MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Is there any possibility of a compromise plan on Social Security? Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, Democratic Senator Ben Nelson are here.
SEN. BEN NELSON, (D-NE): Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: You're considered independent, undecided. One Republican, one Democrat.
Senator Chafee, Vice President Cheney said this to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that "the Bush re- election victory provided a mandate 'for the notion of personal retirement accounts,' and that Democrats would pay a political price among younger voters if they blocked them."
Do you believe that the president has a mandate for personal retirement accounts?
SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE, (R-RI): Well, the president has been on the road for a while now. And coming from a state with high elderly population per capita-Rhode Island now one of the top five in the country, I believe. I'm hearing from my seniors that the sell isn't being made yet on personal accounts. And we all know we have to do something about Social Security. Baby boomers are retiring. But selling these personal accounts, it's a tough sell. I'm hearing it from my elderly constituents and even the younger ones. They have some reservations about the cost up front and also the risk.
MR. RUSSERT: Does the president have a mandate for them because of his re-election?
SEN. CHAFEE: Well, usually when you talk about a mandate, you're talking about an overwhelming win. I don't think by any measurement the 2004 election was an overwhelming win. It was very, very close. It came down to Ohio. So I don't think he can use the word "mandate."
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Nelson, Harry Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, 11 days ago talked to the press and had this to say. Let's watch.
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SEN. HARRY REID, (D-NV): The American people do not like privatization. They are afraid of the debt the president's willing to do. And they don't like benefit cuts. And everyone here should understand all 45 Senate Democrats are united. We are not going to let this happen.
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MR. RUSSERT: Are all 45 Democrats, that includes you, united against personal or private retirement accounts?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I'm not opposed to private accounts that don't involve heavy debt adding to the deficit or significant cuts to the benefits. What I think we have to do is split the Social Security issue into two parts. One is deal with the solvency. And if we do that, then all of the things that have been put on the table can be put into the process of finding a solution. On the other hand, the private accounts are a separate matter that don't solve and aren't intended to solve the Social Security solvency issue.
MR. RUSSERT: So then how do you pay for them?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I think you start first with the solvency issue and that's where you can talk about retirement age, you can talk about benefits, you can talk about increasing the cap. You could talk about all those things as they did back in 1983. That deals with the insolvency. Then you have to deal with private accounts. And if those private accounts that they're talking about doesn't involve significant borrowing and doesn't involve benefit cuts as part of that process, you can take a look at those private accounts in that context.
MR. RUSSERT: But the private accounts proposed by the president do include borrowing and it is suggested by members of the White House staff would involve indexing or benefit cuts.
SEN. NELSON: Well, that's one of the reasons why many people have really supported private accounts outside of the Social Security plan, but until we deal with the solvency issue, it's so difficult to have all of these balled together because then I think you can't sort them out and see them as distinct, different issues.
MR. RUSSERT: Harry Reid has sent a letter to the president signed by 41 Democratic senators which says to the president, "We will not negotiate with you. We will not talk to you until you take private personal accounts out of Social Security off the table." Do you agree with that?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I haven't said that anything should be taken off the table. What I'd like to do is-see, the president has gone from some concepts to content. I'd like to see the plan and see the calculus before I can decide whether all the parts will move together, whether or not the actuarial considerations will work because at the end of the day this is about numbers. It's not just simply about politics.
MR. RUSSERT: But should the Democrats refuse to negotiate until the president takes personal accounts off the table?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I haven't refused. What I've said is I want to talk with the president. I want to be an annex to the process. I want to be a constructive voice and work to see if this is possible. At the end of the day, I think that's what the American people, certainly that's what the Nebraskans, want from me.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Chafee, should the president take private, personal accounts off the table and focus on solvency?
SEN. CHAFEE: Well, as a member of the Centrist Coalition which meets every Tuesday to discuss this issue, we took kind of a pledge to have a completely open mind on all issues, but what we're learning in this Centrist Coalition is that there are other ways to address Social Security. As Senator Nelson mentioned, raising the caps. It's presently at $90,000. So if Tiger Woods is making $10 million a year, he's only paying that 12 percent Social Security tax on that first $90,000. That's one way. If you raise it...
MR. RUSSERT: How high should it go?
SEN. CHAFEE: Well, there's one proposal Dianne Feinstein from California is saying $140,000. Senator Graham from South Carolina saying have a doughnut hole, so it doesn't kick in until $200,000. So we can argue about that, or talk about over $90,000, it won't be 12 percent, it'll be 3 percent, 4 percent, some other percentage.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you buy into lifting the cap?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I want to see the whole plan. I mean, I think talking about these individually, I think we recognize that no one thing that's being talked about by itself will do it because it'd be too severe. That's why in 1983 they looked at a lot of different things and they moved a lot of the parts around. That's why they dealt with some benefits, they dealt with the caps, they dealt with a lot of things including raising the retirement age, but you have to do it in the context of an entire plan. I thinks that's one of the reasons why the president said all things need to be on the table. I think they all need to be on the table particularly as it relates to solving the insolvency issue part of Social Security.
MR. RUSSERT: But the stumbling block appears to be these private or personal accounts. And the president's top economic adviser said this, he rejected as, "'absolutely a non-starter' bipartisan proposals that the administration put aside its drive to create individual investment accounts in Social Security and focus first on extending the system's solvency. Allan Hubbard, in an interview Wednesday with USA Today, also dismissed a Democratic proposal that investment accounts be created to supplement Social Security, not as part of the system."
If the president insists that it is way, private personal accounts as part of Social Security and anything else is a non-starter, can there be a compromise?
SEN. CHAFEE: Well, I think we can possibly about separating it out into another argument as Senator Nelson says. Let's address Social Security and there are ways of doing this. I said raising the caps or indexing for inflation. We presently do it for wages. If we do it for price, it's more meets inflation, the true inflation, more accurate to inflation. That's saves a lot of money. You could argue it's a means testing for benefits because if you go to the price indexing for inflation, there's going to be some cuts in benefits, but then we could means test it for the lower income.
But as far as addressing personal accounts, I think that if we do it separately such as Kids Save as George McGovern proposed it back in the early '70s, put some government money into a program that's going to eventually yield dividends, but the big problem with private accounts is it's an up-front cost, a huge up-front cost, and also there's a risk. There's definitely a risk, higher than the president's Social Security system.
MR. RUSSERT: But if the administration is saying that anything else other than that is a non-starter, where do you go?
SEN. CHAFEE: Well, the debates going forward-and it does seem as though we're at loggerheads over this-but there's still weeks and months ahead.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Nelson, the Democrats are united. You may be the exception, but all the other Democrats have said, "Mr. President, we are not negotiating until you get those accounts off the table."
SEN. NELSON: Well, I guess my difference is I'd like to see the plan. Once you see the plan, you can go from content-or from concept to content to calculus. Without being wonkish, this is very-this may not be rocket science, but it's at least actuarial science, so you have to understand the mortality tables, the morbidity tables. You have to take a look at what the history of our longevity has been vs. what the projected future longevity will be.
Once you get the entire plan, my focus would be first on solvency, but if you've got private plans in it, how-what does it do? Most of the plans that are out there right now that I've seen rely heavily on borrowing. The president may have a way of doing it that doesn't involve borrowing. I'm not aware. But I think until I see the entire plan, it's hard for me to be critical of something that doesn't exist.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that Democrats in the Senate understand there is a problem with Social Security solvency?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I think so. I think they'd like to focus on that. That's why I've addressed that first. The solvency issue is separate from the private accounts. Now, they tie together if the private accounts within the system add to the insolvency of the Social Security Trust Fund. So I think that's why people are concerned about how you go about distinguishing between and solving both of those issues.
MR. RUSSERT: Have you told the president that he should deal with solvency first?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I've spoken to his people and I've told them that that's my-those are my druthers, that I'd like to see how that's done. But I haven't said that they can't put together a plan that involves both, but I'll obviously try to distinguish between the solvency issue and private accounts.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Chafee, one of your Republican colleagues we talked about earlier, Lindsey Graham, "Who has spent weeks attempting to recruit Democratic support for a plan to restructure Social Security, said that Republican, 'made a strategic mistake' by initially focusing on a proposal to create individual investment accounts. ...He said the accounts by themselves will not fix the solvency problem Social Security faces as baby boomers begin to retire. 'We've now got this huge fight over a sideshow. It's always been a sideshow, but we sold it as a main event.'"
Do you agree?
SEN. CHAFEE: Yes, he's making some good points, and as I said, there are other ways to address Social Security: raising the caps, indexing for inflation. These go a long way to addressing the solvency. Let's...
MR. RUSSERT: But Speaker Hastert in the House, Tom DeLay, the leading Republican in the House, have said, "We will not raise the cap. That's a tax increase. Forget about it."
SEN. CHAFEE: It's a shame if we come to that point, because the sooner we do something, the better it is. Baby boomers begin to retire in 2011. The system starts to show insolvency in 2018. The sooner we do something, the better. And here you have a Democrat and Republican working together on the Centrist Coalition. I think if we can get together, address it earlier, the better for our constituents.
MR. RUSSERT: Joe Lieberman is also in the Centrist Coalition.
SEN. CHAFEE: Chair.
MR. RUSSERT: He signed the letter saying private accounts should be taken off the table.
SEN. CHAFEE: Well, let's-we took kind of a pledge of being open-minded, and he was there for that. I don't know why he signed that letter.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there can be a bipartisan compromise?
SEN. CHAFEE: I have to hope. I mean, this is a real problem. And then, after we deal with Social Security, then it's on to Medicare. I mean, that's the real big one. If we take an oath to address the problems of our country, let's do it. And private accounts, I do think they can be set aside and dealt with, whether it's Roth IRAs or other ways of getting people to have more of an investment in their future, we can do that. But first, I agree with Senator Nelson, address some of the ways of the solvency of Social Security. And we can do it. There are some good proposals.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Nelson, if the president's chief economic adviser is saying "We must have private accounts," if Speaker Hastert and Congressman DeLay are saying, "We will not support raising the cap, it's a tax increase," and if 41 Democrats in the Senate are saying, "We will not negotiate as long as there are private accounts," where are we?
SEN. NELSON: Well, it sounds like a classic series of negotiations in Washington, D.C. Everybody's stating their position in the most extreme way possible, recognizing that in the give and take of Washington, to get a bipartisan solution here, everybody's going to have to give somewhere. The question is, to what extent and how much and where. And if there is no movement, then you can't get a solution, because it will have to be a bipartisan solution in order for it to work. As Senator Chafee has said, he has his views of it, others have their views of it, so it's not strictly a partisan thing right now. You've got people on both sides of the aisle questioning what is the proper way to handle this.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the president made a mistake by leading with private or personal accounts?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I think it's-what it did is it crystallized some opposition that might not have existed to begin with. Because if we had focused on the solvency issue, I think that's one area where there is pretty much universal agreement; maybe not universal agreement as to how you solve it, but that it needs to be solved. If we can focus back on that first, I think we can have the opportunity to move to the second step, and that is: How do private accounts work? You've got people saying they work very well if they're outside of the system because there's no borrowing, there's no changing of benefits. It's only when you put them within the system that you have to ask the question: How do you pay for them?
MR. RUSSERT: Some Democrats are concerned that the Republicans want to co-opt the issue of Social Security, that Franklin Roosevelt created a loyal generation of Democrats because he established it, and here comes George Bush trying to reform it, which will make young Americans who invest in the market Republicans. How concerned are your Democratic colleagues that they're going to lose Social Security as a political issue?
SEN. NELSON: The only where-the place I've ever heard that is when it's been asked to me by a journalist. I've not heard any of my colleagues talk about that. I've not heard other Democrats outside of my colleagues talk about that. I'm not aware that that is a concern. I think doing the right thing here is the most important thing and that most people want us at the end of the day to be able to look at them and say, "We've done the right thing." Not the political thing, not the most expedient thing, but the right thing. That's what they're concerned about.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Chafee, I noted you invoked the name of George McGovern, and I started thinking about an article I read in the Providence Journal how you did not vote for George W. Bush for re-election. You wrote in his father's name. As a protest?
SEN. CHAFEE: Yes. On the issues that I care deeply about-the environment, Roe vs. Wade, the war in Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction, the tax cuts that are now leading to deficits, I've got some deep issues with the president. But it's nothing personal. And so as a Republican, I support the Republican Party, but I did write in another Republican.
MR. RUSSERT: You were asked at that time might you become a Democrat, and you said, "No, I don't at this time, but I don't rule it out."
SEN. CHAFEE: Well, I heard you in the earlier segment trying to get Condoleezza Rice, Dr. Rice, to pin her down, never say never running for president, and so Nelson and I were commiserating over having-being forced to not say never. I think we don't want to ever say never. The same point, I'm proud of the Republicans. I'm working hard for my Republican Party in Rhode Island. We've got a good governor, Governor Carcieri, a Republican, Rhode Island, good team. We're trying to get elected there. So my full intention is to stay Republican. I'm proud of the Republicans.
MR. RUSSERT: And run for re-election in the Senate as a Republican?
SEN. CHAFEE: Exactly, yes.
MR. RUSSERT: And you will run for re-election in Nebraska as a Democrat?
SEN. NELSON: Absolutely.
MR. RUSSERT: And the president used to call you "Nelly" as a nickname. What's his new nickname?
SEN. NELSON: "Benator."
MR. RUSSERT: As in Ben the Senator?
SEN. NELSON: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: He said some very nice things about you last week in Nebraska. Do you expect that the White House will not seek to defeat you?
SEN. NELSON: Well, I don't know. You can't pick your opponent and you can't choose what the other side is going to do. But I think the people in Nebraska are looking for somebody who will support the president when you can, oppose when you must, look for compromise, and not obstruct. And that's what I intend to do today and tomorrow.
MR. RUSSERT: Will we get a Social Security deal this year?
SEN. NELSON: If not this year, next year. But I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility yet this year.
SEN. CHAFEE: I think with these caps, the longer we look at these caps, and addressing the indexing for inflation, it seems as though we can get a long way just there. They're good proposals.
MR. RUSSERT: You think we're going to deal?
SEN. CHAFEE: We're going to have to work hard, really work hard on it, and then on to Medicare.
MR. RUSSERT: Thank you both. Thank you, Senator Chafee, Senator Nelson. We'll be watching.
SEN. NELSON: Thank you.