ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Joining us now, columnists and Friday regulars E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.
SIEGEL: As we've heard, President Obama hit the road today selling his budget plans in Pennsylvania. Yesterday, his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, presented the president's ideas to House Republican leaders and produced this dyspeptic comment on the fiscal cliff from Speaker John Boehner.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I'm here seriously trying to resolve it and I would hope the White House would get serious as well.
SIEGEL: So are we off to a truly bad start to the budget bargain battle or just the first round of posturing, David?
BROOKS: We're off to a really bad start. It was funny. I was with Republicans all week and you saw this evolution since the election as they've begun to move. They know they need to give in on some revenues and over the last couple weeks, some of them have begun to know they need to give in at least a bit on rates. And then the Friday Geithner release, the proposal, which was sort of a thumb in the eye, sort of an insult, and they pulled back from all the flexibility they'd developed over the past weeks.
They said, okay, this is war. They pulled right back to Grover-ism and so...
SIEGEL: Grover Norquist.
BROOKS: Grover Norquist. And so we're much further away because of this thing Friday. And I'm just mystified. I mean, either the White House is the most incompetent negotiators, 'cause they've really set us back, or else they want to go over the cliff because they think if they have a recession, they can blame it on Republicans and maybe take back the House.
SIEGEL: E.J., are you equally mystified?
DIONNE: No. I think it's a good start. I think that we got so used to the idea in Washington that President Obama makes preemptive concessions before the other side puts anything concrete on the table, that we can't believe that he's just being a normal negotiator. He told the House, here is what I want. You know I want a tax increase. He gave them $400 billion in Medicare cuts and he said, okay, what do you want?
If Republicans say they can raise a lot of money out of tax reform, show us. If they want more Medicare cuts, show us what they want. I just think Washington has gotten so accustomed to the Republicans not putting stuff publicly on the table that it can't understand a normal negotiation. So I was heartened, not at all upset by what happened this week.
SIEGEL: But what was an increase in stimulus funds, was that a serious proposal?
DIONNE: I think that's genuinely serious because I think that was a good thing because just because Congress has arranged this cockamamie deadline, which we shouldn't even have to face, it doesn't mean that we should make the budget the most important thing. The most important thing is to keep the recovery going and the president has three ideas that are all sensible.
The infrastructure bank, which a lot of conservatives have actually liked in the past 'cause it's a public/private partnership, extending unemployment insurance, which we need, and continuing the payroll tax cut or something like it. There's aren't wacky, wild, radical ideas.
SIEGEL: David, the Republicans you were with all week, they see the president who believes that he ran on taxing the rich, one, and if he has a mandate to do anything, it's that. It's to raise taxes on the top two percent. But these House Republicans also ran and won. I mean, do they feel they have a mandate, too? To do what?
BROOKS: They know there was a mandate to raise taxes on the rich and so they've been trying to get their head around that. And if you're sensitive to that, you want to help them get to that spot, you know. If you watch the Abraham Lincoln movie, he understood the opposition and he met them on their ground, then he tried to seduce them over. And so the president has to get outside his bubble.
And I understand this gives, you know, this is red meat for the left. They love it. But if you want to get a deal with Republicans, who do control the House and probably will for a good long time, at least understand what they're going through and don't declare war. Listen, there's two rules of business we can do things in Washington.
There's the normal business rules, we have respectful conversations. And then there's the circus when we scream at each other. And if you're going out around the country rousing up the circus, then you'll play by circus rules, but you really won't get very far.
DIONNE: Lincoln stood his ground on the fundamental principle that we needed the 13th Amendment and needed to ban slavery. In fact, he was willing to have a Civil War on that question so this notion that...
SIEGEL: We'll argue that later. We'll argue about Lincoln later...
DIONNE: I'm tired of Lincoln metaphors.
BROOKS: This is one rate increase versus - 18 percent versus 19 percent. This is not a civil war.
SIEGEL: We'll argue about Lincoln some other time. But on to the second issue of the week. UN Ambassador Susan Rice, having angered Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham with her accounts on television of the Benghazi consulate attack, made house calls on Capitol Hill as she met with those two and with Maine's moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins, who after what figured to be the ritual make-nice session said this...
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: I continue to be troubled by the fact that the UN ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election.
SIEGEL: In other words, Rice lost ground in the Senate, although President Obama reiterated his high opinion of her.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Susan Rice is extraordinary. I couldn't be prouder of the job that she's done at USUN.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SIEGEL: So, two questions about Susan Rice. Are the complaints against her serious, in your view? And is she so important to President Obama that she is worth a contentious nomination fight, assuming that she's named secretary of State, with some of the very senators that he'll likely need for a budget deal? E.J., you go first.
DIONNE: Well, I find this more rather than less mystifying as it goes on. Susan Collins, who's actually a likable person, said at one point that there was something wrong with her having gone on one of these TV Sunday chat shows. Well, for goodness sake, everybody who is secretary of State, including Hillary Clinton, has done plenty of that. And, you know, it's worth noting that, you know, Senator Collins, Senator Ayotte and Senator McCain were the three people who campaigned for Scott Brown.
So there is that political undertone. They really want John Kerry. They've said it. They've almost endorsed John Kerry...
SIEGEL: Kerry out of the Senate, so that Scott Brown can run.
DIONNE: ...out of the Senate so Scott Brown runs again. So now, I just can't believe that's what really motivates this, but it's very hard to understand. If they have a deep objection to her for other reasons, to Susan Rice, let them say it. This doesn't explain what their objection has to be.
SIEGEL: David Brooks, what do you make of this?
BROOKS: I think Susan Collins is pretty clear: It's the politics. It's not exactly Benghazi. More than most diplomats, Susan Rice is a more partisan, more sharp-edged figure. I personally think her behavior on Benghazi was fine. She was doing what the team wanted her to do.
But she does have a little more sharp-edged tone. She has been partisan. She has attacked some senators. And so I think they don't want to see that in - necessarily see that in a secretary of State. And I should have to say, I don't really have an opinion about whether she deserves to be secretary of State or not, but if your job is to go into difficult meetings and soothe feelings, and you go into a 75-minute meeting with Susan Collins, the most moderate person in the United States Senate, and you can't soothe feelings, it's not necessarily testimony to your great skill in that job.
DIONNE: Unless of course there's no chance to soothe her feelings because I agree with you, she's an agreeable person, unless there's a pre-existing stance here. If they want to make the argument David made, let them make it openly. This - the way they're doing it now just doesn't make sense.
SIEGEL: Well yes or no question for both of you, very, very briefly. If you're President Obama, and you have a choice of proceeding with this nomination or making one that goes through without any friction, do you stand by - if she's your choice, do you stand by Susan Rice on principle or no?
BROOKS: If you think she's best, you should try to push her through.
DIONNE: The more the Republicans raise the stakes, the higher the pressure on him to go with Susan Rice.
SIEGEL: E.J., David, thanks to both of you.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.