Is A Fresh Start In Washington Possible?

Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about whether the Obama administration and Congressional Republicans can find some common ground and overcome the political gridlock that characterized much of the president's first term.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We're joined now by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks for being with us.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SIMON: Can you tell us how the White House views this debate going on among House Republicans?

LIASSON: Well, other than schadenfreude, other than happy to see your opponents all twisted up and squirming, I think that they see this latest move, which is a concession by the Republicans, to drop the so-called Boehner Rule, which is we won't raise the debt ceiling other than by one dollar of debt ceiling for on dollar of spending cuts. Now, they're saying they're going to be a three-month debt extension, debt ceiling limit. Jay Carney issued a statement saying we're encouraged that there are signs that congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare. So, I think they're happy about this move. It's another small victory for the president. We've now established that the debt ceiling will be raised. The only question for Republicans, and for Congress, is for how long at a time do they plan to raise it?

SIMON: Well, there used to be a theory that went that only serious compromise could banish, abolish gridlock on Capitol Hill. And I wonder, is it changing now that a realization that maybe the strategy should be to figure out ways to evade gridlock?

LIASSON: Well, that's a really good question. And I do think the theory of the case of the first term of the Obama White House that serious compromise was the only alternative to gridlock. But now after that fiscal cliff battle at the end of the year, the White House sees a chance that maybe it can do something different, maybe it can divide its opposition, maybe it can win in a different way, if the Republicans in the House are willing to pass things with large numbers of Democrats. That happened on the fiscal cliff, but I think what you're seeing now is Republicans trying to regroup, trying to find a more defensible line in the sand, something that they can actually stick to, not setting up situations where they're going to have to cave in the end to the president.

Now, they've decided the debt ceiling is not going to be that line in the sand. They're focusing on the next two fiscal crises coming up: the sequester - the automatic across-the-board spending cuts - and the expiration of the bill that funds the government. In other words, a looming government shutdown sometime in March. So, this is going to be a big battle. I think the president feels he has a lot more clout than he did in his first term. And we'll see if that new theory that you can divide and conquer your opposition will work.

SIMON: When you look at President Obama's stated agenda, be it the proposals this week on guns, immigration, the so-called fiscal grand bargain, what to you looks practical?

LIASSON: Immigration looks the most achievable. The Republican Party has decided that in the wake of their landslide defeat among Hispanic voters that they are going to come off their opposition to an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented workers. So, I think that has the biggest chance of passing. On guns, depends on how you define success. I think something will pass - maybe universal background checks. The president won't get everything he asks for and the White House isn't saying that that's their bottom line anyway. The last biggest agenda item that you mentioned, the fiscal grand bargain - that's the key to the president's legacy. If he doesn't get that, he won't have the revenues to make investments in education and research and infrastructure that he wants. He won't have a path to making the middle-class more secure. He's got to get that big grand bargain. And that's what's been incredibly elusive. He couldn't get it done at the end of the year. I don't know if this new retreat on the debt ceiling opens up any more room for talks on big reform in taxes and entitlements in the budget. But that's the key for the president. I think it's going to be the hardest for him to accomplish.

SIMON: Mara, I'm getting messages - people want to know what you meant by schadenfreude.

LIASSON: Oh my goodness. That means you're happy when the other guy is suffering. You know, that means you take some pleasure in your opponent's suffering. And, you know, there is always that in Washington. The Democrats used to be twisted in knots and divided and weak. And now the shoe is on the other foot, at least for the moment.

SIMON: NPR's national political correspondent and Austrian philosopher, Mara Liasson. Thanks so much.

LIASSON: And I don't know about philosopher. Thank you.

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