Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that President Barack Obama has the authority for a military strike against Syria without returning to the U.S. Congress for approval should diplomacy fail to compel Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to surrender its chemical-weapons arsenal.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the program with the House Minority Whip, Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Thank you for joining us.
STENY HOYER: Al, it’s always good to be with you. Thank you.
HUNT: Listen, everybody hopes that this - this Russian-led Syrian resolution in the UN works. There’s a lot of skepticism though. How long should the US give this before we decide it’s just a delay tactic and we have to go back to Plan A?
HOYER: I think the answer to that is not long. And I think you -
HUNT: Are you talking days or weeks?
HOYER: I think you’re talking - well, I don’t think you can tell that until the talks proceed a little further. They just started. Lavrov and Kerry just started to sit down and talk. There’s a lot of experts there, so there’s going to be a lot of discussion about technical issues. But clearly I don’t think we can allow this to be used as a delaying tactic. This has to be either real, as Secretary Kerry points out, specific and immediate. But whether it’s days or weeks, but certainly not longer than weeks, where we get to a place where we think this is real.
HUNT: If we conclude that it is not real, which is a distinct possibility -
HOYER: It is.
HUNT: - should - should Obama, having once asked Congress to authorize a strike, come back to Congress again?
HOYER: I think the military option needs to be on the table. The only reason the Russians made this offer, the only reason Assad has indicated he’s now going to sign the chemical convention is because of the threat of use of military force.
HUNT: And having done it once, is it essential now to come back to Congress to get that authorization?
HOYER: I don’t think - both the Leader Pelosi and I, and we’ve talked about this, neither one of us believe that the president is required to come to Congress in this instance and could act on his own. So the Russians and the Syrians ought not to take comfort in this sort of political reporting about votes. The president has made it very clear that he is going to take action if this is not resolved.
HUNT: Let me just make sure that we’re right on this. So if diplomacy should fail, again we all hope it does not, you think the president can unilaterally take action without coming to Congress?
HOYER: I do.
HUNT: You do.
HOYER: I do.
HUNT: Do you think he will?
HOYER: I don’t know that he will. As he said in his speech Tuesday night, which I thought was as very effective speech, he said although I have the authority to do so, I also - as the commander-in-chief, I am also the head of the oldest democracy in the world, and I think it’s better - and I agree with him - better if we have agreement of both branches of government that this is the action to take. And I would hope that we could pass such a resolution.
HUNT: You mentioned earlier - pass such a resolution, even - even before any action is taken, that just says hey, we’re with the president.
HOYER: I would support a resolution before, but the president of course has said, and therefore that’s the course we’re going to pursue, to hold off. The president’s speech said, look, I’ve asked the Congress to delay. He doesn’t want action to -
HOYER: - think if we passed a resolution he’d have a stronger hand. But having said that --
HUNT: But that’s not essential.
HOYER: But neither the Russians nor the Syrians ought to conclude that the president is without authority to act.
HUNT: Let me look back just for a second because you mentioned a moment ago the Syrians should not take any kind of comfort from what I guess was the conventional wisdom that even if this passed the Senate it was dead in the House, that you and speaker - you and Leader Pelosi could not get the 150 Democrats you probably needed. Was that a correct assessment?
HOYER: I think frankly we never got to that assessment. This is - it’s not - it’s not a whip issue in the sense that you’re saying, you’ve got to vote for this. This is a party issue. We need you on board. This was a conscience issue. And every member that I’ve talked to - and I’ve probably talked to 80 or 90 members. We didn’t have a full whip operation, but I wanted to take people’s temperature and find out what they thought. And that’s all I did, and I made it very clear to them, I’m not asking whether you’re voting no or yes. I would ask you - and this was of course the week before we came back - to keep your powder dry. Don’t make a decision. Come back and get all the facts before you make a determination. They - most of them did that, as you well know.
HUNT: Yeah, and a lot held off. Would it be your political stance if the - if this - this falters, if this - this Syria turning over the chemical weapons is a fraud, it doesn’t work, and the president did decide to come back that his hand would be stronger than it was a week ago?
HOYER: My view is it would be, yes. I think people would say, well, he went the extra mile. He reached out. He took the diplomatic course that people had been urging him to take and it didn’t work. And therefore under those circumstances, the only option available to us to preclude the further use of chemical weapons and to try to deter and degrade Syria’s ability to use them is to act. So I think it would be strengthened.
HUNT: Let me turn to the budget controversy now. House Democrats have introduced an alternative, which Republicans have rejected. You’ve rejected the Republican proposal that’s out there. Tell me what you think might get through the House by Sept. 30 to head off a government shutdown. Or do you think it is even likely there might be a government shutdown?
HOYER: Well, it’s difficult for me to predict that because apparently the Republicans can’t figure out what they want to do. They can’t get agreement internally. It may well be tough to get an agreement between Republicans and Democrats, but the Republicans can’t agree with themselves.
HUNT: Do you think that makes a shutdown more likely?
HOYER: I think it does. I think it does because I think you have an awful lot of Republicans who believe shutdown is an alternative that would not --
HUNT: So they may go that route first in order to --
HOYER: They may. It makes no sense to shut down government. That’s our responsibility. You can argue about what level you want to spend at, what activities you want to do, but no American believes that we want to shut down the government. And certainly I don’t want to shut down the government. Democrats don’t want to shut down the government. Nor does the president.
On the other hand, we’re not going to be bludgeoned and blackmailed into adopting something with respect to the health-care bill that the voters rejected. The whole campaign almost was about two issues for President Obama, the health-care bill and taxes. And Obama won. And now they’re so fixated on repealing - for now the 41st time we voted on repealing the health-care bill today - they’re so fixated on that that they seem if they can’t win their point ready to shut down the government.
HUNT: Let me focus on that for a second because they used to say it had to defund Obamacare. Most of them have now backed off that. What they’re saying now is it has to delay the affordable health-care act for a year because the president after all, they say, has done that for part of it. So let’s delay it for a year. Is that negotiable?
HOYER: No. Let me tell you, Al, delay - delay is somewhat deceitful in this sense. They want to defund, eliminate, repeal. For two-and-a-half years, 41 votes, we’ve been trying to repeal the health-care bill. This is a gambit.
HUNT: So that’s off the table.
HOYER: Well let me - let me tell you. We’ll delay it for one year and we’ll keep government going. What do you think happens next year? We delay it for another year or we’re going to shut down government. What do you think happens next year? Well we’ll delay it another year or we’ll shut down government. As long as shut down the government is their bludgeon, is their threat, is their hostage, that’s not a negotiable issue. And we’re not for a delay. The people of America went to the polls and voted for President Obama and they knew that he was not going to be for that.
HUNT: You hate the sequester. You’ve spoken forcefully against it. Let me ask you this. Is it your position, the Democratic caucus’s position, that any change in the sequester, any replacement, has to involve discretionary domestic as well as military programs equally? And does it also have to include added revenue?
HOYER: Al, first of all I believe the sequester is an irrational, common-sense-defying fiscal policy. And very frankly, Eric Cantor said the same thing today on the floor of the House of Representatives when we did our colloquy. I think neither defense nor domestic spending ought to be affected by the sequester. We ought to make rational decisions based upon programmatic justification on the defense side and on the domestic side. Now I believe that a big deal is the alternative to sequester.
HUNT: But you don’t think that’s going to happen, do you?
HOYER: I don’t think it’s going to happen. I do - you asked me do I think revenues are necessary. The answer to that is yes, like every bipartisan commission that has considered this, whether it was the Bowles-Simpson, Domenici-Rivlin, Gang of Six, any -
HUNT: As bad as it is, America’s likely to be stuck with it for the foreseeable future.
HOYER: The sequester? I hope not. I hope that --
HUNT: I know you hope not.
HOYER: I intend to oppose efforts that are being made that do not involve the changing of the sequester. And when you have Hal Rogers, the chairman - the Republican chairman, conservative Republican from Kentucky, chairman of the Appropriations Committee for the Republican side - saying sequester hasn’t worked and needs to be repealed. That’s, that’s not, that’s not Steny Hoyer who you say hates sequester. It’s the chairman of the Appropriations Committee who says it does not and cannot work and we need to repeal it.
HUNT: I would point out that Steny Hoyer proudly hates sequester. Steny Hoyer, thank you so much for being with us today.
HOYER: Al, thank you very much. Always good to be with you.
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