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Transcript (with my notes) from Feb. 21, 2010 (PART 2)

February 21, 2010


MR. GREGORY: And we are back with our roundtable. Joining us, the chairman of the House Republican Congress—Conference, rather, Congressman Mike Pence; and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Congressman Chris Van Hollen; also, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post; and Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal.

Welcome to all of you. So much to get to.

Offscreen Voice: Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: Here’s a couple of magazine covers that caught our attention this week. Time magazine, “Why Washington Is Frozen,” and it’s not just about the snow, which still causes us great trouble. Or The Economist magazine which is, “What’s Gone Wrong In Washington?”

Evan Bayh, senator from Indiana, surprisingly decided he would not run for re-election this week. And here’s what he said during one of his interviews. “I’ve indicated to you and others, there’s just too much brain-dead partisanship, tactical maneuvering for short-term political advantage rather than focusing on the greater good and, also, just strident ideology.

“The extremes of both parties have to be willing to accept compromises from time to time to make some progress because some progress for the American people is better than nothing. And all too often, recently, we’ve been getting nothing.”

Congressmen, a little constructive engagement here, beyond the partisanship. What is going on?

Dissecting why DC is frozen is a fine topic. It might also be helpful to ask, “What impact does a frozen DC have on Americans?”

REP. MIKE PENCE (R-IN): Well, I think what Evan Bayh was talking about was a Democratic Congress, and I agree with him very strongly that, under Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, Congress has been failing the American people. The American people are tired of the borrowing, the spending, the bailouts, the takeovers. But they’re also, David, I think tired of the, of the, the really “take-it-or-leave-it” approach the Democrats have taken. I mean, it’s unthinkable that a massive healthcare bill, a massive energy bill was actually brought to the floor and the minority party was allowed one amendment on those bills. I think people are tired of the backroom deals, I think they’re tired of the leadership the Democrats have brought to Capitol Hill, and I think that’s why, as Tim Pawlenty said, “I honestly believe the American people are going to take back the American Congress and put Republicans back in control this fall.”

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): David, let’s just flash back for a moment. The first nine months of the Obama administration, one of the most productive periods in recent legislative history, according to all independent outside observers, we passed an expansive children’s health care, paid for; we provided the opportunity for women to have their day in court on equal pay; we gave the FDA authority to protect our kids from tobacco use; we passed a very important public lands protection bill. We passed a credit card billholders bill of rights. We passed a whole lot of things. Then we came to the healthcare debate. Senator DeMint famously said, “We’re going to use this to break the president. It’s going to be his Waterloo.” Just last week we had seven Republican senators, who had their names on a bill to create a deficit reduction commission, vote against it for purely partisan reasons. There’s been a calculation by the Republican leadership that getting nothing done, to try and prevent the majority from working its will, as it did for the first nine months, is to their political advantage. And there’s no other explanation for that vote we saw.

REP. PENCE: There’s…

MR. GREGORY: And here’s, here’s part of the problem, though.

REP. PENCE: …been no calculation like that.

I like the way David takes control of the table here. This has been tough for him sometimes.

MR. GREGORY: Let me, let me turn it to this side of the table, and I want to frame it this way. You know, a lot of people will look at this back and forth and say, again, “Nobody can agree.” Two different versions of that. John Podesta, who was the chief of staff to Bill Clinton, of course, and advises this administration, said this during an interview with the Financial Times this week. He said, “I think the president is trying to re-engage with Republicans, but, quite frankly, he’s not dealing with the party of [Abraham] Lincoln. He’s dealing with the party of [Sarah] Palin.”

On the other side, The Economist magazine write this in its issue this week. “It’s not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr. Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favors. …Once President Clinton learned the advantage of co-operating with the Republicans, the country was governed better.”

Where are we, E.J.?

MR. E.J. DIONNE: You know, I thought it was very revealing this weekend that in that CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Poll, who won. It was Ron Paul, the Libertarian, with 31 percent. By the way, Mike Pence and Tim Pawlenty were very close to Sarah Palin, so they deserve as much TV time as Sarah Palin gets. But, you know, this is—the—Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff of the president, likes to say, “The small government wing of the Republican Party is shrinking and the no-government wing of the Republican Party is growing.” You do not have a Republican Party anymore that had moderates in it willing to work with Democrats. Now, that’s OK if that’s their position. It’s a more conservative party. What we’ve got now is a parliamentary system without the structure of parliamentary government. In parliamentary systems the majority passes things, the opposition opposes, then there’s an election and people decide. Our—the kind of politics we have doesn’t match the structure we have, and we got to bring the two together or else we’re going to continue to have gridlock, as you heard these two gentlemen. They did agree, fundamentally. That’s what’s happening.

The big political story this week, really, was Ron Paul winning the CPAC Straw Poll, but it wasn’t mentioned until 43 minutes into today’s broadcast. The people behind the scenes at MTP might be in (understandable) denial about what is really happening in this country.


MR. GREGORY: And—but here’s—one of the big questions that came up this week is what is—do Americans listen to these two congressmen and say, “This is petty politics,” or do they say, “This is sincere ideological division. What you really need is better leadership in Washington to cut through all of that.”

MS. NOONAN: Well, I think it probably would have helped if the president, when he came in so strong having won by 9.5 million votes just more than a year ago, if he had come forward with more centrist ideas and very bravely reached out to Republicans, even to the point of alienating or frightening or putting off a little bit of his base. I think that didn’t happen. Overall, though, I think Washington is not broken. Bipartisanship is very possible, but we see too much bipartisanship in terms of passing bad things. There’s always—the bastion of unity in Washington is the Appropriations Committee, also. They’re always coming together to spend. Other issues that are not so easy spending have less unity. And, look, overall we need more seriousness. Both parties have to remember they are here during a crisis, an ongoing crisis for serious reasons. They all get together, the Republican conference and the Democratic conference, once a week for lunch, and I know from people who are at those lunches that they spend 98 percent of the time talking about how to trip up the other guy and 2 percent of the time on policy.

Nice insight from Noonan. Probably true. And MTP (and the other shows) seem to feed that beast by focusing on the politics more than the policy as well.

REP. PENCE: David, that’s right, though. We do need more seriousness in Washington, D.C. This economy’s struggling, we have challenges abroad. This is a very serious time in the life of this nation. But the, the reality is, and I think Peggy reflected on this, is that, you know, what’s passed for bipartisanship in this Democratic Congress and under this administration is giving Republicans an opportunity to vote on big government, liberal Democratic bills. That’s not bipartisanship. The president yesterday called for us to, to look for common ground. He’s challenging Republicans to present a, a bill at this so-called summit that’s going to take place on Thursday, all the while Democrats are in some backroom, as we speak, cooking up another healthcare bill…

MR. GREGORY: But before we get to health care…

REP. PENCE: …that they’re going to reveal next week.

MR. GREGORY: …you say big government bill. The stimulus bill had $288 billion worth of tax cuts. That was for you guys.


REP. PENCE: Well the stimulus bill, as I told the president, the stimulus bill that he brought to the floor did not include one single Republican proposal that had been offered on the floor. We were completely—we were completely excluded from the process…

MR. GREGORY: Two hundred and eighty-eight dollars of tax…

REP. PENCE: …David. And the stimulus bill has failed.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Let, let me respond to that. It did include one-third tax cuts, including bonus depreciation and many small tax cuts that the Republicans had proposed. Mike, the other day in Baltimore at the Republican conference, referred to the tax cuts that went to 95 percent of working Americans as, “boutique tax cuts,” and then turned to the president and said, “Why aren’t you going to do across the board tax cuts?” Meaning, “How about the 5 percent of the wealthiest who were left out?” What you’re seeing, and I actually appreciate the fact that the Republicans have now said they’re not the party of “no” and they’re putting their ideas on the table, because what you’re finding out is what their proposals are, are warmed-over Bush economic policies, including a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans. So we welcome what is now clearly a debate on the issues.

MR. GREGORY: Well, what, what, what about health care, E.J. at this point? There is going to be this summit meeting live on TV. Is there a chance here it’s revived?

MR. DIONNE: I think there’s a good chance it’s revived, but it’s—I, I doubt it is going to be a bipartisan bill. I mean, you have the Republicans who fundamentally disagree with the government playing a substantial role here. If the Republicans had really wanted to do this, they could have done it when they had the majority and President Bush was in office. I think what is going to be useful about this is that people are going to look and say, instead of saying “What’s wrong with these various Democratic proposals,” they’ll have a chance to say, “Here are the problems we’re trying to solve. Here’s what the Democrats are—want to do, and here is what the Republicans propose. Whose ideas match up here?” I think, in the end, what the president is really trying to do is give heart to Democrats to say, “I’ve reached out to Republicans, we’ll see what we do. We’re going to point out ideas like—good ideas like letting kids stay on their parents health insurance until they’re 26,” which is in the Republican bill. It’s also in the Democratic bill. And if they don’t want to play with us, we still have to act. I think the worst thing for Democrats to do would be to walk away from this, because they got all the bad votes, so-called, on these bills—Republicans say they’re bad votes—and they produced nothing. That gives nothing to anybody, and they look gutless. So I think they’ve got to pass a bill.

I think Dionne is right here. Congress must pass those things which can be passed regarding healthcare. Not because it is good for the Democrats, but because it will be good for the country.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. NOONAN: Quickly, it, it—if what is produced after the big Thursday meeting is an—a comprehensive omnibus bill of 1,000 or 2,000 pages it’s not going to work again. The past year, I think, has told us two things. One is that this omnibus comprehensive stuff is yesterday, it’s over, the public doesn’t trust it. If you can break health care down to proposals, agendas and then a few pieces of the agenda, say “This small thing, can you do it?” Republicans and Democrats might be able to do some business.

MR. DIONNE: You know what the problem—could I just say quickly…

MR. GREGORY: But E.J., E.J’s—but, but…

MS. NOONAN: Republicans and Democrats might be able to do some business that way.


MS. NOONAN: They will not trust this 2,000-page thing. They also don’t trust the tinkering in stimulus bills where you can always claim, “We have 475 tax cuts.” Nobody ever sees those tax cuts.

MR. DIONNE: But if you can’t tinker and you can’t do a comprehensive bill, what do you do?


MS. NOONAN: Break it all down.

REP. PENCE: But E.J.’s, E.J.’s, E.J.’s talking about a—E.J.’s talking about kind of an idyllic…

MS. NOONAN: Do it small and simple and clear.

REP. PENCE: E.J.’s talking about kind of an idyllic approach to this summit. And quite frankly—let me be clear on this, and I’ll say this with Chris in the room. House Republicans would welcome a good faith effort to start over on healthcare reform. We’ve had our bill on line for months. We welcome—the Democrats are going to put their latest bill on line tomorrow. If, if we were talking about really starting over with a clean piece of paper, scrapping the bills that have passed the House and the Senate, and also renouncing the abuse of the legislative process known as reconciliation, Republicans are ready to work. But what we can’t help but feel like here is the Democrats spell summit S-E-T-U-P. And all this is going to be is some media event…

Pence is just adding to the “party of no” perception here by saying this in public. He does not look like someone working on solutions.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Come on, Mike. Come on, Mike.

REP. PENCE: …used as a preamble to shove through Obama care 2.0, and we’re not going to have any of that.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Come on, come on, Mike. The status quo is broken. We’ve seen in the last three weeks huge increases in premiums. In Anthem health insurance out in California, 39 percent. In Mike’s state of Indiana, 25 percent average increases. We need to address this issue. Now, when the president gave his speech on health care back in September to a joint session and he said we need to prohibit health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, both sides of the aisle got up, both sides were clapping.


REP. VAN HOLLEN: But the Republican plan that Mike is talking about, he said, “Go look at it,” it doesn’t prohibit insurance companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions.

REP. PENCE: But we provide…


MR. GREGORY: Hold on. I want, I want to get in here…

REP. VAN HOLLEN: You have to bring in these people. You can’t…

MR. GREGORY: …because we’ve just got a couple minutes left. Finish your point.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: But, but, but, you know, you have to have the comprehensive piece. Senator Grassley, way back, said we need everybody into the pool before he dropped that idea when he said he wasn’t going to work in a bipartisan fashion.

MR. GREGORY: Right. Let me move from policy to policy. I just want—a couple of minutes left, and I want to, I want to get you on the record on the midterm election. Congressman Van Hollen, back in October, this is what you said about the prospect of losing the House. “Anyone talking about a Republican takeover of the House is in la-la land.” Would you like to revise those remarks now?

REP. VAN HOLLEN: No. I don’t—I think it’s—I’ve, I’ve always said, David, way back a year ago, in fact, right after the election of Barack Obama, this was going to be a very tough political cycle. But this idea that there are going to be popping the champagne corks prematurely and measuring the drapes, I think is clearly—they are, they are high on their own hype these days.

MR. GREGORY: Congressman Pence, you spoke at the, the gathering of conservatives this week. Dick Armey spoke there as well, then the leader of this tea party movement. Is the tea party movement, an—as an anti-government movement, is it part of the Republican Party?

REP. PENCE: Well, I don’t know. You know, E.J. did that anti-government thing. Look, and the president said this week, he said something about, “You’ve got these people who are against government,” you know. In…

MR. GREGORY: Well, they’re not pro-government, that’s fair, right?

REP. PENCE: Right, no. The American people aren’t against government, they’re against big government. They’re, they’re tired of borrowing and spending and bailouts and takeovers. And the people that you characterize…

MR. GREGORY: But my question is about are they part of the Republican Party, do you believe?

REP. PENCE: The people that you characterize, the tea party movement, are a group of—I was there at 9/12 on the National Mall. I’ve spoken to tea party rallies and town hall meetings. David, I’m telling you, these are decent, God-fearing, hard-working, everyday Americans…


REP. PENCE: …who just know we can’t pile this mountain range of debt on our children and grandchildren.

MR. GREGORY: Do you think they’re part of the Republican Party?

REP. PENCE: Well, I think that all depends on the Republican Party. I think if we hold the banner of limited government high, of fiscal responsibility and personal responsibility, if we offer positive solutions and if we provide the loyal opposition to the big government schemes on energy and health care and budgets and deficits, you bet. They’ll know what to do this fall, and Republicans will win back the majority of the House in 2010.

Gregory really makes Pence squirm here. Pence should have anticipated this question and had an answer prepared.

MR. GREGORY: E.J., how do you see the political landscape on both the House and the Senate side? Evan Bayh out now, another prospect where Republicans could look to take over the seat.

MR. DIONNE: Well, you know, Congressman Van Hollen is the head of the Democratic committee trying to keep the Congress Democratic. He’s got expectations for Democrats right where he wants them right now because everybody thinks they’re going to lose the House. I think if the election were held now, it would be a very tough election for Democrats. They would lose a lot of seats. I think—they lost two of the big debates in terms of public opinion. The stimulus actually worked in many ways, but the Republicans have succeeded in persuading people it didn’t. Health care, clearly, that debate’s in the wrong place for Democrats. They’ve got eight months to fix it. I don’t think what, what happened today is going to happen in November. I think they have a chance to fix it.

MR. GREGORY: We have to leave it there. So much more to discuss.


Hard to see from the transcript, but Noonan really wanted to get in here.

MR. GREGORY: I’m sorry. I thank you all. Thank you all.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: All right.

MR. GREGORY: But before we go, we remember General Alexander Haig, who died Friday at the age of 85. He served under two Republican presidents: as chief of staff to President Nixon, and secretary of state to President Reagan. Over the course of his career, General Haig appeared right here on MEET THE PRESS five times. His family is in our thoughts and prayers this morning. And we’ll be right back.

Al Haig was only on MTP five times? Hard to believe since he was White House chief of staff, secretary of state, Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, and a presidential candidate. I would have guessed a much higher number of appearances.


MR. GREGORY: That is all for today. We will be back next week to discuss the president’s healthcare summit and get Republican reaction from Senator John McCain of Arizona, our guest next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.


The original transcript of this program is the property of NBC News and
© 2010

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