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Punting The Debt Ceiling Debate Down The Road

Jan 23, 2013
Originally published on January 23, 2013 12:21 pm
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The president cites Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. Beyonce Milli Vanillis the anthem, sort of. And the poem of the inauguration left many perplexed. It's Wednesday and time for a...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Gorgeous din of honking cabs...

CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.


PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.


CONAN: The president leads off his second term leaning left, his critics say. The secretary of state heads for the exit, exchanging barbs with former Senate colleagues. The vice president sets off speculation about 2016. John Kerry's nomination comes up tomorrow, Chuck Hagel's next week. In a few minutes, we'll focus on the politics of punting the debt ceiling three months down the road, and later in the program, Doctors without Borders in Syria.

But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us, as usual, here in Studio 3A. And as usual, we begin with a trivia question. Hey Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi Neal. Don't you think we should spend the enter show talking about Beyonce? I mean, that was criminal.

CONAN: Take out your earpiece.

RUDIN: Did I just say that? OK, well, anyway the trivia question is: Only two votes were cast against Hillary Clinton's nomination for secretary of state four years ago. John Kerry may get a similar strong approval by the Senate. OK, so the question is: Since World War II, which secretary of state received the most no votes during Senate confirmation?

CONAN: If you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, which secretary of state received the most negative votes during Senate confirmation since World War II, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. The winner gets that fabulous no-prize T-shirt, that's for free, plus a fabulous no-prize button in exchange for a promise to send a digital image for our wall of shame.

RUDIN: That's also for free.

CONAN: That's also for free. Ken, let's start with the inauguration.

RUDIN: Well, it was pretty interesting. You know, we always talk about, and we talked about this during our special, that second-term inaugural... First of all, most inaugural speeches are not often remembered, and second-term inaugurals even less so. But this one was very interesting, and I think everybody agrees that it says something more about Barack Obama than, perhaps, that we knew or we expected or certainly Republicans probably did expect.

But usually during an inaugural address, it's talking about working together with Congress and hoping to get things done, and that's kind of like the Barack Obama we heard four years ago talking about there's no red America, blue - green America, whatever, you know, whatever color.

CONAN: Whatever memorable thing he happened to say four years ago.

RUDIN: Exactly, I was at the University of Crayola, I should know that. But the thing is there was no - I think he's had four years of trying to reach out, and he's had enough of it. And clearly it's not only the Republicans who thought this was a liberal speech. I think that most news organizations cited that this is clearly a move to the left.

CONAN: And this is President Obama in one of his memorable remarks using a word never used before in a presidential inauguration.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.


OBAMA: For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.

CONAN: And he mentioned, well, that litany: Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. He mentioned climate change and the need to respond, even if you deniers don't believe it. And then he said yes, of course, we must restrain the growth in spending on health care, but we can't do that at the expense of robbing the generation that made this country great.

RUDIN: Well, two things. First of all, on climate control and global warming, that really wasn't even an issue during the campaign. He hardly talked about it all. And yet he spent more time during Monday's inaugural address on that subject than anything else. And on gay rights, nine months ago Barack Obama was still evolving about that issue, and now suddenly it's become such an amazing topic to have here in an inaugural speech and that that's the national lead.

So it just fascinates me that these issues that were not big a bunch of months ago, suddenly have taken over the conversation.

CONAN: And it is, according to Crossroads GPS, a moment that revealed the president's true, I guess, rainbow colors.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Some are calling the president's address the most liberal that he's delivered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I think the most liberal speech Barack Obama has ever given.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Much more radical than the speech he gave four years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He doesn't have to stand for re-election again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: This is clearly a president who is not running for re-election.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Unapologetically liberal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I think you'll have a lot of them saying that finally the president is laying out his real agenda. And guess what? He's a liberal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: He came out of the closet as a liberal.

CONAN: And, well, it goes on. And a lot of conservative commentators made pretty much the same conclusion.

RUDIN: Right, and of course those on the progressive left might say that he was too conciliatory the first four years, he was too willing to compromise, too eager to compromise. And here it is, he's finally showing the backbone that they wish he showed, in some of their words, in the last four years.

CONAN: We'll have to see how that translates in terms of policies enacted. A lot of people say a president in his second term better get it done in the first year if he's going to get it done at all.

RUDIN: Exactly, and everybody talks about well, of course, the sixth year of the presidency, 2014, the Republicans are likely to pick up a lot of House and Senate seats. But they said the Republicans were likely to win the Senate in 2012 because the numbers favored them.

So let's not predict what's going to happen in 2014, just yet, although everybody's talking about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden for 2016, and we did see Joe Biden - I know - I saw him running down the inaugural parade. I think he was either running for 2016, but he looked like he was having a great time, unlike the kind of time that Hillary Clinton had this morning before the House Foreign Relations Committee - Senate Foreign Relations.

CONAN: Senate Foreign Relations. As we speak, she's in front of the House Foreign Relations Committee. But earlier today in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she was taken to task by, among others, Rand Paul, thought to be possible presidential candidate himself come 2016 - or maybe further down the road - who said if I'd been president of the United States, I'd have fired you after the Benghazi incident.

And it was Senator Ron Johnson, the Republican from Wisconsin, who questioned, again, the veracity of the initial reports, this from the United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, on Benghazi, and Secretary Clinton responded quite sharply.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decide they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.

CONAN: In the meantime, there was some comedy, at least from a moment, from the former presidential candidate John McCain and Hillary Clinton's old pal in the United States Senate.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you, Madam Secretary, and it's wonderful to see you in good health and as combative as ever.


CONAN: The nice words ended shortly thereafter, when Senator McCain said, well, it's been a cover-up from the beginning.

MCCAIN: There are many questions that are unanswered, and the answers, frankly, that you've given this morning are not satisfactory to me.

RUDIN: Yeah, well, I mean, that's exactly - sums it all up. I mean, we talk about how Hillary Clinton has tremendously positive approval ratings, and she does, she's one of the most popular people in the country.

CONAN: In the world.

RUDIN: In the world, certainly, but who cares about those other people. Well, I mean, I am an American and proud. But the point is is that politics will play, and those great - that era of great feelings that Hillary Clinton engenders from even many Republicans are certainly going to disappear very quickly, they certainly disappeared today, and they're likely to disappear should 2016 become part of the conversation.

CONAN: In the meantime, we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question, and that is the secretary of state since World War II that received the most no votes for confirmation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Jerry(ph), Jerry on the line from Tallahassee.

JERRY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi Jerry, go ahead.

JERRY: Dean Rusk.

CONAN: Dean Rusk back in Vietnam War days.

RUDIN: Dean Rusk, as far as I remember, did not receive any negative, no votes.

JERRY: Oh, bad guess.

RUDIN: I'm sorry?

JERRY: Bad guess.

RUDIN: Back in 1961.

CONAN: But a good - well, popular nominee, let's put it that way. Let's see if we can go next to this is Hans(ph) and Hans with us from Mishawaka in Indiana.

HANS: Hi, Alexander Haig?

CONAN: Alexander Haig, I'm in charge here?

RUDIN: Well, he did get a bunch, he got six negative votes, which he was confirmed 93 to six, but that was not the most.

CONAN: Nice try. Thanks very much, Hans, and let's go to, see, Terry(ph), and Terry's with us from Trenton.

TERRY: Condoleezza Rice?

RUDIN: Condoleezza Rice is the correct answer.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding.

RUDIN: After Colin Powell left, secretary of state, Condi Rice became President Bush's...

CONAN: Wait a minute, this bulletin just handed me. We have an email winner, as well. Phil(ph) also came in with Condoleezza Rice. So two T-shirts, two buttons going out.

RUDIN: And the vote was 85 to 13. Not only was it the most...

CONAN: For Phil?

RUDIN: For Ken. Not only the most negative votes for secretary of state since World War II, the most since 1825. And most of these votes were in protest against the Bush Iraq War policy.

CONAN: And has there ever been a secretary of state who's been defeated for nomination?

RUDIN: No. But in the old days, many of them were approved by a voice vote, you know, not even a recorded vote. But those days are gone forever.

CONAN: Terry, Stay on the line, and we'll collect your particulars and send you off the political junkie T-shirt and the political junkie no-prize button in exchange for your promise of a digital picture of yourself wearing same to be posted on our wall of shame.

TERRY: Will do.

CONAN: Congratulations.

TERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go to...

RUDIN: She didn't sound happy.

CONAN: No, she's happy.

RUDIN: OK, you never can tell, really, on the phone.

CONAN: From Jersey, yeah. South Carolina, Tim Scott's seat is up.

RUDIN: It is, and we talked last week about Mark Sanford, the former governor, who is trying to get redemption in the eyes of the voters coming back for that House seat. But other candidates have announced. Teddy Turner IV, who happens to be the son of Ted Turner, former of CNN, and he's...

CONAN: The Atlanta Braves.

RUDIN: And as a Republican, Teddy Turner's running and also Stephen Colbert's sister. Of course this is not...

CONAN: Is that Claudette Colbert?


RUDIN: It's Elizabeth Colbert-Bush. She's the sister of Stephen Colbert. And of course this district is very, very strongly Republican. But I should say that the Democrats in 2008 got 48 percent of the vote. So let's not rule out the Democrats just quite yet. But Stephen Colbert is always joking about running. This looks like a serious candidacy here.

CONAN: And we have a new - well, a newly re-elected chair of the Democratic Party.

RUDIN: That's right, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the congresswoman from South Florida, yesterday was unanimously re-elected as Democratic national chairman. Of course the Republicans elect - probably will re-elect their chairman on Friday at the RNC meeting in Charlotte.

CONAN: And we have big confirmation hearings coming up, and we mentioned Secretary Clinton testifying, her last appearance, probably, before Congress, today, talking mostly about Benghazi. But it is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee going before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow. He's expected, John Kerry, to sail through. Chuck Hagel comes up before the Senate Armed Services Committee with his nomination as secretary of defense next week.

RUDIN: Right, and there are a lot of - there's still a new campaign, an increased campaign against Chuck Hagel. Of course John Kerry is a lock for secretary of state. And Chuck Hagel may be confirmed, as well. But there's a lot of - there's full-page ads. There's now a CNN and Fox TV campaign with ads against Chuck Hagel.

CONAN: Ken, stay with us. When we come back, Jack Pitney will join us to talk about Republican strategy on the Hill as we head into the debt ceiling debates. They've got now until May 19th to figure it all out. Stay with us. More in a minute. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today's Wednesday, which means political junkie Ken Rudin is with us. So Ken, the question on everyone's mind: Did you lip-synch last week's political junkie segment?

RUDIN: No, but we did have a ScuttleButton winner.

CONAN: Congratulations to whomever that is.

RUDIN: There were three - well, the winner is Jeff Kemmer(ph) of Ely, Minnesota. He writes - it's a good thing you're sending him a T-shirt because he said it was 15 degrees below zero yesterday.

CONAN: Ouch.

RUDIN: And so a T-shirt should really keep him warm in northern Minnesota.

CONAN: The button will help.

RUDIN: Yes, and the button. And of course there were the three buttons, and the ScuttleButton was there's a Ciro Rodriguez for Congress, there was a black circle, and there was an anti-Vietnam demonstration from May 30. So if you add Ciro Rodriguez, the black circle, and May 30, you get Ciro Dark Thirty.

CONAN: Ooh, that's - solving that puzzle is torture.

RUDIN: I knew you were going to say that.

CONAN: The House voted this afternoon to suspend the debt limit until May, a move opposed by more conservative members of the Republican Party. Thirty-three voted to oppose that legislation, which now moves to the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid says it will pass as quickly as possible and go on to the White House, where the president has issued a statement saying he does not oppose it. I guess that means he'll sign it.

At a news conference last night, House Speaker John Boehner called on Senate Democrats to pass a budget or have their paychecks withheld. He called the measure no budget, no pay.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We've done our budgets, but it's been nearly four years since the Senate has done a budget. Most Americans believe you don't do your job, you shouldn't get paid. And that's the basis for no budget, no pay. It's time for the Senate to act.

CONAN: Jack Pitney is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. He worked with both the Republican National Committee and the United States House Republican Research Committee. He joins us now by smartphone from his office there at Claremont. Nice to have you back on the program.

JACK PITNEY: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And, well, that statement, putting it on the Senate, they haven't passed a budget for four years, the no budget, no pay act, a fig leaf to cover a political retreat?

PITNEY: Well, it's a fig leaf but a politically popular fig leaf. People like the idea of withholding pay from members of Congress. In fact if you put it to a vote of the general electorate, people would withhold pay from all of them for good.

CONAN: I suspect you're right, but this decision follows a decision at the Republican caucus last weekend in Virginia, where, well, I think it was Paul Ryan, the defeated vice presidential candidate, the chairman of the Budget Committee, who essentially read Republicans the riot act.

PITNEY: Yeah, that's right, and they suffered a pretty serious defeat at the end of 2012 with the fiscal cliff negotiations. The president was able to secure increased taxes for upper-income Americans. And the polls showed that Americans seriously disapproved of the Republicans.

And Ryan and other Republicans told them we have to do things differently. So this is a retreat, but there's some strategy to the retreat because they're putting off the debt ceiling until after the automatic cuts kick in. With the debt ceiling, the current law was on the side of the Democrats with tax increases automatically kicking in. This way, spending cuts automatically kick in, and that gives the Republicans a bit of advantage going ahead.

CONAN: So the sequence has been changed. It's now going to be the sequester, as you describe it, that was the deal that came out of the debt ceiling crisis, what, back in 2011, and its across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending, that includes the Pentagon but does not include Medicare, Medicaid and the Social Security program.

In the meantime, the Republicans hope to use that to their advantage, but Mr. Boehner has suddenly had a series of votes where he doesn't look particularly strong. The fiscal cliff legislation passed only with Democratic support and with a minority of Republicans in favor. Then there was the Sandy relief bill, again a minority of Republicans in favor.

He had a Republican majority this time around, today, on the debt ceiling, but if all the Democrats had opposed it, it would have gone down.

PITNEY: That's right. He's in a very politically difficult position. There are a number of Republicans who were unhappy with his leadership, and if you put them together with the Democrats that leaves Speaker Boehner with a minority of the whole House, and that's never a good position to be in.

So he's working behind the scenes, trying to develop a unified position, and that was part of what the Republicans were trying to do at their recent Williamsburg retreat: develop a unified position that will get them through the next couple of years. Will it work for Boehner? We'll see how the coming months unfold.


RUDIN: Jack, after the 2008 elections, a lot of Democrats were dismissing the Republican Party as the party of Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh. And the Republicans went into a post-2008 retreat. And ultimately I think that their strategy really was just being anti-Obama and anti-health care, the fact that government was getting too big, and they rebounded really, really well in 2010.

What do they need to do - and they can't just go back and say OK, it's time to oppose Obama anymore, and we saw that during the inauguration, that Obama seems much more energized and more combative than he did in 2009. What strategy could they possibly come up with?

PITNEY: Well, there are a couple of parts to it, and we're seeing some of it unfold today with the hearings on Benghazi. I think we're going to see more emphasis on oversight in the next couple of years, and that's because in second terms that's where presidents really tend to get in trouble.

And I think oversight is probably going to yield more political ammunition for the Republicans than it has in the past couple of years. But that's not enough. You just don't win long-term political gain through investigations of the other side. Republicans need to be for something positive, and that's a difficulty for them.

They're emphasizing budget cuts, which on one level are very popular with the public, but when you get inside the numbers, they have a problem and we're to make real progress against the deficit you're going to have to cut Social Security and Medicare, and Social Security and Medicare cuts are not popular. So that's probably not going to be their ticket to success.

They're going to need something else. They're going to need something positive and something positive that doesn't necessarily cost a huge amount of money. And that's something they're going to be grappling with. Is it going to be something on disability policy? Is it going to be something about research on curing illness? They need some kind of policy that they're for, not just something that they're against.

RUDIN: Well, let me ask you this question: President Obama, of course, during the inauguration mentioned immigration, overhauling the immigration laws. Could a change in immigration laws help the Republican Party?

PITNEY: A change in immigration laws could at least stop the damage. Right now, the immigration issue is hurting Republicans among Hispanics. I don't think that was the reason Mitt Romney lost, but the Hispanic vote is going to increase election by election, and this is going to be a bigger and bigger problem for Republicans as time goes on. And as long as immigration is on the table, this is going to be a bigger and bigger negative for them. That's why the role of Marco Rubio is so important.

This is a guy who has enormous credibility among conservative Republicans. And if he can persuade Republicans to agree on some kind of a compromise, some kind of easing of immigration laws, that could do two things. One, it could help take the issue off the table. And second, and not coincidentally, it could greatly advance Marco Rubio's presidential prospects.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Our guest is Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College, and Richard(ph) is on the line, Richard calling from Traverse City in Michigan.


CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Richard. Go ahead, please.

RICHARD: I'm a lifelong Republican and probably more conservative than most, but my question is, and I'd like the panel to discuss it is just what do the Republicans nowadays think they're going to accomplish by not compromising, by not getting any legislation through? I mean, the whole point of getting elected and going there to do the country's business is not what they're doing. And I am very surprised that they didn't get elected out of the majority in the House this time around just because of the last couple, three years.

What their strategy might be doesn't make a bit of sense to me. And I think they should just get down to work and get it done, or, like Speaker Boehner said, no pay. They shouldn't get any pay at all anyhow and get the budget under control starting with themselves.

CONAN: Democrats point out that they - their congressional candidates got a lot more votes than the Republican ones did. The Republicans remain in the majority because of some redistricting, which they have defended, and they had good seats to defend in this past election. But Jack Pitney, other than that, Richard's comments could have been taken right from Paul Ryan's speech to that Williamsburg retreat.

PITNEY: And that's one of the things Republicans are doing right now, trying to put the onus more on the Senate Democrats, who in fact have not passed a budget in several years. The - one of the problems the Republicans had in the past campaign is that President Obama was able to cast Congress as a Republican institution a number of times.

He referred to the Republicans who control Congress, even though the Democrats control the Senate. And part of what they're trying to do is remind people, hey, Democrats control the Senate and they need to be part of any solution as well.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call.

RICHARD: I have one more question or comment, if I could.

CONAN: If you keep it quick, go ahead.

RICHARD: The Democrats control the Senate. The Republicans control the House. But why on Earth would you push legislation to the House that you know is going to be dead on arrival in the Senate? That's not even trying to compromise.

CONAN: Some would say vice versa. The Senate passing bills they know are going to be dead on arrival in the House. And you've identified a conundrum, but it was at that Williamsburg summit, Jack Pitney, that several Republicans pointed out you can't run the government from one House of Congress.

PITNEY: That's right. And part of the problem here is lack of coordination between the two chambers, and of course in part that's the way the system was designed. In Federalist '51, Madison was very explicit, to render them by different principles of action and different modes of election; as little connected with each other is the nature of their common functions will allow.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Bill in Bardstown, Kentucky: How are the Republicans going to be any better off by juggling the schedule of fights? Ken, can you help us out here?

RUDIN: Regarding the fights?

CONAN: The sequestration, moving the debt ceiling battle to last in line after the sequestration fight.

RUDIN: Well, they clearly feel that that they needed to get their plan in order. They don't have a budget either. They're talking about the lack of a Senate Democratic budget. Well, the House Republicans don't have one either. So I think part of the reason for pushing off - they didn't really pass the debt ceiling. They pushed it off until May. I think one of the reasons they're pushing these things off is to get their plan, their program more in line with the rest of their party.

CONAN: And how quickly - we saw the, as Ken mentioned earlier, the plan the Republicans had four years ago, after President Obama first elected, but they're looking straight ahead to these next elections coming up. They think they have the advantage in the way those House seats are drawn. They think given the number of seats the Democrats have to defend, they have the advantage in Senate elections as well. But is it time to play a waiting game and hope they're better off in two years' time? Jack Pitney?

PITNEY: Well, as Ken pointed out earlier, you really can't assume anything when it comes to the next midterm election. One thing they want to avoid is a government shutdown. They learned in 1995 and 1996 that's one thing that the public does not want. So they need on the one hand to find some way to leverage budget cuts but on the other hand keep the government running and show that they can do the people's business, because if they don't, if the president can say, look, these Republicans are dragging their heels, that could jeopardize their hold on some of these marginal districts. It will be difficult for Democrats to retake control of the House, but it's not totally out of the realm of impossibility either.

CONAN: If you missed it, House lawmakers voted 285 to 144 to pass the bill - that's the debt ceiling - extending the debt ceiling till May 18, with 86 Democrats supporting the measure, 33 Republicans opposing it. Senate Major Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that his chamber would clear the bill for the president's signature as soon as possible. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And our guests once again, Jack Pitney, the Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College; and of course Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. Ken?

RUDIN: Jack, one more thing also, we're talking about some possible indications that Speaker Boehner might go a little easy on the president, maybe being in a more cooperative mode. What happens if on the other hand in the Senate, if Harry Reid and the negotiations with Mitch McConnell on the filibuster don't work and Harry Reid says the heck with it, I'm going to have the nuclear option, we're just going to change the filibuster rules with a 51 vote margin - what happens to Democrats and Republicans in the Senate?

PITNEY: Well, if you like the House now, you'll love the Senate after the filibuster change, the kind of comity that still persists in the Senate would largely disappear.

RUDIN: You said comedy, right? Comedy?

PITNEY: Comity. Well, take your pick, comity or comedy, depending on your perception. But I think the conflict that would result would be potentially damaging to the institution. And for the sake of the Senate, for the sake of the Congress, I hope they can work something out.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Ed. Ed on the line with us from Raleigh.

ED: Oh, yeah. I have a question. I'm also a long life Republican. The work of the no pledge taxes with Grover Norquist that was signed by most of the Republicans, I was just wondering if you think Mr. Norquist's position now has been somewhat compromised with this recent passage for taxes on the upper income people. I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Ed. Jack Pitney, what do you think?

PITNEY: That was a setback for him, although he tried to spin it as something that was acceptable. Obviously, taxes went up, and that's not the outcome he would have wanted. I think we're going to see in the next couple of years a lot more attention to these pledges because a number of Democrats and some Republicans have taken a pledge not to touch Social Security and Medicare. Well, as the Simpson-Bowles Commission reported a couple of years ago, if we want to make serious progress against the deficit and the debt, one part of that is going to be revenue, but another part of it is going to be entitlement programs. And if you have large swatches of Congress putting those things off the table, it's going to be very difficult to make serious progress on the deficit.

CONAN: And it's not just the no new taxes ever wing of the Republican Party represented by lobbyist Grover Norquist, it's the Tea Party that seems to be in some - four of its members were purged from prime committee seats by Speaker Boehner. And they can fume all they want, but he can get materials passed, if he gets some Democratic help, without them.

PITNEY: That's right. The Tea Party has morphed. It's still a very important force within the Republican Party, but they don't have the same kind of public presence that they had in 2010, when you had people showing up at rallies, people fighting against the health care plan. It's kind of like the Occupy Movement, which rose and fall very quickly. And so the Tea Party is probably a bit demoralized as well after the election and the fiscal cliff.

CONAN: Jack Pitney, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

PITNEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Professor of political science Jack Pitney joined us from his office at Claremont McKenna College. And Ken Rudin, our resident Political Junkie, joined us here in Studio 3A. He will be back with us next week as usual. And in the meantime you can go to npr.org/junkie to see the latest ScuttleButton puzzle and Ken's latest column. What is about, Ken?

RUDIN: It's about the new Cabinet - the Cabinet openings in the second Obama term.

CONAN: The producer of the Political Junkie segment is Laura Lee. Ken, we'll see you again next week.

RUDIN: Hey, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back, we'll turn to Syria where the humanitarian situation is grim. NPR's Deborah Amos and Shinjiro Murata, the head of Doctors Without Borders' mission there, joins us after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.