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CNN "The Situation Room" Transcript: Agenda for 113th Congress

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BLITZER: He's a standout among the new members of the 113th Congress, and his fellow Democrats have now picked him to lead their freshman caucus.

Talking about the newly elected representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, who is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Congressman, first of all, congratulations.

You're president of the freshman class.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Thank you. Yes, along with a few other colleagues. And so our class is a wonderful one, very diverse, the most diverse in the history of the United States, so very excited.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: A lot of us remember the keynote address at the convention the brother gave. You introduced him.

CASTRO: True, yes.

BLITZER: So, you're here in Washington. What is your top legislative priority?

CASTRO: Well, for me, it's going to be education reform, making sure that we graduate more students from high school and that we get them on to college.

But I mean, for the nation, making sure that we get the country's finances in order, also taking up comprehensive immigration reform and later, as the president said, gun safety and gun control.

BLITZER: You're involved in all those issues. But education, how are you going to do that? Make sure more kids graduate from high school?

CASTRO: Well, you know, in Texas, I was vice chair of the higher education committee in the legislature, and I concentrated, really, on two areas that are overlooked.

First, reforming our college advising system. We rely on counselors now. It really is an anachronistic method. In Texas, for example, the ratio of counselors to students is 1 to 420. So a lot of people fall through the cracks.

The second one is developmental remedial ed. That really is the graveyard of higher education of making sure that we streamline the system so that more people get to the finish line.

BOLDUAN: May be a steep climb in this age of divided government.

CASTRO: True.

BOLDUAN: But a very good agenda to have on the top of your list. This is an exciting start of your term. You're just coming in, your first time in THE SITUATION ROOM. Welcome.

What does the president, when you look at the president, if we had you back maybe at the end of your first term, what do you want to make sure that the president has worked on with you to accomplish in your first term?

CASTRO: Sure.

BOLDUAN: Because he has been criticized in his own first term for not keeping some of his promises, like immigration reform.

CASTRO: Sure. Well, absolutely. I think that we've knocked out by the end of 2013 comprehensive immigration reform.

BOLDUAN: You think it will happen?

CASTRO: I believe it will. There's incredible momentum, particularly after the election, I think from both parties. I would be very surprised and disappointed if something has not happened on immigration by December 31, 2013.

BLITZER: It would be pretty amazing, when you think about that the former president, George W. Bush. He had the support not only of Ted Kennedy but John McCain, a lot of Democrats. He couldn't get it done.

So what makes you think that this president can get it done, given the divided Senate and House -- the Republicans -- the nature of a dysfunctional Washington, if you will?

CASTRO: Well, I think the results of the November 6 election. But also public statements by politicians in both parties, Democrats and Republicans. And also by the pundits. And by the American people. If you look at surveys, people want to finally take this issue on. The fact is, there are three or four or five major American industries that would not exist the way they do but for undocumented labor, and it's time we do something about it.

BOLDUAN: Let me ask you -- don't need to remind you. Democrats are in the minority again this session...

CASTRO: You don't need to remind me.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

BLITZER: In the House of Representatives.

CASTRO: In the House, yes. BOLDUAN: With the president's comfortable win in his -- his presidential election, why do you think -- just look at the politics. Why do you think that your party couldn't take back the House?

CASTRO: Well, I think redistricting had a lot to do with it. You know, the changing the districts. For example, in Texas, Hispanics accounted for 66 percent of the new growth. Minorities accounted for 90 percent of the new growth. Yet we've got zero of the new seats in the way the legislature drew the map. So certainly redistricting.

And you know -- and also, I think, for the first time ever, you had just gazillions of dollars that were being spent by thirty-party groups in these races, often in concentrated areas in House races. So it made it difficult.

BOLDUAN: You think that was a primary reason?

CASTRO: Well, I think -- I think if you combine all those things, certainly. But I do think that we can have a pretty great 2014 and probably an even better 2016.

BLITZER: You're going to be on the armed services committee, as well?

CASTRO: Armed services and foreign affairs.

BLITZER: Foreign affairs, too. So those are very important issues. Is the U.S. spending too much on defense right now, just enough?

CASTRO: Well, you know, we've come out of a period where we were in two wars. And certainly when you were in that situation, your spending goes up. When you're out of the wars, your spending should go down. So you know, we do have to reassess where we are when, you know, as we're moving more towards peacetime, so to speak.

BLITZER: Because I'm looking ahead to the sequestration, as it's called, these mandatory Defense Department cuts. The U.S. spends, what, more on defense than the next 12 countries combined. Does the United States really need to spend all of that money?

CASTRO: I think we need to spend purposely and wisely. The problem with sequestration -- and I've got three military bases in San Antonio. We're Military City, USA. We're very proud about that.

BLITZER: You're worried about losing jobs if the cuts come?

CASTRO: Well, jobs, but also the way sequestration would happen. It's very careless. It really is taking a meat cleaver rather than using a scalpel. And so we -- I think, you know, there's room for improvement. There's room for efficiency. But we've got to do it wisely and not do it with just blunt force.

BLITZER: Are you sick and tired of all the stories about you and your identical brother and... BOLDUAN: That's so funny, because I was just going to ask you about that. Your -- your brother was the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention. You introduced him. But you're the one here in Washington. So who's winning here?

CASTRO: Well, I say I am. He says he is.

BOLDUAN: There's got to be some sibling rivalry going on.

CASTRO: We were very competitive growing up. Now we're big supporters of each other. But when I'm back home, they always call me the mayor, and when I'm out on the street. But when he's in Washington, I get sweet revenge, because they call him congressman.

BLITZER: He got the keynote address.

CASTRO: That's true.

BLITZER: I remember back in 2004, remember who had the keynote address at that Democratic convention?

CASTRO: The president. That's right.

BOLDUAN: A little-known politician.

BLITZER: A little-known Illinois politician, and four years later got the nomination.

BOLDUAN: A high bar is set.

CASTRO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good luck.

CASTRO: Thank you very much.


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