Debate Intensifies As Budget Showdown Continues In Washington

Lawmakers have until this weekend to reach agreement on a federal budget or face a government shutdown. Tense negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been deadlocked as they work to finalize this year's budget. Host Michel Martin discusses the negotiations and the political impasse with Republican strategist and talk show host, Lenny McAllister and Democratic political strategist, Donna Brazile.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Later in the program we'll go back to the Ivory Coast to find out the latest in the struggle over who is to lead that West African nation. This may be a pivotal moment in that protracted battle. That's just ahead.

But, first, on the day that President Obama announced his intention to run for reelection. We'll focus on the federal budget, what's fast becoming one of the likely points of contention in that vote, 20 months off. This week marks the latest showdown over the budget and the possibility of a shutdown looms if Congress and the White House don't reach agreement. The deadline is Friday.

So, just what will happen if the government shuts down and who will take the blame? We're going to pose that question and more to two seasoned political watchers. Donna Brazile is a Democratic political strategist. She served as campaign manager for the 2000 presidential campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, Donna. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic Political Strategist): It's great to see you again, thank you.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Lenny McAllister. He is a Republican and hosts his own show on WVON in Chicago. He's also a contributor to TheRoot.com and a frequent speaker at Tea Party events around the country. He joins us from his studio in Chicago. Lenny, welcome back to you.

Mr. LENNY MCALLISTER (Republican Political Commentator): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I'd like to talk about where we currently stand on the budget. The White House came back to the negotiating table late last week with an additional $33 billion in cuts. Now, Democrats are saying that this is halfway between what the Republicans want and what the Democrats would prefer. So that's a perfectly good place to stay.

But Republicans are saying that the president isn't serious enough about the looming budget crisis. This is Representative Paul Ryan. He's the chair of the House Budget Committee and he's speaking on Fox News Sunday. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Fox News Sunday")

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): I find it kind of ironic that the week we're trying to engage the president, the Democrats in the country with an honest debate about our budget, with real solutions to fix this country's problems and prevent a debt crisis, the president's launching his reelection campaign. Look, these are tough times for America. We don't need a good politician, we need a strong leader.

MARTIN: So, Donna, is that fair?

Ms. BRAZILE: It's very unfair. First of all, the White House has been very engaged in the negotiations that have been taking place over the last couple of weeks. The talks continued over the weekend. They made some significant progress, but they're not close to being done yet. The most significant development is that the allocations have been made to various subcommittees. I'm a former Hill staffer, so, you know, there are several subcommittees, legislative affairs, military construction. But they still have to determine how to make up the specific cuts under each committee.

And if they're able to come up with an agreement, I think it will be a matter of writing a bill and then pass another short-term CR to avoid a government shutdown. But there's no appetite for either side of the Republicans or the Democrats for another continuing resolution just to extend negotiations.

I want to say two things. One, the reason why they are close to an agreement is that the White House and the Senate Democrats have agreed to three-fourths of the cuts that the Republicans in the House have insisted upon. These are painful cuts from Headstart to Pell Grants to food safety. They will have an impact on our society. We're talking about the 2010 budget, not the 2011. I mean we still have some time to get to - I mean, I'm sorry, the 2011 budget, not the 2012 budget.

Speaker Boehner has a marathon. He has to get the 2012 budget out. We got the debt limit coming up. So, it's time that both sides get serious. We know these cuts will be painful. Let's move forward and try to get the other two items right away.

MARTIN: Who's not serious? Mr. Ryan says the president's not serious. The White House isn't serious.

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, Mr. Ryan has not been involved with the negotiations. What I've heard from people in the House, as well as the Senate side, is that Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid have really sat down. They've come up with a number. They've made some significant progress, but Mr. Boehner has to make sure that he has the 218 votes to pass the bill in the House. If he doesn't have the votes, he will have to go to the Democrats and they will provide the votes to move this issue forward.

MARTIN: OK. Lenny, what about that? Let me just play a short bit of tape from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He was on "Face the Nation" over the weekend, to Donna's point. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Face the Nation")

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): The Republican leadership in the House has to make a decision - whether they're going to do the right thing for the country or do the right thing for the Tea Party.

Mr. BOB SCHIEFFER (Host, "Face the Nation"): Are you saying that Speaker Boehner and the Republicans who've been here a while are afraid of the Tea Party? Is that what's going on here?

Sen. REID: That's a pretty good choice of words. The answer is yes.

MARTIN: Lenny, what about that? And, you know, here's how Speaker John Boehner, he was talking to reporters last week. This was not a direct response to that question, obviously. But his remarks did suggest that there is - the division, really, is on the Republican side. And here's what he had to say.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): We control one-half of one-third of the government here in Washington. We can't impose our will on another body. We can't impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get a agreement to.

MARTIN: OK, Lenny, what do you think?

Mr. MCALLISTER: Well, I don't think that he's scared of the Tea Party. But I do think that Leader Reid has a valid point. John Boehner has to negotiate between politics and leadership. And, unfortunately, the Democrats over the last congressional term, they played a little bit of politics and it cost them in 2010. Now, the Republicans, are they going to learn that very recent historical lesson when it comes to politics?

Are you going to do what's best for the country and try to explain to the further fringes why you had to negotiate back and then massage that message? Or are you going to give in and say, we rode this wave in, we have a lot of momentum and we've going to spend the political capital and go for broke. No pun intended.

If they go too far, and this is the danger - and I know that John Boehner is aware of this - if he goes too far, there's going to be repercussions in 2012. Right now there's not a very strong Republican presidential candidate, so we're looking probably at a two-termer when it comes to President Obama. That's number one.

But more than that, we're still talking about the Democrats controlling the Senate in the House of Representatives that's being controlled by a lot of Tea Party Republicans that may or may not have that same wave of momentum. If they don't, by the time we come to 2012, not much may get done, the things that they're trying to put out there now won't have a whole lot of roots and we're right back to the drawing board in the country.

MARTIN: But the suggestion was that there are some - perhaps some of the newcomers particularly - who don't understand the implications of a government shutdown and are not - don't really have the same appetite for a negotiated agreement that the leadership like John Boehner has, and of course the Democrats on the Senate side and the White House. Do you think that that's a fair assessment? Do they just not take it that seriously?

Mr. MCALLISTER: Well, they're taking it seriously, but the people on the further right that came into office on the Tea Party wave, they're more rhetorical and they're more theoretical in how they approach government. Of course they're going to stick to their guns because they're the ones that -their activists are making the loudest noises out there right now in the grassroots. They're the folks that took 2009 and rode it all the way to November 2010. They're feeling pretty good about themselves.

But, again, this goes back to, when do you stop being a politician and stop campaigning and start being a leader on Capitol Hill, start being a leader for the nation? And a lot of these freshmen congressional folks out there on Capitol Hill that are Republican that did specifically ride the Tea Party wave, this is what they're going to have to choose from right now, the Michele Bachmanns of the world work great in a safe district. But they do not work well with the diversity of America and moving forward a nation that has a lot of challenges. And that's what we're going to learn right now.

MARTIN: Is that what you're going to say in your appearances before the Tea Party? You've got some upcoming appearances, you're going to say negotiate, stop campaigning?

Mr. MCALLISTER: No, to be quite truthful, I'm going to speak to some of these issues that impact urban environments and apply Tea Party principles to it. Now, some folks might say it works perfectly, it makes sense. And some folks may call me a traitor. But the truth of the matter is, if your policies don't translate across America, you are further dividing America and isn't that what they just said about the Democrats and President Obama just two years ago?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

I'm speaking with Lenny McAllister. That's who you just heard. He's a Republican commentator. He hosts a radio program on WVON in Chicago. He's with us from there. Also with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, Donna Brazile, Democratic political strategist and a frequent contributor to CNN.

Donna, you were going to say?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, I want to just address two issues. And one is the issue of leadership. And leadership requires that how public officials sit down across the table and put their concerns on the table and to come up with a commonsense solution. We both agree, both political parties agree that the budget needs to be cut. The cuts have been proposed.

And, again, I personally believe that cutting Pell Grants, Headstart programs and - only 12 percent of the budget - the non-security discretionary programs, is a huge mistake, because we're not looking at corporate loopholes. We're not looking at wasteful spending in defense and other programs. We're basically punishing those who may disagree with us philosophically and politically.

The second thing, it is clear to me that the Republican narrative - we got to cut, cut, cut. Well, here's what we did in December that I think put us in a very precarious position. We once again extended the Bush tax cuts, which will, you know, decrease revenues to the federal government at a time when we really needed to continue to pay for the two wars and all of the other programs that the Republicans instituted during their term in office.

MARTIN: Well, so, Lenny, I'm going to give you the last word. I gave the Donna the first word. I'm going to give you the last word. Who do you think pays the greater price politically if the government does shut down? And by the way, Donna says she doesn't think it's going to. Do you think it may, even briefly? And who do you think pays the price for that if that happens?

Mr. MCALLISTER: I don't think the government's going to shut down. I think the Republicans - the Democrats are being viewed as tax and spend. That's not being seen as being mean and evil and divisive. Whereas the Republicans, when it comes to the cut, cut, cut - because some of these cuts are going to be focused on Pell Grants and things along those lines. And Donna mentioned two wars. Well, there's a third one that President Obama started and another war front that he's going to have to explain. That one's going to fall on him and the Democrats.

But for the most part, if there's a shutdown or these cuts are too deep and we see negative ramifications throughout our society in the upcoming months, it's going to be at the Republicans' feet, and the Tea Party may wear that albatross of being mean, un-insightful and very divisive. It's going to be something -they're going to have to massage that argument and make it make sense across the diversity of America.

MARTIN: Oh, actually, we actually - Donna, we actually have a minute left. You have one more minute or two to close it out. Do you think that that's true? Do you think that, actually, that the politics actually favor the Democrats right now?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, I don't think the politics are closing down the government. I was working on Capitol Hill back when it was shut down for a few days, and then another week. It doesn't benefit either party, especially when we're still recovering from one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression.

I think the important thing is for the Tea Party to understand is that we're at a fragile moment in our economic recovery. The best way to reduce our national debt is to give people jobs so that they can become taxpayers and they can pay for the services they need.

MARTIN: Donna Brazile is a Democratic political strategist. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Donna, always good to see you. Thank you for coming.

Ms. BRAZILE: Good to see you, as well. And, thank you, Lenny.

MARTIN: Lenny McAllister is a Republican commentator. He hosts a radio program on WVON in Chicago. He's also a contributor to TheRoot.com, and as we mentioned, a frequent guest at Tea Party rallies. And he was with us from his studios in Chicago. Lenny, thank you for joining us.

Mr. MCALLISTER: Thanks for having me. God bless you, Donna.

Ms. BRAZILE: God bless you, too, sir.

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