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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript: Government Shutdown

Interview

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DAVID GREGORY:
And good Sunday morning. Wish there were better news to tell you. But Congress and President Obama are still crawling to the finish line in the race to find a solution to America's fiscal crisis with U.S. default possible this coming Thursday. The focus is now in the Senate in session today. House Speaker John Boehner announced Saturday that talks between the House G.O.P. and President Obama had broken down. So bottom line, there is no agreement on ending the shutdown of the government or raising the nation's debt limit. Joining me now, the Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, welcome both to Meet the Press--

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Thank you, David.

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
Thank you.

DAVID GREGORY:
The leader of the Democrats, Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, Senator Durbin, said the following on Saturday. And let me share it with our audience.

MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID:
I hope that our talking is some solace to the American people and to the world.

DAVID GREGORY:
This is what should pass for progress in Congress in Washington doing its job? That take solace in the fact that you're just talking?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
It's a breakthrough. Hard to imagine, but it's a breakthrough. They reach a point where the House Republicans and their leadership really have stepped to the sidelines. They're not part of this at this point. They can't agree among themselves about what they want to have done in this negotiation.

The conversation that started yesterday between Senator McConnell, the Republican Senate Leader and Senator Reid I think has the promise of finding a solution. I don't want to be overly optimistic, but there's a lot at stake. It isn't just the government shutdown. And that of course has laid off 800,000 federal employees and denied people basic services. It goes way beyond this, as we know. If in four days, we default on our debt for the first time in our history, it is going to have a dramatic negative impact.

DAVID GREGORY:
Senator Portman, I want to get beyond talking points, want to get beyond just pure argument. Because the American people simply want to know, why can't Congress do its job?

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
Well, first of all, Congress can't do its job unless Democrats are willing to talk. And the reason what Harry Reid just said was a breakthrough is that the president has refused to negotiation. I mean, it's unbelievable. This is the first time in history that a President of the United States has said, "Look, I'm not even going to talk about it."

I served for two presidents, as you know, President Bush one and two, Leon Panetta, you're going to talk to later, has served for his (UNINTEL) director for another president. You always talk about it. Why? Because these tough are tough votes, the president should engage. You've got to deal with the underlying problem, which is the spending problem.

DAVID GREGORY:
So is it both of your positions, I think this is an important moment of clarity. Do you both believe it's 100% the other side's fault?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Here's the point we've reached. We should have been in a budget six months ago to discuss these issues. We tried 21 times in the Senate to go to budget conference and--

DAVID GREGORY:
I understand, that's the question. Is it 100% the Republican's fault that we're here?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
I can tell you, if we had engaged in this negotiation in the budget conference and there was an impasse, then I'd say, "Well, there's fault on both sides." The Republicans in the Senate would not allow us to go to a budget conference to even debate these issues for six months.

DAVID GREGORY:
That sounds like 100% in his view. Is it 100% the president, the Democrat's fault, Senator?

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
With all due respect, for the last three years when the Senate Democrats were used to put a budget out, Democrats said, "We don't need a budget, we can still have these appropriations bills." Which is why we're where we are. Dick's right, not having appropriations bills. David, I would say this.

I would say the greatest act of bipartisanship over the last few decades has been Republicans and Democrats alike overpromising and overspending. And so yeah, there's fault on both sides. And that's where we are. And that's why the president and the leaders of Congress ought to take this opportunity to deal with the underlying problems.

Supposed to keep the budget caps in place that, my gosh we just put them in place two years ago, we've added almost $2 trillion to the debt since then, and what I understand from last night's discussion is the Democrats are now saying, "We want to bust those caps." But second on the debt limit, we need to be sure that we're dealing with the underlying problem, which is a almost $17 trillion national debt. And the president says he wants to do that, so let's work together to do it.

DAVID GREGORY:
We know it gets confusing fast. So I want to ask each of you a bottom-line question, is do we have an agreement on raising the debt ceiling and ending the government shutdown by Thursday? And if the answer is yes, Senator Durbin, what do you have to overcome? What are the real sticking points now that have to be overcome?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
You're asking us if we have such an agreement?

DAVID GREGORY:
Do you think you'll have it by Thursday? And if so, that means you will overcome what sticking points that you have right now?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
I'm a hopeful person. And I believe we can do it. I hope sensible people prevail. Because at this point, it isn't just a shutdown and all of the damage that it's caused. But if we default on our debt, it will have a dramatic, negative impact on the savings account and retirement account for every American.

DAVID GREGORY:
Understood. But what are the sticking points? That's really what I'm trying to get to.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
The sticking points, whether or not we will sit down in a budget conference finally and start hammering them out, what will be the spending level for this fiscal year--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:
For the rest of the year, yeah.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Whether there will be a sequester cut come the first 15 days of the new year, the new calendar year. Those are the basic elements that I think we need to work on.

DAVID GREGORY:
Does the discussion about--

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
I'm a yes, by the way.

DAVID GREGORY:
A yes, the deal by Thursday?

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
Yes.

DAVID GREGORY:
Because you would've overcome what obstacle?

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
Well, because we will have decided as a Congress that we need to avoid going over the debt limit and we'll figure it out and it'll probably be a relatively short-term solution.

DAVID GREGORY:
But you know the House leadership, you know a lot of House-- Republicans in particular, they seem like they're quite unhappy here. They don't want to do a long-term extension raising of the debt ceiling. They want to still have a conversation about ObamaCare. In your estimation, should the discussion about ObamaCare be over?

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
Well, first of all, I oppose ObamaCare, I think we ought to repeal it and replace it. And I think most Americans agree with that. But we can minimize the damage in this process by doing certain things that were consistent with the original ObamaCare, like making people verify their income when they go on the exchanges.

We're dealing with the 40-hour work week so that more people aren't taking into 30 hours or below, part-time work. But no, I think we ought to focus on these spending issues and we can and should. I'm not suggesting there'll be a solution to all these long-term problems in the next two days. But I do think that we'll figure out a way to put off this, to have the discussion, and I'm hopeful we'll do that actually in the next couple days.

DAVID GREGORY:
But my question then gets, so if you get past a crisis point and say, "Oh, I know, well, let's get into a bigger discussion about the budget." You were on the Simpson-Bowles, that commission, you were on the super committee, both of those went nowhere.

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN:
It wasn't so super, it turned out.

DAVID GREGORY:
It wasn't so super. Right. So we still have a problem, which is the Democrats want more revenue, Republicans want to deal with the entitlements, which are really cannibalizing the budget. Where is there a reason to be hopeful that Congress can get to something meaningful here?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
David, this may be heresy, but I think Simpson-Bowles got it right. Put everything on the table. We know that come ten years from now, Medicare is not sustainable financially. We've got to do something. Why wait ten years to see that reality? We know that social security has 20 years or perhaps less.

What are we going to do about it today, in a small way, that will give it this longevity. And I have to say to the Republican side, for goodness sakes, we have a tax code that takes $1.3 trillion out of the treasury each year and in that, we cannot find some savings, closing some loopholes, quote, raising revenue? Well, of course we can.

DAVID GREGORY:
Senator Portman, you referenced, I'll let you in in just a second. Let me just raise this issue about ObamaCare, because I want to come back to that. One of the issues is that for conservatives, this has been such a huge issue, even though the law's been passed and upheld by the court, they still argue, "No, there's a basis to really try to make it better, to replace it, to get rid of it." And then you had Dr. Ben Carson, who won this straw poll at the Values of Voters Summit here in Washington. This is what he said on Friday, I want to get your response.

[TAPE: BEN CARSON:
I have to tell you, ObamaCare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way.]

DAVID GREGORY:
He was second in the straw poll. How much damage does that do to your position that ObamaCare should be repealed? Is that overstatement that's counterproductive?

ROB PORTMAN:
Well, he's a doctor who feels passionately about this issue, obviously. He can speak for himself. But let me just go back to what Dick said.

DAVID GREGORY:
Well, but is that something that as a senior Republican, you think, is helpful to the debate about ObamaCare?

ROB PORTMAN:
Well, I think what would be helpful is if we sat down and figured out how to make this less damaging to American families and to our American economy, because it is a huge problem. By the way, it's not just a glitch in terms of the rollout, it's a breakdown. Having tried myself to get on yesterday, I feel sorry for the New York Times research writer (UNINTEL) this morning who spent 11 days trying to get on, and end up with a blank screen. So there are huge problems with it, but let's be honest, and we oughta be sure that we can minimize the damage.

DAVID GREGORY:
Does Secretary Sebelius keep her job, both of you? Do you think--

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Absolutely.

DAVID GREGORY:
No question about what she's done?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Understand we've been off to a rocky start for sure, because 15 million people wanted to get on. Because why? Because 50 million Americans don't have any insurance. This is their first chance, many of them, to ever have health insurance. They're desperate for an affordable health insurance policy. And we haven't had much help when it comes to funding the startup of ObamaCare.

DAVID GREGORY:
Senator Roberts, your colleague in the Senate, Republican, said, that Secretary Sebelius, Head of Home of Health and Human Services should resign.

ROB PORTMAN:
Yeah, look, I don't think that's going to solve the problem, unfortunately. I think it's much deeper than that. I think the law is fundamentally flawed. I also think this rollout has been a disaster, not just a glitch. But let me go back to something Dick said, because I want to say something positive here about my colleague.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Give it some time. Give it some time.

ROB PORTMAN:
He has been willing, and he's shown political courage, to do so, to talk about these issues. And I think this morning, if we can leave with anything, it is that this is an opportunity over the next couple days, but really over the next couple months, because I think we'll probably push this down the road a little bit, to deal with the underlying problem.

And that is the fact that we have these historic levels of debt and deficit that are hurting the economy today. It's like a wet blanket on the economy today. That's why we're not, in my view, getting the kind of robust recovery we all hope for. But it is immoral to do to future generations. And we keep building up this debt and deficit, and Dick's exactly right.

We've got to deal with the part of the budget that's not being talked about, which is two-thirds of the budget, and the fastest-growing part. And if we don't do that, we will have failed. If we do do that, we'll surprise the American people and do the right thing.

DAVID GREGORY:
All right, we're going to have to leave it there, because I'm out of time. Senators, thank you very much. I know you're back to work today, which is why you're here this morning, and we appreciate your time very much.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Thank you.


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