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MSNBC "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" - Transcript


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MS. BRZEZINSKI: One of President Barack Obama's closest economist advisers, Larry Summers, told reporters today he was confident Congress will pass a stimulus bill and get it to the president's desk by mid-February. But Democratic leaders acknowledge that the bill doesn't really have the votes, at least not yet.

Joining us now to share their views, two senators who are driving the debate, Democratic Senator from Oregon Ron Wyden and Republican Senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both. And I know you have a vote in about five minutes, so we'll rip through this.

Senator Coburn, you've called the stimulus bill the "Generational Theft Act." What needs to be cut from the bill to get your support, or do you plan to block it?

SEN. COBURN: No, I don't plan to block it. I think we need a bill. But this bill has about $700 billion worth of spending that's not stimulus. It's a spending bill. And what we want is a bill that's actually going to make a difference, and we shouldn't be stealing $1.2 trillion from our kids to be able to say we passed a stimulus bill.

One point I'd make is there's no cut of any program that's not effective in this bill. So not only are we spending a ton of money; we're not doing the hard work that every family is doing right now of making priorities.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: All right, I'd like to play President Obama and how he thinks this should play out, especially in terms of the time line. Take a listen.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) I urge members of Congress to act without delay. No plan is perfect, and we should work to make it stronger. No one's more committed to making it stronger than me. But let's not make the perfect the enemy of the essential.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: Senator Wyden, what is the rush? I mean, this is our economic future, which is in crisis. And last time we rushed something through, I don't think it went too well.

SEN. WYDEN: We need to move quickly, but we need to move responsibly. And led by President Obama, we Senate Democrats are going to be reaching out to Senate Republicans like Dr. Coburn to do this right. For example, in the Senate Finance Committee, on which I serve, we accepted Senator Grassley's amendment to deal with the crushing cost of the alternative minimum tax. That's a killer tax. It's something Republicans felt strongly about.

We're going to do more in the area of infrastructure -- roads and bridges and transportation systems. It seems to me that private investment always has followed public investment. So there is a need to move quickly because you have to restore confidence among the people, but I think we can do that and still move responsibly.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: All right, Senator Coburn, I'm actually -- (inaudible) -- my producer; I'm flipping the full screens here. You are known as a true fiscal conservative, and here's what you wrote in The Wall Street Journal today. You said, "The bill's sponsors have made zero effort to pay for this new spending by eliminating programs that aren't working. Congress remains focused on finding shovel-ready projects when at least $300 billion in wasteful programs are scissor- ready today."

I would think it's good to get rid of waste, but at this point, is that the priority? What I'm looking for from either side is something that I know is a sure-fire solution. Is that possible?

SEN. COBURN: Well, sure, it is. The problem is the political class in this country doesn't want to offend any interest groups. So if something's a very low priority, why shouldn't we spend the money on something that's a much higher priority and wait on the things that are lower priority?

What we do is we put a credit card into the machine and charge it to our grandkids. We're going to decrease their standard of living because we don't want to do the tough things that every family is doing right now, which is prioritize the spending so that we don't waste money. And we can have a great stimulus bill, one that is truly stimulatory. But what we're doing now isn't going to work and it's got to be changed.

SEN. WYDEN: I'd only add that Dr. Coburn is right about waste. Let's use this legislation to toughen up the rules on earmarks. Senator McCain, Senator Feingold have one approach, and there may be others. Tom Coburn has done excellent work in terms of blowing the whistle on wasteful government spending. Before this legislation is through, we're going to have tough anti-earmark provisions.

SEN. COBURN: Well, what I would add to that -- and thank you, Ron, for that comment -- there's probably $200 billion in this bill of waste -- of waste. It will not make an impact.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: You know, I don't know anyone who really loves the bill, which confuses me when I try and think about whether or not it's going to have any good positive impact. I'm told it's going to create or retain jobs.

Senator Wyden, let me put it to you this way. Let's look at a microcosm in your state. The city of Tulsa is asking for, among other things -- and I'll list a few of them -- $200,000-plus for road improvements; $100,000 for economic development; $46,750 for rail infrastructure.

You know, there's a budget shortfall, and you know that the stimulus package would create some jobs and pay for some of these projects. Are you willing to go back home and tell your constituents that you opposed money to pay for these projects and to make these jobs, that you just wouldn't go for it?

SEN. WYDEN: I think you were asking about an Oklahoma city. But the basic point is that there is no economic multiplier like well- targeted investments in roads and bridges and transportation systems. You look at somebody like Zandi at Moody's. He has consistently said that if you're going to wring the maximum value out of the stimulus dollar, it is well-targeted investments in roads and bridges and transportation systems. I'm willing to work with some of those that we're lucky enough to have as fiscal hawks, like Tom Coburn, to make sure that we wring every possible cent of value out of the stimulus dollar.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: All right, but again, when we look at -- and Senator Coburn, I'll ask you this -- I don't see how jobs will be created by welfare programs, and I also am not sure about these tax breaks that the Republicans want. What do we know will actually stimulate the economy? And what in this bill defines stimulus?

SEN. COBURN: Well, I don't think there is a definition in this bill. That's part of the big problem with it. We know things that can be stimulatory -- things that we know we're going to buy anyway, and we advance the purchase on it; resetting the military, roads and bridges. We have 243,000 bridges that are dangerous in this country today. And a good portion of those we can fix. We have sewer projects. There's no question we can do that.

As far as telling the people of Tulsa, they know me. I'm not about to vote for anything that isn't a priority for this country or won't solve the problems. So half of what they're going to want, I'm not going to support, and they know that.

SEN. WYDEN: And look at what's being done on the energy side. We're enhancing the energy production tax credit. You don't get that tax credit unless you actually produce energy. Now, that may be too logical for traditional government approaches, but it makes sense and it's in this bill.

SEN. COBURN: Yeah, but none of that is to lessen the risk of us and our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels. It's all for alternative, which is fine. But let me tell you, Oklahoma is unwinding from drilling. That's a big business in our state. And we're going to see big-time layoffs on that, and we're going to see rig utilization rates go down. So we ought to be doing it across the board in terms of energy.

SEN. WYDEN: It does reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We'll start turning wood waste into clean fuel.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: Hey, nice bipartisan effort co-anchoring this segment.

SEN. WYDEN: Thank you.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: Thank you very much, gentlemen.

SEN. COBURN: Good to be with you.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: I know you have to go vote, so I appreciate your coming on the show.

SEN. WYDEN: Thank you.

MS. BRZEZINSKI: Good luck.

SEN. COBURN: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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