Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, March 10, 2023

Mar. 10, 2023 AT 9:31 p.m. EST

Democrats and Republicans are drawing battle lines on the debt ceiling debate, President Biden unveils a proposed budget in a likely reelection preview and GOP presidential hopefuls set their sights on Iowa. Join guest moderator Amna Nawaz, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Laura Barrón-López of PBS NewsHour and Leigh Ann Caldwell of The Washington Post as they discuss these stories and more.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


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

Amna Nawaz: Battle lines drawn in the debt ceiling debate.

Joe Biden, U.S. President: I will protect social security and Medicare, guaranteed.

Amna Nawaz: President Biden unveils his proposed budget, a likely preview of his re-election priorities.

Unidentified Male: We need to shrink Washington and grow America. His budget would do the opposite.

Amna Nawaz: As a powerful wing of the House GOP issues its new demands ahead of the debt ceiling deadline.

Plus --

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL): We will never ever surrender to the woke mob.

Amna Nawaz: -- top Republican presidential contenders make their pitches in a critical state, next.

Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I'm Amna Nawaz.

Early battle lines are emerging between Democrats and Republicans as the deadline to raise the debt ceiling looms. In a speech in Philadelphia, President Biden unveiled his proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year while previewing his priorities heading into the 2024 election cycle. $6.8 trillion budget would increase military spending and a wide range of new social programs. It also aims to reduce future budget deficits by nearly $3 trillion over the next decade through savings and tax increases on corporations and the very wealthiest Americans. And it funds Medicare by taxing households earning over $400,000.

The president issued this challenge to Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Joe Biden: I am ready to meet with the speaker any time, tomorrow if he has his budget. Lay it down, tell me what you want to do. I'll show you what I want to do, see where we can agree on or we don't agree on. Let's see what we vote on.

Amna Nawaz: But the House Freedom Caucus, a critical voting bloc Speaker McCarthy needs, announced what they are argue are necessary rollbacks to government spending.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL): The only thing is responsible is for government to actually its belt tighten. Inflation is caused by massive overspending by the federal government.

The only way for America to grow is for Washington to shrink.

Amna Nawaz: Among their demands, ending the president's student loan forgiveness program, tougher work requirements for welfare recipients, taking back billions in unspent COVID-19 funds, money for IRS for tax enforcement and from climate change spending, and a near freeze on discretionary spending for ten years.

Joining me to discuss this and more, Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times, Laura Barron-Lopez, White House Correspondent for the PBS Newshour, and Leigh Ann Caldwell, co-Author of The Washington Post Early 202 and Anchor for Washington Post Live. Welcome to you all. Thanks for being here.

So, let's just start with this fact, Laura, that a budget is a statement of values. It is a wish list, right? But what does this particular budget from President Biden tell us about his priorities and also how the White House sees their position, their leverage right now?

Laura Barron-Lopez, White House Correspondent, PBS Newshour: So, as you said, Amna, this is a big wish list from the president. He is trying to show to the American public what he wants to get done if they re-elect him and if they potentially re-elect Democrats to majorities in the House and keep them in the majority in the Senate. And so that includes a big ask that he had already made in the first two years about universal pre-K, free college tuition, also trying to extend the child tax credit again.

And he is also, though, doing some things on-- more spending on defense, more spending at the border. They asked for more on that too, because, of course, he is trying to protect himself against attacks from GOP on those two issues.

But all of that being said, the president right now is trying to show the public that this is what he wants to do if he is re-elected and he thinks Democrats can run on all of these issues and that the public sentiment is on his side.

Amna Nawaz: Peter, that message on deficit reduction in particular, that was the headline coming out of the White House, that struck me because that has been a core Republican message. Why is the White House leaning into that so much right now?

Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent, The New York Times: Yes. I think they're trying to basically outflank the Republicans, right? Because, remember, didn't care too much about deficit spending when Trump was in office and rolling up $7 trillion worth of new debt, but they care about it when a Democrat is in the White House. And it's a good issue for them because it goes to their core constituency and it kind of unites them at a time where they're divided, right, between the Trumpers and the non-Trumpers.

But what President Biden is trying to do here is, fine, okay, I will meet you there. I'll do some deficit. Let me do it my way by taxing the rich. And, in effect, he is trying to kind of reclaim in a way his more centrist persona, I think, where he's speaking to the values of middle Americans rather than necessarily just the progressives, by talking about the deficits, and in recent weeks, talk about the D.C. crime bill, which he said was too extreme for him to soften penalties, and immigration at the border, talking about how to toughen enforcement down there.

Amna Nawaz: Leigh Ann, when you look at the proposals from that House Freedom Caucus, that is a wing of the party that almost cost Kevin McCarthy his speakership. Have we heard from him on what he thinks of these proposals?

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Early 202 Co-Author, The Washington Post: Well, it's actually really interesting that the Freedom Caucus came out with their proposals today. And the reason is because they are the first ones to come out with something concrete among House Republicans. And so they are laying their stakes of where they stand and what they want earlier than anyone else, trying to move the conversation and the debate toward them.

Meanwhile, what's also simultaneously happening and has been happening for a few weeks now is the Republican whip, Tom Emmer, the number in the House of Representatives, he obviously has to count the votes, get the votes of whatever comes through. He has been holding listening sessions with Republicans in small groups to find out what they need not only in the budget but on the debt limit as well. And so while he is holding these listening sessions, trying to see what they can compromise on, the freedom caucus has come out with their demands. And so it just shows how difficult and tricky this is going to be for Speaker McCarthy.

Amna Nawaz: Is this -- we talk about whether Republicans and Democrats can come together on some kind of compromise on the budget. Is there a bigger challenge on whether just Republicans can come together on their own proposed budget?

Peter Baker: Yes, I think that is exactly right, they're not united. As Leigh Ann just talked, I mean, they do not have a single core belief here. And the problem with what McCarthy has laid in terms of what he wants to do to balance the budget ten years without touching social security, without touching Medicare, without defense spending, that is really hard to do. You really can't get there. People just don't remember how much of our budget is spent, how much of our money is spent on those three core things and on interest debts, where you cannot reduce.

So, what are you going to do? You cut -- our analysts looked at it. So, you have to cut 70 percent of everything else, right?

Amna Nawaz: 70% of what's left from discretion?

Peter Baker: Everything else, veterans care, transportation, education. All the other things the government does would have to be scaled back dramatically and they have not explained how they want to do that.

Leigh Ann Caldwell: And one other thing, the thing that McCarthy did say, because I didn't answer your question, is --

Amna Nawaz: Thanks for coming back to that, by the way.

Leigh Ann Caldwell: The Republican budget was supposed to be out April 15th. That is what leadership told me several weeks ago. And McCarthy now says that that's going to be delayed probably a few weeks into May. And that is a challenge for them not only for timing but also it's going to be delayed in large part because they need to come to an agreement.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And that gives the president essentially ammunition to go after them, by saying, look, I've put out my budget, I've put out my priorities. Just today, we heard Shalanda Young, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, out there talking to reporters saying, we are waiting for them to say what they are going to prioritize, how they are going to effectively issue these cuts. If they are going to stick to their promise, which McCarthy has said, we are not going to touch social security and Medicare, and then after that, they will start having conversations and see where they can go from there.

Amna Nawaz: I mean, this is a tough question, but the president has said over and over again, I am ready to meet with Speaker McCarthy when they have a budget. Given where we are now, seeing the president's budget, seeing the opening volley from the House Freedom Caucus, which certainly tie Speaker McCarthy's hands in some way, what is that first conversation going to look like?

Laura Barron-Lopez: Well, they have had somewhat of that conversation already, right? But it's going to be difficult because I'm sure that President Biden is going to be asking over and over again, well, do you have the votes? If you ultimately agree to something with me, is he rest of your conference going to vote for it?

And, ultimately, Democrats may have to come over and provide the remaining votes because when we get to the debt ceiling conversation, which is what this is ultimately all about, and whether or not the country goes over the fiscal cliff and defaults on its debts, there are a number of Republicans that do not want to vote for anything, whether it's a clean debt ceiling increase or anything to fund the government. So, that's going to be for McCarthy to get those votes.

Amna Nawaz: Leigh Ann, when you look at the timeline, I mean, looking ahead to the debt ceiling debate, we know there is a hard date coming in summer when they are going to have two raise that debt ceiling. I will tell you, senior Republicans insist to me over and over again, we are not going to go over that fiscal cliff. They will avoid that. Is that what you are hearing?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: Yes. That is what Republicans say. That's what McCarthy has said. That is what most Republicans say, I should say. But how they get there is the hard part, and that is what's going to be most difficult. It's going to come -- I mean, President Biden wants to separate these two issues of the debt limit and government funding. House Republicans do not. And that is where the challenge is. If you can't even agree what you're going to vote on or the contours of it, it makes it very, very difficult. And then, of course, you have the Senate too.

I will say, though, there is a little bit of a realization among some in the more far-right faction of the party who is realizing that they are not going to get everything that they want, but that is not all of them. And it's going to take a lot of education and a lot of work from Republican leadership to get people on board.

Amna Nawaz: It's really something we are going to follow very closely in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, we should say, Republican 2024 hopefuls this week set their sights on the key state of Iowa. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has yet to officially enter the race but he did make his first stop to Iowa to test-run his message.

Ron DeSantis: We say very clearly in the state of Florida we will never ever surrender to the woke mob. Our state is where woke goes to die.

Amna Nawaz: Former President Donald Trump will visit Iowa on Monday where his support has lagged. A new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll today shows percentage of Iowa Republicans who say they would definitely vote for Trump if he were the nominee has plummeted more than 20 points since June of 2021.

Peter, those numbers, when you look at them, it was 69 percent of Iowa Republicans, in June 2021, now it is 47 percent of Iowa Republicans. It's still pretty strong, right? But what does that number say to you at this stage of the game?

Peter Baker: Well, it says that there is a weakness there, and he knows that, right? That is why he is getting out there now. He has not done very much since he announced his candidacy for a second term, and he is watching DeSantis breathing down his neck. DeSantis hasn't announced a thing and he's already a pretty strong competitor.

Now, Donald Trump has the advantage of numbers, right? He doesn't need 50 percent if there are eight, nine, ten other candidates out there. We saw that in 2016. He had 16 other candidates. He won with the plurality of the votes in these early primaries. That is all you need. So, he is counting on people getting in. In fact, he said that, the more the merrier, because he's trying to them (INAUDIBLE), because he knows the ceiling, right? There are a certain number of Republicans who are just not going to vote for him and are really tired of looking for somebody else, and that's a real problem for them. And, of course, you add the risk of indictment, which now seems to be looming from multiple sources who know that's going to affect things. So, it is a pretty volatile moment.

Amna Nawaz: And when you look at those numbers, you dig down into the latest poll there, they have favorability ratings for many of the candidates, Leigh Ann. Trump's favorability is still among the highest among Republicans there. He is on par with Ron DeSantis. He is way ahead of Nikki Haley and Mike Pence. How do you look at the field right now? What are you hearing?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: The field seems to be Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis of that lane of the party, kind of the Trump far-right, the MAGA Republican, which Ron DeSantis is trying to peel off that base. And then you kind of have everyone else who is going to be fighting for votes.

But I will say, it is really, really early. Every single election cycle, there is always a frontrunner very early on and then that frontrunner very rarely becomes the nominee.

Peter Baker: President Scott Walker, right, or Rand Paul, or any of them.

Leigh Ann Caldwell: Right. Walker jumped in the race in 2015. I had a baby. I came off from maternity leave, and he was gone out of the race. So, that's how.

Amna Nawaz: That's how we marked (INAUDIBLE).

Leigh Ann Caldwell: Right, exactly.

So, I just think that it is the base that you need to win a primary. And if any of these other candidates, Nikki Haley or the other ones that are going to jump in, if they can cut into that, there is -- the concern among some Republicans, which we've talked about before is that too many candidates will dilute the field.

Amna Nawaz: We hear this again and again, Laura, right? Everyone -- well, not everyone. There are a number of Republicans who maybe want to run themselves who say, you know what, a crowded field is going to hurt us again, it will clear the way for Mr. Trump to win the plurality instead of a majority. That is why Larry Hogan decided not to run. It was his stated reason. But, I guess, at this stage, when you look at where folks are -- there was the never Trump wing, right? There is now the kind of thank you, next wing. But is there an organized anti-Trump effort of any kind for people who don't believe he should be the Republican nominee?

Laura Barron-Lopez: The short answer is no. I mean, there are a number of Republicans, as Leigh Ann and Peter said, that are trying to say, look, it is time to move on. I mean, that is the whole reason that you see Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haleys of the world running. But when it comes down to their policies and when it comes down to their core messages, they are nearly identical to the former president.

And so there may be a conversation about are they done with the man himself, is the party done with the man himself, potentially, although there is no one that is forcefully trying to distance themselves from Trump. Ron DeSantis is running on a platform of anti-transgender, anti-LGBTQ legislation. Florida just introduced a six-week abortion ban, that if a woman -- that gives an exemption for rape and incest, but the woman has to provide proof, official proof, documentation of that, and Ron DeSantis said that he supports it.

I was just talking to a Republican strategist who -- in a swing state who said that, yes, that type of messaging and platform may work in a primary, it is not going to necessarily work in a general election in these swing states.

Amna Nawaz: And, Leigh Ann, I talked to both Larry Hogan and Asa Hutchinson this week, and Chris Sununu has said the same thing. The next nominee, they say, has to be someone who can broaden the appeal, right, who can broaden the Republicans' support beyond that MAGA base. Is there a moderate candidate that your Republican sources say they would get behind eventually? Is there anyone who stands out to you?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: That is the challenge. What candidate can get through a Republican primary but also win a general election? And that is the challenge that there is right now. I talked to a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Everyone has different ideas. I will say, a lot of people do not or want someone other than Trump.

So, official Washington is looking for something else, even though he still does have a lot of support among the base. We analyze this. And Trump-endorsed over 160 people in the 2022 midterms and only two dozen so far have endorsed him to-date. And so he does -- people are starting to look elsewhere. Who that person, that is just the big question.

Peter Baker: What's amazing actually is that there's -- we always talk about Trump lane and a non-Trump lane, but there's only a Trumpism lane, right? To Laura's point, they are all running for the same candidates. They're all running as the same candidate except the personality of the former president himself. I can be Trump without the baggage.

That is what DeSantis' message is, right? If you like Trump, if you like his policies, if you like the anti-woke culture war kind of thing, I am your guy without the indictments, right? I'm the guy without January 6th. I'm the guy who can move on and take this next generation. And DeSantis gets it at age 44, I think, right? He is half the age of Biden. He can make a generational argument. But he's not running in a different lane than Trump. He's running in the same lane.

Amna Nawaz: You don't see a ton of support from other senior Republicans for Ron DeSantis either, right?

Peter Baker: No. But, I mean, you talked about Asa, like for instance. Asa Hutchinson, a very respected governor, former governor of Arkansas. He was one of the impeachment managers for Bill Clinton. That's when he came to fame. He's nowhere. Guys like him don't have an appeal because they do not have that visceral connection, right, with the core base. And the question is for the people of the Bush wing of the party, for instance, are they willing to get behind people like DeSantis? Very interesting to see Jeb Bush, for instance, to say that he thought DeSantis is doing a good job, not an endorsement, he made clear, but he said nice things about him.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Yes. Another data point that just speaks to what we are talking about in terms of is the Republican Party beyond Trump himself versus Trumpism is the whole conversation around January 6th, and the fact that the Republican Party as a whole -- I mean, the candidates that are potentially running do not call Trump out about January 6th, do not confront him about the fact that he said the Constitution should be terminated. There are Republicans beyond just Marjorie Taylor Greene on the Hill that are saying, we want to take a trip to the jails to see January 6th defendants and essentially revise history on January 6th. So, the party as a whole is just essentially excusing Trump on January 6rh and trying to revise history, Amna.

Amna Nawaz: You've made my segue for me, which is want to -- before we go, I want to ask about the fact that we have seen a revision of history unfold on Fox. Tucker Carlson, we know, got access to that security footage and has been kind of rewriting what happened on that day and claiming that it was peaceful falsely on January 6th.

Look, we all know the role the media plays. We know the role that Fox has played in particular in pushing the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. And we know a lot of this is as a result of the new filings from that Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit.

I want to share one of those text messages that was revealed as part of those filings. This is from Tucker Carlson on January 4th, 2021 to a colleague talking about then-President Trump, rather, saying, quote, we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can't wait. Followed by then saying, quote, I hate him passionately.

Peter, knowing what we know now about these private -- the private contempt for Mr. Trump, privately dismissing the election fraud claims while publicly pushing them, publicly supporting him, does any of this make a dent in the Fox base?

Peter Baker: Well, it's a good question. Because, basically, what we have learned from this is how much Fox is afraid of their own viewership, right? And in some ways, it's the same way with Trump. Trump is almost afraid of his own base to some extent too. Why did he not brag about vaccines when he could have said, this is my biggest accomplishment? Because the base booed him at a rally. He became afraid of his own people. And that's where Fox is too. They don't want to alienate their own viewership.

We got a hold at The New York Times, we got hold of an audiotape, this meeting that Fox executives had with some of the anchors after the Arizona call in 2020, in which they're all antsy about the fact that they were taking so much blowback. How can we make a call in a state without getting this blowback from our viewers? That is not what journalism is supposed to be. But they are so captive to that. And I think that's been the big revelation. Does it make a difference? I don't know. Most Fox viewers are not watching the Dominion lawsuit.

Amna Nawaz: Laura, how do you see it?

Laura Barron-Lopez: Whether it makes a difference with the base, yes, I don't think we really know yet. When I was at CPAC and I asked people there about what was coming out in Dominion, they either said, well, they excused it and then said I still believe Trump, I still believe the election was stolen and they didn't necessarily say that they were going to stop watching Fox either.

I think that when we look at what Fox did and what so many of these hosts did, I mean, it is very clearly propaganda. That's what it is. Because they were deciding to prioritize their profit and what they thought would be profitable, which was telling their viewers what they wanted to hear versus what the actual facts were, and they're promoting conspiracy theories. And one example of that was also Rupert Murdoch in those filings, we saw -- revealed that he wanted to help Jared Kushner. And so that was why he also revealed then-Candidate Biden's ads, ad buys, ahead of when they were released because he said he wanted to help his friend. That is not a news organization.

Amna Nawaz: Leigh Ann, I'll give you the last word. We've got 30 seconds left. What is your take on this?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: I mean, I just think that it really shines a light on what is happening behind the scenes. I think that looking at Fox, we as journalists look at it much differently now. Now it was clear that they knew what the truth was but they decided to ignore it. And I think that they should have a huge credibility issue on their hands.

We will see where this goes. And, ultimately, I don't know, though, legally, it's enough for Dominion to win this lawsuit. I am not a lawyer.

Amna Nawaz: We'll see where this goes. Thank you to you all.

That is Washington week for tonight. Thank you so much to our panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting. Thanks to all of you for watching at home.

And be sure to watch PBS News Weekend for the latest on the millions nationwide who are at risk of losing their Medicaid coverage as the COVID public health emergency winds down.

I'm Amna Nawaz. Good night from Washington.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064