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CNN "State Of The Union With John King" - Transcript

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KING: The president didn't name names there, but that State of the Union message -- some called it a lecture -- was aimed at our next guest, the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Senator, welcome.

MCCONNELL: Glad to be here, John.

KING: To that point, the president essentially called you out in the State of the Union address, saying, if you have 41 votes, as you will have in just a few short weeks, in the United States Senate, you have a responsibility to join him in governing.

So let's go through some of the issues. You just heard the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, talking about the jobs bill. He thinks that, after a year of pretty hyper-partisanship, that might be a place where Democrats and Republicans can sit down and write a bill.

Do you share that optimism?

MCCONNELL: Well, look, as long as it creates jobs, we're willing to take a look at it. And we were responsible for governing before we got 41 votes. We didn't come here just to do nothing. The president, however, the charts the course. And unfortunately, he chose to go really hard left, and it made it very difficult for him to build any kind of bipartisan consensus in the Senate or the House. And it's silly talk about having no ideas. I mean, we've heard that ad nauseum for over a year. He knows that's not true. He admitted it at the House Republican meeting on Friday. KING: So when it comes to a jobs bill, you heard Robert Gibbs talk about tax cuts, tax credits. Was the shape of what he described to your liking or would you need to go knock on the White House door and say, no, we need to do this?

MCCONNELL: Well, we're certainly...

KING: About 100 -- is that the right price tag?

MCCONNELL: Well, we're willing to take a look at it. It hasn't officially come out yet, so it's, kind of, hard to prejudge it, but we're looking at something to create jobs.

I mean, so far this administration has done best -- what it's done best is spend, borrow and tax, and the unemployment's gone up.

We all have a responsibility to seriously grapple with the question of how do you get jobs created again?

And two things that we know would help -- businesses aren't hiring now in part because they're looking at health care taxes, if this health care bill passes. And one big step would be to put this health care bill on the shelf. The NPR poll last week...

KING: Put it on the shelf? Not this year?

MCCONNELL: Put it on the shelf, go back and start over. That would be a great relief to American business looking at health care taxes. We know the public is overwhelmingly against the bill. In the NPR poll last week, 20-point difference. Twenty percent more oppose the bill than support it.

Put the health care bill on the shelf; indicate that you're not going to allow all of the tax relief that is supposed to expire at the end of this calendar year to expire. That's not a reassuring message.

KING: As to the Bush tax cuts expire, there is not a -- you don't see a chance or a prayer that the Democratic president who campaigned on any of the Bush taxes -- he's not going to keep those in place?

MCCONNELL: I think he probably isn't, which mean, if you're a business now and you're trying to figure out what the future is; you're looking at health care taxes; you're looking at capital gain taxes going up, dividend taxes going up; if you're a small business and pay taxes as an individual taxpayer, your taxes are going up.

So is that a great environment in which to expand employment? I think the answer is no. I hope this productivity figure that we saw in the fourth quarter is the precursor of things to come. What it could be, however, is that businesses are getting more productivity out of the same number of employees because they are fearful of the tax increases that are coming this year.

KING: Well, let's talk about your side of the equation. Robert Gibbs just complained about it and the president mentioned it in his Saturday radio address.

He says there was a proposal. It was sponsored by one Democrat and one Republican. It would create a commission that would spend a few months studying how can we cut federal spending, maybe even propose tax increases; find some way to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Now, it then failed last week on a vote in the Senate. And here's the president's complaint.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: This past week, 53 Democrats and Republicans voted for this commission in the Senate, but it failed when seven Republicans who had cosponsored this idea in the first place suddenly decided to vote against it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, we want to show on our screen the seven Republicans who were cosponsors but then withdrew their cosponsorship and voted against it: the Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Crapo of Idaho, John Ensign of Nevada, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, John McCain of Arizona, Robert Bennett of Utah.

If this was such a good idea that they would cosponsor it -- this is what comes up, Senator McConnell, in my travels all the time. People say, why do they always just play politics in Washington? Is this just politics, as the president says, or if it was the same proposal six months ago when they cosponsored it, what was wrong with it last week when a Democratic president wanted it?

MCCONNELL: Well, what was wrong with it last year? I mean, I discussed this very issue with the president right after he came to office, and with his chief of staff, never could get a commitment out of him.

In the meantime, we've seen a year, now, in which we've been on a spending binge. They passed a budget that doubled the national debt in five years and tripled it in 10. There's a lot of skepticism now about whether -- and the president endorses this commission a couple of days before the vote. Where was he a year ago when we were talking to him about it?

KING: But why should that...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Why should that matter? Why should that matter?

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Because I want to go back to your point. I'm sorry for interrupting. I want to go back to your point.

Why should that matter? Yes, the president endorsed it because of political pressure, without a doubt. Democratic senators went to the White House and said, we will not vote to increase the debt ceiling unless you help us out here.

But if it was a good idea, why should -- let's say the president's playing politics. But if it's a good idea, why not vote for it?

Because you were here several months ago and you said it was a great idea.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCONNELL: The Gregg-Conrad proposal would basically set up a base -- a closing-type approach, where you appoint of commission that would come up with a solution, come to the Congress with an up or down vote, which would guarantee a result. That's something we can have a bipartisan approach on. I'm in favor of that kind of a move to give us the ability to tackle one of our long-term deficit problems.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And yet, you voted...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: And yet you voted no.

MCCONNELL: Well, let me tell you an even -- the Conrad-Gregg commission was not the only commission proposed the other day. We also had a spending reduction commission, the same kind of mechanism, but targeted at getting spending down.

The American people are appalled by the amount of money we have been spending this year. And I think a more targeted way to do the same kind of commission approach was with the Brownback proposal that we all voted -- many of us voted on last week. I just think that's a better way to go.

I still like the commission idea...

KING: A better way for Republicans in an election year because it would take some tax increases off the table?

MCCONNELL: Democrats -- Democrats, as well. Look, nobody thinks raising taxes in the middle of a recession is a good idea. Have you ever heard anybody say that? I don't think so.

We're in the middle of a recession. We've got 10 percent unemployment. This commission would have made it possible to raise taxes, if you target the spending problem. Look, I don't think anybody in the country thinks we have a problem because we tax too little. I think the problem is we spend too much. So I like the commission idea, just as I said a few months ago. I think a better way to do it is to target spending, a spending reduction commission. KING: Quick break, and we'll be back with the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. We'll discuss his view of whether the terror trial should be held in New York City or whether those terror suspects should be put on trial in the military justice system. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're back with the Republican leader in the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

You heard the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, say a few moments ago that he believes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be executed. He will meet his maker, he said. But there is a big debate about where this trial will take place and what form this trial will take.

Mr. Gibbs would not commit. The plan is to try him in a federal court system in New York City at the moment. They are looking for another venue, I was trying to get him to say, will it be in a federal courthouse, and he never firmly said yes.

Where do you think this will take place?

MCCONNELL: The only time this administration ever cites the previous administration for a precedent is to mention that there was some terrorists tried in U.S. courts. We now know that was a mistake. That was a mistake by the previous administration.

The other mistake they made that shouldn't be replicated by this administration is letting too many people go from Guantanamo. What should we do? Three years ago we passed a military commissions legislation for the specific purpose of trying foreigners captured on the battlefield.

They ought to be tried in these military commissions. They also ought to be detained at Guantanamo. I think, John, any community in America is going to object in the same way that New York finally did to these people being put on trial in the United States in civilian courts.

KING: If you ask the White House about this, it highlights -- they say it's not just the president, it's not just Attorney General Holder, that General David Petraeus says he believes a public trial at a federal courthouse is the best way to do it so that it's not an al Qaeda recruiting tool.

That Secretary Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration at the Defense Department, also they believes a trial in the federal court system is preferable to a closed trial in the military commission. And that the CIA operatives leading the fight against these guys in Yemen, in Somalia, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, also believe that if you did it in a closed setting in a military commission it would be a powerful recruiting tool.

If General Petraeus, Secretary Gates, and the intelligence leaders say, do it in court, why do you say that's a bad idea?

MCCONNELL: I simply disagree and so do the American people.

Look, Guantanamo is -- it was not there before they started attacking us in the '90s, before they attacked us on 9/11. Osama bin Laden did not mention Guantanamo in his last video. What we need to do is deny these people a show trial. We need to proceed to interrogate them, which you couldn't do obviously with the Christmas bomber.

I mean, Larry King would have a more thorough interrogation of one of his witnesses than the Christmas bomber had by the Justice Department. This is really dangerous nonsense. We have a way to do it, John. Interrogate them, detain them, and try them in military commissions offshore at Guantanamo from which no one has ever escaped.

The American people think that's the best way to do it. Most of the legal experts that we talk to think it's the best way to do it.

KING: And if the administration continues to say, bring them somewhere in the United States, and put them on trial in a federal courthouse, your power to stop them would be to deny the funding. Would you stand up and say, Mr. President, I'm sorry, bad idea, you are not getting the money?

MCCONNELL: Yes, absolutely. And I think that will be done on a bipartisan basis. And the sooner the administration figures out that whatever domestic support they had for this is totally collapsing.

KING: Let me ask you, lastly, your newest member, Scott Brown, will join you in about 11 days. I believe he things he will be sworn in around the 11th. He gave an interview this morning on ABC in which he described himself as a big tent Republican, open to a lot of ideas.

You know he is going on the ballot in two years in my home state of Massachusetts where you have to be perhaps a little less conservative than a senator from Kentucky, or a senator from South Carolina. How is that going to work out in your caucus?

And when you met with him, did he tell you, Senator, I'm with you on the taxes, I'm with you on spending, but on this issue or that issue, I'm going to have to work with the president?

MCCONNELL: Yes. I mean, he emphasized to me exactly what he said publicly. He is going to be an independent voice for Massachusetts. We expect that. You know, Republicans from the Northeast are not exactly like Republicans from the South or the West. We understand that.

We have a big tent party. And we're thrilled to have him. And I know that he will be an aggressive advocate for the people of Massachusetts, and support us - the rest of us, when he thinks it's appropriate. KING: It's an interesting year. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, always been a friend of this program, i thank you for that. I hope you will be in the days ahead. And maybe you will see me on the night time as well.

Up next, we get a candid assessment of the political climate from an outspoken Democrat.

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