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House, Senate Disagree On How To Keep Government Open


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's try to understand a congressional boxing match that, for all we know, could continue beyond the final bell.

GREENE: A partial government shutdown comes at midnight unless Congress agrees on legislation to keep the government open. House Republicans say they will not approve even a temporary resolution, unless it also does major damage to Obamacare - which takes effect tomorrow. Democrats reject that approach and many Senate Republicans say the tactic is unwise.

INSKEEP: The Senate votes on the latest House proposal this afternoon. And we're going to talk through this standoff with Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Hi, David.

GREENE: And also joining us: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson; Audie Cornish, host of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED; and Robert Costa, who covers Congress for National Review. Quite a gathering. Welcome to you all.


MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

INSKEEP: And Cokie, let's start with you. How much more serious is this than your average congressional standoff?

ROBERTS: Well, it's more serious because it's hard to figure out how they're going to get out of it. There's no real negotiation going on. And you have, as we've talked a lot about, the Republicans in the House, urged on by some in the Senate to hold firm in their opposition to the law of Obamacare. And you have Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, refusing to budge at all and to give any kind of leeway to the Republicans.

So you've got a true standoff here with the president just sort of sitting above it all, assuming that the Republicans will take the blame for a government shutdown. And so there's no movement.

INSKEEP: OK, lots of assumptions to check on there. Audie Cornish, we heard Cokie say there's no real negotiation going on. How is that different from past standoffs here?

CORNISH: Oh, well, obviously in the past we saw lots of standing out on the White House driveway because there were talks with the president. We saw people like Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell being involved in things. You're not seeing that this time around.

INSKEEP: Oh yeah, talking with Joe Biden. Yeah.

CORNISH: Exactly. So when there is zip going on in terms of conversation, Cokie is right - where do you go from there?

GREENE: So we're not - that's a sense of what we're seeing on the outside. Robert Costa, you were in the thick of things over at the Capitol on the inside, getting a feel for the Republican caucus. What are they thinking? What are they talking about it internally?

ROBERT COSTA: The Republicans are still very much committed to trying to repeal or delay Obamacare, and this is driving the conversations inside of the House chamber. But the leadership knows that this is an unrealistic expectation in divided government. So right now you have John Boehner trying to grapple with his conference, saying we need to maybe pass a continuing resolution to fund the government. But most of his conference just simply doesn't want to go along with him.

INSKEEP: Really, most of his conference? We've heard there's a few dozen people who were feeling really strongly about this. Is it actually most Republicans who want to...

COSTA: That's a great point, Steve. There is a sense within the House GOP that there is a silent majority of sorts that should Boehner bring a clean continuing resolution to the floor, they would go along with it. But the pressure from the right to fight and fight to the end on repealing or defunding Obamacare is so strong that even those moderate members who want to fund the government are very hesitant to speak out and say that.

GREENE: Where does that drive come from? Why this desperation to fight harder and harder?

COSTA: Well, we've really seen a vacuum of leadership within the Republican Party since Mitt Romney's 2012 defeat. And you've seen figures like Ted Cruz and other favorites of the conservative movement really fill that vacuum, and they're driving the conversation more than the party leadership.

ROBERTS: But Robert, it also comes from the voters. I mean, look, these are Republicans who represent districts where their voters are very much on the same page as they are. Mara, you made that point this weekend about Ted Cruz, right? He's doing quite well with the people he wants to do well with.

INSKEEP: Let's remember - let's remind people, Ted Cruz is the Republican senator of Texas whose long, long speech in the Senate was a highlight - if you want to call it that - of the last several days of debate.

CORNISH: And who's actually had been speaking directly with House Republicans. I mean he's been going over there doing some lobbying.

INSKEEP: He is lobbying House Republicans. He's been leading - is that fair to say, Robert Costa?

COSTA: It is. National Review actually broke the story and it's really almost an unprecedented move to see a freshman senator, in office for less than a year, go over and try to whip votes within the House.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's bring Mara Liasson into this conversation, because Mara has been tracking, among other things, the White House perspective on this, the Democratic perspective on this. And Mara, do Democrats believe they can just continue saying no, no, no, that they have nothing to lose even if the government shuts down?

LIASSON: Well, for the moment, yes. I think a prolonged shutdown or a default would hurt the president. His approval ratings have been steadily dropping. But right now the Democrats see the speaker who looks weak, can't control his caucus; he's flailing around for a strategy that conservatives will accept. And for a change Democrats are super unified and they're happy to watch Republicans twist in the wind.

I think the president can negotiate eventually and he will, but on the budget, not on the CR or the debt ceiling. So the strategy now, which is being driven by Harry Reid - not necessarily the president, although he's totally fine with it - is to stand firm on a clean CR.

INSKEEP: I want to understand what you're saying there. You're saying the president is indicating he's willing to negotiate, but not in this kind of situation that the White House would describe a hostage situation.

LIASSON: Well, the president has always said he's willing to negotiate on the budget, in other words taxes, entitlements, spending. And don't forget, we've really regressed. That's how we got here. They tried several times to negotiate on the budget to get that grand bargain, but it fell apart. Even talks this year with senators, lots of dinners and discussions with the White House chief of staff didn't lead to anything.

It's how we got the sequester, the failure of the grand bargain talks; it's how we're in the situation we're in now. And for now I think the White House and Democrats feel their strategy is working. As this thing goes on, we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know if the polls are going to be right, that Republicans will take the blame and eventually fold.

INSKEEP: In the past - go ahead, Cokie.

ROBERTS: And you know, the other thing to keep in mind is there is substance here as well as politics, and starting tomorrow people start signing up for those healthcare exchanges. And then you have the law in effect, in a much more direct and pervasive way so that it becomes much harder for the Republicans to do this repeal routine.

INSKEEP: Does everybody on both sides of this debate believe that once Obamacare takes effect tomorrow, that it's irreversible? Is that part of the drive here?

CORNISH: Well, you have Republicans repeatedly calling it a bill, which is pretty interesting, right?

GREENE: It's still up for negotiation.


CORNISH: Yeah, it's still up for negotiation. And remember, for Democrats, the longer this thing is in the theoretical, the more of a problem it can be, right? Like they want to hit the ground running. They don't want to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of people who are on the fence of signing up for these exchanges, and that is what this discussion is doing. It's bringing - it's re-litigating the Affordable Care Act all over again.

GREENE: Robert Costa, what are Republicans thinking in terms of an end game? How do they get out of this? How in their strategy do they plan on ending this?

COSTA: It's almost a generational divide. When I speak to older members, the old bulls who went through the Gingrich wars and the Gingrich shutdown in the '90s, they think this will end badly and there is no end game right now. But the younger members, the Tea Party class of 2010, they believe they can still blame the Senate and the president for a lack of leadership should the government shut down.

INSKEEP: What about the debt ceiling, which has to be renewed in a little more than two weeks from now and people in the House have been talking about a big confrontation over that? How does that looming debate effect this one over the budget? How does the budget debate affect the debt ceiling? Mara Liasson.

LIASSON: Well, there is a school of thought that a little shutdown would help, would make a debt ceiling breach less likely because it would be cathartic for Republicans. They could see how they like it. They could see what kind of political repercussions there are and that maybe if we have a shutdown we won't have to breach the debt ceiling.

INSKEEP: Robert Costa.

COSTA: Real quickly, I think that's a nice prediction, but covering these House conservatives, I very much doubt it's going to be a burn - touch the stove cathartic moment. I think however the CR unfolds, the debt limit will be an even larger mess and we'll have even more fiscal drama this fall.

ROBERTS: And then that becomes a genuine economic problem, not only for the country but for the world.

LIASSON: An economic shutdown, not a government shutdown.

ROBERTS: That's right.

INSKEEP: And let's remind people, when we talk about a CR, that's the continuing resolution. What is at issue here, believe it or not, in this drama is really just extending the government's authority to operate for another 45 days, might end up even being less than that. We've got about 30 seconds left. Cokie Roberts, I want to give you the last word. What are you thinking about as this deadline looms?

ROBERTS: Well, I think that we're seeing a real breakdown of government operations in Washington. The inability to come together to do the right thing in terms of the country is really dramatic now. And we've seen this before in our history, but this is a period that is very rough.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's Cokie Roberts, along with Mara Liasson, Audie Cornish of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and Robert Costa of National Review. Thanks to you all. And the Senate votes this afternoon on the latest House bill and as that happens we will be interviewing President Obama. You'll hear that on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.