Copyright ©2009 by Federal News Service, Inc., Ste. 500, 1000 Vermont Ave, Washington, DC 20005 USA. Federal News Service is a private firm not affiliated with the federal government. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's official duties. For information on subscribing to the FNS Internet Service at www.fednews.com, please email Carina Nyberg at email@example.com or call 1-202-216-2706.
MR. GREGORY: Our issues this Sunday -- flu fears sweep the globe. Here at home, as the outbreak grows, the risk remains unclear.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN (D-DE): (From videotape.) I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now.
MR. : I think flying is safe, going on the subway is safe. People should go out and live their lives.
MR. GREGORY: What is the government doing to try to stop the swine flu spread, and could the U.S. outbreak turn deadly? All the latest from the three top officials charged with coordinating our national response: Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius; Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano; and Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard Besser.
Then -- a surprise switch on Capitol Hill:
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (D-PA): (From videotape.) I do think, Mr. President, that I can be of assistance.
MR. GREGORY: Veteran Republican, Senator Arlen Specter becomes a Democrat and pushes that party very close to a filibuster-proof majority. How will his decision impact the Republican and Democratic parties and their agendas in Washington? In his first television interview since announcing his decision -- our guest, Democratic senator, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Then -- what does Specter's move say about the future of the Republican Party for 2012 and beyond? Plus an unexpected retirement on the Supreme Court. Who is on the short list now and is a new partisan battle brewing? We'll hear from two key Republican voices -- Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and former Republican congressman from Florida and Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President Bush, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
And in our "Meet the Press Minute," we remember one of the Republican party's political stars -- former Republican vice presidential nominee, Jack Kemp, who died last night at the age of 73.
But first the latest on the H1N1 or swine flu outbreak around the globe. Here with us, the top U.S. officials coordinating the response, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC; Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano; and the new secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius -- welcome to all of you.
Dr. Besser, let me start with you -- this is the cover of Newsweek magazine hitting newsstands now, and it talks about "Fear and the Flu, the New Age of Pandemics." This is what people are concerned about. What's the very latest on how bad this is?
DR. BESSER: Well, this is a rapidly evolving situation with a lot of uncertainty. The good news is that each day we are learning a lot about this virus and what it's doing both here, in Mexico, and around the globe. And we're starting to see some encouraging signs, and that's good, but our approach has to be aggressive. With a new infectious disease you may only get one chance to get out in front of it, and that's what we're doing.
MR. GREGORY: So what are the raw facts here -- number of cases, numbers of deaths?
DR. BESSER: Here is where are are: In the United States, we've got 160 confirmed cases, 21 states. The World Health Organization this morning reported confirmed cases in 15 countries. Thankfully, in this country, we are not seeing the number of deaths in Mexico. We reported last week the tragic death of the child in Texas. But as we are looking, and we're not seeing those deaths, but I'm not totally assured. We need some more information to see what this is going to do, and it's very encouraging to see that people are taking this seriously and are doing the things to protect their health --.
MR. GREGORY: Let me try to understand this, because this was the big issue: What's going on in Mexico?
DR. BESSER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Why are people getting this flu and dying, whereas people in the United States are getting the flu, and they're okay? They're going through it, but they are recovering.
DR. BESSER: We are getting clues to that. We are in Mexico as part of a tri-national team with Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and we are looking very hard at that question, and what we're starting to see -- we are starting to see that there was widespread flu in Mexico. Initial reports -- really, we're looking at flu that was all presenting as hospitalization, high rates of mortality.
As we learn more about how widespread this is, it may be that the rates of severe disease in Mexico will end up being not different than what we see here. We are earlier than the Mexicans are, and it appears that they have had widespread flu across their country.
MR. GREGORY: But I just want to be clear -- so in other words, we're talking about 19 confirmed deaths in Mexico, 473 confirmed cases in Mexico, but many, many, many more cases of this particular virus than we knew to be the case.
DR. BESSER: One of the first things that we worked to do with the Canadians and the Mexicans was help them up laboratory capacity so that they could do this confirmation. The initial tests that were all being done were on hospitalized patients, the sickest of the sick.
As we are looking more, we are seeing that may have actually been the tip of the iceberg with a large number of cases that were less severe.
MR. GREGORY: Okay, and that's an important point -- that you could have this flu, this virus, coursing through a country, a community, and for most people it's less severe.
Secretary Sebelius, some context here -- the seasonal flu, that we all know about, kills 36,000 people every year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized.
In this country, 13 have been hospitalized with H1N1, or swine flu. Are we overreacting?
SEC. SEBELIUS: Well, I think David, we don't know, and what's important is that we are aggressively reacting to what the science is telling us, and as Dr. Besser just said, it's evolving a day at a time, and so the guidance is being updated, the information is being updated.
We know a couple of things. As you just said, seasonal flu kills people every year, hospitalizes people. What we don't know is what this new virus will do, what this new flu strain will do, and that's why I think taking precautions, being prudent at the outset, and then reinforming as we move forward is the most important thing.
We are in vaccine mode, so we're producing -- accelerating the production of --
MR. GREGORY: There is no vaccine right now?
SEC. SEBELIUS: No, you can't begin a vaccine until you identify the virus and the strain, so we're -- but a flu strain has been identified. It's being grown, it's going to be tested, we can be ready to produce. Meanwhile, the production of seasonal flu vaccine is accelerating. So we're going to do both, we're going to be ready for both come fall.
MR. GREGORY: Secretary Napolitano, isn't the quandary here for the government, for this administration, getting out all of the necessary public health information, raising that level of concern, but then being careful not to make people too alarmed or getting them to panic. And this week it seems like the administration went over that line. Vice President Biden, on the "Today" show Thursday said this:
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (From videotape.) I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.
MR. GREGORY: The vice president's office issued a statement later saying what he meant to say was if you're sick, don't get on an airplane. And look what happened just this week -- Friday, a flight from Munich to Washington diverted to Boston because a woman showed signs of the flu; was complaining about flu-like symptoms; they diverted the flight. How much damage do comments like Vice President's Biden's do in the middle of all this?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Well, I think the vice president immediately clarified what he meant to say, which is, if you're sick, don't get on a flight, don't get in the subway. If your child is sick, don't send the child to school. If you're sick, don't go to work, stay home. Our whole strategy is built around containing the spread of the virus.
But, on the other hand, people should otherwise just carry on with their normal, everyday lives and, by and large, that's what Americans have been doing.
MR. GREGORY: Well, you say that, but the New York Times report some of the reactions, some of the precautions being taken, and Dr. Besser, I want you to react to this: "In Delaware, a rap concert was canceled; at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, 22 students who had been student teaching in Mexico were told not to take part in graduation ceremonies; in Chicago, some Roman Catholic priests stopped giving communion wine and were asking parishioners to avoid shaking hands, 'The handshake of peace will be the nod of peace for now,' the Rev. Joseph M. Jackson of St. Ignatius Church said."
Appropriate over overreaction?
DR. BESSER: What we're seeing across the country is people who are concerned and trying to do what they can to protect their health, and what we're trying to do is share what things do we know really work and encouraging people to do those things -- the importance of handwashing or using alcohol hand gels; the importance of covering your cough with your sleeve and not your hand; the importance of staying home if you're sick. We're seeing other things taking place as well, and when we see that, we try and channel towards the things we know that work.
We are not telling people to not get together for concerts, but we are telling people who are sick, don't go to that concert.
MR. GREGORY: Okay, fair enough, but that's your message, but the reaction seems to be different.
DR. BESSER: Well, you know, everybody is going to deal with their concerns in different ways, and that's the nature of people. What we can do is try and tell them what the risks are, what do we know, share information as we have it, and continue to hit the messages of those things that can really be effective.
MR. GREGORY: But Secretary Sebelius, you've got reports, one out of Southern California, where people are flooding emergency rooms when they cough, afraid that they're going to die. That is not correct.
SEC. SEBELIUS: You're right. That is likely an overreaction, but it's also an indication of another of the key priorities of the president and this administration. One of the reasons people visit emergency rooms is that we have far too many Americans who don't have health coverage, who don't have a doctor to call, who don't have a health home, and this situation that we're in links directly into health reform. It presents itself as why we desperately need a reformation of the health system, while we need attention at that issue so we get people health homes who get preventive care, and we get a conversation going so people have more information on a regular basis and have that kind of preventive care and don't go through emergency room -- (inaudible) --.
MR. GREGORY: I want to be clear about something, Secretary Napolitano, but, first, Dr. Besser -- the strategy right now is containment. Let me walk you through this -- so a virus like this is unpredictable. So it may seem like it's tame, it could evolve in such a way to become deadly, it could become a more devastating virus in the United States. So --
DR. BESSER: Can I correct something you said already --
MR. GREGORY: Yes, okay.
DR. BESSER: The strategy is not containment. Containment is a strategy that --
MR. GREGORY: Secretary Napolitano said we're trying to contain the virus.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Contain what you spread of the virus if you're sick.
MR. GREGORY: Yes.
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Yes, it's what we're saying here.
DR. BESSER: Yes, in terms of containment, had this been an outbreak that had started in a distant place in a small community, the approach would have been send a large team of international support in there, try and limit it or contain it to that area. What we're trying to do is reduce the impact on people's health, and you do that by trying to limit spread from person to person, but it is in our communities, and we are not going to be able to prevent it from going community to community.
But what you can do is try and reduce the burden on the health care system, which is so overloaded as it is, so that those people who are sickest are really able to be cared for.
MR. GREGORY: But let me -- I think you're speaking to this point: If we talk about containment stopping the spread from person to person, there is still this mystery about why there is a greater degree of virulence in Mexico, thus far, than the United States. So for a period of time, why not seal the border? Why not stop flights in an out of Mexico simply until we know more?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: Well, we take our advice from the scientists, from the doctors who really understand epidemiology.
If they had told us that we would have an impact on the spread of this virus in the United States by taking some of those actions, we would have moved to do so. They told us, "No, it would have no impact," and that, really, our efforts needed to be focused on communicating with people, if you're sick, stay home; if your child is sick, keep them home; cover your mouth when you cough; and wash your hands -- very simple, common-sense things.
So the reason that was not done is because the scientists said it wouldn't have an impact.
DR. BESSER: If this had started in a distant place, beefing up activities on the borders would have slowed entry into this country for, at best, two to three weeks. That would have been important, because it would have allowed us to do the things that we have been doing now -- distributing antivirals around the country; getting surveillance in place; putting out the education messages.
Once it's already in your borders, those efforts have really no impact on spreading your country and divert yourselves from the things that can really work.
MR. GREGORY: So what is your big question now?
DR. BESSER: You know, the big question and we're getting information on that is the one that you raised -- what's different about Mexico and the United States? And the second question is what do we know about this virus and its ability to cause severe disease? We are learning a lot about both of those things.
MR. GREGORY: All right, so I have three young kids at home. If any of them present, if they're coughing, if runny nose, if they appear to have a cold, what should I do?
DR. BESSER: What you should do is call your doctor and say, "Here are the symptoms that my child has, what do you think? Do I need to be concerned?" And your doctor will be able to work with you, find out whether your children have any underlying medical problems or anything that would put them at special risk and tell you what to do.
MR. GREGORY: All right, because normally I wouldn't call him, necessarily, especially, you know, the second and third kid, I'm not worried as much, but you're saying now, with a cold, be more vigilant about it.
Secretary Sebelius, final point -- a big question about what happens in our flu season, which is in the fall?
SEC. SEBELIUS: Well, as you already point out, we know seasonal flu will hit, we know it will kill Americans, unfortunately, hospitalize folks, millions of people will get it. So we are ramping up production on the seasonal flu vaccine right now. We want to be ready to deal with that situation.
At the same time, we are growing the virus and testing the virus to attack H1N1 and will be production-ready when it's time to go. And then it will be a question of who and when to distribute that vaccine. So we'll be ready for both. We know it will come back. We don't know in what phase we'll see H1N1 continue or maybe ramp up in flu season, and we want to be out ahead of this again, not looking back in February and said, we coulda, shoulda, would have done something.
MR. GREGORY: A final message from you this morning?
SEC. NAPOLITANO: That we are doing everything we can to be ahead of this virus, to keep Americans informed, and to be safe.
MR. GREGORY: All right, thank you all very much for coming on this morning and good luck monitoring all of this.
Coming next -- a surprise on Capitol Hill as veteran Republican Senator Arlen Specter becomes a Democrat. He is here, live, for his first television interview since that announcement.
Then -- what does Specter's move mean for the GOP? Two key Republicans weight in -- Joe Scarborough and Ed Gillespie -- only here on "Meet the Press."
MR. GREGORY: We are back, and joining us, live, now from Philadelphia, the Senate's newest Democrat, Arlen Specter. Senator, welcome back to "Meet the Press."
SEN. SPECTER: Thank you, David, nice to be with you.
MR. GREGORY: Thank you. Your decision, or since your decision, there has been some pretty big news. We'll get to the reasons for your decision in just a moment, but I want to talk about the retirement of Justice Souter and the vacancy to the Supreme Court that President Obama will now fill. You have a fair amount of experience with this as the former Judiciary chairman, and you might return to that post even as a Democrat. So what kind of justice should President Obama be looking for?
SEN. SPECTER: He should be looking for someone with a strong academic and professional background. It would be my hope that he would choose someone with diversity. Women are under-represented on the Court. We don't have an Hispanic, African-Americans are under- represented. I would hope that he would look beyond the circuit courts of appeals, which now populate the Supreme Court and pick someone with greater world experience and diversity.
MR. GREGORY: That's important. Are you suggesting that he should not pick a judge but perhaps a politician or a leader from another discipline in life?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, maybe not a politician, perhaps a statesman or a stateswoman. But all of the justices now have been on the circuit courts of appeals, and they have lives and experiences, which are all very similar. And we live in a very diverse country with a lot of different interests, and I think it's important to have an Hispanic on the Court at some point; important to have more than just one woman on the Court, and more than one African-American; and it would be good to get people who know something besides wearing a black robe.
MR. GREGORY: Do you have a candidate in mind, and have you shared that with the White House?
SEN. SPECTER: I do not. I am going to respect the Constitution. It's up to the president to make the selection, and it's up to me, as one of the senators, to consider the confirmation question.
MR. GREGORY: You mentioned the import of a woman on the Court. Here are a few of the standouts that have been speculated about, so far: Elena Kagan, she is the Solicitor General now; Sonia Sotomayor, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; Kathleen Sullivan, director of Stanford's Constitutional Law Center; and Diane Wood, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
Out of that list, do you think there is a frontrunner?
SEN. SPECTER: I don't know, you'd have to ask President Obama.
MR. GREGORY: All right, the president said the other day, and he said this repeatedly -- that he wants an empathetic justice on the Supreme Court. Empathetic -- is that code to you for an activist judge?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, we look to the Court to interpret the Constitution and the statutes passed by Congress and not to make laws. There is no doubt that the standards and values in our country have shifted. As Cardozo said in the Palco case years ago, there was a time when equal protection meant that the Senate galleries were segregated, and we know how foolish that would be in modern-day life. So there is no doubt that there are changes with the times. But if you talk about empathy, you may be talking about something, which is broader.
But we'll have to test the nominee on that.
Listen, the job of the United States Senate is to ask firm, really tough questions to find out whether the nominee has an open mind, whether the nominee respects the supremacy of the Constitution, whether the nominee will look to Congress to establish public policy, and there are going to be some empathetic factors, but basically we are a nation with a rule of law.
MR. GREGORY: You're a Democrat now, and so I ask you whether, in light of that switch, do you regret your support in the past for some of the more conservative members of this Court -- Alito, Roberts, Clarence Thomas?
SEN. SPECTER: I do -- I do not remember -- I was a leading voice opposite -- opposing Judge Bork, a Republican. I got a lot of brickbats for that -- not a month passes by today without my hearing about Judge Bork, who was a leading Republican candidate. So I've not hesitated to oppose Republicans, a Republican, when I thought he was out of the mainstream of American jurisprudence.
MR. GREGORY: All right, let me ask you about this switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Back in April of this year, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," you said this: "So I'm trying to bring back those voters to the Republican Party. We need balance, and I'm trying to get people to register Republican. We need a second party. Look here, our country is built on checks and balances. The only check and balance in America today are the 41 Republican senators who can talk and filibuster. Otherwise, the White House, the House of Representatives, will be a steamroller."
Well, Senator, you have now decided to join that steamroller. What changed?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, since that time, I undertook a very thorough survey of Republicans in Pennsylvania with polling and a lot of personal contacts, and it became apparent to me that my chances to be elected on the Republican ticket were bleak, and I am simply not going to subject my 29-year record in the United States Senate to that Republican primary electorate. I am not going to do that.
Now, with respect to the steamroller, I have shown repeatedly my independence, willing to cross party lines when I thought the interests of the American people in Pennsylvania required it. Take one example -- there is a bill on employee's choice known as Card Check, which would take away the secret ballot and impose mandatory arbitration. I said when I made the switch, I'm still against that bill. Democrats are all for it, Republicans are all against it, and I'm the critical vote. And if I see that there are other issues where I feel, as a matter of conscience, I will continue a filibuster against legislation.
MR. GREGORY: Are there other issues, right now, that you can name where you don't see eye-to-eye with this president?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, I'm not going to start to explore a long range of issues. I'm not going to do that.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but --
SEN. SPECTER: You don't have enough time, maybe.
MR. GREGORY: Hey, we can make time. We're going to get to a few issues in a couple of minutes, but I want to stick to this point where you are saying this was politics, this was a cold, hard political reality check. This is what David Broder wrote in his column in The Washington Post, and it was pretty pointed -- look at the headline: "Specter the Defector. The one consistency in the history of Arlen Specter has been his willingness to do whatever will best protect and advance the career of Arlen Specter. So, once again, Specter is likely to reap political rewards from his maneuvering. But the Democrats should be open-eyed about what they are gaining from his return to his original political home. Specter's history shouts the lesson that he will stick with you only as long as it serves his own interests and not a day longer."
You are about to stand for reelection as a Democrat. Do you think that reputation hurts you?
SEN. SPECTER: I think it's a misreading. I do not think it is true. I can pick up any of the issues and tell you what my reasons were, and I think I have very strong reasons for all of them. There is more than being reelected here. There is the factor of principle. The Republican Party has gone far to the right since I joined it under Reagan's Big 10. When I came to the Senate, you had a roomful of moderate Republicans -- Heinz and Weicker and Stafford and Chafee and Danforth and on and on, and in recent times I have diverged materially from the Republican line. And the critical factor, David, as most people -- many people know, was the stimulus package.
I put the Republican line -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snow and I, and that created a schism. My approval rating dropped 30 points with Republicans as a result of that load, so that as the picture has evolved, I felt a lot more comfortable, as a matter of principle, with Democrats than Republicans.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
SEN. SPECTER: Let me mention one other important point, and that is my work in the Senate on medical research. I've been a major, maybe the major spear carrier for the National Institutes of Health, and I am trying to get more federal funding. I've opened up a website, SpecterfortheCure.com. If we had pursued the war on cancer, which President Nixon declared in 1970, Jack Kemp might be alive today. This medical research has prolonged or saved many lives including mine, and the New York Times today has a column when you compare my work on medical research it makes party allegiance look pretty small.
MR. GREGORY: I want to move on, though, to the question of what it took for the Democrats to get you. What were you offered? What inducements have you been given to switch parties?
SEN. SPECTER: None.
MR. GREGORY: None? You --
SEN. SPECTER: None.
MR. GREGORY: You won't retain your seniority as you move over on key committees?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, that is true, but --
MR. GREGORY: That's not an inducement, Senator?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, no, that's an entitlement. I've earned the seniority. I was elected in 1980, and I think that's not a bribe or a gift or something extraordinary. I will be treated by the Democrats as if I'd been elected as a Democrat.
MR. GREGORY: What about how you stand for election? Has the Democratic Party -- Leader Reid, Governor Rendell in Pennsylvania, and the president himself -- seen to it -- have they seen to it that you will not face a primary challenger?
SEN. SPECTER: They have not -- flatly, not.
MR. GREGORY: But the president said he is going to campaign for you? Who is going to step up against you when the president's declared his intention in the primary?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, that's a different question. You asked me if they've cleared the field, and they have not. There are two candidates in the field, and there are others on the sidelines -- one other, specifically, who is talking about running. I didn't ask them to clear the field. The reality is, you can't tell other people what to do. I am prepared to run in a contested primary, but I don't want to run against a stacked deck like I would have had to against the Republican primary electorate.
MR. GREGORY: You know that Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security and governor of Pennsylvania is thinking about getting into the Republican primary race. Do you think he could win what you couldn't?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, I think former Governor Ridge is a very able fellow, and I have a lot of respect for him.
MR. GREGORY: One potential challenger is Congressman Joe Sestak, and -- he was interviewed in the Los Angeles Times talking about exactly what kind of Democrat you would be, and this is what he said: "Sestak said that Specter would have to answer a series of questions in the coming weeks such as why Democratic voters should view him as a leader in their party when he failed to prevent the GOP from moving to the hard right? 'What are you running for, Arlen?' Sestak asked. 'How are you going to use your leadership to shape the Democratic Party? Is it to the way we believe Pennsylvania should be helped? And the platform we should follow -- are you a Democrat, in independent, or a Republican?'" You always talked about core conservative values when you ran for president. What are you core political beliefs now?
SEN. SPECTER: My core views are freedom; a woman's right to choose; consistently voted for increasing the minimum wage; for expanding unemployment compensation; for the nuclear test ban treaty where I broke with Republicans. I got into politics, David, as a result of the inspiration of my father, who was a Russian immigrant, who was a veteran in World War I. The government broke the promise to pay World War I veterans a bonus, and Harry Specter was a little guy. And you take a look at my record in the Senate, for my record in public life, generally, I've always been for the little guy.
I say, in a sense, that I was on my way to Washington to get my father's bonus. I haven't gotten it yet, so I'm running for reelection. But I've helped the veterans, I've broken with the party on funding for veterans; I've broken with the party on voting for Social Security increases. My record has been issue-oriented, one at a time, and I think as a matter of principle -- listen, the stimulus vote was a mighty big test. It cost me dearly with the Republicans, and I stood with the Democrats because I thought it was right. I thought, otherwise, this country might have been on the verge of a 1929 Depression, and I knew it was politically problemsome, perhaps disastrous. I represent the people of Pennsylvania not any political party.
MR. GREGORY: It was reported this week that when you met with the president, you said, "I will be a loyal Democrat. I support your agenda." Let me test that on probably one of the most important areas of his agenda, and that's health care. Would you support health care reform that puts up a government-run public plan to compete with a private plan issued by a private insurance company?
SEN. SPECTER: No, and you misquote me, David -- I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat. I did not say that. And last week after I said I was changing parties, I voted against the budget because the budget has a way to pass health care with the 51 votes, which undermines a basic Senate institution to require 60 votes to impose cloture on key issues.
MR. GREGORY: All right, just to be clear, Wednesday, in the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Wiseman and Greg Hitt reported that when you met with the president, you said, "I am a loyal Democrat," and according to people familiar with the White House, "I support your agenda." So that's wrong? You didn't say those things?
SEN. SPECTER: I did not say I'm a loyal Democrat. You know, I read once -- another mistake in the newspaper, some newspaper.
MR. GREGORY: Let me -- I will turn, then, to the issue of health care -- you would not support a public plan?
SEN. SPECTER: That's what I said and that's what I meant.
MR. GREGORY: Okay. Do you support taxing the value of employer- provided health care for workers?
SEN. SPECTER: I'd be very reluctant to do that. Health care provided by employers, which is deductible for them and not added on as income to the recipient has been the mainstay of health coverage for millions of Americans, and I'd be very reluctant to abandon that.
MR. GREGORY: So the health care reform you would like to see is what?
SEN. SPECTER: I would like to see all Americans covered. I've joined with the Wyden-Bennett plan, has 14 co-sponsors. I would like to see health care, which emphasizes exercise and diet and makes premiums lower on that basis. I would like to see health care, which had very tough prosecution against Medicare and Medicaid fraud; put people in jail as opposed to fines, which are licenses to steal. I would emphasize National Institute of Health research -- what better way to reduce the costs of health care than to have -- prevent illness. I would support advance directives where we find so much of medical care is paid for in the last few hours or few days of a person's life -- not to tell people what to do on their care at that time but have them think about it. I support programs, which increase technology. The stimulus package has $19 billion. I have been in this field for a long time and have a lot of ideas, participated in the president's task force and am ready to put my shoulder to the wheel to get legislation adopted. But I'm going to take a look at it piece-by-piece. I am not committed.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, Senator Specter, what is the future of the Republican Party -- the party you have now left behind?
SEN. SPECTER: Well, it would be my hope, David, that there would be a wakeup call. It would be my hope that there would be a strong two-party system. That's what I've worked for for a long time, trying to bring back the Republican Party in the city of Philadelphia, trying to bring back the Republican Party nationally, and I have campaigned for Republican candidates and moderates. It would be my hope that the party would turn away from the Club for Growth.
Let me very specific here -- the Club for Growth has undertaken campaigns to defeat moderate Republicans in the primaries knowing that they would lose in the general election. I'd give you a long list but take one case, which was slightly different on procedure, and that was Linc Chafee. The Club for Growth beat Linc Chafee, made him spend all his money in the primary. Had Linc Chafee been elected in 2006, the Republican Party would have controlled the Senate in 2007 and 2008, and would have confirmed 34 Republicans judges, which were left on the table unconfirmed.
And I think that my colleague, Senator Olympia Snow, had it right in her New York Times op-ed piece, that you have to have a big tent.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
SEN. SPECTER: You can't -- listen, I voted 10,000 times. I don't expect people to agree with all my votes, I don't agree with all of them at this time, but can you imagine picking one vote out of 10,000 and having the party say to me, in effect, "We don't want you as our candidate?"
So there has to be room for people who are moderates. It has to be Reagan's big tent again.
MR. GREGORY: All right, Senator Arlen Specter. Thank you very much for appearing this morning.
SEN. SPECTER: Great being with you, David, thank you.
MR. GREGORY: Coming next -- what does Senator Specter's move say about the future of the GOP? Plus an unexpected retirement on the Supreme Court. Who's on the short list now? And is a new partisan battle brewing? We're going to hear from two key Republican voices -- Joe Scarborough and Ed Gillespie after this brief station break.
MR. GREGORY: And we are back with Ed Gillespie and Joe Scarborough.
Welcome to you both. Well, you've just listened to Senator Specter talking about what's wrong with the Republican Party, and he talks about this, Ed Gillespie, as a low point, a wakeup call. Do you see it as that?
MR. GILLESPIE: Well, clearly, the pendulum has swung away from us, and it's our job, as a party, to figure out how to get it to swing back and, obviously, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress will give us some opportunities there, but we've got to proactively go out and address some of the concerns. We've got geographic concerns, we're non-competitive on the West Coast, largely, and non-competitive in the Northeast and increasingly so in the Great Lakes. We've got to do better with Hispanic voters. So there are some things we've got to address, but I'm optimistic. This is the fourth time in my lifetime, I'm 47, that the Republican Party has been declared dead. We've come back the previous three times, and I think we'll come back this time as well.
MR. GREGORY: Joe, it seems like the fundamental question is what does the party want to be, right? So there are people who have said this is a low point. Ron Brownstein, in his column this week in The National Journal talks about the party being more monochromatic, more conservative regionally and in terms of the voters, and he talked to Tom Davis of Virginia who said this, we'll put this up on the screen: "Shrewd former rep, Tom Davis of Virginia, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee calls Specter's the defection a devastating blow that will send a bad signal of ideological intolerance to the moderate, white collar suburbanites the party must recapture if it is to threaten the Democrats' congressional and electoral college majorities. The dilemma for Republicans is what are we going to become? A coalition or are we going to be a private club?"
MR. SCARBOROUGH: But look what's happening right now. This always happens, like Ed says, Republicans were dead in 1964; they were dead in 1974; they're dead again, we hear. But just look at Connecticut -- you have the bluest of the blue states; you've got a senator, Chris Dodd, down by 16 points. Look in Illinois, another blue state. You've got Mark Kirk doing very well against all Democratic comers, another Republican moderate. Look in Pennsylvania -- Tom Ridge. If Tom Ridge gets in, that's a guy that's probably going to win that state, also. Even New York state, thanks to David Paterson, is a state that could very well go Republican.
So there is always a back-and-forth, but the bigger question is what does the Republican Party need to be? We keep hearing that it's too conservative. It depends on how you define conservative.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Over the past decade, we've spent too much money. We've spread our armies across the globe, we've changed rules on Wall Street that allowed bankers to leverage 40 to 1. That's not conservative -- that's radical, and we have to understand that and be truly conservative.
MR. GREGORY: Ed, you worked for President Bush, and we look at the standing of the Republican Party from when he came into office to when he leaves, and look at this polling -- positive ratings now for the Republican Party at 29 percent; in December of 2001 at 57 percent. Bear in mind, that's after 9/11 there. Negative ratings jumped -- they doubled from 22 percent to 44 percent there.
Is this about Americans turning away from President Bush or is it about turning away from the Republican Party? Is there a distinction?
MR. GILLESPIE: Well, I think, obviously, the president's numbers were low. It was frustrating to me because I am such a strong admirer and count myself a friend. But it's a lot of different things. We had control of Congress for 12 year as well, and there were some things I think that we could have done differently. When we had the White House, there were some things I think we could have done differently.
The point is to look at where we have opportunities, learn our lessons. I think that the effort that Eric Cantor and other leaders in Congress have just launched to go out and listen and learn and hear the voters is important.
There are opportunity in that -- President Obama, while he enjoys a 61 percent favorability rating, there is growing concern about his spending and borrowing and taxing out there, more independents aligned with Republicans in those concerns than with Democrats. On national security issues we have some opportunities.
So the key for us is to come forward with positive agenda and explain to voters how it is that our conservative principles translate into policies that improve their lives and create jobs and -- health care --
MR. GREGORY: I just want -- I want to press you on one point.
MR. GILLESPIE: Sure.
MR. GREGORY: You said independents are with Republicans on this. Obama advisors say just the opposite -- that he is in the high 60s in terms of approval among independents, much more trust for Obama than for Republicans on the economy, and this from the ABC/Washington Post poll: "Who do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?" It's Obama, 61 percent; Republicans in Congress, 24 percent.
MR. GILLESPIE: Yeah, the poll I was citing was actually --
MR. GREGORY: Yes.
MR. GILLESPIE: -- from a group that I recently helped to launch -- "Resurgent Republic," which is moderate on a similar liberal side of group, but it's accurate data. It's consistent, 61 percent approval of President Obama's performance. But on the budget itself, specifically --
MR. GREGORY: -- specifically in the budget --
MR. GILLESPIE: -- do you support this budget with its $1.4 trillion -- or $1.6 trillion in new spending, $1.4 trillion in new debt, and 51 percent of the respondents oppose it, and more independents aligned with Republicans in opposing that budget than Democrats. That's a specific issue.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: It's a problem, though. When Republicans took over Washington, and we're not just talking about George W. Bush, we're talking about Republican Congress. When Republicans took over Congress in 2001, and the White House, we owned Washington, D.C. like Democrats do now. We had a $155 billion surplus. When Republicans got out of power, we had a $1.5 trillion debt -- a deficit. We doubled the national debt from about $5.7 trillion to about $11 trillion.
Americans believed that we were spending to much money on foreign wars as well. We were the world's 9/11. We got away from the basics that Eddie and I worked on in the 1990s balancing the budget, reforming welfare, and adopting Colin Powell. You want to know a true conservative on foreign policy? It's Colin Powell who says we go to war sparingly, and when we go to war, we fight to win so we can bring our troops home. We've gotten away from that, and it's not just been one Republican, it's been the entire party. We've got to refocus.
That's why, when I heard Democrats, like Arlen Specter, and read editorialists like E.J. Dionne saying how liberal -- or how conservative the Republican Party has become, they've got it backwards. We have not been conservative as a party. We've been radical.
MR. GREGORY: You've got a book coming out in the next couple of weeks, and we're going to put the jacket, the special preview jacket on the screen here.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Oh, this is so exciting.
MR. GILLESPIE: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: The liner says, "Hope restoring conservatism and America's promise," and then look at the headline from the New York Times this week: "GOP Debate, a Broader Party or a Purer One?" Both of you addressed this question. Should it be broader? Should it be purer?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: That's a false choice, though. Ronald Reagan was about as conservative as you can be. Ronald Reagan said "The government that governs least governs best." Thirty years ago you had Margaret Thatcher, 30 years ago this month, coming into power. Again, Thatcher, a hard-core conservative on economic issues, especially.
WE need to be conservative but like Reagan, because conservatives always stop talking about Reagan, then talk about the ideology but not the temperament. We've got to work on our temperament. We've got to be more like Reagan. We can't scare little kids --
MR. GREGORY: But --
MR. SCARBOROUGH: And also, regionally, let's face it. We've had conservative leaders. We've had George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom Delay.
MR. GREGORY: But on that point --
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Are they going to win New England? No.
MR. GREGORY: But the criticism of President Bush and Karl Rove was to run a base strategy not only to get elected but to govern that way to a point where Lindsey Graham from South Carolina says, "Look, we can't have a party where I can't accept somebody in my party who agrees with me 70 percent of the time." Do you think it's a false choice?
MR. GILLESPIE: I do think there are a lot of false choices in here. First of all, let's note President Bush, when he passed in his first term in office, "No Child Left Behind," and the tax package -- all with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. We haven't seen President Obama do that yet. So that's a false -- that's a misnomer.
I do think, though, that is important. The fact is, Ronald Reagan, everybody talks about Reagan, he was right, we said "Somebody who agrees with me 80 percent of the time is my friend," and we can be a party that adheres to principles, but also understand -- to me, I think who we ought be looking at is the Democrats, frankly, and how they got the majority. They have recruited and supported candidates who run in rural districts who don't agree with their party platform on gun control. They have recruited and supported candidates who run in predominantly Catholic or largely Catholic districts that don't agree with them on --
MR. GREGORY: That's a model, you think?
MR. GILLESPIE: -- on abortion. Yes, the fact is, the most important vote a member of Congress casts is the first vote of the Congress, which is who is going to be the speaker and who is going to be the majority leader and set the agenda for the rest of the year.
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Purists remember, when we came in in 1994, we owned -- we owned Maine. We had two Maine congressman, we had two congressman from New Hampshire, we had two in Massachusetts, we had three in Connecticut. Now there is not a single Republican House member representing anybody in all of New England.
MR. GREGORY: All right, I want to --
MR. SCARBOROUGH: We've been shut out of that region. We have to go Ed's direction.
MR. GREGORY: I want just do a couple of quick points here -- one is the Supreme Court vacancy. You are well acquainted with all of this because you were the one to shepherd Chief Justice Roberts through that nomination, fight very successfully as the Chief Justice of the United States. What kind of fight do you think Republicans are gearing up for now?
MR. GILLESPIE: I think that -- well, there's a difference between Republicans and conservative groups, and there wasn't much difference, frankly, between liberal groups and Democrats in the Senate. I think it would be interesting to see here if Republican senators are going to adopt what the Democratic senators adopted in the last confirmation process with Roberts and Alito, which is to say it used to be that elections have consequences, presidents win elections, they get to nominate, and if someone is qualified in terms of their temperament, their intellect, and their experience, whether I disagree or agree with how I think they may vote down the line, I will support them. That was changed in the last go 'round, and I think it will be interesting to see whether or not Republicans say, "Yeah, we think this person may vote a certain way" --
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. GILLESPIE: And I thought the president's comment about empathy -- well, I may have empathy for the little guy in a fight with a big corporation, but the law may not be on his side. So I think that's a concern --
MR. GREGORY: Joe, let me --
MR. GILLESPIE: -- and Republicans should hone in on that.
MR. GREGORY: Let me talk about tactics on another issue -- that's the issue of national security. Here is a Web ad released this week from Republican Leader Boehner and Representative Pete Hoekstra talking about safety. Watch this:
MR. GREGORY: Is that the tone that Republicans should be striking now?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: No. How's that? That is not the tone we should be -- it seems very discordant right now. The president has just gotten in. We can disagree without being disagreeable right now. You will see ads like that, perhaps the last month of the 2010 campaign but, right now, Republicans need to keep their head down, they need to come up with a policy, a conservative blueprint for where they want to leave this country, and the environment, and a lot of other issues. No, I don't think that's helpful.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to leave it there. Thank you both very much. We're going to continue this discussion online with Joe and Ed and ask some questions that our viewers have submitted via e-mail and Twitter. Watch our "Meet the Press Take Two" Web extra. It's up this afternoon on our website. Plus, look for updates from me throughout the week. It's all at mtp.msnbc.com. And we'll be right back with our "Meet the Press Minute" remembering professional quarterback, congressman, cabinet member, and Republican vice presidential candidate, Jack Kemp.
MR. GREGORY: We're back. In our "Meet the Press Minute" this morning, we remember Jack Kemp, the former quarterback with the Buffalo Bills who went on to a famed career in politics -- nine terms in Congress, a member of George H.W. Bush's cabinet, and Bob Dole's running mate in the 1996 presidential campaign. He appeared on this program 21 times. Here he is in February of 1997 speaking about an issue of great importance to him -- race relations and civil rights.
REP. JACK KEMP (R-NY): (From videotape.) It's the single most important issue facing America at the turn of the century in the new millennium -- racial reconciliation, civility, an America where you can have a dialog over affirmative action, for instance, without being accused of being a racist on either way or on either side of that issue. These are important issues that have to be addressed, and I would like to see an America in which black and white actually listen to each other, and it can't be solved with rhetoric. It has to be solved with sound, positive, progressive, inclusive policies, and I want to see the Republican Party lead that debate, because we are the party of Lincoln, and we must be an inclusionary party that says that by the year 2000, as I tried to say in Harlem one day during the campaign -- I'd like to see an America where half of all black Americans are voting Democrat, but the other half are voting Republican.
MR. GREGORY: Jack Kemp died last night at his home in Maryland after a battle with cancer. He was 73. He and his family are in our thoughts and prayers, and we'll be right back.
MR. GREGORY: That's all for today. Next Sunday, two exclusive interviews -- Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari. They lead countries in a region that the president calls "the most dangerous place in the world." Next week, they'll be in Washington for a private summit with President Obama, and they'll join us on "Meet the Press" to talk about their meeting and how they are dealing with the Taliban insurgencies in their countries. That's next week. If it's Sunday, it's "Meet the Press."