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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript


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SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): Well, she's doing great. And I talked to her husband, Mark, last night, and she is making progress. And if there's anyone in the world that will recover fully from this kind of crime and just unbelievable injury, it's her. She's got courage, she's got drive, she's got spirit. And I really think her courage is inspiring all of us right now.

MR. GREGORY: You talk about her condition. You two, of course, good friends dating back to when she and you came into the Congress. Has she actually been able to speak?

SEN. GILLIBRAND: No. No. It's far too early for that. But she's making progress every day. She's using both sides of her body. She's able to breathe on her own. She's able to open her eyes and to show people she understands what she's hearing and seeing. So she's really--it's an extraordinary amount of progress for a woman who sustained such a horrific injury that she did.

MR. GREGORY: There was an incredible moment during the memorial service this week when the president, who had visited with the congresswoman when you were in the room as well, spoke about a big development when she opened her eyes. This is how he described it.

(Videotape, Wednesday)

PRES. OBAMA: A few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues for--from Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes for the first time.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Describe what that, what that moment was like.

SEN. GILLIBRAND: Well, the moment the president said that? The room...

MR. GREGORY: Being in the room.

SEN. GILLIBRAND: Well, I'll do both. When the president said that, the room erupted because these are her constituents. They love her. They're seeing her recovery as, as a story of, of triumph over terrible, terrible happenings. And so she's really someone who, because of her courage and strength, she can overcome this. Now, being in the room at the time was an extraordinary moment, a moment you really can't imagine. But it literally was the will of her husband drawing her out, saying, "Can you see? Can you see? Can you open your eyes? Can you see me?" And she let him know by giving, giving him a thumbs up that she could see and that she could actually understand what he was saying. And it was an extraordinary moment because it was all about her courage and her strength.

MR. GREGORY: What, what sense do you have being in the room and with her husband, Mark, who's been such a tower of strength through this, that she has a sense of what's happening around her in this outpouring for her?

SEN. GILLIBRAND: Well, just when Debbie Wasserman Schultz and I were there with Speaker Pelosi, and we were--I was holding her hand and I would say something, and she would squeeze my hand, it was very clear to us that she understood everything we were saying. And you know, she's--someone--she's a fighter. She's just fighting. She will overcome this, and, and I think we can all take a lesson from her because, you know, Gabby's one of the most nonpartisan people I've ever met. She's someone who truly epitomizes everything the president said in his speech where he's saying, "We as a nation need to be better than we are. We need to live up to the, the image and the, the view of democracy that our children have." That's who Gabby is. And she comes to public service with the goal of just helping people and bringing people together. And so I think she really is someone that we can all look to as she struggles through this because of her drive, because of her courage. We can all take from her strength and hopefully, as ourselves, be better than we are.

MR. GREGORY: She, she would certainly be a voice in this conversation here as we move forward.

SEN. GILLIBRAND: Very much so. And, and she was even before this incident.


SEN. GILLIBRAND: She was somebody who called us all to, you know, have a better discourse, to respect each other's positions. And we have tough issues. There are so many difficult issues right now. We have an economy that's still suffering. Being so close to a 10 percent unemployment rate doesn't tell the story. I mean, in New York, families are suffering. They really are having a tough time making ends meet. And so we have to, as leaders, as a body of government, come together and do the people's business. That's what the election was about. The election was about a demand by Americans to say, "We need you to put these partisan politics aside. We need you to get the people's business done. We need you to fight for solutions because, you know, we are suffering." Small businesses are still having difficulty growing. We're still having difficulty creating the jobs that are necessary to grow us out of this tough economy. And so that's what we're called to do. And I just think Gabby's story is one that certainly inspires me and can inspire all of us.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Gillibrand, thank you very much for updating this morning. We really appreciate it. We look forward to having you back.


MR. GREGORY: Joining us now, the chair of the Democratic Policy Committee in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, and Republican senator from Oklahoma, Tom Goburn--Coburn, rather.

Welcome to both of you. Well, Congress gets back to business this week, back to the agenda. But there's going to be a new piece. On the cover of The Week magazine, kind of summed up where this debate may be going, "Locked and loaded: Guns, politics, and the Tucson tragedy."

And I want to read, Senator Schumer, something that the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in the wake of the Tucson shootings. I'll put it up on the screen. "Enough is Enough! Tucson Shooter, Arizona New Faces of Weak Gun Laws. The 22-year-old shooter in Tucson was not allowed to enlist in the military, was asked to leave school, was considered `very disturbed' (according to former classmates), but" that does not--"that's not enough to keep someone from legally buying as many guns as they want in America...Arizona is one of only three states that allow residents to carry loaded, hidden guns with background--without background checks. Arizona recently weakened its laws to allow guns in bars. In addition, if Congress had not allowed the "Assault Weapons Ban" to expire in" '04, "the shooter would only have been able to get off 10 rounds without reloading. Instead, he was able to fire at least 20 rounds from his 30-round clip."

Senator Schumer, must government do more on gun safety in the wake of this tragedy?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Well, I think so. But first let me say that I certainly agree. I want to begin this on the same note that your last interview with Senator Gillibrand ended. We should all be--we believe in discourse in America, and spirited discourse, but we have to keep it civil. And I think that Tom Coburn and I are good examples. We've worked together on legislation that we've disagreed with, the 9/11 bill, which passed. It had to be changed, but it passed. And even on the issue of guns, earlier on, several years ago, we worked together on trying to tighten up the record system so that if you were adjudicated mentally ill, you couldn't buy a gun. So I think we can make progress. And let me say this on guns. There, there are certain things that can be done that are--that don't even require legislation. After Jared Loughner was interviewed by the military, he was rejected from the Army because of excessive drug use. Now, by law, by law that's on the books, he should not have been allowed to buy a gun. But the law doesn't require the military to notify the FBI about that, and in this case they didn't. So I--this morning I'm writing the administration and urging that that be done, That the military notify the FBI when someone is rejected from the military for excessive drug use and that be added to the FBI database.

MR. GREGORY: What about the number of rounds, Senator Coburn, the ammunition clips? There are lawmakers who have already introduced legislation that would limit those the way the assault weapons ban did. Is that where the debate ought to go?

SEN. TOM COBURN (R-OK): I don't think so. You know, I, I think we're missing a bigger, a bigger problem. We have an obviously unstable person who, multiple times in encounters in different levels in our society, people worried about. He was pushed back, rather than somebody intervening and helping this individual. And so what we need to be--make sure that we fix the right problem here, and one of them is mental health, and, and how do we put our hands around people who are so disturbed. If you read all the reports on Jared Loughner, it is almost every encounter he had with people, people were concerned about him.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. COBURN: And yet nobody grabbed hold of this young individual and said, "You need to be helped. You need to be taken under care." And then had he been, he would've been reported and never been able to buy a gun.

MR. GREGORY: Well, that's the question, though. The reporting aspect of this, Senator Schumer, you just talked about it. Even the community college in Tucson, Pima County--Pima Community College, they recognized a mental health problem. They saw it as a problem for their community, and they discharged him from the school. They kicked him out of the school. But then there isn't a follow-up for the broader community that would then lead a gun store to ask some follow-up questions, to connect the dots.

SEN. SCHUMER: Yeah. I think there are three areas we can look at, and there's a possibility we could get bipartisan cooperation on these. The first is, as you mentioned, looking at the laws of somebody who is mentally ill, who is clearly disturbed, in terms of them getting a gun. And as I said, a few years ago a mentally ill person--someone adjudicated mentally ill, that's a little different than in Loughner's case--shot a priest and a parishioner of a parish on Long Island, and we tightened up the law. The--we worked with the NRA, actually, Tom Coburn was involved, and the law's tighter now and better. But probably this is an area we need to explore. Second, the military notifying people who are rejected because of excessive drug abuse. And my belief on the clips, I was the author of the law in the House, Senator Feinstein in the Senate, to limit the clips to 10. I think we--I spoke with Senator Feinstein this week--she's recuperating from surgery, minor surgery--and we're going to look at that again. In the meantime, Senators Lautenberg, Congresswoman McCarthy have introduced a bill in that regard, and I hope that might move.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Schumer, I have to say, I detect some caution from you on this, that it might be the right direction, but you don't really expect much traction here. It's not...


MR. GREGORY: ...the normal enthusiasm I would expect from you on this issue.

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, look, twofold. First, we want to be civil in the debate, so we're making every effort here. Second--and respecting somebody's views who are different than ours. Second, look, let's, let's be honest here, there haven't been the votes in the Congress for gun control. We've had some victories, the mental illness bill that I mentioned. There was a proposal by Senator Thune that said if you were--had a concealed carry permit in one state, you could use--you could walk into another state. So laws like Arizona, someone could buy one there and come into New York and not even notify the police. That was defeated. But make no mistake about it, the changes are hard.


SEN. SCHUMER: Senator Feinstein tried to bring the assault weapons ban back on the floor and it didn't pass.

MR. GREGORY: Well...

SEN. SCHUMER: So we're looking for things where we can maybe find some common ground and get something done.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Coburn, look, the politics are tough on this. And Senator Schumer reflects it because Democrats know it's a difficult fight. Look at the public attitudes about stricter gun control measures just since 1990, at that point. We have a graph we can show you. Seventy-eight percent favored it, down to 44 percent in 2010. That being the case, even as a supporter of gun rights, as Congresswoman Giffords is, can you not look at, at areas of access to weapons, but also looking at limiting the scope by these magazine clips and say there may be something that's common sense here?

SEN. COBURN: Well, I--again, I would tell you that--let's say you pass that. If, if you have somebody that is a criminal, that wants to get around the law, they're going to get around the law. The problem with gun laws is they limit the ability to defend yourself, one. But number two is, the people who are going to commit a crime or going to do something crazy aren't going to pay attention to the laws in the first place. And there's numerous examples over the last few years where concealed carry has, in fact, benefited people, especially in, for example, in Colorado Springs, where a individual with a concealed carry stopped somebody who was going to kill multiple people in a church, and, and, and wounded them so that they could not continue to do that. So it's a controversial issue.

The fact is, I'd go back--let's fix the real problem. Here's a mentally deranged person who had access to a gun that shouldn't have had access to a gun. Now, what is the--how do we stop that? And, and there's a hole in what we need to do. And I'm willing to work with Senator Schumer and anybody else that wants to make sure people who are mentally ill cannot get and use a gun.

MR. GREGORY: Just one more on this, Senator Schumer. What about the security aspect of that, and self-defense? I mean, there are members of Congress and the House who have said when they go out to similar kinds of constituent meetings, they're going to bring a gun. And it was former member DeLay said this week on "Hardball" on MSNBC he'd be happy with people with concealed weapons, so that anyone who wants to try something would understand that they're going to defend themselves. Is that the appropriate response?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, let me say this. There is a right to bear arms. It's in the Constitution, and you can't ignore it, just like you can't ignore the others. But like all the other rights, it's not absolute. First Amendment, you can't--we have laws against pornography, you can't scream "fire" falsely in a crowded theater. And there should be limits on gun laws, as well, that still protect the individual's right to bear arms.

And just one point about your little survey that showed that the support went down. One of the reasons is because of the success of gun control laws. The Brady Law has been a huge success. Gun violence went down, the number of people killed by criminals who have guns has declined. And so to me, it's a vindication that smart, rational gun control laws that protect the right to bear arms but have reasonable limits are the way to go.

MR. GREGORY: I want to talk about a few agenda items for Congress getting back to session. But I do want to ask about political discourse and where this conversation should go. Ron Brownstein writes in his column in the National Journal this week, a column that's entitled "Apocalypse Always." And here's a point that he makes in conclusion of the piece: "When political arguments are routinely framed as threats to America's fundamental character, the odds rise that the most disturbed among us will be tempted to resist the governing agenda by any means necessary."

Is that the real problem, Senator Coburn? Is a description of political discourse and political disagreement as being apocalyptic, having such huge consequence for the direction of the country?

SEN. COBURN: I, I think that's a false premise totally. Everybody has tried in the media--I, I've pretty well been disgusted with all the media, right and left, after this episode, because what it does is it raises and says that there's a connection. And the president rightly said, there was no connection to this...

MR. GREGORY: But that, but that's not what the...

SEN. COBURN: ...the political discourse to this event.

MR. GREGORY: That's, that's not the premise here.

SEN. COBURN: No, what he said was...

MR. GREGORY: But, Senator Coburn, you, you know as well as I do that there are people--and it is true that it's very often on the right--who describe President Obama as somehow an outsider who's trying to usher in a system that will do two things, that will injure America and deny them of their liberty. Do you condemn that belief...

SEN. COBURN: Again...

MR. GREGORY: ...and try to reject it? I'm not making a sweeping generalization. I'm certainly not tying it to the event. That in and of itself is a strain of thought, is it not?

SEN. COBURN: Well, the--there's no question there's--there's all sorts of strains of thought. The, the, the problem I have with the premise, David, is that we're disconnecting what the real problems are in our country. And we're spending all this time talking about political discourse rather than talking about the real risk to our country, which we need to quit paying attention to what all the media says. We need to start watching, as Chuck Schumer has said, what we say.

MR. GREGORY: OK, but, Senator Coburn, it's fine...

SEN. COBURN: And what we say...

MR. GREGORY: Hey, it's fine to take on the media, and, and a lot of people would support you in that. That's fine. But I asked you a very specific question. Do you reject those who believe that the president wants to injure the country, and that will, that will deny Americans' liberty? And do you think violent metaphor of any kind is simply over the line in political discourse?

SEN. COBURN: Of course I reject that. But the point is, is we're spending all this time talking about something that it--has nothing to do with the events, and what the real problems are, we're not spending time working on it.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Schumer, is that a fair fact? Are--do you agree...

SEN. COBURN: And, and the fact is, is that we're going broke.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Coburn says this is a false premise that I've introduced?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, let me say this. I think that, you know, violent discourse in political life--right, left or center--is wrong and should be rejected. But I do think we, as elected officials, have an obligation to try and tone that down. And if we tone it down, then maybe the media will be less vociferous.

Let me give you one example. My colleague Senator Mark Udall called for Democrats and Republicans to sit together at the State of the Union. I called up Tom after he did that, and he graciously agreed, we're going to sit together Wednesday night at the State of the Union, and we hope that many others will follow us. Now, that's symbolic, but maybe it just sets a tone and everything gets a little bit more civil. We believe in discourse in America. We believe in strenuous discourse. We don't sweep differences under the rug. Tom and I have real differences. But we can do it civilly. I will say, to Tom's credit, we have disagreed on a whole lot of stuff, but he's always been civil, he's always been a gentleman. And that's an example that people should follow--politicians and the media.

MR. GREGORY: So, Senator Coburn, about sitting together, assuming you're on board with that as well, that is symbolic. But then what, what message do you hope that sends? And how do, how do you make this a moment that transcends this particular time when everybody's got Congresswoman Giffords on the top of their mind?

SEN. COBURN: Well, I think the key, David, is people go back to motive. And what we can't question is our president's love for our country, Chuck Schumer's love for our country. And, and where we get in trouble is when we start looking at motives rather than differences of ideology. And, and I think where we've had problems in the Senate, it's been small, but the fact is, is that always comes about under--when people are questioning their motives. I think the people in the Senate love this country. We have vast differences in how we believe what will be the best course for our country. But I believe the question of motives is something that ought to be set aside. We don't have the Lincoln-Douglas debate. Some of the problems in our country is, is we talk past each other, not to each other. And Chuck and I have been able to work on multiple bills because we sit down, one on one, and work things out. And what we need to do is have more of that, not less of it.

MR. GREGORY: Can I just ask you both--we just have about a minute left. I just want to get a couple of issues in here and get your comment on them.

SEN. SCHUMER: In one minute.

MR. GREGORY: Well, about a minute. I'm just trying to say a little bit briefer here. As the agenda moves forward, there is healthcare repeal that's on the agenda in the House.

Senator Coburn, Harry Reid has said this is an exercise in futility. You're a doctor. Of course you've paid careful attention to this. If repeal is not possible, what change do you think can reasonably made--be reasonably made to healthcare reform?

SEN. COBURN: Well, I think we ought to try to repeal it because we ought to build a basis of that we've gone in the wrong direction to solve the real problems in health care. The real problems in health care is it costs too much. And what we've done is expanded the coverage but haven't worked on the cost. And we haven't allowed any market forces to do it. So I, I, I--even though Senator Reid says it's not going to get a hearing in the Senate or get to the Senate floor, the fact is, is we--we're not through with the debate on health care in this country because I think we've gone--as a practicing physician--we've lessened the impact between doctors and patients with this bill. And the most personal of things in the country is going to be taken over and managed to a degree that should never be, by those who are not involved in the doctor/patient relationship.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Schumer, do you...

SEN. COBURN: So my hope is, is that the debate will be good for us.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Schumer, do you think there can be an amendment, some kind of change to healthcare reform?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, let me say this. First, we welcome, in a certain sense, their attempt to repeal it because it gives us a second chance to make a first impression. There are so many good things in the bill: the donut hole; the fact that insurance companies, which just can just say you didn't dot the I or cross the T, kick you off; annual checkups for senior seniors, which save billions. Dr. Coburn knows how important preventive medicine is. And so many other things that didn't get a real airing during the sturm und drang of the debate will now get one. And so--and there are some changes we can work on together. Repealing the 1099 provision, which puts too big a burden on small, on small business. And what Dr. Coburn said, getting rid of--there's still--the bill did a good job, but it can get further in getting rid of the duplication, the inefficiencies in the system. We have the best healthcare system in the world and the most inefficient. And if we can work together on cutting those costs without damaging the good health care that people get, that's an area for bipartisan agreement, I think.

MR. GREGORY: All right, final question here about what Eric Cantor in the House, a Republican leader, called "a leverage moment" for the Republicans on the debt ceiling. It has to be raised. We have to keep borrowing money even though we're so deep in debt.

Republicans, Senator Schumer, want to exact a promise on a certain amount of spending cuts before they vote to raise that ceiling. Do you think that agreement can be reached?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, first, I think using the threat of not renewing the debt ceiling is like playing with fire. If we didn't renew the debt ceiling, our soldiers and veterans wouldn't be paid, Social Security checks wouldn't go out, and worst of all, we might permanently threaten confidence of the credit markets in the dollar, which could create a recession worse than the one we have now, or even a depression. So that is playing with fire. And I was glad to see that both Speaker Boehner and Eric Cantor said they're not going to use that as a threat.

We are going to have to come together on spending. There is no question about it. And we Democrats agree there ought to be spending cuts. In the appropriation that came up last year, late last year, the McCaskill-Sessions proposal, bipartisan, to cut spending considerably lower than was originally proposed in the budget was supported.

MR. GREGORY: All right.

SEN. SCHUMER: But you can't just do it willy nilly across the board. There are some things that changed since 2008 and need to be funded.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Coburn, does it have to be a specific amount in cuts before you vote to raise the ceiling?

SEN. COBURN: I think, for me, it does. I've had conversations with the president. Look, the debt ceiling, we had warnings last week from the rating agencies that we're going to get a downgrade in our bonds. A debt ceiling non-increase is nothing compared to what's going to happen to us if we don't address the real issues facing our country. A CBS poll out this morning, 77 percent of the people in this country believe we need to cut the spending significantly. Only 9 percent say we need to raise taxes. The fact is, is I believe the president and the bipartisan majority in both Houses know that we can come together before the debt ceiling and reach an agreement that says, "Here's where we're going to be, and here's what we must do to send a signal to the international financial community." If, in fact, we don't raise the debt ceiling, that won't be near the catastrophe that if, in fact, the, the, the bond vigilantes come after the U.S. government bonds in the next two to three years.

MR. GREGORY: All right.

SEN. COBURN: We will have such bigger pain than not raising the debt limit.

MR. GREGORY: I will leave, make that the last word. Senators, thank you both very much.

And coming up...

SEN. COBURN: Good to be with you.

MR. GREGORY: ...more of the state of political discourse in this country. Might we see a return to civility in Arizona as Congress gets back to business on several highly divisive debates? This morning on our roundtable: the Reverend Al Sharpton; chairman of the Special Olympics, Tim Shriver; from The New York Times, David Brooks; and from The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan.


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