What's on Congress' agenda in the final weeks before the August recess? Our panel takes a look at what needs to happen, and what can realistically get done.
Leaders of a bipartisan debt panel propose deep cuts in tax breaks and spending. Write-in votes put incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the lead for Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat. And the FDA unveils plans for graphic warnings on cigarette packages. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- Jerry Seib executive Washington editor, The Wall Street Journal.
- Jeanne Cummings Politico's assistant managing editor in charge of Enterprise.
- Ron Elving Washington editor for NPR.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Monday. Leaders of a bipartisan deficit commission appointed by President Obama call for controversial cuts to Social Security and Medicare as well as big tax increases. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite, drops her bid for a GOP leadership position, and Democratic activists criticize a possible White House compromise on extending the Bush-era tax cuts. Joining me in the studio for the domestic hour of our Friday News Roundup, Jerry Seib of The Wall Street Journal, Jeanne Cummings of Politico, and Ron Elving of NPR. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JERRY SEIBThank you.
MS. JEANNE CUMMINGSThank you.
MR. RON ELVINGThank you, Susan.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an e-mail to email@example.com. Or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Jerry Seib, in your column in The Wall Street Journal this morning, the headline is "Deficit-Cutting Chairmen Call Washington's Bluff." A bold maneuver. Tell us what happened.
SEIBI think it was. You know, the backdrop here is President Obama, earlier this year, appointed a deficit-cutting commission -- 18 members from both parties, including lots of congressional leaders -- gave them a deadline of Dec. 1 to come up with a plan to cut the budget deficit back to 3 percent of the gross domestic product in the next five years. What happened this week was the two chairmen of that commission, a Democrat Erskine Bowles, who used to be White House chief of staff, and Alan Simpson, who used to be a Republican Senator from Wyoming, kind of got out ahead of their own commission by releasing their own recommendations of how this could be done, which I think was a very clever maneuver to both force the hands of their own commission to prove to Washington this could be done.
SEIBThey actually put out recommendations that would cut the deficit below the target President Obama gave them, and to essentially say, if everybody's uncomfortable at the outset, that's a good thing 'cause that's the only way this happens.
PAGESo they need to get 14 of the 18 members of the commission to agree for a plan to be officially endorsed by this commission. What are the odds, Jeanne, do you think, that they will be able to do that?
CUMMINGSI don't think the odds are terrific. Basically, this is the biggest roundup of sacred cows that we've ever seen in Washington -- certainly in our time. But -- and they are asking everybody to absorb a lot of pain. There are tax increases in this package that are being attacked by the right. There are other changes to Social Security and Medicare being attacked by the left. And the members that are on the commission, some of them are sitting lawmakers, and so it would be a very tough vote for them to actually endorse a final product. However, I agree with Jerry, but they have now launched a real serious -- potentially, a serious debate. They, I think, recognized from the outset that this is a draft, not a final proposal. And there could be room to scale back or to target certain areas where, potentially, some agreement could come around those.
PAGEWell, what do you think, Ron? Is this going to be another deficit report that's basically dead on arrival? We write stories about it. Nothing ever happens. Or do you think this has the potential to shape this debate we might have over the next year on the deficit?
ELVINGI think it could be both. There is some chance that this will sit around on a shelf, but at the same time be the next step in improving the overall consciousness of the problem. That really needs to happen. I mean, the best thing that can be said about this chairmen's mark -- which is precisely what it is. The best thing that can be said about it is that it does take the everybody-has-to-be-hurt approach. There has to be real pain. Please don't believe that by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse and maybe just going after somebody else's tax deduction, all of this can be made to go away.
ELVINGThere is way too much rhetoric that has dominated for decades that says we -- that is to say the people who are listening to whatever voice is speaking -- don't have to give up anything, just those people over there who are getting too much from the Federal government, either in the way of tax breaks or in the way of benefits. Only those people need to feel pain. As long as that is the dominant thinking, we will not have the kind of compromise it will take to get this done.
PAGEWhat did we hear from President Obama in reaction to this report, Jerry?
SEIBWell, there was an interesting contrast between what you heard from the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who said this is simply unacceptable and was then echoed by lots of liberal groups that said the same thing, mostly because there were proposed changes in Social Security that the left doesn't like, and also some further pullbacks in Medicare. But President Obama said we -- everybody has to stop, you know, knocking these things down at the outset. You need to listen. We need to absorb these and talk about it. And he was -- and because he is the creator of the deficit commission, I suppose you would have expected him to say that. But he essentially moved toward the middle, rhetorically, on this subject this week, and that's what he's going to have to do if this is going to work.
CUMMINGSThey -- I mean, getting to Jerry's initial point about this commission calling everybody's bluff here in town. I mean, what they've shown is that this can be done. And if there was a message out of this election, it's, do it. It's do something about this. That's what the voters were saying in many of the exit interviews. Government's too big. The deficit is too big. Get your fiscal house in order. So they didn't just call the bluffs of the institutional -- I'd say also called the bluff the Tea Partiers who have arrived. And we have a very different dynamic for the moment in Washington, in that we have these very conservative members who have arrived in town, claiming this kind of mandate and with people on the outside claiming that they're going to hold them accountable if they don't do anything.
CUMMINGSAnd then you also have a much larger class of Democratic senators who are up re-election next year who just witnessed what happened to their colleagues in this cycle. And the pressure is on them to demonstrate some action, too. It's a long shot, still, that anything will be done. But if something does get done and if these issues can stay elevated enough, it'll be those dynamics that can make it happen. And part of it is going to be shedding light on the specifics of their -- these proposals. For instance, on Social Security, despite the fact that the Democrats initially came out opposed to any -- what's being offered here. If you look at what's being offered, it changes the age in 2050. This is hardly something that's going to be jammed down the throats of 55-year-olds right now. So if we can have an intelligent conversation about what these actual proposals are, something might happen.
ELVINGYou know, I don't think that's where the real crunch is going to come. I think the crunch is going to come on things like the mortgage interest deduction. Now, that's a huge deal that applies to just about everybody who has a mortgage. Now, if you're going to say to people in the midst of a serious housing market-driven sick economy -- we're not necessarily technically in recession, but we're all living through the effects of this recession. It was driven by the bursting of a housing bubble. People are upset about the housing market, and you're suddenly going to say, oh, and by the way, that home mortgage deduction you've been deducting that makes it possible for you to afford your home -- forget about it.
PAGEWell, we actually already have a question on Facebook from Richard, who says, he'd like some clarification of what the plan is on changing or reducing the mortgage interest tax deduction. Jerry, is it the proposal just to do away with it?
SEIBNo. And it's a little vague. It says to reduce the home mortgage interest deduction from mortgages over $500,000 -- lots of wiggle room there. But to go back to Ron's point, I think that's right. That may be, in the end, a sacred cow. But I think the beauty in what the chairman did was that they offered -- they put more on the table than is necessary. So if you say, well, that one just can't work, then you can say, fine. Okay, if that one can't work, let's leave it off there. What about the other 90 percent of what we did? That'll still get us there. They have backed everybody into a corner. Or to use a different metaphor, you can't run and hide because of what they've put on the table. You have to say, I will not do all of this or any of this as opposed to -- well, that's one just not going to work.
CUMMINGSAnd they coupled that, the reduction of the mortgage write-off with a broader reduction in income tax.
CUMMINGSAnd so they didn't just say, we're going to take that away from you and not provide some other kind of compensation. They coupled it with a much lower personal income tax that would then compensate for some of the deductions that they get rid of. And the idea is to make paying taxes simpler and more straightforward.
PAGEWell, kudos to them for courage and for starting a conversation, at least. You know, we're going to have an issue come up more quickly when the lame duck session of Congress comes back on Monday. One of the big issues, the extension of the Bush era tax cuts -- a signal from one of the president's most senior advisors that the White House is ready to make a deal. What happened, Ron?
ELVINGDavid Axelrod, who is the president's prime political strategist, said, we have to deal with reality as we find it. We have to deal with the world as we see it. And, of course, the world as we see it is a way of referring to losing 60-plus seats in the House, six seats in the Senate, and having a much reduced momentum -- to put it mildly -- in the city of Washington. The president has been thrown back on his heels by this election. Now, if they are going to deal realistically with the fact that on Jan. 1, everyone's suddenly going to see their taxes go up because of tax cuts that are expiring from seven years ago, nine years ago, they are going to have to cut some kind of deal.
ELVINGOr else they're going to have to be willing to really go to the mat and say, we refuse to give the extension of this tax cut to the richest Americans. Now, maybe $250,000 a year was not the world's best place to cut it. That happens to be where one of the tax breaks comes, whereas one of the tax turning points comes, but if they pushed it up to 500, if they pushed it up to a million, perhaps they could win a rhetorical war by saying, all we're asking is for people who make a million dollars a year to go without the full tax cut. They would still get a tax cut up to $1 million a year. They wouldn't get the extension of the tax cut over $1 million a year. Maybe that's a point they're willing to fight for.
PAGEBut, you know, some Democrats were dismayed that the White House seemed to be signaling they were ready to fold before the conversation had really been engaged.
CUMMINGSThey definitely were, and the progressives and the liberals of the Democratic Party have really got their backs up right now. And they feel like the White House, from the moment it took office, has been compromising on priority issues. Beginning with the stimulus, when Obama didn't fight for his initial proposal and instead compromised in order to get votes of three Republican senators -- that's something that befuddled the liberals, but by the time he got around to turning his back on the public option, they were infuriated.
CUMMINGSAnd they see this as just a continuation of weakness and a failure of the White House to stand up for the principles that they think they elected him for. And, you know, it -- the Democrats were hurt in the election, in part by complacency and disillusionment among the liberal base. So this is not something that the White House can completely overlook.
PAGEThe squeeze between your liberal base and making a deal with Republicans, we saw that play out in 1995 and 1996 when President Clinton lost control of both the House and Senate.
SEIBOh, absolutely, and, you know, this episode of David Axelrod is just -- strikes as one of those classic Washington moments where when somebody utters an absolute, obvious truth...
PAGEYes, that's right.
SEIB...and it becomes highly controversial what -- David Axelrod says, well, we have to deal with the world as it is, and we don't have the votes to do anything else. And everybody is shocked and outraged. Well, it probably happens to be an absolutely provable fact.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about that Senate race in Alaska not yet settled. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio for our Friday News Roundup, Ron Elving, Washington editor for NPR, Jeanne Cummings -- she's the assistant managing editor in charge of Enterprise for Politico -- and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal. So not since 1954 and Strom Thurmond has a U.S. senator been elected by write-in, but Lisa Murkowski, Ron Elving, seems to be poised to do just that.
ELVINGThat's right. She got about 40 percent -- well, let's be careful here. Someone got 40 percent of the vote and maybe several someones who were written in by the voters of Alaska on the Election Day. And Joe Miller, who is the second most, apparently, popular candidate for Senate, got a little -- I guess with some of the ballots that have come in more recently, he's up about 35 percent. So if all of -- or if, say, 98 percent, as has been estimated, of the write-in ballots say something like Lisa Murkowski, well, it looks like she's the winner. Now, there's been some challenge from the Joe Miller folks and from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which sent out a lawyer to represent Joe Miller and to challenge some of these ballots.
ELVINGInitially, they were challenging anything that said Murkowski, Lisa. Well, of course, the ballot said Miller, Joe, so that wasn't a very good challenge.
ELVINGAnd now it looks like they're really only going to go after the ones that are egregious, let's say, that don't begin with an M, that begin with some other letter. But if the spelling isn't perfect -- as the state officials in Alaska have said -- they'll count that as hers. So it appears, judging on the first day or so of the counting, that the overwhelming majority of these ballots are going to be for Lisa Murkowski and that she will be the second write-in senator since 1954.
PAGEYou know, it feels a little like a throwback to the Bush v. Gore fight in Florida where they're looking at individual ballots, and there are challenges. Will this end up in the courts, do you think, Jeanne?
CUMMINGSI think certainly in the state courts. I don't know how far it'll go up, in part because there are amazingly -- there's an amazingly large percentage of them that are properly written, which is a testament to the campaign that she ran to try to teach people how to write her name 'cause it isn't easy to begin with. So, right now, the people who are looking at the ballots as they're coming in, it's indicated that even if the contested ballots were set aside, those that are properly written may be enough in and of themselves for her to succeed.
CUMMINGSNow, I do think, though, that if it's at all close, that Miller's camp will take this to the state courts to find out how they should be reading these because the State Board of Elections, it tends to count ballots even if they are not properly spelled but are -- clearly show the intent of the voter. They're using that standard. Miller's camp has been pressing for a much more strict standard, and that means that the name is spelled absolutely correctly. That particular issue may well be litigated in the Alaska courts before this is over.
PAGEWe have an e-mail from Diana, who asked, "Who wins from these legal and political disputes like the one going on now with the Alaska Senate race? Who loses? How might this affect the Republican Party since this fight's between two Republicans?" Jerry, what do you think?
SEIBWell, you know, there are a couple of answers to that, I think. One is that in the Washington context, the difference between a Republican senator named Lisa Murkowski and a Republican senator named Joe Miller is actually quite significant. One is a relative moderate and kind of part of the establishment and who would probably be in the room if you want to make a deal on something. Joe Miller is a Tea Party candidate and has probably got a quite different attitude about that sort of thing.
SEIBI think -- more narrowly, I think it's going to be hard for the Tea Party to support the Tea Party standing for, let the people have their voice and don't let the political system block their voice from being heard. You know, standing on a bunch of legal technicalities to stop somebody's win from being recognized after the people has spoken, I think that's an awkward position, particularly for the Tea Party, to be in.
PAGENow, what about the national Republican establishment? Joe Miller is a Republican candidate who won the primary. On the other hand, they originally supported Lisa Murkowski, who was the incumbent Republican senator. What are they doing in this fight?
ELVINGIt's been awkward for them, to put it mildly. I mean, among other things, she had been a vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, and she had been a ranking member on the Energy and National Resources Committee, a very important job for an Alaska senator and for the Republicans in general. And they basically said, look, if you run write-in against Joe Miller, who won the primary fair and square, we're going to have to take you away from those positions. And so she's been at loggerheads with the Republican leaders back here.
ELVINGBut, you know, if the count goes the way the count has been going, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Sen. Murkowski is coming back -- not just for the lame duck but for her to be sworn in for another term in January -- I suspect they're going to find a way to bridge those differences. And they'll bring her back into the fold, and Mitch McConnell is probably going to be relatively glad to have one fewer members of the Tea Party caucus in the Senate.
CUMMINGSOf course, Democratic leader Harry Reid might try to intervene as well. I think the courtship of Lisa Murkowski as a winner will be very interesting to watch. She didn't say who she would caucus with since she's coming back to Washington basically as an independent. And she was pressed to say whether -- especially in the final days -- to say that she would caucus with the Democrats. She didn't do that. But we -- I think Reid will make an effort. The Democrats still have the majority of the Senate. They have plum assignments that they can distribute. And...
PAGEAt least for two more years.
CUMMINGSAt least for two more years. And, you know, she has been fighting with her own caucus throughout this, and they have lawyers out there who are working for Miller. So I think, you know, in the end where she ends up will be interesting to see, and, most importantly, I think the process and the courtship that goes on will be a very fun show to watch.
PAGEWhat could Harry Reid offer Lisa Murkowski to make her -- convince her to caucus with the Democrats instead of the Republicans?
CUMMINGSWell, she has had a ranking position on committees, and one in particular that oversees a lot of the money that is sent back to Alaska, particularly for the native, indigenous people who are there. And the tribal folks were very much behind her for that specific reason, that she could, on the Committee of Natural Resources, deliver for them lots and lots of government grants. And if Reid were to put her in a position where she could continue to do that, that might, you know, have some appeal to her.
PAGERon, you look a little skeptical.
ELVINGI think she's got the best of both worlds being a Republican with a lot of independent credential at this point. I mean, Democrats had their own candidate here. There was no question she was running as the incumbent Republican from the Ted Stevens party, and Joe Miller was running as the insurgent Republican from the Sarah Palin party. And let's not forget that Sarah Palin's got a pretty good size role to play in all this. She was very important in this whole conflict.
ELVINGShe was the person who knocked off Lisa Murkowski's father, Frank Murkowski, when he was the governor of -- well, this is a long story between these two families. I think what she wants to do is come out of this the queen of Alaska, and Sarah Palin can go off and have her career in the lower 48 and in the broadcast world and so on. You know, Sarah Palin is Alaskan notwithstanding, and Lisa Murkowski will take over as the lead Republican in the State of Alaska.
PAGEYou know, it's just been a couple of weeks since the election, but a lot of jockeying for position, both in the congressional leadership and at the Republican National Committee. Now, you'd think that Michael Steele, having been the Republican national chairman, in a year when Republicans made huge gains, historic gains in the House, gains in the Senate, gains with governorship, that he would be hailed as a hero. But instead, we hear of new challenges this morning, Jerry Seib, to his re-election.
SEIBThere will inevitably be challenges because, as well as the Republicans did, the unhappiness with the way Michael Steele conducted himself as the national chairman is pretty palpable in the party. You know, there is a feeling among some people of import in the party that he didn't do a good job raising money, he spent too much time promoting himself and way too much time saying things that created unnecessary and counterproductive controversies. And for all those reasons, there are a lot of Republicans who want -- well they would, first of all, like Michael Steele to just go away. But it's clear he's not. We interviewed him on election night, and he essentially said, I'm not going anywhere. It's my choice whether to leave or not, and I choose not to leave. So there will be a challenge.
PAGEWell, he has to stand for re-election.
SEIBHe has a chance to stand for re-election in the next few weeks. He will stand for re-election -- he's made that clear. And there will be a challenge, but it's not really taken shape yet what the kind of challenge that he'll face will be.
PAGEWho could challenge him?
SEIBWell, I don't -- you know, there are various people whose names are being thrown around. You know, we were talking earlier about Saul Anuzis from Michigan, a national committee chairman -- a committee member who ran against him last time. I think what some in the party are looking for is a former elected official, somebody who's clearly got gravitas so that it's not a challenge from below, but a challenge that could be seen from above. And I don't know that that person has emerged yet.
CUMMINGSThere has been some talk about Norm Coleman, former senator, who now is involved in the groups with Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. He's head of the American Action Network, which played a very big role in the campaign. Coleman can claim some victories that Michael Steele cannot 'cause the American Action Network spent millions on advertising in Senate races where the RNC did not because they didn't have any money. And I also think that particular wing of the party wants a Coleman-type character because they can imagine how strong they'd be if they had $50 million in the RNC and then $100 million on the outside in these American Crossroads and other Republican groups to go up against Obama.
CUMMINGSIf they can have that double-barreled shotgun going into 2012, they could really rock the joint. And so I -- the problem for them is that they are all the institutionalists, and the vote for RNC chairman is basically a grassroots campaign. It's all of the state chairmen who...
SEIBWhere support for Michael Steele is a lot stronger than it is in Washington.
CUMMINGSYes, he is. He has been cultivating those state chairmen for the last year. He knew he was going to be in trouble. He went on a tour of, you know, practically all the states that got very little coverage. But in every state, he was touching chairmen who ultimately will hold his fate.
PAGEWell, meanwhile, we saw another Tea Party favorite, Michele Bachmann, drop her bid for a position in the Republican leadership in the House. Why did she pull out, Ron Elving?
ELVINGProbably a better question would be why she even announced it in the first place. There was no chance she was going to supplant Jeb Hensarling for this job. He is from Texas. He is very close to the other leadership figures. He is a Club for Growth guy, and Club for Growth was there before it was cool to be there in terms of the conservative surge that we've just seen. So this was going to be a team, and it was already pretty much arranged. They've had this wired. She was essentially making a protest gesture of saying, we should have somebody who's more directly linked to the new folks who were just coming in, somebody who is more directly linked to the Tea Party. She started a Tea Party caucus in the House. She is -- though, I think, at this point -- primarily a media figure and not so much a creature of the House, even though that's obviously where she's getting her power base.
PAGEMeanwhile, the Democratic side's still a pretty big fight in the House leadership. Jerry, tell us about the contestants.
SEIBA fight -- well, not a fight for the speakership apparently because Nancy Pelosi said, I'm running for majority leader now that there's not a speaker's position for the Democrats in the minority -- the number one job for the Democrats. And she seems to have enough votes in her caucus to make that happen. So the fight is over the number two position between Steny Hoyer, who has been the number two Democrat, and James Clyburn, who has been the number three Democrat, an African-American who's got -- clearly got a lot of support in the Black Caucus. And it creates kind of an awkward moderate versus liberal fight within the Democratic Caucus that a lot of people could probably live without.
SEIBIt looks as if Steny Hoyer is going to win by virtue of the fact that he has already essentially got the number two job and has done nothing to make people want to throw him out, and by virtue of the fact that a lot of -- at least several liberal committee chairmen have come out in favor of Steny Hoyer. And that kind of tips the ideological balance away from Clyburn because if he doesn't have the strong backing of all the powerful liberals in the caucus, there's not much point in changing horses.
PAGEWell, although he does have the backing of most of the members of the congressional Black Caucus...
PAGE...who have declared their preference, so will they find a role for Jim Clyburn?
SEIBThat's the issue right now. That's the discussion really. Let's find a role for Jim Clyburn that is appropriate and suitable for somebody of his stature and that will allow the people who support him not to feel offended or slighted in the end.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls. In fact, we'll go to the phones now and hear from our listeners with your questions or comments. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850. Going first to Concord, N.H. -- oh, no -- Concord, N.C., I guess. Linda, are you in North Carolina or New Hampshire?
PAGENorth Carolina. Well, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
LINDAThank you. I have a question about the deficit reduction commission's recommendations. Did they include, in the tax code changes, dropping the child tax credit, which seems to me a ludicrous way to increase expenditures to families to -- who already use more of our services than are necessary and it encourages non-sustainable growth? And I happen to be a liberal Democrat, but I would strongly support getting rid of the child tax credit.
PAGEAll right. Let's ask Jerry Seib.
SEIBYou know, I don't believe that was on the list. Now, there's a certain vagueness in the list of tax changes, and they present many options which I read through. I don't remember this one being on it. And, you know, like in a smaller version of the debate over the home mortgage deduction question, this would be controversial, I think. So I don't believe they've gone there. There's not quite as much money there as there is to be found elsewhere.
PAGEAll right. Linda, thanks very much for your call. Let's go to Chicago and talk to Jim. Jim, welcome to the show.
JIMThank you. I wanted to just make a comment. I think it's disingenuous of your panel and many other pundits for not bringing up arguably one of the worst ways that you could possibly imagine that's gone on for so many decades, and that's military spending. But nobody's talking about that. Would they address that, please?
PAGEOkay. Sure, we will do that. Jim, thanks for your call.
CUMMINGSThey actually do call for cuts in military spending -- $100 billion in cuts and closing oversea bases by a third. So, again, it's all sacred cows, including the Defense Department, that take a hit in this particular plan.
PAGEAnd you can guarantee the Pentagon will push back hard against that part of this deficit plan.
ELVINGYes. I mean, they essentially got an appeal from Secretary Gates, saying, you know, you really can't touch the military side of this because we have two wars going on. And we need to modernize, and we have a lot of people coming back from these wars who are going to need a lot of care. We've got special pressures. We need to be exempted from this. And they said, no. We will not exempt you. We're going to hit you with $100 billion in cuts. That's not an insignificant number. It may not be enough to satisfy those who would like to get all the savings out of the Pentagon.
SEIBAlthough Secretary Gates has told his own building, look, we're not -- the gravy train is ending. You guys have to come up with $100 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. This would be faster and more than what Secretary Gates has told his own building they've got to do, but -- and so, therefore, they will be pushback from the Pentagon. But they've accepted the reality that that number is going to go down.
SEIBJust one footnote, Susan, that the other thing the deficit commission did that didn't get much attention, that most people don't think about, but that's very important here, is that they said, we need to cut the military health care -- the cost of the military health care system -- so-called TRICARE, which, like GM's health care system, is phenomenally expensive, in large part because they're paying health care for lots of retirees. This is the big elephant in the room when it comes to defense budgeting, and they went after that as well -- as Jeanne says, all the sacred cows -- including that one.
PAGEYou know, we talked about that yesterday on "The Diane Rehm Show" on Veteran's Day, a show about benefits for veterans. Now, this would not be cuts in service-related injuries. This is for people who served in the military, are out of the military and now aging. But, of course, they have assumed they've got lifetime health care, Ron -- so not uncontroversial to attack this.
ELVINGWell, that's right. Anytime you take a benefit away from veterans -- and this is where Alan Simpson has really gotten his lumps over the years and has paid a very heavy price for his attacks, really, on the whole system of veterans' care. This is something he's very familiar with, and he knows exactly what he's getting into when he wades into this. When people have been promised certain benefits, and they've been promised those benefits under anything that's called a G.I. Bill, or anything having to do with veteran's administration, even if it is logical to say, gee, that's not service-related or, you know, you really didn't catch that particular disease when you were serving in the military -- even so, it's extremely unpopular to cut veterans' benefits.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about some developments on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with us for the first hour of our weekly news roundup, Jeanne Cummings from Politico, Jerry Seib from The Wall Street Journal and Ron Elving from NPR. We're going to go back to the phones. We've got some great callers. David calling us from Maryland. David, hi. You're on the air.
DAVIDHi. Thank you for taking my call. Mine has to do with the deficit commission findings.
DAVIDA brief comment and then a question. The comment is that I think one of the reasons this is riled so many people is that it's striking another third rail, but this third rail isn't Social Security. This third rail is shared sacrifice, and that's actually one of the things I admire about the findings. My question is, I'm surprised in the last couples of days that I haven't seen a contrast with these findings and what the British government is trying to undertake right now regarding their difficulties, and would just like the panel's thoughts on that.
PAGEBoy, we've seen some big demonstrations this week in London against some of the proposals of the British government. Jerry, what's -- are they comparable?
SEIBWell, they are in some ways. And there's a -- there are two more examples if you want to widen the circle. There's France and -- where you had lots of rioting over attempts to cut back in what seemed like fairly marginal ways -- and Greece, where the country is literally broke, which hasn't stopped the unions from going into the streets and saying, can't you -- you can't cut any of our benefits.
SEIBSo, you know, I don't think we're at that point yet. But with the conservative government in Britain is doing things that are actually more draconian than what the deficits commission leaders have proposed here. And they were getting away with it for a while. It's -- when it finally creeped down to student tuition rates, that really set off demonstrations this week. So, you know, there was a period in which the -- I thought the question was, are we France or are we Britain? France, they go out in the streets. And the British have the stiff upper lip, and they just sort stiffen their spine and take it. But nobody stiffens their spine enough to take it without protesting, apparently.
PAGEAll right. David, thanks for your call. Let's go to Jed. He's calling us from Miami. Hi, Jed.
JEDHi. Good morning. I wanted to ask your panel whether or not they believe Jeb Bush would be a likely candidate for the Republican chairmanship. He was very instrumental in the Senate race and, probably, the governor's race in Florida.
PAGEAll right. Jed, thanks for your call. Ron Elving.
ELVINGI think Jeb Bush would make an excellent choice for the job if his name where anything but Jeb Bush. I think there's going to be a big problem with bringing back anyone named Bush, either as a presidential candidate or as another symbol of the party like the party chair, which is too bad, because I think Jeb Bush is the most talented politician in that family and probably the most talented administrator. And he probably could do a pretty good job of being the Republican chairman if he could just do it anonymously.
PAGEYou know, George W. Bush has kept pretty much out of the limelight since he left the White House, but his book was published this week. We saw a lot more of him. What kind of reception is he getting, Jeanne?
CUMMINGSWell, I think that the book itself has gotten quite a good buzz. I -- you know, obviously the book is going to do very well. And I think it was a smart marketing move to focus on, you know, a handful of very important decisions in his life. I thought that framed up the book in a more interesting way than we've seen the typical presidential biographies. But in the book, while he explains his rationale behind these important decisions, he doesn't really back away from any of them.
CUMMINGSHe doesn't admit to making very many mistakes, except, you know, in -- with Katrina, he perhaps should have reacted quicker and shown more empathy. But there, again, that's a cosmetic mistake. It's not a substantive mistake. And so in that regard, what you're starting to hear from people as they read and react to it is that the people who agreed with the decisions he made, think the book is terrific. And the people who never agreed with the decisions he made are just attacking those same choices all over again. So it doesn't appear to be moving anybody's minds.
PAGEThe Washington Post was first to report this week about a Pentagon study group's conclusion looking at Don't Ask, Don't Tell. They concluded there was little risk to the military to ending the ban on openly gay people serving in the military. Jerry, I thought one of the most interesting things was that more than 70 percent of active duty and reserve troops and their families who were surveyed as part of this study said that they didn't think this could create any problems. It'd either be positive or nonexistent to have an impact to repeal it.
SEIBAnd I think that was from a survey of something like 400,000 service members and their families. And I -- you know, I think that the Pentagon is proceeding extremely cautiously here because the state of the position of the administration and the defense leadership is they would like to eliminate this policy. But they do not want to be seen as moving out ahead of the services, of uniform services, and they don't want to have the responsibility on their shoulders. They want Congress to essentially make the decision and tell them, okay, it's time to end the policy.
SEIBSo what they have done here is they have produced -- they did a survey which will produce a report which will say -- as you suggest, Susan -- that the people in uniform, by and large, don't think this is going to be a disaster if we change the policy. Over to you, White House and Congress, tell us what to do now. And that's the slow process that's underway here. There are people who want to push that forward by getting the courts to decide. That's not what the Pentagon wants, and the administration doesn't want that either. They want Congress to say, the people have spoken, and they've said this policy will end.
PAGEWell, you know, there were some thought that the lame duck session of Congress might act on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I don't think that seems like a very good prospect at the moment, though, Ron.
ELVINGI don't think so because they have so much else to do and so much else that's difficult and so much else that has to do with dollars and cents. And I don't think they're going to want to take this on. But, you know, the other thing to bear in mind, even if you completely buy the survey, and even if you believe that it is an accurate representation of the military, and even if 70 percent say they have no problem with it, you must bear in mind the power of the other 30 percent.
ELVINGEven in the minority, even at less than one-third, people can make an awful lot of trouble and make a particular decision that is extremely unpopular with that 30 percent difficult for everyone else concerned. I think we've seen that in the last couple of years. And that if you win an election and you win it even by several percentage points, the people who were on the other side do not go away. In fact, they become energized, and they go to work. And the people who are going to resist this policy are going to resist it even after it's put in place.
PAGEMembers of the Coast Guard were most accepting of the idea of overturning the ban, members of the Marines most resistant to it. Well, here's an e-mail from David who writes us from Dallas. He writes, "I don't understand why the Democrats can't use the next two months to pass whatever legislation they need to before they lose their majorities in the House and Senate." Of course, they'll still have a majority in the Senate with the new Congress.
PAGE"Why does it have to be a lame duck session? I don't agree with the notion that we elect these people to sit there doing nothing for several months just because they know they will be in the minority in January." Jeanne, what would you say to David?
CUMMINGSWell, technically, he's right. They could go and do a lot of things during a more robust lame duck session. But the general sense in Washington among lawmakers is that that's sort of a corruption of the system. And that there's, you know -- there's been an election. We've got, now, winners and losers. We've got to respect the decision of the voters that sent a signal for change. And so there is an inherent reluctance by those who survived the last battle to then try to hurry up and just do many, many things that, frankly, could be undone within two months when the new majorities come in.
CUMMINGSI think we definitely saw this one. Scott Brown won in Massachusetts. The Senate was on the verge of voting on health care reform. And it was Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a Democrat, who sent the first signal that he didn't want to see a vote taken until Brown could properly take his seat. And so, you know, that, I think, encapsules the feeling of many senators, in particular, but House members as well, that you need to respect the Democratic process.
ELVINGWell, I think the Democrats would like to do a lot more in this lame duck session, but they still don't have 60 votes in the Senate. They're not going to put together 60 votes in the Senate in this last month or two. And so they're not going to be able to really abuse power in any particular way because don't really have it.
CUMMINGSWell, and that's because of people like Sen. Webb 'cause he did stop it after Massachusetts. And he would be one, and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- you know, they'd be among those who would raise their hands and say, no, this isn't the way the system works.
PAGEJerry Seib, on Wednesday the FDA unveiled plans to replace the small warning labels on cigarette packs with big graphic images. What would they show?
SEIBWell, they would show sort of -- I guess, horrific is probably one word to use -- the images of the consequences of smoking. In some cases, people with cancer or, you know, shocking images of babies smoking cigarettes -- things like that designed to make people not just look past a warning that says cigarettes are dangerous, but to be unable to avoid a warning that says cigarettes are dangerous.
PAGENow, other countries have tried this. Has it worked?
ELVINGYou know, my impression is that it hasn't worked terribly well. I think the thing that seems to dissuade people from smoking is price. The more that people have to pay for cigarettes, the less they tend to smoke, particularly people who are still picking up the habit in their younger years.
PAGECanada was the first to try the same -- they went in this direction in 2000. And they have seen a reduction in smoking, but they've done several other things that also try to reduce smoking, including increasing the price. You know, Jerry, I have been interested in this, in the context of how much power the Obama administration retains, even (unintelligible) on the Hill. And I've seen several stories in The Wall Street Journal that go to this -- yesterday, a story about the EPA working with states on reducing CO2 emissions, and, today, a story about the Commerce Department working on internet privacy protection in ways that don't require the administration to get legislation through Congress. Is this -- are we going to see more of this? Do you think this is a trend?
SEIBWell, I think this is a strategic choice that the administration has to make. It certainly has the power, as the keepers of the powers of the executive branch, to do more through regulation that it can't do through legislation. However, to do that, invites political backlash and particularly invites backlash from the oversight committees on Capitol Hill, in Congress, half of which, on his House side will now be run by Republicans. And it's a very blunt tool, but they have the ability to use the oversight committees to haul executive regulators before them, make lots of trouble for them and to go after their budgets. And so I think you will see that in selected areas, but I don't think you'll see sort of a tsunami of regulatory actions designed to go around Congress because that, in the long run, invites a backlash that has real consequences for the executive branch.
CUMMINGSWell, and -- but the Obama administration already had been fairly aggressive on the regulatory front. And, I guess, it's a matter of comparison because the Bush administration had pulled back in many areas, and the Obama administration picked up on inspections and labor law and things like that. Those are lots of changes that had been taking place in Washington that have laid below the radar screen.
CUMMINGSAnd Jerry is right. With oversight hearings, we may learn more about those things. But you also look at how much legislation the Democrats actually did pass while they had their majorities, and the administration has plenty to do. They have the Wall Street reform bill. They need to implement it. The credit card reform bill, they need to implement it. The health care reform law, they need to implement it. They have lots and lots of work on their plate to keep their regulators busy and to keep K Street quite busy. I mean, this town now is nirvana for the lobbying community because you have a Republican House, a Democratic Senate and tons of regulations to rewrite -- heaven.
ELVINGFull employment for the lobbyists is just what the Tea Party ordered.
PAGEI'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. Nathan is calling from St. Louis. Nathan, hi. You're on the air. Nathan? Well...
PAGEYeah, Nathan, hi. You're on the air.
PAGEDo you have a question or a comment?
NATHANYeah, well, I was wondering if the panel could comment as to whether or not they know how closely the financial deficit reduction commission looked at sort of the practical implications of simplifying the tax codes, in particular maybe getting rid of the tax-exempt bonds market completely, and how that might affect state and the local governments, as well as how tax preparers might be affected as far as job security is concerned if the tax code is ultimately simplified?
PAGENathan, we're glad we've got Jerry Seid on the panel (unintelligible)
ELVINGWe're very glad.
SEIB...Nathan actually asked a very important question. One of the things that the tax commission did that got less attention in the flurry of the last 48 hours was it's -- it also -- Susan called Washington's bluff at another point here. It said okay, you guys all say we can't fix this deficit problem until our messy tax code gets cleaned up. So they throw up their hands and say, we can't do anything. They said okay, let's do it. Let's overhaul the entire tax code. And they said, we won't tell you how to do it.
SEIBHere are three distinctly different options for how to do it: option A, option B and option C. They're quite different, but they say, essentially, we should do this. You all say it, let's do it. Here's how you do it. Nathan's questions can't be answered because there's not a single tax reform plan that they advocate. But they definitely said let's simplify the tax code, let's lower tax rates, and let's limit a bunch of loopholes and raise more money in the process. And you all say you want to do that. Let's go ahead and do it.
PAGEWe had kind of a confrontation over some -- a spending issue this week with Republicans. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican senator who's been a real leader on the Tea Party front, forced a battle with his Republican Senate leaders on the issue of earmarks. Jeanne Cummings, tell us what happened.
CUMMINGSWell, Jim DeMint has proposed a ban on earmarks for the next two years moratorium on them, and it's a symbolic gesture. It would not be binding. It would only apply to Republicans. It wouldn't apply to Democrats, so it would be a caucus vote. And that has really set the first confrontation between the new wing, or the rising conservative wing, and the Republican Party and the institutionalist because this will be one of the first votes that the Republican caucus takes. And the -- Sen. Inhofe of Oklahoma has taken the lead in trying to defend earmark. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has now been put in a position of trying to defend earmarks, and they are pretty unhappy with Jim DeMint for making this mess on their very first day.
PAGEThis may not be the last time they are unhappy with Jim DeMint.
PAGESo, Ron Elving, what's likely to happen on this?
ELVINGI don't think Jim DeMint is going to get a majority of the Republican caucus to swear off taking earmarks and then try to impose that swearing off of taking earmarks on the other half of the Republican caucus, because among other things, that -- they will argue -- just empowers the Democrats in the Senate and just empowers the Democrats in the White House to determine where the spending is going and takes away one of the ways that they have of bringing more spending back to their own states. He's got, I think, 13 votes as announced figure. He's going to need 10 more or so -- 10, 11 more. If he doesn't get Joe Miller out of Alaska, I think it's going to be a kind of tough mountain for him to climb.
PAGEWould it make a significant difference in terms of federal spending, Jerry, if there was a ban on earmarks by everybody?
SEIBNot a significant difference -- a difference. But to go to Ron's point, a straw -- another straw in the wind, Rand Paul, poster boy for the Tea Party, said in an interview with us about a week ago, well, if there are going to be earmarks, that's okay with me. And I'm just going to fight for as many for Kentucky as I can get, and so this is the sentiment from Rand Paul the day after the election. You can be sure it's not as easy to eliminate earmarks as everybody said during the election.
PAGEJerry Seib, executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal. And we've also been joined this hour by Jeanne Cummings, Politico's assistant managing editor in charge of Enterprise, and by Ron Elving, Washington editor for NPR. Thank you all for being with us for this hour of "The Diane Rehm Show."
ELVINGThank you, Ms. Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Monday. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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