Week In Politics: A Budget, Republican Infighting, Obama's Agenda

Audie Cornish speaks with regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Reihan Salam, a columnist for National Review and Reuters, about the week's political news. They'll discuss the bipartisan budget deal, Speaker of the House John Boehner's harsh words for some conservatives and what the week's political headlines mean for the executive branch going forward.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more now on the week in politics, we turn to E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post. Hey there, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: How are you?

CORNISH: And sitting in this week, Reihan Salam a columnist for The National Review and Reuters and a fellow at the R Street Institute. Hi there, Reihan.

REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So we're going to spend a few more minutes on the House. Perhaps the biggest headline to come out of the budget deal this week, House Speaker John Boehner versus conservative groups who oppose the budget deal, the compromise budget deal. We're talking kind of FreedomWorks, Club for Growth. Here was the speaker reacting to a question about the strategy this past fall, pushed by these groups essentially to leverage a government shutdown to defund the healthcare law.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Most of you know, my members know, that wasn't exactly the strategy that I had in mind. But if you recall, the day before the government reopened, one of the people at one of these groups stood up and said, well, we never really thought it would work. Are you kidding me?

CORNISH: Reihan, I'm start with you. Why isn't the speaker holding his tongue anymore?

SALAM: Well, I think that during the previous government shutdown fight, there was the sense the speaker wanted to accommodate some of the members of his group who were craving a confrontation. Whereas now, it could be that he's trying to accommodate and allay the concerns of some of those members who felt that they had been neglected, that their political seats were being jeopardized, that their interests weren't being responded to.

CORNISH: Do you think that they're kind of moderate voices?

SALAM: Exactly. The ones who didn't want the shutdown or who felt that shutdown really endangered their political fortunes. So I think that he's speaking to that constituency now.

CORNISH: And E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I must say, when I first heard that clip and heard just the words, are you kidding me, I thought it was a talk show host. I had no idea it was John Boehner. And I think it was a realization that the shutdown strategy was an absolute political disaster. The Republicans collapsed in the polls. They were saved by the poor rollout of Obamacare.

But the speaker made a really interesting admission. He's acknowledged he was pushed into the shutdown that he never really intended. The thing is, this is a very conservative budget and I have to say, I'm with the lady on Scott Horsley's piece who said, how can they go home now? All these unemployed folks are going to have their benefits disappear and Congress is simply - the House and Senate is going to pass something. The House simply wouldn't act on it.

CORNISH: Now, when we talked to the GOP budget chair, Paul Ryan, this week, he actually mentioned the unemployment benefits saying that wasn't going to be a part of this bill, that wasn't what this bill was about. But this brings us to another headline out of this budget deal story, which is the reemergence of Paul Ryan, frankly. You know, he said that if we pass this, that'll show we're making a statement that we don't want to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Reihan, is that how this will actually be seen?

SALAM: Well, I think that if this deal passes, there's not going to be a risk of another shutdown until October of 2015. Now, that's not all that far off, but it's far off enough to give a lot of Americans breathing room. I think that many Americans, including many Republicans, were really disturbed by the shutdown so that's a very good thing.

And another thing that Ryan has been saying and that Patty Murray, his Democratic partner on this deal has also been saying, is that, look, this is divided government and in divided government, you don't always get what you want. And what's really striking is that a lot of Republicans in the House who were eager for a confrontation earlier on were willing to accept that logic.

So I think that that represents big progress for Republicans as a whole, but then you've got a lot of Republican senators who don't seem to feel the same way.

DIONNE: Right. I was really struck when Paul Ryan got up on the floor and said elections have consequences. That's what President Obama had been saying ever since election night in 2012. And I think Ryan is clearly playing a longer game here. I think he has...

CORNISH: How long? A 2016 long?

DIONNE: Or maybe longer than that. Maybe he's just betting that eventually this fever, again, to pick up on President Obama's words, this fever is going to pass in the Republican Party and looking like someone who cares about governing will, in the long run, be an asset. But Reihan is right, what's really weird is that the roles are inverted.

In the past, the Senate was the more moderate body. They're having trouble, partly because so many Republicans face Tea Party primaries in assembling a majority for this bill, although I still suspect it's going to go through one way or another.

CORNISH: But to talk more about the Senate, we're seeing reverberations from Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to change Senate rules and limit the filibuster for most of the president's judicial and administration nominees. They're pulling all-nighters and it seems like it's this battle of stamina, right, as they do all these votes and getting through all these procedural shenanigans. E.J., was this rules change worth it?

DIONNE: Oh, it was absolutely worth it. First of all, I can't talk about Senate dysfunction without noting that tomorrow is the anniversary of the killings in Newtown and now we have this terrible killing out in - this terrible shooting out in Colorado. You know, I can't talk about this without noting the Senate passed, with a majority, a very mild background check bill supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans, yet it didn't pass because of the filibuster.

So I don't think going after the filibuster is a bad thing. And if you look at what happened, the whole idea of this was if you're going to stop action, you've got to talk a lot. And so the Republicans are having to take the floor here. In the meantime, two judges got through, and the Housing - you know, the Housing appointment got confirmed, Mel Watt. So, I think it's what we expected, and it was worth it.

CORNISH: Reihan, a lot of people are saying that this is just the beginning of worse battles for the Senate. What's your take?

SALAM: Well, you know, E.J. said something very astute just now. He said that the filibuster was a bad thing in blocking a particular piece of legislation. Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid actually has gotten rid of the filibuster for judicial appointments short of the Supreme Court, and for nominees. But I think that E.J.'s implicit point is very on-point. That is that the filibuster is not long for this world when it comes to legislation.

And what that means is that let's say you've got a Republican majority in the Senate, you know, at some point in the future, and they want to repeal Obamacare. Well, if they say that, you know, look, the filibuster, we can get rid of it quite easily. Then suddenly, the barrier to repeal gets a lot lower. So I think you're potentially going to see a lot of legislative change when you get rid of what's wound up becoming a kind of supermajority requirement.

So I think that it absolutely is going to change the tenor of the Senate, but I'm not sure it's necessarily going to change it for the worse. It's just that some of the people who initiated this change might regret some of the outcomes that follow.

CORNISH: We've got 30 seconds left, in which I want you guys to throw what agenda item you think might come up if there's compromise and the way is clear in the Senate and House.

DIONNE: A long shot, but still a possibility, immigration reform. John Boehner hired a former aide to John McCain, who's more sympathetic. I think there's a shot at getting something done, but it'll be hard.

CORNISH: And Reihan, for you.

SALAM: The administration is very concerned about the rollout of the Obamacare law. They're trying to get a lot of support from insurers. They're trying to get insurers to cut them so slack on some things that are going to be political difficulties. So I think that they would be willing to give a lot to get a little from Republicans on Obamacare. I'm not sure exactly what that would be, but I think that they'd be willing to bargain somehow.

CORNISH: That's Reihan Salam, columnist for National Review and fellow at the R Street Institute, and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and Washington Post. Thank you both.

SALAM: Thank you.

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