Guests: Jonathan Capehart, Nicolle Wallace, Bruce Bartlett, Tom Coburn, Melanie Sloan
LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, HOST: What happens if six people who are not going to be the Republican nominee for president debate with a man who might be the Republican nominee for president, and no one watches?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: The first chance to size up seven candidates.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing really happened last night.
EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: They wussed out.
O‘DONNELL (voice-over): Republican presidential candidates get the big chance to introduce themselves to 1 percent of the population.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTON POST: Michele Bachmann is the story of the debate.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA: A one-term president.
MITCHELL: Mitt Romney still is the establishment candidate.
MITT ROMNEY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This president has failed.
MITCHELL: And Newt Gingrich, what was that all about?
NEWT GINGRICH ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Pakistani.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Never apologize. It shows weakness.
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS: I got to go with this Sharia law question.
MITCHELL: Herman Cain.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Muslims.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Train on the tracks.
MITCHELL: The key moment for Tim Pawlenty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, Tim Pawlenty backing off
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Never dwell on past mistakes.
O‘DONNELL: Only two of these candidates has any chance of actually being on the Republican ticket.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A stellar performance by her because she didn‘t get her history wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hate these comparisons to Sarah Palin just because they both have a uterus.
BACHMANN: I filed today my paperwork.
PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: She‘s a real competitor and challenger to Pawlenty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt Romney is front-runner.
DYLAN RATIGAN, MSNBC HOST: Winning by not stinking.
O‘DONNELL: Soon, one more Republican governor who could be on the ticket will join the race.
MITCHELL: And what about Jon Huntsman‘s announcement.
JON HUNTSMAN ®, FORMER UTAH GOVERNOR: I intend to announce I will run for the presidency.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You already missed quite a kickoff for his family (ph) --
HUNTSMAN: A big shock and surprise. I haven‘t told them yet.
O‘DONNELL: And all the Republicans think fixing the economy is easy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One positive policy idea that any of those seven people put up that was new that would create jobs.
REP. RON PAUL ®, TEXAS: No new jobs.
ROMNEY: He didn‘t create the recession.
NEWT GINGRICH ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Anti-jobs. Anti-business.
TIM PAWLENTY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This president is a declinist.
BACHMANN: A big failing grade on it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don‘t waste your time.
O‘DONNELL: Good evening from New York.
One day after seven presidential candidates took to the debate stage in New Hampshire, the pundit consensus, wrong as usual, is that Willard M. Romney was the big winner of the night simply because he was not attacked for being a former liberal, as he could have been by all the other candidates on the stage. Romney appeared today with the glow of a man who believes his own press.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I did see the debate last night.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you were great.
ROMNEY: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And nobody fazed you.
ROMNEY: People were pretty respectful of one another. And we aimed our barbs, if you will, at the president.
O‘DONNELL: All that really happened last night in the much ignored debate was that the Republican candidates in typical Republican discipline-style focused their attacks on the incumbent Democratic president and avoided attacking each other following the guidance for such debates once outlined by Republican biggity (ph) Ronald Reagan.
Even former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, THE LAST WORD‘s official pick to win the Republican nomination, refused to repeat the word Obamneycare, which he had just invented only one day earlier to compare President Obama‘s health care reform law with the law Mitt Romney enacted as Massachusetts governor.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KING, DEBATE MODERATOR: It was Obamneycare on “FOX News Sunday.”
Why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
PAWLENTY: President Obama is the person I quoted saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He is the one who said it‘s a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so, using the term Obamneycare was a reflection of the president‘s comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
KING: Governor, you want to respond to that at all?
ROMNEY: No, just to say this—which is my guess is the president is going to eat those words and wish he hadn‘t put them out there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: The two-hour debate ignored all the way through by 99 percent of America, including, of course, viewers of this show, for which I am eternally grateful, didn‘t have any real surprises as each candidate mostly tried not to offend in style or substance any of the relatively small number of New Hampshire Republicans who were actually watching.
As usual, in such debates, the most interesting comments were also the most idiotic.
Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich tried to outdo each other with expressions of discomfort about having Muslims serve in their administrations that will never happen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HERMAN CAIN ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us.
GINGRICH: Now, I just want to go out on a limb here. I am in favor of saying to people if you‘re not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period.
GINGRICH: We did this in dealing with the Nazis. And we did this in dealing with the communists. And it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered that, well, you know, there are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country. And we have got to have the guts to stand up and say no.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: And yes, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann explained what had she was doing on the stage last night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BACHMANN: I just want to make an announcement for you, John, on CNN tonight. I filed today my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency of the presidency of the United States today. And I‘ll very soon be making my formal announcement.
So, I wanted you to be the first to know.
KING: I appreciate that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Joining me now, MSNBC contributor and editorial writer for “The Washington Post,” Jonathan Capehart, and former senior adviser to the McCain campaign and former Bush White House communications director, Nicolle Wallace.
Thank you both for joining me tonight. And now, we‘ll join in a collective discussion of how Tim Pawlenty won the night big time, right?
O‘DONNELL: All right, here‘s the theory. Here‘s the Pawlenty wins theory. Pawlenty wins everything, by the way, Nicolle. It‘s the theory of the show.
NICOLLE WALLACE, FORMER BUSH WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I‘m
O‘DONNELL: But by process of elimination, because there‘s something seriously wrong with every other Republican candidate, Pawlenty is going to end up the last man standing.
So, last night, he did not say Obamneycare. All the pundits are saying, oh, he didn‘t do it. The pundits are waiting for this glorious moment they wanted to see of the fireworks. Pawlenty knows he‘s introducing himself to Republican voters for the first time, New Hampshire voters for the first time. He‘s following the Reagan rule. You don‘t fight with these guys on the stage. You fight with the Democratic president.
JONATHAN CAPEHART, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: But Obamneycare was a fantastic, brilliant cluster bomb. It took out two big people. President Obama and Governor Romney and on health care, which is the number one thing that the base of the Republican Party can‘t stand.
If you‘re going invent such a weapon on debut it on Sunday television, why on earth would you not use it in a debate where you know it‘s going to happen? You‘re going to there. You‘re going to face the guy. Face-to-face, you‘re not going to use it?
It looked wimpy. I‘m sorry.
O‘DONNELL: All right. Nicolle can explain to you why he didn‘t use it. But I will, and then she‘ll agree with me. Let‘s roll the tape.
WALLACE: He has a great theory of his own. He‘s holding back on you.
O‘DONNELL: Here‘s why. He doesn‘t want to say voodoo economics. He wants—coming in second is also OK for Pawlenty.
O‘DONNELL: Being on the vice presidential slot on the ticket with Romney. He doesn‘t want to have these uncomfortable phrases like President Bush did when he was vice president, running for vice presidential candidacy with Ronald Reagan where he had called Reagan‘s economics voodoo economics.
You don‘t want to say that too many times. He has said Obamneycare once. He won‘t have to say it again. He doesn‘t have to do, because Rush Limbaugh is going to keep saying it for him, right?
WALLACE: So, his missed opportunity is pure brilliance in your view.
WALLACE: I love it. I love it. I‘m sure they will, too.
I actually spoke to one of his senior advisers, and they concede it was a missed opportunity. They don‘t go so far as to say it was a gaffe. But I don‘t know—
O‘DONNELL: Wait until they watch this show.
WALLACE: This might make them really nervous.
But, look, I don‘t think there‘s anything that any of them could do other than, you know, flash the audience—you know, actually, we‘ve had enough flashing, haven‘t we? But there‘s nothing any of them can do to knock themselves out or secure their place.
And I think if you look at the whole cycle, I thought Romney had a great night. And then to be caught on film today saying I‘m going to back in the big airplane with my Secret Service was to me one of the most unfortunate moments for a field that‘s actually starting to pick up some steam.
O‘DONNELL: Yes. And, Jonathan, on a debate for voters that no one is going to remember anything said last night when they go to vote in New Hampshire. It‘s just impossible. And so, I think the only thing they could possibly have done and the only thing someone like Pawlenty could have done by pushing the Obamneycare thing is to offend some voters, especially New Hampshire, where Romney is the most popular of those people.
Do you want on night one to say I‘m here to attack and shake your confidence in this guy Romney who you so far like?
CAPEHART: But it‘s all in the way you do it. You don‘t have to go after him with a sledgehammer and saying, yes, Obamneycare. You can just say, look, yes—he could have given his explanation a lot better and simpler and actually more strongly than he did last night. He was all over the place in saying why he would not repeat the word.
WALLACE: And the problem, we were talking about this before the show.
The problem is that—
O‘DONNELL: You‘re not allowed to talk before the show. You save the gold for here.
WALLACE: I wanted to be prepared. But the problem is that the debate wasn‘t unexpected or unanticipated on Tuesday. And the line of attack was introduced on Sunday. So, this was a sequencing that they could have waited a few days to roll out if they weren‘t comfortable doing it face-to-face.
O‘DONNELL: All right. Let‘s listen to my boy, Tim Pawlenty, talking tough. Let‘s roll the tape.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAWLENTY: I‘m for a fair and open trade, but I‘m not for being stupid. And I‘m not for being a chunk. And we have individuals and organizations and countries around this world who are not following the rules when it comes to fair trade. We need a stronger president and somebody who is going to take on those issues.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: He‘s not in favor of being a chump.
CAPEHART: Not in favor of being a chump.
O‘DONNELL: Come on. That‘s winner talking.
CAPEHART: Unless you‘re asked why won‘t you use Obamneycare.
O‘DONNELL: I‘ve explained it. He‘ll take the vice presidency. It‘s not the worse thing that can happen to someone.
CAPEHART: We‘re in sync now.
O‘DONNELL: All right. We‘re on that. All right. Now, let‘s listen to Romney talking about the difference, trying to talk about the difference between Romneycare and Obamacare.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Governor Romney, just yesterday, Governor Pawlenty, who is to your left on the stage tonight, I called it your Massachusetts plan, which you know has become a focal point of the criticism in this campaign from your friends here, Obamneycare—Obamneycare. Is that a fair comparison?
ROMNEY: You know, let me say a couple things. First, if I‘m elected president, I will repeal Obamacare, just as Michele indicated. And also, on my first day in office, if I‘m lucky enough to have that office, I will also grant a waiver to all 50 states of Obamacare.
Now, there are some similarities and there are some big differences. Obamacare spends $1 trillion. If it were perfect, and it‘s not perfect, it‘s terrible, we can‘t afford more federal spending.
Secondly, it raises $500 billion in taxes. We didn‘t raise taxes in Massachusetts.
Third, Obamacare takes $500 billion out of Medicare and funds Obamacare. We, of course, didn‘t do that.
And finally, ours was a state plan, a state solution, and if people don‘t like it in our state, they can change it. That‘s the nature of why states are the right place for this type of responsibility. And that‘s why I introduced a plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a state centered program.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Now, Nicolle, many pundits made the mistake of thinking that was a successful handling of the question in which he never addressed the central cancer of the Obama health care plan according to the Republican vision of the world, which is the individual mandate Romney enacted, an individual mandate in Massachusetts. That‘s the big similarity he can never escape.
WALLACE: Well, Lawrence, here‘s the difference between our party and the Democrats. We are very pragmatic. And at the end of the day, Mitt Romney looks like he might be our best chance at defeating Obama.
And so, the Republican Party has a great tradition. We did it in 2008 with John McCain. I was proud to work for him. But, you know, he had a position on comprehensive immigration reform that was very unpopular. He sided with Ted Kennedy and then-President George Bush.
And this is Obama—this is Romney‘s burden in the cycle. And it doesn‘t mean he won‘t emerge our nominee. But it means he‘s going to have to explain himself and he‘s going to have to articulate that defense of the differences, the key differences between what he did and what Obama did, every stop on every day of the campaign. And if he becomes our nominee, that goes on for 17 months.
O‘DONNELL: And every day, Rush Limbaugh will be prosecuting Romney for Romneycare. For saying global warming is manmade, and for the individual mandate, and no Republican candidate has to do the work if Rush is doing it every day for three hours on the radio.
CAPEHART: Well, sure. And that‘s great for your boy Tim Pawlenty.
But I also think, though, if Mitt Romney --
O‘DONNELL: Everything I say is good for my boy, Tim Pawlenty.
CAPEHART: Are you and Rush Limbaugh working together?
O‘DONNELL: No. I‘m pushing the theory as hard as I can. Right.
CAPEHART: I think—
O‘DONNELL: And don‘t any one mention, by the way, that Rush Limbaugh also opposed John McCain for the nomination because that hurts my theory of Rush controlling the nomination.
CAPEHART: I just think in that answer in that clip you just showed, Mitt Romney was very clear, decisive in the differences and similarities between Obamacare and Romneycare. And if he had done that, remember that speech he gave?
CAPEHART: The PowerPoint presentation that went on forever? He should have just done that. As we go along the 17 months that Nicolle just mentioned, that message will get more and more refined.
And let‘s talk conventional wisdom here. Mitt Romney, if pattern follows, will be the nominee of the Republican Party no matter what happens over the next few months.
O‘DONNELL: I will take that night off. When he secures the nomination, you can guest host and announce that he has round up.
O‘DONNELL: But is any Tea Partier going to accept that answer he gave on health care where he completely ignores the individual mandate, which is what the Tea Party was so vehemently opposed to and remains opposed to?
WALLACE: We‘ll see. I mean, some important figures to the Tea Party. Ann Coulter has softened her animosity towards Mitt Romney. She said she kind of likes him.
O‘DONNELL: She‘s a pushover!
WALLACE: And Rush Limbaugh, just to clarify his position, he does that believe any one of these candidates would be better than the president that we have in office. So, I think at the end of the day, you know, they have their opinions. They have their favorites.
But they do—our party has a tradition of getting behind the nominee and making the best case they can.
O‘DONNELL: Yes, and Rush got behind McCain after saying—
WALLACE: Yes, that went well. He likes the (INAUDIBLE) ticket.
O‘DONNELL: Former McCain-Palin 2008 adviser and now author, Nicolle Wallace; and Jonathan Capehart of “The Washington Post” and MSNBC—thank you both for joining me in the Pawlenty I theory. Thank you very much.
CAPEHART: Thanks, Lawrence.
O‘DONNELL: Coming up, a showdown between a former policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and me on the Republican‘s favorite myth that tax cuts are the answer to everything.
And later, Republican Senator Tom Coburn managed to get more Republicans to stand up to the most powerful man in Republican politics—
Grover Norquist. Senator Coburn joins me, coming up.
O‘DONNELL: Four state senators in New York switched sides and now say they‘ll support same-sex marriage. And they came to this decision by, of all things, listening to their constituents. That‘s in “The Rewrite.”
And I‘ll debate a former Reagan adviser on the Republican presidential candidate‘s plans for the economy.
O‘DONNELL: The economy and jobs have been polling as the top issue for all voters—Republicans, Democrats and independents—for five straight months according to Gallup. Last night, the Republican presidential candidates laid out their ideas for lowering unemployment and improving the American economy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
CAIN: Lower taxes, lower the capital gains tax rate to zero. So, spend taxes on repatriated profits, and then make them permanent.
SANTORUM: We need to cut that the capital gains tax in half, which others have proposed. But for manufacturers, we need to give a five-year window where we cut it to zero.
PAWLENTY: My proposal has a 5 percent growth target. It cuts taxes, but it also dramatically cuts spending. We need to fix regulation.
ROMNEY: The idea as Tim described, those are in the right wheel house.
GINGRICH: The Congress this year, this week ought to repeal the Dodd-Frank bill. They ought to repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley bill. They ought to start creating jobs right now.
PAUL: There shouldn‘t be any government assistance to private enterprise.
BACHMANN: Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
O‘DONNELL: Joining me now is Bruce Bartlett, who served as executive director of the Joint Economic Committee and as senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House and as deputy assistant secretary at Treasury during the first Bush administration. He‘s now a columnist for “The Fiscal Times” and a contributor for “The New York Times.”
Thanks for joining me, Bruce.
BRUCE BARTLETT, THE FISCAL TIMES: Happy to be here.
O‘DONNELL: Bruce, I really want to fight this out with you, of this Republican positions on taxation. I am going to argue strenuously that cutting the capital gains tax to zero is a very bad idea.
But in the interest of fairness, I‘m going to let you go first, and go ahead. Give me the Republican case.
BARTLETT: Well, I can‘t—I don‘t—I can‘t really give you the Republican case. I think because it‘s nonsensical. I think there‘s no reason whatsoever to believe that cutting capital gains tax or frankly cutting any tax will help the economy at this time because the nature of the economy‘s problem is not amenable to tax cuts.
O‘DONNELL: All right. Let‘s see if we can fight a little bit on the Herman Cain proposal about repatriated profits. He wants to create a tax holiday that we‘ve done before for allowing international conglomerates to bring their foreign profits back into the United States tax free. And then he wants to permanently allow them to do that.
What do we have to fight about there, Bruce?
BARTLETT: Look, I think a case can be made to move towards what‘s called the territorial type system for tax incorporations. The idea of having one-shot tax amnesties is a terrible idea because companies will simply leave their profits in foreign countries forever—well, not forever. They‘ll leave them there until another amnesty comes along.
And I think it‘s a very bad idea to do this as a gimmicky way of raising a little bit of temporary revenue. We ought to talk about this in the context of fundamental tax reform and deal with the whole corporate sector at that time.
O‘DONNELL: All right, the steam is running out of our debate here, Bruce. There‘s way too much agreement here. You‘re being far too reasonable.
Tim Pawlenty, my pick for the Republican nominee by process of elimination, he will be the last man standing in my view—but he does imagine a world of 5 percent economic growth here in the United States. And with that assumption, all the rest of his economic ideas turn on that assumption.
How big a dream is that?
BARTLETT: It‘s a pretty big one. I think Pawlenty has been working more to win the Larry Kudlow primary where you simply assert that magical growth will come about for no apparent reasons and solve all our problems.
There‘s some—we could—we could certainly get a year or two of plus 5 percent growth if we ever get a snap back from the current economic recession. But sustained growth rates of 5 percent have not occurred in major industrialized countries in the post-war era. So, he‘s really promising something at least historically speaking impossible to deliver. And there‘s absolutely nothing in his plan—there‘s no analysis suggesting that his proposals will do anything to bring that about.
O‘DONNELL: Bruce, have you watched a decline in—to put it mildly -
in the actual underpinnings of Republican economic arguments for candidates? Do you feel that there used to be some stronger realities built into Republican tax arguments?
BARTLETT: Oh, I think so, at least up until 1996. But the most important thing to understand is that certain policies, such as the Reagan tax cut in 1981, which I supported and continue to support, were the right thing to do at that time under those economic circumstances. And Republicans keep acting as if it‘s always 1980, always 1981, with exactly those particular problems, and they simply refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed in the last 30 years.
And I think the basic problem with the economy today is a lack of aggregate demand. And I just don‘t see any way of increasing that through the sorts of tax policies that these guys are talking about.
O‘DONNELL: Bruce Bartlett, a former policy analyst for President Reagan, I have struggled and failed to find an area of disagreement with you tonight, Bruce. Thank you very, very much for joining me tonight, Bruce.
BARTLETT: Thank you.
O‘DONNELL: Coming up: Speaker John Boehner regularly criticizes overspending in Washington. Now, an ethics watchdog group is calling him out for overspending in Washington.
But, first, Republican Senator Tom Coburn today tried to end ethanol tax subsidies which, of course, puts him in Grover Norquist‘s sights. Senator Tom Coburn will my guest.
O‘DONNELL: After House Democrats met behind closed doors today for their weekly caucus, Leader Nancy Pelosi once again said Congressman Anthony Weiner should resign. But there are some members of Congress still unwilling to pass judgment on Congressman Weiner.
The congressman began his career on Capitol Hill working on the staff of Senator Chuck Schumer back in the 1980s when Senator Schumer was still a member of the House of Representatives.
This is what New York‘s senior senator had to say today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Those of us who have been friends of Anthony Weiner for a very long time feel his wrongful behavior is distressing. It‘s saddening. It‘s heartbreaking.
Now it‘s clear he needs professional help. That‘s what he sought.
That‘s all I‘m going to say about this subject.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: And Congressman Barney Frank, who has a better idea of what Anthony Weiner is going through than most members of Congress, had this to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. BARNEY FRANK (D), MASSACHUSETTS: As you know, because people have read about it, went through 25 years ago a situation where I behaved inappropriately. I just think, given these circumstances where I was myself engaged in activity I shouldn‘t have been—I dealt with it. I told everything right up front.
I just don‘t think it‘s appropriate for me to set myself up as the judge of others. Look, if this comes to a vote in the House—I‘m a voting member of the House. I have a responsibility.
But to, as I said, step up and appoint myself a judge of other people, based on my own past, I just don‘t think it‘s appropriate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: Still ahead, Senator Tom Coburn joins me after bravely standing up to the most powerful man in Republican politics.
O‘DONNELL: In the spotlight tonight, good news for America and especially good news for American taxpayers. Grover Norquist‘s mind control over Republican party tax policy, and therefore American tax policy, might not be so controlling after all.
Earlier today, the Senate held a procedural vote on legislation that would end six billion dollars in ethanol tax subsidies, essentially corporate tax breaks for companies in the ethanol business. That would, of course, have the effect of increasing the amount of taxes those companies pay.
This proposal outraged Governor Norquist, who has obtained signatures from most congressional Republicans on his so-called “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” to “no never, ever raise taxes in any form, by increasing rates or restricting deductions and tax breaks.”
Team Norquist alerted Taxpayer Protection Pledge signers that voting for an amendment to repeal the ethanol tax credit would be considered a violation of their pledge, in effect, a vote for a six billion dollar tax increase. Despite Norquist‘s warning, 31 Senate Republicans who have signed Norquist‘s pledge voted against Norquist and for repealing the ethanol tax credit. 34 Republicans in total voted for the bill, which ultimately failed 40-59.
That bill was introduced and bravely pushed today in the Senate by Senator Tom Coburn.
Joining me now, Oklahoma Republican senator and member of the Senate Finance Committee, Tom Coburn. Thanks for joining us tonight, Senator.
SEN. TOM COBURN ®, OKLAHOMA: I‘m glad to be with you.
O‘DONNELL: Senator, I want to get to your important vote on the Senate floor today, but first I want to talk to you about the controversy that‘s overwhelmed the House of Representatives in Congress, Anthony Weiner‘s problems. Are you one who thinks Anthony Weiner should resign?
COBURN: Oh, I don‘t think I should be commenting on somebody else‘s decision on that.
O‘DONNELL: Do you think that it‘s wrong for other Republicans to be calling for Anthony Weiner to resign, who did not call for Senator Vitter to resign in his scandal involving prostitutes, or Senator Ensign to resign in the scandal that enveloped him?
COBURN: Well, I think when somebody is committing suicide, you ought to let them alone. And all—most of those which you just mentioned did enough on their own to end their careers.
O‘DONNELL: And Senator, on Ensign, before we get to the issues of budget, the Senate Ethics Committee has quotes from you where you were involved in what appeared to be negotiating the money to be paid to the Hampton family, that many of us read as in effect hush money to try to get them to go away quietly. Senator Ensign, as the audience knows, had an affair with Mrs. Hampton, and there seemed—there was a compensation package that was eventually worked out. The original proposal, $8 million that you seemed to work down to about $2.8 million, and then it got worked down lower than that.
Is there anything about that you regret in your role in that?
COBURN: No, I regret—
COBURN: I regret—first of all, that‘s not a full reading of the report. That case has been closed and I‘ve been exonerated.
No. 2 is my regret is I wasn‘t a better friend to John Ensign to keep him from making the mistake in the first place.
O‘DONNELL: Well, but given that you knew what you knew, did you at any point counsel him to resign and to make this problem go away first of all by resigning?
COBURN: My conversations with John covered that and lots of other areas in which I gave him advice to do the right thing and the honest thing and the open thing.
O‘DONNELL: But did—and I‘ll close with this, Senator, and move on. But did the honest thing and the open thing include stepping up and resigning?
COBURN: He did.
O‘DONNELL: No, but only when the Ethics Committee closed in on him and they were going to expel him.
COBURN: The point is, I‘m not going to hash back what is old news on John Ensign. I gave him a lot of advice early on that he didn‘t take. I gave him advice in the middle of it that he didn‘t take. He ultimately made the right decision based on his actions.
O‘DONNELL: Senator, I do want to get to this important vote. You raised an amendment on the Senate floor today, and sometimes even losing votes in the Senate create a historical momentum.
One of the big events that happened today is 34 Republicans voted to basically eliminate the ethanol subsidies, which is to say eliminate the tax subsidies. And that‘s a violation—in Grover Norquist‘s view—that is a violation of a pledge many of you signed to never raise taxes in any way. And the elimination of this tax break would raise taxes on certain companies involved in that industry. But still, Republican senators went forward and voted for it.
Is this a break in the lock that Grover Norquist has had on Republican voting in the Congress on tax issues?
COBURN: Well, you know, I think you all tend to overstate the influence of Grover Norquist. He certainly has some influence. I think our greater oath is to do what‘s in the better interest of the country right now given all the problems that are in front of us, and I was pleased to see 34 Republicans join with me and say we‘re going to eliminate all earmarks, just not the appropriation earmarks, but the tax earmark as well.
And so, if you remember, the earmark history came from an amendment I offered on the bridge to nowhere. And that started the battle. And hopefully this will start the battle to end tax earmarks.
O‘DONNELL: Senator, I would love to discover that I have overestimated Grover Norquist‘s power on taxation in this country and in the Congress.
COBURN: I think you‘re going to find that out. I think as we unfold to fix the problems of this country, you‘re going to find out that Republicans are going to end up making the votes that will compromise and solve the problems, because the country has to have us. We have to abandon party and we have to do the principled thing, which is how do we build a compromise that actually solves the problems in front of our country?
O‘DONNELL: But Grover Norquist has said about you and is prepared to say about other senators, to you—about you, he said specifically that you lied—lied his way into office. Those are his words. Because you‘re offering an amendment that would close a tax loophole, but what is basically a corporate tax loophole, and therefore raise revenue on certain tax returns. He‘s obviously going to use that technique against other senators who are running for reelection. What is—in the Republican cloak room today, what was the talk about what Grover Norquist would do to those senators?
COBURN: There wasn‘t any talk. There wasn‘t any talk. He‘s not going to do anything. Between now and the next year, as we go to solve this problem, everybody knows there‘s going to have to be a compromise on some sort of revenue increases we make the major cuts. That‘s just fact. You can‘t deny it. And Grover is old news. It doesn‘t matter what he says. It doesn‘t matter what he wants. He‘s old news. And we‘re going to fix the country. And some of that is going to be revenue increases. That‘s the only way you are going to build a compromise and get it signed by this president. I understand that and everybody else—the fact is, most people won‘t admit it.
O‘DONNELL: Senator Coburn, you got 40 votes on the floor, but because you brought it up in a procedurally unusual way, there were certain senators it seems to me in this roll call who voted the other way for procedural reasons, not because of the substance of your amendment. I won‘t bore the audience with what I‘m referring to here. You know what I mean. Is it your sense that if you could have brought—if this could have come up in a clean way, where there was no procedural argument with Harry Reid about how it was brought up, that more Democrats would have joined you in this vote?
COBURN: Oh, I think there‘s no question we would have had 63 or 64. But it begs the question, to—the Senate is supposed to be the body where you have the right to amend. And we were shut out on the small business innovation bill. We were going to be shut out on this bill. So the reason we used cloture to bring an amendment—which is well within the rule, Rule 22 of the Senate. You‘ve been around here, you know those rules. Well within reason.
The reason we lost votes is because the majority leader broke arms today to make people—and they‘re scrambling to find out another way to vote this so they don‘t look so bad. So you‘ll see this vote or a similar vote to it come right back to the Senate in the next week or 10 days so they have a cover vote so they can say, well, I voted against this, but I voted for this.
O‘DONNELL: Senator, are you going to continue to bring up the amendment on other legislative vehicles where you think you can?
COBURN: I‘m going to continue to bring up amendments that eliminate stupid policies by the federal government. And if I can bring up 100, I would bring them up. Because I‘ve got 100 stupid examples.
O‘DONNELL: I think we can both easily find 100 stupid things the federal government is doing right now.
Senator Tom Coburn, thank you very much for joining us tonight.
COBURN: You‘re welcome.
O‘DONNELL: Coming up, the governor of New York is pushing the state legislature towards supporting marriage equality. Why four state senators decided it was time to support same-sex marriage. That‘s in the Rewrite.
And Speaker John Boehner‘s hiring of an expensive lawyer to protect the Defense of Marriage Act puts him on the radar of a Washington ethics watchdog.
O‘DONNELL: In tonight‘s Rewrite, four senators, including one particularly brave Republican, Rewrite their position on gay marriage. No, not United States senators, New York state senators. Three Democrats moved from no to yes on gay marriage. Senator Shirley Huntley (ph), Senator Carl Krueger (ph) and Senator Joseph Adabo Jr.(ph) have now left only one Democratic senator in New York still in opposition to gay marriage, where he will surely remain.
He is Reuben Diaz (ph) of the Bronx, a Pentecostal minister who is actually the Senate‘s most vocal opponent of same sex marriage. With one Republican also changing his position, the New York State Senate is now only two votes away from having a majority ready to vote in favor of gay marriage.
Those two votes will have to come from the Republican side of the aisle. The hope that Governor Cuomo, who made same-sex marriage a personal and political priority, can sway those two more Republicans has increased dramatically since his meeting yesterday with Republican Senator James Alesi, when the senator formed the governor of his decision to change his position on gay marriage.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Senator Alesi, who represents Rochester and surrounding communities, said, according to “the New York Times,” that he had anguished over his earlier opposition and had apologized to gay rights advocates, quote, “for voting politically rather than in a way that in my heart and soul I felt I should have voted. What it really comes down to is one word. It‘s equality, which is a basic right of living in America.”
All of the senators who changed their positions said they were persuaded by discussing the issue with their Senate colleagues and, most importantly, with their constituents. Senator Adabo, who represents parts of Queens, said that just two years ago, most of the constituents who contacted his office were opposed to same-sex marriage.
But this year, he got 4,839 calls and letters to his office supporting gay marriage, and only 1,176 calls and letters against gay marriage. If you were one of the 4,839, you now know that your voice was heard. And if you live in New York or any other state considering gay marriage and you have not told your representatives how you feel about it, you are missing a chance to make your contribution to history.
In New York, Republican senators choosing to vote in favor of gay marriage is a particularly brave act, because the politically influential conservative party in New York strongly opposes same sex marriage and can easily activate very, very powerful opposition to Republicans who vote for it.
That is what Governor Cuomo had in mind when he publicly called on Albany Republicans to, quote, “vote your conscious not your fears.”
That is exactly what Republican Senator James Alesi has decided to do.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES ALESI ®, NEW YORK STATE SENATOR: I‘m voting my heart and my conscious. And for me, the virtues now are, if you live in America, and you want to be treated equally, you have to extent equality to other people as well.
O‘DONNELL: In February, the Obama Department of Justice announced that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, in ten pending court challenges. House Speaker John Boehner‘s office then signed a contract with an outside law firm for 500,000 dollars to defend the federal law, which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.
Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint against Boehner, claiming his office violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, a law designed to stop government officials from overspending. Boehner‘s office replied today, “this complaint is off base and stupid to the point that it creates the appearance of partisanship by crew. The Speaker expects any costs to be recouped from the Obama administration Justice Department, which should be defending the law in court. The Anti-Deficiency Act has nothing to do with this situation, as anyone with a basic grasp of the law knows.”
Joining me now is Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Thanks for joining me tonight, Melanie.
Melanie, this question that the speaker has raised, that this seems to him like a partisan attack by your organization, which is not known for partisan attacks.
MELANIE SLOAN, CITIZENS FOR RESPONSIBILITY AND ETHICS IN WASHINGTON:
Just once, I would like to hear that some congressman said, you‘re right.
You got me. I did it.
O‘DONNELL: This isn‘t going to be that time.
SLOAN: This is not going to be that time. This is par for the course. No one every admits an ethics violence, as I‘m sure you know, Lawrence. This is a clearly well founded complaint. We went through the law carefully here. This law is designed to prevent government overspending. Basically, you can‘t take funds that appropriated for one purpose and move them for another purpose.
That‘s what the speaker is trying to do here. He‘s also claimed that he‘s going to reprogram funds at some later date. The law doesn‘t allow for that later reprogramming.
Here it is. Speaker Boehner is talking about the fact that we‘re in fiscally difficult times and we have to reign in government spending. But he‘s spending 500,000 dollars we don‘t have.
O‘DONNELL: Just so—I think the audience is kind of amazed that there‘s any kind of law designed to prevent government overspending, since government overspends every day wildly and creates these massive deficits. But as you pointed out, technically what it is, it‘s about using the money that‘s in the budget for what it‘s designed to be used for in the budget. They don‘t want to see games played. The law doesn‘t want games played where the money starts to move around and cross borders in the budget.
You seem to by saying that‘s what happened here.
SLOAN: That‘s right. He‘s trying to take money that‘s appropriated for one purpose and spend it for another. It‘s not even clear where Speaker Boehner plans to get the money from. The Department of Justice has already said it doesn‘t plan to provide the money back to the House counsel‘s office. The House counsel‘s office, which is the office that‘s intended to represent the House of Representatives in legal matters, it only has a budget of 1.45 million dollars. That money is already spoken for salaries and expenses.
So they don‘t have this 500,000 dollars. And they‘ve been told the money is not coming out of their budget. The big questions is where is the money coming from?
O‘DONNELL: What do you—leaving money aside for a second, what about the legal basis for what Boehner is doing? Even if this was free, how much sense does it make when the Justice Department has abandoned the defense of a federal law at the appeals level, for the House of Representatives to say, well, we‘re going to send lawyers into this?
SLOAN: Well, it makes no sense. Of course, in a time, again, of scarce resources, you have to make choices and decide what‘s really important. Where should our money be spent? It‘s really questionable as to why the Speaker would choose to defend a clearly unconstitutional law.
And the fact is it looks political. It‘s only in an effort to try and gain votes with some conservative voters that he‘s doing it.
O‘DONNELL: Melanie, you had what can be called success in the Ensign affair. You‘re the one who brought the complaint about what John Ensign was up to. He has since, on the verge of expulsion, resigned and left the Senate. You‘ve had some amazing successes.
But what are your hopes for this one?
SLOAN: Well, first, the House never really handles ethics matters all that well. The Office of Congressional Ethics, which is separate from the House Ethics Committee, does have a much better track record. I‘m hoping they will take a strong look at this and investigate.
But even if they find wrongdoing, the best they can do is send it to the Ethics Committee. the Ethics Committee is where ethics complaints go to die.
O‘DONNELL: Melanie Sloan, I‘m not betting on you succeeding on this one. Melanie Sloan of Crew and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, thank you very much for joining me tonight.
SLOAN: Thank you.
O‘DONNELL: You can have THE LOST WARD online at our blog, TheLastWord.MSNBC.com. And you can follow my Tweets @Lawrence.
“THE RACHEL MADDOW” show is up next. Good evening, Rachel.
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