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Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Congress comes back to work today, but not to the challenges members expected to be facing after their summer recess. President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to ask Congress to authorize strikes in Syria has suddenly changed the discussion — domestic issues have been eclipsed, at least for the moment. But there’s still a Sept. 30 deadline to get a spending bill to keep the government running. And the administration anticipates the federal debt limit will be hit in mid-October. In all, only 38 legislative days are left this year to deal with the farm bill, immigration reform and health care implementation. A panel joins guest host Tom Gjelten to discuss what’s ahead for Congress.
- Jonathan Weisman Congressional reporter, The New York Times.
- David Winston Republican strategist, president of the Winston Group and CBS News consultant. He has served as an adviser to the House and Senate Republican leadership for more than a decade.
- Neera Tanden President, Center for American Progress.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Congress is back at work today and facing a crowded agenda. Several deadlines are looming this month. And in the meantime, there'll be hugely important votes on whether to authorize military action in Syria. The Syria debate is diverting attention from tax and spending disputes and all the other domestic legislative challenges.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me in the studio to discuss what's ahead for the House and Senate this week and the rest of the year are Republican strategist David Winston, New York Times congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman, and the president of the Center for American Progress Neera Tanden. There's room for you to join in the conversation as well. Do you have any sympathy for the members of Congress who have to make all these tough decisions? Call us at 1-800-433-8850, email us, firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us your comments and questions via Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, panel.
MR. DAVID WINSTONGood morning.
MR. JONATHAN WEISMANGood morning.
MS. NEERA TANDENGreat to be with you.
GJELTENSo a great quote in yesterday's Washington Post from Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo about how the Syria issue has complicated Congress' work. He says, "We're having trouble walking and chewing gum already. This doesn't make it any easier." Jonathan, is Congress really welcoming the president's decision to ask for a vote on Syria? Or has he just made their work all the more difficult as Rep. LoBiondo is saying?
WEISMANI mean, this is one of those be careful of what you wish for. They were the ones that were saying that the president needs to come with them -- to come before Congress, ask for authorization. Now, everybody doesn't want them. The Democratic leadership, more than anybody, is just pulling out their hair. They are -- well, I'll use the Briticism gobsmacked that this is now on their plate. They weren't expecting it. They didn't want it. And they're frightened. They feel like the president has given them the biggest hot potato they could imagine, and they don't actually feel like he needed to do that.
GJELTENDavid, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sent a memo on Friday, urging colleagues to remain focused on what he said -- what he called our conservative policies. How does that apply to the Syria vote? What does a commitment to conservative policies mean for one's vote on the Syria issue?
WINSTONI think what you're going to see -- and I think you've seen this actually from both sides in terms of the fact that neither Democrats or Republicans are whipping this particular vote, meaning they're going out and try to get vote counts. When you get to issues like this, this really does become a matter of personal conscience. And I think what you're seeing here is both sides, to a large degree, saying, OK, vote the way you feel is necessary. I'm not going to try to influence your vote.
WINSTONThere may be individual in terms of -- the president obviously wants a direction. He's trying to line up people like Gen. Petraeus in terms of trying to convince people to vote a particular way. But, ultimately, when you get to these particular issues, generally you tend to see leadership cut loose their members in terms of making it a vote of conscience as opposed to trying to lobby for a particular direction.
GJELTENIs it wishful thinking to think that that kind of invitation to members to vote their conscience might carry over a little bit in some of these other really difficult issues where you have such discipline and polarization and partisanship?
WINSTONOne can hope.
GJELTENNeera, what is at stake for Democrats? I mean, you know, they want to support President Obama and yet...
TANDENWell, look, I think the president is having a really tough time, especially among House Democrats. And I think what's really the elephant in the room is the Iraq War debacle. And there's a lot of war weariness. There's concern about entanglement in Syria and the Middle East. Now, I think there are big distinctions between Iraq and Syria. You know, we have weapons of mass destruction. We have chemical weapon use. The president is not asking to put ground troops there. They are signaling a very limited war effort.
TANDENBut I think that -- I think that he has a really uphill battle, and I think one of the, you know, kind of reeling issues is Democrats don't want to issue the stinging rebuke to the president. Now, it's -- this debate is a very odd debate, right, because the president will not get very many Republicans in the House as of now whereas Republicans in the past have been much more in favor of intervention. So I think that this is turning both parties into some non-traditional places.
GJELTENWell, Jonathan, as Neera says, the Democrats don't want to send a rebuke to the president. Nevertheless, we see Democrat after Democrat already beginning to say they're going to vote no on this. What does President Obama need to do when he talks to them and when he talks to the nation tomorrow night? What does he need to do to convince his fellow Democrats to support him here?
WEISMANIt's interesting because during the Iraq War, the Republicans stood by President Obama out of loyalty, even after it began to really hurt, even after it became clear that in 2006 they could lose control over the House over the Iraq War. They privately would tell reporters like me how miserable they were, and they would publicly stand by their president. The Democrats are just not -- they're just different. They don't feel the kind of just loyalty to this president that you saw among House Republicans during the Bush era.
WEISMANAnd at this point, I think the only thing that really can work is if Obama brings, you know, the congressional black caucus, the congressional Hispanic caucus in and say, you cannot do this to me. It's got to be a personal appeal at this point. You cannot leave me hanging. You cannot weaken my presidency this much. You cannot make me look this bad. I think the only -- I think his last Hail Mary is to make this a personal appeal.
GJELTENAnd would it be that bad for him if this vote were to go down? What would it give him?
WEISMANI think it would be really, really bad. I mean, look at what happened -- when David Cameron lost the vote in parliament, nobody blamed parliament. They blamed David Cameron. I think it would be a huge blow to the prestige of this president.
TANDENAnd I think...
TANDENI think also the president has to convince -- he has to make a real argument to members of his own party of why this is a limited strike and how it can be limited and effective to our national security goals and essentially ensure that this will not be a full-scale war. It's not just Democrats. Obviously, the country is war-weary. And, you know, he has a tight rope to argue that military strikes will be effective and they will be limited. And I think Democrats need to hear the limited part in order to move forward.
GJELTENDavid, the House Speaker John Boehner and the Majority Leader Eric Cantor officially, at least, say that they support strikes. Now you mentioned earlier that the leadership's message here to members on the Republican side is that they can vote their conscience. What's your assessment of the sort of the political forces that will dictate to each member what conscience requires them to do in this case?
WINSTONI think the political forces are pretty straightforward, and that's the constituents. And they've been listening to them pretty clearly in terms of their reaction, in terms of back home. And you can virtually look at any survey, and at least at this point, there's not -- there's opposition to this particular move. Now part of that is, again, going to the point that was just made in terms of there is fatigue. We've been doing this for 12 years, right? And there's a sense of, here we're going back into this area.
WINSTONWhat are we trying to accomplish? And one of the problems the president has is that everybody's also hearing that if Assad gets to stay -- is destabilized, who potentially moves in to take his place? It's al-Qaida. So there's -- not only is here a sense of fatigue, there's a sense of confusion of what does success mean. And I think that's the challenge to the president when he speaks. He's got to sort of lay out, what does success mean? And one of the critiques the Republicans have made in terms of his foreign policy has been that there's been no clear doctrine, that it's been very anecdotal.
WINSTONAnd so I think to some degree he's got a different challenge. Now, having said that, again, going back to somebody like Gen. Petraeus sort of weighing in, that was obviously helpful in terms of particular Republican members. But the president, along with trying to convince Democrats, has got a long way to go with Republicans as well. But, again, I want to emphasize, in this particular situation, this is not a party dynamic.
WINSTONThis is really a policy-issue dynamic.
GJELTENYou said it was a constituency issue. It's a -- here, members are voting according to what their constituencies want.
WINSTONBut, again -- and there's a dynamic there that's also difficult as well, and that is, again, you've got certain members because of the access they have to intelligence that have a clearer understanding of what the situation is. And obviously they're not going to be able to describe that to their constituents. And so it's this very difficult balance of understanding, here's where my constituents are at, here's what I may know, and how do I sort of work those two together, understanding that in the future that may all resolve itself? But for the moment, at the moment the decision may be very unclear.
GJELTENJonathan Weisman, so we have a number of issues here, ranging from immigration to obviously the Syria vote and some of the fiscal issues as well. To what extent are Democrats and Republicans alike, focused on not just their constituencies but the prospect of a primary challenge? And does that dictate them to vote in a way that might actually be different than their own sense of what the national interest might be?
WEISMANWell -- and Dave Winston could talk about this, too. The House of Representatives more than -- is kind of a political body unto itself right now. The way districts were redrawn and gerrymandered in 2010, the way Democratic voters are so now concentrated into these urban areas, you've created these politicians who are answerable not to the national political winds, but very specific local political winds. And you -- I was just in Georgia working on a Georgia Senate campaign.
WEISMANAnd when you go into rural parts of Georgia, it doesn't feel like the country writ large just feels like Georgia, and the voices that you hear, you know, are talking about impeachment, are talking about government -- shutting down the government, is talking about doing whatever you can to stop the -- Obamacare from going into force. These are very strong voices, and these are the voices that Republicans in the House are listening to.
GJELTENNeera Tanden, very quickly, Samantha Power. You, at the Center for American Progress, hosted the U.N. Amb. Samantha Power last Friday. What was the reaction among Democrats to her speech?
TANDENLook, I think she was very much focused on making the moral case for intervention in this situation. And given her history, that's an important case to make. I do think the president will have to make that case as forcefully, if not more so, tomorrow night in order for it to be fully effective.
GJELTENNeera Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress. We're talking about the legislative issues facing Congress as it comes back to work, and it's back at work today. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. Stay tuned, please. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, and I'm sitting in today for Diane Rehm. My guests are David Winston, Republican strategist and president of the Winston Group. He's also a CBS News consultant, and he served as an adviser to the House and Senate Republican leadership for more than a decade.
GJELTENAlso with me: Jonathan Weisman, a congressional reporter for The New York Times, and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, and she has served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations as well as in the Obama-Biden and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns.
GJELTENAnd we're talking this morning about the challenges facing Congress as it comes back to work today and, in particular, how those challenges have been complicated by the responsibility now of Congress to take a vote on whether to authorize President Obama to carry out strikes against Syria as a punishment for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. So, Jonathan, if that vote were taken today, how would it turn out?
WEISMANI don't think there's any question that he would lose. I think the president won't even get it through the Senate. He has a lot -- I think one -- a very instructive thing happened on Saturday when Mark Pryor, the senator -- Democratic senator from Arkansas, probably the most endangered incumbent up for re-election next year -- came out forcefully against the authorization and really tells you where the politics are and how difficult it will be for the president to turn this around. It's at the point where he now needs to change minds. He doesn't just need to get people off the fence.
GJELTENAnd, David, the president's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said last week on NPR that it was his understanding that the president does not intend to go ahead with these strikes if he does not get congressional approval. On the other hand, President Obama was asked that twice personally in his press conference last week and did not say that. What's your speculation?
GJELTENAnd I know you're a Republican strategist, but what's your speculation here on whether President Obama would feel compelled to ahead and do this anyway? I mean, after all, you know, if you look at cruise missile strikes against Osama bin Laden in 1998, if you look at Kosovo, if you look at Grenada going all the way back to President Reagan, presidents have done this without congressional approval. What do you think would happen?
WINSTONI think you're hitting one of the questions that's emerged out of this that I think is -- I don't want to say confusing 'cause that's not the right word. But I think it has been one of the elements of this discussion that I think everybody was sort of surprised that he did, in fact, go to Congress in terms of asking their permission. That was not expected. I think -- I will tell you -- at least in terms of being on the other side of the aisle, the fact that he did that, I think, was welcomed.
WINSTONI think it created a significant challenge for him that he's now clearly trying to overcome. And so at that level, I think that was a positive step. Having said that, going to what Jonathan was just saying, I think at this point, the votes aren't there. And I think what the president also has done is basically tied his hands to the outcome. I think it'll be very difficult for him at this point once he's asked Congress to give their support. If they don't give the support for him to unilaterally take the action, I think it becomes very difficult for him.
GJELTENWhen's the vote going to take place, Jonathan?
WEISMANWell, I would just want to make a point that in Kosovo in -- when Bill Clinton went to war in Kosovo, the air war in Kosovo, he got a successful Senate vote. He then launched the strikes and then went to the House and lost. So there is still -- there's historical precedent, and there is some talk about getting a -- trying to get a very bare majority in the Senate, launching -- going ahead and launch and then go to the House with a fait accompli, speculative at this point.
WEISMANThis vote, I think that the Senate probably won't vote until Thursday. At the earliest, it all really depends on whether some of the more hardliners, like Rand Paul, try to filibuster or not. If they do try to filibuster, it could take quite some time, or it just never might happen. And the House will wait for the Senate. So the House vote won't come until towards the end of next week at the earliest.
GJELTENNeera, are there any other scenarios here? We're getting reports this morning that from -- of Russia saying that it is going to urge Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control if a measure like that would avert military strikes. Do you think that this administration is open to some other course of action that would avoid perhaps even a vote in the first place?
TANDENWell, I'm probably a little bit more optimistic about the Senate than Jonathan Weisman is. I think the leadership has always known that it's going to lose five or six or even a few more Democrats. And there's more Republican support for intervention in the Senate than seems like there is in the House.
TANDENHaving said that, I think Secretary Kerry this morning responded to the issue of sort of third option here of international control of the U.N. weapons. He seemed to be, you know, he seemed to be open to it but pretty negative that it could actually happen in a reasonable amount of time and that it would be likely to be just another way to avert action, which I think, you know, he particularly sees as a disastrous course.
GJELTENDavid, before we move on to other challenges facing Congress, I wanted to get you to respond to Jonathan Weisman's suggestion that the administration may actually go ahead with the vote in the Senate and then take the action and only later come back to the House. What would that -- if that was -- if that's what the administration does, how would Republicans in the House, in particular, react to that?
WINSTONWell, first off, then that would be in line in terms of why the president was sort of like not responding to the question last week. I think that would not probably be a good move in terms of the reaction he would get from House Republicans. He went out and publicly said he wanted to get the support of the Congress before he move forward and then not to do that, I think, would just really complicate -- what he already has is a very complicated relationship with House Republicans.
WINSTONIt would just make that much worse. I'm not sure he wants to do that in terms of -- you're talking about implications beyond just this particular situation. I'm not sure he wants to do that as we go into the debt ceiling debate, as we go into the discussion in terms of the budget. I think that would be potentially poisonous.
GJELTENJonathan Weisman, give us -- let's move on to some of these issues. Now, give us a kind of a sense of the timetable and the agenda facing this Congress, you know, now in the next month.
WEISMANI mean, before Syria came up, we were already facing this terrible crunch. The House is supposed to be in session only nine days this month. At the end of the month on Sept. 30, the government runs out of authorization to spend money. And on Oct. 1, huge swathes of the government is -- are set to shut down unless Congress can pass what's called a continuing resolution, which just basically keeps the government operating at current levels.
WEISMANBut that became all wrapped up in this push by conservatives that said we will not fund anything beyond Sept. 30 unless we defund Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. And I think in some ways, this was kind of a paper tiger in the Senate where they could probably come up with 60 votes easily to just keep the government open. But it was not a paper tiger in the House where it really began to take on some momentum. And we'll see.
WEISMANI tend to think that perhaps the Syria debate is -- might make it somewhat easier to get at least the CR passed and keep the government open. But, remember, in the middle of October, the government will hit its debt limit. And if the Republicans cannot figure out how to raise the debt ceiling, then we could have a catastrophic default on our debt. That was going to be the big fight this fall, not Syria. And as of now, the House Republicans really still don't know how they're going to do this, how they're going to deal with the debt ceiling.
GJELTENNeera, how important is it to Democrats, as well as Republicans, to buy time here? And might that sort of deadline pressure cause Democrats to feel, perhaps, to be a little bit more compromising with respect to the spending issue and the continuing resolution? I mean, might they sort of be willing to take, you know, this austerity path for a couple more months in order just to get the time pressure off them?
TANDENWell, I think Jonathan's absolutely right that, you know, the big debate is really the debt limit debate. On the other hand, you know, I think the real challenge before the Syria debate and after the Syria debate was why any Democrats would offer votes in the House on an austerity package that includes sequester.
TANDENAnd if Democrats aren't offering votes, if there are just very few votes, which I hope would be the case, then how does John Boehner move any bill? And I think that is really the hard issue. With or without Syria, it's been a really tough -- it's really tough to understand how he moves a bill that passes the House when he has so many Republicans calling to defund Obamacare, which no Democrat, not in the Senate, obviously not the president, is going to go along with.
GJELTENDavid Winston, what do you -- how do you read the mood among Republicans as to how determined they will be to force a showdown to delay funding for the -- for Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act?
WINSTONOne thing I think Syria does do is it probably makes the likelihood -- as Jonathan was describing -- a continuing resolution in terms of, like, just keeping the government funded for a period of time.
WINSTONI think that -- because everybody recognize there's now a timing dynamic that you just -- you've got to deal with. Having said that, look, part of the challenge here -- and use the word that I think is a particular challenge to Republicans and this part of the overall debate that you're seeing Republicans begin to think through and that is if Republicans are somehow viewed as the party of austerity as opposed to economic growth, then that's the real challenge to Republicans.
WINSTONAnd so looking toward what do you about the appropriations bill, what do you do about continuing resolution, what do you about the debt ceiling, putting those in context of how is what Republicans are saying going to grow the economy and get things moving again, that's the challenge. Having said that, I think the president has taken a position in terms of the debt ceiling that at least in this environment is not one, particularly given what may occur, of no negotiation over the debt ceiling.
WINSTONAmericans don't want to hear that either. They want to hear that there's flexibility in this discussion. And I think one of the things that you're hearing on the Republican side is there are a variety of things that are going to be in there. Certainly, the president's health care package might be a part of that. But ultimately, the goal here is, how do you start growing this economy again, and where is that plan to move forward?
GJELTENDavid, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor are now, as we said earlier, in the position of supporting the administration on the Syria strikes, which seems to be a position that reflects a minority viewpoint in the Republican Party. This is now -- how many times that the House Republican leadership has taken the position that actually does not have the support of the majority of their own caucus? And what does that mean about their leadership going forward?
WINSTONWell, I would -- in terms of that, you have some moments where that's occurred. And again, I would suggest, this is a vote of conscience at this point, so you have people sort of behaving differently.
GJELTENSo this is different.
WINSTONYeah. So in this particular -- but also, you just have to understand, Speaker Boehner really has this concept that he truly believes and that is the House should work its will. And so while he has some sense of direction that he would like to go while leadership -- ultimately, his constituency as speaker are the members, and he's looking for what direction they want to go and how does he best facilitate that.
GJELTENDavid Winston is a Republican strategist. We're talking about the challenges facing Congress going forward. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." And, Jonathan, we've been talking here about the debt ceiling limit coming up in mid-October. What would a delay mean for negotiations over that issue?
WEISMANWell, there's no -- there is nothing that Congress can do to delay the debt ceiling.
WEISMANThat is coming one way or the other. Now, they could pass a short-term increase in the debt ceiling to punt for a few months. But that deadline is set by forces well beyond Congress, and they're basically going to have to deal with it. It's -- it is a -- it's always been a truism in Washington that nobody wants to vote to raise the debt ceiling.
WEISMANNobody wants to vote to ask -- to give the government more authority to borrow more because the American people don't quite get what this is. I mean, the debt limit is not authorizing more -- the taking on of more debt. The debt limit is simply allowing the government to pay the bills that it has already incurred.
WEISMANIt's a little hard to explain that to voters, and every -- it has always been an assumption that the majority party is responsible for raising the debt limit, painful as it is, and the minority party is always going to make it as painful as it can be. They're going to have to deal with it. They just don't know how because they know that they need to give at least some face-saving measure to conservatives to get their votes. They just can't decide what that is going to be.
TANDENWell, you know, I have to say, I think David mentioned that, you know, the American people want negotiations and want the president to negotiate. You know, I think if we look back to the last negotiation, it was one of the worst points, politically, in Washington. But more importantly, it's one of the worst points for the economy, the level of uncertainty created by this months-long negotiation that ultimately was relatively fruitless.
TANDENI think the president would make a large-scale mistake to negotiate on the debt limit. This is not something that should be. People shouldn't be holding hostage our economy to extract goods from the other side. And we've had debt limit votes before. And everybody has to essentially, you know, do it.
TANDENAnd so I think the idea that Republicans -- I think Republican members recognizes, the leadership recognizes that, you know, they're not going to get that much out of Democrats. So I think they're actually going to look for the CR debate or the government, you know, the actual funding resolution -- that happens now or later and more likely later -- to actually be the place where they issue their negotiations.
GJELTENWell, David Winston, you do -- your firm does some polling on these issues. What's your sense of what the American public wants to see happen here?
WINSTONWell, I like to use this analogy in terms of describing where the American electorate is at. Sort of imagine a house with a fire on the roof, OK? And the fire on the roof is jobs and the economy. If you take a close look, the window isn't there. That could be Syria. It needs to be dealt with. The wiring is out. That could be immigration in terms of -- that needs to be fixed. There's a crack in the foundation. That's the deficit.
WINSTONAll real important problems, right, all need to be addressed, but really doesn't matter until the fire is put out. And ultimately, what this electorate is looking at is fix the economy. One of the problems the president ran into in 2010, he decided it was health care, whereas Speaker Boehner was saying, where are the jobs? That was a decisive win in terms of the Republican side. I think, at this point, the frustration at a significant level that the American public has with this Congress, whether it's Republicans or Democrats, is when are you going to fix the economy? Stop blaming the other side.
GJELTENJonathan Weisman, we've been talking a lot about Syria, and I -- we have other things to talk about. One more question about Syria. You know, you mentioned the scenario earlier where the president might actually act without full authorization. But given all the other things that -- where the administration is depending on cooperation from Congress, what would be the consequence for those other issues if the president were to ignore the feelings of Congress and go ahead and strike Syria without full authorization?
WEISMANWell, I think David is right that it would further poison relations between the Republican Congress and the White House, but those relations are really, really poisonous already. I mean, there is a lack of trust and a lack of just cordiality. But right now -- and you saw it when John Kerry, the secretary of state, went before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
WEISMANAnd a lot of the questioning was about Benghazi and Fast and Furious and all of these kind of touchstones of conservatives. And somehow this Syria has become part of this toxic brew that conservatives and the White House don't even -- they don't even see in the same universe. When you bring up Benghazi in the House, the images are completely different from when you mention it to somebody at the White House.
GJELTENJonathan Weisman is congressional reporter for The New York Times. We're talking about the legislative agenda facing Congress. When we come back, we're going to take your comments and questions. Remember, our phone number, 800-433-8850. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm, with my guests: David Winston, he's a Republican strategist, Jonathan Weisman, a congressional reporter for The New York Times, and Neera Tanden, who's president of the Center for American Progress. And we're talking about the big decisions facing Congress as it comes back to work today, and in particular, at the top of their agenda course, the need to vote on whether to authorize President Obama to carry out strikes against Syria.
GJELTENAnd we have heard from members of Congress and from our panelists this morning that the public seems to be pretty firmly against this. And some of our emails are suggesting that. I have an email here from Jonathan, who says, "Americans want out of the Middle East because the one thing we've learned since the 1970s is that we can't fix it. It's permanently broken." But not entirely -- that's not entirely the viewpoint of all our listeners.
GJELTENLaura writes, "We may be war-weary, but luckily, we don't make the decisions. Our country was equally war-weary in the 1930s and the early 1940s with many politicians and public figures leading the way with calls for minding our own business and tending to our own at home. How many died because we were war-weary and slow to get into that war?"
GJELTENAnd James writes, "I've heard Elie Wiesel speak twice about crimes against humanity in general and the holocaust specifically. Among other points that he made, he lamented the lack of timely action of the world before and during World War II. Surely, the use of sarin gas to kill hundreds of children and innocent civilians qualifies as a crime against humanity and justifies a firm positive response -- punitive response from the world's only superpower."
GJELTENFinally, Christine is concerned that if the U.S. attacks Syria and Assad retaliates against Israel, the U.S. would be drawn into a war because of the obligation to defend Israel. Is that not true? Neera, do you have any comments on that?
TANDENYou know, I think that the tough issue here as, I think, you see in a lot of these comments, obviously, not all of them, again, is the war-weariness. But your comments also point out one of the reasons -- the comments point out one of the reasons why I think the president, who has been reluctant to act on Syria, is putting forward this plan of action.
TANDENAnd it is because, if nuclear -- I mean, excuse me, chemical weapons become something that's ubiquitous, people just used as part of war, especially in the Middle East because of our alliances, the United States would likely, and I think many people believe, will face much more issues of entanglement.
TANDENWe're much more likely to be drawn into a war if people are using chemical weapons and those chemical weapons become just a fact of life. And I think that is one of the reasons why Israel is supporting the president so strongly, because they recognize that their own security is weakened if regimes -- dictatorial regimes in the Middle East can use chemical weapons to simply attack folks.
GJELTENLet's go now to Gretchen, who's on the line from Haverhill, Mass. Gretchen, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for calling us.
GRETCHENThank you for taking my call.
GJELTENAnd? Go ahead.
GRETCHENYeah. I was, you know, just thinking, hearing everything, instead of dropping bombs that hurt people, why don't we drop medical equipment and food and, you know, and medicine that would help the people? You know, put this on (word?) and do something that's helpful instead of hurtful.
GJELTENWell, what would that do to discourage President Assad from using chemical weapons again?
GRETCHENWell, I think if the world saw that we were doing something that was totally different, a different set of -- different mindset that this will bring up a new dialogue. And instead of spending a lot of money killing people, we'll be spending our money helping people.
GJELTENOK. Thank you very much, Gretchen. And let's go now to Leslie, who's on the line from San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, Leslie. Thanks for calling.
LESLIEThank you. I would like to make so many points right now. But the first one that came to mind at the beginning of this show and carried through so much of the show is why are we worrying whether President Obama saves face or loses face? Why are we not instead focusing on the Syrian people and whether or not they lose their lives?
LESLIEIf that sarin attack -- that sarin poison gas attack was a red-flag incident by, for example, Hezbollah Muslim extremists under the guidance of Iran, in order to draw us into the war on the side of the rebels, then we're going to be handing our military weaponry and our support over to Islamic terrorists.
LESLIEAnd that's going to kill more Syrian civilians. By the way, Gretchen's comment was excellent. If we dropped gas masks and sarin emergency treatment medications, we could save lives and counter the gas attacks.
GJELTENOK. Thank you very much, Leslie. Jonathan, why don't you respond to Leslie's question or point here that members of Congress shouldn't really be considering President Obama's reputation? They should be considering, what's the interest of the Syrian people? What is the importance of considering the political position of President Obama going forward for Democrats?
WEISMANWell, in the world outside our borders, President Obama isn't a political figure. He is the head of state of the world's only super power. And the weakening of President Obama as a man is a weakening of the United States as a country. It is a consideration, and it has to be a consideration for Congress as they consider this. And to address Gretchen's point, actually, the United States has been sending humanitarian aid into Syria for at least two years now.
WEISMANMost of that has been going through the United Nations, but there's also been an aid program going through the United States. It's been very quiet because, frankly, we don't -- we're not putting American flags on our wheat and things like that, but a quite a bit of money has been going into that program. It has not been a deterrent of Assad at all.
GJELTENOK. Let's go now to Catherine who's on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Catherine.
CATHERINEOh, good morning. Thank you for taking my call.
CATHERINEI was just calling because I know historically, wars -- and I'm sorry if this is really bad information. Historically speaking, wars are seen kind of good for economies because it does boost productions and some sort of asset. I was just wondering, given that in conjunction with Syria, we're having all these conversations about the debt ceiling, and I was just wondering, what would, economically, us going into Syria has to do -- would that affect us? I mean, because it's still technically, I guess, a drain of some form. And I was just wondering, what would that do to our economy if we went into Syria?
GJELTENGood question, Catherine. Now, I should point out that no one in the administration is talking about the kind of war making here that would really boost the economy in terms of industrial production and so forth. But, David Winston, Catherine does raise this interesting question of -- let's, like, put these two issues together. You -- your polling has shown that Americans are really concerned about the direction of the economy. What would military action in Syria mean for the economy?
WINSTONI think the way the American would look at it would be that rather than focusing on the economic problems the country's got to face, there is time being spent on something else. Now, something else may be important, and, in this case, it clearly is. But the bottom line is they want command focus from their political leadership on jobs and the economy -- getting this economy moving.
WINSTONThis is something that is a, potentially, a road block to that. And so, I mean, I don't see that connection at all that she was trying to put together because, again, I think it's -- Congress has X amount of time to do things. And when they can't focus on what they want to focus on because they're forced to deal with something else, the public gets frustrated.
GJELTENWell, I think there is an issue here though, Neera Tanden, which is that can the United States afford to take on another military venture given the impact of sequestration on U.S. military capabilities? That's got to be a concern.
TANDENWell, I would agree with David that I think the strikes are -- that they're contemplating would not be, you know, it wouldn't even match the cost of...
TANDEN...some of our aid programs to individual countries. So I think, well, we should all be concerned about sequestration and its very negative impact on the economy. And I would make the point to David that if we were really concerned about economic growth, then we would drop the austerity measures there in sequestration that the Republicans are still supporting. But I don't think that, you know, I think these issues could play in very different ways. Oil costs could spike up, it could then spike down. I don't think economic issues are really what's at stake here.
GJELTENLet's go now to David who's on the line from Tallahassee, Fla. Good morning, David. Thanks for calling us.
DAVIDHey, good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I've got a quick comment and a question. The comment -- just kind of backing things up, looking at the broader picture. It's my view that we can't have an honest debate regarding Syria, regarding the economy, regarding the role of government until we get the Federal Reserve out of the equation. Right now, the Fed is completely distorting the fiscal picture of the United States by financing all these government activities.
DAVIDSo the question is this. It's really for the Republican strategist. Why is it that as we approach this next debt ceiling debate, Republicans are kind of chasing after the shiny object, that being the debt ceiling question, and no one seems to be addressing or pushing for reform to change the Federal Reserve Act 1913 in the FOMC and prohibit the Fed from having the ability to buy or sell treasury securities of any type in any market? And I'll take my response off the air. Thank you.
GJELTENOK, thanks. Well, David, I was going to give that question to Jonathan Weisman, but since you specifically...
WINSTONHe asked for me. Right.
GJELTEN...demanded that David Winston answer, I'll have to give it to you, David.
WINSTONOK. Look, I mean, the discussion around the Fed, particularly in the Republican side, you've heard Ron Paul just sort of discussed that at length in terms of his attitude towards the Fed. But I'm going to suggest a slightly different dynamic here and that is the challenge here -- and this is merely a challenge for the Republican Party, this is a challenge for the country in the sense of how do we get this economy growing again because that's the bottom line in terms of where people want it. So -- and you've got a variety of different issues.
WINSTONClearly, there's a little bit of disagreement in terms of the sequester, in terms of the impact. But ultimately there's a discussion going on in terms of how does that relate to economic growth or austerity in certain cases. When you're looking at issues like tax reform, energy expansion, a variety of different things, ultimately, Fed reform is just a piece of a much larger picture that -- where the public wants to go, and they want to hear that discussion.
WINSTONThe Fed may be a more abstract part of that, but they want to know tax reforms. So how is that going to allow myself and my family be able to do these sort of things we want to economically do? What about energy? How is that going to help the country in terms of growing? That's where the country wants to see this discussion go.
GJELTENOK. Well, we have touched on this fiscal debate. We've touched on the debt ceiling debate. A couple of other big issues coming up, Jonathan, that we haven't really gotten into, one is the farm bill. Where that stand, and what's the pressure and the agenda there?
WEISMANYeah, the farm bill at the end of this month. One of the major programs will cease to exist. It's the dairy price support program. And without it, we revert back to some 1940s-era rules that will make the price of milk possibly double or triple. That's a big deadline. That it's called the milk cliff.
WEISMANAnd then at the end of this -- and then in the end of calendar year, at the -- in -- on Jan. 1, the entire federal farm system basically collapses unless Congress reacts. And the House and the Senate are really no closer in knowing how to deal with this because House Republicans are demanding some serious cuts to food stamp programs to move forward.
WEISMANThere's also immigration. Remember, we were also -- because of the leaks of Edward Snowden, we were going to be coming back in September and dealing with the National Security Agency and domestic spying issues. That's another one that's now on hold. There are -- it's like a plane sitting on the ground in LaGuardia right now.
GJELTENJonathan Weisman of The New York Times. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Neera.
TANDENSo, you know, I have to say I'm very unsympathetic to members of Congress arguing that taking on these issues is so difficult for them to do. This is a two-week debate on Syria. You know, if you look at normal congresses, they are -- have been far more productive than this Congress. The fact that we have such level of strife over our farm bill is really a product of radical conservatives in the House wanting to, in this time where we have high unemployment and still low growth, take money away from people who are going hungry through eviscerating the food stamp program.
TANDENSo I think the issue here really is, you know, previous congresses have been more productive. Republicans and Democrats who make the argument they can't address these problems because of Syria, I believe, are really using that as an excuse to not do their jobs.
GJELTENDavid Winston, do you agree that this Congress has not been as productive as prior congresses have been?
WINSTONI think what you're watching in terms of this particular Congress and this particular president, we probably have not seen a disagreement in terms of the direction of the country in terms of policy like we've seen. And so on Neera sort of describing the food stamp program, Republicans would say we've never seen expansion of food stamps at this scale, and the level of fraud that potentially exists there is so overwhelming that we need to slow down and look at that. Now, having said that...
TANDENThere's no fraud in the food stamp program. But that's OK. I mean, there is limit of fraud. That is not...
WINSTONThere is no fraud in the food stamp program.
TANDENThere is no greater levels of fraud today than during the last 15 years.
WINSTONBut -- no, but my point still stands. I mean, I think there's -- as we just described here, there's a fundamental disagreement. And I think part of what's occurring here is working through that disagreement. And I would suggest to you that one of the challenges that emerged here is the relationship between the White House and House Republicans has not been very good. And that has not facilitated that discussion.
WINSTONI would also suggest that our political campaigns, the sort of discourse -- and Virginia is a good example of this -- our discourse has been such that it hasn't helped. So, for example, again in Virginia, this has not been a race about who'll be the best governor. It's been a race who'll be about the worst governor. And I think what you're seeing from the public is they are just very frustrated with this whole discourse. They want to know, what are you going to do about jobs and the economy?
GJELTENWe have time for one more phone call. Matt is on the line from St. Petersburg, Fla. Good morning, Matt.
NATGreat. It's actually Nat. But I'm going to say it real fast because that's the only way I can get it all out. The bottom line is that the real deal is that there -- this is the first president that we ever had that was other than the norm. What was the norm? A white male. And so there are folks that really don't want to see that succeed. And as long as that doesn't succeed, then it won't happen again. We won't have a woman president. We won't have another minority president.
NATThis man is actually doing exactly what the Republican Party asks of their party to do, which is implement, what, Romneycare not Obamacare. That's Mitt Romneycare. The war -- John McCain went all over this country in the past month, all over -- out to Syria in the past month. And he even brought other congressional leaders to show them the problems that were going on and then he insisted that we must do something.
NATWhat is this president doing? He's doing something. Ronald Reagan was giving out cheese for people who are hungry.
GJELTENThank you, Matt. Well, Jonathan, it's true. Republicans want a voice, but that doesn't necessarily assume that they are presuming a vote one way or another.
WEISMANWell, the one thing I do agree with him on is John McCain. The fact is that for the last two years, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have both been talking -- going around the country, talking about the need for action in Syria as a way to destabilize Iran and basically defund Hezbollah. They have been. But what you realize is there is not one voice in the Republican Party on foreign policy anymore. There really are two very dramatically different wings, and they're going to have to fight it out now.
GJELTENWell, we are looking at a very busy and hotly debated congressional session coming up. Jonathan Weisman for New York Times, David Winston, Republican strategist and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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