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.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Congress convenes today after its summer break, and things are about to get busy. A Washington Post headline calls it “Congress’ awful autumn.” Deadlines loom on everything from the Iran nuclear deal to funding the federal government. An increasingly bitter debate over Planned Parenthood is increasing the odds of another government shutdown. Then there’s an unprecedented address to a joint session by Pope Francis. Some predict he’ll take Congress to task on issues like immigration and income inequality. Running in the background: the 2016 presidential race. Guest host Susan Page and a panel of journalists discuss what’s coming up in Congress.
- Jonathan Weisman Deputy Washington editor, The New York Times; he formerly covered economic policy and Congress for the Times; author of a new novel, "No. 4 Imperial Lane."
- Seung Min Kim Congressional reporter for Politico.
- Naftali Bendavid An editor and reporter in the The Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau; formerly based in Brussels.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. The House and Senate are back in session today after their summer recess. No one is expecting an easy autumn. One the agenda, the Iran nuclear agreement, budget showdowns, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and a possible scolding from Pope Francis. He's scheduled to make the first ever papal address to the nation's lawmakers.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio to talk about it all, Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal, Seung Min Kim of Politico and Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JONATHAN WEISMANThank you for having us.
MR. NAFTALI BENDAVIDThank you.
MS. SEUNG MIN KIMGreat to be here.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Naftali, you are just back after two and half years on assignment in Brussels. You were covering Congress when you left Washington. Back now, looking at it again, has anything changed?
BENDAVIDWell, you know, it's funny. In some ways, things haven't changed. I mean, there's still a restive Republican base. The parties are still very much at odds. But in a few keys ways, there are differences. For one thing, I think this is the first crunch time coming up when Republicans control both houses of Congress and I think that's going to lead to certain expectations from the conservative base that things get done.
BENDAVIDThe other thing that probably shouldn't be lost is, I think, this coming stretch of Congress is going to unfold very much in conjunction with and in counterpoint to a very fiery presidential race, particularly in the Republican side. And I think all those dynamics are going to come together in a way that isn't exactly what we've seen before.
PAGEWell, Seung Min, you're up there every day. Is this -- put us in some context, this next four or five week period. Is it like another time or is this a really more serious crunch time than we've seen in a couple years?
KIMWell, September in Congress is always crunch time because it's the end of the budget year. We've got to take care of government funding, but this time it's a little bit different. You know, like we said, it's the first time that Republicans control both the House and the Senate. Conservatives are louder than ever, trying to, you know, write a budget and write a funding bill on their own terms, but we're also contending with a very controversial landmark nuclear deal with Iran that's going to consume the first couple of weeks in Congress.
KIMSo lawmakers really can't turn their attention to government funding until probably later this month.
PAGEWell, Jonathan, you've been covering that Iran nuclear deal and, you know, opponents had some expectation they could generate a lot of opposition over the August recess that would convince some Democrats to oppose the deal. Did that happen?
WEISMANI mean, obviously, there were some key Democrats who came out against it. Most importantly, Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York, who is expected to be the next Democratic leader. But no, it really didn't. What we saw over August was a classic partisan fight in which both parties kind of took sides and this -- the nuclear deal, which wasn't supposed to be necessarily partisan, became a question of are you a Democrat and backing the president or are you a Republican backing Republican leadership? And we heard very little about the actual contents of the deal itself.
PAGEWe did hear news this morning, just minutes ago, about one more key Democratic senator coming out. Who was it and what did he decide?
WEISMANSenator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, came out against the deal. He is now the fourth Senate Democrat to oppose it and, you know, it does raise the question not necessarily of whether the deal will go into force, but whether there's any real prospects now that it could be -- that a resolution of disapproval can be filibustered in the Senate or whether they're just going to be having to -- the Democrats are going to have to sustain a veto from the president.
PAGESo some of those words, I don't think, mean too much to Americans, about sustain a veto of a resolution of disapproval.
WEISMANYes, let's go unpack this.
PAGESo Naftali, just walk us through. What is now the likely scenario we're going to see unfold?
BENDAVIDWell, the goal for the White House was always to get -- well, initially, of course, it was just to make sure that they could sustain a veto of what's likely to be a motion of disapproval that will or might pass in both Houses. More recently, the goal was to get 41 Democratic senators to agree to filibuster, essentially. That would prevent the president from having to veto a motion of disapproval of the Iran Accord, which is something he'd rather not have to do.
BENDAVIDIt's going to be very close and now it looks like -- we don't want to make too many predictions, but it's going to be harder, let's say, for the president to reach that threshold. So it looks like the more likely scenario might be that Congress would pass a motion of disapproval and the president would then veto it.
PAGEAnd then, Congress would sustain the veto and the deal would go into effect.
PAGEIs there any concerns, Seung Min, do you think, on the part of supporters of the Iran nuclear deal, including in the White House, that this major agreement is going to go into effect based on the ability to sustain a veto, that is based on the ability to hold just 34 members of the Senate. You know, usually, when you have a treaty, it's got to get a super majority.
KIMI think there's -- I mean, obviously, the administration has been working to try to drum up every bit of support as possible. And even when we had that crucial 34th vote last week, that made it possible for the president to be able to -- or for Congress to sustain his veto. You know, supporters in the Senate and in the White House say we're still going to keep drumming up as much support as possible. They want to send a message, you know, internationally, that this is an accord that, you know, that has strong backing.
KIMBut he's clearly not going to get a broad support. It's only going to be sustained by, you know, a small bit of one chamber of Congress.
PAGENaftali, you're just back from Europe. When European leaders look at this process, what do you think they think?
BENDAVIDI mean, I think it's a little bit difficult for them to understand because it really does look like a divided government behind what is really one of the more important foreign policy initiatives we've seen from the United States in recent years. And, clearly, this is not the way the president wanted this to happen. He wanted to have a unified government. But at some point, he clearly made the decision, the observation, the conclusion that he wasn't going to get a lot of Republican support and this did transform from being a more lofty foreign policy debate to essentially a partisan one and that's really what the outcome's going to be.
BENDAVIDAnd it's not going to be over for a while. Republicans are going to keep on bringing up attempts to impose new sanctions. They're going to try to derail it or at least to send a message that they are not behind this. So even after the votes, this isn't going to be over.
PAGEWell, you know, just a couple Democrats have announced they're going to oppose the deal. Have any Republicans announced they're going to support it, Jonathan?
WEISMANNone. Not -- I mean, there was some talk, at one point, that Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, might support it. He ultimately came out against it. There are, obviously, some iconoclastic House members that you might get, like a Walter Jones from North Carolina, people that almost nobody's ever heard of, outside their district. But this is going to be a pretty party line vote in the House and the Senate.
PAGEAnd we know that -- I saw that the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, made a kind of offer over the weekend that they would not filibuster the deal if the majority agreed it would take 60 votes to pass this resolution of disapproval. Any chance that Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, will agree to that, Seung Min?
KIMThere's basically no chance. And his spokesman kind of ruled that out over the weekend. Essentially, they just -- to me, it was kind of seen more as a way of -- to helping, you know, senators like such as Joe Manchin, if he were to support the deal, to avoid the headlines of, you know, "Dems Filibuster The Nuclear Resolution." It's not going to happen. I mean, Republicans don't want to make it any easier for Democrats to be able to block the resolution from being -- from going to the president.
KIMI mean, regardless of anything, it's going to be 60 votes somewhere.
BENDAVIDYeah, I think a point that shouldn't be lost here is that the likely Democratic presidential nominee was the secretary of state for a long time in the Obama administration and she had something to do with crafting the Iran policy and the approach to Iran. And that is certainly something that, looking ahead, is not going to be forgotten by the Republicans and it's just one more way that, I think, the presidential race and what's happening in Congress are going to be intertwined in the next few months.
PAGESo Jonathan, thinking about President Obama and his legacy, it now seems very likely that this deal will go into effect, albeit after some legislative maneuvering. How big an achievement?
WEISMANYou know, the president has told other Democrats that he understands he will be judged not on whether or not this deal went into force, but whether it worked. And remember, there was a deal to stop North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon and they got a nuclear weapon. So nobody looks back and thinks that was a great achievement on the part of President Clinton, right? If Iran cheats and if Iran somehow ends up with a nuclear weapon, it will look like a terrible -- it will look like the president was wrong, right?
WEISMANBut I think that if there is unity here and if this goes into force and Iran goes through with those initial steps, which have to take place in the first six month, six, eight months, President Obama will be looking good by the time he leaves office. You're probably not going to see any major breach, any big cheating by, you know, the end of 2016.
PAGESo Seung Min, what kind of timeline should we expect when we -- Congress has, obviously, a lot of other things it needs to do this month. What kind of timeline do you expect on this Iran debate?
KIMSo under the law, under the Iran review law that kind of set up this procedure in Congress, Congress has to vote by September 17th so that's just, you know, less than 10 days away. We expect the House to wrap up their work pretty quickly. The debate will formerly begin tomorrow and most likely wrap up by Friday. Senate, it really depends on whether, you know, if Democrats can muster 41 votes, how long -- do they block it quickly and then do Republicans try to force them to vote again.
KIMI think most people expect the debate to go a little bit longer in the Senate and perhaps into next week, but everything will have to be, you know, something will have to happen by the 17th and then after that, you know, the -- if the resolution does go to the president, he can wield his veto pen, then it goes back to Congress and then it'll unfold from there.
PAGEAnd Naftali, is it a given that this resolution of disapproval will be passed?
BENDAVIDWell, again, in the Senate, I guess there's still a possibility that it can be filibustered by Democrats. I mean, it's really coming down to the wire. There are four, as of this moment, to our knowledge, there are four senators, Democrats, whose position is still unknown. The White House needs three of them, essentially, to say they would support a filibuster. But it's looking like it's going to pass almost for sure and then it would go to the White House for a potential veto -- well, for a certain veto.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, having dealt with the tough issue of the Iran nuclear talks, we're going to deal with an easy one, right? Funding the government. What will the Congress do? Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me this hour, Seung Min Kim, congressional reporter for Politico. She's making her first appearance on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
KIMThanks for having me.
PAGENaftali Bendavid, he's an editor and reporter in the -- for The Wall Street Journal in its Washington bureau just for the past month. Previously he's been based in Brussels. His first appearance here since returning to Washington. Welcome back.
BENDAVIDThanks for having me.
PAGEAnd Jonathan Weisman, he's newly a deputy Washington editor of The New York Times. He's covered economic policy and Congress for the Times. He's also written a new novel that's gotten terrific reviews. It's called, "No. 4 Imperial Lane." Congratulations, Jonathan.
WEISMANThank you very much.
PAGESo we talked about the Iran deal. Let's talk about money. The fiscal year ends at the end of this month. Naftali, Congress, is it close to passing the appropriations bills it needs to, to fund the new fiscal year? Tell us, yes.
BENDAVIDWell, it's not close. And this is becoming sort of a perennial event that we go through. You know, when it comes to funding the government overall, you know, the current bill does -- the current law does expire on September 30 and there's likely to be a continuing resolution of some kind. But, of course, the issue that's exploded recently is Planned Parenthood and there's a real stand being made by conservatives both inside and outside Congress, saying that they're not going to approve a vote for any spending bill as long as it includes funding for Planned Parenthood. And this is, of course, coming into the presidential race where you have guys like Ted Cruz who are saying this is something they're going to make a stand on.
BENDAVIDAnd it's not like this was ever going to be easy. It's not like if the Planned Parenthood thing hadn't erupted, it would have been smooth. But this just adds a focal point and a very emotional one for people who want to make a case against these spending bills.
PAGEIt does feel like we've seen this movie before, with threats of a showdown, there's threats of a shutdown, the last-minute negotiations, and then in the end a continuing resolution that kind of kicks the can down the road. Is that what you expect to see this time, Seung Min? Or do you think it is entirely possible that the government will, once again, shut down?
KIMI think Republican leaders are doing whatever they can to kind of lessen the risk of a government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, before we went into the August break, said, you know, no way. We are not shutting the government down over Planned Parenthood, which is unusual because he doesn't take stances that -- on such a divisive issue so early-on before a deadline. But he made it clear shutdowns are not happening on our watch.
KIMHowever, you kind of, you know, the August recess kind of does allow these tensions over the Planned Parenthood video to bubble up and we see, you know, like with mentioned with Senator Ted Cruz, he's been circulating a letter that's trying to get Republican senators on record saying, I will not support a spending bill that funds Planned Parenthood. We've got a similar letter over in the House. We've got about 18 or 19 Republicans who've signed on to it. So the numbers will be tight. We'll see how much support among conservatives Senator Cruz can whip up.
WEISMANAnd you have this added complexity that President Obama says he does not want to continue funding the government at the level that it's funded at right now. He wanted to break the so-called spending caps that were set in 2011. So, you know, on one hand, you could say if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell put a bill on the floor that just keeps funding the government as is, it would pass, no problem. Except we also have to wait to see if Democrats try to make a stand about raising spending levels.
BENDAVIDYou're also seeing -- a real priority of both Boehner and McConnell is that they want to restore what they call regular order. They want it to look like Congress is running the way it should, where bills pass through committees and subcommittees and then spending bills pass when they're supposed to. And this is running up against the goals of people like Ted Cruz and maybe Rand Paul, who want to make a splash. And I think that conflict is what's going to drive a lot of this.
PAGEOur phone lines are open. We invite you to join our conversation. We're going to go to John. He's calling us from Arlington, Va. John, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOHNHi. I was just curious. I mean, it sounds like your panel is a bit down on the prospect of the Iran deal being worked out on anything inside of partisan lines. But, I mean, is there the prospect that anything could get through Congress through the traditional means of, you know, the president leaning on the bully pulpit or Congress horse trading, you know, one thing for another? Or is it really just a matter of that, you know, that things are so broken that the parties will look for any intervening excuse in order to kind of muck things up and then to hope that maybe that will impact the election and there will be one-party rule in the future?
PAGEJohn, thanks so much for your call. You know, we have a similar email from Marilyn who writes us from Arvada, Colo. She writes: Out here, we call it the annual festival of the government shutdown, which means political theater. Seung Min.
KIMBasically, I mean, this is what's -- and then this is what Republican leaders have tried to avoid since they took over control. But we see that, you know, they're still working with a Democratic president in the White House, so they need some sort of, you know, across-the-aisle participation. Mitch McConnell does not have 60 votes in the Senate to advance a lot of, you know, Republican ideas. And I think that's kind of the manifestation of what you're seeing right now.
PAGEWhen you look at the debate over Planned Parenthood, which is a really divisive one, and the spending caps -- that I think both sides would like to break, it's just that they want to break them in different ways, right -- they want to spend additional money in different things, Jonathan, tell us how in the world we get out of this?
WEISMANWell, I mean, there was an expectation and kind of a hope that people would look forward to this September 30 deadline and look at the president -- President Obama issued a blanket veto threat on any appropriation bill that did not raise spending. And he issued that way back in the spring. And I think there was a thought that over the summer it would force people to the bargaining table and we wouldn't be at here. But the Republicans always were -- the Republican leadership was always working on some other issue and they didn't want to talk about spending. And they know that conservatives do not want to raise spending levels at all. So they just avoided it, avoided it, avoided it.
WEISMANAnd, you know, as always happens, like suddenly you're here and say, wow, we haven't... You know, the Senate -- the House has passed a bunch of spending bills -- the Senate has not even taken a single spending bill up on the floor.
KIMYeah, I mean, and that's the -- and, again, that's the problem that you're running with. I believe the House passed about seven or eight appropriations bills before the, kind of the funding process broke down, actually over the controversy of the Confederate flag that we was earlier this summer.
WEISMANOf all things.
KIMOf all things. And then the Senate, I mean, Democrats had, early on, drawn a very hard line, saying we are not going to even advance any spending bills on the floor that doesn't help lift the spending caps for -- you know, you said people want to raise it for different interests. Obviously people want to raise it for defense and Democrats are insisting on raising it for other domestic priorities. We -- we're not quite seeing how the negotiations are going. You know, Mitch McConnell is already talking about a short-term funding resolution later into the fall. Maybe it'll get wrapped up with the debit-limit increase that we have also lurking on the horizon, which would be a, you know, which is also another major item on Congress' to-do list.
PAGEWell, Naftali, you mentioned that there are any number of presidential candidates who also have votes in Congress. Five senators are running for president: Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders. How much impact do those campaigns have on what Congress is going to do this fall?
BENDAVIDI think quite a bit actually. I mean, this is their moment. You know, for the past few months, the Republican campaign, in particular, has of course been overshadowed by Donald Trump. It's been hard for other candidates to make an impact and to get any attention. But for the senators who are running, this is a chance when they have the stage a little more to themselves. And I think, particularly for somebody like Rand Paul, whose poll numbers probably haven't been what he'd hoped, but also for Ted Cruz, who's looking for a way to stand out -- the others temperamentally perhaps are a little less inclined to sort of throw wrenches in the works -- but I think you're absolutely going to see them try to make a stand and get some attention.
BENDAVIDI mean, we should also remember that for both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, filibusters are part of the ways they made their mark. They each have some filibusters that they're still remembered for that helped get them on the national stage. And I think we can absolutely expect to see more of that.
WEISMANAnd I think we'll hear from Marco Rubio, too. Because the Iran bill has really come up his alley. He wants to make a -- he wants to become the foreign policy presidential candidate and he's going to make a lot of noise on the Senate floor in the next couple of weeks. Lindsey Graham, of course, is also running. I think presidential politics will saturate everything this fall.
PAGEOur phone lines are open. You can give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Well, Hillary Clinton is running for president. She's no longer a member of the Senate but she is still getting a lot of attention in Congress. She'll be the focus of some hearings, Seung Min, this fall. Tell us what's happening.
KIMSo she'll be appearing before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which is a special committee that was created by the House to investigate the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Now, the focus of the committee has largely turned to the private email server that she used as secretary of state. She'll be testifying publicly before the Benghazi Committee on October 22. But before that, in advance of that, the committee, who is led by Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, has been privately interviewing a lot of her former aides. We had her former Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills on the Hill last week, Jake Sullivan, who is now advising on policy for the campaign.
KIMWe're -- and we're -- but obviously the main show will be when she's up on the Hill. And she can't, you know, the -- kind of the focus -- her -- the Benghazi and also with the private server, will kind of be the focus of her campaign until she gets that testimony over with.
PAGEYou know, it's interesting, when the Benghazi special committee was set up, a lot of Democrats said, nothing else to learn here. There's been a series of investigations. This is a committee that has had a huge impact with some of the things it's found totally unrelated to the tragedy in Libya.
WEISMANExactly. In fact, I don't think that they have actually uncovered anything new on Benghazi itself. And, look, they've put -- John Boehner put Trey Gowdy in charge of this for a reason. He is a tenacious prosecutor. He wanted to see what he could find. And the Benghazi committee has now been in existence longer than the 9/11 committee, longer than the Katrina committee. This is -- a while ago, they signaled this was going to go deep into 2016 and I think it is going to.
BENDAVIDAnd by the way, there's another investigation, too, on the Senate side, where Charles Grassley, Senator from Iowa, is looking at the emails, he's looking at what he considers possible conflicts of interest on Hillary Clinton's staff. I mean, look, when one party has control in Congress, you know, it's a fairly typical thing for them to do is to go after prominent members of the other party. I think we're going to see that for months and months to come.
PAGELet's go to the phones and talk to Jennifer. She's calling us from San Antonio, Texas. Jennifer, you're on the air.
JENNIFERHi, good morning. How are you guys?
JENNIFERGood. You know, I just had a question for you all concerning just the politics that are happening in Congress right now. Something that I hear a lot from you guys right now is that it seems like it's all politics and the comments that, like, Rand Paul and Senator Cruz are making. And I just am curious if you guys believe this is politics or if these are things that these men actually believe and are standing on, the belief that it's standing behind, and if that's why they're really pushing them through, in policies and in trying to get signatures and that sort of thing.
WEISMANWell, as my mother-therapist always says, it doesn't have to be either/or, it can be both and.
WEISMANI mean, certainly they do believe this stuff, especially -- when we saw Rand Paul really taking a stand on the future of the Patriot Act and government eavesdropping, that was a big moment for him politically. But he believes this to his core. This is his issue. And I think that Ted Cruz certainly believes very strongly in defunding Planned Parenthood. That doesn't mean that he -- that he is not also being political.
KIMI mean, but the caller raises an interesting point in that, in a presidential campaign, basically the candidates can say whatever they want. I mean, they don't have to do anything. I mean, their whole job is just to be rhetorical and to say things that get attention and get votes. But Congress actually does have to do some stuff in the next few months. And I think one of the things you're going to see is this contrast and this clash between the rhetoric of the candidates and the fact that Congress actually has some jobs that they have to get done if the government isn't going to shut down.
PAGESeung Min, when you're up there, does it seem to you that people are motivated primarily by principle or primarily by politics?
KIMI think there's definitely an element of both. And I think the advantage -- we have, you know, five senators -- five members of the Senate running for president. And they, I mean, like, it was mentioned earlier, they have the advantage of being able to actually have a platform to do something, in contrast to the other -- in contrast to their competitors. So they're going to seize that opportunity. We've seen how 2016 politics have played in the NSA fight in May. We saw it, how, even in the closure of the Ex-Im Bank, we saw 2016 politics there as well.
KIMSo you know, you know, Donald Trump can't help, you know, close the government over defunding Planned Parenthood, but Ted Cruz certainly can.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to call us, our toll free number 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com. And, Jennifer, thanks very much for your call. Let's go to Alice calling us from Ann Arbor, Mich. Alice, hi.
ALICEHi. Yes, I'm just wondering how anyone can take the Congress seriously about defunding, when they're talking about shutting down, when they're talking about the defunding of Planned Parenthood. None of the funds from Planned -- that the federal government provides go for abortion now as it is. It's already banned. So the whole thing's a fallacy. I mean, what -- it -- I don't understand how anybody can take it seriously.
PAGEAll right, Alice. Thanks so much for your call. Who'd like to address this. Jonathan.
WEISMANWell, I'll address it. I mean, she -- Alice is absolutely right in one respect. A lot of the money that goes to Planned Parenthood from the federal government goes through what's called a mandatory program. It's not actually at the discretion of Congress. Very little money involved in this government shutdown fight actually keeps Planned Parenthood afloat. But, yes, it's true that Planned Parenthood doesn't get federal money to conduct abortions. But, look, these Republicans want to shut Planned Parenthood down. They want -- they don't want the Planned Parenthood to exist. It was similar to the fight against ACORN. ACORN no longer exists.
PAGEAlice, thanks very much for your call. You know, one thing that seems to really ignite the Planned Parenthood debate is that Republicans are well served by denouncing Planned Parenthood and promising to defund it. Democrats are well served with their base in defending Planned Parenthood and it's role and, it seems to me, that makes it more likely that you'll see this be a real flashpoint.
BENDAVIDDefinitely. And you're already seeing fundraising on both sides based on this, which is always the surest indicator that something plays well with the base. I mean, you know, you see these letters go out -- help us save Planned Parenthood or help us shut down Planned Parenthood. And so, you know, it's become this flashpoint -- it's become, in a way, an emotional shorthand for, I think, a range of issues and for the cultural clashes that we have. And I think that's one reason it's going to be fairly difficult to get behind -- to get around.
PAGEAnd you look back at -- you look at it, kind of a step back, and you see funding the entire federal government, which is something -- maybe the most fundamental job Congress has -- and it continually gets entangled on extraneous issue, on other issues like Planned Parenthood, like the Confederate Flag.
KIMThat's right. And when they had the shutdown two years ago, it was all -- was it also about a health -- another health care issue, about defunding the president's health care law. And also just the amount of money that Planned Parenthood does get from the federal government is not a lot. But that's why it -- this is a, you know, like, conservatives hate Planned Parenthood. This is a good issue for their base.
KIMYou know, Democrats frame it as a women's health issue, which is also great for their base. Because if it's the issue of abortion, I mean, there are still some conservative Democrats in Congress who oppose abortion and are willing to side with the Republicans. But when it turns on the broader issue of women's health rights, then it really does become a partisan issue where no side really wants to back down.
PAGEJonathan, we have a couple emailers who say, we're used the term treaty in referring to the nuclear arms deal with Iran. Of course, it's not a treaty. The rules would be different if it were a treaty.
PAGETell us the difference.
WEISMANYeah, I hope I didn't use the word treaty. A treaty is a very formal agreement between nations or between the international community, that requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate. They're very rare. We did have a nuclear accord -- a nuclear treaty with Russia in the early years of the Obama administration that did get a two-thirds vote. And when the nuclear deal was first announced, there was a push by some senators to declare it a treaty that would need a two-thirds majority vote and that was killed. This is what is considered an executive agreement between nations' leaders.
PAGEOf course, that's why a new president could take steps to unwind it, if he or she chose to do so.
WEISMANAbsolutely. And they have all -- and every Republican has pledged to do that.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go to your calls and take your questions and comments. 1-800-433-8850. And we'll talk about the address -- the unprecedented address coming from Pope Francis. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times, Seung Min Kim of Politico and Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. You know, we've been talking about the Iran deal. Here are conflicting emails that we've gotten from listeners. From Ray in Whitefield, New Hampshire, he writes, it is sad and disheartening that the Iran vote will be along party lines. There are some, or many, Republicans, I suspect, who realize that this agreement is the best under the circumstances that can be achieved but vote the party line instead of what's best for the country. Is there hope?
PAGEBut then we have another email from another listener, who writes, if this treaty is so good, why is it kept under wraps? Why not publish it? Why do awful details keep dribbling out week after week, such as Iran has so many days' notice before an inspection, or some sites are off limits. Is this how the most open administration operates? Naftali, I think we're hearing the congressional debate here with the emails from our listeners.
BENDAVIDYeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that's interesting about this is it really is an international accord. So it's not just -- you know, some of the previous ones have been between the U.S. and Russia. This is between the U.S. and Iran but also France, Germany, UK, Russia and China. And I think that the diplomats in those countries played something of a role in the debate and are playing that role by signaling that they're not just going to go along with toughening sanctions, as some of the opponents want.
BENDAVIDI also think that when you look ahead to the fallout, it's likely that people who support the deal, if it goes bad, will perhaps face more consequences than those who oppose the deal if it actually turns out to go well. And I think all these things are kind of coming into play at the same time.
WEISMANAnd the deal is actually not secret. In fact a lot of the people who -- the lawmakers who have come out for or against it have made a point to say I am posting the entire deal on my website. It is available. You can read the whole thing.
KIMThe point from your first reader is -- or first listener is interesting, too, because you've seen a lot of prominent Republican officials who are not in office or not in a -- currently serving in administration come out in favor of this deal. You saw Colin Powell on "Meet the Press" over the weekend, you know, defending this deal. You've heard -- and Richard Luger, former Republican senator from Indiana. So it's fascinating to watch kind of that, where the broader, you know, response is a little bit more nonpartisan, whereas in Congress, it's almost purely along party lines.
PAGEWell, let's go to a Republican voter who's called us. Michael, he's calling us from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi Michael.
MICHAELHi, how are you this morning?
MICHAELThanks for taking my call.
PAGEGo ahead. We'd love to hear what you have to say.
MICHAELWell, I'm a Republican, have been all my life, and I'm just -- with all the baloney that goes on anymore in Washington, I have been so disheartened by the Republican Party. It's not the party that I joined. It just -- it's more of a corporate sponsored organization now. And I'm wondering that if any of your guests are running across other Republicans that are like me that I'm so fed up with them that I'm ready to either go Democrat or independent because these people do not represents my feelings to the party that honestly used to care about the country and not the companies. It just doesn't seem like they're doing that anymore, and they don't care. Anything to stop progress until they can get control and then do everything their way. And I'm sick of it.
PAGEMichael, thank you so much for your call. Jonathan, what do you think?
WEISMANWell, let's look at Donald Trump. I mean the amazing thing about Trump's rise is that he is trying to enunciate a version of Republicanism that we haven't seen in a very long time, a populist Republicanism that takes very conservative positions on things like immigration, really conservative positions, but then talks about raising taxes on hedge fund managers and companies that move overseas. He's actually articulating a new version of the Republican Party that perhaps, perhaps would capture and might be capturing the fancy of people who have become disillusioned with the way the Republicans have run Washington.
PAGEWell, here's an email from Howard, who's writing us from here in Washington. He says, does your panel think that Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin rallying tomorrow at the Capitol will affect the debate on the Iran deal or the Planned Parenthood shutdown? Do we think this rally will have an impact?
KIMIt certainly affects all the -- just the giant spectacle of the Iran debate in Congress. In terms of swaying votes, I think the number -- I'm not sure, you know, the remaining Senate Democrats are going to be persuaded by Donald Trump by any means. But it really does heighten the profile of how serious this debate has become and how important it is in the presidential campaign trail.
KIMWe also have to remember that, you know, along with the Cruz and Donald Trump rally, Hillary Clinton is going to be speaking about the Iran deal and defending it tomorrow morning. So you can kind of see that, you know, contrast, split-screen, of how divisive this issue has become on the campaign trail.
BENDAVIDYeah, I think that rather than affecting the debate, rather than affecting it, it reflects it. In other words, this symbolizes the way it has become a partisan, party-line discussion. So you have Trump and Cruz, you know, leading this rally. There was also a point when President Obama gave a big speech in favor of the accord, and it was a fairly hard-hitting, harsh one and seemed much less designed at persuading Republicans than it did at giving Democrats cover to support the deal.
BENDAVIDAnd so I think there was a point where this really changed and became a party-line issue. Nothing symbolizes that more than Donald Trump and Ted Cruz holding a big rally against it.
WEISMANI mean, certainly it makes -- when I think about the few undecided Democrats, and I think, for instance, Maria Cantwell from Washington, does Maria Cantwell from Washington watch a Donald Trump-Sarah Palin rally and then come out against the Iran deal? Actually, it seems to be that it will only solidify the party lines.
PAGEThe president is in the last quarter of his tenure, and so, I mean, I wonder, what kind of standing does he have in Congress? Are there things that President Obama would be able to get through Congress? Does he have the kind of standing to do that, or is -- we see on the Iran deal, for instance, he's followed a strategy that requires really getting minimal congressional support.
KIMI think, I mean, his influence just by the virtue of that -- the chamber, both chambers are not controlled by Congress. His influence is obviously little. We tried how -- we've seen how he's tried to court Republican and reach out to Republicans earlier on in his presidency. You know, he and John Boehner met several times for the grand bargain deal on the budget. That never happened. You know, they also had several talks on immigration. That clearly didn't happen, either.
KIMWe -- on trade he really did try to court Democrats, and he's been really kind of pushing the relationships, as minimal as they may be, with congressional Democrats. What you hear from Democratic lawmakers all the time is that they don't really reach out to us, they don't need us until -- or they don't court us until they really need us. But you've seen how hard the administration has worked Democratic lawmakers on the Iran deal.
KIMI mean, you talk to any undecided senator, undecided House member, they've talked about the letters that the administration has written explaining their answers to all the concerns they had about the nuclear deal. There were phone calls. There were, you know, meetings at the White House. So you see how when they want something done, they really do go out there to, you know, talk to the Democrats and answer their questions and make sure that the communication and the relationship is there.
PAGEYou could see something like the Pacific Trade Deal getting through Congress because that's an issue on which the Democratic White House and the Republicans in Congress agree. But I remember when -- remember when President Obama was re-elected, and the conventional wisdom was that the -- that we would be able to see a comprehensive immigration accord passing. Any hopes of that?
WEISMANI mean, I don't think so. In fact, I think President Obama has made the decision, rightly or wrongly, that he is not going to get anything from the Republicans, and he's just tired of trying. And I think what you've seen more and more, if anything, is executive orders. And we've seen this -- we've seen EPA rules of all kinds. We've seen -- we've seen him doing more things just via his power and the power of the executive branch, and I think his feeling seems to be let the Republicans challenge it in court if they will. Maybe they'll win some, maybe they'll lose some, but I think that's what we're going to see is have him accomplish what he can on his own.
WEISMANBut things have happened, and we just haven't taken a whole lot of notice. I mean, there was a major revision of the Patriot Act with USA Freedom Act, and it came and went and was not greatly remarked on. When there is a convergence -- still when there is a convergence of interest, things happen. If, for instance, as Susan, as you said, if the president can nail down this Pacific Trade Deal, he wants to put it in front of Congress, he probably could pass it.
PAGEBut we do -- the picture that I think Americans see is a Capitol that doesn't really function all that well. Let's talk to Guy, who's calling us from Brookshire, Texas, about that. Hi, Guy.
GUYYes. Thank you, Susan, for taking my call.
PAGEYes, please, go ahead.
GUYYes, yeah, I'm kind of joining in with the last I think one or two callers. I've been listening strongly to "The Diane Rehm Show" for at least the last five or six years, and I think everybody by now, for sure I've never seen Congress get so heated up and dysfunctional, except for the fact it's been ever since Obama got into office. It's just -- things have just gone berserk in Congress. And I'm a little disappointed, after years and years of talking about who says what and, you know, talking about the dysfunction in Congress, it's a given.
GUYI mean, the Republicans are going to do everything they can to derail whatever the Democrats want and vice versa, basically. And I'm dismayed by the fact that it seems like we ought to have a little bit less talk about the standard-issue things that everybody knows already and more talk about getting some brilliant minds on discussing what can be done about changing Congress. How can we -- how can we diffuse this dysfunction and make it a more functional Congress?
PAGEYou know, Guy, I think you probably have a lot of Americans nodding their heads in agreement. Is there anything on the horizon that makes you think that a new president, for instance, would be able to negotiate this kind of difficult terrain in a different way, or are we just set up, for whatever reasons, for an endlessly partisan divide?
BENDAVIDI mean, Guy makes some very interesting points, the things that we are not debating. We are not debating campaign finance reform, which could have an impact on the level of partisanship. We are not debating the new ways to redistrict in a less partisan way. There are ways to make the Congress less partisan. But these are so far down the list of debating issues, and I don't see them coming anytime soon.
PAGEWell, campaign finance, certainly one of the issues that's affected the debate. Redistricting, that's something states can do, and you have seen some states, California, Florida, some others, trying to move forward on that front.
WEISMANYeah, and it's possible that at some point that will gain some sort of a critical mass, but what tends to happen, more often than not, is that when a party is in power, they are happy to redistrict things to their own benefit. And we particularly saw, after the 2010 election, which was a huge sweep for the Republicans, and then the redistricting that followed, and now it's all aided by computers. So there's this ability to draw these incredibly careful, partisan districts. I think we're seeing that more and more. I don't really see a trend go in the other direction too much. And I think that doesn't bode well for the future.
PAGEYou know, Seung Min, Politico, your publication, had a story this morning that said Speaker Boehner is likely to face a challenge, perhaps this fall, from his own members and that he may well not run for re-election because, for one thing, he's facing this divided Republican Congress. What can you tell us?
KIMSo there's a lot of question that comes up regularly about Speaker Boehner's future, considering he deals with -- I mean, he has probably one of the toughest jobs in Washington. He's dealing -- he's trying to balance two very different wings of the Republican Party. He's got a conservative part of his conference that aren't afraid to kind of lash out at him and embarrass him to some respect.
KIMBefore the recess, we had this attempt from a pretty obscure congressman from North Carolina, Congressman Mark Meadows, in effect to try to, you know, vacate the speaker's position, Boehner's position, as speaker. That didn't go through, but there's talk about how lawmakers, maybe more so than Meadows, may try that again. And I think in our story that we reported this morning, we said that, you know, Boehner's aides and his allies expect that there's going to be an attempt to try to push that again.
KIMAnd a lot of it deals with just all the issues that he's facing. We've got debt limit, government funding, transportation funding and a -- and the big question is how does Boehner handle all those issues.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. So this is going to be one of the tough tickets in town to get, and that's to see Pope Francis address a joint session of Congress. This has never happened before. Why has Pope Francis been invited with this -- what is really a great honor in our country?
WEISMANWell, I think popes have been invited before. He's the first one who's accepting. Both John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi are Catholic. There's a lot of Catholics in Congress. And it's going to be a very interesting visit not only because -- you know, Congress is used to the State of the Union, where people get up and cheer if you're on one side, and on the other side, you sort of sit there sullenly, rolling your eyes. I don't think that's going to happen here. Nobody's going to be holding up signs or yelling out liar or anything like that. It's a different kind of thing.
WEISMANBut of course what makes this visit particularly interesting is this pope has spoken out on issues that have a little more resonance with liberals and progressives than some previous popes have, and seeing how that all plays out I think is going to be fascinating. But overall it's -- people are looking at it as a rare break, a rare opportunity for a feel-good moment in Congress amid all this bickering that's otherwise going to occupy the fall.
PAGESo a feel-good moment maybe, but what if he lectures them, Jonathan? Do we think he'll deliver a tough message?
WEISMANYou know, the pope is pretty -- he's pretty roundabout in his messages in these contexts. He doesn't like to be overtly political. But -- and one of the reasons that some Republicans really wanted to get beyond this spending issue is because they didn't want a government shutdown looming, especially if they're fighting over, like, funding for pro -- anti-poverty programs when the pope is there.
WEISMANBut then again, Democrats probably don't want to fight over abortion when the pope is there, too. So, you know, there are a lot of oxes to be gored here.
KIMOne interesting thing to watch for is when the pope is speaking, right behind him will be, you know, the speaker of the House, John Boehner, and Vice President Joe Biden. It'll be fun to watch what their expressions are at certain points of his speech, whether he talks about abortion or immigration or whatnot.
PAGEAnd they're both kind of emotional guys.
KIMVery much so.
PAGEYou could see either one of them bursting into tears.
BENDAVIDYeah, but I think this is going to be a situation where everybody's on very good behavior. Both -- I think the pope, as Jonathan said, is probably going to give very general message, and I think everybody's going to be applauding and cheering. Probably you won't see some of the division that you otherwise see when, say, the president addresses Congress.
PAGEOkay, Beth has just called us from Tulsa, and she says she knows how to fix gridlock in Congress. I think we really have to take this call. Beth, what is your wisdom?
BETHI don't know that I have the answer, but I think one thing for us to all consider when we're voting for our new president is which president can work well with others. We need to select someone who's not radically a Democrat or Republican, but someone who can both represent their party and at the same time be successful in working with other parties. And...
PAGEBeth, I think that sounds like pretty good advice. So who do you guys think might fit that bill?
WEISMANWell, this is the problem, of course. Before we get to choose that president, the voters of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have to choose their nominees, and they tend to have a different view of these things. I mean, the only -- the only person out there actively campaigning as a bipartisan voice, really, is John Kasich of Ohio. You really haven't heard anyone doing the -- actually it was the Obama shtick, the -- there is no red America, no blue America, there's only the United States of America. We're not hearing a lot of that at this point.
PAGEGo ahead, Neftali.
BENDAVIDWell, plus they all say that before they get here. They know that that's what voters want to hear. So President Bush was going to be a uniter, not a divider. President Obama was going to bring together the blue states and the red states. And then they get here, and they find a divided Washington that they inevitably find it difficult or impossible to overcome. So no matter what the candidate says, I'm not quite sure how they would get here and manage to overcome those differences.
PAGEIt's a tough business for sure, and it's going to be a busy couple months. Thanks so much for joining us this hour to talk about it on the Diane Rehm Show. Neftali Bendavid from the Wall Street Journal, Seung Min Kim from Politico, Jonathan Weisman from The New York Times, thanks for being here with us.
BENDAVIDThank you very much, Susan.
KIMIt was great to be here.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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