WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It's another week of divisions in Washington as fights over the Supreme Court and the debt ceiling drag on.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): Because the court will not act, Congress must.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Senate Democrats insist the Supreme Court is in dire need of ethics reforms after several justices failed to disclose that they've received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts, real estate deals and tuition payments.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): This assault is about trying to delegitimize a conservative court.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Republicans are pushing back, claiming this move for reform is politically motivated.
JOE BIDEN, U.S. President: Let's have the normal arguments.
We're ready for that debate.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The president has asked us to come to on May the 9th.
I'll be there.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As the U.S. veers closer to defaulting on its debt, a deal remains elusive, as President Biden plans to meet next week with Republican leaders.
Plus -- MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. Attorney General: Today's verdict makes clear that the Justice Department will do everything in its power to defend the American people and American democracy.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: -- four members of the far-right Proud Boys are found guilty of seditious conspiracy for helping organize the insurrection.
But Americans continue to be divided over what happened on January 6th, next.
Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK.
I'm William Brangham.
The problems and partisan divisions permeating Washington were on full display this week.
On Thursday, new reporting from ProPublica revealed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose another payment from billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow.
Crow paid an estimated $150,000 in tuition for Thomas' great nephew to attend private schools.
This followed revelations that Crow also purchased Thomas' mother's home and took the justice on numerous expensive vacations.
Fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch also failed to report property he sold to an executive at a law firm that had business before the court.
Earlier in the week, Senate Democrats convened a Judiciary Committee hearing to press for ethics reforms.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI): Until there is an honest ethics process at the Supreme Court, these messes will continue.
The court has conclusively proven that it cannot police itself.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Despite agreement from some Republicans that reforms are necessary, many GOP senators called the hearings politically motivated.
SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): The danger isn't that rogue justices are operating without ethics.
It's that Democrats aren't winning every fight, and they find that reality intolerable.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Also this week, Senate Republicans made clear that they have no interest in getting involved in the fight over raising the debt limit.
MITCH MCCONNELL: This will ultimately, in my view, be solved when the speaker and the president reach an agreement.
It should be clear to the administration that the Senate is not a relevant player this time.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Treasury Department estimates the US.
government will run out of money as soon as June 1st.
This debt limit brinksmanship continues next Tuesday at the White House when Speaker McCarthy and Senator McConnell meet President Biden and their Democratic counterparts to try and avert the crisis.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, there was another reminder of the extreme repercussions of America's political divide.
Four members of the far-right militia group, The Proud Boys, were found guilty of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the January 6th attack on the Capitol.
Joining me to discuss this and more, Heather Caygle, she's the managing editor at Punchbowl News, Asma Khalid is White House Correspondent for NPR and co-Host of the NPR Politics Podcast, Anita Kumar is Senior Managing Editor at Politico and Phil Mattingly is CNN's Chief White House Correspondent.
Welcome to all of you.
Thank you so much for being here.
Heather, to you first.
Could you just remind us of the stakes on this debt limit fight that we are having here?
What is Speaker McCarthy's current position vis-a-vis the White House?
HEATHER CAYGLE, Managing Editor, Punchbowl News: I think, you know, McCarthy is a deal maker, and Phil can probably speak to this because he was on the Hill with me for a long time, but he wants a deal, right?
And there's three parts of that deal that he wants.
He wants spending caps.
He wants to raise the debt limit, and he wants some kind of sweetener that he can take back to his conference, where he has a five-vote majority in the House and say, look what I got us.
Something like that could be permitting reform.
It's not that -- like it's not that foggy but the White House doesn't really seem to understand Kevin McCarthy or what he's looking for.
And I think that they're still really counting on him to go up to the brink and then back down and say, whoa, whoa, whoa, I don't want to default.
And he is saying, no, I will not back down.
This is what I need.
You should give this to me.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, Phil, to that point, I mean, McCarthy did have a remarkable success in the sense that he held his GOP House together and put forward a piece of legislation saying, this is what we demand from the White House in order to sign off on this.
What was it that they all agreed to?
PHIL MATTINGLY, Chief White House Correspondent, CNN: Well, I mean, dramatic spending cuts.
And keep in mind, this was a piece of legislation, and you tip your cap to the speaker, because a lot of people did not think he could get anything across the finish line, including a lot of people who sit in the West Wing, including some members of his own conference.
And he was able to find the 217 votes to do just that.
And what it would be is essentially kind of an agenda wish list of conservatives, the very conservatives that he had to kind of battle for 15 rounds to become the speaker of the House in terms of dramatic spending cuts, moving the top line spending number from fiscal 2024 to fiscal 2022, including the permitting reform, including a number of regulatory acts as well, canceling student loans.
It was kind of a wish list of everything that conservatives would want with a full understanding, I think with anybody who's speaking candidly.
None of that was actually going to fly in a real negotiation.
Getting it across the finish line was to start a negotiation.
This was to say, look, we can pass something.
We've got leverage.
This bill also raises the debt ceiling.
Now, we can have real negotiations.
The problem with that is the White House position, of which they've been very firm and unyielding on, is we will have no negotiations at all.
And why this is so different from 2011 or 2013 is the White House is saying, we learned the lessons from those.
This should not be a point of leverage.
The idea of collapsing the entire U.S. economy should not be a point of leverage for the majority in one house of one third of government, and therefore, we will not negotiate because we're putting our foot down and trying to put an end to this being used as leverage.
The problem is that McCarthy got something across the finish line, and now we're at a point where it's serious.
This is not joke around, negotiate, let's posture time.
This is, let's figure something out fast, or else catastrophe could happen.
ASMA KHALID, White House Correspondent, NPR: I also think that there's publicly, I would say, both Republicans and Democrats don't really want to acknowledge the idea of a short-term extension.
But when you see that Janet Yellen put out this June 1st deadline, I think the logical reality is that is very much a part of the conversation, because it's not really logistically possible to get a budget deal across the finish line by that timeline.
And to your point too, I mean, the White House has been unyielding in the fact that they do not want to link these two things together.
You talk to anybody who was there in the room in 2011, and their sense is the market suffered, the economy suffered.
We as a country cannot repeat that.
ANITA KUMAR, Managing Director, Politico: I think this is something, though, that the White House has been dealing with since Biden came in, right?
They had all the years where the vice -- then-Vice President Joe Biden was the negotiator for Barack Obama.
He did that for all those years.
And there was some pushback on that.
There were people that said, look, he gave up too much, or the Republicans, they said they would negotiate, and then they walked away.
And so when Joe Biden came in, there were a lot of people in the White House and outside who said, look, we worked in those years when Barack Obama was there.
We don't want to do this again.
You have to go in there and be firm.
And that has carried through the last couple of years.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And you think that that is what's driving Biden's firm footing on this?
I think that's one of the things.
I think that there are Democratic activists outside the White House, Obama staffers inside the White House who have said, we've got to stand firm.
Remember what happened last time?
There are definitely other things.
He wants to show that he can do this, that he said he wouldn't combine these two things, and he wants to show that.
But the clock is ticking now to a few more weeks.
PHIL MATTINGLY: Yes.
I do think that an underappreciated element of this is people forget that there was a 2021 debt ceiling increase that had to happen as well, where Democrats took a very similar position, held the line on it and ended up figuring out a way to thread the needle in a way that worked out for them.
And I think that informed how the White House and I think Senate Democrats, in particular, kind of approached this process in a way that underappreciated that the speaker of the House was now a Republican and that the speaker of the House could get the requisite number of votes to get his own bill passed.
I think that's where there's been, I think, a level of uncertainty or unexpected success from McCarthy that has thrown things into a very different place than perhaps Democrats expected.
HEATHER CAYGLE: And I feel like another thing that the White House doesn't fully seem to grasp yet is that, one, this is a much different Republican conference than even in 2011 or 2013.
It is much more conservative.
The majority is much smaller.
And McCarthy, frankly, doesn't even have the strength that Boehner was operating with back then.
And we look at Boehner now and back then, he kind of seemed it was like, can he control this, right?
But now it's like McCarthy only has four votes he can lose.
The other thing is several Republicans actually don't agree with the June 1st date that Janet Yellen put out.
They don't think it's real.
They think it's a political ploy.
And there are several others that are perfectly fine, they claim, with going up to the brink or even defaulting.
They say it will not be as catastrophic as Democrats say it will be.
And you have to think back, back in 2011, 75 percent of the House was not here.
They do not have that institutional memory, and that is what we are operating with right now.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Asma, to this point that Heather is making, it's not just Democrats that are saying that this would be an economic catastrophe, as Phil put it, for the country if we were to default.
Can you just remind us of some of the stakes of what does happen if we don't meet that goal?
ASMA KHALID: I mean, if you look in 2011, right, standard imports, I believe, downgraded the U.S. credit rating, I mean, there are economic consequences.
You can look at the stock market.
You can look at wide ranging economic consequences.
And that's what many economists are sort of foreshadowing.
I was speaking with a source familiar with the White House's thinking earlier today who mentioned to me that you can assume that the White House is making this outreach right now to corporate leaders of big financial institutions to help on their behalf.
The challenge -- WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just say, hey, don't do this.
This is going to really hurt us.
ASMA KHALID: Yes.
I think the challenge to what you were suggesting, Heather, is -- but is this a Republican Party that is receptive to that message from corporate America?
PHIL MATTINGLY: Can I also just say, though, the level of kind of a sanguine view in Washington right now, given how close we are to, right, this has never happened before, right?
And you want to project out and economists have done numerous analyses in terms of, you know, $10 trillion in terms of market, in terms of if you're looking at stock market losses and what that would do to American wealth.
You're talking mass unemployment to the tune of, you know, 5, 6, 7, 8 percent.
If you own a credit product, a credit card, a mortgage, an auto loan, your rates will spike immediately, immediate recession, Medicare payments, Social Security payments, paying the military, all of that is connected to this, except we've never done it before.
So, it's tough to be able to point to histories.
This is what happens.
We've seen it.
Instead, this is what we project to happen, which I think feeds into Republicans saying that this isn't something that's real, or we question some of it.
ASMA KHALID: I also think this idea that maybe the doomsday scenario isn't actually as bad as folks are predicting it could be because the country has never been in this situation.
ANITA KUMAR: Yes, but this is why you're seeing the administration, the president, the White House, the administration going out there and trying to say all those things that you just said, but, actually, it sounds like it's a little bit falling on deaf ears because maybe because we haven't been through it, but also, as we saw, the president was trying to get the support of outside groups, Chambers of Commerce, those types of business groups, and they're not supporting him.
They're saying, get down and negotiate, get at the table.
So, it's actually a little bit under the radar, but it's a little bit backfiring on him.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let's just say, Anita, that after this White House meeting next Tuesday that McCarthy does get some compromise.
Do you have any sense as to whether or not he could then set all that compromise to his own base?
ANITA KUMAR: That is the real question, isn't it?
I mean, it has to be something that he can sell.
And if he cannot sell, what happens there?
I mean, his speakership is so incredibly fragile, as we saw the vote when he became speaker, that sort of anything could happen.
And is he going to be able to go back and do that?
Is it really unclear?
So, it has to be only a certain type of deal, and I don't think they walk away from next week with any kind of deal.
I mean, the question is whether they get to this point where they have a few things that they might be able to agree upon, and then we go from there.
And there are a couple of things.
There are things that some Democrats have said, okay, maybe we're open to this, but those are few and far between, and they have to get to those particular buckets before they get to those specifics.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Heather, the president all along has been saying, I'm not negotiating, this is not something I'm willing to do.
What if, after Tuesday's meeting, he comes out to the White House lawn and says, as I told my Republican colleagues, I'm not doing it, I am not going to negotiate on this?
What is your sense of what happens at that point?
HEATHER CAYGLE: I don't know, honestly.
I mean, we're kind of in unprecedented territory right now.
Usually when these crises are playing out publicly, there's a lot of political posturing from leaders of both parties.
But behind the scenes, there's a lot of clues about how this is going to actually end, especially with something this big.
The only other thing I can think of is like a government shutdown.
Everyone kind of knows it will end, and we will come together, no one knows exactly how.
But right now, they're not even talking.
The White House and Biden or McCarthy didn't even talk from February until just the other day, and he called to invite him to this meeting, right?
And I think the White House is counting on they'll be able to come out and say, okay, we need to do this short-term extension to kind of continue these negotiations.
It's not me walking back from where I was.
I'm still wanting to separate these things, but I'm not going to let the country default.
I think what they're miscalculating on right now is that if McCarthy were to agree to that, and that's a huge if, he would want big concessions, like Anita was talking about, to go back to his conference just for that short-term.
PHIL MATTINGLY: Yes, I think this is a critical point here.
We can all name staffers who, with their legislative expertise, have been able to thread needles in these past kind of knockdown, drag-out wars, whether on government spending or on debt limit, and they can come up with some very, very creative solutions.
The difficulty here is these two positions are completely incompatible.
If one won't negotiate and one says, these are my top lines that we absolutely have to hit, there is no pragmatic middle ground there.
There is no legislative vehicle that connects one to the other, that allows for somebody to vote on something, that allows something else to happen two months later.
Like none of those things work based on their current positions, and so one of them or both of them will have to agree to move off of it.
And I think to Heather's point, I can think through how you thread the needle on the policy side in a bipartisan way that can get the requisite number of votes between Democrats and Republicans.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You do think that's possible?
PHIL MATTINGLY: I think it's possible, but you are going to need -- if you're Kevin McCarthy, you are going to need Democratic votes, and you're going to need to accept you're going to lose your right flank.
If you're the White House, you're going to have to accept that you're probably going to have to move off your no negotiations pathway, and you're going to have to socialize with your own members that you're probably going to have to put budget caps on and agree to some type of permitting reform that you don't want.
These are really difficult concessions and we're potentially a month away, and none of this has been socialized with conferences or caucuses.
Members have to vote on this stuff and people aren't even talking about it right now.
And that takes time.
That's what's so scary.
All of this takes time.
And we don't have time.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Right, really unprecedented times we are in.
I'd like to pivot to this ongoing ethics scandal that is happening with the Supreme Court.
It just seems every day there's a new revelation about something that a payment that was made, loans that were not disclosed, tuition payments that came out.
The Washington Post just reported a new instance today of money being channeled to Ginni Thomas.
Congress had a hearing this week, Asma, where the Democrats were arguing, you have got to, Supreme Court, figure out an ethics package that you can pass, get your house in order, was basically what they were arguing.
Is it your sense that John Roberts will do that?
ASMA KHALID: Well, he did not attend that hearing on Capitol Hill.
And, I mean, that's -- look, the court is a self-policing institution full of members who have lifetime appointments.
And so there I think is a little -- there's a little incentive structure for them to change.
I mean, why or what?
They don't lose seats.
They're not under -- it's not like being an elected official.
There is no incentive to change behavior.
Beyond, and this is what I will say, something that Roberts does care quite a bit about, at least from some of the reporting we've heard, which is that he cares about the integrity of the court.
And you look at public opinion polling, I mean, we all actually, in conjunction with you and your PBS Newshour, Marist recently had a poll where I believe it was over 60 percent of the American public has little faith in the court.
Those numbers have gotten worse over the last few years.
And our understanding is that Roberts does care about how the court is perceived.
But thus far we haven't seen a shift.
ANITA KUMAR: Yes, I think in addition to the public opinion poll, which I totally agree with that, I mean, we've seen that last week when John Roberts said he was not coming to this hearing, he did send a letter and he attached something that was, many people would say, not very strong.
But he said, look, here are the ethics policies we have.
And I'm not saying that because here is some strong, you know, document, but I'm bringing it up because that's pretty unusual.
And you can tell that he and the court are feeling this drumbeat of story after story.
It's really been media attention, right, all these things that have been coming in for months, really, the last year or two.
And so for him to say, look, we've all signed this ethics statement, was still kind of remarkable.
Though, it didn't carry a lot of teeth, it didn't do a lot, I think that we're seeing signs that they are paying attention and that they know that exactly what you said, that public opinion is not high on the court right now.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Heather, do you think that, let's just say, John Roberts says, as we've been hearing, we've got this, don't worry about it, we'll take care of it, do you think that will be enough to satisfy Congress, or do you think that this drumbeat that keeps coming out and looks just awful -- again, we should say nothing of what has been disclosed is necessarily illegal.
The failure to disclose them is illegal.
You can give gifts out the wazoo to Supreme Court justices.
They just have to acknowledge that they received those things.
Do you think Congress would step in if John Roberts does not and do something about this?
HEATHER CAYGLE: So, I think, one, there's a huge partisan divide on this, right?
There's really no real middle ground right now on the Hill.
Republicans say that Democrats are just going after a conservative court because it's a conservative court.
Democrats say that Republicans are protecting a conservative court just because it's a conservative court, right?
So, there's that.
But the other issue is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they did ask Roberts to testify.
Senator Dianne Feinstein is a very well known member of that committee.
She has been absent since February.
We do not know when she was returning.
They do not have a majority on that committee to even advance legislation at this point, or maybe compel Harlan Crow to testify, for instance, anything like that.
And so if you look at the chairman, and I talked to him earlier this week, Senator Dick Durbin, he was kind of like, well, my hands are tied here.
We've done all that we can do.
It's bad, but what else can I do, right?
And I think that's really frustrated some Democrats, especially some on the committee, like Senator Whitehouse, who really wants a just much more aggressive approach, like, let's call more hearings, let's just bring more attention to this.
And that's just not Senator Durbin's style, quite frankly.
And with Senator Feinstein out, I mean, there's very little practically that he can do.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Lastly, I want to turn to again January 6th being in the news this week, where four members of the Proud Boys were convicted of seditious conspiracy for their role in the conspiracy and the attack on the Capitol on January 6th.
We know that the animating lie of that whole attack was that the election had been stolen, that Biden was an illegitimate president and the Democrats had orchestrated this.
That, we know from polling, is a still a widespread belief among members of the GOP.
And, Phil, I wonder what you think.
Does this verdict against the Proud Boys do anything to break that spell with Republican voters that the election was sound, we need to move on?
PHIL MATTINGLY: No, not at all.
And I think, look, it's a sad kind of state of things.
I think Heather was in the Capitol on the 6th.
I was in the capital on the 6th.
What seems so obvious to us and we assumed would carry over throughout history, including with a lot of Republicans that I know we both talked to, I think all of us spoke to in the days immediately after who were completely horrified, couldn't believe it would happen, said the former president should never be anywhere near government again now are completely silent and will likely support him if he's the Republican nominee.
No, not likely, will, some have already endorsed.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Did their views evolved?
Are they just staying silent?
How do you explain that?
PHIL MATTINGLY: We've been in this kind of incredible space, to some degree, embarrassing space over the course of the last six years, where members will always tell you how they feel about the former president on background or off the record in a very candid way, and then you'll never hear them engage at all or they'll be completely opposite.
They'll do a 180 when they're speaking on the record.
And I think one of the things that I think, and I understand how that infuriates people, and they have good reason to be infuriated, these are public officials and they're supposed to be serving the government, if they believe something, that's probably what they should convey.
What it misses is the fact that they're operating off their constituents.
They're operating off their voters.
They're operating on who's calling their offices.
And it's not even so much sometimes fear of being primaried.
These are the people that they're hearing from on a day-to-day basis.
You can't turn against him.
You can't move away from him.
He's the guy.
He's the center of our party.
And members are so reactive to that in a way that I don't think people necessarily grasp.
Now, that's not justifying the position.
And I'll say personally, I remember every single member who said what they said on background and is now probably going to endorse a former president if he's the nominee.
But I think it's the reality of the political moment which underscores just how tenuous and fragile the moment is that we're walking into right now in terms of a potential re-election campaign for the current president facing a former president who's ahead in the polls by 20 or 30 points, who knows what can happen?
This is a guy who tried to overturn the duly elected president of the United States of America election.
And yet that's very much the moment that we're heading into.
And I don't think anybody really has their heads fully around that.
And I think the Republicans that have stayed silent are going to continue to stay silent and maybe regret the fact that they didn't vote to impeach when they had a chance because they thought he would just go away.
ANITA KUMAR: Just look at the polls, and as you mentioned, Donald Trump is ahead, way ahead of any other Republican out there.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It really does look like we're going to see Biden v. Trump again.
ANITA KUMAR: Yes.
And then when you look at some of the polls and you dig into it, I've been really struck by some of the people that are saying they support him, it's because that he won last time.
So, they feel like he won last time.
He didn't get to be president, I guess, and they are supporting this coming time.
So, I mean, that permeates.
It's been two plus years and it's still there and it's not seeming to go away.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It is really going to be a remarkable thing to see how this election turns out.
We have to leave it there for now.
I want to thank to my panel for joining us and for sharing all of your reporting.
Thank you so much for being here.
And thanks to all of you for joining along with us as well.
Don't forget to watch "PBS NEWS WEEKEND" on Saturday for a conversation about living with COVID as the U.S. and global leaders declare an end to the COVID-â 19 emergency declarations.
I'm William Brangham.
Goodnight from Washington.