Week In Politics: Retiring House Members & The Republican Retreat

Audie Cornish speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times about the president's State of the Union initiatives, the retiring members of the House and the agenda of the annual Republican retreat.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And with that, we turn to our regular Friday commentators - E.J. Dionne, of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution; and David Brooks, of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

CORNISH: So we start with a little bit of developing news. From the New York Times, an update to the story about lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. According to the story, a high school friend of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie - who had been appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey - claims to have evidence that the governor may have, in fact, known about the closures as they were happening. This runs counter to what the governor has stated.

We've talked about this in past weeks, and I want to get your reaction to it because I know one of the concerns you guys have brought up is what happens when little bits of information start to trickle out in the aftermath of this. I don't know who wants to start. E.J.?

DIONNE: Yeah. I mean, we still will learn more about this but David Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie's, saying that Christie knew more than he did. A, I'm not shocked by this because Christie was unusually disrespectful to Wildstein when he spoke. He talked about, I barely knew him in high school; and Christie emphasized he was a big guy on campus and Wildstein wasn't, so I'm not surprised by this.

But it was always hard to believe that a hands-on governor like Christie knew as little as he said he did about what was going on at the George Washington Bridge when it was clearly big news. And I always thought that at that news conference, that was the thing he never adequately explained. I guess he'll have to do some more of it.

BROOKS: Yeah, we in the commentariat are quick to say someone's career is over, something's ultimately going to end them; stick a fork in them, they're done. Nonetheless, if it does turn out to be true that he did know about the lane closing, it is actually kind of hard for me to see Christie running for president.

He was OK that he's a bit of a bully. It's OK because people wanted, maybe, to send a message to Washington that we need to send a bully to Washington. But a duplicitous bully who lied, really, about the central claim of that news conference, that's tough to run on, especially with so many other candidates in the field.

CORNISH: And, of course, we're waiting more on the veracity of this story but in the meantime, it reminds us that this week was a week of sort of re-evaluation of the 2016 prospects that are out there on the Republican side. Of course, with the State of the Union address, you have this kind of direct comparison because there were not one, not two, but three responses from Republican potentials out there.

You had Cathy McMorris Rogers, from the House, giving the official response; Sen. Rand Paul giving his own response; and Sen. Mike Lee giving a response on behalf of the Tea Party - all names people toss around in one way or another. Anyone impress you this week? Anyone send a signal that you think is worth noticing?

DIONNE: I mean, I didn't think there was much in the post State of the Union speeches. I mean, Rand Paul has a libertarian constituency. He kept that. Mike Lee is not running for president. He's been more adventurous than most conservatives in actually saying they need new ideas. And Congresswoman Rogers spoke a lot about herself. I'm sure some people were very compelled by her story about her Down syndrome child. She didn't really have that much to say about policy.

BROOKS: And in Republican circles, I was having a conversation with somebody a couple hours ago; saying, who can really stand up, stature to stature, with Hillary Clinton? And the only name that was coming to mind was Gov. Christie. And so after him, you know, I think there's a good chance - maybe a 20 percent chance - that Rand Paul does get the nomination because that is where the heart of the party is.

And if that happens, the Republicans will win several important counties in Mississippi in the fall and - but the one person whose name I would throw in there is John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, who is a very smart guy, energetic to a fault and somebody who - it's going to be a governor. It's not going to be a senator. And so he is someone, if he does choose to run, at least has run a major state, would have some stature vis-a-vis Hillary.

DIONNE: And I think that if Christie is sort of pushed back, the biggest openings are probably for Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan, if Paul Ryan wants to run.

CORNISH: Lots of writing this week about Paul Ryan, actually, and where he goes next.

DIONNE: And I think that's the space that's left, if Christie leaves.

CORNISH: Now, I want to stay with House Republicans for a minute because of the group gathered at a retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Top of the agenda is immigration. If any of you have deja vu, that's because we've been talking about this for many months. Here's Speaker John Boehner earlier this week on this issue.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: You know, it's one thing to pass a law. It another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind that law as you're passing it. That's why doing immigration reform in a commonsense step by step manner helps our members understand the bite-sized pieces and helps our constituents build more confidence that what we're doing makes sense.

CORNISH: David, it's reported that Speaker Boehner himself presented the outline of these ideas to the group. What do you make of this?

BROOKS: Yeah, I thought when I heard he was presenting that he'd reached an agreement with all the dissidents who don't like the idea of immigration reform and that it was a step forward. From what I understand, that agreement does not exist. There's still going to be a significant minority or a significant maybe even majority in the caucus who do not want immigration reform.

They do not want to run it before a primary when they might get challenged from the right. They don't want to have anything to do with the Senate bill. So I think it's still extremely unlikely that they're going to pass anything this year, especially since they think there's a decent chance they can win the Senate this election and have a much better chance of an all Republican Congress to do something next time.

CORNISH: Although, E.J., I noticed in the speech President Obama, more or less, stayed out of the way, devoted roughly a paragraph to it.

DIONNE: Right, because he knew where Boehner was going and where a lot of Republicans, including the aforementioned Paul Ryan, are going. The key statement there is that the Republicans said they were against a special path to citizenship. That's quite different from saying they'd be opposed to many of the people here illegally becoming citizens eventually.

And there are a lot of other ways to citizenship besides the Senate path so I think they opened a big opportunity for negotiation and we'll see how far the caucus lets Boehner go on this.

CORNISH: I'm going to say just the last minute signaling the end of an era, California Congressman Henry Waxman spent nearly 40 years in office. He's retiring. He's the last of the so-called Watergate babies, that freshman class from 1974. E.J., end of something for liberals?

DIONNE: Well, liberals have lost two real giants in recent weeks. They lost Henry Waxman, who is an extraordinary legislative craftsman and was involved in so many issues from health care to the environment; and then George Miller, who retired a couple of weeks ago, who was sort of the quintessential tough labor liberal, and again he was somebody who had very strong convictions but could also deal with the other side. This leaves a huge hole on the Democratic side.

BROOKS: Waxman extremely intelligent. I would say my problem with - he sort of pioneered the art of the histrionic committee hearing, where you beat up on the witness.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: I wasn't always a fan of that. George Miller I'm a tremendous fan of. On education policy he was the A to Z of House expertise on education policy and did not toe any line. He was sort of a model legislator on that.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times; E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Good to see you both.

DIONNE: Good to see you.

BROOKS: Good to see you.

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