GWEN IFILL: Hi, everybody, and welcome to the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, where we pick up where we left off on the weekly broadcast.
I’m joined around the table by Sue Davis of USA Today, Coral Davenport of The New York Times, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, and Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post.
It’s always interesting to see how people deal with defeat, especially when you are one of the top leaders of a party that has steadily lost ground everywhere but in the White House. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s skin was a little thin on this point this week when CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes asked if, in the wake of last week’s election, she’d given any thought to stepping down as leader. This was Pelosi’s response.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From videotape.) What I said to the most recent person who asked – he said you’ve lost now three times. Why don’t you step aside? You’ve heard that question when we lost two times, (and one time ?). And I said when was the day that any of you said to Mitch McConnell, when they lost the Senate three times in a row – lost making progress in taking back the Senate three times in a row – aren’t you getting a little old, Mitch? Shouldn’t you step aside? Have you ever asked him that question? Have you ever asked – have any of you ever asked him that question?
So I don’t understand why that question should even come up, thinking I have a mission for women on this score. When we won the House, and that was largely an initiative that I started around 2000 to take us to a place that we would win the House, that was a big thing. I was never on the front of Time Magazine as the first woman. Isn’t that a curiosity that the Republicans win, Boehner’s on the front of Time Magazine? Mitch McConnell wins, he’s on the front of Time Magazine. Isn’t there a pattern here? Now, as I said, my – who I am does not depend on any of that, with all due respect to all of you. But as a woman, it’s like is there a message here?
MS. IFILL: Now, here’s the thing.
ED O’KEEFE: Where do we begin?
MS. IFILL: No one mentioned her age in that question or her gender. So what was all that about, Ed?
MR. O’KEEFE: (Laughs.) Ask the guy.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, ask the guy.
MR. O’KEEFE: She doesn’t have an answer for it. That’s the problem. This is at least the second time in that setting where she’s been asked that kind of thing, and she throws it back at the reporters as if it’s some personal affront.
She needs to understand, though, having spent some time this week talking to members of her caucus, especially ones who’ve been there a long time, even they acknowledge it’s time for some new faces. Harry Reid did it this week. Think about this. It’s been a decade now of John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. They’re reaching Supreme Court status, like it’s become a lifetime appointment for them.
And I had one younger congressman say to me, who’s a member of her caucus, you know, maybe part of the reason that people aren’t showing up anymore is because they don’t like the cast of political characters. And if we were to get some new faces in there, perhaps especially Democrats would be able to get a little more motivated. But she has no answer for that.
Another thing – and I don’t want to eat up too much time – but there is a proxy battle under way for the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Her good friend Anna Eshoo from California is trying to defeat Frank Pallone, a guy from New Jersey, who has more seniority. I’m told by members of the caucus that part of what she’s doing here is trying to get all of the women in the caucus to get behind Ms. Eshoo. And this might also have been part of that attempt to sort of remind her members, you know, women is a priority for me.
SUSAN DAVIS: Can I say one thing about (influence ?), though? She raised $101 million –
MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, and –
MS. DAVIS: - for the 2014 midterm election cycle.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: So I don’t think that can be discounted.
AMY WALTER: That’s right, in a cycle where everybody knew Democrats weren’t going to win the House back.
MS. DAVIS: Yeah.
MS. WALTER: Right? So that is an impressive –
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s the interesting thing. And that’s, I guess, really why I asked that question. When Nancy Pelosi asks a different question that was posed – than was posed, it’s not because she’s stupid. She knows the question that was posed, and she clearly planned on some level to change the subject for a reason. And you pose an interesting reason, which is she’s trying to basically whip up her base, as it were. So you turn every question about your own failure into an assault on the person who asked the question. That’s a time-honored tradition.
Let me ask you another thing about the new Congress. The president, when he gets back from his victory tour, his odd victory tour of the world – odd only because he lost not so long ago – is going to be confronted with very different and very specific foes – John McCain as the head of the House Armed Services – Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jim Inhofe as the head of the Senate environmental affairs, whatever it’s called, committee, both of whom couldn’t be more opposite than he is on big, big issues that confront him. So what does he face when he gets back with this new Congress?
CORAL DAVENPORT: I can tell you, on environment and climate change, there is a massive clash brewing. The president wants to push forward on climate change as his legacy issue. He’s not going to back down. He’s not going to compromise. It’s going to be front and center.
In the Senate, Senator Jim Inhofe is –
MS. IFILL: The leading climate denier.
MS. DAVENPORT: Yes. He is famous for being the most prominent skeptic of climate change in the Senate. You know, in this campaign, in this midterm campaign, we saw a lot of Republicans being asked about the issue of climate change, and a lot of them are kind of dodging it. They’re saying I’m not a scientist. They kind of don’t really want to be labeled with that denier –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. DAVENPORT: - that denier target. Jim Inhofe has no problem with that. He is very clear. The science is not real, and he is going to go after the EPA. So we’ll see him launching big investigations. We will see him doing everything he can to slow down the regulations, hamstring, delay, cut budgets.
Right now the Senate does not have the votes. They will send tons of these to the president’s desk. He will veto them. The Senate doesn’t have the votes they need to override a veto. But we will see this back-and-forth fight playing out.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. DAVENPORT: And while they can’t stop the regulations, they can do a lot to slow them down, cut the funding, make it really difficult. So this fight is going to play out for the next two years.
MS. IFILL: And can John McCain do the same thing on foreign policy?
MS. DAVIS: Yes and no. I mean, having control – the Republican-controlled Congress is the first time that Obama’s going to have to confront this. And I think it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for him, in part because he hasn’t had great relationships with Congress when Democrats were in control.
And I think not only will he have unified Republican opposition. I think it’s really curious to see what’s going to happen among Democrats. I think, in a lot of ways, a lot of Senate Democrats who are up, the House Democrats who are reeling from their losses, they are already looking past the Obama administration. They’re looking to the 2016 field. And we’re going to maybe start to see the first triangulation in the Obama administration between him and his own party.
So not only is he going to have to confront a Republican Congress that’s really good at opposing everything he does, but I think he’s going to have this other left-flank dynamic of which he’s going to have a lot of lawmakers up there who are going to be much more willing to go against him as well.
So I don’t know how he’s going to navigate this. Particularly, as I said, he doesn’t have a lot of chits to cash in on Capitol Hill.
MS. IFILL: And this – which brings me to another problem the Democrats are going to have is that they’re really good at distracting their own agenda – from their own agenda. So this week we saw a dust-up involving a former health adviser to the president, an MIT economist named Jonathan Gruber – his first name is Jonathan; I think I’m getting it right – who decided – who apparently has been on the speaking circuit saying the American people can be easily fooled or stupid for – with a really complicated health care bill, and that’s what they intended to do all along.
MS. WALTER: Right.
MS. IFILL: Well, this has been seized upon by enemies of the health care law, and it’s basically giving them a freebie to beat up on the law all week along. At the same time, the Supreme Court is talking about revisiting it.
MS. WALTER: That’s right. And now you have actual evidence to suggest that there was, as Republicans have said, a very explicit decision by Congress to write the law as they did, so as to, you know – whether it was in the case Jonathan Gruber making, they’re trying to deceive the public, or they were also trying to make sure that they were able to do certain things that people wouldn’t figure out. And now –
MS. IFILL: It’s particularly a problem that the case before the court is about state exchanges, and –
MS. WALTER: (Inaudible.)
MS. IFILL: - (inaudible) – defense is this was a sloppily drafted law –
MS. WALTER: When in reality what he’s saying is, no, we knew all along what we were doing.
But, look, this is also a problem for Republicans as well, because, you know, if there’s a mandate from this election – everybody believes there’s a mandate for them. But there was one mandate, which was we want to get beyond this debate about “Obamacare.” That’s what 60 percent of Americans say. Yes, fix some of it, but let’s not do this repeal thing. Let’s not – we’re tired, basically, of talking about this.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. WALTER: Then you look at just Republicans and the Republican base. Sixty percent of Republicans say this is our number one priority. So Republicans also are doing themselves some harm if they are going to spend this first year that they are finally in charge talking about repealing “Obamacare,” talking about how we’re going to defund EPA, instead of setting up an agenda that talks about the issues that people want to hear in 2016; namely, how we’re going to get the economy moving.
MS. IFILL: I guess we’re going to see that play out mostly through the people who decide they want to be president. That’ll be the (fun way to watch it ?).
MS. WALTER: That’s exactly right.
MS. IFILL: Thank you all very much.
You stay online and you can see what else our panelists are writing about and what they’re seeing in our daily “Washington Week” feature, News You Need to Know. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we’ll see you next time on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra.