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MR. GREGORY: Good morning. The president returned last night from his six-day European trip and leaves the White House again this morning to travel to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri, where he will visit with survivors and family members of that terrible storm. It hit a week ago and has left devastation all throughout the area; more than 120 people dead, more than 100 still missing.
Here in Washington, meantime, no break this Memorial Day weekend from the intense debate over the budget, overhauling Medicare, and the upcoming vote on increasing the debt ceiling. All of this, of course, as the fast approaching 2012 presidential election year makes the climate in Congress even more contentious.
Here this morning to tackle those issues and more, two key Senate leaders from each side of the aisle: the Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and from the other side of the aisle, the senior senator from New York, Chuck Schumer. We will begin here in the studio with the leader of the Republicans in the Senate.
Senator McConnell, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
SEN. McCONNELL: Good morning.
MR. GREGORY: I want to show you the scene from upstate New York, that special House selection. Kathy Hochul prevailed. And this is the scene which she won. The chant was "Medicare, Medicare." This was a key issue based on how the Republicans are trying to overhaul Medicare. And the question is this, has this become the new third rail of American politics, touch it and you get burned?
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, look, you know, we have had a regularly scheduled election in our country every two years since 1788 right on time. We're about a year and a half ahead of the next one. And at critical points throughout our history when we've really had to step up to the plate and tackle big issues, we've done it in spite of the fact that in America there's always an election coming up.
Where are we? Well, we know that the co-chairman of the president's deficit reduction commission, Erskine Bowles, said that this is the most predictable crisis heading our way, that's our debt and deficit, the most predictable crisis in American history. We know the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked what was the biggest national security threat to the United States, said the debt and deficit was our biggest threat. It's time to act, David, regardless of the election a year and a half from now. And, you know, the president, to his credit, is at the table through the discussions with the vice president and members of the House and Senate over the issue that is confronting our country. Look, Standard & Poors recently sent us a warning signal they're about to downgrade the credit rating of the United States. We have a $14 trillion deficit--debt the size of our economy, which makes us look like Greece; and, by the way, $50 trillion-plus in unfunded liabilities and popular entitlement programs.
MR. GREGORY: The problem is huge, and the entitlement program...
SEN. McCONNELL: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: ...is really the heart of it. But I ask the same question, which is, is Medicare the third rail? Look, you said, reportedly, to the speaker of the House John Boehner, "I wouldn't push this Ryan proposal because poetical it's going to hurt the party."
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, I don't know where that quote came from. But the point is, what are we going to do about the problem? We, we know that--what--let's--oh, you want to talk about Medicare? The president says Medicare needs to be on the table, the vice president says Medicare needs to be on the table. Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, says Medicare needs to be on the table. It is on the table in the discussions related to the debt ceiling. So...
MR. GREGORY: But not in its current form. If it passes...
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, look, we're...
MR. GREGORY: ...as part of the debt ceiling vote...
SEN. McCONNELL: The Democrats...
MR. GREGORY: ...it's got to be different, does it not, than the Ryan plan?
SEN. McCONNELL: As you pointed out from my comments in the lead-in, the Democrats have no plan at all. We had, we had four votes in the Senate this week...
MR. GREGORY: Fair enough. But, leader, my question is if there's going to be a deal on the debt ceiling on Medicare reform...
SEN. McCONNELL: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: ...would you concede it's got to look a lot different than the Ryan plan?
SEN. McCONNELL: No! I--it's on the table. We're going to discuss what ought to be done. Everybody agrees something ought to be done, except the Democrats in the Senate, who have no plan at all.
MR. GREGORY: But you're not even...
SEN. McCONNELL: We had four...
MR. GREGORY: ...you haven't even said publicly whether you're for the Ryan plan. So you're not behind that version of Medicare reform.
SEN. McCONNELL: I voted for the--I, I voted for the Ryan budget this week.
MR. GREGORY: You didn't whip up your colleagues, though. You didn't try to get additional support.
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, we, we had, we had competing versions in the Senate. Senator Toomey, a Republican senator in the Senate, had a plan. Senator Paul had a plan. The only people who didn't vote for any plan at all--we--by the way, we had a vote on the president's budget, didn't get a single solitary vote. Not a single Democratic senator voted for the president's budget.
MR. GREGORY: Fair--but do you support Ryan's reforms?
SEN. McCONNELL: And the guy, the guy that you're going to have on after me thinks that all we're doing right now is positioning for the 2012 election. What about the country? What about the next generation, not the next election?
MR. GREGORY: I'm just trying to understand where you are particularly on how to change Medicare so...
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, let me tell you.
MR. GREGORY: You're not--you don't believe that the Ryan plan is the basis of where you're going get agreement.
SEN. McCONNELL: I, I voted for the Ryan budget this week.
MR. GREGORY: But do you believe it's really the big--because it failed.
SEN. McCONNELL: What I'm not going to do...
MR. GREGORY: It's not going anywhere.
SEN. McCONNELL: ...is negotiate the deal with you, David, with all due respect. The president of the United States, the only person in America who can sign a bill into law, is at the table through the vice president, and we are discussing a package that will begin to deal with deficit and debt in connection...
MR. GREGORY: But, leader, I'm not asking you to negotiate. I'm just asking you to help in the interest of what I assume you want, which is building some kind of political consensus around reform. Having a discussion publicly on television like this and saying, what are the contours of that that could actually get some Democratic support?
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, this is not the place to do that. The place to do it is in the discussions with the one individual out of 307 million Americans who can sign a bill into law. And those discussions are under way, and I can assure you, David, that to get my vote to raise the debt ceiling, for whatever that's worth, my one vote, Medicare will be a part of it. The details of that are yet to be negotiated with the guy who can sign something into law.
MR. GREGORY: But do you have to keep the basis of the Medicare program in place? Is that your view? Because that's not what Ryan is proposing. And then you could do other things.
SEN. McCONNELL: And no matter how many times you ask me to, to kind of craft what the Medicare fix should be like, I'm not going to give that answer to you today because that's a subject to be negotiated with the president of the United States.
MR. GREGORY: But do you understand that the currents here in the Republican Party--when Newt Gingrich was on this program and called Ryan's plan right-wing social engineering, conservatives flocked to his aid and said, "No, no, the Ryan plan is a litmus test for conservatives in America." What you're saying is not that. You voted for it, but you didn't rally your colleagues behind it and it failed. So there seems to be a split in the party about what it is should constitute actual reform.
SEN. McCONNELL: Actually, there's very little split in the party at all. We all know Medicare's going to change. It's got to change. David, the trustees of Medicare and Social Security, who are appointed by the president of the United States, that includes some members of his own Cabinet, just said a couple of weeks ago that Medicare's going broke. The one thing we know we can't do is nothing. And our Democratic friends in the Senate have no plan at all. The president, to his credit, is at the table discussing with us the way in which you save Medicare. Medicare is going down. Doing nothing is not a plan. And we're going to negotiate the contours of the plan in these negotiations. I'm personally very comfortable with the way Paul Ryan would structure it in the out years. But we have a Democratic president. We're going to have to negotiate with him on the terms of changing Medicare so we can save Medicare.
MR. GREGORY: Are you confident that the debt ceiling will ultimately be raised?
SEN. McCONNELL: I'm confident that unless we do something really significant about debt and deficit, it's not going to be raised. It's not going to get my vote unless we deal with the problem raised by the request of the president to raise the debt ceiling. In other words...
MR. GREGORY: Does Medicare--is it...
SEN. McCONNELL: This is, this is an opportunity.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
SEN. McCONNELL: You know, rather than play scare tactics about what if and, you know, what if you do this or what if you do that, the point is use this opportunity to come together on a bipartisan basis like Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did in 1983 to save Social Security for another generation. They came together, made an important adjustment--and, by the way, the--you know, all this talk about next year's election, after participating in raising the age limit for Social Security, Reagan the next year carried 49 out of 50 states. Anything we agree to do together, David, will not be an issue in next year's election. But this is about the future of the country.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
SEN. McCONNELL: Not about the election a year and a half from now.
MR. GREGORY: Let's ask about taxes. This is an area where Democrats and Republicans do not see eye to eye.
SEN. McCONNELL: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: And Republicans have been adamant that there aren't going to be any tax hikes as part of a global deal, a broad deal to bring the, the, the deficit down and to bring the, the budget into balance. Former President Clinton spoke this week about this issue, and suggested that that Republican hard-line seems to defy the, the course of history. This is what he said.
FMR. PRES. BILL CLINTON: The, the idea that the lower the tax rates are, the better everything'll be has been debunked now for 30 years both in positive terms when I was president, and in negative terms by quadrupling the debt once and then doubling it again. So, I mean, how many times do we have to see this movie before we know how it ends?
MR. GREGORY: Response?
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, you know, in that same appearance he also said that Medicare should be a part of the discussion and the Democrats should face up to it, as the president and vice president have.
MR. GREGORY: Yes, he did. But I'm asking you to respond to this piece.
SEN. McCONNELL: Yeah, look, you know, we just have a fundamental difference of opinion. If there's any issue which clearly divides Republicans and Democrats, it's taxes. We think we have this problem because we spend too much, not because we tax too little. And you've heard us have this debate over the years, we're going to have it again next year in the course of the election because the president wants the rates to go up again next year. We've got a two-year extension of current tax rates right now. I think we can stipulate this is an issue upon which there is deep-seated difference of opinion.
MR. GREGORY: But--so here's, here's the issue that I, that I keep coming back to, which is aren't you Republican leaders guilty of the same thing that you accuse the president of on health care, which is not doing enough to build actual political consensus around these issues? If you're not going to give anything up on taxes but you want to bring the deficit down, you say, no, these are iron-clad principles. I mean, that's where the--you said the president was on health care. How do we, how do we tackle real problems?
SEN. McCONNELL: But that's not where they are on, on the issue we were talking about earlier in the program. You've got the president, the vice president, President Clinton, Steny Hoyer all saying that Medicare has to change. So they're--that's not something we don't agree on. We're going to, we're going to discuss...
MR. GREGORY: That's a long way from changing the Medicare program the way Paul Ryan wants to.
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, we're going to discuss how to do it. But what we're saying on taxes is it isn't necessary. I mean, we don't have this problem because we tax too little.
MR. GREGORY: Can I ask you two quick ones? Elizabeth Warren, who is supposed to head up this consumer bureau...
SEN. McCONNELL: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: ...the president's appointment to do that, would you back her, or would you join Republicans who--to block her nomination?
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, we're pretty unenthusiastic about the possibility of Elizabeth Warren. We're pretty unenthusiastic, frankly, about this new agency, and we've sent a letter to the president saying that some changes need to made--be made in the CFPB, the Consumer Financial Protection Board, because as it's currently constituted, it answers to no one and, I think, could be a serious threat to our financial system.
MR. GREGORY: And what about politics? You have said that the big goal of the Republicans is to make this president a one-term president.
SEN. McCONNELL: Of course.
MR. GREGORY: Yet 22 percent of those polled indicate they've got no preference for any Republican running. Is not having a clear nominee a good thing, a bad thing or a normal thing?
SEN. McCONNELL: You know what I'm reminded of in--how the Jimmy Carter White House was thinking in '79 and '80, they were pulling for Ronald Reagan. They thought he was too extreme and too old. And surely if he was the nominee, they'd be just fine. Somebody's going to get on a winning streak here on our side. And when you start winning, people start paying attention. This is going to be an extremely competitive contest for the president next year.
MR. GREGORY: And what impact will Sarah Palin have if she becomes a nominee?
SEN. McCONNELL: She'll go out there and compete like all the rest of them. It's going to be fun to watch.
MR. GREGORY: Maybe I'll just go back to asking you about Medicare. Senator, thank you very much.
SEN. McCONNELL: Thank you.
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