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'Meet the Press' transcript for Jan. 4, 2009

Transcript of the Jan. 4, 2009 broadcast of NBC's 'Meet the Press,' featuring Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Richard Engel, Jeffrey Goldberg, Katty Kay, Hisham Melhem, Andrea Mitchell and David Sanger.

MR. DAVID GREGORY: Our issues this Sunday: Just two days until the 111th Congress convenes and the legislative agenda is already packed, as President-elect Obama meets tomorrow with congressional leaders to discuss the economy and embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's pick Roland Burris says he'll show up to fill the Senate seat vacated by the new president.  Do Senate Democrats have the legal authority to block the appointment?  We'll ask the man at the center of it all, our exclusive guest, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Then, an escalation in the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel now launching a full ground war invasion.  When will it end?  What role should the United States play in the conflict?  And what other foreign policy challenges await President-elect Obama in 2009?  Insights and analysis from our roundtable: Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic; Katty Kay, Washington correspondent for BBC World News America; Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya; Andrea Mitchell, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent; and David Sanger, The New York Times' chief Washington correspondent and author of the new book "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power."

But first, Israeli troops and tanks are now on the ground in Gaza as the fighting against Hamas enters a new phase.  NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is in the Israeli city of Sderot just a mile outside of Gaza.

Richard, as the ground invasion begins, what are you experiencing where you are?

MR. RICHARD ENGEL: Well, over the last several hours there have been rockets that have come into this area.  We've heard air raid sirens and had to hit the deck.  I believe a rocket was just fired in this direction right now, and this is something we've been seeing throughout the day.  We're also hearing the outgoing Israeli artillery and we've seen some extra Israeli reinforcements being brought into the area.

MR. GREGORY: Richard, what's Israel's goal?  Why did it move in on the ground?

MR. ENGEL: Israel says it wants to take over--and now I just heard the impact of that rocket that was launched a few seconds ago.  Israel says it wants to take over the areas where these rockets are being launched.  Its troops have spread out throughout the northern Gaza Strip, cut the Gaza Strip into several sections.  They're avoiding going into the densely populated areas but are trying to hold on to the areas very near the population centers where most of the rockets have been launched and to do that...(technical difficulties).

MR. GREGORY: The fear...(technical difficulties)...that since the point of disengagement from Gaza three years ago that Hamas has been able to fortify its defenses, bring in weaponry.  All of that could be brought to bear against Israeli forces.  How are they responding on their side?

MR. ENGEL: They are responding first with heavy artillery that was used last night to create a smoke screen for the advancing Israeli troops.  Also, they're using a lot of bulldozers.  There's a deep concern that mines were put in place to try and booby-trap the Israeli advance.  So they are proceeding very slowly.  They're also mostly advancing at night, when they have the advantage of night vision technology, which the Palestinians generally do not have.

MR. GREGORY: Richard, you know the Arab well--world as well as anyone. What's the reaction within Arab capitals to this offensive?

MR. ENGEL: On the Arab official side there has been very little support for Hamas.  Governments in Saudi Arabia and in Cairo have expressed not support outright for the Israeli offensive, but certainly no support for Hamas.  On the Arab street we have seen quite a bit of sympathy for the Palestinian people.  There have been protests almost daily.  But on a, on a governmental side, the Israel--one Israeli official I, I spoke to said they feel absolutely no international pressure.

MR. GREGORY: What about civilian casualties?  The criticism of Israel throughout this campaign has been that it's been disproportionate.

MR. ENGEL: Medical officials in Gaza say they are struggling, that there have been more than 2,000 injured, several hundred killed.  They don't exactly know how many people have been killed and injured, because today so many of the roads have been cut.  According to the main hospital in Gaza City, there's no electricity.  They're running on generator backup power and they say they only have about 24-hour supply left.  After that they will be in a real crisis.

MR. GREGORY: The question now, how long and is Israel open to the idea of a cease-fire?

MR. ENGEL: We've heard no talk about that today.  The Israelis, all they say is they will continue this mission.  They are focusing now on the weaponry, on the Hamas weaponry.  They are very concerned that the weaponry has gotten more advanced with support from Hezbollah and support from Iran.  And that's mostly what we're hearing from the Israelis today, briefings on how this offensive should continue, not talks of diplomatic initiatives or any cease-fire.

MR. GREGORY: Richard Engel, our chief foreign correspondent, in Sderot, about a mile from the Gaza border.  Richard, thank you and please stay safe.

MR. ENGEL: Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: And here with us now, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid.

Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS and happy New Year.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): Thank you very much.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the ground invasion into Gaza.  Do you think on the part of this Israeli--of the Israelis this was offensive or defensive?

SEN. REID: I spoke to Prime Minister Olmert a couple of days ago.  He indicated that they would do the ground activities.  Let's understand the background.  For eight years they've been firing rockets into Israel.  They've become more intense the last few months.  Israelis have been killed, maimed and injured.  Sometimes more than 200 a day coming into Israel.  If this were going on in the United States from Vancouver, Canada, into Seattle, would we react?  Course we do.  We would have to.  I think what the Israelis are doing is very important.  I think this terrorist organization, Hamas, has got to be put away.  They've got to come to their senses.  The Fatah group, which is--makes up part of Palestinian group, has a peace arrangement with Israel. Hamas should do the same.

MR. GREGORY: And they're in power in the West Bank.

SEN. REID: That's right.  And, and, and Israel, for--since 1967, controlled Gaza.  They gave it to the Palestinians as a gesture of peace.  And all they got are a bunch of rockets in return.

MR. GREGORY: So you think that Israel ought to move forward and try to remove Hamas from power?

SEN. REID: They have to.  I, I'm not concerned about removing Hamas from power, I'm concerned about stopping the rocket fire and the mortar fire into Israel.  That is the key, and that's what Israel's up to according to the prime minister.

MR. GREGORY: Should there be an immediate cease-fire?

SEN. REID: If the Hamas organization will agree and there is some degree of certainty that they will follow through.  They, in the past, have simply not lived up to what they said they would do.  If there's a way of enforcing this cease-fire, then yes.  Otherwise, Israel has to continue till they stop the rockets and mortars coming into Israel, maiming, injuring...


SEN. REID: ...and killing Israelis.

MR. GREGORY: So you, you're in sync with the Bush administration on this point?

SEN. REID: Yes, I am.


Let's move on back home and talk about the controversial appointment of Roland Burris by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.  Back when this story first broke, when the charges of corruption were brought against Governor Blagojevich, you put him on notice.  And you had a letter that was signed by all Senate Democrats that said, in part, the following: "We write to insist that you step down as governor of Illinois and under no circumstance make an appointment to fill the vacant Illinois Senate seat.  Please understand that should you decide to ignore the request ... and make an appointment we would be forced to exercise our Constitutional authority under Article 1, Section 5, to determine whether such a person should be seated." In other words, you can reject that appointment.  You did that because Governor Blagojevich defied that letter, defied you.  He appointed Roland Burris.  Roland Burris also defying you.  He spoke on MSNBC to Rachel Maddow this week, and this is what he said:

(Videotape, Tuesday)

MR. ROLAND BURRIS: I have been legally appointed by the governor of our state, and my hope and prayer that my Democratic colleagues will recognize that what they are doing is not in anyway form, shape or fashion legal.  To deny me the seat based on some allegations by the appointee--by the appointer really does not lend itself to disqualify me as a unqualified person to be appointed.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: What is your basis for denying him?

SEN. REID: Blagojevich obviously is a corrupt individual.  I think that's pretty clear.  And the reason that he's done what he's done is to divert attention from the arrest that was just made of him and the indictment which will be coming in a few days, according to the U.S. attorney in Illinois. That's why President-elect Obama agreed with us that Mr. Burris is tainted. Not as a result of anything that he's done wrong.  There's--I don't know a thing wrong with Mr. Burris.  It's not the person that has been appointed, it's the appointee.  If Blagojevich would do the right thing, that is step down, or he'll probably be impeached.  And he gave us Mr. Burris, he gave us Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis, Madigan, all the fine people who we have from Illinois, they would be taken care of just like this.

MR. GREGORY: Well, you, you say he's an obviously corrupt person.  He has not been formally charged, no has--nor has he had a chance to confront the evidence against him.  Are--isn't that a rush to judgment?

SEN. REID: We have to understand that this man has had a cloud over him prior to his arrest.  That's why the Illinois state legislature's moving forward expeditiously--in fact, next week--to start impeachment proceedings. So I don't think, I don't think we have many cheerleaders for Blagojevich that he's an honest, upright citizen...


SEN. REID: ...of the state of Illinois.

MR. GREGORY: But he is still legally the governor.  He's doing business. He's been accused but not convicted of anything, and not even formally accused.  And there's, there's nothing suggesting that the appointment was at all illegal.

SEN. REID: It--Danny Davis, a fine congressman from the state of Illinois, was offered, by Blagojevich, the job.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: He said, "I can't accept this because my constituents, the people state of Illinois, would never accept me based on the cloud you have over you." And that's the problem we have.  Now, what we're going to do is I'm, I plan on meeting with him and Senator Durbin on Wednesday.  That's my understanding.  We're going to visit with him.

MR. GREGORY: Roland Burris, you're talking about?

SEN. REID: That's right, Roland Burris.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: And we would hope that in the meantime Blagojevich, with the impeachment proceedings that are ongoing against him, would do the right thing, step down.  And then if Pat Quinn--who I've spoken to, a very fine man who's the lieutenant governor--would become the acting governor or the governor, he wants to appoint Burris or anyone else, that would be fine. There is a cloud over Blagojevich, and at this stage a cloud over the state of Illinois.  They don't have a vote.  And if--as long as Blagojevich has done the appointing, it's really a tainted appointment.

MR. GREGORY: If Burris shows up, you won't seat him?

SEN. REID: Well, we're going to do what we have to do, and we're going to follow all legal precedents.  We think that we're pretty clear on what we believe is the law, and the precedent in the United States Senate that we are, we are the ones that determine--Democrats and Republicans determine who is going to sit in the Senate.  It's been that way since before 1800.

MR. GREGORY: Well, let me press you on that point.  A, a critical editorial on the LA Times made this argument: "The Constitution says that each house of Congress `shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members' and may punish members for `disorderly behavior' or, on a two-thirds vote, expel a sitting member.  Neither provision justifies excluding a senator because of the unrelated wrongdoing of the governor making the appointment. ... It's doubtful whether the Senate could refuse to seat ... any duly elected (or by extension appointed) member who met age, residency and citizenship requirements.  In 1969, the Supreme Court overturned a resolution by the House barring Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from taking his seat.  Powell had been accused of financial improprieties. ... Exasperated as they are at being outfoxed by Blagojevich, his colleagues and critics must face the fact that he is still the governor of Illinois and empowered to appoint an interim U.S. senator.  It's not a pretty situation, but it's the law."

SEN. REID: The LA Times is wrong.  They use the Powell case as precedent, that's not in keeping with what the problem is here today.  They were talking at that time about the qualifications of Adam Clayton Powell, and the Supreme Court said, "We are not going to deal with the qualifications of Adam Clayton Powell." This is totally a different situation.  This is not dealing with the appointee.  I think everyone that I've talked to said that Burris is a good guy.  We're talking about a cloud over anyone that comes from the state of Illinois, being appointed by Blagojevich.

MR. GREGORY: But what in the Constitution allows you to judge Roland Burris in, in this manner, to not seat him?

SEN. REID: The LA Times quoted part of it itself from the Constitution: We determine who sits in the Senate, and the House determines who sits in the House.  So there's clearly legal authority for us to do whatever we want to. This goes back for generations.

MR. GREGORY: Senator, isn't this really all about politics?  Isn't your primary consideration who you deem to be electable in 2010?

SEN. REID: No, I don't think so.  This situation is this.  I've spoken to the governor of the state of Colorado, because that's my responsibility as majority leader.  There is--Ken Salazar's going to be interior secretary.  And we had some wonderful conversations.  Governor Ritter asked me how he felt--how I felt about the opening.  I told him what a great guy Salazar was. He talked about different candidates.  And I said to him, "Governor, you appoint whoever is best in your mind for the state of Colorado." And he did. He came up with Bennet, kind of someone that not a lot people have known about.  But what we hear about him now is that he's...

MR. GREGORY: This is Michael Bennet...

SEN. REID: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: ...the school chief out there.

SEN. REID: Going to be, going to be a new senator from the state of Colorado.


SEN. REID: New York.  I've spoken to Governor Paterson several times.  He's asked me how I feel about Caroline Kennedy, as an example, which I think is terrific.  But I always said to Paterson, "You appoint whoever you want." And my one conversation with Blagojevich--had a number...


SEN. REID: ...of conversations with the Colorado governor and the New York governor--"Blagojevich, make sure you give us someone who can hit the ground running." Of course we're concerned about what happens in 2010, but this has nothing to do with 2010.  It has everything to do with the corrupt governor.

MR. GREGORY: All right, but let, let's talk about those conversations you had with Governor Blagojevich.  Apparently you made it clear that three men were not acceptable to you: Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis, Emil Jones.  And yet you just said Jesse Jackson would be fine.  Is that what you said, that these men would not be acceptable?

SEN. REID: This is part of Blagojevich's cloud.  He's making all this up.  I had a conversation with him.  I don't remember what was in the conversation, other than the generalities that I just talked about.  I didn't tell him who not to appoint.  He's making all this up to divert attention...

MR. GREGORY: Don't you think these conversations are on tape?

SEN. REID: Of course.

MR. GREGORY: For the U.S. attorney's investigation?

SEN. REID: I'm, I'm sure they are.  But--that's right.  And that's why what he's saying, he's making it up.

MR. GREGORY: So he's wrong, Jesse Jackson Jr. was always acceptable to you?

SEN. REID: Jesse Jackson Jr. is somebody that I think would be a good senator.  And for Blagojevich to start throwing out these names of people who I wanted and didn't want...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: ...he's making it up.

MR. GREGORY: People close to Roland Burris are raising another suggestion, and this is how Politico reports it this morning: "Top advisers to [Burris] are suggesting that Reid doesn't want an African-American to succeed Obama. `It's interesting that all those who are viable are white women and the ones who are unacceptable are black men,' Prince Riley, a senior consultant to Burris, told Politico." Your response?

SEN. REID: I have no idea who Prince Riley is.  But I do know that I've served in the United States Senate with two outstanding senators, Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama, both African-Americans from the state of Illinois.  I worked harder than anyone in this country for Ron Kirk running for senator, senator for the state of Texas.  As a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, we spent more money in the state of Tennessee than any state in the country trying to get Harold Ford elected.  I have--anyone that suggests there's any racial bias in this instance doesn't realize I went to the Clark County district attorney's office to find a--people thought was a nobody to become a federal judge, Johnnie Rawlinson.  She was a great judge. She's now on the Ninth Circuit.  I did that myself.  So anyone to suggest anything racial is part of the Blagojevich spin to take away from the corruption that's involved his office in Illinois.

MR. GREGORY: Would that include former Congressman Bobby Rush, who was part of the press conference when Roland Burris was appointed?  And this is what he said during that press conference.

(Videotape, Tuesday):

REP. BOBBY RUSH (D-IL): Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the U.S. Senate.  I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer.  I don't think that anyone, any U.S. senator who's sitting in the Senate right now, want to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated, seated in the U.S. Senate.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Do you feel like you're being boxed in here?

SEN. REID: Bobby Rush, in 2004 we had a very good election in the state of Illinois.  We had a tough primary.  One African-American was on that primary. His name was Barack Obama.  Mr. Rush did not support Barack Obama, he supported Blair Hull.

MR. GREGORY: How does this end?  Do you think Roland Burris will be in the United States Senate?

SEN. REID: It's going to be very, be very difficult for that to occur.  I've learned being in--a senator for the time I have that anything can happen.  The best thing that would happen, as I've indicated on this program and I've said before...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: ...Blagojevich should step down.  He should do it today.  If not, he'll be impeached.  And I--and that's prior to his being...

MR. GREGORY: But are you willing to go to the mat on this to deny Roland Burris, if it requires going to the Supreme Court?  Is it worth that effort?

SEN. REID: The state of Illinois deserves a vote in the United States Senate, and the people of the state of Illinois, the fifth most populous state in the union, deserve that vote.  It's too bad Blagojevich has diverted attention from the real issue.  And we'll--we're--as I've indicated, we're going to come--I'm going to meet with Senator McConnell, my Republican counterpart.  I hope to do that Monday evening.  I think it's around 6:00 or something like that.  We'll talk about this.  I hope we can solve this issue on a bipartisan basis.

MR. GREGORY: But there sounds to me like there may be some room here to negotiate and actually seat Burris?

SEN. REID: Hey, listen, David, I'm an old trial lawyer.  There's always room to negotiate.

MR. GREGORY: All right, so you're not saying no completely that he won't serve?

SEN. REID: That's right.

MR. GREGORY: That's what you're saying.

Let, let me move on to the economy.  You meet with the president-elect tomorrow.  Biggest question is how big will this stimulus package be for the economy, and when should we expect the president-elect and--the president, rather, to sign it?

SEN. REID: Well, it'll--it--we will work this just as quickly as we can. It'll take as much time as it needs to get done.  What do we need in this economic recovery program?  First of all, we have to recognize that this past election called for change.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: We have a country like we've never seen before, promise nationally and internationally.  We also have to realize that it must be done on a bipartisan basis.  Whatever we do must be done on a bipartisan basis. And we must recognize the economy is in deep trouble and we have to do something about jobs, infrastructure--that's roads, highways, bridges, dams, water systems, sewer systems, classrooms, laboratories, libraries.  And I think we should also understand there's a manufacturing component we need, retooling.  We have to do something with batteries, battery systems, maybe do something with lithium batteries.  And of course, we also have to do something with housing.  It is in the toilet, they say, and it is.  Nevada leads the nation in foreclosures.  We also have to do something to make our country more secure, and the way to do that is to have energy independence.  That has to be part of the economic recovery program, energy independence, which includes a smart grid.  We also have to have, as President-elect Obama has said time and time again, a middle class, a working men and women tax cut.  And we need to do that.  We have to give state--relief to states.  Forty-four states are deeply in the red, the other six are barely not in the red, and we have to give them relief.  In Nevada, for example, David, at our University Medical Center in Las Vegas, they stopped cancer treatment.  People who are in Las Vegas--two weeks ago, women who had breast cancer treatment were said, "We have no place for you to go." They had to leave the state to do that.  We have--we need to take care of that.  It's a very, very important.  So those are the things we need to do.


SEN. REID: And finally, David, let me say this.  Whatever program we have, let's not talk about the last eight years.  Let's talk about the next eight years.

MR. GREGORY: All right, let's talk about some of the specifics, but I want to start with the issue of timing.  Do you see a stimulus being signed into law before February?

SEN. REID: We're going to do our very, very best.  Now, he doesn't become president until January 20th, and it's going--I want to make sure that we do this on a bipartisan basis.  Leader Boehner in the House and Republican Leader McConnell in the Senate said they want to be involved in whatever this recovery package is.  They should be.  The urgency of this, everyone knows about.  But I'm not going to have some false deadline, whether it's February 1 or whatever it is.  I want to make sure that all senators have some input in what goes on here and do it as quickly as we can.

MR. GREGORY: Mid-February, or you just--can--you don't want to say...(unintelligible).

SEN. REID: David, I, I'm not going to give you--I, I, I'm not going to give you a timeline.


SEN. REID: We're going to do it as quickly as we can.

MR. GREGORY: Are you worried about the total...

SEN. REID: We're going, we're going, we're going to do it--be working nights.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: We're going to be working weekends.  We're going to get this done.

MR. GREGORY: Is this a trillion-dollar stimulus, do you expect?

SEN. REID: It's whatever it takes to bring this country back on a fiscal footing that is decent.

You know, we don't want to do a little bit and say, "Well, we should have done more.  Let's come back and do it again." We want to do it right the first time.  If we do it right the first time--as, as reported in The New York Times yesterday, a group of economists, blue ribbon they're called, they said, "If they do a very strong stimulus package, the economy will start recovering in July." And that's what Paul Krugman says, who's a Democrat; that's what Mark Zandi, who was one of, one of John McCain's advisers, said.  We need to spend some money.  And we have to make sure it's spent wisely, that we watch that money, how it's spent, there is oversight, there is transparency.  And I hope--and we--I expect that we can do that.

MR. GREGORY: You mentioned housing.  Your home state, number one in foreclosures.  What specifically should the stimulus plan do to reduce the severity of this housing correction?  For instance, should there be a guarantee of principal for people buying a home?

SEN. REID: The, the reason we look at housing is not only for the people who are being foreclosed upon, but for the economy generally.  Because, you see, housing is more than carpenters putting up walls; it's people laying tile, it's people manufacturing appliances and carpeting.  So we have to do a number of things.  A number of suggestion has been let's have a moratorium on foreclosures for 90 days.  That's would be a step in the right direction.  And the one thing that I'm very concerned about is what's happened to the $350 billion that has been--was given.  Most of it's been given to the banks, who aren't making the loans.  And so I think that's a place we need to look very quickly.

MR. GREGORY: Would you guarantee the down payment?  Would you guarantee a homeowner's principal?

SEN. REID: This is something--as I've indicated earlier, David, Boehner and McConnell are saying, "Let us be involved." I'm not going to here dictate what's going to happen.  But I want the Finance Committee and the Ways and Means Committee to come up with ways that we can alleviate the housing crisis. We have now a Democratic president, we have a Democratic control of the House and the Senate.  But that doesn't mean we can push our way through.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: To do what is right for this country is going to take us working together, Democrats and Republicans, because, because the problem...

MR. GREGORY: So you don't want to weigh in on that particular issue?

SEN. REID: No, no, David, the problems out there aren't Democratic problems or Republican problems, they're American problems.  We have to address them.

MR. GREGORY: What about taxes?  Will you work to repeal the Bush tax cuts right away?  Do you think that's a prudent step?

SEN. REID: We're going to have a middle-class tax cut.  We're going to cut taxes for working men and women.  And I am not going to get involved with any talk about tax increases.  I haven't heard Barack Obama say that, I haven't said it.

MR. GREGORY: But a repeal of the Bush tax cuts would be a tax increase.

SEN. REID: But no one's talking about that?  All we're talking about is a middle-class tax cut.  Not raise--yeah.

MR. GREGORY: Would you like to see a payroll tax cut?  Do you think that's the most effective way to reach the middle class?

SEN. REID: There are a number of ways we can do it.  You can do it with the income tax, you can do it through Social Security funds that are put forth every day.  There are many ways of doing this, and that's why we're working with President-elect Obama and his economic team to find out what we can come up with.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the investor class in this country, everybody from wealthy investors to a retired teacher.  In 2008, $7 trillion of wealth was lost in the stock market.  Do you think that the SEC, the Security Exchange Commission, has done its job?  Do you think it should remain the kind of agency it is?  Should it be abolished or reformed?

SEN. REID: The answer, obviously, is the Securities and Exchange Commission did a lousy job.  The evidence is clear that you cannot have no regulation. It doesn't work.  You know, the marketplace will take care of everything. Well, it hasn't.  And we have to have regulation.  Now, the key to all this is how do we regulate?  We can't be overzealous and overregulate, but there must be regulation.  There has to be some.  And we simply haven't had it.  And the Securities and Exchange Commission should be ashamed of itself for what they've let happen with the guy in New York, Maddow, and the meltdown all over this country.

MR. GREGORY: So it should be reformed.

SEN. REID: Oh, without any...

MR. GREGORY: You'd like to see--to lead an effort on that.

SEN. REID: Without any, without any question.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about politics.  This is what you told Roll Call two days after the election of Barack Obama.  "Reid said he believes the newly elected senators will feel, as he does, that the country voted for moderate--not liberal--policies. ... `I think the country has moved to the center,' Reid said.  `I think people want us to get things done.'" Let me test that proposition.  On immigration, do you have a deal between the president-elect and Senator McCain for immigration reform?

SEN. REID: John McCain--a day or two after the election, I called John. We've served--we came to Washington together in 1982.  We've been together in the House and we came to the Senate together.  And we talked about the campaign.  We had both said things about each other that probably we shouldn't have, but we did.  He's my friend.  He said, "Harry, I, I want to come back to the Senate.  We want to do some good things.  I want to work with you."

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: "We need comprehensive immigration reform." That was a conversation I had with John McCain.  Yes, we need comprehensive immigration reform.  And what does that mean?  It means we have to make sure our borders are protected, our northern and southern borders.  We have to do something about the millions of people here who are undocumented.  We have to put them on, on a pathway to legalization.  Does that mean that they get to the head of the line?  Of course not.  They'd have penalties and fines and learn English and stay out of trouble.  We have to also do something on a guest worker program and we have to do something about the employer sanctions that works. John McCain believes that should happen.  I believe that should happen. That's...

MR. GREGORY: And he's discussed it with the president-elect?

SEN. REID: I don't...

MR. GREGORY: McCain has?

SEN. REID: I don't know, but he's discussed it with me.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.  You think you've got a deal, a prospect of a deal.

SEN. REID: I have, I have John McCain's word that he's going to work real, real hard on immigration reform.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you...

SEN. REID: And I'll, and I'll work with him.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the war in Iraq.  In April of 2007, this is what you said: "I believe myself that ... this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything." Were you wrong?

SEN. REID: David, I first met General David Petraeus in Iraq.  He was training the Iraqi forces at that time.  At that time, he knew it wasn't working.  After he became the commander in Iraq, he and I sat down and talked. He said to me, and he said within the sound of everyone's voice, "The war cannot be won militarily." I said it differently than he did.  But it needed a change in direction.  Petraeus brought that about.  He brought it about--the surge helped, of course it helped.  But in addition to that, the urging of me and other people in Congress and the country dictated a change, and that took place.  So...

MR. GREGORY: But you said the surge was not accomplishing anything.  Even Barack Obama said last fall that it exceeded everyone's expectations and succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

SEN. REID: Listen, at that--the time that statement was made, the surge--they weren't talking about the surge.  Petraeus added to the surge some very, very interesting things that changed things.  He said a lot--just simply numbers of troops is not going to do the deal.  What we need to do is work with the Iraqi people, which we haven't done before.  That's where the Awakening Councils came about, as a result of David Petraeus' genius.  He's done--he will be written about in the history books for years to come.  My original statement was in keeping what David Petraeus said; that is, the war cannot be won militarily.

MR. GREGORY: Do you believe that the war in Iraq has been lost?

SEN. REID: I don't think at this stage we can talk about that with any degree of sensibility.  That has to be something that will talked about in the history books to come.  We...

MR. GREGORY: So you spoke to soon in 2007?

SEN. REID: David Petraeus and Harry Reid spoke at the same time.  David Petraeus said that the war cannot be won militarily, I said what I said.  Who, who phrased it the best is...

MR. GREGORY: You said that the war is lost.  Today, in 2009, that's no longer your view?

SEN. REID: David, listen, someone else will have to determine that as the years go on.  What has the war done?  It's brought about--it's destabilized the Middle East.  We have a civil war going on in Israel.  We have a civil war in Iraq, as indicated today, more than 50 people killed with a bomb in Iraq today.  We have Lebanon, a civil war there.  We have Iran thumbing their nose with every, everyone.  And if that weren't bad enough, our standing in the world community is so far down as a result of this war, so--and that doesn't take into consideration the tens of thousands who have been injured...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: ...and the thousands have been killed in the war.  So it's, it's--historians will have to talk about what the war in Iraq did.  But I think historians today indicate, as I have, the outline that I've given.

MR. GREGORY: Before you go, do you have any regrets about the way you have publicly battled with President Bush?  Over the years you've called him a liar, a loser, and you've described him as "our worst president ever."

SEN. REID: I wrote a book and I said that in the book several times.  David, I am who I am.  I'm going to continue being who I am.  I think you just have to call things the way you see them.  I really do believe that President Bush is the worst president we've ever had.  I think his efforts to destroy Social Security were very bad.  That brought about one of those statements.  I think as we've looked now at what's happened to the stock market, wouldn't that have been an awful thing to do, to privatize Social Security?  Medicare, he's done, he's done his very best to destroy Medicare.  Medicare, a wonderful program. Perfect?  Of course not.  But one of the best programs ever developed to take care of sick people.  So...

MR. GREGORY: No regrets?

SEN. REID: Well, you know, I am just who I am.

MR. GREGORY: All right, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, thank you very much for your views and your time.

Coming next, as the fighting between Israel and Hamas escalates into a ground invasion, what role should the U.S. play?  And what other foreign policy challenges await President-elect Obama?  Our roundtable weighs in: Jeffrey Goldberg, Katty Kay, Hisham Melhem, Andrea Mitchell and David Sanger, all here only on MEET THE PRESS.


MR. GREGORY: Our roundtable on the fighting in Gaza and other foreign policy challenges for the new president after this brief station break.


MR. GREGORY: And we're back, and joined by Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Danger Sanger of The New York Times, Katty Kay of BBC News America, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya television.

Welcome to all of you.  A lot of ground to cover.

Andrea, let me start with you.  The Israelis are reporting the first death of an Israel soldier as this ground invasion has begun.  What's the goal for Israel at this point?  Why did they decide to move in on the ground?

MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, that is exactly the question that U.S. officials and, in fact, Tony Blair as a negotiator in Jerusalem today is asking Israeli officials.  What is the endgame here?  The U.S. believes that Israel wants to change the situation on the ground, wants to remove Hamas as the governing authority, that removing the rockets attacks is going to be impossible as long as Hamas is in control there.  But to accomplish that, what is the damage, what is the downside for Israel internationally, diplomatically?  The U.S. is now isolated in that America is not calling for a cease-fire and just about everyone else is calling for an immediate cease-fire.


MS. MITCHELL: So the U.S. is giving a green light to Israel, and there's a lot of implications down the road for American diplomacy.

MR. GREGORY: But, Hisham, there is not a lot of love for Hamas in the Arab world, at least in the Arab governments.  And Israel has said it does not want to reoccupy Gaza, though there has been the suggestion that they'd like to see members of Fatah, who are in control in the West Bank, to govern Gaza again.

MR. HISHAM MELHEM: It's true, there is no love between the governments and Hamas.  But there's a great sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian people, and the outrage and the sense of frustration that you see in the Arab world, especially on, on the, on, on the people's level is--it will be felt by the government, because we've seen demonstrations, we've seen growing criticism.  The problem is that America's friends and allies, who believed that the Annapolis process could lead to something by the end of President Bush's...

MR. GREGORY: The peace process initiated by the Bush administration.

MR. MELHEM: Yes, exactly.  See nothing but frustration.  The Bush administration gave Israel unqualified support, as you would, you would expect.  Barack Obama's going to inherit a huge mess.  And then the problem for, for the moderates is that they cannot show the radicals that there is a workable peace process.  If the administration succeeded in stopping, for instance, Israeli settlements on the West Bank, then you could say to Hamas, to Hezbollah, to the radicals, to Iran, there is a workable peace process; there is an active, acceptable alternative to your way, for instance.  Now the Israelis can go on the rampage in the West Bank, create new facts on the ground.  They may control the borders between Gaza and Egypt.  But if Hamas doesn't, doesn't collaborate the way you had in Lebanon after the...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. MELHEM: ...2006 war, what would be the end?  Hamas can always claim victory if Hamas politically survives, which is the likely outcome of this. We are seeing a replay of 2006.  Even the terminology, "destroy the infrastructure of Hamas."


MR. MELHEM: Well, remember '82 and "destroy the infrastructure of the PLO"? The same thing.  We are going to see a replay of 206.  The radicals will be embolden and the, and the moderates, including Mahmoud Abbas, will be among the losers.

MR. GREGORY: So, Katty Kay, from a U.S. perspective, in the remaining days of the Bush administration and for an incoming president who has been assiduously quiet on this question, whereas he has weighed in on matters of the economy, how does this play out for, for a U.S. role?

MS. KATTY KAY: Well, he's also weighed in on other foreign policy issues.


MS. KAY: He weighed in on Mumbai, but he hasn't weighed in on, on Gaza.  I think one of the biggest risks for the U.S. here is actually not just the Israeli-Palestinian question, it's over the question of Iran; that it would be in the U.S.'s strategic interest to try and form some sort of a loose coalition between moderate Arab governments, the Israelis and the U.S. against Iran, which most people think this year will develop enough low-enriched uranium to develop some sort of nuclear device.  That is going to be extremely difficult with this kind of action going on in Gaza.  Moderate Arab governments, although they're quite happy to see Hamas kicked, have to listen to their own people.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. KAY: Their own people now are rallying in favor of Hamas. Sixty-thousand Jordanians rallied in favor of Hamas.  That's a moderate Arab government.  The kind of government the U.S. would like to keep on board, especially coalesced against Iran, a nuclear--possibly--armed Iran.  This kind of action undermines any sort of tacit agreement that moderate Arab governments like--might be able to have with Israel and the U.S. against Iran.

MR. GREGORY: The reality is, Jeffrey Goldberg, that Israel sought this action and took this step to re-establish deterrents to stop groups like Hamas from attacking Israel and launching rockets into Israel, hurting Israeli civilians, killing them as well.  The question that you have sought out to tackle is, is any kind of deterrence really possible with a group like Hamas?

You write about Nizar Rayyan in your--on your blog on this week. Here's a picture of him.  He was the Hamas leader who was killed in that bombing raid earlier in the week.  And you saw him last, actually, in Gaza two years ago when you were writing your book "Prisoners." You were, you were writing the book and you, you saw him at a mosque in the Jabalia refugee camp, and this is what you wrote this week on your blog: "The question I wrestle with constantly is whether Hamas is truly, theologically implacable.  That is to say, whether the organization can remain true to its understanding of Islamic law and God's word and yet enter into a long-term nonaggression treaty with Israel.  I tend to think not, though I've noticed over the years a certain plasticity of belief among some Hamas ideologues. ... There was no flexibility with Rayyan.  This is what he said when I asked him if he could envision a 50-year hudna (or cease-fire) with Israel: `The only reason to have a hudna is to prepare yourself for the final battle.  We don't need 50 years to prepare ourselves for the final battle with Israel.' There is no chance, he said, that true Islam would ever allow a Jewish state to survive in the Muslim Middle East.  `Israel is an impossibility.  It is an offense against God.' ... What are our crimes?  I asked Rayyan.  `You are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah,' he said.  `Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him.  All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God.' Can Israel achieve deterrence with someone like that?

MR. JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, it's hard to negotiate with God, obviously.  You can achieve military deterrence for a time, obviously.  You can stop Hamas from getting access to rockets.  Politically deterrence is a, is more difficult, and theologically it's near impossible.  This is, this is not something that people in Hamas, sincere believers, believe is possible.  You cannot allow a Jewish state to remain in the Middle East.  So the, the, the problem arises then, what is there to talk about?  And like I said, when you're negotiating with a political party like Fatah on the West Bank, it's one thing.  When you're negotiating with God, it's quite different.

MR. GREGORY: David Sanger, what's the bigger picture here, of a wider conflict, of wider repercussions?

MR. DAVID SANGER: What we're facing, David, right now is the reality that Iraq so distracted President Bush for so long that we did not have a chance to really look toward the rest of the agenda in the Middle East.  Iraq was supposed to be, you remember, the beginning of a spread of democracy.  How many times sitting at the White House together did we hear that?  The democracy dividend would be peace in the Middle East.  You're seeing, at the end of President Bush's presidency, where that has ended up.  But you see it elsewhere, as well.  As Katty said, this is really, to many--to a large extent, about Iran.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. SANGER: Because the Israelis need to show that they once again have their deterrent capability back.  That is what their bombing of the Syrian reactor that the North Koreans helped the Syrians build was all about a year and a half ago.  It's what this is about.  It's about saying to the Iranians, "We have a way to get out and reach you."

MR. GREGORY: Go ahead, Andrea.

MS. MITCHELL: In fact, this "belief in Democracy," quote/unquote, is what led to supporting the election that led to Hamas having its victory.  That has been a misplaced belief, many critics would say, in terms of Bush strategy; and in fact, that there hasn't been intensive enough day by day, on the ground diplomacy.  That's what the Obama team was planning to bring to the table. It's clear that Israel did this now, the timing of it now.  They've been planning for a year.  The--Hamas has been defending against it and planning its counteraction for at least a year.  They did it now because they wanted to clean the slate before the new administration came in.  Despite Obama's, you know, statements about his support for Israel, he's still an unknown entity to them, and they knew that they had unrelenting support from the Bush administration.  That said, with the ground action now, most people do not believe it's not going to be done by January 20th.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. MITCHELL: And it won't be a clean slate, and it does complicate what Obama and Hillary Clinton have to do.

MR. MELHEM: The problem with deterrence is that it is easier to be used against states.  States can be easily deterred, because the states are responsible for people, for institutions.  It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to turn--to deter nonstate actors, as we've seen with Hezbollah and as we've seen with Hamas.  If those groups survive politically, to them they succeeded.  And they will always go underground and, and, and fight, fight, fight, fight for another day.  As far as democracy is concerned in the region...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. MELHEM: ...and in the Middle East, the president, President Bush intellectually was not even curious to know more about the Arab-Israeli conflict like previous American presidents.  He focused on Iraq and on a democracy in a very really shallow way.  They equated democracy with elections and...


MR. MELHEM: ...they never learned anything...

MR. GREGORY: And in this--Hamas can be emboldened here.

MR. GOLDBERG: Hamas can be emboldened, but let's remember that Hamas is not Hezbollah and this is not Lebanon.  There are--Israel has more options in Gaza than it has in Lebanon.  It has an incredible intelligence network made up by the way of Palestinians who are opposed to Hamas, it knows the territory very well and it has room to maneuver in ways that it didn't have in Lebanon.  So it might end this--you might end this with a, with a cease-fire in which Hamas, for a time...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. GOLDBERG: ...can't really fire rockets into Israel.  But to underscore Hisham's point, if they're--if they have the capability of firing even one rocket after, after this operation, then they could plausibly...


MR. GOLDBERG: ...claim some kind of victory.

MR. GREGORY: Let me get to the larger point here about Iran, because I think it's so important.  The Israelis--who, David Sanger, have drawn up plans in the past to be prepared to reduce or eliminate this nuclear threat from Iran--believe that Iran will actually achieve the know-how to build a nuclear bomb by next year, and could produce their first nuclear weapon by 2010. There's been some debate about that intelligence between the United States and Israel.  If Iran goes nuclear, what then?

MR. SANGER: Iran wants to re-establish itself as the greatest power in the Middle East.  And to do it, David, they don't even need to fully go nuclear. All they need to do is to demonstrate that they have the capability to go nuclear at any moment.  And you know what, as President Bush leaves office they're just about there.  They have produced enough uranium to make maybe one bomb's worth.  You don't break out and declare yourself a nuclear power with only one bomb's worth, but you're close enough.  They have--courtesy of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold them much of, of their work, they've got a lot of the plans and a lot of the work done that they need to do.  They could declare at any point in the first year or two of Barack Obama's presidency, "Hey, we can make a bomb." And at that point you have changed the balance of power.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. SANGER: Because, as we saw with the Iraq invasion, it's a lot easier for the United States to go in after a dictator who it says may get the bomb than against one who has one.


MS. KAY: There's a huge amount of goodwill at the moment towards Barack Obama throughout the world, and even to some extent in the Middle East.  Even members of Hamas have said that they believe that Obama will be better than President Bush.  The problem that this is doing is that this is making the reality on the ground that much more difficult for Obama.  And there is only a, a certain distance that goodwill can go.  I mean, he now has this extremely complicated situation where Hamas is almost inevitably going to come out of this emboldened on the Arab street.  Look at the rock star status that Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, achieved.  And he was a Shia.  Even in the Sunni world he was massively respected after 2006.  This then puts the U.S. in a very difficult position.  There is an, an expectation that Obama will come to the, to the Israelis and say, "Listen, I am your friend, but you have to stop building settlements," for example.  Can Obama do this now?  This, this complicates...


MS. KAY: ...his mission and the kind of thing that he can say...

MR. GREGORY: You speak, you, you speak to--Andrea...

MS. KAY: the Israelis.

MR. GREGORY: ...Katty's speaking to the issue of ownership.  Here Barack Obama ran on a platform of change--and this goes to your book--but he's going to own these problems after a year's time.  And, and your new book, "The Inheritance," you write the following about Obama's problems: "In a year's time, [Obama] will not be able to blame problems on the mess he found when he walked into the Oval Office.  While Obama could order sped-up withdrawals of American troops from Iraq, his advisers know that if they leave too rapidly and sectarian violence flares anew, it will be blamed on the new president's overeagerness and inexperience. ... If Obama honors his pledge to commit more forces to stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan ... he risks getting bogged down in a country ... more ungovernable than Iraq.  If he authorizes more raids over the Pakistan border to root out al-Qaeda--as he vowed he would--he will be charged with acting as unilaterally as Bush did, in violation of Pakistani sovereignty.  If he fails to warn the Iranians that the price" of--"for refusing to dismantle their nuclear program will be high--and that `all options are on the table'--he runs the risk of looking like an easy mark." Andrea:

MS. MITCHELL: Well, not only does it limit his options, but he is now going to be under enormous pressure to do something to restrain Israel.  And that is an--a very difficult position for Barack Obama to take.  Hillary Clinton can give him some cover on that because of her staunch support for Israel along the way, but there's going to be almost universal pressure on him to do that. Now, there was a very promising negotiating track through Turkey and Damascus that--even days before this engagement began, before the air attacks began. They were very close, it was believed, to signing an agreement between Damascus and Israel, and Turkey was the broker there.  Turkey could become the broker through Damascus, again, to reach out to Hamas, to the Hamas leaders who are in, in Syria.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. MITCHELL: So there are negotiating strategies.  But before that can take place, Israel has to achieve some sort of exit strategy that gives it respectability, and Hamas has to feel that it has some sort of exit strategy. What the U.S. is hoping is that they can restore the 2005 agreements where Hamas will agree not to rocket Israel, Israel will agree to open the borders. And there are U.S. Army Corps of Engineer personnel on the ground right now on the Egypt side looking at the tunnels to see how Egypt could be reassured that there won't be continued smuggling through on that...

MR. GREGORY: And yet...

MS. MITCHELL: So this, this is a very delicate three...


MS. MITCHELL: ...three bank shot, though.

MR. GREGORY: But that answer, David Sanger, from your book speaks to some of the larger challenges that the president-elect faces.

MR. SANGER: David, we're beyond the point of saying that Barack Obama inherits a lot of messes around the world.  He also inherits a lot of activities that President Bush began, and he's going to have to make some very difficult decisions about whether to continue them.  One of his intelligence chiefs said to me that President Bush wrote a lot of checks that Barack Obama is going to have to cash.


MR. SANGER: And I think what he means by that is there are covert actions that have begun that Obama's going to have to look at even before he fully understands them.  Another one of Obama's aides said to me, "You know, in many ways we have a Bay of Pigs problem," which is the action that President Kennedy inherited from Dwight Eisenhower, and he didn't fully understand it. Pakistan's a great example of this.  President Bush last summer authorized a series of ground actions that included going after non-al-Qaeda members, and Barack Obama's going to have to decide, do you do that or not?

MR. GREGORY: Hisham:

MR. MELHEM: Look, I mean, he has to come up with a different paradigm.  He cannot do what George Bush did.  What George Bush was--did was disastrous.  He really ignored the Arab-Israeli conflict until last year.  And even then, it was driving by Condi Rice's push for, for, for resolution.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. MELHEM: He has to come up with a paradigm that says our approach should be regional-centric, not Israel-centric.


MR. MELHEM: There is an Arab peace, peace initiative, and if everybody's interested in isolating Iran, there has to be a revival of all the peace tracks, including Syria, Lebanon, as well as the Palestinians.

MR. GREGORY: All right.

MR. MELHEM: But he has to push very hard and show the Israelis some tough love, as well as showing the Muslim world tough love...

MR. GREGORY: Thirty...

MR. MELHEM: ...because he's working on, on an initiative towards the Muslim world.

MR. GREGORY: Thirty seconds, Jeffrey.

MR. GOLDBERG: But let, let me, let me just point out a possible opportunity for Barack Obama in this.  And I don't mean to be Pollyanna-ish, and it's always safe to be pessimistic about the Middle East.  But if we come out of this with a weakened Hamas, that actually helps Barack Obama, because who is going to ultimately negotiate with Israel?  It's not Hamas, it's the Palestinian Authority, it's Fatah on the West Bank.  If Hamas is weakened, that gives them a chance to actually speak for the Palestinians and there might be a negotiation opportunity.

MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to leave it there.  Lots of ground still to cover.  Thank you very much.

We're out of time, but we're going to continue our roundtable and talk about Gaza and the threat of a wider war in the Middle East in the MEET THE PRESS Take Two Web extra on our Web site this afternoon.  You can also find more information there on David Sanger's book "The Inheritance" coming out a week from Tuesday.  That's all on our Web site at  And we'll be right back.


MR. GREGORY: All of us at MEET THE PRESS would like to be the first to welcome two new stations to the NBC family, KBMT Beaumont and WNBW Gainesville.

That's all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.