updated 11/8/2010 12:51:16 PM ET 2010-11-08T17:51:16

Guest Host: Thomas Roberts

Guests: David Cay Johnston, Heather McGhee, Ryan Grim, Eugene Robinson,

Derrick Pitts

           

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(MUSIC)

           

THOMAS ROBERTS, GUEST HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Tax wars: Conflicting signals from the White House on whether the president is willing to compromise on extending tax cuts for the rich.  Is this the opening Republicans have been looking for?  But did the public really ask for it?  Since there‘s no evidence that on Tuesday, Americans were voting in favor of tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

The split between the top two Republicans?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER:  Some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS:  But what Minority Leader McConnell actually said was this:

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

And the man expected to be the next speaker of the House trying to get some distance from al of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER ®, OHIO:  That‘s Senator McConnell‘s statement and his opinion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS:  Is it mere political posturing?

The House is still her calling.  Nancy Pelosi announces she‘ll run for House minority leader.  And with some centrist Democrats asking that she step aside—is there enough intraparty support for her to remain in a position of leadership?  Our guest: Eugene Robinson.

Midterm election 2010 not over in Alaska yet.  Republican and Tea Party nominee Joe Miller speaks:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE MILLER ®, ALASKA SENATE CANDIDATE:  Her little victory speech that she gave several days ago may actually be premature.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS:  And peanut in space.  But, seriously, folks, the Deep Impact probe and stunning images of a peanut-shaped comet that is even more intriguing because it is active.  Derrick Pitts with the explanation.

All the news and commentary—now on COUNTDOWN.

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ROBERTS:  Good evening from New York.  This is Friday, November 5th, 732 days until the 2012 presidential elections.  I‘m Thomas Roberts filling in for Keith Olbermann.

And as many of you are aware, Keith is in the news today.  We‘re going to have more on that later in this hour.

It has been three days since the midterm elections.  And in the first battle looming for the lame duck Congress, Democrats are showing signs of backing down.

Our fifth story tonight: After their shellacking at the polls, will Democrats give tax cuts to the richest people in America?

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said after the elections that President Obama was open to discussing a temporary extension of tax cuts on income above $200,000 for individuals and a quarter of a million for families.  President Obama, himself, is now standing firm only against permanent extension of those cuts.

And “Politico,” today, reports Democrats in Congress are considering another possible concession to Republican Leader John Boehner in the House and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell—raising the threshold for the permanent tax cuts.  Quoting unnamed Democratic aides, “Politico” reports that the quarter million mark is, quote, “dead as the dividing line.”  Instead, Democrats would start negotiations for the permanent cuts and either half a million or an even million.

Mr. Boehner today said that new job numbers show the need for tax cuts.  The Labor Department reported more than 150,000 private sector jobs created last month.

Mr. Boehner argued that keeping tax rates where they have been for the last nine years will change the rate of job growth.  Quote, “Any job growth is a positive sign, but stagnant and stubbornly high unemployment makes clear why permanently stopping all the looming tax hikes should top Washington‘s to-do list this month.”

Extending all the tax cuts will add $3 trillion to the deficit, extending them for income above a quarter million will add $700 billion.  Republicans say that $70 billion is worth it because it will create jobs, trickle down economics.

Voters, however, said it exist polls that they would rather use that money on spending to create jobs -- 39 percent said their highest priority for the new Congress is cutting the deficit, which would actually be increased by both job spending, which was favored by 37 percent, and by cutting taxes which only 19 percent of voters and only 29 percent of Republican voters called their highest priority.

As to the priorities of Republican leadership—“Politico” reports the Obama tax cuts are also expiring at the end of this year with as much impact on the middle class as the Bush tax cuts have for the top 2 percent.  Nevertheless, Republicans viewed those tax cuts, quote, “as an Obama initiative and have no interest in extending it.”

Let‘s bring in David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning tax reporter, author of “Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill).”  He‘s also now a columnist for “Tax Notes.”

David, thanks for your time tonight.  Let‘s get right to it, start with the basics.  These tax cuts did not prevent high unemployment.  So, how would continuing them actually go to reduce it?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, COLUMNIST, “TAX NOTES”:  They won‘t.  They won‘t create a single job.  Jobs are created when companies have business.  They have people buying their products and services.

And if the president falls for this and lets the Republicans set the agenda and set the George Bush temporary tax cuts as the base, two years from now, he‘ll be running and they‘ll be saying, look at the enormous deficits that have been caused by the president‘s policies.

ROBERTS:  All right.  So, explain how higher tax rates might actually make rich people hire more workers.  Break that down for us.

JOHNSTON:  Well, it‘s a little counterintuitive, Thomas, but if you own a business and the cost of withdrawing money from that business to, say, buy a Modigliani painting is 15 percent and the painting is $85 million, you withdraw $100 million from your business and buy the painting, and you give the government $15 million.  If the tax rate is 50 percent for the $85 million painting, you‘re going to withdraw $170 million.

The lower we make the tax rate, the more we increase the likelihood that owners will withdraw money from their businesses which means basically destroying jobs, and put it into unproductive assets like art, jewelry, their third mansion, another yacht, things like that.

ROBERTS:  All right.  So, David, the Republican argument, though, is the people making over a quarter million a year are the small business owners out there around the country.  But you helped the show COUNTDOWN refute that notion, though.  Explain.

JOHNSTON:  It‘s exactly right.  It is a very narrow segment of businesses.  There are about 15,000 small businesses with an average revenue of $150 million each, whose owners will benefit from this.  And about 20,000 partnerships with almost the same average revenue.

This is about Bechtel, the $31 billion a year engineering company, and a variety of other multibillion dollar businesses getting enormous tax cuts.  It is not about the mom and pop businesses we think of or even the little manufacturers as small business.

ROBERTS:  All right.  Then how are people being sold this bill of goods, then?

JOHNSTON:  Well, it‘s very easy to say, make an argument that says tax is bad.  That‘s exactly how the Republicans have successfully framed this.

And the president, frankly, is utterly failing at his duty to be a leader, to be out there educating people and saying, we need it be having a serious debate here about how do we shape our tax system to raise the money we have for our government?  And how do we spend that money?  Because we‘re spending an enormous amount of it, Thomas, in incredibly unproductive ways.

Almost half the world‘s expenditures for health care—the U.S.  government.

Half the world‘s military expenditures, that‘s totally economically unproductive—the U.S. government.

Huge, massive subsidies to these politicrats who financed this election and tricked all these people who thought they were going to get congressmen who are going to cut spending and, lo and behold, now, they‘re proposing massive new deficits through continued tax cuts for the rich.

ROBERTS:  All right.  So, which will be more effective for the economy?  Actually extending the Obama tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts, or something else entirely that we haven‘t thought of yet?

JOHNSTON:  I think something else entirely.  We have massive deficits in our country we need to address.

We need to be repairing our infrastructure before dams collapse and people die, fix our roads so we can move goods for efficiently.

We need to be putting money into education.  We are rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in the quality of the education that we‘re providing and especially the number of advanced degrees in science and engineering.

And we need to be putting money into scientific research so some of the best minds in America don‘t leave as they are and go to places like China where the fruits of their intellectual property are going to benefit another country, not us.

That‘s the debate the president should have, and he should be taking us to the Republicans and saying to them, we‘re about the future.  We‘re going to lead this nation to a prosperous future.  Your plans are about more debt and protecting the already wealthy so that they can continue to use their money in unproductive ways.  That‘s the debate we ought to be having.

ROBERTS:  Yes, and the Dems framing a new narrative for everyone to listen to.

David Cay Johnston of “Tax Notes” and the author of “Free Lunch”—

David, good to have you with us.  Thanks for your time tonight.

JOHNSTON:  Thank you.

ROBERTS:  We turn now to Heather McGhee, director of the Washington office of Demos, a nonpartisan public policy group.

Heather, good to see you.  Good to have you with us.

HEATHER MCGHEE, DEMOS:  Thanks for having me, Thomas.

ROBERTS:  All right.  So, Democrats reportedly want to expend the middle class cuts permanently and the tax cuts for the rich temporarily.  So, at some points, Republicans will have to fight just for the rich.  And it might be good politics.

But what does it do to the deficit?  What does it do to the economy for us?

MCGHEE:  I think it‘s a really strong move obviously for President Obama and the Democrats to continue to push for the middle class tax cuts that were really their signature achievement in tax policy since President Obama became president.

Not that many people know this, but actually, President Obama gave the middle class the single largest tax cut in American history during the Recovery Act.  So, while families are living paycheck to paycheck and so many people in this country are worrying about the roof over their head the last thing we need to do is raise taxes on the middle class.

But when we ask the question: what is this policy for?  The answer on the highest income tax cuts is just really resounding silence because we really need to be pushing the Republicans, Democrats really be pushing the Republicans to justify wealthy tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans at a time of massive unemployment.

ROBERTS:  Well, yes, people don‘t realize, because—I mean, most Americans are unemployed.  We have this skyrocket unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, 15 million Americans that are out of work.  And as you pointed out from the Recovery Act, Americans don‘t even know that Obama lowered their taxes last year.

So, no matter how much that he lowers the taxes now or for whom, will it just mean the Republicans take credit for him doing so and then they hammer him for increasing the deficit to do so.  It‘s like a real catch 22.

MCGHEE:  Yes.  I think that the president has an opportunity right now to really shape the agenda.  It seemed that the Republicans, if you try to follow the Republicans‘ logic, it will get you exactly nowhere.

So, what the president needs to here is say, listen, we have an enormous economic problem in this country and explain to the American people that, in fact, the least powerful tool in the government‘s arsenal to stimulate the economy, put more Americans back to work, is the Republicans‘ number one domestic priority, which is, other than making him a one-term president, tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.  It is simply the least powerful tool in the government‘s arsenal.

ROBERTS:  Heather, let‘s go over some of this.  So, the Republicans have said that they are willing to borrow $700 billion to lower taxes above a quarter million because it will create jobs.  But once you‘re willing to borrow $700 billion, aren‘t there more effective ways to use it to create jobs?

MCGHEE:  Absolutely.  We know, in fact, tax cuts cost the U.S. more than they create in economic activity.

Demos is going to be issuing a report in a few weeks that talks about what it would cost to just directly put the American people who are out of a job through no fault of their own back to work.  And what we‘re going to be able to show is that you can get 12 million people back to work in this country for the $700 billion a year that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would cost.  I mean, if you frame it that way, I don‘t see how that‘s not a winning solution for the president and Democrats.

ROBERTS:  All right.  So, Heather, is that what you think the president and congressional Democrats should do?  That‘s the headline?

MCGHEE:  Absolutely.  I think it is a moral—I think it‘s a moral concern for the president.  And I think it‘s a political concern for the president that he basically dare the opposition to say no to putting Americans back to work.

ROBERTS:  Heather McGhee of Demos, many thanks to you.  Good to have you with us tonight.

MCGHEE:  Thank you.

ROBERTS:  So, it might be a strategy, it might even be the strategy. 

But the man who will likely be the next speaker of the House won‘t say so.  John Boehner on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s admission that the top priority of Republicans is to deny President Obama a second term—next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS:  Division already between the Senate minority leader and his fellow Republican in that other chamber, incoming House Speaker John Boehner.  The subject: getting things done versus making President Obama a one-term president.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes it official.  She wants to be the minority leader in the new Congress.  But does a party‘s loss guarantee the vision on who that leader should be?

And Alaska, it‘s not over yet.  Joe Miller wants to make sure everybody knows it.

And in news from space, it‘s a comet.  It‘s a big—a big one, and it‘s really, really active.  We‘ll tell you about it.

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ROBERTS:  Two weeks ago, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that in the next legislative session, it was his intention to finish the job that the American people sent him there to do.  As to define the job, McConnell answered: the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

In our fourth story: now, two leading Republicans are attempting to distance themselves from those remarks.  One is presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, the other is Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.

Leader Boehner telling ABC News last night that the president still appears to be in denial over the results of Tuesday‘s elections, though, he welcomes a chance to sit down with the president in the future.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS:  A Slurpee summit in the future?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER ®, OHIO:  I don‘t know about a Slurpee.  How about a glass of Merlot?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: And we wonder, why not dump some Slurpee with a Merlot?

Anyway, we move on.  Sawyer went on to ask Boehner about his Republican colleagues‘ single most important goal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAWYER:  What about your counterpart, as we know, he issued a statement, “The most important thing we have to achieve is for Barack Obama to be a one-term president.”  Do you agree?  Is that the most important thing you have to achieve?

BOEHNER:  That‘s Senator McConnell‘s statement and his opinion.  I think the American people want us to focus on their message during the election: Stop the spending.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS:  After his Heritage Foundation speech yesterday, Leader McConnell sat down with “The Wall Street Journal.”  He talked about his discussion with the president and he continued to try and restate his goals for the next two years.

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SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER:  And to the extent he wants to focus on spending and debt and private sector job growth, I think we‘ll be willing partners.  He‘s called me twice in the last 24 hours, which is kind of an unusual experience.  I‘m not having had a whole lot of expressions of interest from him in the first two years.  To assume that just because I would have liked to elect a Republican president in 2012 or because he would like to have a second term beginning in 2012, we aren‘t going it do anything together between now and then is not correct.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS:  Joining me now is Ryan Grim, senior congressional correspondent for “The Huffington Post.”

Ryan, good to have you with us.

Is this Boehner and McConnell playing good cop/bad cop thing going to work out?  Or was McConnell‘s original comment so combative that Boehner just couldn‘t endorse it?

RYAN GRIM, HUFFINGTON POST:  I think it‘s more along those lines.  You know, McConnell is a combative partisan.  And when he‘s asked what his top political goal is, he‘s going to say it‘s taking the White House.  That‘s naturally what the political goal is of any opposition party.

Now, if you notice, when Boehner answered the questions, “What‘s your top political goal,” he shifted over and said that his top policy goal is to cut spending.  He didn‘t call it a policy goal but answered saying, talking about spending.  Of course, Boehner‘s top political goal is to keep the House and to then take the White House.  That‘s, of course, what they want to do.

But McConnell going out there and maybe not realizing what that—how that would be read kind of puts Boehner in a position of looking weak in his caucus right now.  So, it is creating a little bit of attention on the Hill.

ROBERTS:  All right.  So, when McConnell was asked by my buddies over at CNN if he would shut down government, if that was the only way to deny funding of the health care bill, and he answered, no, we are not talking about shutting down the government.

So, is government shut down on the table for Republicans or what?

GRIM:  Well, McConnell is in a little bit of a better place to answer that question because it‘s not exactly up to him.  It‘s more up to Boehner, because appropriations bills begin in the House of Representatives.

And a way that a government shutdown would come is either the House passes appropriation bills that Obama simply cannot sign because they—either they repeal health care, they repeal Wall Street reform, whatever.  So, Obama vetoes them and there‘s no money for the federal government.  Or the House just simply refuses to pass appropriations bills.  Those are the two ways the government would be shut down.

It‘s less likely that happens over in the Senate, because remember, the Democrats still do control the Senate and you can probably pick off a couple Republican votes to keep the government going.  That‘s at least more likely than the House scenario.

ROBERTS:  All right.  So, Ryan, let‘s talk about a topic that‘s bound to come up in the House.  Representative Steve King of Iowa told the conservative Web site “News Max” today he thinks he has the votes in the House to pass a bill that would end birthright citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

So, what does McConnell do when bills like that are going to show up on his Senate doorstep?

GRIM:  Well, this, again, puts McConnell in a decent position where he can allow his Congress to take whatever kind of positions they want because he doesn‘t run the Senate.  And so, it‘s going to be—it‘s going to be more up to Boehner.  The House—the House Republicans are going to be mostly just a messaging board where they just throw up, you know, right wing ideas and they don‘t have to suffer the practical consequences of them actually becoming law.

When they come over to the Senate, then it‘s up to Harry Reid whether or not they go to the floor.  Now, McConnell could ask, hey, give us an amendment on this and then he could let some of his Tea Party members vote yes on that, but it won‘t pass.

So, in the next two years, you‘re not going to see, you know, a stripping of the 14th Amendment.  But, you know, if Republicans take the Senate and they take the White House, you know, anything‘s possible.

ROBERTS:  You know, what we‘re seeing now, Senator McConnell tapping Senator-elect Marco Rubio to give the first weekly GOP address following the election.  Are we going to see more overtures like that to try and win the favor of new Tea Party-linked senators?

GRIM:  You might.  But you‘re going to see an awful lot of Marco Rubio.  Think of Marco Rubio as kind of like the new Bobby Jindal.  You know, Bobby Jindal was the great hope of Republicans, that he would be able to win the Republican base but then pick up enough of the minority vote that they have enough of a coalition to take the White House.  He flamed out, as you probably remember, in kind of a ludicrous way.

So, ever since then, you know, the search has been on and Marco Rubio kind of fills those shoes.  And it helps him enormously that he‘s from Florida and so—

ROBERTS:  Right.

GRIM:  -- the thinking that, you know, if you can win Florida, you can win the White House.  He‘s already being talked about as a future presidential candidate and in the very short term, he‘s being talked about on the short list as a vice presidential candidate in 2012.

ROBERTS:  Everybody knows and history shows, you know, Obama was a

shooting star as a senator for the Democrats.  And the Republicans I think

and maybe I‘m wrong—I mean, do they see Rubio as that shooting star?

           

GRIM:  They do.  And they‘ve been looking at Rubio in that way for a couple years now.  And that‘s why Democrats were so worried when he ran for Senate and why there was this kind of intense behind the scenes effort over the last year to get Kendrick Meek to drop off the ballot so that Crist could beat him.  They wanted to cut Rubio off before he got to that national level.

They failed.  There he is now.  This is something that they‘re going to have to be dealing with, you know, perhaps for decade.

ROBERTS:  All right.  There have been a lot of things talked about, about a small number of things Republicans in the White House just can‘t agree on in a lame duck session.  So what are we going to see over the next few months?

GRIM:  The biggest fight is going to be over tax cuts for the wealthy.  I interviewed Nancy Pelosi last night and she told me that her number one priority is to pass middle class tax cuts that apply to the first $250,000 of income.  So, you know, even the rich would get a little bit of a tax cut, but above $250,000, the tax cut wouldn‘t apply.  So, she is going to try to pass that.

Harry Reid doesn‘t have the votes for that in the Senate.  So, there‘s going it be a standoff.  Either they‘re all going to expire or they‘re going to pass the middle class tax cuts, which probably isn‘t going to get through the Senate.  Or the Democrats in the House are going to have to buckle and pass an extension of a year or two years and give the tax cuts to simply everybody.

ROBERTS:  All right, Ryan, you mentioned Nancy Pelosi.  Interviewing her last night, did she give any indication she was going to tweet today she was going to go after minority leader?

GRIM:  She did.  She said that night she was going to go home and

start calling members.  She said, “It‘s going it be late, but I‘m going to

start calling people on the West Coast and I‘m going to, you know, start

feeling them out and see where they are,” and then boom, the next morning,

she‘s in.  So, apparently, she got a pretty good reaction when she started

when she started hitting the phones.

           

ROBERTS:  I was going to say, had to go home and draft her tweet. 

It‘s only 140 characters.  It doesn‘t take that long.

GRIM:  Yes, you can get that together pretty quickly.

ROBERTS:  You can.  I can do one in the commercial break.

All right.  Ryan Grim of the “Huffington Post”—good to have you with us, Ryan.  Thank you.

GRIM:  Good to be here.

ROBERTS:  The conflict over whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi will continue to lead her fellow Democrats as the House minority leader.  The challenger:

Congressman Heath Shuler of the Blue Dog Democrats.  Why it matters—next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS:  Time now for what we like to call the sanity break.  We need one here.  This is “Oddball” stuff and we‘d like to think that it‘s sane.

So, let‘s play “Oddball.”

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ROBERTS:  We need some laughs.  So, we begin in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Apparently, some people thought that Hands Across America was not sexy enough.  So, some genius decided they had a better idea, bras across a bridge.  It doesn‘t have the—yes, for lack of a better term—size of hands across America.  The bras were hung as part of the American Cancer Society‘s Bras for Breasts Cancer fundraiser and raised more than 6,000 bucks.  So, unlike Hands Across America, bras across a bridge was not considered a bust.

To the Internets; with 49 days until Christmas, Oddball has already found the candidate for this year‘s creepiest gift.  Meet Video Barbie.  Even though she looks like a normal Barbie in a sparkly jacket, she is so much more.  Inside that hole in her chest—in her chest, yeah, is a camera.  And on the back, a fully functional LCD screen.  The idea being that you can shoot your own videos and play them all in one well-dressed Barbie. 

But you may be asking yourself, how do you keep the camera so steady? 

I didn‘t think they really fully thought that one out. 

All right, staying on the Internet with what appears to be a karate contest.  Trust me, I know karate.  I was a yellow belt until I quit.  It was the standard breaking things with body parts display.  Although some forgot the part about the breaking. 

Notice the first man in the front?  I understand, breaking boards is just not just easy.  You might break your leg, though.  But the man in the back really goes for it.  And boom goes the dynamite over the side.  We never did that in my karate class.  I assume he was OK and no one seems overly concerned about the guy.  I think he just achieved a black and blue belt.  There you have it.

I did.  I was in karate. 

So Congressman Heath Shuler cites his quarterback experience in explaining why he is challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the job of minority leader.  Eugene Robinson joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS:  Good to have you back with us.  Republicans were not the only politicians gunning for Nancy Pelosi‘s job.  Now that it‘s clear she will not be speaker anymore, she announced today that she will run for the post of House minority leader.  The only problem, in our third story tonight, not every Democrat in the House wants her to be their leader.  And one of them said he will run against her. 

Congressman Heath Shuler is leader of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Caucus.  He‘s also a former quarterback for the Redskins.  He explained his decision to challenge Pelosi for the leadership position, telling the “Washington Post,” quote, “we weren‘t successful with me as quarterback, so I lost my job. “

What Shuler did not mention is that while Democrats were not successful Tuesday, his Blue Dog Caucus was even less successful.  About half of them were voted out of office. 

The last guy to seek the House Democratic leadership against Pelosi was Herald Ford, who lost by 177 to 29.  Pelosi has, by any measure, a stunning list of accomplishments under her belt from the last two years.  Measure after measure, propping up Wall Street, automakers and, in turn, the U.S. economy, tax cuts for the muddle class, investments for America‘s future in green energy and basic infrastructure, health care reform, veteran‘s benefits, equal pay legislation for women, new rules reining in Wall Street, new protection for consumers against credit card companies, reforming student loans for college kids. 

In a statement today, Pelosi said, quote, we have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back. 

The National Republican Committee, meanwhile, put out a statement reading, quote, “we welcome her decision to run for House minority leader based on her proven ability to create jobs for Republican lawmakers.”

In fairness, COUNTDOWN should point out many new Republican lawmakers already had jobs as bankers, hedge fund managers, et cetera. 

Nevertheless, without the speakership, Democrats now have one fewer leadership position to fill.  And that has touched off another battle lower down the ranks.  Current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announcing he will seek the post of party whip, the party‘s vote counter, a position now held by James Clyburn, the highest ranking African-American in the House. 

Writing about Ms. Pelosi in his column today, Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post,” also MSNBC political analyst.  Gene, thanks for your time tonight.  Good for you to join us. 

The thesis of your column was that Pelosi‘s downfall was a result of her success.  So can you explain what you mean by that?  How does her success become her Achilles‘ Heel? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  What I mean is that she was a highly effective speaker.  You ran down the list, Thomas, of all the legislation—or much of the legislation she got through in her time as speaker.  She was—you know, she pounded the gavel and she—when she counted the votes, they stayed counted. 

And Republicans made her essentially public enemy number one, and demonized her as, you know, ultra liberal and, you know, name your epithet.  In any event, she was actually cited more often by Republican candidates than was President Obama in the recent midterm campaign.  And it‘s precisely because she got a lot of stuff done. 

ROBERTS:  All right.  Does she look like damaged goods, though? 

Because now why are some liberals suggesting that she ought to step down? 

ROBINSON:  Well, look, the Democratic party I think, is right—certainly reasonable for it to take a deep breath at this point.  They got creamed on Tuesday.  No question about it.  So they ought to stop, I think, and consider their options.  And there are liberals who say, look, whether it‘s fair or not, in fact, Nancy Pelosi became a polarizing figure, and if we‘re going to get back into the majority, say these Democrats, perhaps she‘s not the person to lead us there. 

There are, however, a lot of other Democrats who believe otherwise, who believe that, for a variety of reasons, Nancy Pelosi is the person who could best unify the Democratic caucus and, perhaps, lead it back into majority status. 

ROBERTS:  Well, to be Speaker Pelosi, she‘s had to endure great achievements to get through Congress, to get to be speaker.  And she knows how to swim through some sharky waters.  Explain—as she said, she spent the last few days gauging her support.  Who would be some of her biggest supporters and why? 

ROBINSON:  Well, her biggest supporters are essentially the liberal wing of the Democratic caucus. 

ROBERTS:  Are we talking far left? 

ROBINSON:  House of Representatives—no, not far left, just not the conservatives, not the Blue Dogs basically.  I mean, look, one thing Nancy Pelosi did in this past election cycle, as she has done before, is raise a prodigious amount of money for Democratic candidates across the spectrum.  That‘s one thing that Democrats argue they would be giving up potentially if they didn‘t have her as their leader. 

Second, she‘s just well liked personally by the whole range of Democrats and Republicans.  A lot of Republicans like her personally as well on the Hill. 

And third, she led the Democrats to the majority in the House in 2006, to a larger majority in 2008.  And there are Democrats who remember that and say, you know—and they‘re grateful for her leadership and don‘t want to throw her over the side for having done essentially a good job pursuing the party‘s objectives and getting legislation through. 

That said, I think her announcement today that she‘s running to be minority leader is—I think she‘s certainly serious about it.  But in tactical terms, it‘s—she put down a marker.  I think what she did was quell any sort of rebellion coming from the conservative side of the party that might have been brewing.  And it gives her time to consider all the options. 

ROBERTS:  She‘s marking her turf, making sure that everyone knows that she‘s still in the game.  But also, do you think that‘s so she can protect her achievements over the next two years? 

ROBINSON:  I think she certainly is going to try.  And I think Democrats are going to try.  They have, of course, one big ally in this, President Obama, who has the power of the veto.  So, you know, to the extent that we‘re talking about total repeal of the health care act or really any of this landmark legislation, that‘s an awfully steep hill for Republicans to climb. 

I fully expect the new Republican majority to spend a lot of time on these issues, however, because they want to beat the drum for 2012. 

ROBERTS:  You bring up President Obama.  Do you think we‘re going to hear anything from the White House over this issue, this battle for leadership?  And should we even hear anything from the White House? 

ROBINSON:  I do not think we‘re going to hear much more than what we heard today.  And what we‘ve heard, essentially, was the most kind of anodine (ph), non-committal statement, basically saying that the president salutes the speaker‘s accomplishments and this and that. 

He‘s not going to take sides in this fight.  And I think you‘d have to assume, if you were in the White House right now, whatever you thought about the political viability of Speaker Pelosi going forward, you‘d have to figure she‘s probably going to win if she stays in the race for minority leader.  She‘s probably going to win.  So why would the White House want to jump in the middle of this fight? 

So I do not expect the president to have much more to say about it at all. 

ROBERTS:  It‘s always hard when you jump in the middle of some type of power contest.  Trust me.  Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post,” many thanks.  Thank you, sir.

It is not over until it‘s over.  Trouble reading the political tea leaves in Alaska.  The latest from the last undecided Senate race.  Republican and Tea Party nominee Joe Miller. 

This, take a look, no ordinary comet.  It is active and it‘s ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.  Derrick Pitts on the stunner in space. 

When Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, this was supposed to be the year of the woman.  Oh really, you say?  Why is it that mostly men got elected?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS:  It won‘t be until next Tuesday that election workers will begin counting the absentee ballots.  The day after that, they‘re going to start counting the write in ballots.  In our number two story in the COUNTDOWN, it‘s the Senate race in Alaska.  Republican and Tea Party candidate Joe Miller and the incumbent, the write-in candidate Republican Lisa Murkowski have both begun assembling teams to monitor the ballot count.  This according to the “Washington Post.” 

But even though the write in ballots have not been opened, they exceed the number of votes cast for Mr. Miller by a lot.  So he is talking about absentee ballots possibly making up the difference.  Our correspondent is NBC‘s Kristen Welker. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOE MILLER ®, CANDIDATE FOR SENATE IN ALASKA:  This race is not done until the ballots are counted. 

KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Tea Party candidate Joe Miller has a message for write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski. 

MILLER:  Her little victory speech that she gave several days ago may actually be premature. 

WELKER:  Miller has hired a legal team to do battle in the Alaska recount, where he trails the write-in ballots by 13,000 votes. 

MILLER:  Frankly, I think we‘re going to pull ahead.  At least not ahead in the 13,000 votes, but we‘re certainly going to pull ahead of where we are now when those absentee ballots get counted. 

WELKER:  We spoke with the GOP Senate hopeful at a coffee shop in Wasilla, Alaska, the hometown of one of his biggest supporters, Sarah Palin. 

MILLER:  I‘m excited because there are people that have been awakened.  They‘ve been awakened, you know, obviously, by Sarah Palin.  But they‘ve also been awakened just by common sense. 

WELKER (on camera):  Do you think she would be a good presidential candidate? 

MILLER:  I think she would be.  There‘s no doubt about it.  Look who‘s there in office right now.  You do a comparison between the two, there‘s no comparison.  You have one person that wants to grow government.  You‘ve got another person that wants it to shrink it.  To me, it‘s just a no brainer.

WELKER:  And while Palin has become a headliner for the Tea Party, Miller is not sure if the movement has completely arrived just yet. 

MILLER:  We‘ll have to wait and see.  Really, I think after these

people take office—hopefully me included, depending on the outcome here

the end result with be then seen, as to whether or not the GOP decides to basically embrace the movement. 

WELKER:  But right now, he‘s focused on his own future, as Alaska waits to see which candidate actually did win this race. 

Kristen Welker, NBC News, Wasilla, Alaska. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS:  As we promised at the top of the show, a quick word now about Keith.  Last night, MSNBC management became aware of three political contributions that Keith made to three different candidates last week.  The contributions are not permitted by NBC News without prior approval.  In light of those facts, Keith has been suspended indefinitely. 

And we know all of you are looking forward to Keith‘s return, and so are we. 

The NASA spacecraft is called Deep Impact.  And the object it is watching, a peanut-shaped comet, is called Hartley II.  So what‘s in it?  What is it actually doing?  Is it that extraordinary?  Astronomer Derrick Pitts joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS:  So a 2.9 billion mile journey, involving some major deep space gymnastics, producing extraordinary images.  In our number one story, NASA‘s latest rendezvous in outer space shows us here on Earth the first glimpses of a giant space peanut.  A NASA fly-by of the comet known as Hartley II beaming imagery of a mountain sized ball of ice and dust. 

Take a look at this, the spacecraft Deep Impact has been photographing the comet for the last two months.  And it got really close yesterday, about 435 miles away, which was close enough to get a peek at the comet‘s nucleus.  Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California erupting in applause as the stunning images reached Earth. 

And here it is.  Look at that thing.  Take a close look.  It‘s a big old space peanut.  Or maybe an intergalactic bowling pin.  Or some kind of comic chick—cosmic chicken drumstick.  I‘m looking at the monitor when I should be reading the teleprompter. 

Deep Impact‘s visit with the comet was pretty quick.  The spacecraft traveling at about 27,000 miles per hour.  But despite the brief meeting, the ship was able to capture about 118,000 images.  That‘s a big hard drive you‘ve got there. 

Hartley II was the only fifth comet to be photographed.  Measuring at a little over a mile long, it orbits the sun every six and a half years.  I mean, it‘s cool stuff.

Joining me now is the chief astronomer for the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, Derrick Pitts.  Derrick, good evening, buddy.  Good to have you with us.

DERRICK PITTS, FRANKLIN INSTITUTE CHIEF ASTRONOMER:  Hi, Thomas. 

Thank you.

ROBERTS:  Until now, scientists didn‘t know a whole lot about Hartley II.  What are these images going to be able to tell us?  What do we learn? 

PITTS:  We‘re going to learn a bit about the composition about this comet, which is very, very important because we haven‘t really learned as much as we can about the composition of comets.  We‘ll also learn some about the structure of comets.  This is a very big area in which we‘re going to find out a lot of new material from the photographs that come from this.

We‘ll also learn a lot about the mechanism of how the comet off-gases its material.  And we‘ll also learn more about, you know, what the history of comets will be from this.  So it‘s an important mission. 

ROBERTS:  All right.  So cosmically speaking, Deep Impact got really close.  I mean, really close for what we consider to be close.  When was the last time we were able to see a comet‘s nucleus? 

PITTS:  This has happened three times before, that we‘ve had a really close up view of comet‘s nucleus.  I think the most notable one was the previous iteration of this mission, actually, in 2005, when this spacecraft took an impacter and landed it on the surface of comet Temple I, and it blew out a huge crater and we could study the interior of the comet. 

That was a really great mission.  There were two others before that that got us good, close pictures, that really let us see what the nucleus of a comet looked like.  Remember, we hadn‘t seen that before.  We didn‘t‘ know what comet nucleus looked like. 

ROBERTS:  All right, so we didn‘t know what the nucleus looked like.  But when all of us look at this—I get confused looking at these pictures and not reading the teleprompter.  What do we make of this strange appearance of Hartley II? 

PITTS:  That‘s a really great question, Thomas, because people typically think that the nucleus of a comet is going to be spherical in nature.  What we‘re seeing here is that it really can be a very odd shape.  The comet nucleus of comet Haley was sort of potato shaped.  But this one, like you said, looks like a bowling pin or maybe a chicken drumstick or something. 

But the interesting thing we can see is that there are smooth areas.  There are rough areas.  There are places that seem to have active out-gassing, and other places where there‘s no out-gassing at all.  So it‘s really remarkable study of this particular shape.  Maybe we‘ll find out that other comets have interesting shapes too. 

ROBERTS:  So Derrick, as we learn more about these comets, what do then they, in turn, tell us about our solar system? 

PITTS:  Well, here‘s a really cool thing about comets: comets are actually items left over from the very early history of the solar system, the very beginning of the solar system.  But they live at incredible distances away from the sun.  So they maintain their frozen interior that sort of houses, like a deep freeze museum, what the composition and sort of environment of the solar system was like in its very early history. 

So we can use them to find out what the early history of the solar system was.  And we can also use them to figure out how the planets formed and others bodies in the solar system formed. 

ROBERTS:  As we talk about this comet, the astronomers are learning that the gas inside is acting strangely.  What do you mean acting strangely?

PITTS:  First of all, there have been enormous out-gassings of cyanide gas.  When we look at the photographs, we can see these jets of gas coming off of it.  But the interesting thing is we haven‘t seen dust jets with the cyanide gas jets.  So there‘s some question about the mechanism that drives the jets of gas. 

There seem to be maybe even huge chunks of carbon dioxide buried in it like chocolate chips in a cookie dough.  And maybe those hunks of carbon dioxide are warming up as it gets closer to the sun and creating the gas jets to push the gases off the surface of the comet. 

ROBERTS:  Hartley II is like a lot of us.  It has a different side in certain pictures.  It looks good on some sides, not the other, not so much.  So NASA faced some budget cuts.  Does this really prove that the discovery such as this, still being made in smaller low-cost projects—can we look at things like this and learn without having to spend a ton? 

PITTS:  Well, actually, you know, this is something that NASA does, in a very large measure, with almost every mission.  The idea of trying to find a way to be far more efficient with a spacecraft.  So even with the budget cuts, NASA has done very, very well, particularly in this instance, because, you know what, it‘s repurposing this spacecraft.  It was doing something else before. 

They decided, hey, while it‘s out there, let‘s have it do something else.  They got two for the price of one. 

ROBERTS:  What is it about space that makes us all want to revert to being little kids again? 

PITTS:  First of all, there are beautiful objects to be seen.  There are great mysteries, Thomas.  I think it‘s the big mysteries that also look back at who we are and help us understand possibly what our place is in the universe. 

ROBERTS:  Yes, it‘s just amazing to see this stuff and to know that we can get this close and study it and learn a whole lot about ourselves. 

PITTS:  It‘s a fantastic mission.  The idea that they could actually redirect this spacecraft to take a look at this comet after its previous work is really fantastic stuff. 

ROBERTS:  It‘s a good way to leave things on a Friday night.  Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute.  Derrick, great to have you with us.  Thanks so much.

PITTS:  Thanks, Thomas. 

ROBERTS:  You‘re welcome.  So that is COUNTDOWN for Friday, November 5th.  I‘m Thomas Roberts, in for Keith Olbermann.  You have a great night and even better weekend. 

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