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WALLACE: Something special happened in Washington this week. No, not the blooming of the cherry blossoms, though that was lovely. But some serious compromises on immigration, guns and the budget.
Joining us now, the two senators who count votes for possible deals. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin joins us from Chicago. And Texas Republican John Cornyn is here in Washington.
Gentlemen, you just heard Marco Rubio.
Senator Cornyn, can you support the key component, which is that illegals get legal status within months as soon as the Department of Homeland Security announces its plan -- not that it's actually achieved it but its plan for border security -- or is that amnesty?
SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-TEXAS: Well, Chris, I found it to be a good practice to read the bill before you comment on it, whether you're gong to support it or not. And I want to say that I'm encouraged by what the so-called "Gang of 8," including Senator Durbin, Senator Rubio, and others have come up with. I was here in 2007 last time we seriously debated immigration reform on the floor of the Senate and I have the scars to prove it. It was a tough --
WALLACE: But, briefly, if I can ask, could you accept temporary legal status for illegals before the border has actually been secured?
CORNYN: I believe border security is absolutely conservatively to this -- to this picture. And so much of it is regaining the public's confidence that the federal government is actually doing its job. So, until that confidence is restored by -- based on the basis of what the legislation provides, I would have difficulty supporting it.
But having said that, I want to read it, I want to go through the regular process on the Judiciary Committee and the floor, and I'm open to certainly supporting immigration reform.
WALLACE: Senator Durbin, let me ask you the same question I asked Senator Rubio. Is this 90 percent apprehension rate a trigger or a goal as you and some of the other Democrats on the "Gang of Eight" say?
SEN. DICK DURBIN, D-ILL.: Well, it's an important question but I think what Marco Rubio has said really put his finger on it.
Let's put it in context, Chris. Our border with Mexico is the safest and strongest it's been in 40 years. We have invested billions of dollars into border enforcement. We're putting more money into border enforcement than we're putting into the FBI and the Secret Service and ATF and DEA combined. And yet, we're saying that if we don't meet all the measurements, all the goals that we've set in years to come, we'll put more in, more investment there.
So, there comes a point we're working with the local units of government, we're making these investments, we are I think moving toward the type of border security which everyone wants to see in America -- most certainly, conservatives like Marco Rubio.
WALLACE: So, you know, an easy question/easy answer. Is it a goal or a trigger?
DURBIN: Well, I think it's both. I think it's both. In terms of saying we're going to shut down the whole system if we don't hit the number, you know, this is a tough thing to measure at some point. We may be within a point or two here or there. We're going to work with the local stakeholders in trying to make sure that we make the necessary investments to close the gap.
We're committed to it. It was the beginning part of the conversation. Every Republican at the table said we've got to start with border security, get that right and we'll stick around for the rest of the conversation. I think we've kept the faith on that issue.
WALLACE: All right. Gentlemen, let's turn to guns, which is another big issue you're going to be talking about this week in the Senate.
Senator Cornyn, you met with families of the Newtown victims this week. And after meeting with them, you said that they wanted mental health reform first.
WALLACE: But Francine Wheeler, the mother of one of the young children who was killed at Newtown, delivered the president's weekly radio address or media address this week.
Here's what she said.
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FRANCINE WHEELER, SANDY HOOK PARENT: Our younger son, Ben, age 6, was murdered in his first grade classroom on December 14th, exactly four months ago this weekend. Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: Senator, in that message, the only thing she mentioned was tougher gun control.
CORNYN: Well, in my meeting with the Sandy Hook families, they told me that -- and, of course, who wouldn't be -- who wouldn't have sympathy and empathy for these people who have suffered lost, but what they told me is they wanted to make sure their loved one did not die in vain, that something good would come out of this. And so, I think that's why I'm focused like a laser on the mental health component.
Adam Lanza --
WALLACE: But, forgive me, sir, they're focused on tougher gun control, specifically the background check.
CORNYN: Well, for example, Adam Lanza stole his mother's guns. A background check wouldn't have stopped that problem, that incident. A background should have stopped James Holmes in Tucson. It should have stopped the Virginia Tech shooter because their background check information about his adjudicated mental illness was not forwarded to the national -- FBI's background check.
In other words, I think the mental illness issue is the common element that we ought to be focused on. And I think we can do some good things.
But I'm not for symbolism over substance. I think we can't just pat ourselves on the back and say we're passing enhanced penalties for trafficking or other issues or background checks when they don't really go and solve the problems that caused these terrible tragedies.
WALLACE: Senator Durbin, you and Senator Cornyn, as we said in the lead-in, as the whips in the Senate, are the vote counters. You're the guys who know whether or not there are enough votes.
Are there enough votes when this comes up this week for you to pass the Manchin/Toomey compromise on expanded background checks?
DURBIN: Well, I think John will concede that Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is one of the most conservative members of the Republican Senate Caucus; Joe Manchin, one of the most conservative members of the Democratic Caucus. The two of them have come up with a background proposal that is supported by 90 percent of the people in America. It's supported by 75 percent of the members of the National Rifle Association.
So, I hope that the 16 senators and even more will step up and join this approach to make sure that the background checks extend beyond where they are today to try to reach the 40 percent of firearms that are being sold without background checks.
WALLACE: But, sir, do you have the votes at this point or not?
DURBIN: We haven't whipped it. I can tell you this. When it gets down to it, we've got to ask the basic question, should we try to keep guns out of the hands of felons and people so mentally unstable, they shouldn't own a firearm? If the answer is yes, Manchin/Toomey is a step in that direction.
CORNYN: Chris --
WALLACE: Real quickly, Senator Cornyn, do you have the votes to block it?
CORNYN: Well, I'm interested in the debate and discussion, but I would just make the point that if Manchin/Toomey were the law of the land today, none of the four of the most recent mass tragedies involved in gun violence would have been prevented.
WALLACE: The parents say that doesn't matter, though.
CORNYN: Well, what matters to me is that we not just engage in a symbolic act and pat ourselves on the back and say we've done something good and left the problem unsolved. I'd like to solve the problem by focusing on the common element of these recent tragedies, which is the mental health issue.
WALLACE: OK, let's move on if we can to the budget. The president submitted his budget this week which calls for entitlement reforms and cuts, but also more taxes, through limiting deductions.
Here's how House Speaker John Boehner reacted.
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REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-OHIO, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: He wants to hold these modest reforms hostage for just another round of tax increases. It's no way to compromise. It's no way to move the country forward. And, frankly, it's no way to lead.
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WALLACE: Senator Durbin, you have supported chained CPI in the past as a more accurate way to measure cost of living adjustments. If it would be a sensible and accurate cut, if it would help preserve Social Security, why not just vote for it and split it off, not link it to this question of raising taxes?
DURBIN: Chris, let me tell you. This really gets down to the basics. If, in fact, the Republicans are genuine and sincere about dealing with the budget deficit, for goodness sakes, we have to put everything on the table.
The president just did that. The president stuck his neck out and I can tell you he's getting beaten up on the left by it.
What I have said is the chained CPI can be part of our effort to reform Social Security and make sure it has 75 years of solvency. That's what the president's aiming for. That's what I'm aiming for.
But when Boehner -- Speaker Boehner just dismisses this and says if the word "tax" is in there, then Grover Norquist and I are leaving, you know, that is no way to run a country. It's no way to accept a bipartisan responsibility to deal with this deficit.
WALLACE: Senator Cornyn, is the president's budget at least a starting point, a place to begin negotiations both on entitlement reform and higher taxes?
CORNYN: Well, on the chained CPI issue, I think it does represent some modest progress. But you have to recognize the fact this budget was two months late. It raises taxes another trillion dollars or contemplates that and it never balances.
So I give the president credit that he did put this on the table. But this -- I know Dick would agree, chained CPI won't save Social Security and Medicare. We've got to do more.
WALLACE: And if they were willing to do more, would you be willing to put taxes on the table?
CORNYN: Well, I'd be willing to talk about what a grand bargain would look like.
WALLACE: Including taxes?
CORNYN: The president got $600 billion in taxes in January and it's a wrong thing to do to raise taxes another trillion dollars, on top of the $1.6 trillion --
WALLACE: But would you be willing to -- (CROSSTALK)
WALLACE: -- or not, sir?
CORNYN: I'm happy to talk any day about anything. Just about. But I think the president got his tax increase.
WALLACE: OK. One last issue I want to get in to with both of you, and that is North Korea. Secretary of State John Kerry in Seoul this weekend said that the U.S. and South Korea are wiling to return to talks and even consider more aid to North Korea if that regime pulls back from its nuclear program.
Senator Durbin, this sounds familiar. Do we really want to go down this path again, more talks, more aid to the North Koreans?
DURBIN: The last thing we want is the launch of any kind of nuclear missile or nuclear weapon on the Korean peninsula or anywhere in this world. We've got to deescalate the rhetoric and the testing that's going on in North Korea and we're turning primarily to China and saying it's time for you to step up and show some leadership in this region of the world.
We're prepared to work toward a common goal of peace. But we need the Chinese to tell the North Koreans if they want to continue this kind of escalation of rhetoric, it's at the expense of the safety of this world, as well as their own economy.
So, I think Secretary Kerry has it right. We're willing to step forward but we want to see some positive measures from the North Koreans that bring down this harsh and hot rhetoric that we've heard so often in the last few weeks.
WALLACE: Senator Cornyn, a year ago, you accused the Obama administration of a policy of appeasement -- your words -- towards North Korea. How do you think they're handling the current situation?
CORNYN: Well, I'm not for paying an unhinged leader like Kim Jong Un ransom in order to have him toned down his rhetoric. I'm concerned that this inexperienced, the new leader of North Korea, will make a mistake or something could happen, which would result in the kind of conflict that Dick just alluded to. None of us wants that. But I don't see that this policy of paying ransom just to get him to tone down rhetoric has been successful. It's just sort of like a bad movie. We keep seeing the reruns.
WALLACE: Finally, we got 30 seconds left, Senator Durbin. You are chairing a hearing this week about the president's drone policy. Do you think that Congress should have a role deciding when, where, and who the U.S. strikes with drones?
DURBIN: Yes, I do. And I think the Constitution's very clear. The Founding Fathers said the people of America will decide when we go through war through their elected members of Congress. Those are the questions we have to raise now. The drones have offered us a new technology but an age-old question, when is America at war? How far can the war go? Who are the combatants in the war?
And in this circumstance, when it comes to targets in foreign lands, does it make a difference if it's an American or not an American? Critical constitutional questions -- not my idea, the idea of the Founding Fathers.
WALLACE: Senator Durbin, Senator Cornyn, we want to thank you both. You've got a lot on your plates -- and we'll be following all of the action in the Senate. Thank you both for coming in today.
CORNYN: Thank you, Chris.
DURBIN: Thank you.
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