Wed July 31, 2013
As Summer Recess Looms, Congress Remains Inactive
Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 2:20 pm
Friday is the last day before the 113th Congress scatters for their summer recess. And what has it accomplished so far? Almost nothing, says New York Times congressional correspondent Jonathan Weisman. As he points out in a recent article:
"None of Congress's 12 annual spending bills have reached Mr. Obama's desk, and with the House and the Senate far apart on total spending levels, a government shutdown is possible on Oct. 1, when the current spending law expires.
"Once Congress returns on Sept. 9, lawmakers will have just nine legislative days until the current fiscal year ends and large swaths of the government would be forced to close."
Weisman joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss why this Congress has passed so few laws, and explain some of the conflicts between Republican lawmakers and President Obama.
On what Congress has accomplished so far this session
"[They've accomplished] almost nothing. This is a remarkable Congress, but the 113th Congress has passed about 13 public laws. By the end of this week, maybe there'll be a 14th ... with a final passage of a student loan bill. But right now their rate of passing laws is about half the 112th Congress' rate, and the 112th racked up fewer laws than any Congress since World War II. So we are really on pace to have one of the least productive, if not the least productive, Congresses in history."
On whether that unproductiveness is intentional
"It is. House Speaker John Boehner said a couple of weeks ago that the Congress should not be judged on the number of laws it passes, but the number of laws it repeals. Frankly, it isn't repealing any laws either. This is just a House of Representatives made up of quite a few people — quite a few Republicans — who just don't believe that they were sent to Washington to pass laws. That is somewhat contradictory, however, because you can be a conservative and pass laws as well. There are conservative laws. Frankly, this is just a dysfunctional Congress."
On political theater in Congress
"Many [of the bills being proposed] are about streamlining regulations or stopping new regulations. A lot of them are also aimed at these scandals that the House has really been pursuing, kind of attacks on the IRS. [T]hey went down this road, initially — Republican leaders weren't ... investigating, investigating, investigating. They didn't want to reprise the imagery of the House during the latter Clinton years, which seemed to be consumed by investigations and impeachment. But the IRS scandal, this notion that the IRS was targeting conservative groups to silence them, this really took off in conservative circles. Even though a lot of evidence has come up that somewhat contradicts it, or expands the scope of what the IRS was trying to do. In conservative circles this is still a really big issue. And what you're seeing this week as really the last major acts of the House before a break that will take them all the way to Sept. 9 — Sept. 9! — is a way to stoke those fires. So when they go home for their break, these Republican House members can say, 'We are with you. We are present. We are going to stop government abuse that you have seen us lay out for you.' "
On House plans to vote to repeal Obamacare for the 40th time
"They know what they're doing is rallying their base to keep them by their side. Right now Congress' approval rating is like 14 percent. That means that liberals don't like what Congress is doing; they don't like what the Republicans are doing. But it means also that a lot of conservatives don't like what Congress is doing either, and the Republicans want to get those conservatives at least on their side. It's no coincidence that this defund Obamacare movement right now is being led by Marco Rubio, who is a leading Republican name for the 2016 nomination, and by Ted Cruz, who is brand new to the Senate, brand new to elected office, who is also making noise about 2016. So you cannot separate this from the base politics that is early presidential running."
On upcoming bills to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling
"It's going to be an ugly showdown. I think that we are gearing up towards two really bad junctures this fall. First, on Sept. 30 the government will run out of money for the next fiscal year unless the House and the Senate can come up with some kind of funding mechanism to keep the government open. And right now, the House and Senate are very far apart on how much money they want to allocate to the government, overall. Then comes the showdown over the debt ceiling. It is likely to come at the beginning of November, and right now the two parties are very, very far apart.
"As you said, President Obama says, 'I'm not even going to negotiate on this.' Congress needs to find a way to raise the government statutory borrowing limit, and Republicans in the House and Senate are saying, 'No way, we need to extract a pound of flesh; we need to get some kind of concession from the president.' Ironically, they have not yet decided what pound of flesh they want. Some say they want some real commitment to changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security; some say they want to defund Obamacare; some say they want some kind of statutory commitment to tax reform. Republicans want to get some kind of concession from the Democrats; they just don't even know what kind of concession they want yet."
On the fallout of the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill passing with a minority of Republican votes
"They almost couldn't pass a hurricane relief bill. I don't know if you remember, but Republican members of Congress for the Northeast went on television and went to the House floor to denounce their fellow Republicans who they couldn't believe were holding up a disaster relief bill after a disaster of such magnitude. The Republican majority never really recovered from the showdown over [Hurricane] Sandy. ...
"That Sandy relief bill passed with a majority of Democrats voting for it and a minority of Republicans voting for it, and at that point conservatives in the House said, 'No more, you are not going to let that happen, Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner, you will only put bills on the floor that have the support of a majority of Republicans.' And once they made that demand he has not wavered from it. That's why we've had so many problems getting the House to even consider an immigration bill, because at this point a majority of Republicans will not support a comprehensive immigration bill. ... We really are not getting done things that are typically easy to get done."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Friday is the last legislative day before Congress takes its summer break, so we thought this would be a good time to take a look at what the 113th Congress has and hasn't accomplished so far. According to my guest Jonathan Weisman, a congressional correspondent for the New York Times, this Congress has been one of the least productive in history. They have accomplished so little that the president is looking into how he can bypass Congress and use executive actions to make changes in areas like job creation, immigration and the economy.
But the president can't avoid the showdown he will soon be facing with Congress. As Weisman pointed out in a recent articles, quote, "with the House and the Senate far apart on total spending levels, a government shutdown is possible on October 1, when the current spending law expires. Once Congress returns on September 9, lawmakers will have just nine legislative days until the current fiscal year ends and large swaths of the government will be forced to close."
Jonathan Weisman, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did the Congress accomplish so far this session?
JONATHAN WEISMAN: Almost nothing. This is a remarkable Congress. The 113th Congress has passed about 13 public laws. By the end of this week, maybe they'll be at 14th with the final passage of a student loan bill. But right now their rate of passing laws is about half the 112th Congress' rate, and the 112th racked up fewer laws than any Congress since World War II. So we are really on pace to have one of the least productive, if not the least productive, Congresses in history.
GROSS: And that's kind of intentional on the part of some members of Congress.
WEISMAN: It is. I mean, House Speaker John Boehner said a couple weeks ago that the Congress should not be judged on the number of laws that it passes but the number of laws it repeals. Frankly, it isn't repealing any laws, either. This is just a House of Representatives made up of quite a few people, quite a few Republicans, who just don't believe that they were sent to Washington to pass laws.
That is somewhat contradictory, however, because, you know, you can be a conservative and pass laws, as well. There are conservative laws. Frankly, this is just a dysfunctional Congress.
GROSS: One thing that Democrats and Republicans did come together on was the money to pay air traffic controllers after the sequester was creating airport delays that would have had a very direct effect on congressmen and women because they travel back and forth between their home state and Washington so much. So like how did that get done so quickly?
WEISMAN: It was really striking because the moment that the House of Representatives was passing that law to undo these automatic sequestration cuts, these across-the-board cuts, that came in because of the Budget Control Act, there was a line of cars piled up behind the House waiting to get these guys to the airport so they could fly home for the weekend.
It was one of the most striking visuals I've seen in a long time in Congress, and it really was a case where the folks who really were impacted, typically business travelers, members of Congress, the elite, the people who were most affected were also the people with the biggest voice on Capitol Hill, and they got what they wanted.
It was really almost the only thing that was actually undone by an act of Congress that was hit by this sequester. You didn't see Congress act to do something about Head Start cuts, to do something about cuts on Meals on Wheels. But they certainly responded very quickly on the air traffic controllers. In fact that bill came up - came together I think on a Tuesday, and it was done by Friday.
GROSS: OK, so that got done, but in this Congress that has accomplished so little in terms of actually passing bills, there's been a lot of theater. For instance, the House is ending this week before the recess with what they're calling Stop Government Abuse Week, and there's 10 bills scheduled for a vote through this week to basically make it more difficult for federal agencies to have regulations that would restrict business. Do I have that right?
WEISMAN: It's - many of them are about streamlining regulations or stopping new regulations. A lot of them are also aimed at these scandals that the House has really been pursuing, kind of a tax on the IRS. You know, they went down this road. Initially Republican leaders weren't that into investigating, investigating, investigating. They didn't want to reprise the imagery of the House during the later Clinton years, which seemed to be consumed by investigations and impeachment.
But the IRS scandal, this notion that the IRS was targeting conservative groups to silence them, this really took off in conservative circles even though a lot of evidence has come up that somewhat contradicts it or expands the scope of what the IRS was trying to do. In conservative circles, this is still a really big issue, and what you're seeing this week as really the last major acts of the House before a break that will take them all the way to September 9, September 9, is a way to stoke those fires so when they go home for their break these Republican House members can say we are with you, we are pressing, we are going to stop government abuse that you have seen us lay out for you.
GROSS: The House is going to vote to defund Obamacare this Friday for the 40th time. What's the point of that?
WEISMAN: You know, the last vote to defund or to try to dismantle Obamacare was a very conscious thing. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor from Virginia, he had tried to put together a bill that, taking a conservative tack, would find some way to ensure those with pre-existing conditions by taking money out of one side of the health care law and shifting it to another part of the health care law that has not been very well used.
Conservatives got very angry about this because they said we don't want to save any part of the health care law, and in fact the new members of the House hadn't had a chance to have their own vote to repeal Obamacare. So they scheduled a vote to repeal Obamacare. Everyone on the Republican side got to vote one more time to repeal Obamacare.
This time they're doing it again, but they're - it's a new tack. This time they're going to strip the IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, of anything to do with Obamacare. Well, the fact is that the IRS is a major administrator of the health care law, and if the IRS, if this law, I mean this bill, were to pass that is going to be voted on Friday, it really would just gut the health care law.
It's all symbolism. This is a way to say we're going to come at this over and over and over again. And you still see how much this means in the conservative world. Right now on the Senate side, a group of senators led by Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida are saying that they will not pass any government funding legislation to keep the government open into the next fiscal year, which begins in October, unless it strips all funding from Obamacare.
And some Republicans are saying this is nuts, we cannot shut down the government because obviously President Obama is not going to sign anything like this into law, but they are being driven by conservative activists who just cannot stand it and will not - and basically cannot get enough of these kind of votes. They just love votes to repeal Obamacare.
GROSS: I don't know that you can actually this because it gets to the question of motivation, but do you think that the conservative Republicans who keep voting to repeal Obamacare and who are basically saying we're going to shut down the government unless President Obama repeals his signature health care bill, do you think they see it as political theater or a way to win votes or a way to, like, take a stand on what they really deeply believe?
WEISMAN: I think they deeply do believe that the health care law is having - is wreaking havoc in some circles of the economy. I do believe that they think that. I do also think that this is political theater, and they know it. They know what they're doing is rallying their base to keep them by their side.
Right now Congress' approval rating is like 14 percent. That means that liberals don't like what Congress is doing, they don't like what the Republicans are doing, but it means also that a lot of conservatives don't like what Congress is doing, either. And I - the Republicans want to get those conservatives at least on their side.
It's no coincidence that this defund Obamacare movement right now is being led by Marco Rubio, who is a leading Republican name for the 2016 nomination, and by Ted Cruz, who is brand new to the Senate, brand new to elective office and is also making noise about 2016. So you cannot separate this from kind of the base politics that is early president running.
GROSS: So this fall after Congress reconvenes, once again there's going to be a vote on raising the debt ceiling. And House leader John Boehner said we're not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending, it's as simple as that. And President Obama has said that he's not going to negotiate terms to raise the debt ceiling, just wants it raised. What kind of showdown do you expect to see in the fall?
WEISMAN: It's going to be an ugly showdown. I think that we are gearing up towards two really bad junctures this fall. First on September 30, the government will end - it will run out of money for the next fiscal year unless the House and the Senate can come up with some kind of funding mechanism to keep the government open, and right now the House and Senate are very far apart on how much money they want to allocate to the government overall.
Then comes this showdown over the debt ceiling. It is likely to come at the beginning of November, and right now the two parties are very, very far apart. As you've said, President Obama says I'm not even going to negotiate on this. Congress needs to find a way to raise the government's statutory borrowing limit. And Republicans in the House and Senate are saying no way, we need to extract a pound of flesh, we need to get some kind of concession from the president.
Ironically they have not yet decided what pound of flesh they want. Some say they want some real commitment to changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. Some say they want to defund Obamacare. Some say they want some kind of statutory commitment to tax reform. Republicans want to get some kind of concession from the Democrats, they just don't know - even know what concession they want yet.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He's a congressional correspondent for the New York Times. Jonathan, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He's a congressional correspondent for the New York Times. We're probably talked about a couple of these already, but what do you think have been the most dramatic examples of partisanship or obstructionism or radicalism during this 113th Congress so far?
WEISMAN: The 113th Congress actually started in a rancorous but ultimately productive way. Remember it started with a deal on the fiscal cliff that did raise taxes on the rich. Actually it raised taxes on everybody a little bit because it allowed - the deal allowed a temporary cut to the payroll tax to expire. So virtually everybody who works saw a little bit of a tax increase, but those who earn more than $400,000 saw a fairly hefty tax increase.
And it looked like, it looked like Republican leaders, especially in the House, were willing to, when push comes to shove, to let legislation pass even if only a minority of the Republicans were going to vote for it. They let the Democrats kind of bear the load and get tough legislation passed.
But at the very - on the very first day of the 113th Congress, when John Boehner stood for re-election as House speaker, we saw this group of Republicans coalescing, these very conservative Republicans coalescing, to try to stop his re-election. It was startling because it was right out in the open. You saw Tim Huelskamp, who is a representative from Kansas, with an iPad on the House floor checking off votes of people that he thought were going to vote against John Boehner. And it could very well have brought the speakership down.
And the response from John Boehner was very typical Boehner but also kind of set the tone for what would happen for the rest. He didn't get angry. He didn't punish like other leaders have punished in the past. And really I think that a lot of the conservatives since then have felt like they have nothing to fear from John Boehner.
So the next thing that came up was the hurricane relief bill after Hurricane Sandy. These typically just blow through Congress like a hurricane, not much debate, they just pass, and that's it. They almost couldn't pass a hurricane relief bill. I don't know if you remember, but members of Congress, Republicans members of Congress from the Northeast went on television, went to the House floor to denounce their fellow Republicans who they couldn't believe were holding up a disaster relief bill after a disaster of such magnitude.
And the Republican majority never really recovered from the showdown over Sandy because at that point, that Sandy relief bill passed with a majority of Democrats voting for it and a minority of Republicans voting for it. And at that point, conservatives in the House said no more. You are not going to let that happen, Mr. Boehner. Mr. Boehner, you will only pull bills on the floor that have the support of a majority of Republicans.
And once they made that demand, he has not wavered from it. That's why we've had so many problems getting the House to even consider an immigration bill because at this point a majority of Republicans will not support a comprehensive immigration bill.
And we can't get a farm bill passed. Farm bill - farm bills are typically passed by overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate. This time, the farm bill, over three years, could not pass because conservatives did not like the funding for food stamps. In fact, a farm bill finally passed once they stripped out the food stamp initiative from that. That's 80 percent of the farm bill. So we really - we are not getting things done that are typically easy to get done.
GROSS: So you're saying that Republicans aren't afraid of Boehner because he didn't punish anybody when there was nearly a revolution to overthrow him. What's Boehner afraid of?
WEISMAN: John Boehner is afraid that a small minority of the Republican Party can toss him out and it would be a humiliating moment. He doesn't have control over the conference the way past leaders have had. Now in the past when Tom DeLay, we all remember The Hammer, when Tom DeLay was in charge, he could use enticements in the form of earmarks, these special provisions for people's districts, to lure Republicans to his position, and he could use threats, which he did.
But this speaker doesn't really use threats, and he also doesn't have a hammer behind him. He doesn't have a Tom DeLay in the leadership who is also willing to back him up and threaten and cajole members of the House to stand with their speaker.
GROSS: Is that because he's a nice guy or just doesn't know how to lead?
WEISMAN: I think in some ways it's both. He is a nice guy. He doesn't hold anger well. He'll get momentarily angry, then he'll pat somebody on the back. But it's also because of the kind of Republicans that are being elected now. These Republicans from a lot of these very conservative districts are being elected on a platform of radically smaller government, and they are not going in saying we want to bring home the bacon to this district, we want to fix, you know, the Reading sewer system or the Hoboken, you know, ferry terminal.
They're going in saying I'm not going to bring home the bacon for you, I'm going to radically shrink the government. And they're stoking the voters in very gerrymandered or conservative districts. Remember the House used to have a big chunk of districts that could swing Republican, could swing Democrat depending on which way the political currents are. That's just not the case anymore.
With the redistricting of 2010 and the concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas, Republicans typically represent areas that are extremely conservative and that, for political purposes, the biggest threat to House members are on their right flank, not on their left flank.
GROSS: They're afraid that they'll be primaried, so there will be a more conservative opponent put up against them in their district.
WEISMAN: Exactly. For almost all House Republicans, for almost all House Republicans, they do not have Democrats to fear. They have more-conservative Republicans to fear every two years.
GROSS: So what are some of the splits you're seeing in Congress now between people who have been there for a while and newcomers who have been elected on very conservative platforms who don't, as you put it, don't want to bring home the bacon. They got elected on a platform to just cut funding.
WEISMAN: The biggest one is comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate has not particularly been functioning either this year, but it did pass one major piece of legislation: a bill that would allow the 11-million-or-so illegal immigrants that are in this country right now some kind of pathway to citizenship. It would also allow a new guest worker programs to come in and change the way we allow immigrants to flow into this country and increase the number of immigrants.
It was a bill that was strongly backed by Democrats, also very strongly backed by Republican business interests in Washington and beyond, but in the House, those business interests don't have the same voice that they have in the Senate. In fact the voice that the Republicans in the House are listening to are voices of grassroots conservatives who hate this bill and especially hate the notion that we would let lawbreakers, illegal immigrants, become citizens in this country.
And right now this is a contest between those who are arguing for the greater good of the Republican Party, who see that Latino voters and immigrant voters more broadly want this bill badly and will punish their nominee in 2016 for the presidency if nothing happens, against the voters of 2014 that will come out for these House seats.
So it's really a contest between the national Republican Party and the House Republican Party, and right now the House Republican Party is winning.
GROSS: Jonathan Weisman will be back in the second half of the show. He's a congressional correspondent for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jonathan Weisman, a Congressional correspondent for The New York Times. We're talking about why the 113th Congress has gotten so little done. Congress begins the summer break at the end of the week. When we left off, Weisman was describing divisions among Republican lawmakers on immigration. The Senate passed a bill. But in the House immigration reform is stalled.
Immigration was seen by some Republicans as a big issue to help attract Latino voters, because they are not doing well with Latino voters and demographically they're going to have to if they want to have a future in national politics. So how did this past election and how are the demographics affecting the Republican plan?
WEISMAN: This is - immigration is where you see redistricting and gerrymandering of districts actually hurt the Republican Party. Because in states, in large states like Florida, Republicans - conservative Republicans, like Marco Rubio, see the handwriting on the wall. They know they need immigrant voters, Latino voters, to stand with them and they went toward the side of comprehensive immigration reform, right. But in the House, even in Florida, the way these districts are drawn, very few of these House members have large Latino populations. They don't have to worry that in 2014 and beyond they will be tossed out of Washington because of anger in these Latino districts. Their interests, their political interests, diverge dramatically from the interests of statewide party officials, like senators, and especially national figures who will be running for the presidency.
This is a real problem for the Republican Party. And I remember putting it to the Speaker's office, saying hey, where - is your, is House Speaker John Boehner's obligation to the national party, the national Republican Party and the country writ large, or is it to his members? And the answer was very blunt. His biggest obligation is to make sure that the House stays in Republican hands after the 2014 election. That means his biggest obligation is to listen to conservative voters in these gerrymandered districts, not the larger voices of the body politic nationally.
GROSS: And did he feel at all uncomfortable saying that or is that just like realpolitik?
WEISMAN: You know, I thought that they would evince at least some trepidation, but they really didn't. They really seem to believe that they have to look at the obligations of the next election first and foremost. I think that Speaker Boehner really would like comprehensive immigration reform. He's not likely to stay around as speaker after 2016. Some think that he might retire after 2014 because he's simply exhausted, and he would like to have some kind of legacy. But at the same time, he doesn't seem willing or able to confront his right flank, and his right flank is vast in the House of Representatives right now.
GROSS: How vast?
WEISMAN: Well, there are only about 27 districts - House districts - that President Obama either took or almost took that are held by Republicans. It used to be like about a hundred districts were always in play. This time they're not. And, you know, a swing of 13, 14 people away from him would cost him the speakership; that's how on a knife edge he is right now.
GROSS: Harry Reid recently was pressing for a change to the filibuster rule so that the filibuster would no longer apply to presidential nominees. Because the president would like to get an up or down vote on his nominees so that they could get confirmed. So tell us what happened.
WEISMAN: Well, Harry Reid was really pushing what's called the nuclear option. In 2005, go back to 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate and George W. Bush was in office. At that time the Republican complaint was that Democrats were filibustering President Bush's judicial nominees. And they came up with this idea that although according to Senate law - Senate rules - in order to change the rules of the Senate you need 67 senators to assent. You need a two-thirds majority to change the rules of the Senate. But a little arcane wrinkle says that you can overturn the ruling of the chair - the guy who's making decisions, parliamentary decisions - with only 51 votes. So they created what became known as the nuclear option, which is this: You move to change the rules of the Senate. You can't get 67 votes but you just say we're going to change it anyway with 51 votes. The person in the chair will rule that the parliamentarian says that's not right, you can't do that, you need 67 votes. Then the majority leader says, well, I'm going to move to overrule the ruling of the chair, and then 51 senators get together and vote to overrule the parliamentarian. By doing that, you've changed the rules of the Senate with a mere 51 votes.
This sent Democrats into apoplexy in 2005. Harry Reid decreed that you'll be breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate. And they stepped back from the nuclear option in 2005 when 14 senators got together and said we're not going to do this. Let's come up with some gentlemen's agreement on what it means to filibuster judges. Well, fast-forward to 2013, and Harry Reid is now on the other side. He's not a leader of the Senate; he's in the majority, and he decides that he's going to do the nuclear option. He's going to play brinkmanship politics and say I'm going to do this unless Republicans blink and allow the president's nominees to pass through. Ultimately the Republicans blinked. They got almost nothing from this, except that Harry Reid did not press the button on the nuclear option. He did not change the rules of the Senate. But he also did not promise that he would not change the rules in the future. He only got the seven nominees that the president wanted through with a simple majority vote.
GROSS: How did it happen that the Republicans didn't get anything in return?
WEISMAN: You know, I think - they had this meeting. It was a very dramatic moment. Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi came up with this idea on a Thursday to have all the Senate get together in the august old Senate chamber behind closed doors to try to hash this out on a Monday night. So they all came in from out of town. Around 6:30 they adjourned to old Senate chamber. They closed the doors. Reporters are just milling around outside for hours and hours while one by one the senators kind of have a vent session. They all get up and stand and say you just don't understand us. They talk it through. And then they emerge with a deal. And that deal had actually been cut over the weekend when Senator John McCain of Arizona pleaded with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to come back to the table and step back from the nuclear brink.
That deal was - there was one small face-saving measure that - the Republicans hate the National Labor Relations Board. They feel like the NLRB always tilts to the unions - which it kind of does. They wanted some kind of face-saving measure. They said withdraw President Obama's - two of President Obama's NLRB - National Labor Relations Board - nominees. Give us two new ones. The twist was we don't care who those new two ones are. They could be - they could be put up by the unions. They could be as liberal or as in-your-face as the two guys that you're going to remove. Just give us two new nominees and we'll give you all seven, carte blanche. That's what they did. They gave them this one face-saving measure and basically the deal was cut around Mitch O'Connell's back, which really, the whole thing weakened the Republican leadership in the Senate. It strengthened John McCain's hand, who has become kind of the de facto leader in the Senate. And it really boosted Harry Reid. Now, Harry Reid can only go back to the nuclear well so many times. So the argument from Republicans is, well, he took it to the brink, he can't take it to the brink again.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weissman; he's a Congressional correspondent for the New York Times. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weissman; he's a Congressional correspondent for the New York Times. And at the end of this week, Congress is out for break until September.
You had talked about John Boehner as speaker of the House and why he hasn't been an effective leader. Let's look at Mitch McConnell, who is the Republican minority leader in the Senate. How effective has he been on the whole?
WEISMAN: Well, remember, Mitch McConnell by nature is a dealmaker. He can be gruff, he can grumble a lot, but when he's backed into a corner he tends to be the guy who finds the way to cut a deal. He was the guy who basically brokered the deal to end the so-called fiscal cliff in January. He went behind closed doors with Vice President Biden and found a way. Republicans and Democrats actually always kind of liked that Mitch McConnell because he was the guy who would get them out of binds. But now Mitch McConnell is up for re-election in 2014 in Kentucky. The last time there was a Kentucky Senate race, McConnell had backed a mainstream Republican to be the next senator from Kentucky against Rand Paul, who was, you know, the darling of the Tea Party. And Rand Paul stormed to victory. He really showed the strength of the Tea Party in McConnell's home state of Kentucky. And ever since then McConnell has looked at his home state with great trepidation. He has bonded with Rand Paul in such a way that some people don't even recognize Mitch McConnell right now. So McConnell, even Republicans will admit that Mitch McConnell right now is looking over his right shoulder like nobody else in Congress, and it has affected the way the Senate works. Because suddenly the dealmaker in the Senate - the guy who gets them out of the jam - is no longer really available. What we are seeing is Mitch McConnell, the guy running for re-election and worried about what the Tea Party will do to him if he keeps cutting deals with the hated President Obama in Kentucky.
GROSS: So right now there isn't really a dealmaker to turn to?
WEISMAN: There really isn't, because if you look at the number two senator among the Republicans in the Senate, the Senate Republican whip is John Cornyn. John Cornyn has a very similar diode going on. He is also up for re-election and he has bonded with the freshman senator from Texas, Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz, if anything, is to the right of Rand Paul. So neither of these guys, John Cornyn or Mitch McConnell, are in position right now to be the dealmaker. And so that has fallen to somebody outside of leadership altogether, John McCain or Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
GROSS: How does somebody like Ted Cruz - who is a newcomer, and is really pretty far to the right - come in and so quickly get so much power?
WEISMAN: It's fascinating to watch him because he is not well-liked in the Senate. He came in and made enemies very quickly by insulting other Republicans. And he keeps doing it, even when he gets a lot of press for insulting other Republicans. Just yesterday he said that the problem with Republicans is that they're too afraid and they're too afraid to lose. But he makes those appeals to the Republican base and these Republican senators look at him and realize, this guy is popular with our voters. We have to be somewhat deferential to him. He is showing that if you simply walk into the United States Senate and are willing to break a lot of china, you'll rally the Republican base. You might not make any friends in the Senate, but you will be a force to be reckoned with, and he has done that.
There's kind of this new triumvirate right now, they're calling them the Constitutionalists. It's Rand Paul from Kentucky. It's Ted Cruz from Texas. And another newcomer, Mike Lee from Utah, who was a Tea Party darling and defeated another old-timey guy, Robert Bennett. These three are showing that if three United States senators can get together, they can really do a lot of, well, Democrats would say damage. They would say that you could do a lot of good just by standing together and stopping legislation.
GROSS: And what are their priorities now?
WEISMAN: What these three are trying to do right now overall is to shut down the government unless President Obama's healthcare law can be defunded. They've gotten a lot of pushback - public pushback. One senator called it the stupidest idea he had ever heard of. And many Republican House members are - with a very high leadership connections are saying if we shut down the government October 1st just to defund a law that President Obama, you know, has made his signature, we are crazy. We could lose control of the House if we do this. But these guys are resolute and they are rallying the base. I saw yesterday that conservative groups like Heritage Action, which is the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, like the Club for Growth, they're all saying everybody needs to sign onto this defund Obamacare movement, even if it could have very, very hazardous consequences to the party politically.
GROSS: How have President Obama's tactics in working with Congress changed since he was first elected?
WEISMAN: Well, remember, when the Democrats controlled Congress, President Obama was actually very deferential. He really let the House and Senate leadership, Democratic leadership, write his stimulus bill. He tried to set parameters but they did the details. They really wrote the details, many of the details, on the healthcare law too. They took much more - the White House took much more of a hands-on approach to reregulating the financial services industry.
But he was remarkably deferential to the leadership. Once the Republicans took over, he stepped back and really disengaged. He's - people - lawmakers in the Congress are amazed at how little they - how little contact they've had with the president and how little contact they've even had with his legislative staff, the guys who are actually sent up from the White House to Capitol Hill to lobby for the president.
But after this election, after he was reelected, he did switch tacks. He decided that the way to get anything accomplished with this very recalcitrant Republican House was to cut deals with the Democrats and the Republicans in the Senate and to isolate the House. And since then he's had all of these dinners, these wooing sessions at the White House.
Dennis McDonough, his new chief of staff, has been up on Capitol Hill over the last few weeks almost constantly trying to woo Republican senators, try to cut a deal on immigration, to cut a deal on budgets, to cut any manner of deals. It has been marginally successful. I mean look at what happened with immigration. They succeeded in getting a bipartisan immigration deal but it didn't really seem to isolate the House at all.
They've tried to get a deal on a so-called grand bargain on a budget - on deficit reduction, but all of these dinners that he's had with Republican senators, you know, the Republicans have kind of lapped it up. They've enjoyed the presidential attention. But they haven't really come around to his position. So we have seen very, very mixed results. And I think on the margins what we've really shown is in this modern era the president really doesn't have a whole lot of authority with the opposite party in Congress.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He's a congressional correspondent for the New York Times. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Weisman. He's a congressional correspondent for the New York Times. So Darrell Issa, who's the head of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, conducted hearings into Benghazi and was there a cover-up there, and into the IRS - was the IRS targeting conservative groups and Tea Party groups for audits.
And, you know, it looked like, oh, could these erupt into big scandals? They kind of didn't, and I'm wondering, like, if you stand back and look at those two investigations, what you think the impact was on the Republicans who led the investigations.
WEISMAN: To say that they didn't erupt into major scandals is to look more broadly at the electorate. If you look in activist conservative circles, they really did become major scandals. I mean if you go down and talk to an activist in South Carolina about Benghazi, they are not going to say that nothing came of this. When Representative Steve King of Iowa says that Benghazi is taking Watergate and Iran-contra and multiplying it by 10 and you get to Benghazi, you know, he believes that.
And a lot of his voters believe that. Nationally, the attack on Benghazi is not seen as a political scandal; it's seen as a tragedy. But in conservative activist circles, Benghazi is still a code for Barack Obama's accommodationist stand on jihadism. The IRS scandal is similar. Remember, the IRS scandal broke when a top official of the Internal Revenue Service, Lois Lerner, apologized - apologized - for targeting conservative groups, especially Tea Party groups, for special treatment in their applications for tax exempt status.
That apology really set the tone because in the next few days even President Obama got up there and publicly said this should not happen, the IRS cannot target groups for political purposes and it must stop. And heads rolled at the IRS over the next few days. But as the investigation went on, it became very, very muddy. We later found out that on these Be On the Lookout Lists, yes, these lookout lists said watch out for applications from Tea Party groups or from 912 groups or groups that call themselves patriots.
But they also had the word progressive on. The Be On the Lookout List said look out for groups that are progressive. Look out for groups that are supporting Palestinian rights. I did a story about the treatment being meted out to open source software developers who were also on these Be On the Lookout List. The BOLO lists, as they're called, were very, very broad.
And as this news came out in the national body politic, the IRS scandal lost its steam. But among conservative activists and certainly among Fox News watchers who still hear a lot about it, the IRS scandal still has great, great resonance. Because it plays on the notion, the broader notion, that the Obama administration is heavy-handed and is attacking our civil liberties and our personal liberties and our rights to privacy.
So it did not come of anything in the way an Iran-contra came of something, but it certainly has fueled the anger on the Republican right, and I don't - the Republicans don't seem to be giving up on it at all. The IRS scandal is the scandal with legs in the Republican Party.
GROSS: You've been covering Congress since January of 2012. You've covered politics for years before that. What are some of the things that surprise you most watching Congress up close?
WEISMAN: Well, I also - I came to Washington way back in 1996 and initially covered Congress then too. And what you saw back then was the iron hand of Tom DeLay running the House of Representatives, and to a certain degree Newt Gingrich. You didn't see the absolute free-for-all that you see in the House right now. You know, there were a lot of votes in the DeLay era in which the Republican majority mustered only 218, the bare majority to pass.
But you never thought that it wasn't going to pass. You always knew that DeLay had the votes he needed and was only going to ask 218 people to vote for any bill. He was always in control. You do not see that anymore. On many bills, even bills that are drafted by the leadership, the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, you always - there's always this sense that, wow, at any moment this whole thing could spin out of control.
And in some ways it's exciting as a reporter because you don't always know the outcome. It used to be, certainly in the House you always - you pretty much always knew how something was going to come out. I remember covering the impeachment of President Clinton and it was so - it was such a slog to cover because we all knew what was going to happen. We all knew President Clinton was not going to be thrown out of office.
But we had to go through virtually a year of the whole process before we got to the ending that had been written a year ago. Now we don't know what's going to happen. We also don't know whether some of the drama in Washington is really going to be a dramatic setback for the country.
When I look forward to October 1, when Congress - when the federal government runs out of money, I don't know that Congress is actually going to be able to come up with any money to keep the government from shutting down. I don't know. That's kind of dramatic as a reporter, but for a country I think that this lurching from crisis to crisis really has an impact on economic growth, on uncertainty, and just the sense of what is going on with our government.
GROSS: Well, Jonathan Weisman, thank you so much for talking with us and enjoy your break as Congress goes on its.
WEISMAN: Well, thank you, Terry. I'm sure I will.
GROSS: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Jonathan Weisman is a congressional correspondent for the New York Times. You'll find a link to one of his recent articles on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.