MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, breakthrough in Egypt. Celebrations in the streets of Cairo as President Mubarak steps down from power after a 30-year reign.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.
MR. GREGORY: So what now? And what's next in Egypt and around the Middle East? Is the revolution over? What will it mean for U.S. interests in this crucial region? Then, the budget battle at home.
REP. KRISTI NOEM (R-SD): A lot of us freshmen don't have a whole lot of knowledge, necessarily, about the way that Washington, D.C., is operated. And frankly, we don't really care.
MR. GREGORY: Freshman Republicans assert their new power, pushing their leaders for deeper spending cuts as the GOP prepares to battle the White House over the president's new budget coming out tomorrow. This morning, an exclusive conversation with the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner. Also this Sunday, the race for the White House 2012.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN): We need to win the triple crown of 2012, which is holding onto the House of Representatives, winning a conservative Senate and -- oh, yeah, baby -- winning the White House in 2012. The triple crown.
MR. GREGORY: Conservatives gather for the annual CPAC conference here in Washington, and some potential Republican presidential contenders make their debut and test the waters.
Insights and analysis from our roundtable this morning: the mayor of Atlanta, Democrat Kasim Reed; freshman member of Congress, supported by the tea party, Representative Bobby Schilling of Illinois; former Clinton White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers; columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks; and Time magazine's Mark Halperin.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. After 18 days, President Mubarak of Egypt is gone in a revolution that sent shock waves around the world as they party in the streets. We will get the very latest this morning from Cairo with NBC's Richard Engel. Plus, insights here in Washington on what it all means for the rest of the Middle East with former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, as well as former Middle East correspondent Robin Wright. First to Richard Engel, who is in Cairo, as he has been throughout this story. And, Richard, first, Tahrir Square, which is the heartbeat of where this revolution has happened. There is an attempt, I understand this morning, to get back to normal. How is that played out?
RICHARD ENGEL reporting: There were some people that were resisting this, this step to reopen Tahrir Square. The military police went in and briefly clashed with some of the demonstrators who don't want to leave the square. But, in general, cars are now passing through Tahrir and, and the situation across this country is one where Egyptians want to go back to work.
MR. GREGORY: There is that sense -- I've heard your reporting this morning -- that everyone feels that taste of freedom and is protesting anew.
ENGEL: They certainly are. There is a wave of empowerment that people are feeling here, and there have been small demonstrations all across Cairo starting in the morning. Doctors, lawyers, journalists, the police who were used to crush the demonstrators were themselves out demonstrating today. People say they just will not accept poor working conditions, they won't accept corruption. And they have seen that they can get empowerment through demonstrations. So there, there are going to be a lot more demonstrations in the days to come with...
MR. GREGORY: Richard, we...
ENGEL: ...Egyptians demanding their rights.
MR. GREGORY: And, Richard, we continue to look live at Tahrir Square as you've been reporting. The government in Egypt is the military in Egypt, and they are making some developments this morning. What are they?
ENGEL: Certainly. We're getting our first sense of how this country is going to be administered during this transition period. The military just issued a statement -- it was read by a newsreader on state television-- and the statement had some quite new developments in it. It said that the constitution is suspended; that the army is responsible for this country, particularly that military council, for the next six months; that the head of the military council, who is the defense minister, represents Egypt internally and externally -- he's effectively appointing himself the leader of this country; that Parliament is canceled, both houses of Parliament...
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
ENGEL: ...that the council has the temporary right to issue orders, like the orders it's issuing now, and subsequent orders; that the constitution, which has now been suspended, will be reformed; that the current prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, will remain; and that new elections for the president and parliamentary will be held; and that Egypt is abiding by all of its international agreements. So we're hear -- we're seeing now the first clear signs from the military saying it is firmly in charge, and this is how it plans to run the country for a transition period.
MR. GREGORY: All right, Richard Engel, thank you for your reporting throughout this. Joining me here in the studio, Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and Mideast negotiator, now head of foreign police at the Brookings Institution; and Robin Wright, veteran Middle East
correspondent, also the author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." Welcome to both of you. Well, Martin, here we are again. Two weeks ago we were here. And if we go to our map, we see what has happened. We take it full from Tunisia to now in Egypt. In the space of just about three weeks, two leaders are gone. And over the weekend, the protests continue in Yemen, where President Saleh has said he will not run again. They were protesting in the streets saying they want more, they want more in the way of reform. Also yesterday in Algiers, in Algeria, additional demonstrations there. This is a conversation that is going on throughout the Middle
East, which leads to the obvious question as we look at these pictures: What is next? Where does it go next?
MR. MARTIN INDYK: Well, these are absolutely amazing days, exhilarating days, particularly for the people of Egypt and, and throughout the Arab world. You know, you had a little pharaoh in Tunisia that's gone, and a big pharaoh in, in Egypt that's gone. Where are the other pharaohs? You know, it's hard to say because the circumstances are different in so many places. The republican leaders like the leader of Yemen, like Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, perhaps Assad in Syria-- although his circumstances are different -- they're the ones that, that, that, that I think are, are going to be shaky. Maybe we need to look at Bahrain, where there's a large Shiite majority that can be stood up. But king of Jordan is trying to get ahead of the, the demands for change from his people. There's no doubt that this will have a powerful ripple effect across the, the Arab world, and people everywhere will start demanding of their leaders greater political freedom...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. INDYK: ...greater accountability.
MR. GREGORY: And there's, there's a sense, Robin Wright, of they've accomplished this on their own. We look at the map here, let -- I'm going to show you a -- the cover of The Week magazine this week, which is so interesting. "An 'app' for democracy: Are social media undermining dictatorial regimes?" And as we did a couple of weeks ago, we can put TweetDeck back up to really follow this conversation real time of what's happening on the Internet. And as you look at that on your screen, from the map to the conversation, as you can pull it up full and, and look for our viewers. This conversation is real-time, and it's moving. The conversation keeps moving. How do you translate this conversation into a real democratic movement that leads to new leadership in a country like Egypt?
MS. ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, look, throughout the region you have 100 million people, one- third of the whole Arab world, that is between the ages of 15 and 29. The cyber generation has produced, not just the ousters of Hosni Mubarak or the Tunisian president, but actually the transfer of power for the first time in 6,000 years from elites to the majority of the people. And now the challenge is, how do these young people convert a street demonstration into political parties? And Egypt has actually been very interesting because you've seen a number of the young movements coalesce, come together, form a coalition, and talk about what are their joint demands, how can they become a political party or a political force that can then define what comes next? That's what is the most important thing to watch because they're also demanding -- and the revolution may not be over in Egypt-- that they participate in the power sharing, that it's not just the military that rules.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let me pick up on that, Martin, because there are also fears about this. Jeff Goldberg, the author and, and writer with Atlantic magazine who knows the region well, posted this on his blog on Friday. I'll put it up on the screen for our viewers. "The people, for the moment, seem to want the military. I don't think that desire will last," he writes. "And because Mubarak spent 30 years marginalizing and banning secular parties and opposition movements, there's no obvious path toward representative democracy. I am not overly worried, for the moment, in the possibility of" the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, "but the fortunes of the Brothers could change quickly, and dangerously. ... Egypt's crisis has just begun."
MR. INDYK: Well, I don't think the military are going to let the Muslim Brotherhood take over. And the Muslim Brotherhood know that, and they're keeping their heads down and saying basically they don't want to take over. The real questions of Robin's point is, how will these youthful demonstrators, who've basically handled themselves in such a disciplined and effective way, move into the political space that's now been opened up? And that dialogue between the leaders of the street and, and now the leaders of the military is going to determine the future of Egypt.
MR. GREGORY: I've got about a minute left. Robin, let's talk about another flashpoint in the region that the administration-- and I know from talking to senior officials there -- are paying a lot of attention to. We go back to our map and we highlight Iran because this is where a lot of the focus is right now. You've seen, as protests are planned in Iran, pro- democracy protests, the administration, the White House being quite critical of the Iranian regime, saying they are on the defensive. What does it mean?
MS. WRIGHT: Oh, absolutely. And the irony is the Egyptian and Iranian revolutions actually happened on the same day. Iran is trying to claim credit for all the political change that's taking place in the region. The irony is that its opposition, which in many ways defined people power in disputing a presidential election in 2009, has called for demonstrations tomorrow to try to challenge the regime. And this is where the, the tension in the Middle East between the old regimes, the elites, are playing out against the people in the streets. And Iran is, in many ways, the most interesting. It, it introduced Islam as a political force, and now you're seeing people saying, "We don't want this form of government any more. We want change as well." And Iran, because of its nuclear program, is the most sensitive country for our long-term interests, and so Iran will be a place to watch in the next few weeks.
MR. GREGORY: All right. We will leave it there for now. Thank you both very much for the perspective. The events in Egypt are creating anxious moments in Washington as leaders here consider how the shake-up in the Middle East affects vital interests in the region, from Egypt's support for U.S. counterterror policy to its peace treaty with Israel. Republicans have raised doubts about the administration's stance against Mubarak.
FMR. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): Now, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't have sided with the protesters. But what message are we sending to countries around the world who are friends of ours that, when things get tough, we walk away?
MR. GREGORY: How should leaders in Washington encourage reforms throughout the Middle East in light of what's happened in Egypt? And back home, President Obama hosted the trio of House Republican leaders for lunch at the White House Wednesday. The common theme? Finding some areas for potential compromise.
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): It was a very good lunch, and we were able to find enough common ground, I think, to show the American people that we're willing to work on their behalf and, and willing to do it together.
MR. GREGORY: But with the president's budget being released tomorrow, will both sides be able to work together on some issues, even as battle lines over spending and the deficit takes center stage? Joining me now, the speaker of the House, Representative John Boehner of Ohio. Mr. Speaker, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: David, it's good to be with you.
MR. GREGORY: I want to talk about Egypt. This is a developing story. And you heard Rick Santorum, former senator, might run for president, voicing that view of some Republicans that we were hasty here and that the United States walked away from a stalwart ally, and we don't really know what the consequences will be. Is that your view?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Well, Egypt's been a strong ally of the United States for the last 30 years. And this is clearly a very complex situation. But when people are crying out for freedom, when they're crying out for democracy, I think our country has a responsibility to listen.
MR. GREGORY: And do you think President Obama did it efficiently, effectively?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I think they've handled what is a very difficult situation about as well as it could be handled.
MR. GREGORY: The question now is what happens next? Will the United States stand by Democratic movements sweeping the Middle East? And should we?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I believe that we should always listen to those who are crying out for freedom, crying out for democracy. What we should not tolerate are those who want to push some radical ideology to take control of those governments. And I think that's the real concern of the administration and, frankly, all of us on the Hill.
MR. GREGORY: How do you deal with that? Is that what worries you about Egypt?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Well, the conversations with the opposition parties, those in the streets, has been under way for weeks. Those conversations, clearly, are going to speed up so that there can be some orderly transition to a democratically elected government in Egypt.
MR. GREGORY: What about democracy? There is no Arab democracy right now. What makes you think that Egypt could become the first?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Just watch what's happened on the streets over the last 18 days. It was the, it was the people. You know, I believe that freedom is a God-given right. And I believe that, after all of these years, the people who have been oppressed, the people who have, have not had economic freedom, have an -- had an opportunity for growth had finally had enough.
MR. GREGORY: What about the intelligence community here in America? Are you satisfied with the job they've done in assessing the threat coming from this region, assessing the turmoil in this region? And do you think there are problems with how they're going to assess it as we move forward?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Well, I think what happened in Egypt, what happened in Tunisia, has surprised everyone, including our intelligence officials. And so I think there's going to have to be a reassessment of why, why, why didn't we have a better feel for this?
MR. GREGORY: You were disappointed?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I wouldn't say that. I was surprised. And I think they were surprised.
MR. GREGORY: But is that a concern in a post 9/11 world that the intelligence community could be surprised about the shifting sands there?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Again, the -- this is a very complex situation. It happened very quickly. And it really gives you an idea of the impact of digital media today, not only here in the United States, but around the world.
MR. GREGORY: Let me turn back home to the budget battles -- something that you've been right in the middle of as well, of course, this week -- and take you back, as we sequence this out, to the Pledge to America and the promise that you and other Republicans made in the course of the campaign. This is what it said, "We will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre- bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to balance the budget and pay down the debt." Republicans assumed power in the House and that was not actually what happened. You didn't reach that $100 billion threshold initially, and there were some real concerns among some of your new members. The tea party folks, other freshman
conservatives -- and these were some of the headlines that we've been seeing recently: " Tea party yanks G.O.P. leash on spending cuts." The Financial Times, "Republican leaders struggle to rein in conservative members." Will you fulfill that pledge at $100 billion?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: We will. And, and while we believe that we've met our commitment that we made in the Pledge to America, I said there's no limit to the amount of money that our members want to cut. And I've also committed to my colleagues that we ought to have an open process. And while we've instructed our Appropriations Committee to go meet that pledge, some of our members wanted more. Fine. We -- and this week we were able to come successfully to an agreement to cut $100 billion of spending from those seven months remaining in the, in this fiscal year.
MR. GREGORY: It's going to be painful, though. The New York Times editorialized this week this way, "Beyond reason on the budget. After two years of raging at ... Obama's spending plans,
House Republican leaders have finally revealed their real vision of small government: tens of billions in ideologically driven cuts to job training, environmental protection, disease control, crime protection, dozens of other critical functions that only the government can perform. In all, they want more than $32 billion in cuts below current spending packed into the next seven months. They would be terribly damaging to a frail recovery and, while spending reductions must be part of long-term deficit control, these are the wrong cuts, to the wrong programs, at the wrong time." Is this too much in this economy?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: David, David, we're broke. What's really dangerous is if we continue to do nothing and allow the status quo to stay in place. When are we going to get serious about cutting spending? And our members want to, to take this leap forward because it has to happen, and it needs to start now.
MR. GREGORY: But, Mr. Speaker, if you are serious about cutting spending, as you just said, wouldn't you deal with the biggest culprits in the budget? Because you're not doing that. You're not dealing with...
SPEAKER BOEHNER: It's all...
MR. GREGORY: Hold on, you're not dealing with the military.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: ...coming. It's all coming.
MR. GREGORY: You're not dealing with entitlements. You're dealing with a small portion, about 16 percent of the budget.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: This was the first step, and, as I've said, there are many steps to follow. There are some Defense spending cuts in this package. There are mandatory spending cuts that you'll see brought to the floor here in the coming weeks. You'll see our budget where, I've got to believe, we're going to deal with the entitlement problem. The president's asked us to increase the debt limit, and yet, he's going to present a budget tomorrow that will continue to destroy jobs by spending too much, borrowing too much, and taxing too much.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let me just stop you there because there are a few things you said and I'd like to follow up on each of them. First of all, I think it's important for everybody to, to recognize that when you talk about spending cuts, you're talking about this fiscal year, which ends in September, which is what's called a continuing resolution to fund the government. The budget is in a separate battle, which will go, moving forward, just so we -- we're clear on the terms. But you met with the president this week. You talked about some areas of common ground. He's talking about making cuts in discretionary spending, freezing it at levels that would, he says, take $400 billion off the deficit in 10 years. Is there a collision course here, as he talks about additional investment in the economy as well? Or are you actually seeing some room for compromise on spending?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: It's time to cut spending. You know, the president wants to freeze domestic discretionary spending at existing levels. This is after, this is after all of the money that's been spent over the last two years. Locking in that level of spending is way too much. But I do think the voters last November made it clear that they want Washington to cut spending. And cutting spending will, in fact, help create a better environment for job creation in America. This morning, I sent a letter to President Obama signed by 150 economists that say that cutting spending now will help create a better environment so that we can begin to create jobs in our country. This is a critically important step if we're going to end the uncertainty and start to give investors and small business people the confidence to invest in our economy. I used to be a small businessman. I understand this. When you have all this uncertainty, you don't invest. If people begin to see us rein in out-of- control spending, it'll bring more confidence to business people and investment-- investors around the country, and then we'll begin to see better job creation in our country.
MR. GREGORY: You talk about the debt limit that has to be raised, according to the administration, and that vote will take place. And you say, "We're not going to vote for that unless there are specific spending cuts that we get in response." If there is not a compromise on this, would you rule out a government shutdown as an appropriate response?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: David, our goal here is to reduce spending. Our goal is not to shut down the government. And I'm hopeful that...
MR. GREGORY: But would you rule it out?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I would hope that the Senate and the White House heard the same thing I've heard from the American people in last November's election, " It's time to cut spending."
MR. GREGORY: Well, my -- a very precise question. Would you rule out a government shutdown if you can't see eye to eye?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Our goal is to reduce spending. It is not to shut down the government.
MR. GREGORY: On entitlements, like Social Security, you said the retirement age should be raised, but you said you don't want to get into negotiating how that happens just now until the problem is better defined. Again, when it comes to leadership, when it comes to the need to, you know, have no limit on cutting, don't you think Americans understand what the problem with Social Security is? What will it take for you to join with the White House to make real reform to deal with this piece of the budget?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: David, you may understand how big the problem is, I may understand how big it is, but most Americans have not been presented with just how big is the problem. And it's Social Security, it's Medicare, it's Medicaid. And I think it's incumbent on those leaders here in Washington, those of us to go out and help the American people understand how big the problem is. Once, once the American people begin to get their arms around the size of the problem, then and only then should we begin to lay out an array of possible solutions to have that conversation.
MR. GREGORY: I want to ask you about housing policy. This administration this week said ultimately the big government agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which guarantee 90 percent of the mortgages in this country, should be phased out of existence. Do you think it's realistic for the government to get out of the housing market?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I think the government needs to get out of the housing market. When you look at the, the crisis that we have and the bailout, we've already spent $153 billion, and we'll probably spend at least that much more bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The president and the administration laid out some options for how to go forward. We all know what the options are. It's time to get serious about a plan to phase out Fannie and Freddie, return them to the private sector.
MR. GREGORY: Who fills the gap? They, they prop up 90 percent of the mortgages in this country. Who fills the gap?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: And they...
MR. GREGORY: There's no money out there to guarantee those mortgages.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: And they, and they can do this as private companies. They don't need to have this implicit federal government guarantee.
MR. GREGORY: You're willing to suffer the potential consequences, which is further cratering the housing market, if you privatize these companies?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: That won't -- the gap that's out there will be filled. Remember, the federal government started to build these organizations 40 and 50 years ago to collateralize mortgages in order to make mortgages more available. This was before the private sector had the ability to do it. The private sector can do this today. And Fannie and Freddie know how to do it. They can do it as private companies.
MR. GREGORY: But the government has got to be there today, you would concede that. Given the fragility of the housing market, the federal government has got to be there to backstop it.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Because the federal government failed in its obligations to have these institutions be sound, we, we're on the hook. And we're on the hook now for $153 billion. It will be well over $300 billion before we're out of it. But it's time to begin to transition to this activity to the private sector.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to take a break here. We'll come back. More with Speaker Boehner right after this break.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, more of my exclusive interview with House Speaker John Boehner after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: Back now with more from Speaker of the House Boehner. Mr. Speaker, I want to pick up on something that my colleague Brian Williams asked you about last -- this January, last month. He asked if you were willing to take on some members of your caucus who don't believe that the president was actually born in the United States. And this was a portion of your answer, I want to play it.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: We're nothing more than a slice of America. And then people come with, regardless of party labels, they come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas. It's, it's the, the melting pot of America. It's not up to me to tell them what to think.
MR. GREGORY: And, indeed, members of Congress speak publicly and are outspoken and will say what their views are. And sometimes they have an effect on what people believe around the country. And there was a -- something that caught my eye this week that was on Fox News on the Hannity program, a focus group with voters in Iowa led by Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist, and he had this exchange with them. I want to show it to you.
Unidentified Woman #1: I believe that Barack Obama's religious beliefs do govern his foreign policy.
MR. FRANK LUNTZ: And what are his religious beliefs?
Woman #1: I believe that he is a Muslim.
MR. LUNTZ: You do?
Woman #1: Yes.
Unidentified Woman #2: No.
Unidentified Woman #3: Yes.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes.
MR. LUNTZ: How many of you believe that here?
Unidentified Man #2: How many believe it?
MR. LUNTZ: Wow. You believe he's a Muslim.
Unidentified Man #3: Yes.
MR. GREGORY: As the speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it's your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people. Having said that, the state of Hawaii has said that he was born there. That's good enough for me. The president says he's a Christian. I accept him at his word.
MR. GREGORY: But isn't that a little bit fast and loose? I mean, you are the leader in Congress and you're not standing up to obvious facts and saying, "These are facts. If you don't believe that, it's nonsense."
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I just outlined the facts as I understand them. I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian. I'll take him at his word. But, but...
MR. GREGORY: But that kind of ignorance about whether he's a Muslim doesn't concern you?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't -- it's not my job to tell them.
MR. GREGORY: Why isn't it your job to stand up and say, "No, the facts are these"?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I am...
MR. GREGORY: Didn't John McCain do that...
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I, I, I just did.
MR. GREGORY: What you're saying, "It's good enough for me," is that really standing up and saying, for those who believe that or who would talk about that -- you had a member of Congress, you had a new tea party freshman who was out just yesterday speaking to conservatives, and he said, "I'm fortunate enough to be an American citizen by birth, and I do have a birth certificate to prove it." That was Raul Labrador, a new -- a congressman from Idaho. Is that an appropriate way for your members to speak?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: The gentleman was, was trying to be funny, I would imagine. But remember something, it's not -- it really is not our job to tell the American people what to believe and what to think. There's a lot of information out there, people read a lot of things...
MR. GREGORY: You shouldn't stand up to misinformation or stereotypes?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: ...but, but, but, but, but I've made clear what I believe the facts are.
MR. GREGORY: But is, is it, is it because it weakens the president politically, it seeks to delegitimize him that you sort of want to let it stay out there?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: No. What I'm trying to do is to do my job. Our job is to focus on spending. We're spending too much money here in Washington. The president's going to outline this new budget tomorrow, that I outlined earlier, spends too much, borrows too much, and taxes too much. And the president wants to talk about winning the future. This isn't winning the future, it's spending the future.
MR. GREGORY: I want to ask you about something you said last June about the state of America. And, as a leader now, I want you to reflect on it. You said -- " Boehner said the [ tea party] protests are emblematic of deep voter anger against Washington's leaders." You were telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "'They're snuffing out the America that I grew up in,' Boehner said." What did you mean by that?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: They aren't. No, what I was talking about, the problems in Washington are snuffing out the future. If we don't get our arms around the spending, if we don't get our arms around the debt, the American dream that was available for you and me is not going to be available for our kids and grandkids.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm. You say they, though. Are you meaning the leaders in Washington, Democrats are snuffing out the America you believe in?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I'm talking about the spending that's going on here in Washington.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about some of the things you've had to deal with just this week in Congress. Former Congressman Christopher Lee, who resigned after posting some, some photos, answering something on, on Craigslist. This is not the picture he put there, we didn't want to put that up. But it was a, a picture without his shirt, communicating with a young woman via Craigslist. He resigned immediately. You talked to him about it. What did you tell him?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I, I -- conversations that I have with my colleagues are private, and I'm going to keep them that way.
MR. GREGORY: But you made it very clear that that kind of behavior was not appropriate.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I'm not going to divulge conversations that I have with my colleagues. The American people have the right and should expect the highest ethical standards from their members of Congress. I made this clear to my members going back four years ago, and I told them that I would hold them to the highest ethical standards, and I have.
MR. GREGORY: So personal behavior, personal indiscretions are fair game when it comes to evaluating leadership and fitness for office?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I'm going to hold my members to a high standard.
MR. GREGORY: Personal indiscretions, personal behavior...
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I'm going to hold my members to a high standard.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about politics in 2012. Do you think that the president can win re- election if unemployment is still around 8 percent?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I think it'll be difficult. The president has been on this spending spree for the last two years, called for this giant expansion of the federal government, claiming it was going to help our country. And the fact is it hasn't. And if unemployment or the perception that unemployment isn't significantly lower, I think he's going to have a very difficult time.
MR. GREGORY: What about the Republican field right now? Different, different circumstance here, nobody's really leaping into the race. Do you think there's a front-runner?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I do not. I've never seen a more wide open race for the Republican nomination. But we all know that nature abhors a vacuum. Candidates, I expect, will continue to come forward. And those who vote in Republican primaries around the country will have an opportunity to choose one of them.
MR. GREGORY: So what are the qualities or the characteristics of the nominee that it will take to beat President Obama?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I think we're going to need someone who can paint a vision of the future that takes into consideration that we need a smaller, less costly and more accountable government in Washington, D.C. The American people need -- the American dream needs to be renewed. What you and I -- the opportunities you and I had growing up need to be available for all Americans. That means that we need a smaller government. We need a, a government that allows the American people to keep more of what they earn so they can invest in themselves, their family, their business, their communities.
MR. GREGORY: But the tea party, would you argue, has a big role in the primary process, certainly bigger than we've seen in the past?
SPEAKER BOEHNER: I believe that those activists around the country are going to involve themselves in a big way. And, and we should be happy about this. There are more Americans engaged in our government today than at any time in our lifetime. This is healthy for our country.
MR. GREGORY: Speaker Boehner, as always, thank you very much. Appreciate you being here.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: And coming up, more on what the developments in Egypt mean for the U.S. interests in the region. And then a big week coming up in Washington, as we've been discussing, the president releasing his budget tomorrow. Battle lines are drawn. Also, the race for the White House in 2012. Potential Republican presidential candidates made their debut at a gathering of conservatives this weekend. We will break it all down with insights and analysis from our
roundtable: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, freshman Congressman Bobby Schilling, former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, David Brooks of The New York Times, and Time magazine's Mark Halperin.
MR. GREGORY: We are back, joined now by our roundtable: former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, editor-at-large and senior political analyst at Time magazine Mark Halperin, New York Times columnist David Brooks. And two newcomers to our
roundtable, both have focused their leadership efforts on the issue of spending: tea party-backed freshman member of Congress, Republican Bobby Schilling of Illinois; and first-term mayor of Atlanta, Democrat Kasim Reed, who thegrio.com has just named to their list of 100 History Makers in the Making, celebrating Black History month this month. Welcome to all of you. Certainly a lot to get to.
MAYOR KASIM REED: Glad to be here.
MR. GREGORY: Good to have you here. David Brooks, on the subject of Egypt, fast-moving developments. And I thought it was striking, the speaker of the House really behind President Obama and his leadership here, saying he's handled it just about as well as he could have.
MR. DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, more agreement between the Republicans and the Democrats than between the White House and the State Department, apparently. There were sort of in an interesting fight all week. The president really wanted to be on the side of the street, the democracy protesters; the State Department wanting to be more slow transition. And I, I would say one of the big news -- first, the State Department, I don't think Hillary Clinton handled this situation particularly well. I don't know what they were thinking, that Mubarak could lead a transition to democracy, that the street would accept the slow transition. I don't know what they were thinking. And secondly, I don't think the president really -- I thought there were moments when he was superb, but didn't really control his administration fast enough and really had to struggle to control the State Department.
MR. GREGORY: Mark Halperin, there is a danger here that, as this movement spreads throughout the Middle East, this becomes a growing part of the president's leadership challenge here in terms of how much support the United States will provide for these movements around the world.
MR. MARK HALPERIN: Well, they're questions that are begged overall about what his general posture is, and then country by country. And the balance between security and supporting democracy is going to be huge. We talked, at the beginning of the show, talked about Iran. That's clearly where the administration would like to focus.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. HALPERIN: There's a great best-case scenario here where this movement does spread in a way that brings more democracy and where these governments change to a more open society without a loss of stability. It's going to take a lot of the president's attention, no question.
MR. GREGORY: Congressman Schilling, with fresh eyes on this, you're new to Congress, you're new to the foreign policy establishment debates. Here was a stalwart ally for 30 years in the Middle East and, poof, he is gone. And it's not really clear where things go now. What concerns you?
REP. BOBBY SCHILLING (R-IL): You know, my big concern is that however this gets resolved, it's in a peaceful fashion and that we still stand with Israel. I think that's the key.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
REP. SCHILLING: Keeping strong.
MR. GREGORY: And, and, and you hear the, the Egyptian military saying today that all those international agreements will be kept. But this will certainly be a big issue in Congress, is making sure that whatever leadership takes over, we'll honor that peace treaty.
REP. SCHILLING: That's exactly right.
MR. GREGORY: I also want to turn to spending for both you and Mayor Reed, because that's the other big story, of course, this week, and will be next week as well. It was interesting, Congressman Schilling, this was the, the quote in the State Journal Register as
you were bound for Washington, you promised, "Schilling: Not Boehner's clone." And you and other tea party folks certainly lived up to that in the last couple of weeks, because you came in and said, "Hey, wait a minute. We made a promise about how much spending we were actually going to cut. We haven't lived up to it." Are you satisfied now or still upset about how the leadership handled it?
REP. SCHILLING: You know, I'm, I'm actually quite satisfied with them. I, I mean, the thing that's nice about the leadership is that they, they are giving us a voice. You know, they could say, you know, "Hey, look it," you know, "you guys don't count. We're just going to run the way we want." And that's the thing I have noticed with the leadership. You know, here's the thing we've got to remember is that we've got 87 new freshmen here and there are some major growing pains, so it's not going to be perfect, but we will strive towards perfection. So I'm pretty happy with it.
MR. GREGORY: Mayor Reed, your issue, as the mayor of Atlanta, is one that local cities and states are dealing with all over the country, and that is you're, you're strapped for cash. You gave a commencement address last December, and this is part of what you said, which was interesting, and it can become a national conversation. "I believe the city, the state, and the country is making a big mistake in not asking more from us. When you look at where America is, the bottom line is that for the country to do and to be what we have been -- certainly within the last 40 to 50 years -- there must be a generation tough enough to stick out its chin and take the hit -- and get on with it." Do you think we're doing that as a country when it comes to how much the government should do, how much it can't do, the kind of debt we face?
MAYOR REED: No, I do not. And what we're trying to do in Atlanta is just to go on with our work and to set an example. What cities can do faster than the federal government, in many instances, is to be an example and get on with your work. I do believe that we need to get on with an honest conversation, that we need to make hard decisions much faster. And I don't think we're doing that right now.
MR. GREGORY: And you've done some of those decisions, like pension reform...
MAYOR REED: We have.
MR. GREGORY: ...which is something that states are dealing with all over the country, cities are dealing with across the country, which is they can't afford to keep all those promises.
MAYOR REED: We went in in the first six months, when I was an untested mayor, my first year, did as much as we could legally. We're going to go back into this budget cycle and do it again. Whether I'm mayor or not when it's all said and done is another matter. But I think I'm doing the...
MR. GREGORY: You might take it on the chin.
MAYOR REED: Oh yeah, but...
MR. GREGORY: But that's an issue.
MAYOR REED: ...I think I'm doing the right thing. I think I'm doing the right thing for the city. And I think we're going to try to be a model so that other governments can show that it can be done and that you can survive it.
MR. GREGORY: Dee Dee Myers, the spending fight that we're going to see in Washington, we're already seeing it over this year's spending for the rest of this fiscal year. But then the president's budget. As I asked the speaker, is this a collision course here as the president talks about winning the future? Or do you hear Speaker Boehner wanting to compromise more than perhaps the tea party will let him?
MS. DEE DEE MYERS: Well, I think that remains to be seen. I mean, there's two battles. There's the battle between Republicans and Democrats and then there's the battle within the Republican caucus.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. MYERS: We saw some of that play out just this week. You know, Rep. Ryan produced a budget that cut $32 billion in spending for the...
MR. GREGORY: This is the budget chair of the House Budget Committee.
MS. MYERS: This is, this is the House-- yeah. Congressman Ryan, also of Illinois, produced a budget that cut $32 billion for the rest of this fiscal year and that wasn't enough. And other freshmen, like Congressman Schilling, came back and said, "That's, that's not going to do it." And now we're at almost twice that. What is going to happen going forward? How is this continuing resolution going to be resolved? and then how's the budget going to be resolved?
MR. GREGORY: Well...
MS. MYERS: The president didn't take on entitlements either.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. MYERS: He's not -- there, there are going to be no changes to entitlement spending in tomorrow's budget.
MR. GREGORY: And that's significant. David Brooks, you fired a shot across the bow to the likes of Congressman Schilling this week. I'll put it up on the screen. This is what you wrote. "Anybody who doesn't take on entitlement spending is an enabler of big government. The supposedly rabid Republican freshmen are actually big government conservatives. They will cut programs that do measurable good while doing little to solve our long-range fiscal crisis."
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, what we're going to see this week is people like wrestling over the bed sheets on the Titanic. I mean, it's, as you alluded to, it's 16 percent of the budget. We're going to do all the fighting over that. The 84 percent, which is going to grow, David, to 86 percent and 88 percent and 90 percent in the years ahead, which is Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt, all that kind of stuff, veterans, nobody's touching it, talking about that. And worse, nobody's even preparing the ground for that. So all around the country, we've got people like Mayor Reed willing to take the serious issues and get to the core of the problem. In Washington, I can think of maybe 10.
MR. GREGORY: Right. Congressman, what, what do you say to that?
REP. SCHILLING: You know, I, I think that, you know, this is going to be done in phases. And I think that every American out there pretty much realizes that we have to go after the entitlement programs. I, I believe, truly, that everything is on the table, across the board.
MR. GREGORY: Spell out what you mean. Are you for raising the retirement age on Social Security?
REP. SCHILLING: You know, I don't know if that's going to be part of it. I -- you know...
MR. GREGORY: Means testing benefits?
REP. SCHILLING: You -- here's the thing, is, I mean, I'm a small business owner that got into this because I was sick and tired of watching the direction the country was going. It wasn't going the right way. And, I mean, November the second, there was a mandate across this great nation saying, "We've had enough of this. What's going on?" So, you know, do I know exactly where the cuts -- I know as a small business owner, what I do is I trouble shoot in, I find the problem, I go in and I...
MR. GREGORY: I know, but Congressman, this is, this is the real problem. If you want to -- if you're a tea party guy, you come in here and you say, "We've got to lower -- we've got to really reduce government." I mean, we know what the issues are.
REP. SCHILLING: Correct.
MR. GREGORY: We know what the choices are that have to be made. So on Social Security, you're either for raising the retirement age or cutting benefits or some combination of raising taxes. So what are you prepared to do? And if you're not prepared to do something, then how can you really claim leadership when it comes to reducing the scope of government?
REP. SCHILLING: You know, like I said, I think we need to have everything on the table. Whether it's, it's raising a lot -- I'm not going to say -- commit to raising the, the age of Social Security. But here's the thing is, if we do nothing, we know it's broke, so we've got to put everything on the table and make good decisions. You know, if we do -- if we continue the path we're going, we're going bankrupt.
MR. GREGORY: But, you know, yeah -- but, Mark -- I mean, Mark Halperin, what I keep hearing from leaders is we have to have the adult conversation. And I keep saying, "We can have a," you know, "a juvenile conversation as long as you'll say what you're actually for."
MR. HALPERIN: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Because nobody's actually saying what they're for here on the tough stuff.
MR. HALPERIN: With, with all due respect to the congressman, this is the problem right now. All we have to do, though, if this is going to happen this year, and I think it could, is to get to a deal that's too big to fail. A deal that has the kind of tax increases that the congressman, I'm sure, would say today he wouldn't accept, the kind of cuts to health care that the president today would say he would not accept. Somehow that deal has to come together. The events right now are just pregame squirmishes -- skirmishes until the end of the year when I think the president and, and the leader in the Senate...
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MR. HALPERIN: ...are going to have to make a deal if it's going to happen.
MR. BROOKS: The, the good news is there's some people who are actually taking up the mantle. I mean, it's all on the table. There are cobwebs on the table because it's all been sitting there for year after year. And if you look at the people in the Senate, there are people like Dick Durbin, Mark Warner, Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn, Mike Crapo, others, bipartisan group of senators. Right now there are like 10 of them, they're getting serious. And they're taking some political arrows right now because they're Republicans willing to look at tax increases. There's some Democrats willing to look at Social Security reform. And they're actually out there. And you're beginning to see something really hopeful start there, but you've got to show the leaders in the House and in the White House a politically viable route. And you need outside as well.
MR. GREGORY: Mayor Reed, on the one hand, you've, you've, you've cut pensions in terms of when they vest.
MAYOR REED: Yes.
MR. GREGORY: But you're also lobbying the federal government for more money for the port of Savannah.
MAYOR REED: That's -- I am.
MR. GREGORY: I mean, so, you know, how, how do you accomplish both?
MAYOR REED: Well, because I think that that's consistent with investing for the future.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MAYOR REED: By deepening the port of Savannah, Georgia, we're going to create an economy and have the port ready for the Panama Canal ships to come in 2014. It's consistent with the president's message on infrastructure investment and job creation.
MR. GREGORY: Well, how does it affect -- some of the, some of the cuts will definitely come down the line, how are you going to feel that in the city of Atlanta?
MAYOR REED: Well, the president had an honest conversation with us more than six weeks ago, so we've already started winding down. So we know that those aren't -- dollars aren't coming. And much like the Social Security conversation, we know now -- see, I'd just like to be told. I know that we're going to modify Social Security with regard to our age, but just tell us and let leaders step up and know it. The president told us that federal funding and federal support was going to wind down, so we're already preparing for that in our upcoming budget. But that's where I think we need to be going.
MR. GREGORY: All right.
MAYOR REED: Tell us the truth and then we'll get on with it.
MR. GREGORY: We're going to take a quick break here. When we come back with this roundtable, we'll talk about the race to the White House 2012 and how the Republican field is shaping up. More with the group right after this.
MR. GREGORY: We are back with more from our roundtable. We're talking about the big debates coming up over the budget and spending. Ultimately, Mark Halperin, this is heading into 2012. A gathering of conservatives here this weekend, the CPAC Conference, this is how it turned out. Who was on the leaderboard for the second year straight, Representative Ron Paul, 30 percent. Mitt Romney was the only one who had double digits. But here is the wider view. These are, these are activists who paid to show up to CPAC, so a little bit narrow. But the wider view shows this is a spread out race. Mike Huckabee at 21 percent, and there's Tim Pawlenty at 3 percent. Why is it still so unclear what the Republicans are doing?
MR. HALPERIN: Because the Republican Party, in several generations, have not had -- or several decades have not -- had no clear front runner. Today I think there are three slots. We'll see how it develops, we'll see who ends up running. I think Newt Gingrich has a slot, Mitt Romney has a slot, and there's an establishment alternative to Romney's slot. You saw some of those people at CPAC. I don't think the speech has changed much. We have to see. Does some establishment figure step forward to try to take that mantle away from Mitt Romney? And those three slots are going to be joined by a lot of other people trying to claw their way into possibility of nomination.
MR. GREGORY: And, Dee Dee Myers, what's the dynamic here? I mean, a lot of people talk about four years ago, I think, this week was when Senator Obama announced. There was so much that was settled across the land. The Democrats could, could really get theirselves -- themselves organized at the, at the end of the Bush administration. Not so this time.
MS. MYERS: Among Democrats or...
MR. GREGORY: Among, among Republicans I mean.
MS. MYERS: Among...
MR. GREGORY: But the comparison to Democrats.
MS. MYERS: Right. They -- their -- for, I don't know, a couple of generations, the Republicans have always chosen the next in line as their nominee.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. MYERS: And by traditional measures that would be Mitt Romney this time. But clearly something has changed. The Republican Party is no longer willing to just take the next guy in line. There's a lot more, I think, partly as the result of the tea party movement, there's a lot more churning in the base of the party. There's a lot less obeisance to that hierarchy...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. MYERS: ...that's driven Republican politics for so long. And so it is wide open.
MR. GREGORY: And, Congressman Schilling, talk about the impact of the tea party on a primary process. Because these, these folks who are looking at the presidency are, are understanding that part of these debates that play out in Congress will have an impact on how the primary process goes.
REP. SCHILLING: Yeah, you know, that's very true. And I think that, I, I, I personally believe that we've seen phase one of phase two coming. I think 2012 is going to show another phase. But I, I -- the thing that, that's really interesting about the Taxed Enough Already Party, because we kind -- tend to kind of label them tea party, is that, you know, they're going to hold people accountable either side. And I was told, "Hey, you know what, if you, if you go against the things we've sent you there for, we're going to work just as hard to get you out." So I, I think we're going to see another phase come through. But it's just a matter of time, so.
MR. GREGORY: And, Mayor, as you look at Atlanta and you, and you look at the conversation across the country, it's what I asked Speaker Boehner. Unemployment, if they're lucky, can be around 8 percent, maybe a little bit less. Tough circumstances for the president to face re- election.
MAYOR REED: They are. I think if unemployment gets to 8 percent, I think the president is going to be fine. I think it'll be tough, but if it is sitting around...
MR. GREGORY: But what will the argument be?
MAYOR REED: Well, I think the argument will be that the decisions that he made, the tough decisions, the decisions he made around the automobile industry, the financial services industry actually worked and is moving the country in the right direction. And he's a good person and you need to let him continue to follow through. The Republican Party is beginning to feel more like the Democratic Party in terms of the lack of organization, if you will, and the openness. So I'm actually enjoying it.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MAYOR REED: This new freedom.
MR. GREGORY: David Brooks, there are a couple of outliers that aren't mentioned -- well, they're becoming mentioned with more frequency. We'll put them on the screen. Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, of course, president's brother, and Jon Huntsman, who was the ambassador to China for President Obama, has stepped down. It looks like he may be looking at a run. And the White House paying particular attention to him.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah. And Donald Trump announced he might throw his hair into the ring, so that would be a good thing. Yeah. You know, listen, you know, there are a lot of people out there. I really think there are really only a very few plausibles actually. Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, who gave quite a good speech this week at CPAC. Mitt Romney, of course. John Thune, a very normal guy, serious guy, smart guy, pretty good looking guy. And then Tim Pawlenty. And after that, I think it's all commentary. Jeb Bush would be a great candidate. He's got the Bush problem. Huntsman, hey, he served in the Obama administration.
MS. MYERS: Chris Christie?
MR. BROOKS: Chris Christie would be great. He said he's not running.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but what is the theory of the case, Mark, because ultimately it's still going to be tough for the Republicans, isn't it, as they head into 2012?
MR. HALPERIN: Well, if you look at the Electoral College, it's not that tough. There's about seven states they have got to take away from the president to win. If employment is high, and if they can make an argument that the president has not handled himself well. Imagine if Egypt goes badly, imagine if unemployment is still high, it's doable. But the president will be formidable. He's a better politician today than any of the Republicans thinking of running. He's better known, he'll raise more money, he's the incumbent. He has a lot of advantages.
MR. GREGORY: Dee Dee Myers, as former press secretary during the Clinton White House, you know about transitions there at the podium, and we saw one this week. The president came into the Oval Office-- excuse me, not the Oval Office; he was there, too -- but he came into the press room. And when Robert Gibbs was leaving, this is what he said.
PRES. OBAMA: Obviously Gibbs's departure is not the biggest one today.
MR. GREGORY: That, that was a good line on the day that Hosni Mubarak stepped down on, on Friday. What does this transition mean as we now hand the reins over to Jay Carney, former Time magazine bureau chief and worked for Vice President Biden? What are the, what are the challenges here?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think the first two years were difficult with the press in many ways. I think they -- Robert Gibbs did a great job in many ways, but he did two jobs. He was a senior adviser to the president as well as the press secretary and spokesman. So a lot of days I think reporters were frustrated they didn't get their calls returned. I mean, you can never do enough for the press, as we all know.
MR. GREGORY: Yes.
MR. BROOKS: Correct. Correct.
MS. MYERS: But -- yeah, that's right. Exactly.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. MYERS: But I think it's an opportunity for the administration to reset a little bit, to kind of redefine the relationship with the press and to kind of start it in a new direction.
MR. GREGORY: You know, reporters are neither...
MS. MYERS: And I think that will be helpful.
MR. GREGORY: ...thin skinned or too demanding.
MS. MYERS: No, never.
MR. GREGORY: So I think if you put it that way, things are fine.
MS. MYERS: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: All right, thanks to all of you. We will leave it there. That is all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE