Will Congress Get Along In 2013?

A new Congress takes office today, after a nail-biting end to the last term. There were reports of choice words from House Speaker John Boehner to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but Congress came together on a budget agreement. Guest host Celeste Headlee asks how congressional deals are made, and what to expect from the freshman class.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is under the weather. Coming up, India has captured the world's attention after a student was brutally raped in Delhi some weeks ago and then later died of her injuries. Many are now asking why that country is so violent and why it's tough for women to live there. We'll talk about that in a few minutes.

But first, let's take a look at our own country, where the political battle over taxes may be over but we could have some scars left behind. What change might the new Congress bring to Capitol Hill? And also, what might happen with the cabinet now that President Obama is in his second term? Here to talk about all that and more, Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

Also with us, Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO and president of Voto Latino. That's a non-partisan group that encourages Latino engagement in politics. They're both here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back to both of you.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Mary Kate, let's begin with you. Obviously it's big news. They just passed the deal a little late but they still got it there.

CARY: A little late.

HEADLEE: They stopped income taxes from going up for most Americans. They delayed some big spending cuts, the sequester cuts. But let's just talk about the politics here for just a moment. Did anyone win here? Who were the winners and losers?

CARY: I have to say I don't think anybody won. I think that the losing - all around. It was a failure of leadership on all sides. I feel like the government's not working. The policy apparatus in town has completely shut down. And this deal embodied what everybody hates about Washington. It's - the Senate/White House bill, biggest tax increase in 20 years in exchange for more spending.

It increases the deficit $4 trillion and had all this pork. This is like old school...

HEADLEE: You had subsidies for rum makers...

CARY: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...NASCAR owners.

CARY: It's unbelievable. And it was, you know, just like we were saying - the worst of Washington. Back room, last minute, no transparency, kicks the can down the road. As my mother said to me, you know, this morning, why did it take so long to do nothing?

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Your mother is a smart lady.

CARY: Yes, she is.

HEADLEE: Maria, let me ask you. Because I mean a lot of people thought during the debt ceiling argument that ended up downgrading our credit in 2011, a lot of people thought that was the nastiest, ugliest Washington could get. But if you look at what's happened over the past couple weeks, it could get worse.

KUMAR: The worst part of the fiscal cliff is that it was a completely self-inflicted wound.

CARY: Yeah.

KUMAR: It wasn't a natural disaster. It was something that we decided to come here together in Washington and solve - and solve - and not solve. The fact that - I think if you were to ask me the biggest winner, though, was Biden. Because all of sudden he came once again on the national stage and basically was able to go in and negotiate.

The biggest loser? It wasn't Republican or Democrat. It was the American people. It was the American people because they still aren't sure exactly where, you know, their next paycheck is coming from because we haven't solved real fiscal crisis.

Yeah. We could be cutting thousands of federal jobs.

HEADLEE: Sure.

KUMAR: Exactly. And we still - and then this - the fact that they are still dragging their feet on entitlement negotiations, I mean down the line - we haven't talked about the Violence Against Women Act that we have to tackle. We haven't talked about real environmental changes. We haven't talked about immigration reform.

We haven't - these are - all these issues that unfortunately are not going to be able to tackle because we still have this - we have the fiscal cliff looming, part two. And we have the debt ceiling looming as well.

CARY: Right.

HEADLEE: But isn't there hope with the change in Congress? I mean today is the day, right? We get a new Congress. Is there no glimmer of hope?

KUMAR: Celeste, Happy 2013.

(LAUGHTER)

KUMAR: I don't think - it's not that there's no glimmer. It's that unfortunately you still have Republicans controlling the House. And I think the fact that they themselves are not happy, not satisfied with the leadership and they themselves are peeling off from their leadership - I mean the perfect example was what happened with the negotiations with Sandy.

HEADLEE: The package of aid for Sandy.

KUMAR: For Sandy, right. What happened there. The fact that the Republicans went on the floor - Peter King went on the floor saying, you know, we don't want...

HEADLEE: Representative Peter King of New York. Yeah.

KUMAR: Of New York. We don't want them. We don't want the - the Republicans are not representing this state. And he's a Republican? And he did it so vocally and transparently? He demonstrates that there is going to be much more in-fighting.

HEADLEE: Well, let me take that to you, Mary Kate. Not great optics for the Republican Party with Peter King. Even worse when the governor of New Jersey...

CARY: Right.

HEADLEE: ...Chris Christie, came out and just blasted Boehner and the entire Congress.

CARY: Right. I think in Boehner's defense - I'm not defending him, but the story that he says what his thinking was, was that in the aftermath of the fiscal cliff vote there was supposed to be an immediate vote on Sandy aid, and since the fiscal cliff vote did not include any offsetting spending cuts, he couldn't then ask his members to immediately vote on more unfunded spending.

KUMAR: But it's also in the weeds. And if you're a victim of...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

CARY: Right.

KUMAR: ...that doesn't make any sense.

CARY: The optics were horrendous.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're having a political chat with Mary Kate Cary of U. S. News and World Report and Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino. So here's a question both of you can answer. Republicans have had a string of really humiliating defeats lately.

There was the presidential election and all of the various Senate and House races. And now this in-fighting over fiscal cliff. Polls showed us that many people blamed the Republican Party for that, although I'm not sure that's fair.

CARY: Yeah, I'm not sure that's fair either.

HEADLEE: And we just mentioned Peter King. Let's take a listen, actually, quickly, here to - the comment from Peter King. Here he is on NBC's "Today."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: He did make a joking obscene reference with a smile, and then he said I love you, and then we went into the meeting. But at the end of the meeting John and I shook hands and he actually walked with me, opened the door, and he said, you know, we'll be friends.

HEADLEE: So let's go back to this. I'm not sure that this retraction from Peter King is as powerful as his outrage.

CARY: Yeah. I think now he's got, you know, the olive branch in his hand and says it's all behind him. There is still a significant amount of bruised feelings in Washington, but not all of it is because of John Boehner.

Let's recall the president had a campaign-style event on New Year's Eve at the White House where he mocked Republicans and really poisoned the waters, I think, with a lot of his campaign-style events over the last month or so, post-election.

And I think he's really - he's not...

HEADLEE: He's not helping.

CARY: Yeah. He's not...

KUMAR: Yeah, but I think - I think what the president did...

CARY: ...fostering a spirit of compromise.

KUMAR: For the very first time I think what the president did is that he spoke plainly and openly to the American people. And he didn't do that in his first term and it cost him. So I think what he learned during his first term is that he has to have - the more he can use his bully pulpit, the more he can talk directly to the American people and basically force the Republicans to come and negotiate...

CARY: I am not convinced.

KUMAR: You're not convinced.

CARY: Not convinced.

KUMAR: But the thing is that every single time that they've done negotiations behind closed doors, nothing has happened. And now that the president's actually flexed...

CARY: Closed door negotiations tick people off. But the president has some serious challenges coming up.

KUMAR: Absolutely.

CARY: (Unintelligible) he's got to handle immigration. He promised to do that in his first term and did not. Obviously the debt ceiling negotiation is coming up.

HEADLEE: Gun control.

KUMAR: Gun control. He's got a lot coming up, so...

CARY: I think his whole attitude of winner take all - he doesn't construct a win-win deal.

KUMAR: But he's - but he's never been...

CARY: He moves the goalpost. He's a bad negotiator. And I think that's...

KUMAR: But he's never been...

CARY: ...costing him.

KUMAR: He's never been winner take all. This is the very first time...

CARY: Oh, yes, he has.

KUMAR: No, he hasn't. He's basically - Obamacare is the perfect example.

CARY: Yeah.

KUMAR: Obamacare is the perfect example. It was a Republican piece of legislation.

CARY: It was. But it was...

KUMAR: Right?

CARY: ...put through the Democratic Congress on a party line vote.

HEADLEE: That was originally - in fact originally one of the architects was Bob Dole.

KUMAR: Right.

HEADLEE: That was a Republican proposal.

CARY: Back in - yeah, back a long time ago.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

CARY: Right.

HEADLEE: That's not up for question. So he presented a Republican proposal to Congress. One can say that. But let's - OK. Looking ahead.

CARY: Yes. Yes.

HEADLEE: One way or the other, we all want America to succeed.

KUMAR: Right.

HEADLEE: So that's going to be difficult, at least politically in the months ahead. So how do we move forward? I wonder, Maria, if you think that perhaps the president can make some good cabinet picks. He has a number of openings. Is there an opportunity here, or some of his other recess appointments maybe, to really reshape politics?

KUMAR: I think the more that he can bring in - I think one thing that we discussed was basically, you know, bringing in, possibly filling in with more women. The fact that you could actually bring in some Republicans into the pick - I know that folks keep saying Chuck Hagel on both sides is something that's a bit of a sour - sour note.

But he's actually someone that has been very pragmatic. He understands how politics works.

HEADLEE: They were proposing Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary.

KUMAR: Right. For Defense secretary. I mean, he's very much - I mean he demonstrates that he understands how politics works, but more importantly he's someone that's actually very supported from the Veterans Affairs and also from the military themselves. So I think that will be an interesting pick.

But then we also talked briefly about - Janet Napolitano is also someone that's short-listed for a cabinet position.

CARY: She was once governor and attorney general of Arizona.

KUMAR: Attorney general. So it will be - well, and she's also right now Department of Homeland Security.

CARY: Homeland Security.

KUMAR: So it will be interesting to see how, you know, if she's able to shift as well. So...

HEADLEE: But a lot of these shifts would be shifts from one Cabinet post to another, or close to Cabinet, right?

CARY: Right.

HEADLEE: I mean, so they'd still have to bring in some new people.

CARY: Right. I think - here's two ideas. One is Eric Holder may or may not step down. If he did...

KUMAR: It looks like he will.

CARY: ...I think he'd be great...

HEADLEE: He looks tired.

CARY: Yeah. He does look tired - not as tired as Hillary Clinton looks, but...

HEADLEE: True.

CARY: And so attorney general - I think Claire McCaskill would be a great pick.

HEADLEE: From Missouri.

CARY: From Missouri. She's...

HEADLEE: And let's be honest here, though. If Claire McCaskill becomes...

KUMAR: What does that do for the Republicans?

HEADLEE: Then that negates a seat - a Senate seat in Missouri.

CARY: But, even with that, she's a great former prosecutor.

HEADLEE: Yeah, that's true.

CARY: And she would get easily confirmed by the Senate, because she's a fellow senator. And she's on the Homeland Security Committee, so she could handle the counterterrorism aspects of being attorney general. I think she'd be a great pick.

The other one that I think would be fun is if Chuck Hagel doesn't make it through - which, by the way, I have to say something, that I don't really think it's fair for the White House to be floating trial balloons of peoples' names, because both have gotten into a lot of hot water, meaning Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel. They should either nominate him or not. This just seems very unfair to these people. But anyway, if Chuck Hagel is not their pick, I think it'll be very interesting to pick Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former, you know, retiring senator from Texas.

HEADLEE: From Texas.

CARY: She's a good bipartisan pick as a Republican. She's on defense appropriations - or she was until, you know, the inauguration. She would work very well with John Kerry at state, and she's chairman of the board at West Point. So she's got great military credentials, and I think she'd be a nice surprise pick for the president if she'd take it.

HEADLEE: All right. Let me ask you: John Boehner now says he will not do closed, one-on-one negotiations with President Obama. This is looking ahead to all the...

KUMAR: Right.

HEADLEE: ...negotiations that we have. So what do you think? A, will Boehner keep his post as speaker of the House, and B, will negotiations be easier once they're not done in the White House?

KUMAR: One, I think that he will keep his post.

CARY: I do, too.

KUMAR: I think that that's basic. I think that the fact that even Peter King basically came back home...

CARY: Right.

KUMAR: ...demonstrates that he is. But I think that it actually opens an interesting opportunity for Paul Ryan, who did vote for the...

HEADLEE: Former vice presidential candidate. Right.

KUMAR: ...former vice presidential candidate who's trying to find his footing, wants to remain in a leadership position. I think that actually gives him, perhaps, some power to negotiate with the White House.

HEADLEE: OK. What do you think?

CARY: I think so much of his second term agenda hinges on cooperation with Congress.

HEADLEE: Boehner?

CARY: No, the president's...

HEADLEE: Oh, the president.

CARY: ...the president's agenda. And for Boehner to say no more closed negotiations is fascinating, because that's so much of how Washington gets things done. So it's all going to have to be on the floor.

HEADLEE: But it's also what Americans really don't like.

CARY: Yeah. So I think it's a good move. He's got three things coming up. You've got the debt limit at the end of February. You've got March 1st sequestration.

HEADLEE: Yeah. There's a lot.

CARY: And then you've got the government shutdown looming.

HEADLEE: So I'm sure we'll be talking to you ladies again.

CARY: So they need the cooperation.

HEADLEE: You just heard Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. And Maria Teresa Kumar is CEO and president of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan group that encourages Latino engagement in politics.

Thanks to both of you, and Happy New Year.

CARY: Yeah. Happy New Year.

KUMAR: Happy New Year. Thank you, Celeste.

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