MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, the hole has finally been plugged in the gulf, but is it really mission accomplished? How much oil was spilled? Is the environmental crisis over? How will BP be held accountable? Plus, where do we go from here on energy policy and oil drilling? I'll ask the president's top environmental and energy adviser, Carol Browner. Then a one-on-one conversation with the man who hopes to be the next speaker of the House, GOP leader, Congressman John Boehner. What would the Republicans do to get people back to work and cut government spending? Finally, our political roundtable weighs in on the long, hot political summer for the president -- ethics scandals, jobs, gay marriage, the war in Afghanistan, and the choice in November.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: When you want to forward, what, what, what do you put the car in? D. When you want to go backwards, what do you do? You put it in R.
MR. GREGORY: With us, former congressman from Tennessee and the author of the new book "More Davids than Goliaths," Democrat Harold Ford; congressman from Indiana and the chairman from the House Republican Conference, Mike Pence; Vanity Fair's national editor Todd Purdum; and NBC's Andrea Mitchell.
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. It has been 111 days since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The leak has been plugged, but there are many questions that remain. Here with us now, live this morning in an exclusive interview, the president's top environmental and energy adviser, Carol Browner. Ms. Browner, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
MS. CAROL BROWNER: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: The split-screen, the before and after, is striking, and we'll put it up on the screen now. When the oil was gushing, this is what it looked like on the left, and now it has been plugged, on the right. The headline in The Times-Picayune down in New Orleans really begs the question, "End in Sight as Cement Pumped into [the] Rogue Well." Is the crisis over?
MS. BROWNER: Well, I think the first phase is over in that the well is not leaking, it has not leaked since July 15th. Obviously the relief well still has to be finished. That's probably another 10 to 14 days away. But then we have to stay focused on making sure the beaches are clean, the environmental damage is restored, cleaned up. In the end, that BP is held accountable. So we see this as a phase, but not the end by any means.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let's go through some of those, then, in turn because they are all important. The question of how much oil is left is one that you have been asked. You were on the "Today" program on Wednesday, and this is what you said. Because there's skepticism about some of it.
MS. BROWNER: I think it's also important to note that our scientists have done an initial assessment and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone, the vast majority of the oil is gone.
MR. GREGORY: Three-quarters of the oil is gone. Again, there are some who are casting doubt about that, the claim that you have made. Let's look at -- the National Incident Command has put together a graphic of where the oil is -- and if you put it on the screen -- residual, 26; evaporated or dissolved, 25 percent; 24 percent using dispersant. So it's dispersed, and that becomes important -- burned, skimmed, direct recovery. So you have roughly 50 percent there that is still residual or has maybe broken apart. This is how The Washington Post reported on it on Thursday under the headline, "Scientists Question the Report of Shrinking Spill." "Some outside researchers said that, given the uncertainty about what's happening in the gulf, the administration's assertion that 74 percent of the oil had been accounted for seemed too
optimistic. They saw it another way: About half of the oil is probably gone for certain: skimmed, burned, siphoned or evaporated. They said the other half, including the 24 percent that's been `dispersed' but is underwater, is the real total of what's missing. Despite the largest oil-spill response in history, these 2.5 million barrels of oil will be cleaned up by the Gulf of Mexico, if at all. The situation is `being portrayed as "the oil is out of the environment; it's gone,"' said Michael Blum, professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. But, he said, all that's certain is that `the form of the oil has shifted. Dispersed oil is still oil. It's just in a different form.'" So how much is still there and how damaging is it, potentially?
MS. BROWNER: Well, I think it's important to understand that this was the largest response to an environmental disaster. We had over 6,000 vessels, more than 40,000 people, and the goal was to keep the oil off the beaches and out of the marshes and the estuaries. Now, some of it did get on the beaches, some of it got into the estuaries. That has to be cleaned up. Some of it may continue to come on shore, the residual. It'll come on in tar balls and tar mats, and that can be cleaned up. But I think, you know, there was the skimming, there was the burning, there was the containing, it was very successful. Some of it is continuing to break down naturally in the environment-- we're talking about molecules the size of a piece of hair -- and we're going to continue to monitor that. The EPA has been monitoring, NOAA is monitoring, the Food and Drug Administration is looking at the fish; and, right now, nobody's seeing anything of concern. And I think the good news -- and I was just down in the gulf. I was in Florida on Thursday and Friday. The good news is we're not seeing huge amounts of oil on our beaches and in our marshes.
MR. GREGORY: But you acknowledge that 50 percent of that oil could still be in the gulf in some form. We're far from being out of the woods of this. I mean, you talk about on the order of maybe, what, 100 million gallons? This is many orders of magnitude larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in terms of the sheer amount of oil that's still in there, correct?
MS. BROWNER: Well, the -- this is 18 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez, when you look at the total amount that spilled. But, again, it's been captured, it's been contained, it's been burned. I mean, this was a massive response. I mean, if you look at what was accomplished in terms of the beaches...
MR. GREGORY: But the question, Ms. Browner, is, what the impact is of the remaining oil. If -- you're saying, "Look, most of it's gone, essentially. Don't worry about it." The scientists are saying, "We, we don't know if we can not worry about it just yet."
MS. BROWNER: No one's saying don't worry. What we're saying is, right now, the tests show nothing of concern. We're going to continue to test. We're not going away. We're going to continue to work with the Gulf Coast communities to make sure their economic losses are honored, to get the fisheries reopened when appropriate. Later today, the president's birthday party, he's going to be serving his guests seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. You know, we want to make sure that these communities are restored and that they're made whole and that the environment is made whole. There's still a lot of work to do.
MR. GREGORY: Well, here's what you said in terms of the environmental impacts-- impact. Back in May, when you were last on MEET THE PRESS, I asked you about that. This is what you said.
MS. BROWNER: This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country.
MR. GREGORY: Does that still stand? And what does that mean specifically?
MS. BROWNER: We had almost five million barrels of oil leak. We've never seen anything like it before. The idea that, you know, if you went down to the gulf -- and I know you have -- and asked people what they thought, they would absolutely agree this is the largest environmental disaster. And we responded accordingly, and we've been successful in removing a lot of the oil. We're going to remain vigilant. We've got to hold BP accountable for the claims, for the damages to the environment.
MR. GREGORY: But I'm asking you, the environmental impact, what specifically is the impact going forward, environmentally?
MS. BROWNER: Well, we, we know that we had oil up in some of the sensitive marshes and the estuaries. That can be cleaned to some degree. Some of the oil will have to dissipate naturally. We need to monitor those estuaries to ensure the health of those estuaries, of the fisheries. While we've reopened some, some remain closed. I mean, it -- you can't put this much oil out there and not be concerned; and that's how we responded, with a great deal of concern.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about BP's accountability. How many barrels of oil were spilled?
MS. BROWNER: The estimates are 4.9 million barrels. And that -- those estimates are based on pressure tests that we were able to do when the new top hat was put on.
MR. GREGORY: BP doesn't commit to that figure, do they?
MS. BROWNER: I think BP has been silent, but that doesn't matter. We...
MR. GREGORY: But there's a reason they're silent.
MS. BROWNER: ...will hold them accountable.
MR. GREGORY: They will be held liable.
MS. BROWNER: Because they pay a penalty.
MR. GREGORY: They'll pay a penalty...
MS. BROWNER: Yes, yes.
MR. GREGORY: ...depending on how much.
MS. BROWNER: Absolutely.
MR. GREGORY: So the government knows this answer for sure.
MS. BROWNER: Our scientists feel very confident in the answer. I mean, again, we started with just satellite photos, then we were able to get the, you know, the ROV photos, and then, ultimately, the pressure tests. And it's based on those pressure tests that this number has been put forward.
MR. GREGORY: Will the government pursue criminal negligence claims against BP to make that financial penalty as high as it can be?
MS. BROWNER: I'm not going to comment on the Department of Justice investigation. As you know, they have a large investigation under way. I will say this, BP will be held absolutely accountable.
MR. GREGORY: To the, to the full extent of the law.
MS. BROWNER: Absolutely.
MR. GREGORY: Because you're suggesting here, by everything you're saying, that they were, indeed, negligent and that there should be a large financial penalty.
MS. BROWNER: Well, there will be a large financial penalty. There'll also be a natural resource damages claims. They will be responsible for paying to clean up the natural resource damages. There's three ways in which they're held accountable. One, for the economic losses, and there we were able to negotiate $20 billion fund, and in the coming days, Mr. Feinberg will launch that fund. Secondly are the penalties, which will be significant. And finally, the natural resource damages, which they will have to pay for.
MR. GREGORY: How much of the penalty dollars should be returned directly to the Gulf Coast?
MS. BROWNER: Well, under the current law, it goes to the Treasury.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. BROWNER: We think it should be returned to the Gulf Coast, obviously.
MR. GREGORY: How much? Eighty percent? As you know, that's what Gulf States senators want.
MS. BROWNER: I think that makes a lot of sense.
MR. GREGORY: So 80 percent is a reasonable figure. Does the president commit himself to that?
MS. BROWNER: Well, we're going to have to work with Congress, you know. Congress has not been forthcoming in terms of passing a -- the oil spill legislation. The House did, but the Senate didn't. We're going to have to work with them to make sure that the Gulf Coast communities see the benefits of this money.
MR. GREGORY: So -- but the president, at least, supports the notion of majority of this penalty money being returned to the region.
MS. BROWNER: He absolutely supports the notion of returning it to the region.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the moratorium. The president, in his address to the nation, imposed the moratorium, said it was the right thing to do. Now there is some talk that it might be lifted early. Is that possible?
MS. BROWNER: Well, the...
MR. GREGORY: Now this is, I should say, a moratorium on deepwater drilling...
MS. BROWNER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: ...in the gulf, 33 deepwater rigs in the gulf currently.
MS. BROWNER: So it's important to understand what the president has said. He said three things. First of all, we have to understand what happened so we can make sure that all the safety measures are in place so it doesn't happen again. Secondly, in the worst case scenario, if we did have another leak, we have to be able to contain it. Now, we've learned a lot about how to contain it, and some of the other oil companies have come forth and said perhaps we should pre-stage the containment equipment. We think that makes a lot of sense. And then finally, we have to be able to clean it up. We've learned a lot about how you clean it up. We've learned, "How does the burning work, how does the skimming work, how does the booming work?" You know, if we're able to answer those questions, then this pause in drilling can be lifted. But until we answer those questions, we need to make sure that we keep the Gulf Coast community safe.
MR. GREGORY: So what are the chances it gets lifted early?
MS. BROWNER: You know, I don't want to speculate on that. The work is being done, the analysis is being done. Michael Bromwich is at the Department of Interior doing his job. You know, I'm going to let them do their job, and if it's appropriate, it'll be lifted.
MR. GREGORY: Are you not satisfied with the answers that you're getting so far to those questions about safety?
MS. BROWNER: It's just that it's a very rigorous review that's under way, and, you know, they're in the middle of the review, so I just don't want to speculate. We, we understand the importance of these jobs, but we also understand the importance of protecting the Gulf Coast and the communities.
MR. GREGORY: You talk about all the work here being done for safety. Did the White House do any economic analysis about what a moratorium-- what impact it would have on jobs in the Gulf Coast?
MS. BROWNER: There is, there is an economic analysis being done. It'll be ready later...
MR. GREGORY: But it was never done before the moratorium was put in place? Because those who are down there say, "You know what, the moratorium by the Obama administration is far worse than the spill itself."
MS. BROWNER: Here's what we knew the minute the accident happened: that if there was another accident of equal size, we didn't have the equipment to respond. All the boats, all the resources were being used. We had a close -- over 6,000 vessels, we embedded private citizens into this effort. It was a massive undertaking, and if another accident were to occur, we would not have had the ability to respond. And, you know, that formed a basis for putting a pause on drilling while we looked at the safety, while we looked at how we would contain it, ultimately, and then clean it up.
MR. GREGORY: Final question here. The president said, in his address to the nation, this, about climate change legislation.
PRES. OBAMA: The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. ... The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.
MR. GREGORY: He said he won't settle for inaction, and yet, there is inaction.
MS. BROWNER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Is it failure?
MS. BROWNER: We're deeply disappointed that we were not able to get clean energy legislation. There's a tremendous opportunity for our country to lead the global clean energy revolution. But that requires us to put in place the, the right laws, the right signals so that we build the wind turbines here, we build the solar panels, then we can ship them to China. We're in danger of losing out.
MR. GREGORY: I understand the arguments. The president drew a line in the sand there. Is he conceding defeat on this?
MS. BROWNER: Not yet. The Congress is coming back. We will continue to see if we can get legislation. We passed it in the House. We'll continue to work in the Senate.
MR. GREGORY: Lame duck session, they could do it potentially there.
MS. BROWNER: Potentially.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we'll, we'll be watching. Carol Browner, thank you very much as always.
MS. BROWNER: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: We turn now to the man trying to lead his party to victory this November, House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio. He joins us this morning from Cincinnati. Leader Boehner, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): David, good morning.
MR. GREGORY: I want to continue on the, the Gulf Coast spill as we near completion of this, and you've heard Carol Browner's comments. I want to pick up on holding BP accountable. Do you think the government should pursue criminal negligence claims against BP?
REP. BOEHNER: I think the government should do everything they possibly can to, to bring this crisis to an end; and that means going after BP, enforcing the laws that are on the books, and restoring the gulf to its original condition. I think BP has stepped forward in terms of the money that they've put forward so far. But there is the law, and they should be held accountable.
MR. GREGORY: The question, however, also extends to, in terms of revitalizing the Gulf Coast, this issue of the moratorium on deepwater drilling. You heard Carol Browner concede the White House didn't do an economic analysis about what it would do to jobs and to the industries along the Gulf Coast. Should that moratorium be lifted by this point?
REP. BOEHNER: I believe the moratorium should be lifted. We've been drilling in the Gulf Coast now for 60 years. There are 40,000 wells operating in the Gulf Coast. There clearly was a mistake made with regard to this one well, but I think that we're risking 100,000 jobs in the Gulf Coast with the continuation of this moratorium, and I do believe that, that there are enough practices in place, enough safety precautions in place to allow this drilling to continue. Because if we're serious about moving toward energy independence, we need to do all of the above, which includes exploration for more oil and gas in the United States of America.
MR. GREGORY: There seems to be some bipartisan agreement about this point: When it comes to the gulf oil spill and in terms of the, the permits being issued, there was a failure of regulation. When it comes to the Wall Street collapse, the financial system collapse, a failure of regulation. And yet, you said something in July that caught my attention about a moratorium on regulations. You said, "I think having a moratorium on new federal regulations is a great idea. It sends a wonderful signal to the private sector that they're going to have some breathing room." Do you think that's what the private sector needs right now, is breathing room?
REP. BOEHNER: I do think the private sector needs some breathing room. When you look at all of the, the uncertainty that's being created by the Democrats' agenda, they've got every employer in America, every investor in America scared to death, and they're frozen. When you look at what happened on Wall Street, when you look at what happened in the gulf, it wasn't that we didn't have enough regulations; what, what we didn't have was enough enforcement by the federal bureaucrats in charge of pursuing these things. The SEC could have done a lot more with regard to the financial meltdown, except they didn't. It's pretty clear that those bureaucrats charged with inspecting these wells didn't do their job. And so it's not more regulations. How about we enforce the ones we have now?
MR. GREGORY: Let me talk about, on the subject of regulations and the broader economy, the job numbers that came out Friday were disappointing. The private sector job growth is anemic at best, and yet the president says he is not fearful of a so-called "double-dip" recession. What do you say?
REP. BOEHNER: Well, I'm concerned about the state of the economy. It's pretty clear that over the last three months the economy has paused. And it's also pretty clear the American people are still demanding and asking the question, "Where are the jobs?" And the reason we don't have new jobs is because of the job-killing agenda pursued by President Obama and his allies in the Congress. They really do, they have employers scared to death. I've been all over my district over the last several days. I was in a couple of my neighboring states. I talked to a lot of employers who just are, are fearful of what's coming next out of Washington. It's all the spending, it's all the debt. It's their national energy tax, they want to call it cap and trade-- more mandates, higher costs, more taxes. Their healthcare bill -- more mandates, higher costs, higher taxes. And if all that did -- isn't bad enough, they want to raise the taxes on the American people.
MR. GREGORY: Well, let's...
REP. BOEHNER: It's no wonder that employers are frozen.
MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about it. It's interesting, you talk about the importance of cutting the debt, the importance of cutting government spending, and you worry about the Democrats raising taxes. The Bush-- the Obama administration wants to extend the Bush tax cuts only for those who make less than $250,000, and he wants to let them expire for those wealthy Americans making more than that. You're opposed to that. You want to extend the tax cuts, and the Republican leadership does. But Alan Greenspan, who was on this program last week, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that's the wrong idea. Here's what he said.
DR. ALAN GREENSPAN: Look, I'm very much in favor of tax cuts, but not with borrowed money. And the problem that we've gotten into in recent years is spending programs with borrowed money, tax cuts with borrowed money, and at the end of the day that proves disastrous. And my view is I don't think we can play subtle policy here.
MR. GREGORY: You don't agree with Republican leaders who say tax cuts pay for themselves.
DR. GREENSPAN: They do not.
MR. GREGORY: Leader Boehner, he puts it right to you.
REP. BOEHNER: The only way we're going to get our economy going again and solve our budget problems is to get the economy moving, get more people back to work where they can care for their own families and begin to expand the tax rolls to bring more revenue to the federal government. And what we have to do is we have to get our arms around the spending spree that's going on in Washington, D.C.
MR. GREGORY: But Leader Boehner...
REP. BOEHNER: That's the only way we solve the budget problems.
MR. GREGORY: ...I'm sorry, you're -- that -- you're not, you're not being responsive to a specific point, which is how can you be for cutting the deficit and also cutting taxes, as well, when they're not paid for?
REP. BOEHNER: Listen, you can't raise taxes in the middle of a weak economy without risking the double-dip in this recession. President Obama's favorite Republican economist, Mark Zandi, came out several weeks ago and made it clear that raising taxes at this point in, in the economy is a very bad idea.
MR. GREGORY: But do you agree that tax cuts cannot be paid for...
REP. BOEHNER: You cannot balance the budget without a...
MR. GREGORY: But tax cuts are not paid for, is that correct?
REP. BOEHNER: I am not for raising taxes on the American people in a soft economy.
MR. GREGORY: That's not the question, Leader Boehner. The question...
REP. BOEHNER: And the people that the president wants to tax...
MR. GREGORY: ...is, are tax cuts paid for or not?
REP. BOEHNER: Listen, what you're trying to do is get into this Washington game and their funny accounting over there. You cannot get the economy going again by raising taxes on those people who we expect to create jobs in America and to get the economy going again. If we want to solve the budget problem, we've got to have a healthy economy and we have to get our arms around the runaway spending that's going on in Washington, D.C.
MR. GREGORY: I just want to clarify this. I mean, if you -- I'm relying on what Chairman Greenspan said. Maybe -- if you're accusing him of funny Washington games. He says that tax cuts that aren't paid for are not -- they are not cutting the deficit, that they are not actually paid for, it's borrowed money. And so do you believe tax cuts pay for themselves or not?
REP. BOEHNER: I do believe that we've got to get more money in the hands of small businesses and American families to get our economy going again, and the only way to get that economy going again is to do that and to get our arms around the spending.
MR. GREGORY: All right. One of the ways you talk about getting your arms around the spending was something you suggested back in June, and that is that Social Security, the retirement age, ought to be raised to the age of 70. Is that something that the GOP will campaign on in the fall?
REP. BOEHNER: David, I think it's time for the American people to have an adult conversation about the problems that we face. These entitlement programs serve tens of millions of Americans, and they're critically important. But we also know that these programs are, are unsustainable in their current form. And I really do think it's time that we sit down and we talk to the American people together about how we solve them. And I think we need to bring Democrats and Republicans together in order to solve this problem.
MR. GREGORY: And so you favor raising the retirement age?
REP. BOEHNER: David, there are a lot of options about how you solve this, but I don't want to get the cart before the horse. I think it's important to have this conversation. It's going to be a difficult conversation, but it's time to have it and it's time to come up with some solutions that are done in a bipartisan way to help address these problems.
MR. GREGORY: Let me talk about the, the midterm race. Several months ago, back in March, you thought it would be a steep climb for Republicans to retake the House. What do you say today?
REP. BOEHNER: I continue to believe that it is a challenge for us to take back the House. But we've got candidates, more candidates than we've ever had. We have 430 districts with one or more Republican candidates in the race. We have the -- better candidates than we ever had. But we want to earn back the majority in order to renew our effort to go after a smaller, less costly, and more accountable federal government in Washington, D.C.
MR. GREGORY: But you still think it's a challenge. It was interesting. The president's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, as you know, said on this program that he thought it was possible that Republicans could take over the House. He, he now believes that's not the case. That caused quite a stir. What impact do you think that had? And yet, it hasn't changed your view about the challenges that Republicans face.
REP. BOEHNER: Well, David, listen, it's only August. There are a lot of things that can happen between now and Election Day. Is it possible? Yes, it certainly is possible. There are a hundred seats in play around the country, and 94 of them are held by Democrat members. I've, I've been all over my district, I've been through a lot of other districts. The American people are screaming at the top of their lungs to Washington, "Stop! Stop the spending, stop the job- killing policies." And yet, Democrats in Washington refuse to listen to the American people. Republicans have been listening all summer with our program America Speaking Out.
MR. GREGORY: Well...
REP. BOEHNER: We're listening.
MR. GREGORY: ...you, you...
REP. BOEHNER: We're going to come forward with our, with our agenda right after Labor Day.
MR. GREGORY: Right after Labor Day. Why wait until then? Why not do it now?
REP. BOEHNER: I think it's important that we listen to the American people. It's not about what I think, it's about what the American people think. And at americaspeakingout.com, hundreds of thousands of people have given us ideas about what Washington should be doing. People have voted on other people's ideas. And if people want to go to americaspeakingout.com, they can participate in this. And out of this listening, we will have a governing agenda to, to get this country...
MR. GREGORY: All right. But Leader Boehner...
REP. BOEHNER: ...this country back on track.
MR. GREGORY: Leader Boehner, you -- but you are certainly campaigning to be the next speaker. As a matter of fact, you can go on boehnerforspeaker.org and order a mug, among other items, to support that effort. And yet, the president of the United States is going to fundraisers around the country and slamming Republicans. This is one of the things that he
says: They have not come up with a single, solitary new idea to address the challenges of the American people. They don't have a single idea that's different from George Bush's ideas. Not one.
PRES. OBAMA: What do you say to that?
MR. GREGORY: When I handed Nancy Pelosi the gavel 18 months ago, I said that if Republicans had to oppose our Democrat colleagues or our new president, it was our obligation to tell the American people how we would do it differently. Every time we've opposed our Democratic colleagues, we've offered what we thought was a better solution. Each and every time. And when we roll out our agenda, we're going to roll out our solutions to solve the problem of the joblessness in American to get Americans back to work, and how we would control spending.
REP. BOEHNER: Do you want -- will you offer specific spending cuts to offset the money that's lost by extending tax cuts?
MR. GREGORY: Listen, we've offered all kinds of spending cuts. As a matter of fact, Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling, two leaders on our budget committee, have offered $1.3 trillion worth of spending cuts. We've offered these to the president, asked the president to send recisions to the Congress, and we offered to work with him to enact those recisions. Why don't we stop the stimulus spending? There's still about $400 billion or $500 billion of the stimulus plan that has not been spent. Why don't we stop it. It's not working. Secondly, why don't we make sure that we get all the TARP funds back and use it to pay down the deficit. Why don't we put a cap on discretionary spending at much lower levels than we have today. It's time to stop the spending spree in Washington, D.C.
REP. BOEHNER: The president, of course, has called for a cap on discretionary spending.
MR. GREGORY: I'm talking about a real cap, like at 2008 levels, not at 2010 levels.
REP. BOEHNER: All right. Let me ask you about a couple of other topics, including the ethics scandal surrounding Congressman Charlie Rangel. There's news out this morning that there was a deal that was being discussed and that it was Republicans who stood in the way. They wanted a trial. Is that accurate?
MR. GREGORY: I would have no idea. Under the rules of the House, the Ethics Committee proceedings are private. There -- this is the only committee in the Congress where you have five Republicans and five Democrats. And from what I read in the press, the charges against Mr. Rangel were brought by two Republicans and two Democrats together. But this isn't about Charlie Rangel, this is about Nancy Pelosi's biggest failure. She said that it was time to drain the swamp. Not once during this entire two-year proceeding has she called for Chairman Rangel to step down from his post as the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.
REP. BOEHNER: Is that what you're doing this morning?
MR. GREGORY: And really...
REP. BOEHNER: Should he?
MR. GREGORY: He already stepped, stepped down but he did it on his own, and, frankly, it was much too late.
REP. BOEHNER: Should he step down from Congress, from his seat?
MR. GREGORY: I think that's for Charlie to decide. But I do think it's time to hold members of Congress accountable. The American people deserve to have members of Congress observe the highest of ethical standards, and it has not happened. I told my colleagues 18 months ago, when I became their leader, that I was going to hold members accountable, and I have.
REP. BOEHNER: Leader Boehner, one final question that's been kind of a hot-button issue this week and that is calls by some Republicans to amend the Constitution to change the 14th Amendment, which provides birthright citizenship if you're born in this country. As a matter of fact, on the RNC's Web site, the 14th Amendment is listed as an accomplishment of the Republicans, one of the major pieces of its legacy over time. Do you support efforts to have the 14th Amendment amended at this point?
MR. GREGORY: Well, David, I'm not the expert on this issue. I have read the -- these comments here over this past week. But I think that we do have -- there is a problem. To provide an incentive for illegal immigrants to come here so that their children can be U.S. citizens does, in fact, draw more people to our country. I, I do think that it's time for us to secure our borders and enforce the law, and allow this conversation about the 14th Amendment to continue.
REP. BOEHNER: But do you have a position on it?
MR. GREGORY: Listen, I think it's worth considering. But it's a serious problem that affects our country. And in certain parts of our country, clearly, our schools, our hospitals, are being overrun by illegal immigrants, a lot of whom came here just so their children could become U.S. citizens.
REP. BOEHNER: All right. Leader Boehner...
MR. GREGORY: They should do it -- they should do it the legal way.
REP. BOEHNER: All right. Leader Boehner, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much for your views.
MR. GREGORY: Thank you.
REP. BOEHNER: And up next, the battle lines for the midterm election are now drawn. You heard it, the economy, tax cuts, gay marriage, immigration, and the war in Afghanistan, all up for debate. Next, former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford, Republican Congressman Mike Pence, Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum, and NBC's Andrea Mitchell, only on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. GREGORY: Coming up, our political roundtable weighs in on what has been a long and hot summer politically for the president. How will voters react in November? After this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: We're back, joined now by host of MSNBC's " Andrea Mitchell Reports," NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell; Vanity Fair's national editor, Todd Purdum; former congressman from Tennessee and the author of the new book "More Davids than Goliaths," Democrat Harold Ford; and chairman of the House Republican Conference, Indiana congressman, Mike Pence. Well, welcome to all of you. There's a lot to get to and the economy is still the top issue and something I talked a lot with Leader Boehner about. First of all, the -- in the context of the president's performance, here is his approval ratings as measured by USA Today/ Gallup this week, approval at 41 percent, disapproval at 53 percent. Charlie Cook, who's the influential editor of the Cook Political Report, writes this about the economy, that it is "a millstone around Democrats' necks, and there is not a lot they can do about it." Even President Obama, speaking
MR. GREGORY: Progress needs to come faster. Our job is to make sure that happens.
to a small business on Friday, acknowledged this: So then, Congressman Ford, what do Democrats do for economic growth to get people back to work?
PRES. OBAMA: I think two things. First, we've done a lot. They've preserved the U.S. car industry, they saved the financial industry from going over the brink, they passed the big stimulus. The problem is, a majority of Americans aren't experiencing the benefit of these -- this, this legislation yet, which is why I think two or three other things have to be done. First, I'm a believer you have to extend some of the tax cuts. The middle class tax cuts, probably the capital gains and dividend tax cuts, and you probably want to phase in the top rate increases for the wealthiest of Americans. Democrats often compare Warren Buffett, take -- they take his language in support of reducing some of these taxes, and they compare him to everyone else. Someone making $251,000 a year is very different than Warren Buffett. I think we have to be sensitive to that. Two, provide more certainty around the regulatory structure. Broadband and power grids are going to be built out. These big companies with big, big chunks of cash need to know that the -- what the rules are going to be going forward. And three, I happen to think that the president ought to adopt some of the recommendations from his deficit reduction commission. I heard Leader Boehner, evidently there's some Republican interest in raising the retirement age. Some of these things have to be put on the table. The American people expect it, and they continue to watch a Washington that is broken, that Todd wrote so well about, I think will hurt my party in the fall if we don't begin to do some of these things.
MR. GREGORY: Well, we're going to get to Todd's piece, but Congressman Pence, I mean, this is the tension that I got out with Leader Bennett-- Boehner. Republicans want more tax cuts. It seems to me they acknowledge that they are not paid for, and yet, at the same time, they want tax cuts, but they're so worried about the deficit. How do you resolve that tension?
FMR. REP. HAROLD FORD JR. (D-TN): Well, I think the, the way you resolve it is you focus on jobs. I got to tell you, when I'm home in Muncie, Indiana, people are asking the question, "Where are the jobs?" I mean, we have more than 14 million Americans unemployed. National unemployment is 9.5 percent. Clearly, the economic policies of this administration, however well intentioned, have failed. And we've got to do something different. And it's not, it's not just about preserving the tax relief of 2001 and 2003, David. It is, it is also about beginning to embrace the kind of spending discipline and reform that will...
MR. GREGORY: But, Congressman, you're asking Americans to...
REP. MIKE PENCE (R-IN): ...that will restore confidence to markets.
MR. GREGORY: ...to believe the Republicans will have spending discipline when you're saying extend the tax cuts that aren't paid for and cut the deficit. How is that a consistent, credible message?
REP. PENCE: Well, I understand the credibility problem, David. You know that during the first six years of this decade, I spent most of my time fighting against runaway spending under Republicans. I opposed No Child Left Behind, I opposed the Medicare prescription drug bill, I opposed the Wall Street bailout. What the American people are starting to see is that Republican, Republicans on Capitol Hill get it and the Democrats, from the White House to Capitol Hill, just don't get. You just heard Carol Browner here on the show say that they're, they're intending, I think she said "possibly" to use the lame duck session to pass a national energy tax. I mean, that, that is, that is outrageous. What the American people know is necessary to get this economy moving again is get federal spending under control and preserve and promote the kind of policies and taxes that'll, that'll create jobs.
MR. GREGORY: Right. But I just want to be clear. So if you want more tax cuts, you would be very specific in saying how they'd be offset with spending cuts, as well, since they will not be paid for. You acknowledge tax cuts being extended cannot be paid for, it would be borrowed money.
REP. PENCE: Well, no. I, I, I don't acknowledge that. I mean, the reality is that I think it's apples and oranges. It's something that John Boehner was talking to you about. Here in Washington, D.C., they, they talk about tax cuts the same way they talk about spending increases as though the government owned all of the money. They say, "Are they paid for?" Well, I think, I think deciding on a government spending increase is very different on whether or not we allow the American people to keep more of their hard-earned tax dollars. But, as John Boehner just said, the most important thing right now is to get this economy moving again, to create jobs, and to get federal spending under control.
MR. GREGORY: This is, this is...
REP. PENCE: But, Harold, do they -- do Republicans have a problem here?
REP. FORD: They do. This is the only reason that Democrats in my party, we have a fighting chance still, in the fall, of holding majorities in both the House and the Senate. Mike and I are friends, but this argument is not credible. And I think, I think most Americans will listen and say, "Well, you can't have A, B, C, and D and say you don't need B, C, and D. You've got to either say you're going to cut taxes and find some spending cuts." I think we ought to reform long-term entitlement spending in the country, but you can't out of one side of your mouth say, "Yes, we're for tax cuts, we're for spending discipline, and we're for bringing down the debt." Everyone's got to have an adult conversation here, and that's not, that's not happening. Where I do agree with Mike is this, jobs is the issue. And if we find ourselves in late October, early November when the polling places are getting ready to open and close and people don't feel better about the economy, his party's in a pretty good position to win a lot of seats.
MR. GREGORY: Andrea Mitchell, bigger picture here beyond the tax debate. You had Secretary Geithner writing a New York Times editorial saying...
REP. FORD: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...look, we're on a path toward growth. And yet look at the battering that the president's getting over the fact that there are not jobs. And he's out there saying, "Look, we've got to show more progress faster." This is a big problem for Democrats.
MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: It's a big problem for Democrats because nothing is going to happen to really improve the jobs picture before November. It's just not going to happen. That's what we know from these latest data. So, given that, he's got to go on the offense and make a credible political argument and maybe an argument that goes beyond economics and just gets to, I mean, what the White House is saying is, "Let's just beat up on George W. Bush." I'm not sure that's credible so many years after Bush left office. But they can talk about the inheritance, what they came into office with. And the problem that Congressman Ford identified is that all the things that they accomplished are unpopular with most Americans. If you talk about the stimulus package, they have not really persuaded people that it worked because the jobs aren't there, the tangible evidence isn't there. And they, they don't like the bank bailout, even though most experts would tell you that it was necessary, despite the -- how unpopular it is. And Congressman Pence...
MR. GREGORY: And the fact that the bank has to pay the money back, which is also an important fact that's overlooked.
MS. MITCHELL: And that they have paid the money back. Congressman Pence is strongly opposed to it, as he's just, as he's just described. Interesting that the majority-- that the minority leader, Boehner, opened the door on the retirement age. That was a very big opening and one that, that -- I don't know if Congressman Pence agrees with it because some Republicans may want -- not want to follow the leader down that road.
REP. FORD: Do, do you agree with that? Should it be raised to 70?
MS. MITCHELL: Look, I, I think, I think it is absolutely imperative that we, that we address all of the federal budget and have -- and, and I like Harold's comment. We, we miss Democrats like Harold on Capitol Hill these days. Have an adult conversation about domestic spending and about entitlements.
MR. GREGORY: But we keep talking about all these adults conversations.
REP. PENCE: This government, this government has -- Todd's point...
MR. GREGORY: It's a narrow question which is you're either for raising the retirement age or you're not. You can have a childlike conversation about it and just say whether you're for it or not.
REP. PENCE: Yeah. Yeah. Look, look, I am for reforming our public entitlements for Americans who are far away from retirement. We need to keep promises to seniors that have been made...
MR. GREGORY: But put everything on the table.
REP. PENCE: ...make sure that people that -- who are counting on Medicare or Social Security have the benefits they have. But for younger Americans, absolutely yes, we ought to bring...
MR. GREGORY: All right, but put it on...
REP. PENCE: ...we ought to bring real reform for, for the sake of, of future generations of Americans to get spending under control.
MR. GREGORY: Let -- Todd Purdum, let me bring you into this, I want to get to your piece in just a moment. But you know, what we're talking about a lot, whether there's a debt commission that talks about the tough choices that have to be made, is Washington in a position to make some of these really tough choices about taxes, about spending, about other ways to create jobs?
REP. PENCE: Well, it would seem that -- not particularly. I mean, the, the deficit commission's a good example.
MR. GREGORY: Exactly.
MR. TODD PURDUM: That was appointed by President Obama because Congress refused to pass a -- create a commission that would have binding power because of fears on the part of Republicans that it would lead to higher taxes, and on the part of Democrats that it would cut social programs. So the president appointed this advisory commission instead. And Al Simpson and Erskine Bowles are, you know, taking hits that -- you know, they've been working for the past 10 weeks. I, I saw Senator Simpson in Wyoming last week. He said he'd been here once a week for 10 weeks, you know. And the notion that a group of some private citizens have to deal with this issue is, is, is a symptom of what's wrong, I think.
MS. MITCHELL: Do you think, Congressman Pence, that a debt commission will have any teeth? On this program, I heard the head of the Senate re- election committee say, "Well, we want to wait before proposing spending cuts until we see the debt commission." You all have been around a long time. You know what you'd like to cut. You've been against spending for a long time. Do you have specific ideas of what you'd like to see cut to bring the deficit under control?
MR. PURDUM: Look, we, we've got some terrific people on the Republican side working on the debt commission, and they're working in good faith on it. But, but why, why the president imposed a debt commission that wouldn't report until after the election was a bit telling. I mean, the, the Republicans are not going to support an effort to use the debt commission as an excuse to raise taxes, to introduce a value-added tax. But let, let me get to the point, Todd, Todd wrote that provocative article in Vanity Fair about Washington being broken. He talked about the president's effort to transcend politics in Washington. And, and, your, your, your reporting suggested that the president made a concerted effort to reach out to Republicans early on. I got to tell you, this administration hasn't sought to transcend the politics of Washington, D.C. This has been the "my way or the highway" administration. From the stimulus bill forward, Democrats on Capitol Hill and in this administration have slammed the door on Republican ideas, have slammed the door on bipartisan proposals, and, you know -- and again, I just saw on your program again, this morning, the president saying even though we handed the president a book of Republicans solutions in February at our retreat and he acknowledged that we've offered policy alternatives to stimulus, to budget, to energy, to health care, the president's back to that old saw that Republicans have no ideas. And, and I think that's the reason his approval rating is plummeting.
MR. GREGORY: The reason the president appointed the debt commission was because some senators who had supported it...
REP. PENCE: Republican senators...
MS. MITCHELL: ...including mostly Republican senators, abandoned it. So they couldn't pass the legislation which would have a debt commission with teeth.
REP. FORD: Well, I think there's a real concern, though, about, you know, going back to Andrews Air Force base again. What was it, back in 1990 again, all -- everybody gets all worried about, about spending and, and deficits and debt. And all of a sudden, they come back from Andrews Air Force base with a tax increase under George W. Bush and -- or George Herbert Walker Bush, excuse me. I think Republicans are very, very concerned, I think properly, that this, this debt commission pushed into the lame duck after, after the elections is going to be a vehicle to try and raise taxes on the American people...
MS. MITCHELL: This is precisely what...
REP. PENCE: ...which is a profoundly wrong idea.
REP. FORD: This is why Todd's piece is so, so striking because this is what the American people are so upset about. They hear all this insider talk about what you guys are doing, what this guy -- these guys, we're worried about them doing. They just want answers. If you're without a job or you've taken an job where you're making less than you were before, you just want leadership. Now, my party happens to be in the majority, and they will probably end up having to make a stronger defense than Republicans. But you guys have an obligation and a burden to lead as well.
REP. PENCE: Right.
REP. FORD: To say the president hasn't, hasn't reached out to Republicans is just not true. We took the public option out of the healthcare bill in order to win some Republican support. That didn't go very well. On interview, we've taken cap and trade...
REP. PENCE: To win Republican support.
REP. FORD: To win some Republican support because Republicans said they didn't want it in there. We all would agree there's a healthcare crisis -- health insurance crisis. Two, with regard to energy reform that Democrats have taken out the cap and trade title in order to try to win Republican support. That still hasn't worked. The main person they -- the big Republican on the bill, Lindsey Graham, is not only not supporting him, he's now suggesting that we rescind the 14th Amendment all in an effort to try to advance the political conversation about immigration.
REP. PENCE: Let, let, let me get in here because...
REP. FORD: That's wrong. That's wrong.
MR. GREGORY: ...here, without further ado, is actually a portion of the aforementioned Todd Purdum piece in Vanity Fair. This is the spread -- you got a lot of buildup here, now here's the payoff. So here's what you write. "The modern presidency-- Barack Obama's presidency-- has become a job of such gargantuan size, speed, and complexity as to be all but unrecognizable to most of the previous chief executives. The sheer growth of the federal government, the paralysis of Congress, the systemic corruption brought on by lobbying, the trivialization of the `news'" by the "media have made today's Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place. They have shaped and at times hobbled the presidency itself."
REP. FORD: Well, I think that's probably, you know, almost stating the obvious at some level. One of the, one of the challenges of doing this piece was to find a way to get at some of these problems that are reflected in the daily news coverage, but not really, but not really explored. And I think, you know, the Obama top team all talks about the speed and the sort of velocity that happens here. You know, I covered the White House 15 years ago, and I, I confess that the origin of this piece is when I would go to the briefing early on in the Obama administration, the daily press briefing, I found it -- I couldn't imagine trying to work in the White House or cover a White House in this modern media environment, particularly where everything moves so quickly and everything rises to the top every hour, regardless of its importance, just because it's new.
MR. GREGORY: And the question of redistricting as well, Andrea, where you've got House members who are in increasingly safe districts around the country and where there's really not much of a premium put on compromise.
MR. PURDUM: No premium at all put on compromise. You've never had, not only in the House, but particularly in the Senate, a group that is less motivated. Because they're worried about the wings -- of primary challenges on their wings, they're less motivated to work in the middle. The kind of people that you now see talking about the debt commission, Erskine Bowles and Al Simpson, used to work together and still try to work together. But you don't, in- -and particularly in the Senate, have any motivation to try to work on legislative solutions there.
MR. GREGORY: I've got to do two things very quickly. Congressman Pence, the issue of Charlie Rangel. There does not appear to be a deal that's moving forward, and, and there are some reports that Republicans want to see an ethics trial go forward. What is your view on whether he ought to step down on his seat at this point or pursue a trial?
MS. MITCHELL: If the allegations against Charlie Rangel are true, he should step down from Congress. But only Charlie Rangel knows if that's the case. We're in the trial phase right now. The opportunity for a settlement when two Republicans and two Democrats on the subcommittee were examining these charges, it has gone by the boards. And, and I really do believe that we ought to let, let Charlie Rangel have his day in court and let the process work.
MR. GREGORY: Harold, there's a lot of pressure on him from the White House down. What's the talk up in New York City?
REP. PENCE: In New York, he continues to enjoy support from big and important quarters. He had a birthday party last night, which I understand Mayor Bloomberg said he was going to attend. I don't know if he did attend or not.
MR. GREGORY: A lot of other supporters did not go.
REP. FORD: And some, some others did not go. I think Mike's about right on this. If, if Charlie Rangel, whom I've known a very, very long time, wants to have a trial and defend himself, he has every right to do that. We should not ignore the fact this will -- this certainly has a political impact. I think it contributes to the, the, the narrative that people, or that thinking people, have about Washington that it's just not working. And I can only hope that what -- if it happens that it happens quickly.
MR. GREGORY: Andrea...
REP. FORD: Actually, though, David, real quickly, on this point of Washington not working, the, the, the problems of this administration are not because of the media, they're not because of lobbyists, they're certainly not because of decisive Republican minorities on Capitol Hill. The problems of this administration is this administration and Democrats in Washington are not listening to the American people. On the stimulus, on the national energy tax, on Obamacare, they have rolled over the will of the majority of the American people again and again and again.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Well, that's, that's, that's a...
REP. PENCE: And they're -- and now they're blaming the messengers for that.
MR. GREGORY: OK. I want to move on, otherwise that's, obviously, a debatable point to, to, to post around the table. But I do -- Andrea, I want to talk about Afghanistan. Some horrific deaths of aid workers, their bodies coming back to America just earlier today, including from Afghanistan-- excuse me -- Tom Little, who was a doctor who was working over there. These were aid workers who went out in a very dangerous part of the country in the north and were apparently killed by the Taliban. This is a tough story to watch and just underscores how dangerous the country is.
REP. PENCE: It's horrific, and the fact that the Taliban in the north felt empowered to go after these workers. Until now, the real threat was in the south, and perhaps the Taliban are being pushed north, the, the threat is going north. The fact is, Richard Engel, our own chief foreign correspondent, reported last night on " Nightly News" that he talked to Dr. Karen Woo, to one of those workers, one of those doctors, and she came to the NBC bureau and wanted to bring a camera with her. So it's...
MR. GREGORY: But they thought it was just too dangerous. Yeah.
MS. MITCHELL: And this is exactly what, what Hillary Clinton has been trying to do. More civilian projects...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. MITCHELL: ...not viable.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Thank you very much. We'll leave it there. We'll be right back.
MS. MITCHELL: That is all for today. Next Sunday, a special edition of MEET THE PRESS from Afghanistan. I will be there to speak with General David Petraeus for his first interview since taking command there. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.