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updated 1/30/2006 3:44:49 PM ET 2006-01-30T20:44:49

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Hamas wins in the Middle East, domestic eavesdropping in America, the Jack Abramoff scandal, Hurricane Katrina, and more. With us: an exclusive interview with the majority leader of the United States Senate, Dr. Bill Frist, Republican from Tennessee. Then, this Tuesday, the president’s State of the Union address. Insight and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post; Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News White House correspondent; Roger Simon of Bloomberg News; and Byron York of the National Review.

But first, some distressing news out of Iraq this morning. ABC News’ “World News Tonight” anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Dave—Doug Vogt, have been seriously injured by an explosive device outside out Baghdad. We are told that he is in surgery. We are thinking about him, his wife, Lee, and his children this morning. NBC News will be covering this story throughout the day. Bob Woodruff became anchor of “World News Tonight” just about a month ago.

And joining us now, the majority leader of the United States Senate, Bill Frist is here.

Welcome.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-Tenn.): Tim, good to be with you.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me talk about Iraq. There was a study done—commissioned by the Pentagon, which was released this week, and here’s what it reported: “Deployments nearly breaking Army. Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a ‘thin green line’ that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency.” Serious.

SEN. FRIST: Tim, it is—it is serious, because we know as we aim to win the war on terror and to be successful in our goal in Iraq—and that is a safe democratic Iraq operating under the rule of law, and a good neighbor—it’s going to take security and it’s going to take a political process and a civil structure. The political process is going well, tremendous success in the last year with three elections. A year ago, who would have thought we would have had three elections there with turnout greater than in this country? And then we have the security issue, and the tragedy that you opened the show with today reflects that. The fact that we know that it’s going to take a long period of time, but the good news there is that we have 100 Iraqi battalions today that we didn’t have a year ago, and we have 200,000 Iraqi security forces trained that two years ago were not trained. So I see continued progress. It’s going to be a long road, a determined road, but we are making progress.

MR. RUSSERT: But the war is now nearly three years. In hindsight, should we not have had more American troops on the ground in Iraq?

SEN. FRIST: Tim, I think that’s going to be debated for a long time.

MR. RUSSERT: But what do you think?

SEN. FRIST: I think—well, I think, in 20/20 hindsight, looking back it would be easy to say that if we'd more troops we would be in a different position now. I don’t think anybody can say that definitively. In hindsight, 20/20 today, I would have probably put more troops in if the decision had been up to me. At that point in time, I said, “Let’s leave it to the commanders on the ground,” and the decision that they made, reflected through the Pentagon, reflected through the secretary, was that we had adequate troops. In hindsight, looking back today, I would ask that question, “If we’d had more troops, would it be a little bit different today?”

MR. RUSSERT: In hindsight, knowing that we did not find weapons of mass destruction, do you believe that the war in Iraq was a war of necessity or a war of choice?

SEN. FRIST: Oh, I think it was a war of necessity. And it we—if we look at the Middle East today, if we look at the importance of that to our global security, which reflects on homeland security, it was absolutely, to me, an absolute necessity that we remove this tyrant who had killed hundreds of thousands of his own people, who had attacked sovereign nations, who killed on the outside inside, and had the enemy of the United States. So it’s clear to me that the war was conducted for the right reasons, and that we will be successful there.

MR. RUSSERT: But there are lots of countries that do not treat their people properly: North Korea, Iran, Cuba. Why not military action for those countries?

SEN. FRIST: Well, you mentioned weapons of mass destruction, and we didn’t find them there. But as you know, our intelligence, the intelligence of major countries in Europe and indeed around the world, all raised the question, all thought that weapons of mass destruction were there. And that required action at the time, and that’s why Iraq and Iraq first.

MR. RUSSERT: But they weren’t there.

SEN. FRIST: But they weren’t.

MR. RUSSERT: But knowing that now, do you still say the war was a war of necessity?

SEN. FRIST: I think, it’s a war of necessity. Again, if we project ahead and we start looking back, you can always say, “Well, that is the outcome that occurred and we could've taken another choice.” The problem is, the reality is is that we have to make decisions today based on intelligence, based on the facts that are delivered to us. And, therefore, at that time, it was absolutely a war of necessity.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to what happened with the Palestinian people. They have voted for Hamas, a terrorist organization, according to the State Department and to Western governments all across the world. We are scheduled to give the Palestinian people about a quarter of a billion dollars in financial aid this year from American taxpayers. Should we give that money?

SEN. FRIST: I think the United States Congress will not be giving money to a government that supports terrorism, that refuses to disarm its militias, that has as its goal in its charter the destruction of Israel, not just not recognition of Israel but the destruction of Israel. That money will not flow to that government.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you something from The Washington Post. “Elections in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and now the Palestinian territories have resulted in the defeat of secular and moderate parties and the rise of Islamic parties hostile to U.S. interests.” The president says democracy’s sweeping the world. And yet, when you look at the result of that democracy, those free votes, we are sometimes very unhappy with the results. What does that mean to you?

SEN. FRIST: We are very unhappy with the results, very disappointed in the results. But the beauty of democracy is that it reflects the reality of what is on the ground. It reflects the reality of those grassroots, of what people are feeling. Now the Hamas election, was it more a vote for or against cronyism and corruption in the existing government in the Palestinian authority or was it to promote terrorism? We don’t know that yet. But what democracy allows is, you like to be shown, transparency. And that’s the reality. That’s the reality that we, as a free people, who export freedom and opportunity need to recognize that there is this rise of radical Islamic terrorism around the world. And it is being reflected in elections. We may not like the results, but it’s the reality that we’ve got to address. We can shift, and that shift, I think, is going to be a shift to require an investment in support of civil structure and civil institutions and people who believe like we believe.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that the U.S. occupation in Iraq may have been a factor in radicalizing the Palestinians and bringing about their vote for Hamas?

SEN. FRIST: No. Well, I don’t believe that. I believe that election as I implied a few seconds ago was more about the corruption and cronyism that the Palestinian people saw in their existing government and were voting for an alternative. I don’t believe it’s because they want to promote terrorism or destroy Israel. I don’t know that for a fact, but we’ll wait and see as the analysis comes forward over the next several days.

MR. RUSSERT: They have not renounced their pledge to destroy Israel.

SEN. FRIST: They have not, and they should. And I’m sure my colleagues in the United States Congress are going to say, “Disarm the terrorists, renounce terrorism and renounce this destruction of Israel in your platform.”

MR. RUSSERT: Or no money?

SEN. FRIST: Yes, no money. Of course, we’re not going to give money to them.

MR. RUSSERT: Domestic surveillance. Here is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Section 1809, and very clear. “A person is guilty of an offense if he intentionally - engages in electronic surveillance...except as authorized by statute.” Has the president, in fact, engaged in electronic surveillance and not authorized by statute?

MR. RUSSERT: No. The president has engaged in an act- in a highly classified program that I have been fully briefed on. I’m one of the eight people in our Congress briefed on this program. And the program itself is terrorist surveillance. It is international al-Qaeda-linked communication around the world. It might be to Baghdad, it might be to Berlin, it might be to London, or it might be to Nashville, Tennessee. But it’s coming from al-Qaeda-related surveillance. So the statute itself, at least my interpretation is and I believe this program is lawful, it is constitutional. I strongly support it. I know, I know it is vital to our security.

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, Senator, the Congressional Research Center Service, Library of Congress—and you know it well.

SEN. FRIST: Yeah, I know it well.

MR. RUSSERT: “A report by Congress’s research arm, concluded that the administration’s justification for the warrantless eavesdropping authorized by the president conflicts with existing law and hinges on weak legal arguments...The 44-page report said that Bush probably cannot claim the broad presidential powers he has relied upon as an authority in order to secretly monitoring of calls...The report also concluded that Bush’s assertion that Congress authorized such eavesdropping to detect and fight terrorists does not appear to be supported by the special resolution that Congress approved after September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which focused on authorizing the president to use military force.” What statute authorizes the president to do this?

SEN. FRIST: The answer is the Constitution of the United States of America in a time of a war our commander in chief, when he is given through resolution, through statute passed by the United States Congress to use force, to use force that he, in the same way he can use force to kill, to wipe out, to remove terrorists, he can listen in on al-Qaeda conversations, wherever they are, anywhere in the world. Under the Constitution as commander in chief, at a time of war, and the statute is the resolution of force that we passed in a bipartisan way on the floor of the United States Senate.

MR. RUSSERT: But the Congressional Research Service says that statute does not apply. And let me show you something the president said on Thursday, because it certainly caught a lot of attention. And let me play it and get your reaction. Here we go.

(Video, January 26, 2006)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I said, “Look, is it possible to conduct this program under the old law?” And people said, “Well, it doesn’t work in order to be able to do the job we expect us to do.”

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: The suggested being that’s an old law and it doesn’t work, therefore we’re going to ignore it. Can you just ignore laws that are on the books?

SEN. FRIST: Tim, having been briefed on the program, you don’t ignore the law. The president says you don’t need the law, and it’s lawful under the Constitution of the United States of America and on the statute on the use of force that was passed. And the law of governing FISA itself says unless there is another statute. And the statute I would argue is the constitution gives him power as commander in chief, the specific statute being the use of force.

Now, all of this, as you pointed out through your quotations, can be debated, and it can be contentious. And I can tell you what my interpretation is, the interpretation of the administration’s lawyers, the interpretation of the lawyers for the NSA itself have all agreed with the president. But what we're going to do as a co-equal branch of government, the legislative body, Chairman Specter, our judiciary committee, is going to look at this very issue with the attorney general, others coming over next week—or eight days from now. And that’s where we’ll have a public debate before the American people on this idea of legal, lawfulness, constitutionality of this action.

Let’s come back. The program is critical. It is vital. It is protecting Americans today, I can tell you that with absolute certainty. It is highly classified. If we fully exposed the program, it’s going to be like giving the playbook to the enemy. It’s going to take away an element of protection that we have today to make people all over this country safer.

MR. RUSSERT: But you could go under the current law, the government could eavesdrop and then go to the court within 72 hours. Why not obey the law?

SEN. FRIST: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: The administration acknowledged, the attorney general acknowledged, Senator DeWine introduced legislation, a fellow Republican, willing to change the law to accommodate some of these new technological changes. The administration concluded it wasn’t doable.

SEN. FRIST: Well, I’ll let the administration speak for itself. My interpretation is we need to look at FISA. Clearly FISA, which is based before we had the Internet being used today, before we had other means of telecommunication and as telecommunications advance, we need to probably look at FISA and see if it applies today sufficiently. I’m not sure that’s fundamental to the lawfulness argument because we’ve got the constitutional use of force passed by statute. We’ve got the Constitution of the commander in chief in a time of war.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of Katrina. Two of your colleagues, Senator Vitter and Senator Collins have both said—Republicans—both said that the White House is not cooperating fully with their investigation to find out what went wrong with Katrina. Why not? Are your colleagues right?

SEN. FRIST: Yes. They should, obviously. We have this—always have this tension between my branch of government, the legislative branch, and the executive branch. And our job is to demand accountability, to provide that appropriate oversight.

MR. RUSSERT: So the White House should be more forthcoming.

SEN. FRIST: Yes. They should give us what information, in terms of getting at the bottom. And it wasn’t just a lack of federal response. It was a lack of state response, local response all the way through. And I think we need to do a complete inquiry investigation to get at the root of why the response throughout our government, throughout, not just the federal level, was inadequate. And that’s going to require getting the information. What happened? Why decisions were made? And that’s why we have a committee right now, bipartisan committee looking at it.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, the president went to New Orleans in September and said, “New Orleans will rise again.” Congressman Richard Baker, Republican, has legislation, it passed his committee 50-to-9, and the administration has now rejected it.

Here’s how the Times-Picayune reported it: “In a severe blow to state and local plans for rebuilding hurricane-devastated stress areas, the Bush administration came out against the homeowner bailout proposal that many Louisianians say is the key to economic recovery and rebirth of a redesigned New Orleans. ...The Bush administration said grant money already appropriated by Congress would be ‘sufficient’ to take care of homeowners who suffered the most in the storm...

The administration’s opposition to the...bill drew sharp criticism from Louisiana officials who say the Community Development Block Grant financing isn’t enough to cover the state’s critical housing needs.” And I told you the bill has been passed 50-to-19.

The Times-Picayune had an editorial that said, “The people of greater New Orleans took President Bush at his word, but the president cannot make good on his promise until this region has the tools that it needs to recover. That hasn’t yet happened, and time is wasting.” Why did the president oppose a Republican plan to rebuild New Orleans?

SEN. FRIST: Tim, the president of the United States has committed to respond to this tragedy in a spirit of renewal and rebuilding and regrowth of this region. You put one proposal that is on the table, it’s in the House of—I guess it’s been in the House of Representatives, not in the United States Senate specifically. What I can say is that we have responded aggressively to the tune of $80 billion, 8-0, billion to this largest natural disaster this country has ever seen. That’s what we’ve done to date. We passed an additional $15 billion just about four weeks ago, going directly to issues of homeownership, how people can rebuild in Mississippi and in Louisiana. And this year, we will have another supplemental, that’s a spending bill, that will be coming through probably in the next six to eight weeks, which will have another huge investment in investing in this renewal of that area.

There’ll be lots of specific proposals out there as to how it’s going to be done. All I can say, the commitment of our government is there to participate in this renewal to the tune of well over $100 billion.

MR. RUSSERT: Money, money, money. The president is going to talk about renewing tax cuts in the State of the Union address. And yet also he’s going to have to go to Congress and ask for a lifting of the debt ceiling to $8 trillion. Here’s the first five years of the Bush/Cheney administration and I’ll put it on the screen.

Unemployment was 4.2 percent in 2001; it’s now 4.9, up 17 percent. There was a $281 billion surplus and now a $400 billion deficit. And the debt has gone from $5.7 trillion to $8.2 trillion, up 44 percent. You call that conservative government?

SEN. FRIST: I call what the Bush administration has done is a pro-growth response to grow our economy. What your chart didn’t say is a 14 percent increase in revenues, money coming into government today, because of the pro-growth policies 2001, 2002, 2003. So the revenues side increased 14 percent last year because of those policies. The spending side, we’ve got a challenge, we’ve got a problem. We’re spending too much in Washington, D.C. But why? You just asked why we weren’t doing enough in Katrina. Why we shouldn’t be doing more, and my response is we had to respond with well over $100 billion which is appropriate in terms of rebuilding something that we’ve never seen in the history of this country.

We opened the show talking about the war in Iraq, about not having enough troops overseas, and—or potentially and further investment there. That’s the second thing this administration has had to address. And let me just say one thing about the spending side of the equation because it had to do with your deficit. Spending—spending of the taxes, or the income has increased 14 percent. Now what about the spending side? It’s gone up because of Katrina, it’s gone up because of the war in Iraq. What’s under our control? What we’ve done this past year actually has been pretty good.

We have cut discretionary spending, we have eliminated 89 programs, we have cut $40 billion out of the entitlement programs, which are the real job out there. You know, nondefense discretionary spending, we’ve cut it. The real challenge we’ve had is entitlement spending which we have not adequately addressed as we look to the future.

MR. RUSSERT: Charlie Rangel of the Ways and Means Committee, John Spratt of the Budget Committee, two Democrats, have said, “We believe it would be irresponsible to support a long-term debt ceiling increase without a long-term plan to get the budget back on track. ...Without such a plan, the administration’s tax and spending policies will continue an endless series of debt ceiling increases.” Why should the Democrats vote to increase the debt ceiling as long as the president’s insisting on continuing his spending and also renewing his tax cuts?

SEN. FRIST: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: The Democrats say, “Cap the tax cut on the top 1 percent and you’ll have more than enough money to pay for Katrina, pay for Iraq and a whole lot of other things.”

SEN. FRIST: You have to increase the money coming into our government. The Democrats say tax people more, that’s what—the Democrats today, they really don’t have much in the way of principles and ideas, but the one thing they do today is say, “Raise your taxes” to the American people, to all your listeners right now, “We want to raise your taxes today.” And I’d say now is not the time to raise your taxes. Why? Because, as I just said, we cut them in 2001, 2002, 2003.

MR. RUSSERT: But the Democrats will say, when they left and gave the White House and the Congress over to the Republicans, the White House certainly in 2001, there was a surplus.

SEN. FRIST: There was, and we hadn’t had a war on terror, a new reality today that has to do with the national—the intelligence and the war itself, the single largest, greatest disaster in the history of this country. And both parties are not addressing entitlements. The Democrats would not come to the table to address the fundamental problem of Social Security out there. Right now, if we don’t address Medicare and Medicaid or Social Security in the next 30 years, that consumes all of the money coming into the government with nothing left over for defense itself, yet it was the Democrats that didn’t come to the table to say, “We’re going to address Social Security.”

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to corruption. Jack Abramoff has now pleaded guilty to several felonies. He gave you $1,000, and you gave it back. Why?

SEN. FRIST: Because it was Abramoff-tainted money. And it’s really—it’s really interesting to me—what Abramoff has done—it’s under investigation, so I don’t want to comment directly on it, but it really does—is symptomatic of, I think, the lack of transparency in Washington right now, the lack of a defined relationship between the lobbyists, which is constitutionally protected, and Washington, D.C. And so we’re going to get to the bottom of that. The Abramoff scandal is part of that, so any money that’s come in from any client I’m going to give back immediately, give it back to the client, because I want to have no part of it.

MR. RUSSERT: Should every member of Congress who’s received money from Jack Abramoff or his clients give it back?

SEN. FRIST: I’ll leave that to the members. Let me just say, I find it remarkable that the Democratic leader right now, Harry Reid, who is centering the cost—really, Democrats don’t have much in the way of ideas or convictions coming into these elections—is centered around this idea of corruption that—he has received over $60,000 that is Abramoff-tainted money, that comes from Abramoff clients...

MR. RUSSERT: But he will say they’re Indian tribes that he has a relationship with outside of his—Jack Abramoff.

SEN. FRIST: Well, he will. And I would just—answer all the questions, answer...

MR. RUSSERT: But say...

SEN. FRIST: ...answer why a person that worked for him for five years as his legislative counsel, one of his top lieutenants, is now working for Abramoff as part of Team Abramoff now. I just ask these questions. I don’t understand why he didn’t give the money back. If he says, “Well, well, you know, I’m just going to keep it,” that is all right. But again, I think the question needs to be raised. These Abramoff...

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, Reid is saying, “Do lobbying reform right now, this very day,” and you want to delay it.

SEN. FRIST: That is absolutely not true. Last week, I gave Harry Reid a letter that said, “You pick an equal number of Democrats, I’ll pick an equal number of Republicans. Let’s put them together, have them come back and report to us, and let’s do lobbying reform now.” And he said, “No.” This is...

MR. RUSSERT: No, no, he said no to a task force. He said, “Everyone knows the issues. Let’s legislate right now.”

SEN. FRIST: He said no to my proposal in terms of getting together in a bipartisan way. And the purpose of that letter was an equally divided number of individuals in a bipartisan way working together. This can’t be a partisan issue; it’s not a Democrat issue, a Republican issue, it is an American issue. I’m ready to legislate as soon as possible. We do have a great committee with Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman; they’ve already held hearings on lobbying reform. I’m going to encourage them aggressively to legislate as soon as possible.

MR. RUSSERT: This year?

SEN. FRIST: Yes. Oh, yes, as soon as possible.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to an issue that’s been raised about you, and that is stocks. Here’s the headline in The Washington Post: “Frist Stock Sale Raises Questions. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has maintained for years that his stockholdings in the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain posed no conflict of interest for a policymaker deeply involved in healthcare matters. So when Frist decided in June ‘05 to dump all the stock and later cited as the reason a desire to avoid appearance of a conflict of interest, eyebrows went up among ethics experts and congressional watchdogs. Why did he do it at that time? Precisely a month later, after the stock was sold, its price tumbled 9 percent when executives in the company—HCA Inc., which was founded by Frist’s father" and whose brother "Frist’s brother serves—disclosed that hospital admissions of insured patients were lower than expected, depressing profits in the second quarter. The timing thus raised questions about whether Frist had somehow traded on information he obtained in advance from the company.”

Then it says, in The Hill editorial, “Frist’s denial of any advance knowledge of HCA’s subpar performance was undermined by the fact that 14 HCA executives unloaded shares worth more than $53 million in April ‘05 and by the fact he has not been concerned about a possible conflict of interest earlier.” What do you say?

SEN. FRIST: Well, it’s pretty straightforward, the facts speak for themselves. I did voluntarily, when I came into the United States Senate, set up a blind trust, purely voluntary, to eliminate any appearance—any appearance of a conflict of interest over the last 10 years.

MR. RUSSERT: But it wasn’t blind, Senator.

SEN. FRIST: It is a blind trust as defined by the statute of the United States of America and by our Senate ethics rules. It is a blind trust.

MR. RUSSERT: But it’s different when you, you told CNBC, “It should be understood I put this into a blind trust. So far as I know. I own no HCA stock. ...It’s a blind trust. Totally blind. I have no control.” That’s not accurate.

SEN. FRIST: You know, I could’ve been more precise in my words. First of all, it is a blind trust as defined by the United statutes of the United States of America. It is a federally qualified blind trust. And it has regulations and rules that have to be followed and that I followed. I’ve acted properly throughout. So the interpretation of a blind trust, what America thinks is a blind trust may be something different, but I’m going to follow the rules. Which I did. Every move was cleared by inside counsel, outside counsel and the Ethics Committee.

MR. RUSSERT: But you knew you had HCA stock.

SEN. FRIST: Oh, the quotation itself, you're exactly right. I could’ve been more precise. What I should’ve said is that at any point in time, because this is a blind trust, I have no idea how much stock of any particular entity and at any point in time.

MR. RUSSERT: The Securities and Exchange Commission’s investigating, the Justice Department’s investigating. If they find wrongdoing, would you then not run for president?

SEN. FRIST: Well, no decision has been made about my future of what I’m going to do once I leave the United States Senate. I acted properly throughout, so I am confident that the facts are going to speak for themselves. Absolutely confident of that. I acted properly every step along the way. Every step was approved by inside counsel, outside counsel, and the Ethics Committee of the United States Senate in advance of any directive for the sale of the stock.

MR. RUSSERT: But if you never thought it was a conflict of interest, then why did you dump the stock and why did the other 14 members of HCA dump the stock?

SEN. FRIST: Well, the other 14 members, I have no idea. You know, I’m here in the United States Senate. I’ve never worked for HCA. I’ve never worked in HCA hospitals. I’ve never been on the board of HCA. I’m a heart and lung transplant surgeon, worked in Vanderbilt.

Now, the timing issue is an important one because I set this up 10 years ago, blind trust, to eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest. Trying to, you know, my best to go above and beyond the call of what other United States senators did. You know, it really didn’t work. I heard story after story after story that there is some sort of appearance of a conflict of interest. So finally I got tired of those stories and I said, “Is there anything that can be done?” And the Ethics Committee came forward and said, “Yeah. You can just sell the stock. That’ll get rid of it forever.” I said, “Do it.” And it wasn’t in June, and it was weeks and weeks and weeks before the stock fell X percent in the future.

MR. RUSSERT: But you know the suggestion that for 11 years, you dealt with this perception of a conflict of interest. But when you had some sense things were going bad for the company, you had insider trading and dumped the stock.

SEN. FRIST: No.

MR. RUSSERT: That’s the allegation.

SEN. FRIST: I don’t know if that may or may not be the allegation, but let me make it really clear. I acted properly every step along the way. And I’ve received no tips, no nods, no winks, ever, in regard to this sale.

MR. RUSSERT: And you’ll abide by the decision of the SEC and the Justice Department.

SEN. FRIST: Of course I will. The facts are going to speak for themselves. I’m confident, I’m absolutely confident of that.

MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned that you are a physician. Terri Schiavo. You went to the Senate floor March 17, 2005 and said this, “Persistent vegetative state which is what the court has ruled. I say that, I question it, and I question it based on a review of video footage which I spent about an hour or so looking at last night in my office here in the Capitol. And that footage, to me, depicted something very different than persistent vegetative state.” As you know, the autopsy has now come out. This is how it was reported in the paper. “During Terri Schiavo’s final days, when her fervent supporters said she was alert, responsive and trying to speak, she was massively and irreversibly brain-damaged, blind and oblivious to what surrounded her, a medical examiner’s findings revealed.” Which led The New York Times to say, “The autopsy results released should embarrass all the opportunistic politicians and agenda-driven agitators who meddled in Terri Schiavo’s right-to-die case. ...The medical examiners found Ms. Schiavo’s brain ‘profoundly atrophied,’ only half the normal size, and said that ‘No amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.’ ...Those conclusions underscore how shallow and cynical were the judgments-from-afar by the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, who is a doctor...”

SEN. FRIST: Mm-hmm. You know, those comments do bother me because I do regard as my ultimate responsibility, not just as a heart surgeon, which I am, and a heart and lung doctor taking care of people, but also as somebody who took an oath to our Constitution as a United States Senator to protect life. I did feel it was important, because once you give somebody that diagnosis of persistent vegetative state, you can kill her. You can kill somebody whose parents say, “Don’t kill her,” who is—doesn’t have a terminal illness, is not on a ventilator, whose all blood relatives say, “Don’t kill her, don’t take her away.” All blood relatives said that. Before you condemn her to death, you need to make sure that diagnosis is right.

Now, the video footage that I looked at, wasn’t what you see on TV, it was court-appointed video by a board certified neurologist who came to the conclusion that she was not in a persistent vegetative state. That’s enough of a question to raise it before you condemn an innocent person—whose parents said, “Don’t kill her”—to death.

And so what we did in the Senate, in a bipartisan way, is said, “Let’s just have one more review.” We passed that legislation. It got the review, and ultimately she died, and I accept the outcome. I don’t agree with the moral sense of it for me.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, you will acknowledge that people who looked at this believed, suggested that you were trying to diagnose from your office, that the Senate was kept in session over the weekend. The president flew back from his ranch. For something that happens a thousand times a day, in terms of removing tubes, and...

SEN. FRIST: No, you don’t know...

MR. RUSSERT: Let me finish.

SEN. FRIST: That’s not...

MR. RUSSERT: Let me finish.

SEN. FRIST: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: And that this was used in a way to exploit politics and to play to the conservative base in the Republican Party.

SEN. FRIST: You know, you know, first of all, let me reject the earlier thing. Also the pathologic diagnosis persistent vegetative state, it cannot be—it is not an anatomic diagnosis. It is a clinical diagnosis. So all of that about The New York Times...

MR. RUSSERT: But do you regret...

SEN. FRIST: I mean, but...

MR. RUSSERT: Do you regret going to the floor of the Senate and saying, “I watched the videotape and that’s not a persistent vegetative state.”

SEN. FRIST: No, I don’t. I’m a physician. I was watching a board-certified neurologist...

MR. RUSSERT: Were you wrong?

SEN. FRIST: In terms of what? In terms of that—no. To raise the question in order to pass a law that says, “Let’s give it more review”? No.

MR. RUSSERT: Were you wrong in your diagnosis?

SEN. FRIST: I didn’t make the diagnosis. I raised the question of whether or not she’s in a persistent vegetative state. If I had been there, I would have said, “Let’s use technology today, like spectrometry, like PET scans to get the diagnosis right,” because the only reason you can remove that tube—the other thing...

MR. RUSSERT: No regrets?

SEN. FRIST: Well, I’ll tell you what I learned from it, which is obvious, is that the American people don’t want you involved in these decisions. But I will say again as a physician, but as a senator, when you’re taking innocent life with parents who want that life preserved, you got to make sure. And therefore stepping in and saying, “Let’s take one more review.” That’s what we did.

MR. RUSSERT: Are you going to run for president?

SEN. FRIST: I’m going to be leaving Washington, citizen legislator. I said I’d serve 12 years in the United States Senate and I’ll be going back next year—about a year from now, to live in the house that I lived in, grew up in, and at that point in time we’ll make a decision. In the meantime, we got a lot to do in this country to move this country forward.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Bill Frist, thanks for sharing your views.

SEN. FRIST: Good to be with you.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, what will President George W. Bush say to the nation on Tuesday night? And how do Americans feel about the Bush presidency? Our political roundtable next right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, Kelly O’Donnell, Roger Simon, Byron York. Our roundtable after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back again. Some distressing news out of Iraq this morning. ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff has been seriously injured in explosion by an IED while covering the news over there. We are thinking about him and his family, and we will continue to report developments as we learn them.

Let’s—joined now by our roundtable.

Judge Alito is before the United States Senate on Monday and Tuesday, David Broder, Harry Reid told reporters he will vote against 'cloture'—or ending the debate—to emphasize that President Bush made a 'bad choice' in tapping Alito. But added, 'Everyone knows there are not enough votes to support a filibuster.'" But two of his Democrats, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, are pushing hard for a filibuster, telling the world, “If you’re going to oppose Judge Alito’s confirmation then you’re honor-bound to also vote for a filibuster.” What happens?

MR. DAVID BRODER: There won’t be a successful filibuster. I think the two senators from Massachusetts and a few others will yack for a while and then there will be a vote and then Judge Alito will be confirmed.

MR. RUSSERT: Byron York you see it that way?

Mr. BYRON YORK: Absolutely. First of all, there are 55 Republicans in the Senate, 53 of them said they’re going to vote for Sam Alito. The other two d—haven’t said yet, but they won’t vote for a filibuster. There are three Democrats who’ve said they’ll vote for him. There won’t be a filibuster. A fourth is leaning that way and several others have said “We may vote one way or another on Alito, but we won’t support a filibuster.”

I think what happened when John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy and later Hillary Rodham Clinton came out for filibuster, they came out after it became clear that a filibuster couldn’t succeed, so it was kind of a free shot for them. They could go to their most liberal supporters and say, “We did everything we could to try to stop Samuel Alito,” but they know then that they’re also not causing the damage that a successful filibuster would cause, which would be nuclear option and nuclear winter in the Senate.

SEN. FRIST: Roger Simon, Kennedy and Kerry are saying, “If the Democratic Party stands for anything we have to resist Judge Alito. We can’t let someone on the court who will shift the balance.”

MR. ROGER SIMON: Well John Kerry can never afford to be nuanced again. He can never say “I was for Alito before I was against Alito,” so he will take part in another doomed theatric gesture, which the Democratic Party is getting well-practiced in knowing that he can’t block Alito from the Court. Actually one of the only bright spots for President Bush has been his nominees to the Supreme Court. They’re going to both—one has sailed through already and this one will sail through, too.

MR. RUSSERT: You’re not talking about Harriett Miers.

MR. ROGER SIMON: No, I’m not talking about Harriet Miers. I’m talking about John Roberts, our chief justice.

MR. RUSSERT: Kelly O’Donnell, let me show you some polling data and get your sense of how the White House is thinking, the beat that you cover. Los Angeles Times Bloomberg. The president’s approval/disapproval: 43 percent approval, 54 disapproval. What about the war in Iraq? Forty-one approval, 56 disapproval. Terrorism, the war. Approve 48, Bush performance on that; 49 disapprove. And economy. Only 37 percent approve, 59 disapprove. And look at this, health care. The president’s handling of it: 27; disapprove 64. Is the White House aware of those numbers?

MS. O’DONNELL: Aware and trying to respond in ways that we’ll certainly see Tuesday night. When it comes to health care, a subject that in the sixth year of this administration the president's going to talk about in the State of the Union, offering some ideas to give people accounts, some ways to have portable insurance so if you leave a job, you can still be insured; trying to address the costs, not so much how people get coverage, but how they spend money on it; knowing that that’s an area where they have really had trouble in public perception.

But advisors also say he will continue to talk about the war in Iraq every single week. They learned that when they sort of shifted gears and didn’t have as much of a public message about that, it hurt them. They also know when the president acknowledged some of the mistakes there, he seemed to have a little inching up in the polls. And of late, on the spying issue for example, where he has been so assertive in his view, we now also see that the numbers have edged back ever so slightly.

MR. RUSSERT: Do State of the Union messages, do they matter, David?

MR. BRODER: Well, of course they matter. I mean, it’s the largest single audience that the president will have for any speech this year. And it also really does set the agenda. I mean, we tend to forget. A year ago, he was talking about reforming the Social Security system. It didn’t happen, but it consumed six months of the public debate.  Presidents still have that capacity. And even as we can—as Kelly points out, he is at this point. His speech will set an agenda.

MR. RUSSERT: There has been a lot of discussion, as Kelly mentioned, about this whole notion of domestic eavesdropping and how the White House has been extremely aggressive trying to seize that as an issue, move it from being a civil rights and liberty issue to an anti-terrorism issue.

Again, some polling data was quite constructive. The American people, would you give up some civil liberties to prevent terrorism? Yes, 51; no, 40. What about monitoring U.S. phone calls and e-mails without a warrant? Forty-nine say acceptable, 45 say unacceptable. Would you mind if your own calls were being monitored? Fifty-three say yes, 46 percent say no. Who do you trust to protect the country against terrorism? President Bush 45, the Democrats in Congress, 32. Has the president’s policies made us more secure, 52 yes. Less secure, 21, no. No different, 25.

Byron York, has the White House politically achieved some results over the last few weeks by saying, “This is an anti-terrorism message. You heard that Osama bin Laden tape, I am the protector in chief,” in effect?

MR. YORK: Yes, they have. You know, obviously they didn’t want the leak to happen. They didn’t want this to come out. But since it has, they believe this is actually a big political winner for them. And Republican pollsters tell me it’s all in how you label this. The president’s adversaries want to call it domestic spying. The president is saying this is—we’re looking in on the international communications of people with known al-Qaeda connections. If you ask people in a poll, what do you think about warrantless domestic spying? They’re against it. If you throw in the word “al-Qaeda,” the approval goes through the roof. And so this is all a fight over how to label this.

MR. RUSSERT: The president seemed to suggest in his news conference on Thursday, Roger Simon, that he was anxious for the mid-term elections. His last one, as he said, as a sitting president. And that his message was going to be, “I will protect you and I’m going to cut your taxes.”

MR. SIMON: Sure, it’s the same message we heard at the Republican Convention. “Keep fear alive, vote for us or die.” The poll, what we like to call the Bloomberg/LA Times Poll, show that on the question of terrorism, that’s the only area in which George Bush and the Republicans get a high marks.

This is a weakened president. You saw on the show today, a majority leader, his majority leader, disagreeing with the president on a number of issues. What the president has, the last arrow in his quiver, is protecting the United States against terrorism. And that’s what he’s going to have to use.

MR. RUSSERT: Karl Rove gave a speech to the Republican National Committee, Kelly O’Donnell. He said that the Democrats are the pre-September 11 party, that’s the world they see. The Republicans, post-September 11. Is the 2006 mid-term election going to be fought over terrorism or all these other issues that we talked about with Senator Frist here this morning?

MS. O’DONNELL: He also called them small-minded. So he is setting a very bright line between how the Republicans view issues and how Democrats. And you will see that in the State of the Union as well, because there will be strong contrasts drawn. Terrorism works for them in part because there is that fear that is hard to describe, and people do have a fear about it. And so when you bring up eavesdropping, if you say al-Qaeda, people will think, “Well, it’s not me and my phone calls. So maybe it’s OK.”

It’s hard for people to understand what domestic spying might intrude upon, because we know so little about the program. So this is a strong area for them. Will it be as strong as it was the last go-around? Probably not. But it is an area where they can continue to fight and say, ‘We will protect you more than, than the Democrats.’ And Democrats have trouble there, because when you bring up civil liberties it seems much more of a fuzzy argument to many people, because if you put that on a scale against protecting the country, often people are more willing to say, ‘I want the country secure.’

MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, the economy grew at 1.1 percent, low by everyone’s estimation. You saw those numbers for the president: Handling of Iraq, handling the economy, handling health care, way down. This morning, The Washington Post, your paper, asked this question: “The United States should follow the direction of President Bush or the Democrats in terms of agendas?” Thirty-five percent say Bush, 51 percent say the Democrats in Congress. Going into the midterm elections, however, will that be the driving force that brings about voting behavior, or will it be terrorism and who can protect you?

MR. BRODER: Well, the remarkable thing about that finding from our poll that you just cited is that I think it’s nearly impossible for anybody to tell you what the direction of the Democrats in Congress is. They have not put out any kind of a manifesto of their own. So it has to reflect a basic dissatisfaction with the status quo or what people think the status quo is. But I want to go back for just one second to this issue that Kelly raised about the support for the president on the wire-tapping. I think that’s true up until the time that you get one court decision that says he’s broken the law. Because what we have seen in the past is that the American people will support a president as long as they think he is operating lawfully. If they can make this one claim stand up, that this is a lawful use of their authority as pr—his authority as president, I will be very surprised.

MR. SIMON: One more point on that. Unlike past administrations, notably the Nixon administration, there’s no evidence that the Bush administration has used this warrantless surveillance for political purposes. When the president says, ‘I’m doing this to protect the United States of America, there’s no evidence that he is in any way prevaricating. And that is why, I think, so many people are saying, as Kelly pointed out, ‘Well, I don’t talk to al-Qaeda every night, so let them tap my phones all they want to.’ And as long as this remains a genuine attempt to prevent another terrorist attack on the United States, I think the president is going to skate on this.

MR. RUSSERT: Brian—Byron, at the news conference when the president says that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—well, that’s old law.

MR. YORK: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: Is that a suggestion—well, you know, that’s outdated and we don’t have to deal with that now...

MR. YORK: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...times have changed. And if you do it—do it to that law, what—where do you stop—where do you draw the line, where do you stop?

MR. YORK: Well, the administration has made the—first of all, the—FISA was passed in 1978, and critics have pointed out it was passed at a time when homes and offices had one telephone and there was a wire going in and out of them. It’s a very old time now. But they also point out that the FISA system was backed up. In 2004, the September 11th commission, which everybody pretty much respects their findings, said that “The FISA application process continues to be long and slow. Requests for approvals are overwhelming the ability of the system to process them and to conduct a surveillance.” And that’s the kind of thing the Bush administration says they were having to deal with. And there is one more issue on the actual legal justification—I don’t think Senator Frist made this really very clear just citing the Constitution. But the White House is not just making it up, there was a case in 2002 by the FISA court of review, In Re Sealed Case. It referred to an earlier case called Truong, and it said, “That court, as did all the other courts to have decided the issue, held that the president did have inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information. We take for granted that the president does have that authority.” So they have a legal basis for what they’re doing.

MR. RUSSERT: Why not change the law with Congress?

MR. YORK: I think that they probably should have at some point. They faced an emergency situation when they got Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s laptop, I can understand that. But I think later they should have tried to do it.

MS. O’DONNELL: But, Tim, the president said he would resist any new law, and he—I asked him about that at the end-of-year news conference, he was asked again earlier this week, and he said any political debate might expose the methods involved in this kind of surveillance. So he is not embracing the idea of an updated law.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the race for the White House. You heard Senator Frist suggest that he’s considering running for president. The Gallup poll went out this week about Hillary Clinton—and drew a lot of comment around the country—“Would you vote for Hillary Clinton for president? Definitely, 16 percent. Maybe, 32 percent. Definitely not, 51 percent.” Does that tell us anything at this point of the race, David?

MR. BRODER: Well, it tells us she carries a lot of baggage if she decides to run for president. She's become a very adept politician, as you know, and so I don’t discount her potential. But she doesn’t start at the same place as everybody else does. People have an opinion about her and about her husband that they will bring into the race with her.

MS. O’DONNELL: She’s always had high negatives.

MR. SIMON: Right. But you can look at the same poll, if you're Hillary Clinton, and say, ‘If you take those who say they will vote for me and take those who say they will consider voting for me, that’s 48 percent. That’s not a bad base to build upon two years and nine months before the presidential elections.’

MR. YORK: But the problem with the poll is that elections are always one candidate vs. the other candidate. So this is just kind of a generic question hanging out there. Actually, I think the poll that showed her running—was it 10 points—behind John McCain was a little bit more interesting because you have two candidates with very high name recognition at this point.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that conservatives in the Republican primary—voters—Republican primary voters could embrace John McCain in 2008?

MR. YORK: Yes, I think they did. I did an article a couple of months ago on McCain and I talked to people in South Carolina who were very involved in this and who were for Bush over McCain in 2000. And they said that McCain’s enthusiastic campaigning for Bush in 2004, he really went out of his way to do that, really impressed them and gave McCain a fresh start with them.

MR. RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton was in Oregon the last few days and there was anti-war demonstrators at one of her events. They do not believe that she has been sufficiently clear on the war in Iraq. David, do you expect that there be an anti-war candidate in the Democratic primary?

MR. BRODER: If the war is still where it is now, there will be, no question about it. Because there is a constituency in the Democratic primaries for an anti-war candidate.

MR. RUSSERT: The president said the other day that this is a wide open race, the most wide open he’s ever seen. Does he have any kind of wink, or nudge towards any Republicans?

MS. O’DONNELL: Well, he was very careful because he knows that anything he says will influence the process. I think if he could get Condoleezza Rice to run he’d be happy about that, but we know where she stands on it.

MR. RUSSERT: Whoa, that’s going to set the blogs a running there, Kelly.

Kelly O’Donnell, David Broder, Roger Simon, Byron York.

We’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: Stay with NBC News and MSNBC for complete coverage of the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, and the Democratic response as well. That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.

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