Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Federal budget battles pose challenges for both political parties. President Obama begins his 2012 re-election campaign. And in a policy reversal, suspects in the September 11th attacks will be tried before a military commission. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- Jeanne Cummings Politico's assistant managing editor in charge of Enterprise.
- Laura Meckler White House correspondent, The Wall Street Journal.
- Ron Elving Washington editor for NPR.
Friday News Roundup Video
Diane and the panelists discuss the possibility of an impending government shutdown and the various sticking points between Congressional Republicans and Democrats:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Negotiations continue to try to avert a government shutdown with just hours to go. President Obama begins his 2012 re-election campaign. And the Justice Department says 9/11 suspects will be tried before a military commission at Guantanamo, a reversal of the president's campaign promise. Joining me for the domestic hour of our Friday News Roundup, Jeanne Cummings of Politico, Ron Elving of NPR and Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal. I do invite your calls, your questions, your comments later in the hour. And I'll look forward to hearing from you all. Good morning to you.
MS. JEANNE CUMMINGSGood morning, Diane.
MS. LAURA MECKLERGood morning.
MR. RON ELVINGGood morning, Diane.
REHMHappy Friday. And what is going on behind the scenes, Jeanne Cummings?
CUMMINGSWell, after the late night meeting at the White House last night, the -- they say they're within about $5 billion and that they've got a package of cuts that could fill that gap, but they're not in agreement on what those cuts would be. So you have that part of the agreement that is still being hammered out, and then you have the riders -- the policy riders on abortion and on EPA's authority to impose regulations to deal with climate change. Those seem to be a bit harder to deal with than the money, and, in part, that's because the Republican caucus is looking to -- I mean, for them, I think that's sort of a save-face place, where, you know, they put a lot of riders on their budget bill that started -- that launched these negotiations.
CUMMINGSNow, we're down to a handful of them, and it may be important for Boehner to be able to tell his caucus that they held on to some of them. The abortion riders would cut funding to Planned Parenthood and deny the District of Columbia the ability to use -- to provide abortions as well and -- in their health services. That's the abortion side of it. The EPA side of it is mostly about climate change and regulating carbon.
ELVINGJohn Boehner is going to need something if he is going to prevent a government shutdown. It really comes down to what the House Republican conference does when he comes back with the deal. Obviously, he's in touch with his lieutenants, and they're in touch with the rank and file. But at some juncture, there's going to have to be a meeting, and they're going to have to indicate whether or not he can have enough votes to pass this the way he wants to pass it back in his House chamber. Now, he has said he wants to have a majority for the deal among Republicans -- that is to say, 218 Republicans, enough votes from just Republicans to pass the thing. That means he can't lose very many. He's only got 241.
ELVINGSo if he really wants to pass this without relying on Democratic crossover votes to get it done -- and he says he doesn't want to do that -- then he's going to have to please nearly everyone in his conference. That's why those riders Jeanne was talking about are so critical.
MECKLERYou know, it's really interesting, though. When you talk to -- when you hear the speaker talk about this issue, though, he emphasizes the spending piece of it because part of the problem that he faces is that, you know, all the momentum around this has been about government spending. And they've been talking about government spending for weeks and months now. And I think it's a harder case to make to the general public when you're talking about abortion. And, of course, to be clear, this isn't about federal funding of abortion in the case of Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood...
REHMWhich doesn't exist.
MECKLERRight. It's already against the law.
MECKLERIt's about whether they should get federal money for the other services they provide. Now, critics would say that frees up money to use private money for abortion services. But, in fact, the federal money is restricted to things like contraceptives and, you know, exams and that sort of thing. So it's -- but it's very hard. I don't think that the speaker wants this to be seen as an abortion fight to the general public. And that's why he keeps saying, you know, we haven't settled on a number. This is still about getting more spending cuts.
REHMSo if you gave Republicans everything they are asking for in these policy questions, would that meet the $5 billion difference, Ron Elving?
ELVINGNot necessarily. They need to tinker with the dollars. But, you know, Congress splits the difference on enormous, enormous differences between the House and Senate, Democrats, Republicans, dealing with billions of dollars quite regularly. That is what Appropriations Committee conference committees do, and that is not a problem. They can work that out in a matter of hours.
REHMSo we're pushing for a particular kind of agenda here, Jeanne?
CUMMINGSYes, they are. They added these riders for a reason. They were making policy statements that carry political implications and that are -- reflect the debates that they had out on the campaign trail and reflect their partisan thinking in terms of government's role. So, yes, I mean, politics is involved in everything in Washington.
CUMMINGSAnd this is certainly no exception. This is not a dry debate about spending because if it was, as we've said, they could cut that deal.
REHMHow likely a 24 or 48-hour extension, how likely a one-week extension or, put it the other way, a weekend closedown of the government, a week-long closedown of the government?
MECKLERI think at this point, there are a couple of different scenarios we're looking at when we look out for the rest of the day. I think either they come to an agreement and they pass a quick, very short-term sort of clean extension in order to give them time to write the legislative language and sort of settle it for the rest of the year, which will take us through September -- what's left of the year.
REHMSeptember only, yeah.
MECKLERSo we still have to get to do this all over again for next year's budget. So it'll either be that -- and that'll be sort of the good news, avoiding the shutdown -- or they will, in fact, not reach a deal, and the government will shut down at midnight tonight. And in that case, how long will it last? I mean, a lot of people think that it will be sort of like a mini-shutdown, maybe just over the weekend or just a few days. The idea being that that will allow, sort of, Tea Party-infused members of the Republican House to say, you know, we did it. We took a stand. That it'll make it easier to cut the deal after that.
MECKLERYou know, you never know how it actually ends up playing out. But I think that most people are betting either they'll work it out or it'll be a short-term shutdown.
ELVINGI can see a case for a shot-across-the-bow type of shutdown in which the Republicans say, we really are serious, we really are willing to shut down the government. We don't want there to be terribly serious consequences, certainly not for the economy, and we don't really want to see a lot of people out of work and all the effects of that. But we are willing to have a symbolic shutdown over the weekend, ruin the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, ruin the weekend for hundreds of thousands of people who were planning to come here for the spring event.
ELVINGBut that's a small and symbolic matter they would be willing to have -- a little bloodying of the noses on both parties' parts -- in order to send that shot across the bow and say, in the bigger negotiations to come on 2012 and beyond -- and we've got much to talk about in terms of the entire fiscal house of the federal government -- they want to show seriousness by being willing to push it over the brink tonight.
CUMMINGSThere also could be some who feel like if they let off the steam now, get this done, scratch this itch, shut the government down for a couple of days, then later when we have to lift the debt ceiling, when we have really big fights over the 2012 budget, that at least they would have marked this box, and they have -- would've used the tactic and have it out of their system. The problem is these things are very unpredictable because you can maybe say, we'll do it for a couple of days. But what if Boehner can't persuade the -- once they've shut the government down, what if he can't bring them back to the table?
CUMMINGSWhat if the Democrats decide they start to win in the who-gets-blamed fallout from it, and they decide, maybe we ought to extend it a little bit more and inflict more pain on the Republicans? You just never know how these things are going to play out. They didn't know in 1995. They learned a lot of lessons from there. They claimed we've got a brand-new environment now and new lessons will be learned. Well, we don't know what they are. So this -- it would be a very risky venture, even if they thought, well, we're just going to do it, as Rob said, just to make a point.
ELVINGYou know, there was a pep rally kind of an atmosphere on Capitol Hill this week. The Republicans brought out the new budget for 2012 -- and we're going to talk about that in a little while -- but when they brought that out, there was a tremendous kind of sense of excitement among conservatives about that 2012 budget, and also about the idea of standing tough on these budget negotiations.
ELVINGAnd I think that with this new generation, with people who were not around in 1995, who believe that everything has changed and that the country is very much more with them now because of the Tea Party movement and because of the election of 2010, that they really stand to increase their power, to enrich their own hand in these negotiations by pushing a little harder than anyone ever has before. And, I think, we've reached the point now where that means a shutdown.
MECKLERIt's interesting because the -- so if you talk to the Tea Party, they view shutdown as a political win, the conventional wisdom for Republicans. The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that a shutdown will more likely benefit President Obama. Most of that is based on what happened in 1995, where President Clinton came out the winner in that politically. However, I think what Jeanne says is a really important point, which is we just don't know how it will play out, whether, you know -- whether each of the parties will be -- who will be seen as reasonable, who will be seen as obstinate.
MECKLERAnd there's -- last time, in 1995, a lot of the views on this were shaped because Newt Gingrich complained about where he was seated on Air Force One on a trip back from Israel for the funeral. And that was -- that ended up shaping, changing public debate overnight about he was viewed as a whiner and a crybaby, and President Clinton came out ahead. Now, we don't know what's -- what the corollary -- if there will be a corollary to that this time -- will be.
REHMCould these policy questions that Republicans are pushing for be game changers, Ron?
ELVINGI think that that is the weakness in their argument, is that it is such a narrow gap on money. And it is clear that the Republicans, why they're not getting all the cuts they want, the Democrats have moved a great distance toward the original goal posts that the Republicans set up.
REHMThey claimed 70 percent of the way.
ELVINGThat's right. And there is a case to be made for that. Of course, it all depends on exactly which number and which percentage and which baseline you're using.
ELVINGBut there is a case to be made the Democrats have already moved as far as you would expect them to move on the money.
REHMRon Elving, he is Washington editor for NPR. Laura Meckler is with The Wall Street Journal. Jeanne Cummings, she is Politico's assistant managing editor. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the domestic hour of our Friday News Roundup this week with Ron Elving of NPR, Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal and Jeanne Cummings of Politico. Here's the first email from Suzanne, who says, "I just spoke with a staffer in my congressman's office -- he's Congressman Joe Donnelly -- who explained that the riders attached to the budget bill beside the abortion and EPA ones include riders that will dismantle much of the Affordable Health Care bill. Though I have tried to follow it closely, I didn't realize the extent of what Republicans are trying to do. Please bring this out."
MECKLERThere were riders related to the health care law and defunding it, and the reason we haven't brought them up is because they are least likely to survive. I don't -- in all the reports and the conversations that various reporters in Washington have had with the negotiators, those are not negotiable for the Senate and the White House. And so, yes, there were -- the riders that the House attached to their original piece of legislation spans the gamut. They went after wealth of Wall Street reform, they went after they EPA, they went after abortion, they went after health care -- there were lots and lots of riders that were attached in the House.
REHMAll right. Let's move on now to Congressman Paul Ryan's introduction of the 2012 budget plan. Ron Elving, that looks like a huge hurdle to mount.
ELVINGIt's quite a gesture. For some, it is a grand gesture and a welcome gesture. I think conservatives have been looking for something like this Paul Ryan budget for a long time. It takes the country into a different era, an era, really, from the past, before the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and, to some degree, before the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, going back to a very low marginal tax rate on corporations and on individuals.
REHMDown to 25 percent.
ELVINGTwenty-five percent. Broadening the base and eliminating some of the deductions that would make that a little bit less of a giveaway to the affluent and the wealthy, but lowering the rate. And I would say that while all the attention has been on the health care stuff -- and we'll get to that -- the one centrality of this entire budget is that it is important to get that tax rate down to 25 percent for corporations and for individuals. That is what everything else, more or less, revolves around.
ELVINGThen to have with that any kind of a move towards a balanced budget -- and the Ryan budget does not get to balance until something like 2040 -- it does reduce the amount of debt in a shorter time frame, but not by that dramatic an amount. It really comes in the later years after the health care changes start to really kick in. And the biggest one is that Medicare goes from being a benefit, a defined benefit, in which your bills after you're 65 and you retire from medical care are basically addressed by the government.
ELVINGI mean, there are some gaps, but they're basically addressed by the government as a defined benefit, becomes instead a defined payment to a insurance company. You get to have something to say about which insurance company, but the government's money goes to the insurance company to give you private insurance. So that's going to shift the cost, especially the higher cost for elderly people, onto those people themselves and to insurance companies and to whatever other resources they can muster. And in addition to that, Medicare becomes a block grant to the states, and the states performance on that, of course, has been uneven.
MECKLERThe context that we need to think about this health care spending in is this, is that the reason -- one of the main reasons the federal budget is out of control is because of health care spending. It's going way up. It goes...
REHMSomething has to be done.
MECKLERIt goes up at a much greater rate than inflation goes up. So what Congressman Ryan has done in this budget is to say, well, federal spending on health care is not going to go up at that sharp rate. It's going to go up at something closer to a normal inflation. So what -- how does he do that? The way he does that, I mean, there are a lot of ways to try to address health care spending. One of them is to sort of, you know, push it to other players in the system.
MECKLERSo, in the case of Medicaid, it pushes more of the burden onto the states. Now, states would have more authority about how they run their program. So, for instance, they would be able to cut benefits or cut participation in the program. So that would, of course, put more of a burden onto the individual. So this kind of has a way of rolling its way through the system. In the case of Medicare, as Ron said, individual retirees, because the value of their payment was not going up as quickly as possible, the value of what they get will be decreased. And that's, of course, very controversial.
REHMBut, Jeanne, talk about this tax cut for those in the top 1 or 2 percent of income earners, plus cuts in corporate tax rates.
CUMMINGSAbsolutely. The -- he definitely has incorporated into it the Republican priorities on taxes, and so that is dropping the tax rate for the wealthy and dropping corporate tax rates. As Ron pointed out, in the corporate tax realm, what he has done is actually tax reform that we have talked about in Washington before and that the White House talks about as well. And that is getting rid of some of the loopholes that have been carved out by special industries and special interests and creating more of a solid foundation. It reaches more companies.
CUMMINGSAnd it -- he argues -- Ryan argues it's actually, essentially, revenue neutral, that the same amount of money would be coming in to the government. That's what he argues. So -- there may be some who will take issue with it, but at any rate, that's where he's at. So he does use this document to try to achieve many, many things. And that is what makes it so complicated and to some, genius, and to others, a nightmare.
MECKLERThe part on the corporate tax rate tax reform is a lot less controversial than the individual tax reform because, as Jeanne said, President Obama has proposed the same thing. The idea is there are a ton of loopholes. There was a lot of press about the fact that General Electric paid no taxes last year.
CUMMINGSYes, they did. They have fought against that report.
MECKLERIs that right? Okay. All right. Thank you for correcting me. In any case, there -- a lot of corporations didn't pay lower tax rates than you would think their sort of rack rate is because of deductions and credits and that sort of thing.
CUMMINGSMm hmm. Very true.
MECKLERSo the corporate side, there is -- there does seem to be an area for discussion. As I understand, the individual side of this, though, to bring the top rate down to 25 percent, you would have to close an enormous number of deductions and some of which are, you know, very popular, such as, you know, home mortgage interest deduction or charitable contributions. I'm not saying those would necessarily be the ones targeted, but there's -- those are some of the ones where there's a lot of money in it. So to get that rate that far down is going to be really challenging to do it in a revenue-neutral way.
MECKLERHe set a very high mark. And, of course, President Obama, we know, wants to raise the top rate. He wants to put it back to where it was before the Bush tax cuts were. So that's a very stark area of disagreement.
ELVINGWe should also point out that all the Bush tax cuts that were extended for two years in December would be extended permanently by the -- by this Ryan budget. And, in addition to that, there are additional deep cuts in all the discretionary spending that Congress does in many of the programs that have been called the mandatory programs, which include such things as Pell grants and things of that nature, agricultural subsidies. And there are a few cuts in defense.
ELVINGBut it's double-digit billions over a period of time when the Pentagon will be spending trillions of dollars, so it's a rather minor cut on the defense side. This enshrines, in essence, the Republican or the conservative priorities that we have seen, not just back to Ronald Reagan, but back, really, all the way through the 20th century. It enshrines those priorities, going forward, for decades, and that's why this budget is getting quite so much attention. It is going to be adored by people who -- this is what they've been recommending for generations. And it's also going to be respected by some people who don't like it in terms of its particulars, just because it's so profound, it's so serious and it addresses these big issues.
REHMIsn't that whole issue of tax reform, in and of itself, likely to be debated, not necessarily this year but next year, Jeanne?
CUMMINGSI think there is a very good chance that that will happen because the White House is interested in it. Clearly, the Republicans are interested in it, and there are a good deal of Senate Democrats that want to do it as well. I mean, our tax code is -- they all say -- overly complicated and unnecessarily made into Swiss cheese and that we -- if we created a simpler, more straightforward system, we could still raise as much money as we do now, but in a fairer way. And so you have a lot of people who'll look at this as a need. Even the corporate community would like to see some kind of tax reform. The difference is, is that they all do it a little differently than each other.
REHMYeah, exactly. Jeanne Cummings of Politico, and if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet or join us on Facebook. President Obama has launched his 2012 campaign. What's it all about, Laura?
MECKLERWhat's it all about?
MECKLERWell, it's about two things at the same time. On one side, it's -- what we see from the White House, it's about really appealing to independent voters who are critical. Democrats lost independent voters in a big way in 2010 and really need to bring them back. And President Obama's really governing from the center and has been pretty much since the midterm election. So that's what it's about on one side. But at the same time, it's also about, you know, re-energizing the base of his party, the core Obama voters, the people who got -- came into the political system for the first time because they were attracted to Barack Obama.
MECKLERNow, he's a different guy now than he was then. He's no longer fresh-faced, you know, change Washington, let's, you know, shake up the system. He is the system now. He is Washington. You know, he can't be running on the same sort of platform, so they have a challenge there, especially when the president is governing more from the center. So they're going to be working over the next year. There's going to be a lot of work, and that's really what the launch has been now, doing fundraising and doing work with the grassroots to try to, you know, build that spirit back up.
ELVINGThis is also a case of the media being the message. The president announced this in a very sort of subtle way by historic standards...
REHMI should say.
ELVING...not an imperial grand announcement that the sitting president was going to run for re-election, but rather just sort of the introduction of a YouTube video, saying, you know, a lot of us out here are looking forward to the chance to vote for a fellow named Barack Obama in 2012. You may have heard of him. He's our current president. It was so low-key as to be, it seemed to me, an attempt to restore some of that insouciance from 2006, 2007, very early 2008, when the Obama campaign was still sneaking up on a lot of people and when it existed largely as a social media phenomenon -- people going on to, you know, my.barackobama.com and people getting on a Facebook page. That was the nature of the campaign in the early days -- so trying to recapture a little of that mojo.
REHMBut, you know, it's interesting, Jeanne, Laura said one of the central things he's got to do is get back his base, but also the independents. How does he go about getting back those independents?
CUMMINGSWell, Laura's right. It's a very schizophrenic effort, and it'd be fascinating to watch. One of my personal favorite moments about their rollout was when he had his talk with his supporters, and he led his conversation with -- by highlighting his repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Now, can anybody listening or in this room recall any public speech that the president started with that particular policy? That is clearly an attempt to rally the liberal base and to get the hardcore back. So, you know, we may see a lot of this where we have very nuanced messaging on different mediums as he tries to do both things, get the independents and rally the base.
REHMJeanne Cummings of Politico, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have lots of callers. I'm going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Palm Coast, Fla. Good morning, Liz. You're on the air.
LIZYes, thank you. Republicans seem to have contempt for government, so they must have contempt for we the people because government represents us. But it's very obvious that Republicans are using the budget issue to go after all the programs they hate, like public media, Planned Parenthood, unions, EPA, which have nothing to do with job creation. In fact, cutting those programs will cause more job layoffs. I also get very angry when Republicans lump us all together by saying they're doing the American people's business. No, they're not. They're doing their corporate donors business.
REHMWhat do you think, Laura?
MECKLERI think that's true, that Republicans are using legislation as an expression of their values. Obviously, those values are in sharp contrast with the caller's values, but that doesn't mean it's an inherently illegitimate way to go about legislating. I mean, the -- Republicans feel very strongly that they don't like abortion and they don't like groups that provide abortion, and they're using legislation to do so. Now, whether you think that's a good idea or not is a whole another story. You're right. That doesn't have anything to do with job creation. I don't think they would pretend that it does.
REHMAll right. To Charlotte, N.C. Good morning, Frank. You're on the air.
FRANKHi. A question and a comment, please. I was looking at the stock for our military industrial complex, and I noticed that it's been averaging about $47 a share over the beginning of the war in 2000, okay? I noticed that there was a Republican who want to fund the Pentagon fully, and then raise it on the 2020 budget, okay? So is that to keep the stockholders -- you know, that money going towards the stockholders? 'Cause it doesn't support the truth. And I actually worked with people building the Tomahawk missile, and I could tell you that the Tomahawk missile is only worth about $270,000. That's including with the labor, okay? So I don't see how these people are saying that they're paying a million dollars for the equipment because I'm wondering, where is that -- rest of that money going to?
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Jeanne.
CUMMINGSWell, I don't know where the money goes. But we've had oddly expensive things in the Pentagon budget before. I'm sure we probably do now.
CUMMINGSAnd it's -- a lot of it is -- covert operations are probably being financed with whatever cost differences there are. But I think if you look at this just strictly from the question about the budget, Secretary Gates has tried to prepare the Pentagon for cuts that they -- that the Pentagon and the Defense Department fully expect are coming from both parties, really. I think many Republicans have gotten on board with the notion that if we're going to do some serious budget slashing, you know, they're going to have to take some sort of hit. Will it be as big as the Department of Education? No. But there will be some cuts there.
ELVINGAnd there's a lot more money there to be gained if you're trying to reduce costs. I mean, you could wipe out the Department of Education, and it would not be that big a dent in the Department of Defense. I mean, this is a very large part of what the federal government does. It's also a large part of the shared sense of support for the federal government throughout the country. So all of these things, at one time, were in a sort of rough balance where people -- some people liked one thing about what the federal government did, some people liked another, and everybody had something they didn't like.
ELVINGAnd there was a sense that there was some point of consensus at which we could support all of this -- the independent voter, the not too terribly partisan voter. And that sense, it seems to me, that sort of Jimmy Stewart sense, if you will, of America is largely being lost in the current atmosphere of hyper-partisanship.
REHMRon Elving, he's Washington editor for NPR. Short break. More of your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Before we go back to the phones, I want to ask you all about this election of a Supreme Court judge out in Wisconsin. All of a sudden, extra votes have shown up. Jeanne, what's going on there?
CUMMINGSYou got me. And I just can't wait to read more about it. You know, a local election official, a Republican election official claims she forgot on her computer to save the record of over 10,000 votes. And when she discovered this mistake, 7,000 of those votes went to the conservative incumbent judge who was up for re-election, and only around 3,000 for the...
CUMMINGS...challenger to him. And that has now turned, you know, this very, very tight, neck-and-neck race into a win for him. So, I mean, there's so much more we got to learn about this, about her and about what happened.
REHMAnd why is this vote so important?
MECKLERRight. Well, the reason this is important is 'cause this incumbent Republican-leaning Supreme Court judge was viewed as sort of the shoo-in for the seat. And then in the wake of this incredibly contentious fight over public union benefits, where the governor had the standoff with the Democrats in the legislature and ultimately they managed to push this legislation through, stripping unions of their bargaining rights, you know, this was really galvanized Democrats in a way that wasn't expected. And, suddenly, this little known challenger was neck and neck with the incumbent.
MECKLERAnd so this was being viewed, this sort of -- this tight race was being viewed as, you know, an overreach by the Republicans, you know, political consequences that, you know, re-energizing of a Democratic Party, which was just annihilated in November in Wisconsin. So that's why everybody is sort of looking to this.
REHMJeanne calls it the biggest political story in the country, Ron.
ELVINGWell, Wisconsin really is the biggest political story. I mean, there are things going on in Indiana and Ohio that are similar and other states as well, but in Wisconsin, you really have it all. You have this new governor, Scott Walker, who has really pushed it to the limit, pushed the envelope in every respect, and particularly with respect to public employee unions. But, really, they have been in all-out warfare there in a partisan sense. This justice, David Prosser, I doubt very much that one person in a hundred in Wisconsin could have told you he was going to be on the ballot on the 1st of January.
ELVINGI doubt very much that they could have told you which of the seven members of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin were going to be on the ballot in April. And many people don't even realize that they're voting on these justices every 10 years, or after they're appointed, they have 10 years and then they have to stand for re-election. It is entirely a referendum on Scott Walker and on the direction of the state, which, as Laura said, took a radical turn in November. And, now, we not only have Paul Ryan -- we've been talking about Paul Ryan, the father of this budget here -- he is from Janesville, Wis. We also have a new Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus. He's from Kenosha, Wis.
ELVINGAll of these people are from a fairly small area within Wisconsin, and they have really not only taken over Madison, Wis. and the government of that state, which many people think of as a blue state, but they have really become the salient, the spearhead for the National Republican Party.
REHMWhat if the challenger wins? What happens?
CUMMINGSWell, it's a little -- it's too much to pin everything on what would happen if she's elected because she's been careful. The collective bargaining law that was passed by the legislature is now in the court system, and it is agreed pretty universally in Wisconsin that, ultimately, its fate will end up in the state Supreme Court's hands. Prosser, the incumbent, is very close to Gov. Walker. He's a former Republican member of the legislature, and he fully is expected to vote to uphold the law that strips collective bargaining rights for public employees, except for cops and fire.
CUMMINGSShe was careful on the campaign trail. She didn't make a promise one way or another. But she became the vehicle through which to vent. And to see how dramatically things had changed out there, I talked to the Republican Party -- Democratic Party a couple weeks ago and brought this race up. And they said, no way, we have no shot at winning this. And when they went to recruit candidates before the collective bargaining fight blew up, they went to, you know, well-known attorneys and...
REHMAnd nobody would take it...
CUMMINGS...they were like, what are you, crazy? I'm not getting in there. He's on a walk to reelection. I'm not going to, you know, hang up my legal career and go get destroyed.
REHMAnd she is the assistant attorney general out there. Yeah.
CUMMINGSYeah, who -- even the Democrats, they don't really know her. It's a nonpartisan race, and so there weren't...
CUMMINGS...party labels attached to either in the election.
ELVINGAlthough Kloppenburg is a great Wisconsin name.
ELVINGJoanne Kloppenburg is a great name for Wisconsin.
REHMAll right. Here we go, back to the phones. And also let me remind listeners that, within about an hour or so, you'll be able to see video clips of this hour of the Friday News Roundup. To Mishawaka, Ind. Good morning, David.
DAVIDMy question is, the Republicans, they talk about how they got a mandate from the American people during the midterm elections. I'd like to know what percentage of the American people who are eligible to vote in the midterm elections did vote. And of that percentage, what percentage voted Republican and what percentage vote to Democrat? If my guess is right, as with most midterm elections, probably only about, you know, 30, 35 percent voted, and of that amount, you know, a little bit more than half voted Republicans. Well, that doesn't sound like much of a mandate to me.
REHMWhat do you think, Ron?
ELVINGThere's some truth in those numbers. Those are roughly the kinds of numbers we usually see in a midterm election -- although this midterm election did drop better than average turnout -- and the margin between the parties was not enormous. It was not enormous. It's not a 60-40 kind of election, not even a 55-45 election. But in a very real sense, that doesn't matter because, I mean, I know it matters in one's sensibility, but you can have enormous political change based on far less than a 50 percent vote. And if you are slightly over 50 percent, as the Republicans were, in the -- say, the nationwide count in 2010, you can change everything very easily.
ELVINGI mean, even in a pretty clear presidential election like we had in 2008, Barack Obama was at 53 percent, just a little bit over 50 percent. And it is not at all untypical for us to elect the president with far less than 53 percent.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from David, who's in Hedgesville, W.Va. He says, "The Obama administration should be given credit from making the decision to reverse that campaign promise and keep the Guantanamo Bay detention camp open, hold the trials there. Those who have readily drunk that Bin Laden Kool-Aid are too dangerous to handle elsewhere." Laura Meckler.
MECKLERWell, I don't know whether he gets courage or not. He didn't really have much of a choice in the end. I mean, Congress has barred bringing anybody from Guantanamo Bay to U.S. soil for any purpose, including standing trial. There is enormous political backlash at the plan to try them in Manhattan, so -- but, yes, he did have to reverse himself. He, in fact, announced that decision on the same day he announced for reelection, which made some people feel like this was symbolic of what we were discussing earlier, his move to the center.
MECKLERYou know, in retrospect, the sort of high point for people who'd like to see a new approach to these cases might have been the -- you know, a couple of days after he was -- took office when he vowed to close Guantanamo Bay within a year. And, in fact, that's proven impossible to do.
REHMAll right. Here's a comment on our website. "With two children serving in the military, closing the government will delay their pay. Many have families, mortgages, live paycheck to paycheck. These people are already making a sacrifice to benefit all of us. I am outraged that this additional burden will be placed on the people who are already sacrificing so much. The cavalier attitude of your guests is part of the problem. Any delay affecting the ability of the military families to meet their financial obligations is too much."
CUMMINGSWell, that is certainly one of the downsides of what will happen if there is a government shutdown. And Secretary Gates, just in -- he was in Iraq and was meeting with soldiers and talked about it this week. And he said so many of those families often live paycheck to paycheck, and any delay -- and it would be a delay. They ultimately would be paid. But any delay could really cause financial hardship for those families who are already giving so much. This is one of the huge distinctions between the fight in 1995 and today.
CUMMINGSThe way -- there was not -- you know, we weren't involved in two wars and a no-fly zone back in 1995, and it's a little -- I think it's something the Republicans missed or overlooked. And then they tried to fix it yesterday by pushing through a bill that would go ahead and fund the Pentagon through Sept. 30 and then apply much deeper cuts to other parts of the government. And that was their way of saying, okay, we took care of it.
REHMAnd the president said, I'm not doing that.
CUMMINGSYeah. Yeah, like, because it was too (word?) by half.
CUMMINGSI mean, yet the cuts that they put in went much deeper than even the negotiations are going. So if they were really serious about passing a measure to fund the Pentagon through Sept. 30, they could do that. They could do that if they just put it up clean.
REHMAll right. And to Bowling Green, Ohio. Good morning, Tom. You're on the air. Let's see if we can get Tom. Are you there?
TOMWhat percentage -- yes, I'm here.
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
REHMYeah, go ahead.
TOMYeah, here I am. I don't know what happened. Anyway, what percentage of a tax increase for people above 250K would be required to equally amount of the budget cuts? I don't expect people to actually know this (unintelligible) ...
TOMBut the question is...
ELVINGWe're doing a quick calculation.
TOM...that, you know, Democrats, including President Obama, have given up the fight in terms of articulating to people what cost means. I teach a policy course at the university here, and within a week of teaching students who are very, very wet behind the ears, they understand that there's a cost to doing things, there's a cost to not doing things and that the society -- indeed, the Constitution -- is based on compromise. The blowhards on the right who talk about Constitution, Constitution missed the entire point in the Constitution...
REHMAll right, sir. I want to ask what he implies in his question. Has President Obama fought hard enough, Laura?
MECKLERWell, that is very much a matter of opinion. I think that that is the heart of what he's saying, and I think that what we see happening right now shows how much the debate has shifted to the right. We're talking about whether we're going to be cutting, you know, 33 or 35 or $40 billion from this year's budget. That's a large cut in domestic spending, and we're not, you know -- and on top of the fact that Obama went along with extending the tax cuts for the upper income in December.
MECKLERNow, at that time, a lot of people -- a lot of Democrats felt he didn't fight hard enough, for instance, for that tax cut -- tax deal. And what the White House responded, was to say, well, what, you want us to have a big fight and then come to the same deal in the end anyway? This was the deal that was available. This was best for the economy to keep things going. It really depends on your political point of view on that. There are a lot of people in the party -- in the Democratic Party who feel like he isn't fighting hard enough, but the White House calculation is very much different.
REHMLaura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Xenia, Ohio. Hi, Henry. Henry?
HENRYYes, please. This is about Ryan's Medicare voucher program. If that's such a good program, then let's start immediately on a voluntary basis. Let's have people -- over the next 10 years, they'll be able to volunteer -- the people in Medicare -- to take the voucher program, and then we'll see how it works. We'll see how many people are happy with it and how it goes.
ELVINGThis is a very savvy caller, Diane, because he knows what's going on here. He knows that this doesn't even kick in for 10 years. And it doesn't kick in for 10 years because if you would pose this on people today, the political firestorm on it would be even greater than what it is. But what Rep. Ryan and others have proposed is only those who are currently under 55 need to worry about this, so if you're currently retired, no problem, we'll go on paying your medical bills. If you're 55 or older, you're going to still be able to move in to the same kind of program when you hit 65 and retire.
ELVINGBut for everybody younger, we're going to have this wonderful new thing called voucher. And as the caller implies, if you gave people the choice between a fixed voucher that they don't even receive themselves, it goes straight to the insurance company, they just get to have something to say about which insurance company. And what they're getting now in Medicare, well, there wouldn't be any volunteers.
ELVINGWell, I would suspect that the number would be de minimis. Let's just put it that way.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Coconut Grove, Fla., and to David. Good morning.
DAVIDDiane, good morning. I happen to agree with the last statement. I don't believe that these vouchers are any good. Insurance companies will eventually raise their cost to match the vouchers. They'll go over it. So that's one thing. The other thing is I don't think that the president and the Democratic Party are standing up for what they said they would do. They just -- rolling over and let the Republicans do whatever they want, and that I didn't vote for them to do that.
MECKLERThis is -- I think the caller crystallized very -- crystallizes very well the challenge that President Obama faces. What they're looking at again is the fact that independent voters do not want to fight. They want people to get along. They want them to work it out. And that's what the president is trying to do. He's trying -- and that's what we see happening, as we speak, trying to work it out.
CUMMINGSBut I don't think it's just a political calculation. The president has been talking about reducing government spending. He talked about it when he ran. He's talked about it over the last couple of years. I think the president wants to reduce spending. And if it looks like the Republicans are making them do it, okay. But I think, ultimately, when he runs for re-election, he wants this credential on his resume.
REHMBut you can't just reduce spending. You've got to have some income coming from some place.
CUMMINGSWell, clearly, that was their hope, is that they would re-impose the taxes on the wealthy.
CUMMINGSAnd they could not...
CUMMINGS...get that deal done last fall. And they've decided now to take that with them into the re-elect.
ELVINGTotally the result of the November 2010 election. They did not imagine that the Republicans would hang tough on extending unemployment benefits, which was a paramount interest to the administration. They did not expect to get shellacked, as the president put it, in November. That shot out their bargaining position from underneath them totally.
REHMRon Elvin, Washington editor for NPR, Jeanne Cummings of Politico, Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal. It is a hanging-on-the-edge week, and we can -- we shall see what happens. Thank you all so much.
INTERVIEWERAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCERThe Diane Rehm Show is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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