updated 4/19/2010 12:25:22 PM ET 2010-04-19T16:25:22

Guest Host: Lawrence O‘Donnell

Guests: Howard Fineman, Dawna Friesen, David Cay Johnston, Buzz Aldrin, Rep. George Miller, Bill Burton

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LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, GUEST HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Tax Day and the tea party collide in Washington, D.C.

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SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS ®, GEORGIA:  Thanks for coming to the devil‘s city to help us do the Lord‘s work.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  We‘re on to them.  We‘re on to this gangster government.

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O‘DONNELL:  But will they ever be on to the truth?

Americans paid less of their income in taxes than any time when George W. Bush was president.  Tonight, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality—and a fascinating poll explains who exactly makes up the tea party.

President Obama goes to NASA to answer his critics.

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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am.

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O‘DONNELL:  The president says forget the moon.  It‘s time to aim for mars.  Buzz Aldrin, the man who dances with the stars, joins us to talk flying to the stars.

The West Virginia mine tragedy: The president says no death toll is acceptable for running unsafe mines and says the government will stand on the side of the miners.

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OBAMA:  We owe them more than prayers.  We owe them action.  We owe them accountability.

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O‘DONNELL:  The mine owners say the president doesn‘t know what he‘s talking about.

An eruption leads to disruption for millions of European travelers.  A gigantic cloud of ash grounds much of Europe‘s aircraft.  When will the volcano stop, and what if an even bigger eruption happens?

All that and more—now on COUNTDOWN.

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O‘DONNELL:  Good evening.  I‘m Lawrence O‘Donnell in Los Angeles, in for Keith Olbermann.

A remarkable poll gives us the first solid picture of who the tea party movement really is.  In our number five story tonight: they are older, they are whiter than America, and they earn more money and are better educated.

That‘s right.  The tea party is made up of elite, well-off intellectuals of sorts who are out of step with the real America, and they are very deeply confused.

Eighty-four percent of them think their movement reflects the view of most Americans, but 73 percent of them are conservative, while only 35 percent of the real America is.  Ninety-two percent wants smaller government with fewer services, which only 50 percent of the real America want.

Thirty-nine percent of real America correctly blames President Bush for most of the deficit, 6 percent of tea partiers do.  Half of the real America wants government spending to create jobs, which only 17 percent of tea partiers want.

And while only 19 percent of the real America call themselves angry at Washington, more than half of tea partiers do—which brings us neatly to today‘s tea party rally on the capital.

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BACHMANN:  Hey, you look happy to me.  You don‘t look angry.  That‘s because you get it.  And you are smart enough to get off your couch and do something about it.

So, this November, what do you say?  Let‘s take back our country.

(CHEERING)

BACHMANN:  How many of you think we‘re going to do it?  I know we‘re going to do it.  I know it.  It is all about this coming November.  We have to take the House, then the Senate—and two years from now, Barack Obama is a one-term president.

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O‘DONNELL:  More on the tea partiers—they are more likely to be college grads, 14 percent have some fancy post-graduate degree, versus just 10 percent of real America and 0 percent of tonight‘s COUNTDOWN host.

Fifty-six percent made more than $50,000 last year, compared to just 44 percent of the real America, which might explain why 80 percent of them oppose a health care income tax for people making over $200,000.

Tea party icon, Sarah Palin, yesterday cited the American Tax Foundation‘s calculation that Americans worked 99 days this year to pay their taxes.  But the foundation actually noted how low that number is, and credited Obama tax cuts.  No wonder, even though 64 percent of tea partiers think President Obama raised taxes, 52 percent of them think their own tax rate is fair.

But 73 percent of them believe government benefits encourage the poor to remain poor—which might explain a theme at today‘s rally.

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REP. STEVE KING ® IOWA:  Nor do we believe in a government that confiscates our earnings, and rewards people that don‘t earn, and eats out our substance and drains American vitality.  That‘s what‘s going on in America today.

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O‘DONNELL:  One tea partier in the poll called their political views a conundrum: “Maybe I don‘t want smaller government,” she said.  “I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.  I didn‘t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need.  I think I‘ve changed my mind.”

Jodine White of Rockland, California—tonight‘s best person in the world, or certainly best person in the tea party.

Now, let‘s bring in MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman, also senior Washington correspondent and political columnist for “Newsweek” magazine.

Thanks for joining us tonight, Howard.

Howard, on one level, is it just not very surprising that an anti-tax movement turns out to be led by people who are in the upper tax brackets?

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  No, it‘s not surprising at all, Lawrence.  And I just came from the beginning of the evening portion of today‘s festivities for the tea partiers that are gathered, I‘d say about 7,000 of them or so, in front of the Washington Monument.  And I was just down there with them.

And, you know, it‘s a pretty prosperous looking revolution, I would say.  You know, some lawn chairs, a lot of—you know, pretty comfortable looking people.  Not wealthy people, but certainly not, you know, the bonus marchers, no, you know, unemployed people.  These are pretty comfortable people.

And I swear, one of the first people I ran into was a guy named Fred Groat (ph), a 65-year-old guy from Chicago, who was the retired vice president for finance of a major company, an old Goldwater guy, who went to Carleton College in Minnesota and has a graduate degree from Harvard.  And he was saying, you know, I‘m worried about the debt.

So, that‘s sort of the kind of people who were there.  Not all of them with Harvard degrees, but I happened to run into one.

O‘DONNELL:  Well, it‘s hard to get more elite than that.

Now, going back to the poll, Howard, 84 percent of them -- 84 percent

think that they reflect the American view.  Even though we‘ve already shown, they‘re a very small minority of American thinking.  And that must be where this—all this talk about taking our country back comes from.

           

I mean, if they knew actually what their numbers represented in the larger population of the country, what would their slogan be then?

FINEMAN:  Well, Lawrence, their view is kind of nostalgic and simplistic and sort of wrong.  Actually, we‘ve had this argument about the role of government in our life, you know, ever since the Whiskey Rebellion and George Washington sending federal troops out to western Pennsylvania.  That‘s nothing new.

I think there‘s a yearning for simplicity and to give them credit for that, but they know that the world is more complicated than that.  A lot of these people know it full well.  And if you‘re going to take the country back, we have to take it back from ourselves, because the main problem we‘ve got—and I think the tea partiers are genuinely concerned about this—is the enormous debt that we‘ve run up.  But we‘ve run it up because of the very programs that the tea partiers themselves support, such as Social Security and Medicare.

So, for taking it back, we‘ve got—it‘s the kids who have to take it back.  The next generation that has to take it back from us.  Not from anybody else.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes.  They say they want smaller government.  They oppose government handouts.  But more of them are collecting the biggest government handouts we have in Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements.

When you talk to them, Howard—are they capable of connecting those dots or is it just this one tea partier I just quoted who gets that?

FINEMAN:  No.  I think some of them get it.  As a matter of fact, I went through that same analysis with this fellow, Fred Groat from Chicago.

I said, you know, here you‘re telling me you want smaller government, you‘re worried about the debt, what about Social Security?  And he said, “Well, I‘m troubled that I‘m taking it,” but he didn‘t say abolish the program, he want to privatize that.  OK.

I said, well, what about Medicare?  I said, most seniors love Medicare.  And he said, well, I don‘t have an answer for that.

So, maybe he‘s not be the best person in the world but he might be second best, because he didn‘t have an answer.

I talked to other tea partiers, they say, well, we paid into it.  You know, we deserve it because we paid in.

But the more sophisticated of them know that both Social Security and Medicare are transfer of payments from one generation to the next.  It‘s not—they‘re not in, you know, paid in savings accounts.  I think a lot of them know it.

But there‘s a yearning for something simpler and less complicated.  And frankly, it‘s a little bit like Proposition 13, the old Proposition 13 from out in California, Lawrence.

There was a property tax revolt a generation ago that helped propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency.  Those were people in the suburbs who benefited from public service, from education, from roads and everything, but they didn‘t want to pay money to the next generation of them.  That‘s what it was about.  They didn‘t want it for them.

O‘DONNELL:  Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” and MSNBC—thank you for your report from the front this evening, Howard.

FINEMAN:  Thank you, Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s turn now to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, David Cay Johnston, author of “Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense and Stick You with the Bill.”  And he‘s now a columnist for the trade journal “Tax Notes.”

David, Sarah Palin is complaining.  She‘s complaining today that 47 percent of households pay no federal income tax.  What is she getting at with that as a complaint?  Isn‘t that something she should be celebrating?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, AUTHOR, “FREE LUNCH”:  I would think that tax cuts promoted by President Obama would be popular with her.  About one in seven Americans who paid taxes the last year George Bush was in office didn‘t pay taxes last year and won‘t this year because of President Obama‘s two-year tax cut.

So, yes, you would think she‘d be in favor of that.  And by the way, where is Sarah Palin about people who make billion-dollar incomes and are allowed to pay zero taxes under our tax code?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, it seems, David, that her problem is that the 47 percent who—of the household that, she says, are not paying federal income tax, are shifting the burden to those taxpayers you just mentioned, and that they are now overburdened.  The top-end earners in this country are overburdened in our tax code.

Having looked at the big picture, do you see it that way?

JOHNSTON:  Not at all.  In fact, the tax burden of those Americans rises.  But once you get to the top group, the $10 million a year up group, and we have people who are making $3 billion and $4 billion incomes year after year now in this country and they pay less tax than Americans making $500 a week, which is what half of all workers earn in this country, and less tax than the people in the tea party movement.  And that‘s, it seems to me, ought to be our focus.

Why are we borrowing money and cutting programs so that people who are taking in literally $2 billion, $3 billion, $4 billion a year can make a deal with the government to pay their taxes five, or 10 or 40 years from now?

O‘DONNELL:  And the federal income tax is not the only tax that hits taxpayers.  And as we know, 75 percent of taxpayers actually pay more in the so-called payroll taxes—the taxes on Social Security and Medicare—than they do in their income tax burden.  And so, when you factor in what people are paying on these other taxes, there‘s a large burden that‘s being distributed across the board here, isn‘t there?

JOHNSTON:  Oh, absolutely.  And, in fact, we have something reasonably close to a flat tax until you get to the very, very wealthy class.

So, what is really being suggested here by Sarah Palin is that people who are retired on fixed incomes, people who are disabled and who can‘t work, students whose scholarships are taxed, unemployed workers whose unemployment benefits are now taxed under a Reagan-era law—that those people should be taxed.  And children with families—I mean, the reason so many people don‘t pay taxes was the Republican idea that we should get $1,000 credit for each child.  And that removed millions and millions of people from the tax rolls while they‘re raising their children.  And apparently, Sarah Palin thinks that‘s a bad idea.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, it‘s very clear that the high-end earners who are in the tea party are definitely pursuing self-interest in trying to knock down top tax rates income tax rates.  But the lower earners, anybody making under $75,000 in the tea party, are they logically pursuing their own rational interests by the tea party agenda?

JOHNSTON:  Well, they think they‘re pursuing their own interest because the news media that I spent many years in has not done a good job of explaining this, Lawrence.

And the reality is that they would be much better off under a system that was truly progressive.  They would see that they would have a lower burden, they would have fewer risks, and their families and their children would be better off, and they could save more money to do what they want to do with their lives.

We also—so those are fundamental issues that are being ignored here.  But you‘ve got to remember, the news media has done a lousy job of explaining these things.

O‘DONNELL:  David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and great guide through the tax maze of the IRS—thank you very much for helping us tonight with this.

JOHNSTON:  Thank you, Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up, the president goes to NASA today to lay out a bold new mission: the ultimate goal going well beyond the moon to asteroids and to mars.  Buzz Aldrin was with the president today, and he joins us next.

And later, the gigantic cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland is crippling air travel across Europe.  Could another volcano close by cause an even bigger nightmare for airlines?

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O‘DONNELL:  Coming up: President Obama goes to NASA and lays out a new vision.  Was it enough to appease critics who say he‘s ruining the future of space exploration?  Astronaut Buzz Aldrin joins us.

And later, the president criticizes the lax safety standards at coal mines in the wake of the West Virginia tragedy.  And the owners of that mine, feeling not a bit guilty, decide to criticize the president.  That‘s next.

This is COUNTDOWN.

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O‘DONNELL:  The lingering issue following President Obama‘s speech on his vision for NASA may be this: Will the president, rightly or wrongly, be saddled with the title of the president who ended manned space flight?  Even though the president‘s long-term plan does not call for that.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN: The strategy and the aspirations of our nation‘s space program under the current president.

Former astronaut, an American hero, Buzz Aldrin, joins me in a moment.

President Obama, the first sitting president to visit Kennedy Space Center in 12 years, not only laid out his plan today, but addressed his critics.  The president said that he was 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future.

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OBAMA:  Some have had harsh words for the decisions we‘ve made, including some individuals who I‘ve got enormous respect and admiration for.  The bottom line is: nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am.  But we‘ve got to do it in a smart way.

And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space.  We‘ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.

By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit mars and return them safely to earth.  And a landing on mars will follow.  And I expect to be around to see it.

I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned.  But I just have to say pretty bluntly here, we‘ve been there before.  Buzz has been there.  There‘s a lot more of space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do.

My plan will add more than 2,500 jobs along the space coast in the next two years, compared to the plan under the previous administration.

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O‘DONNELL:  As for short-term job loss created mostly by the end of the space shuttle program, which had long been planned to come to an end, the president called for a $40 million initiative for regional economic growth and job creation.  The president also noted that his plan would increase NASA‘s budget by $6 billion over the next five years.

Some of the criticism leveled at the president‘s plan has been that the short-term loss of highly-skilled engineers and other workers once the shuttle program ends will lead to a dangerous lack of continuity.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong and two of his former colleagues recently wrote an open letter to the president, quoting, “Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.  America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space.”

It is a great honor to bring in, as promised, Colonel Buzz Aldrin, who traveled with the president today on Air Force One.  Among Colonel Aldrin‘s many contributions to our nation, he was part of the three-man Apollo 11 mission which was first to land on the moon.  And July 20th, 1968, he was the second person to set foot on the moon following mission commander, Neil Armstrong.

Colonel, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

We know that you differ with your former colleague about the merits of the president‘s plan.  Could you tell us why you‘re in favor of President Obama‘s vision of the way forward here?

BUZZ ALDRIN, FORMER ASTRONAUT:  Well, they differ with me, instead of I differing with them.

And maybe you should get them on TV and tell them—ask them why they differ with us.  Why they think it‘s necessary to go back to the moon, and why they think it‘s necessary to carry on with two rockets that just are not living up to expectations.  And by the time we could get to the moon, if that is the course we followed, the Chinese and the Indians would already be there to welcome us.

I don‘t think that that is a path to American greatness, which has been my objective for quite some while.  I did see some merit in 2004 in returning to exploration, but the manner in which we did that didn‘t allow six years from 2004 until 2010 to come up with a replacement to the shuttle, if we retired it at that point.

And for 30 years, we have been watching the shuttle land on a runway, and it appeared to me that the previous program was very well satisfied with going back to the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo and landing in the ocean.

Again, I don‘t think that‘s U.S. leadership.  I think we need to do things like not have a gap in our space flight program that allow—that forces us to employ Russian workers to keep the Soyuz flying so that we can get our people up to the space station.

Now, I know it‘s a series of decisions that just didn‘t work out right, but I think the worst one was to try and build two boosters that were not anywhere similar to what has been launching the shuttle.  We could have come up with a shuttle derived booster very nicely, but the previous administrator just wanted to put the crew on one solid rocket and the cargo on everything else, and everything just came apart.  And I‘m real sorry that that happened, but we do have to point out when people do make mistakes that it does cost us tremendously in time and in dollars.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, what about the continuation of manned space flight?  I mean, is there a continuing moral and financial justification for sending astronauts into space, risking their lives, when most of the scientific data that we bring back from space is collected by machines?

ALDRIN:  Well, I understand that children really like dinosaurs and they have an attachment to astronauts.  Do we want to just leave them worshipping dinosaurs and the days of yore when we used to do adventuresome things?

You know, we need a workforce that can work in aerospace.  We can‘t lose that industry to some other country.  That provides for the common defense.

And I think we need to move ahead and not just do the things that we‘ve done before and chart a course that we are capable of doing and that we will be proud of.  The world is more and more focused on just short-term objectives, and I suspect that most of the people who object to this plan of the president‘s are really trying to protect vested interests and the status quo, and not interested in moving ahead.

So, I—you know, these may be harsh words, but I look into the future with great optimism, and I‘m going to do my very best to hold those, the feet to the fire that we follow through with what we say we‘re going to do.

O‘DONNELL:  Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, still optimistic, it has been a great pleasure and honor to speak with you tonight.  Thank you very much for your time.

ALDRIN:  Do you see what this is?

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, I do.

ALDRIN:  You see what this is?  OK.  That‘s the moon of mars.  That‘s Phobos.  That‘s where we need to put people who can assemble things on the surface so that we can get people to mars by 2035.  That‘s doable.

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  With more Buzz Aldrins in the program, I think—I think we‘re going to get there.  Thank you very much for your time tonight, Colonel.

ALDRIN:  OK.  You‘re very welcome.

O‘DONNELL:  Before giving—

ALDRIN:  Let‘s charge ahead.

O‘DONNELL:  OK.  Before giving NASA a new mission, the president had harsh words for mine owners and government regulators, as he calls for better safety enforcement.  The company that owns the mine involved in last week‘s disaster calls on the president to try to sympathize with mine owners for a change.

And, the first lady on the ugly health care fight and whether her husband should choose a woman to sit on the Supreme Court.

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O‘DONNELL:  In the wake of the worst coal mining disaster in 40 years, President Obama says the nation owes its miners more than just prayers, it owes them action.  But in our third story on the COUNTDOWN, as the president orders nationwide inspections of mines with troubled safety records, the owners of the West Virginia mine where 29 miners lost their lives call Mr. Obama misinformed. 

After meeting with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Joe Main, President Obama ordered immediate inspection of mines with shoddy safety records.  The head of the United Mine Workers of America says President Obama is taking an unprecedented public stance.  The president, speaking in the White House Rose Garden earlier, calling the disaster at Upper Big Branch Mine a failure of management, government oversight, and laws riddled with loopholes. 

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OBAMA:  I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business.  We can‘t eliminate chance completely from mining any more than we can from life itself.  But if a tragedy can be prevented, it must be prevented.  That‘s the responsibility of mine operators.  That‘s the responsibility of government.  And that‘s the responsibility that we‘re all going to have to work together to meet in the weeks and months to come. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Massey Energy, which owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, calling Mr. Obama‘s remarks regrettable.  “We fear that the president has been misinformed about our record and the mining industry in general.  Under this administration, MSHA presented Massey Energy with three Sentinels of Safety Awards, the highest such awards ever received by one company in a single year.  Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame.” 

Meanwhile, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin is asking his state‘s mines to stand down from production tomorrow to honor those killed at Upper Big Branch.  Massey says it will agree to the governor‘s request, calling it an opportunity to reflect and focus our attention on safety and training. 

Joining me now is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Congressman George Miller of California.  Congressman Miller, earlier today, you released a list of 48 mines federal officials identified last August as having a pattern of violations.  Upper Big Branch is on that list.  But the Mine Safety and the Health Administration admits a computer error prevented the Upper Big Branch Mine from being notified of those violations. 

And in the meantime, they‘re getting awards for the way they‘re running their mines.  Isn‘t this all proof of the current system is woefully inadequate? 

REP. GEORGE MILLER (D), CALIFORNIA:  Oh, I don‘t think there‘s any question about that.  We all know.  The president stated it.  We know it in the Congress and the mine owners know it, that this is a law that is full of loopholes.  Most of them were put there by the mining companies, at their insistence.  And the time has come to stop that practice. 

The computer glitch kept the Mining Administration from identifying the Massey mine as a problem.  But the fact was the companies were engaged in a systematic gaming of the system by challenging every violation given to them, so they would not fall into a pattern of violations that would have given them extra scrutiny and extra liability. 

And what they thought was a very clever business practice, so they could continue to maximize production and not be called accountable for very serious violations, turned out to be a death trap for these miners. 

O‘DONNELL:  Congressman, as you know, mining has always been our most dangerous occupation.  The most dangerous work you can do in this country, far more dangerous than law enforcement.  And yet Congress seems to have allowed, over decades and decades of these kinds of disasters, for this lax enforcement to continue.  What is it that Congress can‘t get a-hold of here?  What is it that you need to get control of that you cannot yet get control of? 

MILLER:  You‘ve got to recognize the power of this economic interest.  Let‘s not pretend—you were in Washington.  You know the power of coal, coal state representatives.  And when push comes to shove, there‘s a tendency to go with the industry, with some wonderful exceptions in representatives.  But the fact is the power of coal, they control in these communities.  They control the livelihood.  They control the economics.  They want to control it like it‘s the 1800s, as opposed to 2010. 

The factor of the matter is they continue to jeopardize lives.  You have this mixed signal.  Last -- 2009 was the safest year in many, many years in Ming history.  And then, at the end of this, comes this accident.  But the fact of the matter is the law is inadequate to provide the kind of protection that these miners are entitled to.  It‘s just that simple.  The law is inadequate. 

And everybody recognizes the loopholes, the regulators, the mining companies, the unions, the workers, the Congress.  And so maybe now we have a catalyst where we can get rid of the loopholes and have a law that leads to safer and safer mining practices. 

O‘DONNELL:  Congressman, I don‘t normally tell guests that they were second choices.  But I can tell you we wanted a representative from West Virginia to address this issue.  And we could not make that happen tonight.  And so it is no political accident that we are talking to a member of Congress from California.  You are chairman, though.  You are in a position of power to make something happen.  And it is important to hear your voice on this. 

The president has suggested, I think, in his comments that the Bush

administration, his predecessors, were somehow more lax on this than we

have seen in the past.  Can we really look back at the record and say it‘s

--

(CROSS TALK)

O‘DONNELL:  -- or Democrats have been somehow better than Republicans on this—on the issue of mine safety over time? 

MILLER:  There‘s no question about it.  You look back at the past administration, it was complete indifference to these mining practices.  Tragically, I‘ve gone through a number of these mine tragedies over the last several years.  A number of them were in the Bush administration.  We couldn‘t get the Republican Congress to listen to the families of these miners. 

So I appreciate the criticism of the Obama administration.  This is light years better than what we were experiencing before in the past administration, and how they handled these disasters. 

O‘DONNELL:  Representative George Miller, I want to thank you for your time tonight.  I want to thank you for joining this issue.  And as you and I both know, all too frequently we have to hear political voices from outside of West Virginia discussing this. 

MILLER:  I want to just say Nick Rahall from West Virginia stood shoulder to shoulder with me on every one of these issues.  Thank you. 

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.  Thank you. 

Coming up, Michelle Obama‘s first solo trip abroad as America‘s first lady.  She shares her thoughts, but not all of them, with NBC. 

The largest disruption of air travel since the attacks of September 11th are crippling western Europe.  A massive cloud of volcanic ash is to blame.  But could another eruption make things even worse? 

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O‘DONNELL:  First Lady Michelle Obama wrapped up her first solo trip abroad since her took office.  In our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, Mrs. Obama visited schools in Mexico City and held a round table discussion with a dozen students there who are leaders in their communities. 

Mrs. Obama also sat down with NBC‘s White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie.  The First Lady was asked about her husband‘s next Supreme Court nominee and about the recent health care debate, including whether she felt any anger over the harsh criticism leveled against the president. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 

First Lady Michelle Obama‘s first steps alone on the world stage turned out to be dance steps.  Visiting a primary school here Wednesday, she was serenaded in Spanish.  Then in a speech aimed to inspire university students, tried out a little herself. 

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY:  Yes, we can.  Yes, we can. 

GUTHRIE:  Sitting down with us after her speech, Mrs. Obama explained why she came to Mexico, but made no public mention of the violent drug war here. 

M. OBAMA:  And naturally, understandably, the issue of drugs predominates.  But part of the reason why I‘m here is that there‘s so much more that connects our countries besides the issue of security and drugs. 

GUTHRIE:  On the issue that Has Washington buzzing, Mrs. Obama sidestepped the question of whether her husband should appoint another woman to the Supreme Court.

(on camera):  You‘ve got to have an opinion.  You‘re a Harvard educated lawyer.  Do you think there should be more gender balance, gender equity on the court? 

M. OBAMA:  Diversity in this country is a good thing, whether it‘s gender, or race, or socioeconomic background, or religion.  You know, that‘s the world I come from. 

GUTHRIE (voice-over):  Looking back on the year that was, Mrs. Obama said a heated health care debate that, at times, turned ugly didn‘t get to her. 

(on camera):  Did that make you angry? 

M. OBAMA:  You know, I don‘t focus on the negative.  That‘s not what people need the First Lady and the president to be, is personally offended by criticism.  They need people who are going to roll up their sleeves and work and get the job done. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  The First Lady‘s interview with Savannah Guthrie. 

Coming up, a massive cloud of volcanic ash has grounded anyone trying to get into or out of western Europe.  But scientists say this eruption in Iceland isn‘t even all that big, as far as eruptions go.  Details ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  The volcano‘s name translates in Icelandic to Island Mountain Glacier.  You have to go slowly with this one: Eyjafjallaokull.  The ash that is spewing into the atmosphere by the unpronounceable volcano is enough to jam an aircraft engine.  In our number one story, that ash has caused the largest trans-Atlantic flight grounding since September 11th, 2001. 

In a moment, geologist Bill Burton on the scientific impact of this eruption.  But first, Dawna Friesen reports from Heathrow Airport in London.  Dawna? 

DAWNA FRIESEN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Lawrence, Europe has some of the most congested air space in the world, and it has never seen a disruption like this.  All flights in and out of several countries, including Britain, have been grounded; 1,000 flights alone canceled here at Heathrow airport today. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRIESEN (voice-over):  This is the cause of the chaos, a vast cloud of ash spewing from a volcano in Iceland, reaching over 30,000 feet, drifting across the North Atlantic and parts of Europe, a potentially deadly menace to any aircraft flying into it.  All over Europe, airports have turned into parking lots.  In Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, all flights grounded. 

Partial closures in Norway, Finland, France, Switzerland, and Germany. 

Britain‘s Prime Minister Gordon Brown says there was no choice. 

GORDON BROWN, PRIME MINISTER OF GREAT BRITAIN:  It‘s important that everybody‘s safety comes first. 

FRIESEN:  Across the world, travel for hundreds of thousands of people has been disrupted. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We can totally accept why we‘re not flying.  So it‘s not as if we‘re not sitting here, we‘re angry or anything. 

FRIESEN:  Iceland is a forbidding landscape of fire and ice, a volcanic hot spot.  And this particular one became active in March, then subsided, until blasting through an ice cap yesterday.  Researchers flying as close as they can peer into the heart of it.  Molten rock surging up.  It‘s thought to have popped the ice like a champagne cork, the force creating these massive plumes, a mix of rock, sand and glass. 

PROFESSOR WILLIAM MENKE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY:  If you imagine throwing a bucketful of beach sand into the engine of a big airplane, you can imagine it‘s not going to do the airplane any good. 

GUTHRIE:  It‘s like a supersonic sandstorm, too fine for a plane‘s radar to pick up, but capable of jamming engines. 

TOM CASEY, AVIATION EXPERT:  It will score the rapidly-turning engine turbines.  It will corrupt the bleed air system and the atmosphere in the airplane, the pressurization systems.  It has been known to shut down engines. 

FRIESEN:  It happened in 1982.  The pilot of a British Airways jumbo didn‘t have a clue he‘d flown into a cloud of volcanic ash over the Indian Ocean, causing all four engines to fail. 

CAPTAIN ERIC MOODY, RETIRED CAPTAIN:  If there‘s any danger of flying near the ash, the authorities are dead right in doing what they‘re doing. 

FRIESEN:  The weather forecast shows no change in wind patterns for the next few days. 

ADAM BERG, WEATHER CHANNEL:  We are locked into that same pattern.  So we‘ve got that northwest to southeast flow.  So if we continue getting eruptions, and we keep that wind flow exactly the same, the exact same areas are going to continue to get hard hit. 

FRIESEN:  On British TV tonight, this is the travel warning viewers heard. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The latest forecast from the met office shows that this morning the ash cloud spread to most of the country.  By now, few areas are clear, and the cloud is reaching across the channel.  By 1:00 a.m., all major airports will be covered.  And even by 7:00 in the morning, they still won‘t be clear.  So don‘t bank on flying tomorrow. 

FRIESEN:  In Iceland, the ash has turned day into night.  Emergency officials are evacuating hundreds of people.  Geo-physicists say the eruption is gaining strength. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRIESEN:  Tonight, European aviation officials are predicting that half of all trans-Atlantic flights may be canceled tomorrow.  Not many expected to take off across Europe either.  Lawrence? 

O‘DONNELL:  Dawna Friesen at London‘s Heathrow Airport, thank you. 

Geologist Bill Burton is the associate program coordinator of the United States Geological Survey‘s Volcano Hazards Program, and he is in great demand tonight, and good enough to join us from Washington.  Bill Burton, when will this volcano stop producing the ash that is grounding these airplanes? 

BILL BURTON, UNITED STATES GEOLOGICAL SURVEY:  We don‘t know that yet. 

The previous eruption of this volcano went on for slightly over a year. 

O‘DONNELL:  Wow.  So this is just completely—it‘s like predicting earthquakes?  There‘s just no predictive capacity on what happens next? 

BURTON:  Well, the best guide is the previous history of this volcano.  And so the fact that this volcano has had a history of erupting for extended length of time is instructive.  And also other Icelandic volcanoes have had year-plus eruptive histories. 

O‘DONNELL:  What is the impact on global climate? 

BURTON:  I would say it‘s fairly slight with this volcano.  The worst eruption—one of the worst eruptions in history occurred in 1783 from Locke, which is just to the north, and it covered Europe in a sulfur cloud.  And that affected European climate for about a year.  But it didn‘t really affect global climate. 

O‘DONNELL:  Now, the “L.A. Times” today reports that two of the three eruptions of this volcano have been followed by larger eruptions from a nearby volcano with the much easier name of Katla.  “USA Today” Science Fair blog said that “the potential eruption of Iceland‘s volcano Katla, could send the world, including the USA, into an extended deep freeze.”  How deep a freeze? 

BURTON:  I would say at its worst, this eruption, or an eruption like this, could produce a severe winter for the next two or three years, and possibly crop failures.  That‘s what‘s happened in the past.  But it‘s a little difficult to get, say—to have a volcano up here in the far north affect southern hemisphere, because of the global circulation.  So it‘s not likely to extend much beyond those latitudes. 

O‘DONNELL:  Now, you watch 169 active volcanoes in the United States.  Do you see any of them having a capacity like what we‘re seeing today in Iceland? 

BURTON:  Oh, yeah, some of them much longer.  Katmai in 1912 was a larger eruption.  In fact, we had two eruptions in Alaska in 2008 that were technically larger eruptions.  It‘s just that they were in remote areas, so they only affected aircraft.  And they did result in significant number of flight diversions. 

O‘DONNELL:  And is that—is it common for the nearby earthquake to then erupt after one of these eruptions has occurred? 

BURTON:  You mean volcano?  No, not necessarily. 

O‘DONNELL:  I‘m sorry.  Volcano.  I‘m California-based here, so I‘m obsessed.  Go ahead. 

BURTON:  There may be some common plumbing between Katla and this volcano that‘s erupting now.  But usually they operate fairly independent of each other, volcanoes in general. 

O‘DONNELL:  Again, is there anything you have that can tell us predictively what might happen in the United States, in terms of volcanoes that we currently have monitoring? 

BURTON:  Oh, yes.  Well, we‘re monitoring a lot of them.  We‘re trying to put instruments on more.  So typically we might have, say, several weeks‘ warning on impending eruption. 

O‘DONNELL:  OK, Bill, thank you very much for joining us tonight on this big night in volcano news. 

BURTON:  Thank you. 

O‘DONNELL:  That will have to do it for this Eyjafjallaokull edition of COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Lawrence O‘Donnell, in for Keith Olbermann.  Our MSNBC coverage continues now with “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW.”

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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