'A Lot Of Sour Grapes' Left In Budget Deal

Congress is hopes for a happy holiday after approving a budget deal. But the President is still feeling the heat over Obamacare and the National Security Agency's data mining. Host Michel Martin talks politics with Republican strategist Ron Christie and Fernando Espuelas of Univision.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys will be here, and they'll talk about - what else - the flap over remarks by "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson, as well as other news in politics and sports. That's later this hour. But first, we want to start by drilling down on politics here in Washington. Congress and the president are heading out of town for the holidays after finally coming to an agreement over a bipartisan budget deal that will ensure that the government won't shut down again for the foreseeable future. But they leave the place in a somewhat sour mood.

People on both sides of the aisle are upset about the budget deal for different reasons. And the public has made its displeasure with the president very plain by giving him some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency largely, it seems, because of the botched rollout of the health insurance program and news about government surveillance strategies. So we thought this would be a good moment to take a pause and consider what all this means, both for those branches of government and for the country.

So we've called on Ron Christie. He's a former assistant to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He's now our communications consultant. He's with us from New York. And here in Washington D.C., Fernando Espuelas. He is the managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which airs on Univision America. Welcome back to you both. Happy holidays to both of you.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel.

RON CHRISTIE: Happy holidays. Merry Christmas.

MARTIN: So it does look like the budget wars in Congress are over for now. The House and Senate approved an $85 billion federal budget plan, which funds the government through 2015. It does away with some of those across-the-board, automatic spending cuts. And now there are more targeted cuts and some higher fees, for example, higher airport security fees. There's no extension in long-term employment benefits. And, Ron Christie, I'll start with you 'cause as we said earlier, you know, there are people - you know, the measure passed. But there are some really unhappy people on both sides. I just wanted to ask your perspective on this.

CHRISTIE: Well, I think you're exactly right, Michel. I think if you look at Republicans, say, for the reason that we've actually been able to cut spending for the last several years is because the sequester was in place. And now the sequester is no longer with us. The Democrats wanted to make sure that those who were - in really need of a safety net to have that 99-week unemployment extension. That wasn't a part of the package. So I think there are a lot of sour - I think sour grapes, frankly, is the proper term here - of the way a lot of lawmakers look at it.

I think it's a step in the positive direction. We haven't had a budget passed in several years in the Congress. And it's about time that the Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate are finally sitting down and negotiating. So I think it's a step in the right direction.

MARTIN: What made this possible now?

CHRISTIE: Well, what made this possible now is that the deal that originally had been set between the president and the Congressional Republicans had a deadline of December 13, where Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Patty Murray, the senator from Washington who's the chair of the Senate Budget Committee - they had deadline of December 13 to come up with a blueprint moving forward to set government spending levels.

Otherwise, we would've been in a position - come January 15 - where we would be in a position where we had another government shutdown. So I think Republicans recognize that they got burned by the far right wing of the party and the Tea Party folks who wanted to shut the government down. And they said, we're not doing this again.

MARTIN: Fernando, what's your perspective on this?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think it's quite a pathetic effort on the part of both parties. The diminished expectations implicit in this budget, I mean, they're laughable. They're claiming this great victory of bipartisanship. But when you look at the budget, what is it? It's a promise not to shut down the government for two years. They don't address any of the major issues impacting our country, none.

MARTIN: And so, do you feel that - what would have been better?

ESPUELAS: Well, I mean, look, I...

MARTIN: And how would they have gotten there?

ESPUELAS: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, there's the what and then there's also the how.

ESPUELAS: Sure. I mean, I think at some point we have to go back to some sense that governing is what the Congress does as opposed to this destructive pattern of creating crisis after crisis. So, for example, the great victory of the sequester and the reduction on the targeted - we don't need a sequester, you know? We need to stimulate the economy because we have 7 percent unemployment. I mean, that - basically, Ben Bernanke said that two days ago. If the Congress would get out of the way, we would have millions more jobs.

So what is he saying? He's saying that in a depressed economy, you need to grow the economy. I mean, it's that basic. So now we bought into this narrative that somehow cutting the budget in some sort of absolute way is beneficial to the economy when there's absolutely no proof. Look at Europe. They've fallen into multiple recessions with that strategy.

MARTIN: Interesting - I understand there's some different philosophical perspective on that, but at the end of the day you're saying that really - actually, the only reason we're celebrating this is that our expectations have gotten so low that we think...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...This is a great thing. Well, let me tell you - speaking of expectations I want to turn to - you recently published a piece for "The Hill" saying that all of the chatter that the Obama administration is over - that the presidency is over...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Is very much overstated. Why do you say that?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think they are three years ahead. No one can predict the future. I think that there is a tremendous, tremendous dissatisfaction - rightly so with the launch of Obamacare. But the fact is that that will be fixed. And I think - I spoke to government of Kentucky just a couple days ago about this issue - and, you know, he's looking pretty good because he managed to launch it properly and it's satisfying the needs of his state. And I think that's what's going to be the story going forward.

I think that when you launch a major restructuring of the healthcare system in the United States and half the governors of the country basically veto it and refuse to implement it, and then you have our friends on Capitol Hill essentially calling it everything short of Nazi-ism, you know, of course it's going to create a very sour mood. That doesn't take away from the bad execution of the launch, but at the end of the day this is something that's needed to bring down health costs long-term.

MARTIN: And, Ron Christie, what do you say about that? I mean, Fernando says in his piece Obamacare is finally working, beyond the lingering process issues that will be resolved, the hyper-maligned Affordable Care Act is signing up people at a faster pace. The insurance industry is betting on Obamacare and is ready to launch this massive recruitment campaign. And you say - we've also said, you know, the first lady is now kind of getting involved in this. And so, you know, he says this is a flesh wound, not a mortal one. What do you say?

CHRISTIE: I, sadly, disagree 100 percent with his assessment. I think if you look at what the administration did last night, again, I believe exercising extra-constitutional powers, that the president of the United States is supposed to faithfully execute the law. What we've seen with the roll out of the Affordable Care Act is that the president gives exemptions for some people. He has particular mandates in place for others, and there's no uniform equality for this law.

But what the administration did last night that I think is particularly underhanded, is they've said, if you're an individual who's lost your health coverage due to the Affordable Care Act, you can have an exemption based on the fact that now you can't afford to get a new coverage, so you can go ahead and get a catastrophic plan if you'd like to replace your coverage. But, if you didn't have insurance and you're the same person, same age, well, no, you can't do that.

So I wonder, where in the world, A, do they come up with these things? And B, to Fernando's point, the head of CMS actually said that there is a 30 to 40 percent build-out that they still need to do on the HealthCare.gov website. And we learned this earlier today, that in fact, the head of security for CMS said that there are major structural integrity issues...

MARTIN: So tell me what you think this all means.

CHRISTIE: What I think this all means, is that once we get into January, the insurance market is going to be even more roiled by what the administration has done. I think that it's been proven that there have been more people who have lost their coverage than have signed up for it. And I think once the small business people decide to start dumping coverage, I think this is going to be a bigger headache and a disaster for the administration and the American people.

MARTIN: If you're just looking joining us, we're looking at the latest in the world of politics. We're speaking with republican strategist Ron Christie, he's a former White House aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. We're speaking also with Fernando Espuelas of Univsion, he's the host and managing editor of his own self-titled show. So let's find out - I know Fernando you have more to say about this...

ESPUELAS: Yeah...

MARTIN: ...But I did want to braze one more topic, which is that the intelligence review panel, President Obama's intelligence review panel, just came out with a long report on the National Security Agency, which has been collecting, as we know this, has this big data mining operation. A lot of people are upset about it. The report came with 46 recommendations on how to protect the privacy of Americans, and then one big recommendation is for telecom companies to keep the metadata that the government has been collecting and if other people want access, they have to get a court order.

One of the reasons we're happy to talk with you about this is you have a background in this, as you were a former Internet entrepreneur. And I just wanted to get your perspective in this - both of the substance and the politics.

ESPUELAS: Well, I think that the NSA is completely, or the NSA policies are completely out of control. I think they're extra-constitutional as a federal judge recently found. I think that they are betraying the basic concept of civil rights in this country. And in a way, they're undermining what supposedly, they're protecting, which is our own nation. So my point of view is that we should get back to the Constitution. There are very specific protections for people and certainly our data and privacy, and that was always found to be true in letters and phones. And it should be no different for the Internet.

MARTIN: Ron, what's your perspective on this?

CHRISTIE: Here's where I agree with Fernando, 100 percent. I think he's absolutely right. I think this has been an extra-constitutional disaster. I think the original intent of the Patriot Act and the statute that had been passed by bipartisan support of the Congress has been twisted by the NSA. I think they have far exceeded their authority. There is something known as a warrant - if you have reasonable information that the government should be able to have access to these records. And I hope that the president takes the time to very carefully and thoroughly go through this report and reform the NSA.

MARTIN: Yeah, Ron I wanted to ask you about this because I know you've recently written a number of pieces decrying what you feel is kind of the gratuitous interjection of racial issues into, sort of, public policy issues, so I do understand your point of view on that.

However, there are a number of people who've pointed out that where were the conservatives when people were making these, you know - spying on people like Martin Luther King Jr., and, you know, infiltrating the Black Panthers and things like that - they don't seem to be as concerned about these kinds of intrusions into the privacy of people on the left as they now seem to be now. And I wondered if there's some - if you think that's a fair criticism and you think there's been an evolution of thought on the part of the conservative side about these questions. Or is this really political because it's this administration it's another thing to beat them with?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think all the above. I think that the fact that you didn't hear this outcry of MLK being, not only wiretapped, but also followed in some instances by the FBI - I think was outrageous. I think the infiltration of the Black Panthers organization was also outrageous. And I think that you have to be fair regardless of who's in power and what the administration is so that we follow the rule of law, and the rule of law is set to us by our Constitution. We need to be consistent.

MARTIN: Ron Christie is a Republican strategist. He's a former assistant to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He's now president of Christie Strategies, with us from our bureau in New York. Fernando Espuelas is the managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which airs on Univision America. He was here in Washington, D.C. with me. I thank you both so much for speaking with us. I also want to thank you both for your contributions to the program throughout the year and wish you happy holidays.

ESPUELAS: Thank you. Merry Christmas.

CHRISTIE: Merry Christmas to you both.

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