updated 1/7/2009 3:12:21 PM ET 2009-01-07T20:12:21

Guests: Kent Jones, Bob Baer, Dean Baker, Ana Marie Cox, Ben Nelson

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Actually, wedgie is one of those post-Watergate reforms that Cheney objected to.  But, yes, it‘s a good idea.  Thank you, Keith.

And thank you for staying with us tonight.

Coming up tonight: A bunch of new senators swore to defend the Constitution, and they got their picture taken with Dick Cheney today as a reward.  Roland Burris did not have to get his picture taken with Cheney, but he also didn‘t get that Senate seat yet, either.

Also tonight, we will be talking about possible movement towards a truce in Gaza, a very big news there.  All of that and much more are coming up in this next hour.

But, first—accountability.  Accountability is something we were promised during two years of Democratic presidential campaigning.  Those who screwed up, those who committed crimes over the last eight years would be held accountable by our new government.  That new government would be transparent and open and accountable to we, the people, in real time.

That‘s a heavy promise, and it‘s a politically effective promise, as you can tell by the results of the election.

And in the last day in Washington, we have started to see it in action in the form of Barack Obama‘s nomination of Leon Panetta to run the CIA.  The Washingtonians who got soaked with a cold bucket of accountability because of the choice of Panetta—well, start with the senior folks inside the Bush administration who took part in crafting and justifying and implementing policies like torture and warrantless wiretapping.

The message to them here: Your involvement in those programs precludes you from a promotion into the Obama administration.  Sorry.  Don‘t call us, we‘ll call you.

President Bush was right about, at least, one thing, elections do have consequences and here they are.  Also held to account, elected officials entrusted with oversight of the Bush administration who made the decision this past eight years to not expose what was going on, to not bring criminal actions to light, to not use their powers of oversight to bring the off-the-rails intelligence community back onto the rails.

Among those failed overseers, not the worst among them but certainly among them, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, because nobody loves a bad track record like the United States Senate—just ask Joe Lieberman.  Senator Feinstein has recently been promoted by her Senate colleagues to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee.  She complained quite publicly yesterday that she had not been informed that Barack Obama was picking Leon Panetta to head up the CIA.  No phone call, no text message, not even a tweet.

When the news leaked about the Panetta pick, Senator Feinstein found out the way we all found out, from a news story.  Her response, quote, “I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director.  I know nothing about this, other than what I read.  I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

Today, the president-elect felt compelled to speak publicly in defense of his choice of Leon Panetta.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT-ELECT:  He brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy, an impeccable record of integrity.  As chief of staff, he is somebody who—to the president, he‘s somebody who obviously was fully-versed in international affairs, crisis management, and had to evaluate intelligence consistently on a day-to-day basis.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The Obama/Panetta/Feinstein story is being told and to a degree played out as an Obama transition controversy.  It‘s a misstep.  He didn‘t practice the proper Washington protocol.  The drama.  The peril.

And, you know, you could see it that way—or you could see this as a power move towards accountability story, and elections have consequences story.  More importantly, you could see this as a story about how the disasters of the Bush administration themselves have consequences.  Keep in mind that Senator Feinstein voted in favor of every major Bush nominee who came up for approval before her committee, with the exception of Tom Ridge.  She just missed that vote.

Feinstein said of Bush‘s nominees, like CIA Director Porter Goss, quote, “The president should have the prerogative to appoint who he wants.”  Now, on the subject of torture, Senator Feinstein stepped on the hornet‘s nest last month when she seemed to leave the door open to it during with an interview with the “New York Times.”  Quoting “The Times” here, “Mrs.  Feinstein indicated that extreme cases might call for flexibility.  ‘I think that have you to use the non-coercive standard to the greatest extent possible,‘ she said, raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures.”

Might require special measures?  Why would an imminent terrorist threat require anyone to waste time on measure that‘s notoriously don‘t work?

After the ensuing firestorm those comments created, Senator Feinstein was forced to make it painstakingly clear, through a series of statements, that she does oppose torture, now she says, in all cases—which is neat if not exactly inspiring.  Senator Feinstein and her predecessor as Senate Intelligence chair, Jay Rockefeller, who also complained about the Panetta choice—they were the people who, we the people, had to rely on during the Bush administration for congressional oversight of the Bush administration on intelligence matters.

We had them to count on to expose, to bring to light criminal acts like torture, like wholesale breaking of the wiretapping laws, like indefinite detention without trial.  These criminal acts perpetrated by our own government.  It was under their watch.

The consequence of that failure is—well, maybe it‘s that you don‘t get the first call when the incoming president is deciding who to select as his new CIA director.  The implicit message is that you were on the wrong side of history on this one.  You sat on your hands, and you don‘t run the show anymore, no matter what party you‘re in—accountability.

Every one of us who lived through the Bush administration has a measure of it as an American.  Those of us who lived through it as Americans who were also members of the United States Senate—we have a big measure of it to contend with.

Joining us now is former CIA officer and TimeMagazine.com columnist, Bob Baer.  He‘s author of the new book “Blow the House Down.”  His previous books, of course, were the basis for the excellent 2005 movie, “Syriana.”

Mr. Baer, thank you for joining us tonight.

BOB BAER, FMR. CIA AGENT:  Rachel.

MADDOW:  Senator Feinstein said yesterday that the agency, the CIA, would be best served by having an intelligence professional in charge.  Do you think she‘s right?  What do you think of the choice of Leon Panetta?

BAER:  No, she‘s wrong.  We need an adult in charge.  We need somebody with a political influence in Washington, a player, somebody who‘s an advocate for the CIA.  We had George Tenet all of these years.  He was essentially a staffer and went along with the torture, went along with the WMD, the false reporting on that.  We need a player, a former cabinet member who can deal with the president.  And he‘s a good pick.

MADDOW:  You wrote in “Time” magazine today that although Leon Panetta may not have the intelligence background, his appointment shows that Barack Obama understands the CIA‘s problem.  What do you think the CIA‘s problems are right now as an agency?

BAER:  It has to get to the investigations—the investigations of rendition, of torture, of secret prisons, of missing 9/11, of missing Saddam‘s WMD first of all.  It‘s the place that‘s flooded with contractors.  It‘s completely politicized, demoralized.  It needs a spokesman in this administration.  And I don‘t think anybody‘s better than Panetta.

MADDOW:  What specific qualifications, what specific experience, do you think Panetta has that are relevant here that would make him effective as CIA director?  Obviously, he‘s very close to Barack Obama.  That means that he will have the president‘s ear.  Beyond that, what do you see?

BAER:  Well, I mean, it‘s important.  He can go to the Oval Office, put his legs up on the desk and can said, “Mr. President, we can‘t do it this way.”  You know, and a professional could never do that.  And number two is he can stand up to Hillary Clinton and State Department is a competitor of the CIA, and stand up to Bob Gates at the Pentagon.  And that‘s very important.

He‘s also not tainted with the crimes of the Bush administration.  You simply couldn‘t have taken a CIA officer from the ranks as good as they are, that number two, CIA is excellent, but you couldn‘t take him and have him under investigation the next four years and serve effectively.

MADDOW:  The Bush administration, the president and vice president themselves, beyond the issues of rendition and torture and warrantless wiretapping, all of these other things, on the issue of Iraq, they are insisting repeatedly on their way out the door that the only thing regrettable about Iraq was that the CIA got it so wrong.  They‘re calling it an intelligence failure and not any other kind of failure.

Does the CIA see it that way?  What‘s the political lesson of Iraq for the CIA?

BAER:  Look, the information was cooked at the White House, the famous case of Curveball.  It was a source that the CIA never met, but the White House decided to use this information to justify an invasion of Iraq.  It‘s nonsense.

If the CIA had been left on its own, it would have told the president, “We don‘t know about any WMD.”  He could still have it or maybe he doesn‘t.  Blaming this on the CIA is a cowardly act, as far as I‘m concerned.

MADDOW:  In terms of the relationship between politics and intelligence, one of the things that is being called into question and discussed now, because of the reaction from Rockefeller and Feinstein to the pick of Panetta here, is how much good congressional oversight there is of the intelligence community.  It has seen to me as a layman and as somebody outside of this, and just follows it as an interested citizen, that the Senate Intelligence Committee essentially acts as a junior member of the intelligence community right now.  That they don‘t do very much oversight, they don‘t bring very much stuff to light or say no very often.

How do you see it?

BAER:  They never say no.  We always used to say in the CIA, “Treat them like mushrooms, keep them in the dark, and feed them manure.”  In the Senate, and both the House have been happy in that role.  I mean, they knew about warrantless wiretapping, Rockefeller did, and he did nothing.

MADDOW:  Do you think that if there are prosecutions, if there are investigations of some of these most egregious violations during the Bush administration, do you think that members of Congress, members of the Senate, are going to find themselves on the pointy end of the stick for those investigations?

BAER:  Oh, I think they should answer where they were, and why they agreed with this, and what lawyers do they consult, especially on the torture.  Everybody in the CIA knows that torture does not work—end of story.  Even in exceptional circumstances.

The Israelis figured this out.  Everybody‘s figured it out.  It‘s a political tool.  It‘s not a tool to get information.

Now, where was the Senate and the House through all of this?  They were—as you said—they went silent.

MADDOW:  Bob Baer, former CIA officer, current intelligence columnist for Time.com—thank you so much for your time tonight.  Nice to see you.

As a programming note, I should mention that we have invited Senator Feinstein to come on the show, we invited her to be here tonight.  Senator Feinstein and your staff and everybody else who might know you, the invitation is very sincere.  I do hope that you‘ll be able to join us some time soon.

That said, I should also note that Senator Feinstein made some other news today.  She says the Senate should seat Roland Burris the new Senate appointee from the great state of Blagojevich.

Today, Mr. Burris showed up at the Capitol, trying to get sworn in as a senator, but the Senate refused him.  They‘ll never get to 100 this way.  Anna Marie Cox will join us later on to discuss the drama under the dome.

And, while the Senate debates about what to do about Roland Burris, it apparently is not doing much debating about how to pass that stimulus package that just about every economist says we desperately need and fast.  Talk Me Down time is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  As if more proof were possibly needed that our economy is in dire need of immediate and massive help, look no further than the great state of North Carolina, where not once, but twice this week, the sheer number of people seeking unemployment benefits crashed the state‘s Web site.  In New York as well, the state employment hotline crashed after getting more than 10,000 calls per hour.  Eek.

And today, we‘re learning it‘s only getting worse.  The Fed is now predicting that the GDP will fall in 2009.  And that is a number you really don‘t want to ever go down.  They‘re also predicting that unemployment will rise, quote, “significantly” into next year.

President-elect Obama says his solution to this problem is to act swiftly and boldly.  He is pushing a $775 billion economic stimulus package complete with a $300 billion middle-class tax cut.  He first said he wanted the legislation by Obama administration day one, January 21st.  Now he says, “OK, maybe early February.”

Now, while Congress say—they say they‘re not even sure what will happen until mid-February.  Does it seem like we‘re getting into policy territory here that may still qualify as bold depending on what they passed?  But it definitely doesn‘t look very swift.

How bad will it be if this plan isn‘t passed and passed quickly?  Well, as Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, put it, quote, “Here‘s my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious.  As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it‘s only enough to slow the descent, not stop it.”

So, we‘re living Krugman‘s nightmare already, at least the start of it?  Why is this thing moving slower and slower, not faster and faster?  One possible answer lies in what an Obama strategist told Politico‘s Mike Allen, quote, “Obama wants to get 80 or more votes in the 100-member Senate.  And the emphasis on tax cuts is a way to defuse conservative criticism and enlist Republican support.”

Do you care whether “the save the economy” thing passes by 80 votes or not?  Would you trade whatever marginal satisfaction lots of votes would give you, lots of extra votes would give you, for the thing passing a month earlier?  I really need to be talked down on this.

Here to try is Dean Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Thanks very much for coming on the show, Mr. Baker.

DEAN BAKER, CENTER FOR ECONOMIC AND POLICY RESEARCH:  Thanks a lot of having me on.

MADDOW:  Here‘s your chance to Talk Me Down.  Tell me it doesn‘t matter that they might be moving more slowly than expected on the stimulus here.

BAKER:  Well, I can‘t tell you it doesn‘t matter.  What we have to hope is that they don‘t move too much more slowly, and what we have to hope is that they come up with a big package that‘s focused primarily on spending, and it‘s not too far into President Obama‘s administration.  It‘s not a done deal yet.

MADDOW:  Why does speed matter with this stimulus package, and how fast do you think they should be moving?

BAKER:  Well, they should have been moving yesterday.  Speed matters because the economy‘s going down real quickly.  We lost 530,000 jobs in November.  We‘re probably going to lose at least as many in December.  January looks horrible.

Every month we delay, that‘s more people out of work and this downward spiral goes further.  So, they should have done something—it‘s a shame they couldn‘t have done something even while President Bush was still in office, presumably they have agreed to something.  So, speed matters.

MADDOW:  Why do you say that it matters that it is focused on spending as opposed to on tax cuts?

BAKER:  Well, this isn‘t a matter of ideology.  There‘s a lot of evidence on this.  People save tax cuts, particularly given the current environment.  People just lost all of their savings in the stock market and their house.  They have to rebuild their savings.

If we send people a check, they are likely to save much of it.  That‘s good for them but it‘s bad for the economy.  We need spending right now, and we now hope the government spends it in weatherizing homes, redoing infrastructure, whatever it might be, that gives a direct boost to the economy.  That‘s what we need now.

MADDOW:  That said, nobody wants another set of regrets like everybody has about TARP.  Is there a case to be made that they maybe should go more slowly, more deliberately, because they could screw up if they go too fast?

BAKER:  Well, there are two things to keep in mind.  We don‘t want things that are absolutely harmful.

So, I just wrote a piece on this a few days ago.  We don‘t want to build highways that facilitates sprawl.  So, we can knock it out.  That‘s relatively to say to say that, you know, these are things that we‘re going to regret, you know, a year or two or three years down the road.  On the other hand, if we have things that are somewhat wasteful, better to be somewhat wasteful than have more people be unemployed.

So, if we have the standard, everything has to be spent in the best possible way, Paul Krugman would be absolutely right, we‘re going to be sitting here another year figuring out how to spend it, meanwhile the unemployment rate is going to go into double-digit territory.

MADDOW:  Economically, you‘re an economist—do you give an economist‘s hoot if it‘s an 80-vote margin passing this thing instead of a 60-vote margin?

BAKER:  We need something done.  I mean, I understand the idea of being bipartisan and getting Republican support, that‘s great.  But have you to get the policy done.  You have to get the economy going again.  If he gets 80 votes and doesn‘t get the economy going, no one is getting him any credit for it.

MADDOW:  So, the tradeoff of 80 votes three months from now, or 60 votes or even 51 votes in a few weeks—you‘d take the 51 votes in a few weeks?

BAKER:  Yes, exactly.  Get the policy in place and get the economy going.  That‘s what we‘re going to appreciate.

MADDOW:  Concretely, in terms of what is ultimately funded, are you worried about the ideology here?  Are you worried that the package could lose too many of its key items, the things that would be most economically important if there are concessions made during negotiations?  At what point should the new president just say, “Enough, pass it, I‘m not going to talk to you about it”?

BAKER:  Well, again, the question will be whether he‘s got enough there to really boost the economy.  If you have to throw a few bones and that gets you 10, 15, 20 Republican votes in the Senate, that‘s fine.  We can do that.  That‘s politics.

But on the other hand, if you‘ve given away hundreds of billions in tax cuts with relatively little impact, and it does go to the highest income people in the country, as Republicans always seem to want, then that has to be no deal.

We had an election.  They lost, you know.  So, they have an option, we can give them input, but they lost the election.  It‘s President Obama‘s call here.  And they‘d make a big mistake to act as though they won the election.

MADDOW:  The “elections have consequences” theme is resonating a lot tonight.  Dean Baker from the Center for Economic and Policy Research—thank you for trying and totally failing to Talk Me Down tonight.

BAKER:  I‘ll try again another time.  Thanks a lot for having me on.

MADDOW:  Thanks, Dean.

Al Franken and Roland Burris may both become U.S. senators someday but not today.  Will the 111th Congress ever let these distinguished gentlemen into their club?  Anna Marie Cox joins us just a little later.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  President Bush made his first public comments on the crisis in Gaza yesterday, after 10 days of fighting and more than 600 civilian casualties.  And today, Condoleezza Rice finally said there should be a cease-fire after the presidents of France and Egypt drew one up.  Leadership lame-duck style.  What those guys said?  We‘ll have our lame duck watch in just a moment.

First, though, it‘s time for a few underreported holy mackerel stories in today‘s news.  There are a lot of cold Bulgarians right now—cold Bulgarians cursing Vladimir Putin.

Here‘s the story: Russia has a big proportion of the world‘s natural gas.  And they‘ve got Europe and Balkans in a really vulnerable position since they control the pipelines that carry almost all of the natural gas in that part of the world.

Why is that a problem?  Why are cold Bulgarians cursing Vladimir Putin?  Well, it‘s because Russia decided a few days ago to dramatically and abruptly cut back on the amount of gas it‘s sending through those pipelines.  It‘s a payment dispute with Ukraine, with the Russians accusing the Ukraine of stealing natural gas and underpaying, and the Ukrainians denying any such thing.

Meanwhile, because Europe gets about ¼ of its natural gas from Russia and 80 percent of that goes from Russia through the disputed pipelines in Ukraine—Bulgaria‘s cold and so are a lot of other places.  Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, and Turkey, are all reporting that their natural gas shipments have been halted.  France, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Hungary, are also reporting significant drops in supply from Russia.

Now, although Europe gets about ¼ of its natural gas from Russia, some individual countries are way more dependent on Russia than that.  The “Associated Press” reporting that already two Bulgarian cities on the Black Sea coast are now totally without natural gas.  That means tens of thousands of people with no heat in January.  Hence, the cursing of Putin in Bulgaria.

Russia and Ukraine are meeting to try to sort it out on Thursday. 

Hey, you know, no rush, you guys.  Six days without heating fuel in January

no rush.

And speaking of rushing, the conversion to digital TV in this country happens on February 17th.  Forty-two days from now, all TV stations will switch to a digital signal.  So, anyone using rabbit ears will have to buy a converter for their old TV or else -- (STATIC).  In space, nobody can hear me scream.

All right.  So, in interest of planning ahead for the digital TV switch, the federal government has been doing all sorts of things to remind people about the change and to get people to buy converter boxes if they need them.  They sponsored a NASCAR car, which kept crashing.  They put up a really, deeply intimidating and confusing DTV.gov Web site about the whole thing.  And they started a program to mail out $40 coupons that people can use against the cost of the digital converters, all in interest of America planning ahead for the digital TV conversion.

Plan ahead.  Be prepared.

And then they ran out of money.  Yes, bad planning.  Anybody who applied after January 4th for one of those $40 converter coupons will be put on a waiting list, until more funds become available, or until inadvertent government programming irony fades to black.

And finally, we asked and you answered.  On last night‘s show, you may recall my desperate plea for information about why the Obama family is having to stay in the hotel this week rather than in that big presidential guest house.  The Obama daughters started school this week in Washington.  The Obama family had requested to move into the presidential guest house—it‘s called Blair House—this past weekend.  The White House said “No.  No, Obama family, you cannot stay at the president‘s guest house.  We‘re sorry, it‘s booked.”

Hence my plea for information.  What could possibly be the booking at Blair House that was too important to move, too important to reschedule, too important to say, “Oh, I‘m terribly sorry, we have to change plans, the Obamas have asked to stay here”?

Well, I asked and then today, my e-mail inbox overfloweth.  We got tips and suggestions from former Blair House staffers, from family members of Bush administration officials, from foreign policy big wigs—tons of e-mail.

Now, confirming one of the tips that we received about Blair House, the “Washington Post” is now reporting that at least one of the nights in question, Blair House will be host to—drum roll, please—the ex-prime minister of Australia, John Howard.  He‘s in town for a White House event on January 13th.  So, that bumps the Obamas?  The Obamas have to stay at a hotel?

The White House, you will recall, had said the Obamas could move in as of the 15th but not before.  Not before because a former Australian prime minister is using the guest house.

And as Margaret Carlson reports tonight on “COUNTDOWN,” when the Bushes told the Obamas to find other accommodations - that was back in mid-December, at that time when they said no, at that time, there was actually nobody scheduled to be staying in Blair house.  Ms. Carlson‘s reporting suggests that John Howard may have been put up there to justify sending the Obamas to a hotel suite. 

John Howard couldn‘t just stay at a hotel?  Really?  Is it just awkwardness?  Do you guys at the office of protocol want me to call him, because I have no squeamishness about this.  I will totally call him for you.  And I bet he will understand. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: The 111th Congress opened today with a solemn constitutional right that is as old as the republic.  At the start of each new Congress in January of every odd numbered year, the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate affirm their oath to defend the U.S. Constitution. 

In the Senate, the members stepped forward, four at a time, raising their right hands and repeating the words spoken by the presiding officer - in this case, awkwardly enough, still-Vice President Dick Cheney.  And then the senators do it again.  They reenact it.  Even Joe Biden did the reenactment.  They fake like they are taking the oath of office thing with the vice president, only the second time, it‘s all high school yearbook style so they can get photographed with their families.  It‘s kind of like going back around the second time in your cap and gown to get your picture taken with the principal. 

Now, in stark contrast to the stately formality of the Senate‘s solemn oath taking and quasi-stately formality of the fake reenactments, here was Illinois Senate-designee Roland Burris today.  He, too, was photographed and it might have been choreographed to some degree but it was in no way a reenactment. 

Burris was surrounded by a frantic group of reporters and camera crews as he arrived at the Capitol this morning.  He was in the middle of a scrum, greeted by the sergeant-at-arms, then he was denied credentials by the Senate secretary.  When he got outside, he said he wanted to avoid confrontation except for that lawsuit filed in the Illinois state Supreme Court to force the Illinois secretary of state to sign the documents that say that Roland Burris is a senator. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROLAND BURRIS, ILLINOIS SENATE DESIGNEE:  My name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the state of Illinois.  I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate and advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted and I would not be seated and I would not be permitted on the floor. 

And, therefore, I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation.  I will now consult with my attorneys and we will determine what our next step will be.  

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  According to the Associated Press, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in her role tonight, not as snubbed incoming chairperson of the Intelligence Committee, but as outgoing chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, she weighed in on the subject of Roland Burris by saying that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich does indeed have the right to appoint someone to Barack Obama‘s vacated Senate seat. 

And she said Roland Burris is a senior, experienced politician.  That does not sound like rejection.  And neither did Senate majority leader Harry Reid‘s comments on Roland Burris today.  

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HARRY REID (D-NV), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER:  Mr. Burris takes possession of valid credentials.  The Senate will proceed in a manner that is respectful to Mr. Burris while ensuring that there‘s no cloud of doubt over the appointment to fulfill the seat.  

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Now, less of a circus but equally fascinating is the Minnesota Senate race.  Senate Democrats decided not to seat Senator-apparent Al Franken after the Republican governor of Minnesota refused to certify the election board results from that state. 

Senator Norm Coleman filed a lawsuit challenging Franken‘s apparent win.  That triggers a state law barring certification while there are pending legal challenges. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NORM COLEMAN (R-MN):  As of today, not every valid vote has been counted and some have been counted twice.  So today I‘m announcing that I have instructed my legal team to file an election contest according to Minnesota law. 

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  And so we will have to wait on the second seats in Illinois and Minnesota and, of course, New York, whose Governor David Paterson has yet to make his choice.  Still, 34 senators were sworn into this most exclusive club today.  And as we perceive concern from that august body about the qualifications, the character of its members, the integrity of its membership, let us remind ourselves just how august a group the United States Senate is. 

(APPLAUSE)

MADDOW:  Yes, this is just a brief interlude from the 56-second long standing ovation spontaneously awarded seven felony counts-convicted Sen.  Ted Stevens of Alaska.  Remember, that‘s the club with such respect for its own history and rules and protocol and integrity, that there‘s concern among its members about who shall be seated among them. 

Joining us now is Ana Marie Cox, contributor to the “Daily Beast.”  Ana Marie, very nice to see you.  Thanks for coming in.  

ANA MARIE COX, CONTRIBUTOR, “DAILY BEAST”:  No problem.  Thanks for having me.  

MADDOW:  Senate Rules Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein says that Roland Burris should be allowed.  Does this mean that he will be allowed?  Does it look like this is a done deal? 

COX:  Nothing is done yet.  But I think it is looking more and more like he will be seated if only because I think the Obama people - and for the leadership of the Senate kind of just wants this to go away.  They want to get started.  They want to get rolling.  

MADDOW:  Yes.  But he doesn‘t go away if he‘s sitting there every day they‘re in session.  

COX:  You know, if there‘s a stink around and you let it linger long enough, eventually, you get used to it.  And I think that‘s what‘s going to happen.  I think they‘re going to hold their nose for a little while and then eventually they‘ll get used to the smell. 

And let‘s face it, they actually probably - they will treat him - I don‘t know.  Interpersonally, I‘m not sure how things will go.  But in the Senate, a vote is a vote is a vote.  And there is no need or reason to alienate people you might need at some point.  

MADDOW:  Well, there‘s no reason to speculate on what it‘s going to be like.  Personally, the Senate is a club that none of us can understand because we are not members of it.  I, at least - I still can‘t understand the standing ovation for Ted Stevens. 

But is it possible that they could deny him committee memberships?  Is it possible they could, you know, not invite them to their fancy Senate events?  Are there things that they could deny to him, even if they did allow him to sit in the chamber? 

COX:  I‘m fairly certain you can‘t bar people from doing things in the Senate.  As a seated senator, you are allowed certain things.  And being on a committee is one of them.  And again, there might be some mechanism they could use to bar him from a committee.  They can certainly bar him from leadership and they can bar him from important committees. 

But I‘m not sure they would want to bar him from the committee because they‘re going to need him.  If nothing else, Dick Durbin is going to need the second senator from Illinois for things he wants for Illinois.  

MADDOW:  Wow.  I can just imagine if I‘m not an Illinois resident but if I were an Illinois resident and I needed my senator to do something for me, even if I personally liked Roland Burris, I would be bummed to find out he was the guy who had to help me out.  Because it does not seem he will have 100 percent power of a senator just because of the terms under which he was appointed.

COX:  And yet, he probably will.  Again, there‘s nothing you can legally do to kind of keep - to rein him in his power.  And taint is unfortunately not a legal term or a legal state of being.  And right now, as a matter of fact, and I‘m sure Dianne Feinstein was probably thinking this, the Senate has more cause to seat Burris than to seat Franken, because there are Minnesota laws that have prevented him from being certified so far.  Whereas Roland Burris - everything on paper is perfectly legal.  

MADDOW:  Sure.  Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution says that each House of Congress gets to decide on the election and qualifications of its members.  That has been the subject to Supreme Court fights and lots of interesting ones.  Do you think that the Senate will have to make a claim that the election, while legal, is inappropriate or somehow contrary to the dignity of the institution? 

COX:  That is what they could do if they really wanted to bar him from being seated.  I think that that‘s a last-ditch effort and is pretty much the only thing they can do.  Because once you‘re in - I mean, this is not only an exclusive club.  I mean, it‘s kind of like pretty, you know - it‘s got some interesting secrets and rules.  It‘s sort of, you know, skull and bones almost. 

If you recall the outcry when Rep. Jefferson‘s house was searched and his office was searched ...

MADDOW:  Sure.

COX:  ... and the House, you know, came in and supported him.  They really protect their own.  And I wouldn‘t be surprised if in two years, Roland Burris gets a standing ovation.  

MADDOW:  Wow.  Well, wait - politically, though, right now, is there a cost to Senate - which is the worst cost politically to the Senate Democrats, trying to find a way to say no or trying to find a way to say yes? 

COX:  I think trying to find a way to say no could hurt them more if only because it drags out and it drags out and it drags out.  And they want to get moving.  They want to get things done.  They want to pass that economic stimulus plan by a lot.  

MADDOW:  By 80 votes. 

COX:  By 80 votes.

MADDOW:  You want to extra double super pass it.  

COX:  You could be the 80th vote.  

MADDOW:  And America‘s waiting to find out who‘s going to be the 80th vote.  Ana Marie Cox, contributor to the “Daily Beast.”  It‘s always nice to see you.  Thanks for coming in.  

COX:  Thanks for having me.

MADDOW:  Right now, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in the Middle East, working hard to try to cool the hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza.  Where is our president?  Acting lame-ducky, not in the Middle East.  

But first, we‘ve got one more thing about the drama surrounding the second Illinois Senate seat.  This is not the first time this particular Senate seat has had the proverbial whoopee cushion on it.  In 1926 a man named Frank L. Smith was elected by the citizens of Illinois to the United States Senate. 

Before he took office, however, his predecessor died during the lame-duck term.  The governor of Illinois at that time decided to appoint Mr. Smith to replace the departed lame-duck senator for the rest of the lame-duck session so that Frank L. Smith would just keep on keeping on when his elected term started up.

Except the Senate said no.  They said, “No, you cannot be seated.”  You see, there were 30 questions about hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions that smelled a little fishy at the time - in Illinois, can you imagine?  The Senate did not seat Mr. Smith for the balance of the lame-duck session, nor did they let him take his seat for the term that he actually won in the election.  So by historical Illinois Senate seat standards, Roland Burris is way, way ahead of the game right now. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Three, two, one, happy Arbor Day!  Organizers of the Times Square ball drop on New Year‘s Eve have decided that the massive Waterford crystal ball that drops down at 11:59 p.m. Eastern every December 31st - they have decided to leave that up all year round now.  It‘s not just for New Year‘s Eve anymore. 

In fact, they say they plan to use the ball as part of celebrations of other holidays, like the Fourth of July and Valentine‘s Day and Halloween.  We‘re going to have a ball drop on Halloween now?  Flag Day?  What, every holiday‘s interchangeable now?  You realize this generic all-holidays use of the Times Square ball constitutes war on New Year‘s Eve, right?  I know where I stand in this war, America.  Join me. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  It has only taken 12 days for someone internationally to do something about the Israel-Gaza crisis and to propose an immediate cease-fire.  And that someone is France and Egypt. 

So where is the so-called leader of the free world in all of this?  The Bush administration says it supports this new initiative while at the same time not exactly supporting the whole point of the initiative - you know, that part about the immediate cease-fire. 

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hedged on the issue at the United Nations today, saying instead, quote, “We need urgently to conclude a cease-fire that can endure.  So once again, with less than two weeks left of the bush presidency, it‘s time for THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW‘s “Lame Duck Watch,” because somebody‘s really, really got to do it. 

So the president did not comment on Gaza for over a week.  He isn‘t leading any international peace efforts and he isn‘t really backing the only peace effort out there - at least really enthusiastically backing it.  Despite the fact that President Bush says he listens to what Al-Qaeda says on the war on terror and Ayman al-Zawahari called for Muslims to attack western interests in retaliation for Gaza.

And despite the fact that President Bush says we need to win the hearts and minds in Afghanistan, “The Washington Post” reports today that religious leaders and civilians alike are blaming both us, the U.S., and Israel for the crisis while we have tens of thousands of American troops stationed in their country. 

So you would think it would be in our best interest to be seen to be helping to resolve the conflict in Gaza.  Why aren‘t we doing more? 

Joining us now is Democratic Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson.  He‘s a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Sen. Nelson, thank you so much for coming on the show tonight.  

SEN. BEN NELSON (D-NE), MEMBER, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: 

Thank you, Rachel.  

MADDOW:  As a little background, let me just show our viewers a little bit of the geography of the Gaza Strip.  They‘ve got the Mediterranean Sea as their western border, Israel on the north and east and Egypt, which has closed its borders to Palestinian refugees.  To the south, the fighting is all happening in incredibly small, densely-populated place. 

Basically, the residents there don‘t have anywhere to go.  Refugees sought shelter at the U.N. school in Gaza which was hit with mortar shells today, killing at least 40 Palestinians.  I should report that it‘s been noted that Israel was acting - it‘s reported that Israel is acting in self-defense. 

With all of this happening, with all of these details, with the situation seemingly dire and not ending, why isn‘t the U.S. doing more to end this conflict? 

NELSON:  Well, you know, we‘ve been rather silent, I think, throughout a lot of the challenges between the Palestinians and Israel.  We pushed for an election, and what a premature act that was because Hamas got elected. 

This administration has equated democracy with having elections.  You cannot have a democracy when one of parties running has a militia.  And so, consequently, I think we‘ve made probably as many mistakes there as you could count.  

MADDOW:  Does that mean, though, that it‘s not a democracy in Iraq because of the Sadrists who are in the Iraqi parliament and the Mahdi Army militia?  It seems like we‘ve got ideas about how these countries ought to be comporting themselves, and we get upset about the results, but the rules we ask them to play by don‘t seem all that consistent.  

NELSON:  Well, I think there needs to be a consistency that you can‘t have a political party or a group running for office that has a militia.  It just can‘t happen.  The Republicans can‘t have a militia in Washington. 

The Democrats can‘t have a militia in Washington, and for a good reason. 

And that‘s part of the problem that we have in the Middle East.  Now, what I think we‘re seeing is some consistency on that, but after fact, because we‘ve equated elections with democracy.  And if you don‘t have the political infrastructure, the judiciary, sound and honest police forces, and all of other infrastructure that goes along with it, including laws, human rights laws and others, you‘re not going to really have a democracy.  Not the kind that the American people envision. 

MADDOW:  When thinking about the crisis in Gaza and how long this is going to go on and how much blood is going to be shed there, is there a point at which the United States would ever tell Israel that we did not want them to do what they are doing?  Is there a point diplomatically where the U.S. would say that we disagree with Israel‘s tactics? 

NELSON:  We‘ve had a partnership with Israel for a long time.  But in that partnership, Israel has certain rights that they can exercise.  And so I think perhaps there would be a discussion about it.  But I don‘t think we‘re in a position to tell them what to do or what not to do.  But certainly, discussions and consultation - those have to occur for a partnership to succeed.  

MADDOW:  Whether or not the U.S. Government will ever advise Israel as to what they can or cannot do, there‘s also the issue of what the Palestinians are going through.  Could you ever imagine a circumstance in which the U.S., for example, would be working on, helping to make that humanitarian corridor for Gaza residents coming into being where we would help in setting up and defending refugee camps for example? 

NELSON:  Well, I think there ought to be humanitarian efforts made by the United Nations and by other nations as well to try to deal with some of the challenges that are there that are human.  But I think we can do that.  I don‘t think there‘s anything that would prohibit us from doing that.  And I think there would be some support for it. 

The challenge here is, what kind of humanitarian aid and where do you go?  The bombing of the schools right now seems to be - at least the argument is made, haven‘t seen the evidence.  But the argument is made that those schools were repositories for military equipment and were used to fire rockets out of Gaza into the Israeli territories. 

This last year, I was Sderot and saw the remains of rockets one after another that had been fired on that small community right next to Gaza.  So this is a very difficult situation to deal with.  There are those that would like to conclude that it‘s one side or the other.  This has been going on for centuries.  But I do think it begs for peace.  And I hope there will be some sort of an effort to really establish, and I would agree with Condoleezza Rice, an enduring peace process.  Because if we don‘t have a truce this enduring, this will continue to go on as it has over these last several years.  

MADDOW:  Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a thorough demonstration from you tonight about the fact that there‘s really no difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of Israel right now.  Thank you so much for joining us, tonight, Sir.  

NELSON:  Thank you, Rachel.  

MADDOW:  Coming up on “COUNTDOWN,” Keith Olbermann will take a look at Obama‘s apparent choice of CNN‘s Sanjay Gupta for surgeon general.  Also possibly, Magnum PI for FBI chief. 

And next on this show, I get just enough pop culture from my friend, Kent Jones.  Joe and Jill Biden go to the movies.  Or tried to, anyway.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Now, it‘s time for “Just Enough” with my friend, Kent Jones. 

Hi, Kent.  What have you got? 

KENT JONES, POP CULTURIST:  Good evening, Rachel.  Well, doing their best to support the economy, Joe and Jill Biden went to the movies in Delaware, Saturday night, the Secret Service entourage in tow.  The Bidens tried to go to the 7:45 show of the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”  But left after they were told the movie was sold out. 

Sorry, guys.  Can you imagine if that had happened to Dick Cheney?  He would have called in an air strike.  Now, here‘s the weird part.  According to the news journal in Wilmington, none of folks at the movie seemed to notice the Bidens were there.  Employees said nobody crowded around the vice president-elect or called his name or asked for an autograph. 

Said one employee, quote, “Honestly, I think people were just too wrapped up in themselves to notice.”  So the reward for reaching the top of the political food chain - public indifference and going home to watch Netflix.  Come on, I have that. 

Next, “The Daily Mail” reports that in China, where copyright laws go to die, entrepreneurs are building a new shopping center featuring all kinds of knockoffs of western consumer brands. 

Check these out.  I bet they have delicious coffee at Buckstar.  Now this dyslexic McDonalds is called “McDnoalds.”  Hey, let‘s go grab a slice at the “Pizza Huh.” 

Now, inside these knockoff restaurants, some of the owners are also showing unauthorized versions of American TV shows.  This one caught my eye, “The Rachel Naddow Show.”  Rachel Maddow - I hear she‘s very good.  

MADDOW:  I‘m so grateful it‘s not the “Rachel Madoff Show.”  

JONES:  No, no.  It‘s “Naddow.”  It‘s a completely different program.

MADDOW:  Thank you, Kent.  And thank you for watching tonight.  We will see you here tomorrow night.  Until then, you can email us at rachel@msnbc.com.  Keep those Blair House tips coming.  Also, check out our podcasts.  Go to iTunes or Rachel.MSNBC.com.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts right now.  Good night.  

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