russia until Ukraine's border with Russia goes back into place. And we can talk about where that is in the pact.
The fourth thing the administration's talking about with great interest and has been is trying to keep Ukraine's economy propped up and supporting -- the kind of assistance the United States is going to be providing, at least, $2 billion in loan guarantees, the IMF threw $17.5 billion into the pot, the World Bank threw another $2 billion, and the administration wants to make sure that whatever truce takes place in that, this is just the cessation, hopefully, of conflict, that there is an effort to keep Ukraine's economy, you know, producing.
IFILL: Was it a strategic decision not to have the White House at that table? I mean, as it turned out?
SIMENDINGER: It was a strategic decision in the sense that the combination of Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande was considered the most acceptable to them in the European efforts. She has a relationship. You know, there was a --
IFILL: She's speaks Russian.
SIMENDINGER: She speaks Russian, he speaks German. There is a sense that Germany is the strongest member of the European force and to have President Poroshenko there and then President Putin. And, of course, President Putin is the interesting actor at the table who denies that Russia is actually doing any of these things that he is signing to prevent. So, interesting, interesting result.
Obviously, Chancellor Merkel was here on Monday talking. The administration wants to say, oh, we are very involved. We had the secretary of state flying over. We had Vice President Biden in Munich, you know, that he had been on the phone with President Putin this week, that they're very involved.
HARWOOD: You mentioned Chancellor Merkel's visit. One of the points that she made and her aides made privately and to some extent publicly in the press conference was, look, this is our neighborhood, we want to let diplomacy play out, let's move slowly here. And there was talk of a potentially --
SIMENDINGER: - - I couldn't live with myself if we didn't pursue this, which is a very interesting thing.
HARWOOD: Well, she also said, very interestingly, at that news conference, this is why we're politicians, we try to work these things out.
HARWOOD: So, there was discussion about whether or not there was a split between Germany and the United States. Now, my own sense is that President Obama has not been eager at all to send weapons to Ukraine. So, is she restraining him? Or is she a helpful ally of his in not having escalated military activity?
SIMENDINGER: So, the debate -- what's interesting to me is that the debate about providing lethal defensive assistance to Ukraine was coming from both the outside of the administration and from some elements of the inside of the administration. But there never seemed to be anything coming from President Obama himself that indicated that he felt that this was the right way to go. But there was a little of the good cop/bad cop playing out in the East Room in the sense that keeping the pressure on is not a bad idea, with President Putin, with Russia, and the president has since then, his arguments are all against doing this and why this would be the counter messaging to what it is that the West is trying to achieve.
RAJU: Just a follow-up on the arming question -- I mean, you're seeing the pressure building in Congress from the defense hawks, the John McCain's of the world, who have legislation to force the administration on this. To what extent do you think that pressure is being felt by the president? Or does he simply ignore it, kind of the way they did on Iran sanctions and some of these other --
SIMENDINGER: I don't think you could say that the administration is ignoring it but what the president's concession was, let’s -- you know, I’ve asked my team, you know, Susan Rice, national security adviser, to let's talk about it, let's investigate it. And that's among the costs still on the table.
BAKER: Do you think they have a good handle on what Putin actually wants out of this?
What strikes me is that we have to be mind readers here, because it's not just enough to have a ceasefire agreement. It has to be something that we can figure out how to get him to change his mind. He hasn’t done it so far.
And it seems to me, he might be just looking for a frozen conflict, just keep things the way they are, and that benefits him.
SIMENDINGER: The concern in the administration that keeps coming up is that these sanctions are constricting the economy but not changing his policy.
SIMENDINGER: That's the worry.
IFILL: Let’s move on to another standoff, this time on Capitol Hill, and it’s over the budget. But instead of threatening to shut down the entire government, some unhappy Republicans are threatening to -- if not shutdown, at least withhold the money to run the Department of Homeland Security.
The finger-pointing has been epic. The House blames the Senate for inaction, the Senate blames the House and the White House watches quietly waiting to see how it plays out.
Why are we here, Manu?
RAJU: Well, Congress and the time honored tradition of punting is really the simple answer. But it all started by the president's decision in November to defer deportations from about 5 million undocumented immigrants, as well as provide them with accompanying work permits. This came on top of his 2012 action that deferred deportations on folks who came to the country illegally, the young age.
Of course, Republicans are furious at this action. They wanted to push back. They wanted to show the president that they were not standing for this, what they view is as overreach of executive power.
So, in November, when they had a chance to move the -- they had to fund the government, there was debate about exactly how to push back. So, Republicans, in order to alleviate the right wing, they cut a deal with the Democrats and they said, OK, we'll fund the entire government but we're not going to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the entire year. We're going to let that expire at the end of February. That way, when we control the Senate and have larger numbers in the House, we'll fight the president over the DHS funding bill.
But the problem is, that they don't want to shut down the Department of Homeland Security, at least the leadership doesn't, and they want to push back against the president on immigration but they don't have the votes to overcome a filibuster. So, how do they do that? They don't know how to get out of it.
IFILL: Haven't we seen this movie before?
RAJU: We have seen this movie time and again.
And the real conundrum for Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and House Speaker Boehner is that they don't want a shutdown. They are trying to prove to the country that they can govern effectively, but at the same time they want to show the base that they're serious about taking on the president.
But they just have a math problem. They can't get what the Democrats are calling for a clean bill through the House because the House Republicans aren't going to support it. And they can't get anything with the immigration restrictions through the Senate, because they need 60 votes and Democrats only have -- Republicans only have 54 seats. It's just --
IFILL: It just doesn’t add up.
RAJU: It just doesn't add up.
HARWOOD: Does that mean that, literally, everyone in Congress knows we're going through a slow-motion process of them backing down off this threat?
RAJU: It seems that way, but there's still a real serious debate. I mean, a lot of conservatives say we’re -- they're in a stronger position now than they were back in 2013 when, of course, the government shut down for 16 days over the fight over Obamacare and the Republicans --
HARWOOD: That's a strong position, to shut down the Department of Homeland Security?
RAJU: They believe that --
RAJU: There are, you know, small but vocal contingent that believes that given how controversial the immigration move is, that they would win this fight politically. But there are a lot of folks who don't think that this is a good idea and the betting in Capitol Hill right now, there's going to be a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government -- the department operating but then, we just bring it right back.
IFILL: That’s known as kicking the can.
RAJU: Exactly, punting.
IFILL: We have been there.
SIMENDINGER: Do you have the simple explanation for the viewers who need a score scorecard about why Republicans and conservatives are eager on the authorization for the use of military force for the president to have unlimited power, technically speaking, but are very concerned about the overreach that they claim that the president has used on immigration?
Can you square --
RAJU: It's difficult to square because that has been just a central argument all along that the president has been overreaching. He's broadened the power of the executive branch like no one before him and so, you know, they would argue, they would say, talk to the Republican senator, they would say this is a completely different, war, you don't want to restrict the hands of the commander-in-chief, people's lives are on the line, that’s much different -- that's much different argument than when we're talking about basically balance of power between executive branch and legislative.
SIMENDINGER: But isn't the Department of Homeland Security, the security part of it, related to the commander-in-chief part of it?
RAJU: That is a difficult thing for them to square.
BAKER: How do the candidates square? A lot of Republicans right now are running for president. Where are they on this?
RAJU: Yes, it's interesting because you've seen Ted Cruz, for instance, who was, of course, one of the architects of the fight in October that led to the government shutdown. This time, he's not being a vocal leader on this effort. In fact, he's blaming Republican leadership for what he considers getting in this mess right now. He wanted to actually fight this back in December. Of course, Republicans say, if you did that in December, the whole government would have shut down.
But right now, he's not a leader on this. He's sort of taking a low-profile role.
Marco Rubio, also, not really saying a lot about this. Rand Paul hasn't really said anything at all because it's just a mess. Republicans are pointing fingers. Department of Homeland Security could shut down and all these guys want to look like they’re serious -- they could be serious presidents.
What would be worse than being blamed for shutting down the Department of Homeland Security?
IFILL: Well, I would like to be in the secret meetings between John Boehner and Mitch McConnell where he said, "I’m sorry I used the A-word for you."
IFILL: You know what I had to do.
HARWOOD: It seems to be the strongest thing he can do.
IFILL: I think so.
Well, now, we're going to turn to the 2016 -- I’m calling it the 2016 shakedown cruise wherein the people who want to be president begin to understand that testing the waters sometimes means getting wet.
Witness Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who made a quick trip to London this week, which, of course, is the destination of choice for candidates looking to get a foreign policy stamp in their passports. And he encountered this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution? Do you accept it?
GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), WISCONSIN: For me, I’m going to -- I’m going to punt on that one as well.
WALKER: That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or the other. So, I’m going to leave that up to you --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any British politician, right or left wing, they would love -- and say, yes, of course, evolution is true.
WALKER: To me, I said, it's just one of those I’m here to talk about trade, not pontificate on other issues.
I love the evolution of trade in Wisconsin.
WALKER: I'd like to see an even bigger evolution as well.
IFILL: I didn't get that. Evolution? Why was evolution, all of a sudden on Scott, especially in Britain, on his agenda?
HARWOOD: Well, I think you saw from the moderator's reaction, he took it as a given that any British politician would answer the question a certain way and I think he looked at it as a way to perhaps make news with someone running in a Republican Party that's acquired a reputation in the United States for being anti-science.
IFILL: I’m trying to remember the last time an American reporter asked about evolution on any candidate running or thinking about running for president. It seemed like an interesting question to choose to ask --
HARWOOD: It is, but, you know --
IFILL: -- and choose not to answer, by the way.
HARWOOD: Well, that’s right. But given the evolution of the Republican Party and some of the stances they've taken, the Democrats have made an effective political argument that this is a party that is at odds with science. They say it on climate. They say it on issues like this.
And so, they're going to have to deal with that, and clearly Scott Walker was not prepared. You know, Manu was talking earlier about Congress punting. That punting line is one that is going to be thrown back at him for some period of time.
And as you said, London has seemed to be kind of a trap door. Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, was there a couple of weeks ago, made comments about Muslim no-go zones and the mayor of London was interviewed, I believe, by "Politico", today, said, "That was complete nonsense. I’d like to give him a little education."
Mitt Romney had problems in London in 2012.
IFILL: Chris Christie had his problems with London.
RAJU: Yes.
HARWOOD: Yes, and in fact, Dan Pfeiffer, the outgoing senior adviser to the president, sent out a tweet and said the amazing thing about President Obama's 2008 campaign was, one, he pulled off a successful foreign trip, and two, he's now baited a series of Republican candidates into going and having unsuccessful foreign trips.
BAKER: The one thing that’s interesting about the evolution question is that it kind of shows, right, that anything can come up if you're running for president, and you have to be ready. I mean, do we think these guys -- is it better for them to have these things happen now or are they setting themselves up for ammunition for opponents later on?
HARWOOD: I think the former. I think it's better for them to get a taste of the full glare light -- klieg lights of a presidential campaign.
And even more experienced politicians like Jeb Bush, who's been around national politics forever, he had a couple of difficulties this week. Remember, he hasn't been on a ballot since 2002. He hired a chief technology officer who, it turned out, had said some highly offensive things about women and African Americans. He cut ties with him within 24 hours of those things coming out.
He also did a massive email dump to show he was transparent, emails that he’d sent as governor of Florida, and some of those emails contained sensitive information about some of his constituents so they had to scrub them. So, you've had a series of people who -- especially in the Republican Party, since there isn't a natural experienced candidate who’s run before who looks like the inheritor of the nomination, you got people getting their feet wet and that is why a shakedown cruise was the right --
IFILL: Exactly. One more question.
SIMENDINGER: Real quick , John, you know, the Republicans have tried to organize the campaign year, so that it will be shorter and try to sort things out faster. Is there a suggestion that things are going to speed up? Or is it going at its own slow pace? Or what do -- what do we think about the timing?
HARWOOD: It's an interesting pace of this campaign. It's going slower. At this time in 2007, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were both declared candidates. We don't have any declared candidates now.
Hillary Clinton was trying to get her team together and they had some bumps this week over fund-raising, some internal strife, is preparing herself. Jeb Bush is preparing himself. I think by summertime this field is going to take shape.
IFILL: OK, got to go. Thank you, everybody.
We’ve got more to say, but you'll only be able to hear it on the WASHINGTON WEEK Webcast Extra. That’s where you’ll get to see what we think of the latest's White House gambit to appeal to millennials, the BuzzFeed selfie stick video. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Keep up with Judy Woodruff and me every night on "PBS NEWSHOUR".
See you next week on WASHINGTON WEEK. Good night. Happy Valentine’s Day.


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