Journalists’ Roundtable

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Join us for another edition of the Journalists’ Roundtable, as local reporters recap the big news of the week.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon's" "Journalists' Roundtable," Arizona's congressional delegation considers the President's plans for military intervention in Syria, and Governor Brewer appeals the rejection of federal aid for the Yarnell Hill fire. The "Journalists' Roundtable" is next on "Arizona Horizon."

Announcer: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" "Journalists' Roundtable," I'm Ted Simons. Joining me tonight are Rebekah Sanders of "The Arizona Republic," Howard Fischer of "Capitol Media Services," and Dan Nowicki also of the "The Arizona Republic." Congress is facing a major decision regarding the Obama administration plans for military intervention in Syria. And of course, if Congress is facing it, our Congressional delegation is facing it. Talk to us about the dynamics, what are you hearing out there?

Rebekah Sanders: That's right, we have a pretty divided House delegation, we've got a couple of Republicans who are against it and then a bunch of Democrats who are undecided. Interesting comments that we heard this week from Matt Salmon, a Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee and was briefed in conference calls and even went back to D.C. this week for hearings, he says he sees no U.S. interest in the strike and he can't support it. Then we've got Ann Kirkpatrick, she's on the Armed Services Committee. She says she's also not feeling supportive because she said she's seen the soldiers that have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. But she's still holding out a little bit. It's interesting to see people wavering.

Howard Fischer: And the issue is they're also testing their own districts to a certain extent. Even Senator McCain's little gaggle this week in Phoenix and again in Tucson and tomorrow I guess up in Prescott. The public is not sold on this. The public is a little war-weary. They seem to remember some president, who could that be, talking about weapons of mass destruction and we have absolute proof and everything else. They see the bodies coming back. They look and say, "What is our interest here?" The other part of it quite frankly is, okay, this is the red line. You're killing your people with gas. As opposed to killing them with bullets which we were okay with.

Daniel Nowicki: I think Howard's being a little bit diplomatic there, when he says the public is a little war-weary. The sense I get is they are very much opposed. I think Senator John McCain and Senator Flake, contrary to the Congressional delegation, they're both on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both supported, you know, the Resolution that passed Wednesday 10-7. Only three Republicans supported it, two of which were McCain and Flake. They even acknowledge it's going to be a hard sell to the public. Senator McCain is at a town hall this week in Phoenix, both before and after talking to the media he called for the president to make a national address, which is not going to happen. The only guy who can sell this to the public is the President.

Rebekah Sanders: At least so far it's not happening. Obama has not been able to move the needle. Polls nationally as well as and one recently here in Arizona shows at least half of the American public if not more than does not want to get involved.

Howard Fischer: They don't see not only what's the up side, what's the end game here? The president's initial speech was it's going to be limited in scope, it's not going to involve boots on the ground. To a certain extent it's not going to involve regime change. What is our point here? If we're not trying to change the dynamics over there, why are we doing this? Just to lob a few missiles in to say, see, we told you so?

Daniel Nowicki: That's part of it. The public is confused about what the aim of this would be. Are we looking at Syria as a strategic chess piece or we're just going punish this regime? And once we do it, that'll be it.

Ted Simons: I find that interesting. It seems from the administration, whether Secretary Kerry or the President himself, we keep hearing much more punitive language. There is no end game because it doesn't sound like much of a game to begin with. there will be no boots on the ground so we won't be seeing, theoretically, the bodies coming back. Doing nothing sends a signal that threatens national security. And yet the public, it sounds like and certainly the congressional delegation is saying, we're not there yet.

Rebekah Sanders: And you see also the language has been about not wanting to do any kind of nation-building as happened to be the case in Afghanistan and Iraq. But even so I think people are really skeptical in the public as well as our politicians. An interesting dichotomy that you'll see between McCain, who's been a very outspoken supporter of this, and our House delegation. Just a few months ago, David Schweikert, a Republican, came out saying he thought there was no problem McCain saw that he didn't feel like he could solve with a bomb or a missile. They are clearly not great friends themselves, but that is something that even resonates with the American public.

Daniel Nowicki: That is something that has always been intrinsic to McCain's biography. The guy is a hawk, he's always been, that's nothing new. I remember in 2007, he was running for President, the only guy supporting what became known as the surge in Iraq. People are saying, "Why is McCain doing this? There is some political calculus?" It seemed like the politically dumb thing to do. No, that's McCain, he's going to support the surge. He's going go there, every time.

Howard Fischer: I think he would do it if we were going to go in there, we're going to arm the right rebels -- we haven't figured out who the right rebels are --

Ted Simons: McCain, I've heard him speak on a number of occasions. He does seem to have ready answers for who we would support what they are made up of, a lot of the free Syrian arm type folks. So he's got those answers in line.

Daniel Nowicki: He does look at it like a strategic chess piece and the Middle East being a chess board.

Ted Simons: He may see that more than the President does. The President sees it more as punitive and a signal to Iran, to North Korea, to Hezbollah. A number of folks, when we say don't do this, we mean don't do this.

Rebekah Sanders: The context for this debate is that Congress has been back home in their districts on recess while this is all taking place. A few key members have been called back from briefings. Really, the hard lobbying and the information coming to the members may start in earnest next week. And we may not even see a vote on a Resolution, even for another week after they come back on Monday.

Daniel Nowicki: If you look at where the rankings are and where they stand, most of them are undecided still in the House.

Howard Fischer: A lot of it may depend on what happens to the President at G-20. Can he build any support there? The Russians are not going to support us; China is not going to support us very clearly. We saw what happened in the British parliament when they had an open debate on that.

Ted Simons: You got France.

Howard Fischer: We do have France. We're not going to have to talk about freedom fries, thank goodness for that. What kind of coalition can we build and whether it's moral. The other question on a lot of people's minds is where exactly is the Arab league? Where is Saudi Arabia, the folks who don't like this, our allies? Saudis have arms, we have sold them a heck of a lot of them. They certainly have the ability to do this.

Daniel Nowicki: McCain answered that point. Even though they have been kind of quiet they have been -- what arms the rebels do have have come from Gulf State neighbors.

Rebekah Sanders: A joint statement from the G-20 from France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, even Russia, condemning the acts. Of course the White House is going tout this as some form of cooperation on the part of a coalition, but certainly in terms of putting the pedal to the metal, it's not there.

Howard Fischer: Nasty notes to follow, I know, I've seen this.

Daniel Nowicki: And another question brought up, this whole response to chemical warfare, in the 1980s we saw it, I don't recall a similar debate in Congress over that. There was no burning desire to go get involved in the Iran-Iraq War going on in the 80s, despite the use of chemical warfare.

Ted Simons: You were there for the town hall meeting in Phoenix, correct?

Daniel Nowicki: Uh-huh.

Ted Simons: Describe the atmosphere, because it sounded like the audience was one-sided. The audience got a little testy. Maybe the senator got a little testy, surprise, surprise. But what did you see there?

Daniel Nowicki: I'll be careful how I choose my words because McCain objected to the use of the term "overwhelmingly" against the war, because you know there were some supporters there. I would say definitely it leaned heavily against getting involved. It came from all different directions. It was a much more diverse crowd than you see at a lot of McCain town halls. I've been to a hundred of them over the years, not only in Arizona but on the presidential campaign trail. You saw a lot of Syrian-Americans on both sides of the issue, some say don't get involved, some say do get involved. There was a shouting match, I've seen the clip on CNN where there's a gentleman saying, you can't shut me up here, this is America. He was yelling at another member of the crowd, another former Syrian accusing him of lying. He was making this remark and he said, "That's a lie, that's a lie!" It was a very electric atmosphere. Definitely I would say the tone was against it. There was a lot of the usual antiwar crowd that you would see at any kind of a war protest, but there's also a lot of Syrian Americans speaking out.

Howard Fischer: What's interesting is, the only time we've gotten this before has been immigration, same sort of thing.

Rebekah Sanders: Immigration? I haven't heard anything.

Howard Fischer: And that's the point. All of a sudden the whole national push over immigration and maybe doing something oh on that is shoved to the back burner. Any hope of getting the House to finally get around to that, gee, Mr. President, you'd like this Resolution here, you'd like to convince us of that. And he may have essentially bombed, if you will, his own immigration plan.

Daniel Nowicki: A big fear is if Congress rejects this authorization, that's going to be a major blow to whatever remaining political clout the President has in his second term. The fear is it is going to embolden these House Republicans, who are maybe on the fence on immigration. Maybe you can persuade these guys for the good of the national party. And if they see this second term, you know, kind of in full rout mode, they are going to be emboldened to say, "Why do I need to stick my neck out?"

Ted Simons: Take a hypothetical here, though. Let's say they are emboldened and say no, and all of a sudden Syria continues and escalates the use of chemical weapons. Again, when President first came out with this, he was very strong in saying, I think actually it was Kerry re who said we will not be spectators to slaughter. If you don't use American influence on something like this, we've seen the pictures of the women and children and bodies piled up. If you don't use it on this, what do you use it on?

Howard Fischer: That's the problem of drawing red lines. How many bodies have we seen piled up in this war? In Iraq with Saddam Hussein, in Afghanistan. The President needs to make the case that somehow chemical use is worse than bullets, bombs, drones and everything else. He hasn't made that case. People don't understand. They understand what chemical warfare is but it somehow hasn't resonated.

Rebekah Sanders: You've seen White House officials try to extrapolate it out to, if we don't act here, Iran or North Korea might be emboldened. I think that's hard for people to buy.

Howard Fischer: Let me tell you, as my generation, we were told the domino theory. Do you remember Vietnam? If Vietnam falls, then goes Cambodia and Thailand and the whole Southeast Asia and all of a sudden, the Commies are going to be marching in Manila. Didn't happen, so we've heard this domino theory before, and it makes a lot of people very skeptical.

Rebekah Sanders: Absolutely.

Ted Simons: Last point on this regarding Congress in general, but the Arizona delegation in particular: Strange bedfellows here as far as Republicans and Democrats agreeing-disagreeing on using military influence, I should say.

Rebekah Sanders: You're, you've got Raúl Grijalva, one of our most liberal, if not the most liberal House member in Arizona --

Daniel Nowicki: In the country.

Rebekah Sanders: -- indeed in the country, siding with someone like Salmon or Schweikert who are quite Conservative. It's been interesting, there's been a number of votes this year, and it's interesting to see the different reasons that people are motivated. They are not the same.

Howard Fischer: Let me go a step beyond that. Boehner obviously has said he'd sort of try to sell this. But Boehner has had a problem all year as the folks on his right keep trying to knock him off. The Ted Cruzes and the Rand Pauls of the world, so it's going to be interesting with Boehner, how much is he going to be willing to put on the line.

Daniel Nowicki: Now that this week emerged all this chatter that Boehner may be thinking about stepping down anyway next year.

Ted Simons: We've talked about McCain, Flake was on this program before this flared up, but things were starting to simmer here. We talked quite a bit about Syria. He seemed very noncommittal, I need to know more, I need to hear more, I need to see more. Sounds like (A) during the committee hearing, Secretary Kerry took him to the woodshed a little bit about constitutional requirements. And (B) Is he starting to force the issue?

Daniel Nowicki: To the point about Kerry, Flake asked Kerry point-blank, "What if Congress says no? What do you do? What's the President going to do?" Kerry said, "I don't know what the President's going to do, but we believe we have the authority now with or without Congress, and we'll still have authority with or without Congress." So he's like, "Well, if you have the authority, why not strike as opposed to waiting three weeks, signaling to the Assad regime that we're going to attack you. They're already supposedly moving assets, dispersing troops into the civilian neighborhoods and taking presumptive actions like that." The Secretary of State responded, "Well, I'm surprised why a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be asking." And Flake said, "Well, you didn't in Libya. In Libya you didn't think you had to come to Congress." I think the calculus on the White House's part is that it would be tougher to make the case if this is some kind of emergency in Syria that we have to act. Although the War Powers Resolution probably does give them the leeway if he wanted to do it, it says you have to consult with Congress within 60-90 days.

Ted Simons: And we should mention a recent poll. A P.R. firm had a poll out, 51% of Arizonans, these are likely voters, against; 28% support; 21% unsure.

Howard Fischer: Let me use the Steve Colbert line: It's amazing 28% of Arizonans know where Syria is in the first place.

Ted Simons: These likely are voters, so these are folks who know where their polling place is, too. So let's give them a little bit of credit here. Independents oppose military action 2 to 1, and Republicans opposing military action by 67%. Interesting numbers there. Let's move on. We talked about this before because we expected the state to appeal the rejection of Yarnell Hill fire aid. The governor went ahead and did this. Is FEMA going to reconsider this at all?

Howard Fischer: I think they'll certainly go through the motions. The funny thing is the appeal, while it's addressed to the President, goes back to the same District 9 FEMA director who rejected it in the first place. She will forward it to her boss, who signed the original rejection in the first place. The problem the governor has is the laws are pretty clear: What constitutes a disaster? Federal Disaster Aid is based on the inability of state and local governments and volunteer groups to deal with it. Katrina was a disaster. Sandy was a disaster. Yarnell Hill was tragic, and conflating the 19 firefighters makes it even more so. But in terms of the scope, $25-30 million, that's hardly beyond the capability of a state with a $10 billion budget to deal with.

Ted Simons: And FEMA is basically saying the severity and the magnitude not enough for federal aid and this is not something that, as you mentioned, state, local, volunteer, the whole nine yards, not something they can't handle.

Howard Fischer: And what's important is when you start to take down the numbers, FEMA is precluded from helping anybody who has insurance. Most of the homes, the owner-occupied homes, were insured, so take them out of the equation. There are folks who were underinsured and perhaps some of their losses count. But again the problem becomes when you take care of all that, the numbers are not that great. The whole purpose of federal help is to step in where the states cannot.

Ted Simons: And We saw Representative Kirkpatrick along with Representatives Gosar, Franks and Sinema up there, and somebody had mentioned Gosar had voted no to previous federal disaster aid and now he's up there. But is that apples to apples?

Daniel Nowicki: I don't think so. ThinkProgress, the liberal blog, was the first to kind of raise this issue, and McCain and Flake also voted also against the Hurricane Sandy bill. McCain and Flake say, "We never opposed a disaster declaration for Hurricane Sandy, nor would we. What we voted against was a $50 billion Congressional supplemental appropriations bill that was loaded with a lot of nonemergency spending that had nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy." There's AmTrak subsidies and all sorts of stuff in there. For an apples to apples comparison, I guess there'd have to be a Yarnell Hil $50 billion legislation and fill it with all that other stuff and see if they'd vote for it.

Howard Fischer: I asked Representative Gosar, who was also at this little dog and pony show the Governor had earlier this week. I said, "Wait a second, all you Republicans who believe the law means what it means, the Constitution means what it means." He said "Well, you know, yes, there are rules. Sometimes you have to have exceptions." Even he is conceding that from the black letter purpose of the law, this does not qualify.

Rebekah Sanders: An example that, it seems like these folks who are pressing for the appeal are using to say that there may be some hope, is that the town of West, Texas which had the terrible gas explosion, they were denied, appealed and were recently approved. That is one of the things used as an example to say we might be able to change the minds of those same people, but who knows?

Ted Simons: Real quickly, before we leave, the Congressional delegation, obviously with recess in effect and back here. It was an interesting point you made, it changes the whole dynamic of what's happening in Washington. This whole thing could turn in an entirely different direction once everyone gets back in their seats and starts getting information. What has the delegation been doing? What's going on? Is immigration big? Are we looking at the copper mine? What's happening out there?

Rebekah Sanders: Depends on the member, how active they are. But immigration, interestingly, has been brought up somewhat, but more by activists and more by people in the audiences. I've seen only one member of our delegation actually schedule an immigration-specific town hall, at least in the House delegation, and that's Grijalva. He really has nothing to lose there. I think folks have been trying to stay away from that.

Daniel Nowicki: McCain and Flake have both been emphasizing that. They've been making the rounds of chamber groups and business groups.

Rebekah Sanders: They have, for sure.

Howard Fischer: The difference is having to run every two years versus every six. What you're seeing are a lot of constituent services.

Daniel Nowicki: Representing a state versus a political --

Howard Fischer: Kyrsten Sinema is going to run a 10K for women veterans who are homeless, things like that; this is all local, local local constituent service stuff. Hey, look at me, I'm your Congressman.

Ted Simons: It's interesting that you mentioned Sinema, Representative Sinema, because she just got back from Afghanistan. This is quite an event, for a representative to visit Arizona troops and things like that. You get back and all of a sudden Syria blows and we're asking about Syria and not Afghanistan.

Daniel Nowicki: It's the same with McCain, he's been trying to keep the pressure on immigration. At his town hall the other day he had two questions in an hour and 10 minute meeting on immigration.

Ted Simons: Before we go, Howie, the requisite medical marijuana question asked of course to you: smoking, eating, okay? Soda pop, hard candy not okay? Huh?

Howard Fischer: The voters approved medical marijuana in 2010, no question. The language also contemplates food products. But here's the thing: State Health Director Will Humble did a little digging in the law. There's a definition of marijuana, which is also defined in the Medical Marijuana Act, and definition of cannabis, which the law defines, curiously enough, essentially as the hash oil, the THC, I've never been able to pronounce that, the psychoactive substance. Because of the way the law is crafted, you want to make a brownie with ground-up pieces of marijuana like I did in college? No problem. You want to strip out the hash oil and make a lollipop with no pieces of plant, now you've got a problem. And it has thrown a real monkey wrench into the whole issue of people who do not want to smoke it.

Ted Simons: You're basically saying if the lollipop shows a little fleck of the plant it might be okay. If it doesn't it might not be? We're talking a felony here?

Howard Fischer: We're talking a felony, because it remains illegal even for medical marijuana recipients under state law to use something that does not have the plant, the flowers, the leaves. You're really dancing on the head of a pin here, but the law is fairly clear. The director, in fact just this week he said, you know, I don't want to be in a position of putting out a cookbook on how to make this stuff. But to a certain extent we may have the Will Humble cookbook on what you can and can't make with medical marijuana.

Ted Simons: Storm the stores for that one. We've got about 30 seconds left here. Do you think, just off the top of your head from now, do you think Congress will vote for military intervention?

Rebekah Sanders: I don't.

Ted Simons: You don't think so. What do you think?

Daniel Nowicki: I would say yes on the Senate, right now no on the House.

Ted Simons: Howie, what do you think?

Howard Fischer: I tend to lean with Rebekah except for the fact that are they going to leave the President hanging out. A lot of it may depend on what we hear from Syria for the next couple of weeks. We have folks saying we're going bomb embassies, bomb Israel, that may help galvanize things.

Ted Simons: Alright, we'll stop it right there. Thank you all very much. Monday on Arizona Horizon, we'll hear about the Mayo Clinic's plans to open a stem cell laboratory, and an organization that empowers women to transform their lives. Monday evening 5:30 and 10 on "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great weekend.

Rebekah Sanders:The Arizona Republic; Howard Fischer:Capitol Media Services; Dan Nowicki:The Arizona Republic

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