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CNBC "Squawk Box" Interview - Transcript


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MR. HARWOOD: McCain supporter Representative Eric Cantor, and Obama McCain co-chair and energy adviser Federico Pena are here with us.

So, Representative Cantor, you just heard John McCain. Is Wall Street to blame? Are they the villain in the economic difficulties we're having right now?

REP. CANTOR: Look, I think there's enough blame to go around for everybody. But I also think that Senator McCain just mentioned that it's a Washington-created problem. I mean, some of the issues surrounding the latest housing crisis and the housing finance crisis is a lack of oversight and a lack of transparency insisted upon by the Congress.

MR. HARWOOD: Isn't your guy the Washington candidate?

REP. CANTOR: Well, I think John McCain has certainly earned his stripes in terms of being the advocate for reform here in Washington. He has consistently been on the side of taxpayers, whether it comes for fiscal discipline, fighting against pork-barrel spending or changing the way this town works. That's what John McCain's been about ever since he's been here. And I think that's what his explanation would be as to why we find ourselves in the straits that we do, not only in terms of the lack of confidence on the part of global investors and the credit markets, but the housing situation here in this country; that a lot of it has to do with the inaction and the lack of oversight by Congress as well as, frankly, the imperative that we put some transparency into the regulatory system overseeing some of these agencies.

MR. HARWOOD: Congressman, I want to follow up and ask you a question about something else that Senator McCain said in his interview with George Stephanopoulos that's drawing a lot of attention, unfavorable attention, from conservatives. And that is that everything would be on the table in discussions with Democrats about fixing Social Security, including the possibility of a payroll tax increase.

Now, earlier in the campaign he seemed to have unequivocally ruled out accepting tax increases of any kind, but he was very clear in talking to George Stephanopoulos that those remained on the table. Has your candidate flip-flopped on taxes? And what does that mean for his support on the right?

REP. CANTOR: No, I don't think he's flip-flopped on taxes. There is only one candidate in this race that has come out very clearly in favor of hiking the payroll tax, and that's Barack Obama. I think that if you listen to what John McCain said to George Stephanopoulos last Sunday, I think what he was trying to demonstrate is that he is the kind of person that has a track record of reaching across the political aisle so that he can engage in good-faith negotiations. But I do not think that he supports -- would he support an increase in the payroll tax. And, you know --

MR. HARWOOD: But if he said it's on the table, that means he might support it.

REP. CANTOR: Well, again, I think that this was -- you know, I think that the spirit of that conversation was such that he wanted to demonstrate that there is a credibility on his part that he has -- he has with members of Congress on the other side of the aisle that he will sit down for good-faith negotiations. But he has never been in support of hiking taxes. He has said repeatedly that that is not the way to bring the economy back, that is not the way to continue to inspire confidence in terms of investment in America's economy and to result in productivity.

But if you look at where Barack Obama is, he has not had a single position, nor has he taken a single vote separate and apart from his party. So how in the world can somebody like that come and be the type of leader that will be able to craft a compromise, that will be able to provide solutions to the very, very difficult economic challenges that America and its families are facing today?

MR. HARWOOD: Secretary Pena, are you happy that Senator McCain seems to be coming to that payroll tax party that Barack Obama wants to throw?

MR. PENA: Well, what I'm unhappy about is the congressman's distortion of Senator Obama's record, and even Senator McCain's record. And the reason, Congressman, that Wall Street is uncomfortable with Senator McCain is because he has completely changed his position on taxes.

You'll recall, because you were there, that Senator McCain was against the tax cuts that President Bush proposed for the wealthy. And he said it was unconscionable to have those tax cuts, particularly when we were at a time of war. Now that he's a candidate for president, he's completely changed his position and now said he wants to continue the tax cuts for the wealthy, which, by the way, will result in a furtherance of the deficit, which is now almost half a a trillion dollars.

And by the way, when we left the administration in the year 2000 under President Clinton -- and I ran two departments -- we eliminated the deficit and were beginning to reduce the debt. Now the deficit is way up, the debt is way up, and the policies that President Bush has implemented have not worked, and Senator McCain is now for them.

Now, what does Senator Barack Obama stand for? Tax cuts for middle-class Americans. He's been very clear for that. He's said that if you're a senior citizen and you're retired and you're making less than $50,000, you shouldn't get a tax increase or even a tax bite at all. He has been talking about supporting the middle class. And yes, he believes that very wealthy people that make over $250,000 a year ought not to have the tax cuts that President Bush has recommended, which has helped cause this, have this $500 billion deficit.

So let's be consistent here. And let's be fair to the positions of Senator Obama and let's be honest and transparent about inconsistency of Senator McCain.

MR. HARWOOD: Gentlemen, it's not just John, Becky, Joe and me here. We also have Ron Allen, the former head of Delta, who's got some questions for you as well.


MR. ALLEN: Good morning, gentlemen. Congressman, good to see you. Mr. Secretary, good to see you again.

REP. CANTOR: Good morning.

MR. PENA: Hi, Ron. Good to see you again.

MR. ALLEN: We've spent a lot of time together over the years --

MR. PENA: Enjoyed it.

MR. ALLEN: -- when you were head of the Transportation Department.

Obviously, this is a very political year, being an election year. A lot of campaign promises are being made. Many of those will not be kept. They are being made many times to get votes.

Let me take you beyond the election, however. After the election, if your candidate is the next president of the United States, will he commit to convene an energy summit bringing all the key players together, including government, including business, the private sector, to address this issue of energy, putting everything on the table, nuclear, oil, solar, and everything, and come up with a timetable for reducing our dependence -- not just reducing our dependence on foreign oil, but achieving independence for America?

MR. PENA: Ron, the answer is yes, and Senator Obama's been very clear about that. In fact, the CEO of General Motors was at one of the economic panels that I participated in with Senator Obama back in Pittsburgh. And so his approach to this is to -- as we stated earlier, he wants to invest in clean coal technology, he's willing to keep the nuclear option open, but we've got to get serious about investing in alternative energy, alternative fuels, clean investments and get us off the use of foreign oil and finally getting us down a path of energy independence.

So yes, the senator is very open to bringing people in, getting the best ideas, and he himself has been very specific about his strategy and actually reducing the 20-something million barrels of oil we use every day in this country by the year 2020 in a very specific fashion.

MR. HARWOOD: Congressman Cantor?

REP. CANTOR: Ron, I think the -- you know, again, it's very clear which candidate has already put on the table a timetable. John McCain has said 2025 should be our goal to achieve American energy independence.

I think the most important difference, though, in this energy debate is John McCain has put forward his Lexington Project. And part of that is to try and address the immediate concern that is gripping our economy, that's battering American families, and those are high fuel prices, just as your industry is reeling --

MR. HARWOOD: Congressman --

REP. CANTOR: -- from the increased costs. And that means we've got to go and focus on increasing American energy supply now, which starts with drilling offshore.

MR. HARWOOD: Congressman --

REP. CANTOR: John McCain has come out in favor of that --

MR. HARWOOD: On that note -- on that note --

REP. CANTOR: -- and Barack Obama has said he wouldn't go there.

MR. HARWOOD: We'll tie it up there. We've got to move on. A lot going on today. Appreciate you both being with us, Mr. Secretary and Congressman Cantor.


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