updated 3/4/2013 11:54:59 AM ET 2013-03-04T16:54:59

HARDBALL
March 1, 2013

Guests: Julie Fernandes, Dale Ho, Richard Socarides, Ruth Marcus, Ken Vogel

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST: The cutting edge.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Michael Smerconish, in for Chris Matthews.

Leading off tonight: Who`s afraid of the big, bad sequester? No one,
apparently, certainly not the financial markets with the Dow near its all-
time high. In fact, both political parties maybe more OK with the big
budget cuts than you`d think. Democrats get to cut the Pentagon and
protect their social programs and Republicans get to cut spending. Right
now, President Obama is convinced Republicans will pay the price for
endangering the recovery while protecting the wealthy. But what if he`s
wrong?

Also, let`s go to the audiotape. Now we can actually hear Supreme Court
Justice Antonin Scalia calling the Voting Rights Act a, quote, "racial
entitlement." That one phrase has stirred the anger of two of his more
liberal colleagues and may set up some big left/right confrontations in the
future.

Plus, the march toward marriage equality just got a big boost. The Obama
administration has joined the fight, urging the Supreme Court to overturn
Proposition 8, California`s ban on same-sex marriage.

And look who just emerged from the "mittness protection program," Mitt
Romney, who`s just done his first TV interview since the election. The
question is, do even Republicans want to hear from him anymore?

And finally, "Let Me Finish" with a vote for transparency where it matters
the most.

Let`s begin with the politics of those automatic spending cuts going into
effect today. David Corn is Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones."
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the RNC. And both are MSNBC
political analysts.

Gentlemen, the president came out swinging at Republicans today after his
meeting with congressional leadership, blaming them for the cuts that he
referred to as dumb.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What`s important to
understand is that not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right
away. The pain, though, will be real. So every time that we get a piece
of economic news over the next month, next two months, next six months, as
long as the sequester is in place, we`ll know that that economic news could
have been better if Congress had not failed to act.

And let`s be clear, none of this is necessary. It`s happening because of a
choice that Republicans in Congress have made.

I`ve offered negotiations around that kind of balanced approach, and so
far, we`ve gotten rebuffed because what Speaker Boehner and the Republicans
have said is, We cannot do any revenue. We can`t do a dime`s worth of
revenue.

So what more do you think I should do? I am not a dictator, I`m the
president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, we didn`t hear much
hopefulness coming from Speaker Boehner, either. David Gregory sat down
with him for an interview that will air Sunday on "MEET THE PRESS."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": As we sit here Friday
afternoon, you`ve emerged from a meeting at the White House. There is no
deal. Take me inside the room. What happened?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We had a very nice, polite
discussion, but I had asked the president and Senator Reid to come with a
plan to replace the sequester. Listen, we`ve known about this for 16
months. And yet even today, there`s no plan from Senate Democrats or the
White House to replace the sequester. And over the last 10 months, House
Republicans have acted twice to replace the sequester.

GREGORY: In the end, you don`t really see a pathway here that`s open as
you sit here.

BOEHNER: If I did, the meeting at the White House this morning might have
gone better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Michael Steele, what strikes me as significant is that this
week, there didn`t seem to be any real effort to avoid this.

MICHAEL STEELE, FMR. RNC CHAIR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: No.

SMERCONISH: It was all for show. They came in, what, Tuesday through
Thursday. The House was gone by last night.

STEELE: Yes.

SMERCONISH: So when did they cut it loose and decide, Man, we can`t save
this?

STEELE: Weeks ago. Weeks ago. This drama has been unfolding for, like
the speaker said, 16 months. But everyone I think kind of came to a
general consensus, Ah, just let it happen and then we`ll deal with it
afterwards, weeks ago.

You know, look, both sides have an opportunity here to move this thing
forward. The president, instead of having the meeting today, could have
had the meeting on Monday, you know, sort of lead into what was going to
happen at midnight tonight. That didn`t happen.

It`s because everybody -- you set it up right. The Democrats are going to
-- you know, they can say what they want about Republicans on this.
Republicans got the defense cuts they want. You know, everybody is looking
at the...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Is it faux outrage, then?

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don`t think it`s
faux outrage in terms of the impact this is going to have. And when the
president says there are going to be some real consequences here -- fewer
food inspectors, you know, 71,000 kids won`t get into Head Start, maybe not
until September, you know, 20 percent of salary cuts for federal workers,
impacting local economies. That`s all very real.

But I have to call out Boehner because he`s playing this sort of, I think,
a dirtier game than the president. He goes, I just need a plan. Give me a
plan, Mr. President. Give me a plan, Mr. Senate Majority Leader.

The Democrats in the Senate yesterday voted for a plan! It got 51 votes.
It didn`t pass because Republicans filibustered. There is a plan! The
president for 16 months has been pushing a plan, close some tax reform --
tax loopholes and put that money to deficit reduction and have a different
set of not indiscriminate cuts. That`s his plan.

SMERCONISH: Do you accept the criticism of Boehner?

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: And then Boehner keeps saying, Where`s the plan?

STEELE: Well, there is...

CORN: He just doesn`t like the plan!

STEELE: That may be true, but the House put two plans on the floor. They
were voted on. They weren`t voted on in the Senate. You know, yes, the
Senate voted on a plan...

CORN: Their plan was to take all the cuts out of military and just put
them in social...

STEELE: Well, David, you got to start someplace.

CORN: Yes!

STEELE: And the problems is, Democrats don`t want to start where you need
to start, and that is having an honest conversation about what are you
prepared to cut, David Corn?

CORN: Excuse me...

STEELE: What are you prepared to cut, President Obama? What are you
prepared to put on the table? We`ve given you $600 billion in January in
new revenue...

CORN: A year-and-a-half...

STEELE: ... with no cuts! So show me some cuts, and then we can start
talking about how serious you are.

SMERCONISH: Quick response because I want to then show you something.

CORN: Sixteen months ago, the president, against some of the desires of
people within his own party, did put things on the table -- chained CPI for
Social Security, Medicare cuts. He did, and they came up with...

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: He used the words. He didn`t put a plan.

CORN: No, no, no. No, no. No.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: What was the specific amount of chained CPI? What was the number?

CORN: These were papers -- these were memos that were passed between Gene
Sperling...

SMERCONISH: Men...

CORN: ... and people in Boehner`s office!

SMERCONISH: Here is what I don`t like. It suits each of their political
objectives.

STEELE: Absolutely.

SMERCONISH: And I want to use Chuck Todd. I`ve been saying this on the
radio for a week, but he said it beautifully today. Chuck Todd and our NBC
political united noted this in "First Read" this morning.

Quote, "Yes, both sides are kicking and screaming publicly, and yes, these
cuts will impact people`s livelihood. But if you`re a Republican who wants
to cut spending, you`re getting your spending cuts. And if you`re a
Democrat who either wants to reduce defense spending or ensure that all the
cuts aren`t targeted only at social programs, you`re getting your wish.
This is perhaps the biggest reason why these cuts are going into effect.
At the end of the day, they were better than the alternative, for
Republicans raising taxes and eliminating loopholes, for Democrats, having
these spending cuts come exclusively from social spending."

And Michael Steele, you`re shaking your head. So tonight...

STEELE: Yes.

SMERCONISH: ... Republicans -- they`re already back in their districts and
they`re able to say...

STEELE: Yes.

SMERCONISH: ... We cut spending!

STEELE: I agree with Chuck. I absolutely agree with Chuck. I think he`s
framed this perfectly. That`s why I said they settled on this weeks ago.

SMERCONISH: Right.

STEELE: So all this drama and histrionics, Oh, the world is coming to an
end...

SMERCONISH: And David -- David...

STEELE: ... kids won`t get educated...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: To go back to where I started, that`s why this week there was
nothing consequential done...

CORN: I agree with...

SMERCONISH: ... because it suited their interests!

CORN: I agree with the political analysis, but the problem we also have is
this is about the most immature way of approaching real problems that we
have in this country.

And I do believe -- and you know, you can go to people like Norm Ornstein
and Thomas Mann, who are centrists...

SMERCONISH: I read it.

CORN: ... who have said time and time again that their perspective is that
the Republicans and the obstructionism and the conflicts within the
Republicans` own side have made them tougher partners to get involved in a
deal with the president. And that`s where we`ve been for the last two
years. It`s where we are now. Boehner -- he`s asking for plans because he
can`t really cut a compromise!

STEELE: Let me just put a period on this. We`re not going to move beyond
this conversation and the one we see unfolded this week until both sides
realize, each of them, their stuff stinks. The president`s stuff stinks...

SMERCONISH: What`s that going to take?

STEELE: It`s going to take the realization -- and it`s really going to --
I think it`s going to be in 30 to 45 days, when some of these cuts really
begin to trickle into the economy and people begin to feel it, that
pressure is going to come back. The president`s playing a real gamble here
because I don`t think this is all going to fall neatly on the Republicans`
lap. This thing is going to get spread on both...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: All right, here`s something else that...

STEELE: ... and that`s going to move the needle.

CORN: But if you look at -- sorry, Michael, but if you look at what the
public says about how to solve that...

STEELE: That`s what they say today. Let`s see that they`re saying in four
weeks.

CORN: For the last year, they`ve been consistently backing the president`s
approach!

SMERCONISH: Guys, here`s something -- here`s something that baffles me.
It`s what the market is doing. If the economy is going to feel the effects
of the spending cuts, the markets sure haven`t been scared yet. The Dow
closed today just under 14,090. That`s inching closer to the October 2000
record of a little more than 14,164.

I always think that these masters of the universe on Wall Street -- they
have it figured out. They`re three steps ahead of us. So why aren`t they
nervous?

CORN: Didn`t we learn in October 2007 that they`re not always three steps
ahead and they don`t know what they`re doing? They don`t know what they`re
talking about? Irrational exuberance? Remember that? Well, you know, I
think they`ve gotten used to the fact that -- you know, that Washington has
these manufactured crises, that we have one cliff after another, and that
they tend to sort of be worked out on a temporary basis. At some point,
that might stop happening.

SMERCONISH: Michael, what`s your explanation?

STEELE: It may. It may stop happening. But look, I think you`re right.
I think that they`ve baked all of this into their formulations for the next
few months. They know what`s going to happen. We`ve got fiscal cliff part
deux coming, or whatever you want to call it, in the next few weeks. They
know what the deal is. So they`re, like, Let`s just ride this thing. And
when the boys and girls in the playground decide to come and do what they
need to do, then we`ll see (INAUDIBLE)

SMERCONISH: I can`t -- I can`t let the week end with the A team sitting
here on HARDBALL without mentioning two words, Bob Woodward.

CORN: Oh!

SMERCONISH: Quickly, the take on how that impacted this whole
conversation, David.

CORN: I`m in this business largely because of Bob Woodward. I -- you
know, I was a big fan of his, you know, back during Watergate. And I think
it was unfortunate. I think he went too far in making too much of a deal
over what Gene wrote. It wasn`t a threat. It was an apology.

And I think Politico then hyped it up because what? It makes good ratings,
good for clicks. And it became a tempest in a teapot that just evaporated
just as right-wing talk, you know, radio and TV was trying to make a big
deal out of it.

SMERCONISH: What I didn`t like is when Woodward read aloud on Politico
from the e-mail, he left out those words...

CORN: Yes!

SMERCONISH: ... "as a friend," which I thought changed the whole meaning
of it.

CORN: I`m sorry, I`m really sorry...

SMERCONISH: Hey, you ought to see my e-mail day to day. This is soft!

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: I`ve gotten treatment from the White House, this White House, when
they haven`t liked what I`ve said, that is far worse than that. I would
like to get notes like that.

SMERCONISH: Well, Michael, on the fundamental issue, you know, Woodward`s
the most credible of individuals to say, Hey, this was the president`s
idea.

STEELE: And that`s the real rub for the White House and for everyone, that
this was the president`s idea. It came from his economic team. So OK,
let`s get past that. At the end of the day...

CORN: Everyone accepted it...

STEELE: This is the point. The bottom line is, when you got the left
trashing Bob Woodward and the right embracing him, we`re in a whole new
landscape, folks.

SMERCONISH: Crazy time.

STEELE: A whole new landscape.

SMERCONISH: Thank you both for being here, as always. Michael Steele and
David Corn, we appreciate you.

Coming up: We were stunned to read what Supreme Court Justice Antonin
Scalia had to say about the landmark Voting Rights Act, that it`s an
example of a, quote, "racial entitlement." Now we can hear Scalia speak
for himself, and the other justices who challenged him.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

SMERCONISH: The marquee match-up on this year`s election calendar is about
to get even better. That`s because Virginia`s lieutenant governor,
Republican Bill Bolling, is talking about running for governor as an
independent. The race already features Clinton right-hand man Terry
McAuliffe and the state`s conservative attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, and
now Bolling sent an e-mail to supporters saying he believes he could win as
an independent.

But don`t look for Bolling to simply split the Republican vote. He could
very well win this thing on his own.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: Why a justice would classify the
simple protected right to vote as "racial entitlement" baffles me and
offends me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was Texas congresswoman Sheila
Jackson Lee reflecting the visceral reaction to Justice Antonin Scalia`s
comments elicited in this week`s Supreme Court hearing on the Voting Rights
Act. By characterizing the Voting Rights Act as a "racial entitlement,"
Scalia may have unwittingly energized voting rights supporters and ramped
up their resolve to protect those rights.

And just this afternoon, the actual audiotapes of Wednesday`s arguments
were released by the court, so now the words that caused such an uproar can
be paired with the voice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANTONIN SCALIA, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT: This last
enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is
pretty much the same.

Now, I don`t think that`s attributable to the fact that it is so much
clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable -- very likely
attributable to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial
entitlement. It`s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial
entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal
political processes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Joining me now are two people who were in the courtroom for
the arguments, Julie Fernandes, a former deputy attorney general in the
Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, and Dale Ho of the NAACP
Legal Defense and Education Fund, who has worked on this case from the
beginning.

Julie, take me in the Supreme Court. What was the body language? What was
the vibe when they get into it, meaning Justices Scalia and Sotomayor and
Kagan?

JULIE FERNANDES, FORMER DEPUTY ASST. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I think that
a lot of people were surprised to hear Justice Scalia refer to the Voting
Rights Act as a "racial entitlement." I think that the language -- I mean,
no one know what he was actually thinking, but I think the word
"entitlement" sort of suggests somehow that you`re getting something you
didn`t earn.

And for many of us, we think of the Voting Rights Act and the right to vote
as sort of an equality mandate for all Americans. It`s an equality
mandate, not some kind of an entitlement, something that -- you know, when
the voters of Texas -- and in Texas, African-Americans and Latinos --
federal courts found that they were intentionally discriminated against,
their right to vote -- section 5`s ability to stop that -- that`s not a
racial entitlement. That`s American justice.

SMERCONISH: I don`t believe, Dale, that voting is a racial entitlement. I
don`t know how anyone could make such a statement. So giving him the
benefit of the doubt, it was bone-headed, what he said, at best. As I read
the full context, he seemed to be saying we never unwind benefits that are
given to a particular group demographic, by way of example. Is he right in
that respect?

DALE HO, NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FUND: Well, first of all, I
don`t think he`s right in that respect at all. I think what he`s trying to
say, if I can try to get into his mind -- I know Julie didn`t want to try
to do that. I think what he`s trying to say is he`s trying to articulate
the argument that the plaintiff was making in this case, that racial
discrimination is largely a thing of the past, and that therefore, we don`t
need things like the Civil Rights Act anymore. These are luxuries that now
have become, in their view, entitlements.

And unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. We have, in
fact, seen tremendous progress over the last 50 years, but we also still
see tremendous discrimination. And the right to be free from that
discrimination when you`re exercising the right to vote is not entitlement,
it`s an American birthright.

SMERCONISH: We have to play for everybody the tapes because they`re
stunning. The two of you were there. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena
Kagan, both new to the bench, gave some of the strongest pushback to
Scalia`s premises. Here, in an exchange with the lawyer representing
petitioner Shelby County, Sotomayor directly challenges Scalia`s "racial
entitlement" comment. Listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SONIA SOTOMAYOR, ASSOC. JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT: ... that the right
to vote is a racial entitlement in Section 5?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. Section -- the 15th Amendment protects the right
of all to vote and...

SOTOMAYOR: I asked a different question. Do you think section 5 was voted
for because it was a racial entitlement?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, Congress...

SOTOMAYOR: Do you think there was no basis to find that...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... was reacting -- may I say, Congress was reacting in
1964 to a problem of race discrimination, which it thought was prevalent in
certain jurisdictions. So to that extent, as the intervenor said, yes, it
was intended to protect those who had been discriminated against. If I
might say, I think that Justice...

SOTOMAYOR: Do you think that racial discrimination in voting has ended,
that there is none anywhere?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the world is not perfect.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Julie, was she speaking to him or was she speaking to Justice
Scalia? What was going on? Where was she looking when she said that?

FERNANDES: I think often the justices -- and in this case likely too --
the justices are talking to each other as much as they`re talking to the
litigants.

SMERCONISH: Using him as a means to...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Right.

FERNANDES: As sort of a prop in a sense. That`s not a nice word, but just
as someone...

SMERCONISH: Understood.

FERNANDES: .. as an opportunity to have a conversation so they can talk to
each other about what`s really going on.

But I do think I want to say what`s really going on here are two things.
One is there a case to be made that there is continuing voting
discrimination in states all over the South and other parts of the country
that`s race-based that Section 5 prevents, and the question is, whose job
is it to determine when that job is done?

So that`s both about the continuing need for Section 5, but also the role
of Congress vs. the role of the court. That`s the conversation that
they`re having. And that`s the conversation that`s really important for us
as a country to kind of get to.

SMERCONISH: Justice Scalia also questioned whether Congress was equipped
to decide whether the Voting Rights Act should be extended because they`d
be too concerned about appearing politically correct to voters.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SCALIA: This is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.
There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law
just about now.

And even the Virginia senators, they have no interest in voting against
this. The state government is not their government. And they are going to
lose -- they`re going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting
Rights Act. Even the name of it is wonderful, the Voting Rights Act. Who
is going to vote against that in the future?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: And this time, it was Justice Elena Kagan who challenged
Scalia`s premise, and as, Sotomayor had, she rebutted Scalia`s arguments in
her exchange with the Shelby County attorney. Listen to this.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ELENA KAGAN, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE, U.S. SUPREME COURT: You said the problem
has been solved, but who gets to make that judgment really? Is it you, is
it the court, or is it Congress?

REIN: Well, it`s certainly not me.

(LAUGHTER)

SCALIA: That`s a good -- that`s a good answer. I was hoping you would say
that.

REIN: But I think the question is, Congress can examine it. Congress
makes a record. It is up to the court to determine whether the problem
indeed has been solved and whether the new problem, if there is one...

KAGAN: Well, that`s a big, new power that you are giving us, that we have
the power now to decide whether racial discrimination has been solved?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Dale, it occurs to me that Justice Scalia has had that
hardball playing surface to himself when the Supreme Court is having
arguments, and now you have got him balanced by Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

I guess what I`m saying is that Breyer is a pretty amiable kind of a guy
who you don`t often see standing up to Scalia. It seems like the dynamics
have changed on the bench in terms of the arguments.

HO: Well, whenever you have new justices, it`s going to change the
dynamics a little bit. And I think everyone would agree that that`s
happened since Justices Sotomayor and Kagan have joined the bench.

What I thought was really great about what they did is that they brought
the conversation back down to reality a little bit. Scalia made these
comments that were a bit incendiary. And what Justice Kagan and Justice
Sotomayor tried to focus on and what is really at issue in this case is --
are the facts, the facts of continuing discrimination in places like
Alabama.

Sotomayor noted that there have been over -- about 240 discriminatory
voting laws that have been blocked in Alabama alone since the last time
that the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized. And the question that she
posed to the lawyer for Shelby County at the beginning was, when you have
that kind of record, how can you stand with a straight face before this
court and say that you no longer need federal observation over your voting
laws?

SMERCONISH: My only regret about this is that we as Americans can`t watch
what the two of you had the opportunity to sit and witness in person. I`m
going to say more about that at the end of the program.

Thank you, Julie Fernandes. Thank you, Dale Ho.

Up next: Ever wonder who the 12 percent of Americans are who say they
approve of the job that Congress is doing? Well, we found them. And
that`s next in the "Sideshow."

Don`t forget, if you want to follow me on Twitter -- and I hope you do --
you just need to spell Smerconish.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Back to HARDBALL. Now for the "Sideshow."

First, how is this for an odd couple, former NBA star Dennis Rodman and
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un? Believe it. Rodman and members of the
Harlem Globetrotters made the trip to Pyongyang this week as part of a
documentary project. There was no guarantee that they would meet Kim Jong-
un, but it turns out the North Korean leader was up for playing host.

Here is the pair sitting courtside at an exhibition basketball game which
was capped off with a party at Kim Jong-un`s palace. It gets better. It
seems that Dennis Rodman failed to brush up on his Koreas before heading
overseas. Check out this tweet. "Maybe I will run into `Gangnam Style`
dude while I`m here."

That, of course, is a reference to the South Korean rapper Psy. Not
surprisingly, given the tense relationship between the North and South, Psy
wasn`t amused, tweeting back, "I`m from South, man."

Next, you may have noticed that every time a poll comes out about Congress,
their favorability rating is embarrassingly low. Here is the question,
though. Who are the 9 percent or 10 percent or 12 percent of people who do
give them a thumbs-up? "The New York Times" did some digging after their
own poll found Congress had a 12 percent favorability, asking people why
they liked Congress.

Some people backed off their vote of support entirely, instead using words
like idiots and ninnies to describe members of Congress. Someone else said
their response was an accident, while another said she just had surgery
when she answered the question. Overall, though, the report found that the
tiny group of Congress-lovers fell into one of two camps. They either
blame President Obama and not Congress for the Washington gridlock or
they`re just really optimistic that everybody is trying their best.

For the folks who think that Congress needs to step it up, though, there`s
Stephen Colbert`s solution to the next budget crisis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": I think I know why the
sequester is not working, because it doesn`t affect Congress.

The salaries of senators and representatives do not get cut. So, to
Congress, the sequester is like a loan shark saying, if you don`t pay up,
he`s going to break your neighbor`s legs.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: To prevent the next crisis, we just need a worse scenario. I say
we suspend a monkey above the floor of Congress.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: No, an Ebola monkey.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: If they do not reach a budget deal by the deadline, the doors to
Congress are locked, the rope is cut, and it is meal time in the monkey
house.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Finally, how do we know that things aren`t going well between
President Obama and Speaker Boehner? "The Atlantic"`s politics blog has
the photo spread from this week`s tribute to Rosa Parks prove it with
captions.

First, "Obama sends his furious laser beam eyes in Boehner`s direction,
followed by, "It`s scarier in close-up."

And later: "This is the exact body language a couple uses when they break
up in a car."

Up next, the Obama administration throws its weight in support of marriage
equality, urging the Supreme Court to overturn California`s gay marriage
ban. That`s ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SEEMA MODY, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Seema Mody with your CNBC "Market
Wrap."

The Dow ends the week on an up note, gaining 35 points, the S&P 500 adding
three and the Nasdaq is up nine. GM`s auto sales jumped more than 7
percent in February, beating estimates. Ford`s were up over 9 percent, but
fell short. According to the University of Michigan, consumer sentiment
rose more than forecast last month. And the manufacturing sector expanded
more than expected in February.

That`s it from CBS, first in business worldwide -- now back to HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When the Supreme Court asks
do you think that the California law, which doesn`t provide any rationale
for discriminating against same-sex couples, other than just the notion
that, well, they`re same-sex couples, the Supreme Court asks me or my
attorney general or solicitor general do we think that meets constitutional
muster, I felt it was important for us to answer that question honestly.
And the answer is no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Obama earlier today on California`s gay marriage ban,
Proposition 8. Last night, the Obama administration filed a brief asking
the Supreme Court to strike down the controversial law, saying -- quote --
"California law provides to same-sex couples registered as domestic
partners all the legal incidents of marriage, but it nonetheless denies
them the designation of marriage allowed to their opposite-sex
counterparts. Particularly in those circumstances, the exclusion of gay
and lesbian couples from marriage does not substantially further any
important governmental interest. Proposition 8 thus violates equal
protection."

In plain English, this is another sign that Americans` acceptance of gays
and lesbians is becoming part of the new normal, and those opposed are
being left behind in history. Later this month, the high court is set to
begin hearing arguments for Proposition 8 and the other landmark case, the
Defense of Marriage Act.

Joining me now, Richard Socarides with the NewYorker.com and Ron Reagan,
who is an MSNBC political analyst.

Ron, what do you make of the timing of all this? Is there more to it than
just this was the appropriate moment that the administration sought to file
the brief?

RON REAGAN, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I guess better late than never. The
president has taken a long time to sort of evolve, as he put it, on this
issue.

Of course, the Supreme Court is about to hear the case, and there is a
question as to whether this statement by the president and the brief that`s
been filed will have any influence on the court. I suspect not in this
case, but it does lay down a marker for the administration. They are going
on the record now, now finally saying that this is a fundamental right.

And that of course poses a certain dilemma for the administration. Its
position before has been that this should be left to the states. If this
is, as is self-evident, is a fundamental right, the right of two people to
marry, then you can`t leave it to the states anymore. Then we need a
national policy that says that gay people are allowed to marry like anybody
else, and so far the president hasn`t quite, quite come out and said that
just so boldly.

SMERCONISH: I`m curious. You used the word evolve. That`s, of course,
his word. Do you think that he`s evolved? Do you take him at face value,
or do you think he`s been there all along?

REAGAN: Well, that`s a very good question.

It has always seemed to me that this evolution involved a sort of political
calculation. He`s just too young and too smart to really believe, it seems
to me, that gay people shouldn`t be allowed to marry like everybody else.
I think he may have made the calculation that were he to get out in front
on this issue, that the right, the far right, would redouble their efforts
to thwart him, because, you know, a lot of these people are motivated by
nothing more than simply hatred of Obama.

So if Obama is for gay marriage, well, then they`re even more against gay
marriage. So, maybe that`s part of his reluctance. I`m not really sure.

SMERCONISH: Richard, until last year, President Obama said that gay
marriage should be an issue handled by the states, but filing the brief
with the Supreme Court to strike down Proposition 8 shows a clear change of
heart.

Here is the president today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: You know, I think that the same evolution that I have gone through
is an evolution that the country as a whole has gone through, and I think
it is a profoundly positive thing.

QUESTION: And given the fact that you do hold that position about gay
marriage, I wonder if you thought about just -- once you made the decision
to weigh in, why not just argue that marriage is a right that should be
available to all people of this country?

OBAMA: Well, that`s an argument that I`ve made personally.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Richard Socarides, respond to the president from earlier
today.

RICHARD SOCARIDES, FORMER PRESIDENT, EQUALITY MATTERS: Well, listen, I
would be considerably more generous than Ron about this.

I think that every American has had their journey on this issue. Nobody
started out supporting same-sex marriage. Everybody has had to come to
that position. So I take the president at his word that he has evolved
like many other Americans. I thought he was right on today when he said,
you know, his journey was a long one, but a good one, and that many people
in the country have been on a similar journey.

But now we`re at a point where a majority of Americans led by the president
and hopefully led by a Supreme Court who holds -- who upholds that right
now believe that there`s a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. And
I think the president...

SMERCONISH: Yes. And I`m not...

SOCARIDES: Go ahead.

SMERCONISH: Please don`t think I`m belittling the issue when I throw a
"Modern Family" reference into this. I think, you know, seeing Cam and
Mitchell, I think that the way in which in movies and in television and in
all of our cultural influences, not to mention our own families and our
social orbit, that has caused so many of us, I think, to be on an
evolutionary path with regard to this issue.

SOCARIDES: Look, I completely agree with you.

I think that is a very important point, that the culture influences have
played a large role in this. I mean, when you think about the young
characters on "Glee" which is on the conservative FOX network, I mean,
there are two teenage gay kids on "Glee" that are welcomed into everybody`s
home every day. I mean, you know, I think that Americans know that gay
people are everywhere and that -- and that it`s no longer appropriate in
this modern day to discriminate against them.

But I think the president really has had a journey and I think his remarks
were very clear statement. I mean, today, he came out and he said, I
believe that we cannot discriminate against gay Americans when it comes to
marriage. I don`t think he could be any more clear about it even though
it`s taken him a while to get there.

SMERCONISH: Ron Reagan --

REAGAN: Therefore --

SMERCONISH: -- let`s look at the states where same-sex marriage is legal.
These are in green, not sure if you can see it on the monitor. Maryland is
the most recent to join the bunch and then in yellow for folks at home, the
states where civil unions or domestic partners are recognized. Obviously
growing in number. It`s hard for me to imagine that that clock ever gets
turned back a different way. Have we reached the tipping point on this
issue?

REAGAN: Yes. I think we have. Certainly in some parts of the country.
Obviously, we have in some parts of the country, and I think nationally
speaking we have. And once you reach this point, once you come to the
conclusion that marriage is, in fact, a fundamental right, then certain
things follow. Then it cannot be left up to the states.

As recently as May, the president`s position was that the states,
individual states should decide who should be allowed to marry one another.
Well, if you`re going to take -- follow that logic, I guess states should
be allowed to decide that people of different races shouldn`t be allowed to
marry one another either.

Now, I don`t think anybody really believes that.

SOCARIDES: Well --

REAGAN: And so, if you have come to this point then it`s either or. It`s
either a fundamental right or it is not.

SOCARIDES: You know, I think if you listen to the president`s words
carefully in May, that he said that he thought we were making progress with
this state-by-state approach. And I think Ron is right, he tried to nuance
it a little bit in advance of the election and not quite go as far as he`s
gone now. But I think with this Justice Department filing yesterday and
his remarks in the press conference today, the president is on record, it
could not be -- he could not be any more clear about it, that he believes
that all Americans should be guaranteed the right to marry no matter where
you live regardless of sexual orientation.

SMERCONISH: Gentlemen, thank you --

(CROSSTALK)

REAGAN: -- a little more enthusiasm though?

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Richard Socarides.

SOCARIDES: I`m totally fine with his enthusiasm as it stands right now.

REAGAN: All right.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Richard. Thank you, Ron Reagan. We appreciate you
being here.

Up next, look who`s back -- Mitt Romney who does his first TV interview
since losing the election. That`s ahead.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: New proof of Hillary Clinton`s political strength should she
decide to run for president. She`s leading a couple high-profile potential
Republican candidates in their home states.

Let`s check the HARDBALL scoreboard.

Hillary Clinton leads last year`s GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan
in Wisconsin. It`s Clinton, 51 percent, Ryan, 42 percent. That`s
according to a new PPP poll.

And against Governor Scott Walker, it`s Hillary by 13 percent, 54 percent
to 41 percent.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: We`re back.

And Mitt`s back. Mitt Romney has been laying low since the election, and
besides an occasional sighting of him at Disneyland or Costco, we haven`t
heard from the governor since his loss last November.

That is until now. In an interview on FOX with Chris Wallace, he sums up
the experience of his presidential campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We were on a roller
coaster, exciting and thrilling, ups and downs, but the ride ends, and then
you get off. And it`s not like, oh, can`t we be on the roller coaster the
rest of our life? No, that ride is over.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: He`s making a comeback in this weekend`s interview and a
speech later this month at CPAC. Just what message he`ll ring and whether
Republicans will listen, that remains to be seen.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist for "The Washington Post." Ken Vogel is a
reporter for "Politico".

Ruth, where do you see him going career-wise? Not that he needs to earn a
paycheck.

RUTH MARCUS, THE WASHINGTON POST: Not -- well, two things, not that he
needs to earn a paycheck and not that he`s going to be president. So
career-wise, I don`t mean this to sound mean, but kind of nowhere. I think
the question is, can he turn himself into some kind of elder statesman of
the Republican Party?

Statesman without actually ever having been head of state. He`s got a hard
-- like Al Gore, right, before I`m and others who have never gotten quite
to the top. It`s a very delicate thing and this is a hard loss for anybody
to recover from.

SMERCONISH: You know, he`s a relatively young guy and yet I buy that
assessment in saying it`s over for him. Why is it over for him?

KEN VOGEL, POLITICO: Well, because he personifies some of the things that
Republicans have identified as their greatest weaknesses and the things
they`re really hamstrung them in 2012, and the things that they`re trying
to move away from in this current rebranding. The inability to appeal to
Hispanics, the inability to appeal to women, this idea that Republicans are
the party of the rich. They want the rich to get richer and the poor can
kind of go fend for themselves.

So that`s the discussion right now among Republicans, how to move away from
that. And if you`re the guy who personifies it, you don`t really have much
of a role.

SMERCONISH: Well, he still has a taste for politics. Mitt Romney weighed
in on today`s automatic spending cuts and what they mean for the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: No one can think that that`s been a success for the president. He
didn`t think the sequester would happen. It is happening.

But to date what we`ve seen is the president out campaigning to the
American people, doing rallies around the country, flying around the
country, and berating Republicans and blaming and pointing. What does that
do? That causes the Republicans to retrench and put up a wall and to fight
back. It`s a very natural human emotion.

The president has the opportunity to lead the nation and to bring
Republicans and Democrats together. It`s a job he`s got to do and a job
only the president can do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: It sounds like an argument not to use the bully pulpit, if we
wanted to use the substance of it. How dare he`d go out and try and sell
his policy?

MARCUS: Well, I think it`s a little bit of an argument not to use the
bully pulpit Obama`s way.

And, look, if you`re Mitt Romney, you woke up on Election Day believing you
were going to be president of the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Yes.

MARCUS: And you had in your mind, and I talked about this this week, you
had 100-day and a 200-day governing plan. You knew that the sequester was
coming and you knew what you wanted to do with the sequester.

Paul Ryan talked to me about how he and Mitt sought that at this point,
they would be on what Ryan called charm offensive with Senate Democrats.

SMERCONISH: In other words, Ryan believed they were winning, had it won
(ph) --

(CROSSTALK)

MARCUS: Both of them, both of them, I`m convinced, believed they were
winning. They planned to be on this charm offensive with Senate Democrats,
not as the president is now with the country. And it is very difficult,
like I said, for anybody to recover from having woken up one morning
thinking you`re going to be president and vice president and going to bed
that night knowing it ain`t going to happen.

SMERCONISH: Can -- he goes to CPAC, Chris Christie doesn`t. Do
Republicans want to hear from Mitt Romney?

VOGEL: You know, I don`t think they do. I think most Republicans kind of
would rather see him go away. And at CPAC, in particular, where, you know,
he has managed to -- this is sort of the scene of the crime as far as his -
-

SMERCONISH: The severe crime?

VOGEL: Seriously. As far as his attempt to sort of rebrand himself as a
conservative who is going to really play to the conservative base and win
votes and win the primary, which he did. But it was where he sort of
veered off from this image of him, this certainly framing of him as a
moderate to become this conservative who is unable -- who was able to win
the primary. But in so doing, sort of put off swing voters and independent
voters, the folks who conservatives and Republicans need to appeal to.

In many ways, if Mitt Romney sort of personifies the problem, CPAC is the
epitome of the problem. And, you know, the fact that they would shun
someone like Chris Christie who shows some appeal and shows the ability to
have some traction with these voters who they need to win and welcome
someone like Mitt Romney who`s real nut (ph) to the past and past problem
is part of the problem.

SMERCONISH: Christie should be delivering the keynote. He should be
explaining to them how it`s done. I have to ask a female perspective of
one other question.

MARCUS: That`s why I`m here.

SMERCONISH: Of course, the wife, Ann Romney, I don`t mean to refer to her
as "the wife", that sounds disrespectful. This has got to be brutal for
her to have lost an election like this.

MARCUS: Absolutely. I`m going to give this not from the female
perspective.

SMERCONISH: OK.

MARCUS: The spouse -- spouse always takes it harder than the principle
does. My exhibit A is Bill Clinton. When Hillary Clinton lost the
primaries to Barack Obama, he took it harder. If you`re the principle, you
can suck it up and go on and pick yourself up as hard as it is. If you`re
the spouse, you`re filling the wound for your husband or wife and you`re
holding the grudge. And I think that you see a little bit of a glimpse of
that from Ann Romney in this interview.

SMERCONISH: It will give us an additional reason to pay attention to CPAC.
It should be a good gathering in just a couple weeks.

VOGEL: Yes, I mean, this is -- in some ways, like I said, this is like the
base of the Republican Party is at CPAC. But it`s not the base of the sort
of Republican Party of the future, necessarily.

SMERCONISH: Correct. Thank you both for being here. Appreciate it.
Appreciate it, Ken Vogel and Ruth Marcus.

When we return, let me finish with my argument for cameras in the Supreme
Court.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Let me finish tonight with this:

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the Voting Rights
Act of 1965. At stake: whether nine states, primarily in the South, will
be unencumbered from government pre-clearance when changing voting
procedures.

The arguments and questioning were pointed and evidenced a divide between
the conservative and liberal jurists.

At one point, Justice Antonin Scalia said the law, once a civil rights
landmark, now amounted, quote, "to a perpetuation of racial entitlement."

And that remark created the sharpest exchange of the morning, with Justice
Sonia Sotomayor on the other end. Quote, "Do you think that the right to
vote is a racial entitlement?"

She later asked a lawyer challenging the law, with an edge in her voice
that left little doubt she was responding to Justice Scalia`s statement.
Quote, "Do you think that racial discrimination in voting has ended, that
there is none anywhere?"

I was thinking something while reading about that exchange between Scalia
and Sotomayor -- namely, I`d like to be able to watch it on my TV or my
iPad.

When going through confirmation in 2009, Sotomayor said she liked that
idea. Quote, "I have had positive experiences with cameras," she said.
"When I have been asked to join experiments of using cameras in the
courtroom, I`ve participated. I have volunteered."

But more recently, she expressed a change of heart, telling Charlie Rose,
quote, "I don`t think most viewers take the time to actually delve into
either the briefs or the legal arguments to appreciate what the court is
doing", she said. "They speculate about, oh, the judge favors this point
rather than that point. Very few of them understand what the process is,
which is to play devil`s advocate."

Well, her answer is a problem. Even if most Americans couldn`t follow the
arguments, that`s no reason to shut us out. Ironically, that logic sounds
similar to what was used to justify the poll restrictions that necessitated
the Voting Rights Act. And I`ll bet this week, Justice Sotomayor wishes a
camera had recorded Justice Scalia`s intemperate remark.

Senator Arlen Specter was a champion for cameras in the court room. He
once said, "Since the Supreme Court of the United States decides the most
important issues facing America, its open proceedings should be televised
to inform the public how its government operates."

Specter was right. It`s time to televise the court.

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

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

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