Week In Politics: Shutdown Showdown, Obama At The UN And Iran

Robert Siegel speaks with political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review magazine. They discuss Congressional wrangling over a continuing resolution to stave off a government shutdown, President Obama's speech at the UN and U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And as we talk politics, as we do every Friday, and the continuing resolution and the drama that has not yet concluded is very much at the center of things. This was the week when Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz held the Senate floor for 21 hours to argue against the Affordable Care Act. And some of the ways he filled that time will no doubt follow him for the rest of his career.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: That Sam I Am, that Sam I Am. I do not like that Sam I Am.

SIEGEL: Some Democrats seemed to like the thought of Senator Cruz being the standard bearer of the opposition. We're going to talk now about health care and the fiscal health of the nation with two political commentators. Columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, joining us today from Cambridge, Massachusetts. And sitting in for David Brooks, Ramesh Ponnuru, who is senior editor of The National Review, and a columnist with Bloomberg View and associate with the American Enterprise Institute. Good to see you both.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Gentlemen, first, Ramesh. You've spoken approvingly of Senator Cruz's campaign against further funding of the Affordable Care Act. Isn't politics supposed to be the art of the possible, and not grandstanding in an impossible cause?

PONNURU: Well, I do approve of the goal. I think Obamacare is a bad policy, as does Senator Cruz, who I should note is an old friend of mine. I am skeptical whether this is going to work, whether he's going to be able to use the leverage of being in the minority in the Senate and having Republicans have the House in order to get this big policy change.

SIEGEL: Does he actually have a majority of Republicans with him in this tactic?

PONNURU: Well, he doesn't yet. He is trying to get a minority of Senate Republicans and a minority of House Republicans to first sort of take over their party on this issue and then use that power to bring the Democrats basically to their knees. And that's why I'm so skeptical of it. The vast majority of Republicans in the House, and as we saw in the vote today, most Senate Republicans aren't with him on the strategy.

SIEGEL: E.J., President Obama reiterated his warning that a government shutdown would be bad, a default on the debt even worse. But I wonder, were Democrats really that upset about the government shutting down if it could be blamed on the Republicans?

DIONNE: Well, I think there are two questions here. One is where the blame will go, and two is whether Democrats are really excited about this prospect. I think it's very clear now that the blame will go to the Republicans. And here, I think Senator Cruz has played a major role. He's clearly helped himself with the most right-wing part of the Republican Party, who loom very large in primaries in 2016. But an awful lot of quite conservative Republicans feel that he has made quite clear that he and, therefore in the eyes of a lot of people, the Republican Party hate Obamacare so much that they're willing to shut down the government.

Now, do Democrats want this to happen? I don't think they do. And I especially don't think that they want to see the Republicans threaten the faith and credit of the country if they end up fighting this fight on the debt ceiling and don't let the debt ceiling go get passed. Because that could have - create untold damage and in the end the president of the United States still ends up being responsible for the economy. So, yes, I think the Republicans will get blamed, yes Democrats will relish it. But I still don't think they want to take the chance that either the shutdown or the debt ceiling - blowing the debt ceiling - the chance for a catastrophe like that.

SIEGEL: Just very briefly on the merits of Obamacare here. We've talked about Obamacare forever on this program. But Ramesh, Republicans are confident that this is a bad law and the public is with them in their opposition to it. Democrats are convinced, you know, like Sam I Am, once people try it, they will like it.

PONNURU: Well, that's right. But, you know, Democrats have been saying for years that it was going to grow in popularity, and that just has not happened yet. The question is going to be, what are its effects? And there are Republicans who worry that even if the program doesn't work, overall, that the people who get benefits from it are going to be such a large group that they're going to prevent any reform of it from happening. And that's clearly where Senator Cruz is coming from.

SIEGEL: E.J., do the Democrats ultimately - I mean, no matter what happens here - have an Obamacare problem? That at some point they have to revisit this law that was passed so strangely?

DIONNE: I think that even President Obama would like t fix some things in the law. And in a different political climate, you could have a reasonable conversation about how you make the law work better. But I think that Senator Cruz gave up the game with he said people would get hooked on it, the way people got hooked on Social Security and Medicare. And when you look at what this law does, the two broad things it would do make a lot of sense.

One is to use Medicaid to expand health coverage for the working poor, people who don't have health insurance now. And the other is to take an idea from the Heritage Foundation to create these insurance exchanges, which are marketplaces where insurance companies compete against each other and people can get better prices. That's basic conservative economics. And so, I do think that there will be glitches but once the thing gets going, I do think it'll be popular. It already seems to be popular when people walk in and discover, hey, I might be able to afford to buy health insurance.

SIEGEL: Okay. Let's move on to the big news late this afternoon. President Obama went to the White House Briefing Room to inform the nation that he had spoken by phone to Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history. I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, I do believe there is a basis for a resolution - when it comes to Iran, that is about the most giddy, frothy, optimistic statement we've heard in decades. Are you hopeful?

PONNURU: I wish I could share the president's optimism but I think there are some reasons for tempering it. One is that we are not sure how sincere Rouhani is. Is he just going to use negotiations in order to stall? And second is we don't even know whether he can deliver his regime's compliance with anything that he does deliver. So, we've had thaws that didn't go anywhere - seeming thaws - and this could be one of them.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think?

DIONNE: I am guardedly hopeful. Very tough sanctions have done such damage to the Iranian economy that they have really changed the politics of Iran. And in order to get rid of these sanctions, the Iranians may well be willing to walk away from their nuclear program. But the negotiations are going to be very difficult. The Iranians want the sanctions to end as quickly as possible. The United States is going to demand some quick, very concrete steps to show that they're willing to dismantle the nuclear program. And so, we'll see what happens. But I think this is a very big and, I think, hopeful deal.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review, thanks guys.

PONNURU: You're welcome.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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