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PBS "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"- Transcript


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PBS "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"- Transcript

JIM LEHRER: How to spend the money. "NewsHour" congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ignoring the president's veto threat, House Democratic leaders late this afternoon prepared their push for a vote on yet another Iraq war funding bill, again with strings attached. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced the strategy yesterday.

HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER STENY HOYER (D-MD): Democrats will continue to push the president to change course in Iraq, as we have been doing from the very first day this session started, and it's long past time for congressional Republicans to put down their rubber stamps, to assess our failing policy in a clear-eyed manner, and to join us in demanding a new direction in Iraq.

MR. HOLMAN: But this morning, Indiana Republican Mike Pence argued it was the Democrats who needed a new direction.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE PENCE (R-IN): But sadly today the House of Representatives will bring an Iraq supplemental bridge fund that once again brings the same tired language mandating withdrawal from Iraq. It seems, Madame Speaker, the Democrats are adding denial to their agenda of retreat and defeat in Iraq. Now is not the time to micromanage a widening success in Iraq. Let's give the American soldiers the resources they need to get the job done, see freedom win, and come home safe.

MR. HOLMAN: The Democrats' $50 billion short-term package funds military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the spring, but requires troop withdrawals from Iraq begin within 30 days of the bill's enactment, and sets a December 15, 2008, goal for completing withdrawals. The bill also mandates troops be fully trained and equipped before they're sent to the war regions, and it prohibits the use of torture against captured combatants.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate will take up the same bill, once approved, and that the president can take it or leave it.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV): If the president is not willing to take that with some conditions on it, namely that there should be a beginning of a redeployment in 30 days, that we have a goal of having all of our troops out of there by the end of this year -- actually, December 15th -- and there are a few other strings on it, then the president won't get his $50 billion. That's pretty clear.

MR. HOLMAN: Arizona Republican Jon Kyl said that strategy would succeed only in hurting the troops.

SENATOR JON KYL (R-AZ): Our troops have known that if they don't get funding for their operations in theater, they're not going to have what it needs to do what we have sent them in harm's way to accomplish. The majority leader in the Senate said that he will insist on tying that funding to decisions to withdraw troops. Now, that is not the will of this Congress, which has now had over 60 votes on Iraq funding and withdrawal.

MR. HOLMAN: This looming showdown comes on the heels of the president's veto yesterday of a massive domestic spending bill funding education, job training and health programs, and according to the president, lots of pork barrel spending.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Congress needs to cut out that pork, reduce the spending, and send me a responsible measure that I can sign into law.

MR. HOLMAN: In response, Senate Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa questioned the president's use of the word "responsible."

SENATOR TOM HARKIN (D-IA): He seems to have no problem pouring billions of dollars into Iraq for schools, hospitals, job programs, health needs, but when it comes to those priorities here in America, the president says, "No." I think after spending all these billions of dollars on schools, hospitals, job programs and health needs in Iraq, it's time to start investing some of that money here in America.

MR. HOLMAN: For now, domestic spending and war spending appear to be tightly intertwined, with any attempt to resolve the issues having to wait at least until Congress returns to work after Thanksgiving.

MR. LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: For more on the standoff over spending, we are joined by two members of Congress. John Larson of Connecticut is vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Jeb Hensarling of Texas is chairman of the Republican Study Committee.

Welcome to you both.

Congressman Larson, what is at the root of this debate, at this dispute over spending?

REP. LARSON: Well, what's at the root of this debate is bringing our troops home as safely, securely, and hopefully for next Christmas, Gwen. To tell you, I have people in my district who stand up, whose men and women who have served in the Armed Services, and especially in our National Guard and Reserves who have been deployed, redeployed and deployed again.

This is the most catastrophic foreign policy mistake in the history of the country. It's long overdue for us to bring our troops home safely and secure, and to do so with a very specific plan that transitions us into a diplomatic surge in the region, protects our strategic assets in that region, but also -- and goes after al Qaeda in the region, but then also makes sure that our troops are ready.

You know, to make sure that they're ready and prepared and fully equipped is something we owe every single man and woman who serves in the military and to make sure that there's accountability, that we get away from torture, especially to have no more Abu Ghraibs, just by simply mandating and following the Army Field Manual, and then holding the Department of Defense accountable by making sure that they report back to the Congress every 90 days about the strategic redeployment of our troops.

Our military is broken. And if we don't do this now, shame on this country. These men and women who serve this country have performed admirably. What they need is an administration worthy of the sacrifice they make on a regular basis.

MS. IFILL: Let me ask the same question to Congressman Hensarling. He says it's all about Iraq. What do you say?

REP. HENSARLING: Well, there's a lot that we're debating on spending here. Let me talk about Iraq first.

I agree with John. I want to bring the troops home, too, but I don't want to bring them home until they're able to achieve their mission and we give them an opportunity. I mean, your reporter had it right. The Democrats are yet again trying to attach strings to our war fighters and, listen, the Democrats have pointed out all the bad news that has happened in Iraq in the past. They ought to at least admit the good news. Violence is down precipitously. Deaths are down precipitously. People who used to fight the U.S. Army are now in concert with the U.S. Army against al Qaeda.

I mean, we have to remember the threat that we're up against. This is the greatest national security challenge of our time: radical Islam. I mean, these leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq have previously said that they want to kill four million of our citizens, two million of them children.

Now, listen, two of those children are mine. I'm a father of a 5- year-old and a 4-year-old. I take this very, very seriously and so here we have the first signs of military success in four years, and yet the Democrats are yet again trying to attach strings to our war fighters and define a date certain for a defeat.

You know, I care about every single one of these casualties in Iraq, but I also care about the thousands and thousands of U.S. citizens that we could lose if al Qaeda or any other Islamic extremists were successful. We ought to let our troops have the opportunity to finish this mission.

MS. IFILL: Mr. Larson, it sounds to me like both of you are saying that this spending debate is a proxy for a debate that's been going on for some years now over the war in Iraq, but I wonder, as you look at the growing unpopularity of Congress, as well as of this president, whether the Democratic Congress and Republican president are both going to lose in a stand-off like this?

REP. LARSON: No, I think the American people are the ones who are going to win. The American people have spoken clearly for a new direction, and they want to see a change.

At the outset of your program tonight, you talked about the situation in Pakistan. What we need to do is refocus and redeploy our troops to Afghanistan where we had the whole world with us.

Gwen, all over the world, you know, we've seen people, including our allies, leave us because of the failed strategy in Iraq. It is true that our men and women have been performing valiantly there, but what we need to do is to make sure that they're appropriately equipped, appropriately armed, appropriately funded, and then direct those resources towards Afghanistan, where the whole world is with us.

It's unconscionable for us to continue this war in Iraq, a war of choice, where this administration continues only to want to run out the clock on its term in office, in a very self-serving way that I think does not serve the American citizens or our troops extraordinarily well.

When we have the Marines saying that they'd like to go to Afghanistan to take on the real fight, that's where we should be going. We're a part of an insurgency here and a civil war where the Iraqi people believe -- over 70 percent -- that we shouldn't be there, and 60 percent believe that it's OK to shoot our people. What kind of situation is that? It's time for us to strategically redeploy.

MS. IFILL: Pardon me. Mr. Hensarling, let me take another stab at broadening this debate beyond whether we should be in Iraq or not into this question of the choices which Congress is asking the president to make and the president is asking Congress to make about spending.

The president vetoed an appropriations bill for domestic programs this week. Is there a larger underlying issue? Why is this his first choice for a spending veto?

REP. HENSARLING: There's a huge issue. Here's something else I agree with John on, and that is something unconscionable is happening in our nation and what is unconscionable is the taxing-and-spending policies of the Democrat Party.

Now, he said that his party represented a new direction. To me, it represents a very old direction, more spending and more taxes. Every single day we wake up, they are spending money, the people's money, not their money, the people's money, at a rate the people can't afford.

Government is growing at five percent and six percent and seven percent, and yet inflation is at about two percent, and more spending fuels more taxes. Already they passed the single largest tax increase in American history, which is going to be an average of $3,000 per American family, as they try to fund their home mortgages, as they try to pay their health insurance premiums, as they try to send a child to college.

The debate isn't always about how much money we spend. The debate is about who does the spending. John and the Democrats...

MS. IFILL: Are you saying that -- I'm sorry.

REP. HENSARLING: -- want bureaucrats to spend. We want the people to spend.

MS. IFILL: I'm sorry. Are you saying that the money should be spent in Iraq rather than on these programs that were contained in this bill?

REP. HENSARLING: What I'm saying -

REP. LARSON: Pretty much.

REP. JEB HENSARLING: What I'm saying is, is that number-one purpose of our federal government is to protect us from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And the greatest challenge we have today, and the one that I take most seriously, is the threat against my nation and my family, is radical Islam, but here as much money is being spent in the war in Iraq, and it is very expensive. It is very expensive, but it's about as much to run their big government for about four months -

REP. LARSON: Not at all, Gwen.

MS. IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Larson to get in on this.

REP. LARSON: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I think Tom Harkin had it right when he said that the president seems to have the priorities to make sure that the Iraqi people get funding for health, get funding for schools, get funding for their infrastructure, but not here in our country.

How could it be that, with about two weeks of spending in Iraq, we can't see fit to make sure that we have appropriate educational funding -

MS. IFILL: But -

REP. LARSON: ... funding for breast cancer research, funding for the NIH. To me, this is where it's a matter of priorities and values. We differ on this. He's absolutely correct.

MS. IFILL: Well, let me ask you --

REP. LARSON: We believe that we should be funding these priorities for Americans, not spending the money that we are in Iraq. I'm glad to see that people in Iraq are doing better with funding, but shouldn't we be taking care of our own people here in this country?

MS. IFILL: Let me just follow up on this. The president said that the Democrats in Congress are spending "like a teenager with a new credit card" and that there are 2,000 earmarks in this domestic bill that he vetoed, which don't belong there. What do you say to that?

REP. LARSON: This from the president, who's run up the largest debt in the history of this country says this to a pay-go Congress that's changed the direction here, that's cut in half the earmarks? How about taking a closer look at the administration's own earmarks, as well?

Listen, I make no apologies for the direction the Democrats have taken us in. And when you look at the amount of deficit spending -- and when people at home are sitting across their kitchen table, and not only look at the $30,000-plus that every man, woman and child will be paying for, we have a budget that we passed this year that brings down the national debt by 2012. That's an aggressive policy that we pay for as we go.

MS. IFILL: I have only a few seconds. I need to ask you both quickly to tell me, is this headed toward another government shutdown like we saw in 1995?

REP. HENSARLING: Well, only if the Democrats choose to shut down the government. I've introduced legislation to ensure that wouldn't happen, that if both bodies and the president cannot get together on these spending levels, we have what is known as a continuing resolution. That shouldn't happen, but if it happens, it's because the Democrats want it to happen.

MS. IFILL: And Mr. Larson?

REP. LARSON: Government will not shut down unless Newt Gingrich comes back and takes over, and that's not going to happen, Gwen.

MS. IFILL: Congressman John Larson and Congressman Jeb Hensarling, thank you both very much.

REP. LARSON: Thank you.


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