Guest Host: Susan Page
The midterm elections are over and Congress’s lame-duck session begins today. How lame it turns out to be depends in part on the willingness of lawmakers to set aside deep ideological divisions. Republicans campaigned on promises to slash spending and retain the Bush-era tax cuts – which many Democrats blame for the sharp rise in the federal deficit. Other contentious items on the agenda are the repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and ratification of a nuclear treaty with Russia. We’ll talk about these and other legislative issues.
- David Welna Congressional correspondent, NPR.
- Jackie Calmes National correspondent, The New York Times.
- Chris Cillizza Author of The Fix, a Washington Post politics blog, and managing editor of PostPolitics.com.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane has a cold. She hopes to be back later this week. After a six-week break, members of Congress are back in Washington for a lame duck session. They'll try to take care of unfinished business before the new Congress convenes in January. Then Republicans will control the House, and Tea Party-backed candidates will join the debate. Now, spending in taxes will be the dominant issues. Yesterday, President Obama said Senate ratification of the new nuclear treaty with Russia is also a priority for him. Joining me in the studio to talk about what Congress may accomplish before the year ends, David Welna of NPR, Jackie Calmes of The New York Times and Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DAVID WELNAHi, Susan.
MS. JACKIE CALMESHi, Susan.
MR. CHRIS CILLIZZAGood morning.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an e-mail on email@example.com. Or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, David, Congress does not always come back to town after elections. Why are they coming back this time?
WELNAWell, I think it's mainly because they had a big election, and the entire House and more than a third of the Senate was up for reelection. They wanted to get out of town and campaign, but, of course, they left a lot of unfinished business. And some of that unfinished business had to do with the campaign itself just because the Democrats especially didn't want to deal with it, such as the expiring Bush tax cuts and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell provision that's in the defense bill some Republicans didn't want to deal with. So they have a big stack awaiting them.
PAGEAnd you know the day started at 9 a.m. with the trial, or essentially a trial of Charlie Rangel, the powerful House committee chairman, on ethics charges -- got off to kind of a rocky start. Chris, tell us what's happening on the Hill.
CILLIZZAYou know, it's kind of a fascinating drama, I guess, for everyone who isn't named Charlie Rangel. Frankly, it's probably a little more difficult for him. But he has no legal representation and is essentially saying that he's being denied his right to legal representation because he can't establish a legal defense fund. Now, this is a little bit of arcana of campaign finance law. In essence, Mr. Rangel's lawyers parted ways with him quite some time ago, but we have not had the formal trial yet until it began today. So this -- it seems to be a little bit of gamesmanship on Mr. Rangel's part.
CILLIZZALook, he is going to, at some point in the very near future, have to answer. He's got 13 charges of wrongdoing against him by this ethics subcommittee. He's going to have to answer for those and, I would assume, be reprimanded in some way, shape or form by the broader Congress. This was, to David's point, something that House Democrats desperately wanted pushed off until after the election. Initially, this trial was set to begin in September -- no longer the case. Obviously, after the election, it didn't help them all that much as they've already lost 60 seats and probably will lose a few more.
CALMESWell, we should make clear that this is not a court trial but a sort of trial before his peers on the Ethics Committee subcommittee. You know, it really is -- I mean, this man has spent half -- he's 80 years old. He spent half of his life in Congress, the most recent years as chairman of the -- one of the most powerful committees in Congress, Ways and Means. And he actually first took office by defeating a Harlem Democrat who was in ethics troubles, and he ran against him on that basis, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. And so it really is a personal drama as well as a political drama.
CILLIZZAAnd just one thing to add to Jackie's point, Susan, is it's not affected his electoral prospects. He faced Adam Clayton Powell's son, Adam Clayton Powell IV, in the September primary. He won the primary. It was a (unintelligible) candidate field. They won it with more than 50 percent of the vote. In a -- and then in the general election, which was kind of a de facto victory -- it's a very Democratic seat -- he won with 80-plus percent. So while he has all these troubles going on in Washington, it's not affected him yet in his district in New York City.
PAGEYou know, some listeners might wonder why Adam Clayton Powell Sr.'s son, who ran against Charlie Rangel this time, is Adam Clayton Powell IV. Why is that?
CILLIZZAWell, I assume his father is Adam Clayton Powell III. Am I wrong?
PAGENo. No. That's -- David Welna.
WELNAI think he's actually his grandson. And we, at NPR, actually had another Adam Clayton Powell as one of our executives for a time. I believe that was the father.
PAGEOh. Well, there were at least two sons born of two different mothers who each named their son Adam Clayton Powell. And so then in adult life they took the Roman numeral.
CILLIZZAYou learn something every day. That is great.
PAGEThis is not in fact a key issue facing the lame duck session. So maybe we should go back to taxes because extension of those Bush-era tax cuts, that is going to be the number debate, we think, for this lame duck session. And one of the issues has been where does the White House stand exactly on extending these tax cuts? A lot of people think maybe they're preemptively folding to Republicans. Jackie, tell us what the White House position is now.
CALMESWell, the White House will tell you that their position is very clear. The president favors a permanent extension of the tax rates from 2001 and 2003 for everyone, couples making under $250,000 a year, individuals with $200,000 -- less than $200,000, and that they don't want a permanent extension for those making more than that. Now, the problem with this is that opens the door to a temporary extension, you would assume, of those higher rates on high income. But that's not clear either.
CALMESAnd the White House has, on the one hand, tried to signal it's fighting, on the other hand signal it's open, since the election, to compromise. And -- but at bottom, all the questions about this are because the White House never has been clear all year. And it's really sort of astounding that with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress all year long -- go back to meetings a year ago this month, they've been talking about having a strategy and never came to one. And there's basically three reasons.
CALMESYou know, the economy, because it's weakened or remained weak, has given ammunition to Republicans who say these -- you shouldn't be raising these top -- or letting these top rates go back to their pre-2001 levels when the economy is weak. Second, the Democrats always feel weak about dealing with the tax issue. And third, they're just -- you know, they didn't want to do this before an election, and they had a crowded calendar. They -- you know, they had a big agenda this year.
CALMESAnd so the -- here they are, stuck. They were stuck before the election. Harry Reid said there'd be a vote in September. Of course, there wasn't because some Senate Democrats who had tough reelection races did not want to vote on it. And so now we're in the abbreviated lame duck session with the Republicans feeling emboldened, so the Democrats have a weaker hand than they would have if they'd done this before.
PAGESo it's not 100 percent clear where the White House stands? What about Republicans, David Welna? What do they want to do on these tax cuts?
WELNAWell, the Republicans want to make them all permanent. And at the same time, some of them are saying, if they can't get the top rates made permanent, they would like to see them temporary. In fact, John Boehner, back in September, allowed that he would even vote for extending just the sort of lower levels of tax rates if it came to that. And then he sort of had to back off of that. But I think that there's a recognition that nobody wants to be stuck being accused of having let the tax cuts expire. But the question, I think, for the House especially is, will they, in a sense, play chicken with Republicans?
WELNAWill the -- because the Democrats are in charge in both the Senate and the House, of course, until the end of the year. It's probably going to come up first in the Senate. The House has learned by bitter experience that going ahead and voting on something and then leaving it to the Senate often leaves them burned and the Senate sitting pretty. But I think that the question is, will they insist on dealing with just the lower income levels, extending the tax cuts for them, and do nothing on the upper ones and dare the Republicans to filibuster that in the Senate? And that's a possibility. It's a question of how much fight those Democrats have left for them.
CILLIZZAAnd I think, to David's point, Susan -- I think that the whole overarching -- you know, everything that you read and listen to and hear and what we'll say today about the lame duck, I think, is all influenced by what happened in the election. Republicans feel very much that they have a mandate. Now, you can argue whether they do or not, but they argue they have a mandate from the American people. They are not in a compromising mood. If you go and look at what the two sides -- the White House on the one side, Republicans in Congress on the other side -- have said about tax cuts in $250,000 or higher, a million -- however you want to handle it.
CILLIZZAYou've seen the president say -- and David Axelrod, his senior advisors -- be a little bit more -- say, we want permanent extension, but leave the door open a crack. On the other hand, you've seen John Boehner, the speaker-to-be but currently the minority leader, be very hard-line and say, well, you know, we're opposed to anything, any sort of, you know, rollback of these cuts for $250,000 or above. So it seems to me that Republicans are going to have to decide, to David's point, do -- broadly. Do they cooperate in any way, shape or form, whether it's on tax cuts or anything else with this White House? Or do they not need to? Do they wait until they are in control of the House and have improved numbers in the Senate in 112th Congress in January to push their own agenda and push their own tax policies?
CALMESYou know, there were interesting developments yesterday on the Sunday talk shows for both parties. For Republicans, there are two of the most conservative Senate Republicans, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Rand Paul, just newly elected from Kentucky. Now, he won't be part of the lame duck session, but he will be in town for organizing meetings. And he'll be in office next January. But he's influential both in what they do now behind the scenes, and if it gets kicked over to the next Congress, he'll have a vote.
CALMESThey both said -- somewhat to my surprise -- that if all they can get is a two-year extension or a temporary extension of the top rates on high income, they will take that. Now, this is the same kind of statement that got John Boehner in trouble before the election, so that would be the grounds for compromise. On the other hand, you have two moderate Democrats from the Senate who came out yesterday into this void of -- strategy void that their party has. Charles Schumer is saying, you know, they are still saying, don't extend the top rates.
CALMESCharles Schumer's -- Chuck Schumer's idea is, let's have the cut off be income of $1 million -- less than $1 million, you get the continued tax rates, which politically makes it a -- Democrats able to argue millionaires and billionaires don't get these continued lower rates. And Mark Warner from Virginia said, let's just leave the cutoff at $250,000 and under and take what would have been the revenues lost to those higher rates -- which would over two years be $65 billion -- and use that $65 billion for more tax breaks, temporary tax breaks for small businesses as incentives to hire, sort of calling Republicans' bluff.
PAGEJackie Calmes, she is national correspondent for The New York Times. And we're also joined this hour by David Welna, congressional correspondent for NPR and Chris Cillizza, author of The Fix, a Washington Post politics blog and managing editor of PostPolitics.com. We're going to take a short break. Stay with us.
PAGEWe've been talking about the lame duck session of Congress that starts today. President Obama, speaking to reporters yesterday as he returned from a 10-day trip to Asia, said one of his big priorities is getting ratification of the START nuclear treaty with Russia. Tell us what's at stake, David.
WELNAThey're actually calling it the new START treaty because we already have a START treaty that expired about a year ago. And when it had expired, it meant that American inspectors were no longer able to go into the -- into Russia -- what was the former Soviet Union -- and its arsenal and check out, you know, trust but verify and all that. So there's been a lot of pressure to get a new agreement. In fact, President Obama signed an agreement with Russia back in April.
WELNAAnd since then, there have been dozens of hearings on this in the Senate, but it just doesn't seem to get any traction on the Senate floor. And that's because there are some Republicans who are saying, hang on, we may not be getting the deal that we want. We want other guarantees. We want to modernize the -- our nuclear arms supply. And until that happens, don't count on our votes.
PAGEChris Cillizza, your newspaper, The Washington Post, has an op-ed article today by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying, we can't delay this treaty and says, our national security depends on it. But if it doesn't get through the lame duck session ratification, what are the odds that the new Senate would be willing to ratify it?
CILLIZZAWell, to David's point, there's opposition in the current Republican ranks which are significantly smaller. Remember, we're adding six Republican senators, come the 112th Congress. I would say it would be in a bin, along with things like -- and I know we're going to talk about this -- Don't -- repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and those sorts of things, that if they can't get it done now, I don't know how they'd get it done. I think the other thing to remember that's important is it's a 67 -- they need a super majority, a 67-vote majority.
CILLIZZAAs we've seen in the Senate, it's very difficult to get 51 votes for anything. President Obama learned that lesson on health care many times. It's a difficult thing. It's a fractious caucus. And I would say, again, as it relates to what happened in 2010, there are lots of Democrats -- people like Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson -- Ben Nelson being from Nebraska, Bill Nelson from Florida, Jon Tester from Montana. People who are going to look at what happened in the 2010 election look at their states and say, I don't know if we want to do anything too much -- and I would say that goes for tax cuts.
CILLIZZAIt goes for Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It goes for a lot of these things that we're talking about because they're concerned that there was a rejection of the broad Democratic agenda in the election. So I would say if it doesn't happen between now and whenever the lame duck exits -- sometime probably before Jan. 3 'cause they have to -- I don't know that it will happen, despite President Obama, as you pointed out, Susan, saying repeatedly that this is a top priority for him and for the lame duck.
WELNAAnd I'd like to add also that this is a treaty that has the backing of many former Republican secretaries of state. It has the endorsement of the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, who's also up for reelection in two years. There is a lot of backing for this. It's just that when you have a filibuster in the Senate, you got to get a lot of people on board before you move ahead.
PAGEYou know, we're getting some e-mails from listeners who think the Democrats in Congress should not pay so much attention to what happened in the midterm elections. Here's one listener, Tim in Baltimore, who writes, "On Friday, Jeanne Cummings opined" -- that would be during our Friday News Roundup -- "opined that the lame duck Congress should not defy the people's will, as defined by the recent election. Unfortunately, the people's will, as shown by the 2006 and 2008 elections, was thwarted by a Republican Party determined to act in an obstructionist manner."
PAGEAnd our friend E.J. Dionne writes in his column this morning, "The lame duck session of Congress that kicks off this week will test whether Democrats have spines made of Play-Doh and whether President Obama has decided to pretend that capitulation is conciliation." I mean, there are Democrats in particular who think their representatives should be taking a much harder stance in this lame duck session.
CILLIZZAThere's no question, I would say, that there were two different and very different analyses of the -- what happened in 2010. Most people said this was a rejection of at least parts of President Obama's agenda and the agenda of Democrats in Congress. But liberals said, this is evidence that we did not do enough, that we capitulated too much to Republicans, and we need to stand up and be Democrats again. They would say that this is their first and best chance, post-2010 election, to do so before Republicans come in in bigger numbers. It's clearly a strain of the argument.
CILLIZZAThe thing that I would say is that, remember, a lot of these senators, Democratic senators, up in 2012 probably don't agree with that. People who sit in Montana, people who represent Nebraska, those are the people -- particularly in the Senate because they're able to block things if they want -- who are going to say, likely behind the scenes, whoa, whoa, whoa. You know, let's not do anything too drastic here. Let's let Republicans come in. Let's see what they do. Then maybe we can counter, we can do those sorts of things. But let's not get ahead of ourselves after we just lost 60 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. Liberals would disagree with that approach, but I would say from a purely political strategy, that's what you're likely to see happen.
PAGEWhat about Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Chris had mentioned that just a moment ago. That was some hope by the part of advocates for repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, that the lame duck session in Congress will act on that. Will they, David?
WELNAWell, I think that there is more momentum for dealing with it in the lame duck session, certainly than before, and that's largely because the Pentagon has been studying the matter. They carried out a massive survey over the summer. They got the results of that survey back. And apparently, most members who were surveyed feel that allowing gays to serve openly in the military won't diminish the military and won't be a big deal for them. But the study's focus is mainly on how would they go about implementing this, and the main opponent of going ahead with a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he is now saying, well, we should have some other study that looks at what this will do to morale and for the fitness of our military if we go ahead with this.
WELNASome people say he's moving the goal post because he used to actually support the idea of taking another look at a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I think that because this is attached to the Defense Authorization bill, and because the Defense Authorization bill has never not passed in the last 48 years, there is a tremendous push to get that bigger bill done. And it's a big question of, will McCain succeed in his efforts to strip this provision from the Senate bill? It would have to be conferenced, reconciled with the House defense bill, which did include a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Maybe it could be put back in at that point. But, I think, one way or another, they're going to have to deal with it in the session.
PAGEWe saw Sen. McCain's wife, Cindy, last week appear in an ad criticizing the ban on open -- allowing gays openly to serve in the military, so a division in his own household. Well, you know, the most fundamental thing that Congress does is pass spending bills to keep the government going. They have failed to do that this year, Jackie. So this is perhaps the most fundamental issue coming up in the lame duck.
CALMESRight. If a Congress does nothing else, it's supposed to exercise its power of the purse to annually fund the operations of government. This was not unforeseen. It was early -- from the start of this year, the House Democrats, seeing the political winds in their face, decided they were neither going to pass a budget resolution, which is a non-binding agreement that the House and Senate usually try to do as an outline for how to appropriate money and make any changes to taxes. They did not do that. And then they did not pass the individual 13 appropriation bills.
CALMESThe idea being that at the end of the year, they were going to package them all into what we call an omnibus bill. They didn't do that before the election. So the omnibus bill is before them now, but no one thinks they're even going to pass that, which includes, you know, increases for certain programs, cuts for others. And if they pass a CR, which is a continuing resolution, which is what's likely just for, say, three months, kicking all these bills to be finally dealt with in the new Congress, that will be at current levels of spending. So it's going to be a problem for a lot of agencies.
PAGEAnd when they do that -- that's the most likely scenario, right...
PAGE...that they pass a continuing resolution that kicks the can down the road a couple of months? At that point, whatever that deadline is, a real prospect we could see, a budget showdown between the new Congress and the White House.
CILLIZZAWell, absolutely, especially, Susan, when you have, for the first time in four years, you have the Republicans in charge of something. You know, obviously, Republicans now will be in charge of the House if, as Jackie suggests, you know, you see this kicked down the road for three months. There will be a fight. And, remember, one of the biggest differences between the two sides in this election was spending and debt. And I think Republicans feel very strongly that they need to -- John Boehner told -- he spoke to incoming freshmen.
CILLIZZAAs Jackie pointed out, they're in Washington, though not serving in the lame duck -- they're kind of getting oriented. He said, if we accomplish nothing other than limiting and curtailing spending and government run amok, we will have succeeded. So if there is a showdown, I think we know where Republicans are going to be positioned on this. They believe debt and spending is what cost Democrats the House, what cost Democrats those seats in the Senate, what -- more broadly -- sort of played the national environment in their favor. And I do not see them compromising on something like that.
CALMESBut for Republicans, this is going to be a real test once the next Congress starts and they actually have to do real things instead of just talking about cutting spending. I'm -- having covered Congress for The Wall Street Journal in the '90s, and when the Republicans last took over Congress in 1994 and made big promises like this, I'm getting a sense of deja vu all over again. But the -- let me just give you one example, because they talk about putting spending back to 2008 levels and essentially cutting $100 billion from discretionary domestic spending in a single year, which would be about 25 percent of a piece of the pie that covers everything from air traffic controllers, national parks and nutrition programs and research.
CALMESThere was just one example on their list of proposed cuts -- the House Republicans have an item -- one of the biggest items, $25 billion over 10 years to end a particular welfare program. Well, I looked into that, and it turns out that what they were citing was a program that was part of the stimulus bill. It was a two-year program. It expired in September, so there's zero money to be saved by ending that program. It doesn't exist anymore. But they took the $2.5 million annual costs over the two years, multiplied by 10 and got $25 billion.
CILLIZZAAnd, you know, I think that Jackie's point -- the president said this yesterday, calling -- the -- calling their bluff in some ways that now they're going to be in charge of something. He made -- and he said this repeatedly, governing and campaigning are two very different things. And I think that...
CALMESAs he has found out.
CILLIZZAAnd he -- right. He has learned that lesson the very hard way, particularly on health care. But I think, to Jackie's point, look, Republicans are going to be in charge of something. They are no longer -- there is going to be a reasonable expectation that they offer some programs of their own, explain what they would do with the country. You saw this reformed contract with America, Pledge to America, I believe they called it. This was a very thin document, about 24 pages, not really a governing document, but something they put out so -- to answer that they wouldn't be the party of no.
CILLIZZAWell, when the 112th Congress convenes, they are going to have to show that they can just not campaign against what the president and Democrats have done, but govern in a real and responsible way. And I think how they do will tell us a lot about whether how seriously President Obama will be contested in 2012.
WELNAAnd the din arising from -- especially the House Chamber, I think, will be cognitive dissonance because you'll have Republicans advocating a permanent extension of tax cuts, which for the Treasury is tremendously costly -- maybe $4 trillion over the next decade -- at the same time that they're advocating all of these spending cuts. And the whole idea is deficit reduction. Well, if you're, on the one hand, depriving the Treasury of revenue and on the other hand saying we have to cut our spending, it doesn't add up.
PAGEYou know, Chris, you just said, well, this will help determine whether and how President Obama is contested in 2012. Do you think that he faces a primary challenge -- will face a primary challenge in 2012?
CILLIZZANot a serious primary challenge. I think that we, in the media, spend a lot of time looking at it. I do think there is unhappiness on the left for him. They view him as constantly settling for a half loaf on things and that he should push harder and faster. My guess would be, if there is compromise on the tax cuts that we've talked about, the left will again not be happy. But I think it is very difficult to be an incumbent president in a primary. We all remember how the late Ted Kennedy was going to crush Jimmy Carter in a primary. It didn't happen. It's just it is more difficult than you might think.
CILLIZZAAnd I would say the two people who we talk about who would at least be of kind of a stature that you would have to take them seriously in terms of fundraising, in terms of profile, have both taken themselves out. That's former Vermont governor, Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee has made very clear through surrogates, but still made very clear he's not interested. And Russ Feingold, a champion of the left in many ways, kind of an iconoclast, lost stunningly, lost his reelection bid roughly two weeks ago, has said, unequivocally, he's not going to be running for president. So, you know, could someone emerge? Sure. Is President Obama terribly concerned about that? I don't think so.
PAGEYou know, I would just say that it's hard to get the nomination away from presidents. But it so debilitates them, history tells us, if they face even a primary challenge that doesn't seem that serious. President Reagan, President Clinton did not face primary challenges. They won reelection. President Carter, president -- the first President Bush did face primary challenges. They lost reelection.
CILLIZZAAbsolutely. You know, look, it -- I would say the president is working, and his people are working very hard to make sure it doesn't happen, Susan, because it distracts you from the general election no matter what you say or do.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to take your calls. You can call us, 1-800-433-8850. Kevin was our very first caller. Kevin, you're on the air.
KEVINThank you. I think that with the tax cuts, they should all be allowed to expire. We have been in two wars that we aren't paying for. We've been borrowing the money, and none of the American people have been asked to sacrifice anything. I think that it would make us more aware of what the wars cost if we actually had to pay for them out of our own pocket.
PAGEWell, you know -- well, very few taxpayers call for their taxes to be raised. Kevin, this means your taxes would go up, too.
KEVINI understand that, and I haven't been asked to sacrifice for anything for these wars either. And I feel that I should be.
PAGEYou know, there's Kevin's point, which is a powerful one. There's also the idea that when the economy's so weak, there's some danger -- whatever you think about the tax cuts -- to allowing people's taxes to go up at a time when you want the economy to start growing.
WELNARight. I think though that, in fact, it's only a minority who actually want to see all of the tax rates continue as they are. In fact, the wealthy will get all of the tax cuts that people get for all income up to $250,000 under President Obama's proposal at least. And the big question is, if they had to pay, it would be about 4 percentage points more on the top income that they earn. Would that slow down the economy or not? I mean, right now, they're getting those cuts. We're not seeing the big revival of the economy that many hoped would happen, so it really is a question. Would it hurt the economy that much to let them lapse?
PAGEYou know, you raised a point that we've heard from several e-mailers about. Here's one of those e-mailers, Marilyn, who writes us from Arvada, Colo. -- I hope I'm saying that right. She says, "On the issue of tax cuts for the ultra wealthy, I have a question. Conservatives claim to want accountability in performance outcome measures, yet the ultra wealthy have had their Bush tax cuts for 10 years. And where are the jobs?" What do you think, Jackie?
CALMESWell, that's an argument that the Democrats, as well as a number of mainstream or nonpartisan economists make. And the interesting thing about these tax cuts is a number of analyses, including from the Congressional Budget Office, the economists there have looked at a list of things. I think there were 11 items they looked at at CBO, and the -- extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was the least effective measure step you could take to stimulate the economy. About the most effective is the step that is in trouble here. The other deadline we face that people don't talk about much is the Nov. 30 expiration of federal benefits for the long-term unemployed. The most effective thing you could do is keep money in their pockets to spend.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about prospects for extension of those long-term unemployment benefits. There are about two million Americans whose unemployment checks depend on that. We'll continue with our discussion about the lame duck session and take your calls. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio this hour, Chris Cillizza from The Washington Post, Jackie Calmes from The New York Times and David Welna from NPR. We're talking about the lame duck session of Congress. It gets started today. Jackie, you mentioned just before the break the extension of long-term unemployment benefits where -- who -- which are about to expire, what are the prospects that the lame duck session will act on that?
CALMESWell, the prospects aren't particularly great because there've been a number of extensions. But we also have the most long-term unemployed people -- some people have been out of jobs for two years -- in many decades. And so the thought is that this -- you know, Republicans will resist this. We saw in a previous -- before a previous extension, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma stood in the way. There's a growing number of Republicans, including more once the next Congress gets underway, who think that unemployment assistance just is an incentive for people to stay home and not look for a job, but that's at a time when there's, like, six applicants for every job on average.
CALMESSo this -- what Democrats are banking on is that the approach of the holiday season will -- as they put it -- shame the Republicans into going along. But advocates for the unemployed fear that the -- they'll go along for stages three or four months. And when this comes up again -- as it inevitably will -- hat you'll have a much harder time.
WELNAThe fight here is really over, will they be paid for or not, the unemployment benefits? And that's what the fight was over all this year. And traditionally, these benefits have been taken from the general fund. They've increased the deficit, but the argument was we're in -- the reason that we're giving these benefits is because we're in an economic emergency. Republicans say, enough already. I mean, this is getting to be a way of life, and I think there may be a showdown over whether they'll be paid for or not.
CILLIZZAJust quickly, Susan. I'm just amazed. I mean, as we talk about this, and I think I knew this would come in as we talk about it. Almost every issue that we've talked about here -- and these are some major policies just focusing -- you know, facing the country, the solution or what we think the solution ultimately is going to be on almost all of them is some version of kick-the-can-down-the-road. I mean, it is remarkable. You -- I do not think that we should be surprised, given that we see Congress at 17 percent job approval in Gallup.
CILLIZZAThey either are unwilling or unable to address these problems. And I would say it's not a Democrat or a Republican issue. But it is remarkable on issue after issue we're talking about, the most likely outcome is kicking the can down the road three months to when we will -- well, hopefully, all three of us will be back in here, discussing what they will do again. I mean, it's a remarkable thing about sort of the intractability of Congress to handle these major issues.
PAGEIt's also -- they're also all about hard choices, especially with this new determination to try to control spending even in the face of a weak economy. We think that the Republican caucus may vote tomorrow on banning earmarks. What is that debate about, David?
WELNAWell, you have in the House people like, the presumed, the incoming speaker John Boehner, who have foresworn earmarks always in their career. And they want to have a moratorium on earmarks for Republicans in this new Congress. That is also the proposal being made by South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. And he's gotten a bunch of other senators to sign on to a measure that the Senate Republican conference is also going to vote on tomorrow imposing a similar moratorium in the Senate. The problem in the Senate, though, is that some very powerful Republicans -- including Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader -- are prominent members of the Appropriations Committee. And McConnell is pushing back on this.
WELNAAnd so is Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, saying, you know, it is the prerogative of Congress. It's written in the Constitution that we are the ones who decide how the money is going to be spent. We're not going to give all this power over to the White House. President Obama, of course, is applauding these Republicans who would let the White House make all the calls on how money is spent. And in some ways, you see a confluence of interest going on here, but I think the real fight that we're going to see tomorrow will be in the Senate. It's all going to play out behind closed doors. We'll hear about it afterwards.
PAGESo is it -- this is a case where it's the establishment with the White House and long-term Republicans against the newcomers? And, of course, we've been waiting this...
WELNAWell, actually, no. It's the White House and some establishment -- people like Boehner, but -- Mitch McConnell is also the establishment -- so in some ways, it's the establishment fighting with itself.
PAGERight. But the forces that are most against earmarks are some of these Tea Party-backed candidates and Jim DeMint, who, of course, a Senator from South Carolina, who's been around for a while. And we've been -- one of the things that we are most anxious to see with this new Congress, Jackie, is how the Tea Party Republicans are going to get along with some of the establishment Republicans who have been around here for a while. Is this the first test of that?
CALMESI think it is. And it's -- you know, they've served notice -- the Tea Party members have -- that they are going to be watching every step of the way. And some of them are going to be in town this week just for that purpose as the new members come and get organized. So it will be very interesting, seeing them juggle this in the next Congress.
CILLIZZAAnd just to add to Jackie's point -- again, just to reiterate -- these new members coming in aren't voting in the lame duck, but they obviously cast a pretty big shadow. Some of the biggest names to sign on to this DeMint earmark proposal are people like Marco Rubio -- who isn't a Senator yet, but will soon be a Senator from Florida -- Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire -- again, not a Senator yet but soon to be.
CILLIZZASo I think they wanted to go on the record and say this is what we ran on. And I do think politicians, even long-time politicians, look around and see the writing on the wall. And they see that DeMint's proposal has gotten a lot of support from folks, including someone like Kelly Ayotte, who is not rightly described as a Tea Party candidate. She was backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She's a former state attorney general -- but who clearly have been out campaigning and stumping for votes and feel as though this is the kind of proposal that people want. So I'm interested to see how some of the folks -- like the McConnell's of the world -- do they compromise in any way, shape or form and see the writing on the wall? Or do they choose not to?
CALMESYou know, it is worth keeping in mind that this is largely a symbolic fight, that Mitch Connell argues -- and he's right -- that if you did away with all earmarks, which were essentially about $16 billion in the last year. They were about $26 billion four years ago in the last year when Republicans controlled Congress. So they've come down a little, and -- but even that is like a rounding error in the scale of the annual budget deficit and barely a footnote. And -- but at the same time, there is an argument that until the public sees an end to these stories about questionable spending on the small stuff, they're not going to be willing to sacrifice on the big stuff where in coming years we're going to inevitably have to make further reductions, such as Medicare and Social Security.
WELNAIn fact, it's about three-one thousandths of this year's federal expenditures that all the earmarks account for, but there is -- what -- I think there is some truth to the argument that there can be a kind of corrupting effect of earmarks that if there's a big appropriations bill that you don't really like that much and you think should be trimmed down or something should be taken out, but you've got your earmark in there for your district, you're more liable to go along with that bill. And, of course, the appropriators are much more likely to grant you that earmark to get you on board. And so in the end, you're just voting a very parochial interest and sacrificing the wider public interest because of it.
PAGELet's go to Ozark, Ark. and talk to Mike. Mike, hi, you're on the air.
MIKEYes, good morning.
MIKEI mean, I was just wondering if this -- I feel hopeless that the message that I hear from Republicans is just -- it's all skewed that they don't -- they blame everything on Obama. You still hear the -- you know, he's a Muslim. You hear the Chinese are going to take us over if they call the debt in. I mean, they really believe this. And this is people -- these are retired military people. They're -- they've got their Social Security and their military retirement. And I feel hopeless. I mean, I had a friend this morning hang up on me, just to try -- I just tried to make a point to him about Obama has not raised our taxes. He actually cut our taxes some. You know, it wasn't much, and it's -- I just -- it just -- it seems helpless. It's like -- I don't know. It's like money is controlling the message.
PAGEAll right. Mike, thanks for your call. You know, this is an interesting point because there was a tax cut that Americans got. But when you go out and talk to people during these midterm elections, most of the people I talked to did not believe that was true.
CILLIZZAAnd I would add to that, Susan, economic stimulus spending in many of these places, people did not -- if you look at polling broadly in this country, people do not feel like the economic stimulus helped the economy, didn't feel like it did its job. Health care, even some people who are clearly in line to benefit from it opposed the plan or didn't think that the plan would work.
CILLIZZAThe president, on his way back yesterday -- he's back in Washington now -- admitted to -- I think his word was -- an obsessive focus on policy and that they did not do enough to sell the policy. I think the president, naively or not, believed that the sort of inherit benefits of these policies -- tax cuts, economic stimulus, health care -- would win out. Republicans took a different approach. Republicans very much focused on the message, war, as opposed to the policy proposals.
CILLIZZAAnd I think the president, in looking back, that is something that he regrets and believes he made an error on because there was this sense that the Obama administration and Democratic-led Congress passed a bunch of things, grew the size of government and to what end? And they never answered the to-what-end question, even for people who stood to gain from what that answer was.
WELNAI think the day after the election when President Obama held a White House press conference and sort of looked back on things, it was really the first time that we really heard him articulate that many of the measures that he had pushed for, in the past year especially, were things that were meant to remedy an emergency economic situation and that this wasn't some big program for expanding the government, that there was a distinction between short-term emergency measures and a longer-term vision for the government that he didn't quite get across to people. And Republicans seized the narrative that in fact this was all about expanding the size of the government, and that narrative seems to have prevailed.
CALMESWell, you know, and I might add, it -- what gets lost in this is that the government, in truth, didn't really expand as much as the rhetoric would suggest. The reason we have a deficit that is just under $1.4 trillion for the year, which is just about what it was when he took office, and why the debt is -- looks even worse than it was bound to look, is because the amount of revenues coming in has just plummeted as businesses either go out of business or they aren't getting as much -- they don't have as much as income and individuals don't have as much income. Many have lost their jobs. That means fewer income taxes from individuals and corporations.
CALMESAt the same time, we're spending out a lot of money in what are called the automatic stabilizers, like unemployment assistance, which goes out automatically anytime there's high unemployment. The combination of lower revenues and more spending for things like emergency spending is more than a trillion dollars. And so that's where -- you know, when you talk about expanding government, that's most of what it is.
PAGEAnd, of course, that is not really the discussion you hear in the country. I think a lot of Americans would be surprised to hear what you just said.
CILLIZZAAnd again, Susan, I think some of that -- look, the president has a bully pulpit. There is -- for all the fracturing of the media, for -- you know, we could spend another hour on that. The president still, when he says something, gets more attention than any other politician in the country. You know, I think that this president, who is an incredibly gifted communicator, as he showed during -- on the campaign trail, for whatever reason assumed that the policies that he was putting into place, that people (unintelligible) that people would understand that the things he was doing in the economy were out of necessity, not out of some idealistic desire to push his goals. Well, Republicans said, hey, look, it's a Democrat trying to grow government and think government is the answer to all the problems. There was no effective pushback, and I think as a result, you saw Republicans win the message war.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to read some more e-mails. Christopher writes us from St. Louis, Mo. He writes, "For the longest time, immigration reform was at the forefront, then suddenly it disappeared. With the shift in the House, will anything get done on immigration law in the next two years?" And I might add to Christopher's question, what about the DREAM Act, which would help illegal immigrants who were brought here as very young children? Nancy Pelosi, who is now the Speaker of the House, not for much longer, says that's one of her priorities. David, does that have a chance in the lame duck?
WELNAI think that Pelosi would like to bring this out in the lame-duck session. Democrats in the Senate tried to attach it to the defense authorization bill back in September as an amendment, and that never went anywhere. So if the House were to act on it, they'd actually have the votes probably to pass something like that. Then it would go back to the Senate, and as a standalone, possibly, it could be considered. I expect it would probably be filibustered.
CILLIZZAJust one thing in terms of all politics being local, don't forget Harry Reid -- who is and will remain the Senate majority leader -- won his reelection race against Sharron Angle due, at least in no small part, to tremendous Hispanic turnout and winning that vote overwhelmingly. He talked about the DREAM Act regularly on the campaign trail, said this was a priority for him, so he has some skin in the game as it relates to this as well. Now, Harry Reid won't be up for reelection for another six years, but the Hispanic community can rightly say that they are -- they have no small hand in Harry Reid being able to come back to the Senate next year.
PAGEYou know, we've talked this hour about the difficulty Congress seems to have in dealing with the big issues facing the nation. We had a USA Today/Gallup poll out last week that found that Democratic voters -- most Democratic voters said they wanted their leaders to make compromises and get things done. And most Republican voters said in our survey that they want their leaders to stand on principles, even if it means nothing gets done. And I wonder if that is kind of the crux of what's going on here. Are leaders simply reflecting their voters?
CILLIZZAI think that's right, and I think there's a natural tendency within the Republican Party as it's currently formed to say, let's -- you know, it's the classic, keep -- less government, lower taxes. Keep the government out of our business. Let free enterprise handle things. So, I guess, it's not terribly surprising that those are the numbers, but I would say it also suggests why compromise is not all that likely either in the lame duck or, more broadly, in some of big issues like Jackie talked about -- Social Security and Medicare. Republicans are going to need to go along, and if their party and their voters don't want them to, they have little incentive to do so.
WELNABut I think that also Harry Reid's hand, in some ways, is strengthened in this new Congress because -- whereas in the previous Congress, Mitch McConnell was the gravedigger in chief for bearing the bills that came over from the House, the ones passed by the Democrats in the House. Harry Reid could be a gravedigger in chief for the House-passed Republican bills coming over. And there will be an incentive for Mitch McConnell to work with Reid to get those bills even to be considered on the Senate floor.
PAGEWell, Jackie, do you think, (sounds like) say, this gives us some clues to how things are going to go the...
CALMESI absolutely do. Because even though the members who will be actually voting in it are the old members, and you'll have 60 -- so 60 people who aren't coming back in January, either because they retired or got beat. And in the House, you know, there'll be six new Republicans in the next year. I still think -- like, Chris has said -- that they cast a big shadow over what happens here now. So this is really a dress rehearsal.
PAGESo they start today. How long do we think they're going to stay in session?
CALMESOh, my God.
CILLIZZAWell, they can't -- they cannot stay in session until -- we know that they will be out by the beginning of January because that's when the 112th Congress will be sworn in. So we know that -- we know the possible ending...
CILLIZZAThe Constitutional end date is in early January. I don't -- I can't imagine we'll have a Christmas Eve vote like we did last year on health care, but I defer to Jackie.
CALMESWell, don't -- that's a bad move.
PAGEI want to thank our panelists for being with us this hour. David Welna of NPR, Jackie Calmes of The New York Times, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post. Thank you all.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back later this week. Thanks for listening.
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