Week In Politics: Budget Talks

Michele Norris speaks with our regular political commentators, EJ Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And we're joined now by our regular political watchers, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. All right, guys, we're going to spend some time talking about the current budget battles and the ambitious budget proposed for 2012.

But, first, the countdown to the shutdown. I'm curious if you thought we would actually to this point just hours away from the shutdown. And did you listen to the Democrats saying that the Republicans are playing politics and trying to push a partisan agenda? On the other hand, John Boehner and the Republicans saying it's really all about the money.

David, I'm going to begin with you. Can you make a credible argument there, saying it's all about the money when you literally have Tea Party members chanting this week: shut it down.

DAVID BROOKS: Listen, this whole thing is sort of demeaning. The amount of money we're talking about is trivial compared to the entire federal budget, let alone the federal debt. The idea that we're talking about such small money that they're fighting in this way about the money is trivial.

I never thought we'd get here. Because if you look at the polling, who will the country blame if the government shuts down, the polling suggests they'll blame both parties equally. And the way this day has gone on, as I've been listening to the rhetoric, it's incredibly demeaning for all involved.

Just on the way over here, I listened to CSPAN, a Democratic press conference, the Republicans are killing women, it's a war on women. It's World War III on women. The Republicans - similar rhetoric. This is going to have a very caustic effect on both parties, I think, and on trust in government.

NORRIS: E.J., the Republicans are saying one of the problems here is that Democrats have not offered their own ideas. They say that President Obama ignored the suggestions from his own deficit commission. Do they have a point?

DIONNE: Well, that has absolutely nothing to do with this shutdown. In other words, in this shutdown, I think the problem is that President Obama didn't engage in this early enough. And what's amazing is that the Republicans are getting, it sounds like, at least two- thirds of what they wanted. And they only control one-third of the power here. The Democrats have the Senate.

Maybe the president is going to run for re-election on the slogan, capitulation we can believe in. Yet, the remarkable thing is that a lot of conservatives don't want to take a victory. And I agree with David this is demeaning. But what it's really about is the extraordinary power the right wing of the Republican Party exercises over the entire party because so many regular mainstream conservatives, forget moderates, are just petrified of primaries.

Democrats are terrified of a shutdown. Speaker Boehner is terrified of his right wing. That has strengthened his back. It's also put him in an awkward position, but he's gotten a lot out of this. And I think if the cuts are as big as they sound like they will be, the president is going to have a lot of explaining to do.

NORRIS: I'd like to hear from you both on Speaker Boehner. Senator Schumer today said, you know, in speaking to the small number of Tea Party members who were really calling the agenda here, said that it's almost like the flea wagging the dog that's wagging - or wagging the tail that's then going on to wag the dog.

And Boehner really faces this critical test here. How does he emerge from this and still hold on to some kind of coalition within his own party?

BROOKS: Right. I have, for years, not been a big believer in Speaker Boehner. I've not had high confidence in him. I have to say in the past six months, I've really been impressed by how he's handled things. I think he is a much more sophisticated speaker and a much more sophisticated negotiator. He is not a particularly ideological person.

NORRIS: Are you impressed right now?

BROOKS: Well, I guess my basic assumption is what both sides are doing and Speaker Boehner is doing is going on the mat, going to the 11th hour and the 59th minute just so we can go home and say we fought as hard as we could and then we cut a deal. And some of the, a few members that I've spoken to, I ask, if there going to be a shutdown? And nobody knows, of course, but their essential view is, well, if there's a shutdown, it'll be a couple days. It won't be this big long thing. And so I happen to think that he'll - he just wants to say, we fought as hard as we could. We got what we could.

NORRIS: E.J.?

DIONNE: If Speaker Boehner gets, say, 38 billion in cuts and avoids a shutdown, he's a genius because he will have threaded the needle here. He will have used the Tea Party to get as much as he could, but held them in line to prevent them from shutting down the government.

NORRIS: shut it down, the Tea Party folks really wanted a shutdown. I think the likelihood, given all of the concessions Democrats made, they can make a very good case that it was the Republicans - more than a good case, I think a totally persuasive case that it was Republicans who caused the shutdown.

But he evades the shutdown, then he's handled this thing very well. And the White House better recalibrate the way it deals with him, because they vastly underestimated how well he'd do in this if he gets to that result.

NORRIS: I want to turn to the 2012 budget and another Republican, the proposal put forth by Paul Ryan, the so-called path to prosperity. Could you two be farther apart in your assessment of this?

David, you say that Ryan has moved us off unreality island. E.J., you call the proposal outrageous. Nonetheless, we don't have enough time to really argue all the merits of this proposal. But is it this kind of thinking that's needed to push the budget debate forward to answer these difficult questions? Can you hold on to Medicare and hold on to tax cuts? Can you balance the budget with just tax cuts without actually increasing revenue? Do we need this kind of thing?

BROOKS: Yeah, I like what Ryan did because he gets us off the shallow things that the shutdown is supposed to be about and gets us thinking long term. He gets us off small cuts and discretionary spending and gets us thinking about entitlements.

And so of the many five or six things that need to be done before we get to some sort of Simpson-Bowles compromise on fiscal issues, he's made one important step to get us focused and get a major party committed to entitlement reform.

NORRIS: E.J.?

DIONNE: He got a major party committed to a plan that purports to cut the deficit and racks up 14 trillion in new debt between now and, say, 2030, 2040. That's when he gets the balance. This is not a balanced budget plan. This is a plan to eviscerate programs for the poor. Two-thirds of the cuts are for low- income programs. It undercuts Medicare. If this - I mean, he makes Ronald Reagan look like a socialist. I don't see how any moderate can have anything good to say about this plan.

NORRIS: We'll have to leave it there. That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times. Whether or not the government shuts down, you're both essential to us. Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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