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MSNBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript: Economy

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DAVID GREGORY:
And good Sunday morning. We're following the big weather story in the northeast as this weekend's huge winter storm blanketed the region from New York to Maine, as you know. New York City escaped the worst of it all. But more than three feet of snow fell on parts of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Powerful wind gusts, as well, cutting power and downing trees. Electrical power remains out in nearly 350,000 homes across the area this morning. So a lot of cleanup to do there.
Meanwhile, the political climate has our attention here in Washington as the president prepares to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night. As he begins his second term, we're being told he will return to his primary message of how to restore economic growth.

We're going to talk to both sides this morning. The number two Republican in the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and the assistant Democratic leader in the Senate, Dick Durbin. Joining me now, Leader Cantor, I want to begin with you. And welcome back to Meet the Press.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
It's a pleasure, David. Good morning.

DAVID GREGORY:
So there's so many areas that are contentious between Republicans in the White House right now. And chief among them is this "sequester" word, this dirty word in Washington. It means automatic spending cuts. $1.2 trillion over ten years could begin in a matter of weeks, with $85 billion in automatic cuts.

And here's the real question, to my mind, which is do you really want this, as a Republican leader? I mean look at the impact it would have in your state alone. The Associated Press wrote about this, this week. I'll put it up on the screen.

"Sequestration," again, another word for "automatic spending cuts," "today a political football would cripple Virginia's economy if it happens. Proportionally, no state would suffer more than Virginia. The commonwealth would lose more than 130,000 jobs from defense cuts alone, more than any other state."

There's been some studies being done on this in the state. Not only is Virginia home to the Pentagon, the world's largest U.S. Navy base, in Norfolk, it's also a hub for Navy defense contractors, such as aircraft carrier built a Newport new ship building. Non-defense budget cuts would eliminate another 71,000-plus jobs in Virginia. So the impact, over 200,000 jobs, second only to California. You can't want this automatic spending cut to go forward.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
You know, clearly, this is not, David, the best way to go about trying to control spending. And we have demonstrated in the House for two separate occasions. One of the bills that we put across the floor that passed, I was the sponsor of, for exactly that reason. These are indiscriminate cuts. We can do a lot better. And what I hope to be able to hear from the president in the State of the Union is he wants to join us in trying to affect much smarter cuts in spending so that we don't have to have them.

DAVID GREGORY:
But that's what it's saying.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
And we don't have to have the impact that you discussed. But--

DAVID GREGORY:
Well, why not work with him on some short-term measure, which he's talking about, to delay this, find a different way to go about some of these cuts?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
You know, the problem is, David, every time you turn around, the answer is to raise taxes. And, you know, he just got his tax hike on the wealthy. And you can't, in this town, every three months, raise taxes. And again, every time, that's his response. And, you know, we've got a spending problem. Everybody knows it. The House has put forward an alternative plan. And there's been no response in any serious way from the Senate or the White House. And it's time we really got to do it.

DAVID GREGORY:
All right. Well, listen to how the president responded to that in his Saturday address. He took on what the House plan is and really tried to put the pressure on Republicans over this whole business of the automatic spending cut. Here's what he said.

(Videotape)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right now, most Members of Congress - including many Republicans - don't think it's a good idea to put thousands of jobs at risk and do unnecessary damage to our economy. And yet the current Republican plan puts the burden of avoiding those cuts mainly on seniors and middle-class families. They would rather ask more from the vast majority of Americans and put our recovery at risk than close even a single tax loophole that benefits the wealthy.

(End videotape)

DAVID GREGORY:
Is the tax fight really over? Is there not even tax reform that's possible?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
So well, first of all, you know, the tax fight for the president means higher taxes, more revenue. Again, we can't be raising taxes every three months in this town, David. And the bottom line is we want tax reform, but we want to go plug those loopholes that the president talks about to bring down tax rates. Because we believe that's pro-growth, and we can get an economy growing again, let people who earn the money keep more of it. The President's not talking about that. What he's talking about is trying to raise more taxes for Washington to spend the money.

DAVID GREGORY:
So then how does this end? I mean, in the end, Republicans, from everybody I've talked to, they could live with this across-the-board cutting. It would hurt your state deeply, it would hurt the defense industry. But are you willing to just live with it?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
Well, here's what I hope will happen. You know, we have, in our alternative, several proposals that the president has actually come out in favor of. There are improvements to what's called The Medicare Provider tax, to get rid of the gimmick that states are playing. The president supports that.

And our plan says we have to bring federal employee pension benefits down in line with the market rates. Those are the kind of things that we're talking about as alternatives that make a lot more sense, that won't have the impact on the people who are out there working.

And, you know, the president, he's the one who proposed this sequester in the first place. So again, I'm questioning where this thing is going, because he's not moved in any serious way. But we remain anxiously waiting for him to come to the table to work with us to solve this problem.

DAVID GREGORY:
Bottom line, you could live with the sequester if it happens?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
I don't want to live with the sequester. I want reductions in spending that make sense. These indiscriminate reductions do not make sense. And we're going to hurt a lot of people. And it's up to the president, really, to act now.

DAVID GREGORY:
Let me talk about immigration. This is going to be a big focus. You gave a big speech this week where you talked about the future of the Republican Party. And to a lot of people listening, they heard a shift in position from you about-- how to deal with those illegal immigrants who are now in the country. Maybe they were the children of illegal immigrants. This is what you said on Tuesday.

(Videotape)

REP. ERIC CANTOR: One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents, and it is time to provide an opportunity for legal residents and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.

(End videotape)

DAVID GREGORY:
So the question is are you changing your position, are you moving to the middle, and are you willing to go all in to bring conservatives in the House to the table to support a pathway to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who are already here?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
David, it's been over ten years now where this problem has not been dealt with. And we've been unable to find any common ground. And what I said this week at The American Enterprise Institute was that I thought the best place to start was with children. You know, these are children who, due to no fault of their own, were brought here. And we do have a tradition in our country.

We're a country of immigrants. You know, I'm a second-generation American. My grandparents left the pogrom, the anti-Semitic pogrom from Russia to come here to realize a better life. In the same way, these children were taken, again, due to no fault of their own. It seems to me that's the best place to start. But--

DAVID GREGORY:
So you could support The Dream Act?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
I have put out a proposal. I don't know what The Dream Act, at this point, is. What I say is we've got a place I think all of us can come together, and that is for the kids. Now--

DAVID GREGORY:
Can you bring conservatives along to supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are here without having to first leave the country?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
There is a lot of movement right now in the House and the Senate on both sides of the aisle with folks having a lot of different ideas. I think--

DAVID GREGORY:
But yes or no to that question?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
I-- I--

DAVID GREGORY:
Because you could really do it. If you went all in, (CHUCKLE) you could bring along the right in the House, couldn't you?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
I think that a good place to start is with children. And listen, we've got-- you know, here's the difficulty in this issue, I think. And it is because we've got families who are here that become part of the fabric of our country, right? And we want to make sure that we're compassionate and sensitive to their plight. I mean these kids know no other place as home.

On the other hand, we are a country of laws. You know, we have a situation of border security that we've got to get straight. We have to secure our borders. And there is this balance that needs to take place. But the best place to begin, I think, is with the children. Let's go ahead and get that under our belt, put a win on the board, and so we can promise a better life for those kids who are here due to no fault of their own.

DAVID GREGORY:
Part of what you're talking about is re-branding the Republican Party. And that was, in part, what your speech was about. And there's a lot of ferment right now in the Republican Party. What's the right direction for the party to get back into power beyond controlling the House, but to win national elections?

A political team, on first read, had its own reality check for what you and other Republicans face. And I'll put it up on the screen. Talking about the challenge for the Republicans as they focus more on tone than policies. "Majority of Americans rejected some of the party's central principles, according to the exit polls from the November presidential election.

"For instance, 60% said income tax rates should either go up on all Americans, or those with incomes above $250,000. 59% said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 65% favored giving illegal immigrants a path to a legal status. It's rare to find politicians in Washington who believe their political beliefs cost them an election or a policy defeat. They almost always blame communication." Isn't this more than tone that's an issue? Isn't it more than re-branding? Isn't it some of the central beliefs in the Republican Party that have hurt it with the electorate?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
David, what I talked about this week at AEI was the need for us to connect our conservative principles with helping people and making their life work again. And I've talked about a man who is a dad here in the inner city of the District of Columbia who, all he wanted was to find a safe place for his kids to learn. He's got four kids.
And he discovered, after having fought with the local school system, The Opportunity Scholarship Program here in DC, something that Speaker Boehner has been an extraordinary champion on. And he realized the benefits of that. And now all of his kids have had an opportunity to start in that school. One is at The University of District of Columbia today.

I talked about working parents who are hourly wage earners who are having a tough time getting through the month right now. Those are the things that people-- that we've got to be concerned about. I don't think that Joseph Kelly, the dad here in The District of Columbia, cares one iota about re-branding the Republican or the Democratic Party.

I think what we care about, and what he cares about, is his kids. And that's where Washington really needs to remember is these are real problems. These people are having a tough time. And we ought to be about providing relief to those who don't have a job and those who do.

DAVID GREGORY:
But Leader--

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
And making their life work again.

DAVID GREGORY:
These core beliefs, I mean what you're talking about, as you admitted after your speech, is not really something that's going to be captured in new legislation. There are core beliefs of the Republican Party that the polls show were rejected by a national electorate that you want to try to recapture some of if you're going to get to become a national party.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
Not quite sure about legislation. We are going to have follow-up legislation to pretty much everything I spoke of this year. And that's the point. The point is we've got to be talking about helping folks. You know, I've got a constituent, she's 12 years old, her name is Katie. She was diagnosed with cancer at age one. I mean can you imagine? That is a parent's nightmare, the worst nightmare.

And the federal government's got a role in research, in basic medical research, trying to find cures for disease. We can work together on something like that. You know, we've got so many issues. We know, on the bigger macroeconomic issues, there's a real disagreement between us and the president. We ought to be making sure we manage down the debt and deficit. He doesn't share the commitment with us on that.

So okay, we're going to keep at it on that. But at the same time, you've got so many millions of Americans who feel that they have become an afterthought. My purpose in saying this is we have conservative principles that actually can work for their life again. And that's what we're going to be about promoting.

DAVID GREGORY:
And before you go, I want to ask you about the debate over drones as a key part of the President's national security policy. Why hasn't Congress passed any additional legislation to review drone policy, to really understand where there ought to be checks and balances in the time that's passed since the original authorization post-9-11 that gave the president the authority to have a kill list as the president works off of for drones?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
You know, I'm glad to hear that the administration has released the memo that is under discussion to intelligence commitments in both the House and the Senate. We're going to be about oversight and getting into examining that memo. But, you know, let's just say, suffice to say, I guess, David, is that, you know, we have a terrorist threat out there. Islamist extremists are out there still trying to kill Americans and go after what we stand for in this world.

And if we're going to continue to be the leading force for peace, prosperity and security in this world, we're going to have to have the tools necessary to do so. And I believe, just as in the prior administration, this administration, we can strike that balance to protect America, to employ technologies to do that, at the same time, upholding constitutional right.

DAVID GREGORY:
And you're not concerned about the current policy, even where it might target Americans who join the enemy?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:
Again, this is no different than the policy, perhaps, that was in place before. We'll find out about that in the oversight that we'll pursue.

DAVID GREGORY:
All right. Leader Cantor, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.


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