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updated 12/22/2009 12:12:12 PM ET 2009-12-22T17:12:12

Guests: Tyler Mathisen, Eugene Robinson, Pat Buchanan, Nate Silver, Darcy Burner, Sen. Bob Casey, Steve Kornacki, Jonathan Martin, Judd Gregg

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Sixty votes.  They got them.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Washington.  Leading off tonight:

Sixty votes.  They did it.  The Democrats, all of them, every Democrat in the U.S. Senate, lined up at 1:00 AM today to bring this matter to a showdown, it looks like now on Christmas Eve.  Is this the road to liberal change for America, or does the bill lack the necessary ingredients to create momentum down the road?  Have the Democrats begun to make history, or has compromise hurt too much?

Plus, Arlen Specter says the health care debate has been so nasty that the Senate can no longer call itself the world‘s greatest deliberative body.  I‘m not sure he means it, being the lover of the Senate that he is, but let‘s examine what he said.  Can the Senate still be the Senate if it gets this cranky?

And lately, John McCain never misses an opportunity to criticize President Obama on health care, Gitmo, Iran.  And here‘s a new one.  He says his former opponent is more partisan than Bill Clinton.  But what about him?  What does he have to worry about, something back home, a right-winger perhaps running against him in that next primary?

Plus: And what about the angry voices out there?  Will they still be on the left angry if the president does get his health care bill through this week?

And last week, our NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll found Dick Cheney was the second least respected person in this country.  George W.  Bush was first, of course.  So who just named Cheney “Conservative of the Year?”  Hint, hint, he‘s a neocon.  That‘s our story in the HARDBALL “Sideshow” tonight.

We begin, however, with the hottest story in town, the health care debate.  Nate Silver operates the political Web site Fivethirtyeight.com and Darcy Burner, somebody I just met, is the executive director of Progressivecongress.com.

Nate, I want you to start off.  I‘m a huge fan of yours.  Obviously, you‘re a smart analyst and I love analysts in this business because you can actually predict events better than just opinionaters like me.  So let‘s—although I used to be really good at picking favorites.

Let‘s go right now to your thinking.  What is your analysis, as hard as you can make it, as to the aspects and attributes and pluses of the health care bill as it now stands compared to what could have been, would have been, but isn‘t?

NATE SILVER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT.COM:  Yes, I mean, the plus is that it provides insurance to 30 million people and does so in a fiscally responsible way.  It provides about $150 billion, $200 billion a year in subsidies to poor and sick people.  I think it‘s kind of an Occam‘s razor kind of thing.  I mean, it‘s basically very good liberal policy classic, help people who are disadvantaged.  I think you have to really kind of overthink this one to not consider this a major kind of progressive, quote, unquote, “victory.”

MATTHEWS:  Nate, you made a graph describing the relative quality of various versions of the health bill during the debate so far...

SILVER:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  ... including the public option and others.  We have a chart up there now.  I think it was designed by you.  So narrate.

SILVER:  Yes.  I mean, I think this bill is a long way short of systematic reform.  It‘s still the employer-based system that still has a lot of inefficiencies.  We spend more on health care than other countries do.  But it‘s a lot better from the standpoint of coverage, where we cover most of the uninsured, except for illegal aliens.  We help people who can‘t afford it.  We make sure people don‘t lose their coverage if they get sick.  All these are huge problems.  They‘ve been huge priorities for literally—literally decades.

And I think having a public option or not is fairly trivial as compared to the magnitude of good the bill would do.  It‘s about a $20 billion savings, which is a lot of money in the abstract, but relative to a $900 billion bill, it might make it 2 percent or 3 percent better.  It might lower premiums by 1 percent or so, the CBO thinks.  It‘s not worth quite the attention it‘s gotten from the left, I don‘t think.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me have another view here.  Darcy, your thoughts.  Why is the public option important as a forcer of competition among the insurance industry?

DARCY BURNER, PROGRESSIVECONGRESS.ORG:  Well, a big piece of the problem that we‘ve had is that most Americans haven‘t had access to adequate competition when they‘ve been trying to figure out what kind of health insurance to get, or the businesses who employ them have been trying to figure out what kind of health insurance to get.

In Washington, D.C., you get to choose between two providers.  And in the Senate bill, they don‘t even repeal the anti-trust provision—the anti-trust exemption.  So those two providers are allowed to collude to set prices and benefits, rather than providing real competition for the American people.  The problem with the Senate bill is that it doesn‘t provide enough competition and it doesn‘t provide enough checks on the insurance companies.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go back—your thoughts on that, Nate?  Is it true that these companies are able to collude legally, in violation of the principles of anti-trust?

SILVER:  Well, one thing people might not know is the profit the insurance industry makes is actually fairly small.  It‘s about 3.3 percent over the past five years or so.  I mean, I think that‘s money that we shouldn‘t have to spend at all.  I think the public could provide adequate insurance without the private sector in this instance.

But we‘re talking about again, a $900 billion bill, of which maybe $15 million or $20 million will help the insurance companies to cover more people.  But the bulk of it really goes to help people purchase coverage which they couldn‘t have had before.  They do have to buy it.  The mandate is another issue.  But when we‘re talking about before for a family just above the poverty line, they‘re getting the coverage 75 percent or 80 percent subsidized versus the status quo, either don‘t have insurance and get sick and go bankrupt or you have to pay maybe $10,000 for a family policy on an income of $50,000.  It makes a lot of improvement.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why are people like—just to get the point of view across, from your point of view, Nate—why are people like Darcy and a lot of other people in the netroots world so focused on the need for a public option if it doesn‘t—if it only makes a 1 percent or 2 percent difference in the cost?

SILVER:  Well, I think they wanted to stake out a negotiating position.  And I thank Darcy for her efforts.  I think people like her have made this a better bill.  Even now, improvements that were made in the manager‘s amendment with the public option being taken away, there are also things that make the bill a little bit better.

But I think sometimes you have to know when you have to give up the fight and say, This is a huge (INAUDIBLE) we‘ve been fighting for—for literally 50 years or longer, since FDR really.  And we have to say this is actually a pretty good bill, if we‘re being honest with ourselves and assessing what it will do for lower-income families, for people who can‘t get coverage because they have a preexisting condition.

Again, I think we don‘t want to overthink this too much.  We can talk about the politics (INAUDIBLE) might be more interesting, but in terms of policy, this is a big, classic liberal priority that will do a lot of good for a lot of people.

MATTHEWS:  Darcy?

BURNER:  Well, Nate and I are in agreement about a fact.  We‘re just

in disagreement about its importance.  We both agree that the bill doesn‘t

the Senate bill doesn‘t do anything to solve the system problem where we pay twice as much as the rest of the industrialized world for health care that has us with lower life expectancies and higher infant mortality.  We are paying too much for the health care that we‘re getting, and the Senate bill doesn‘t do anything to fix that.

I view that as an enormous problem, when health care is consuming 16 percent, 17 percent of the gross domestic product of this country, and when the House bill would at least put us on a path where it would be possible to start to fix those problems, which the Senate bill does not do.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s take a look at Senator Barbara Boxer on this issue.  She‘s obviously a liberal member of the United States Senate from the state of California.  Here‘s her view.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA:  I went back to the debates.  I went back to read the Congressional Record from 1935, when the debate on Social Security occurred.  It was pretty rough then.  And this is a milestone moment.  Since Teddy Roosevelt, the Congresses and presidents, Republican—he was a Republican—and Democratic had been trying to get Americans affordable health care.  We are on the precipice.  It is not the perfect bill.  We all know that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What are you, to the left of Barbara Boxer?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I mean, seriously.  I don‘t—I mean, I think she‘s a great liberal.  I think she‘s an amazingly gutsy person who‘s been able to stake out a position on the left in politics, a progressive position, if you will (INAUDIBLE) want to use the new word.  But she‘s never been gutless ever.  You disagree with her position now?

BURNER:  I think that they could have done more and should do more.  I mean, the House bill...

MATTHEWS:  Where are these extra votes they‘re going to get, besides the ones they got?

BURNER:  How are they going to get 218 votes in the House for the Senate bill?  They don‘t have them.

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I know that.  Do you want them to get the 218?

BURNER:  I want them to find a reasonable way...

MATTHEWS:  You want the Senate to vote again on something that they didn‘t want this time?

BURNER:  I want the senators to put the needs of the American people above...

MATTHEWS:  Well, you want them to change...

BURNER:  ... their own priorities...

MATTHEWS:  ... who they are.

BURNER:  No, I want them to put the needs of the American people above...

MATTHEWS:  In other words, we could get a more liberal bill out of the Senate than we got—we‘re getting?

BURNER:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  How do you know that?

BURNER:  Because, frankly, Joe Lieberman said today that the president never pressured him around some of these key issues, never pressured him around the Medicare buy-in, never...

MATTHEWS:  So he‘s now your—he‘s your witness.

BURNER:  ... pressured him on the public option...

MATTHEWS:  Joe Lieberman‘s your witness?

BURNER:  Joe Lieberman...

MATTHEWS:  Are you kidding me?  Are you kidding me?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You come here as a progressive and you tell me that your witness is Joe Lieberman?

BURNER:  Joe Lieberman is saying that he was never...

MATTHEWS:  No, I don‘t care what he‘s saying.  You believe him on this whole issue?

BURNER:  Well, OK.  I will grant...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s your one you trust?

BURNER:  I will grant that his credibility is highly questionable...

MATTHEWS:  Well, why are you using him then?

BURNER:  ... on this.

MATTHEWS:  Why are you citing him?

BURNER:  But he—but he is the person...

MATTHEWS:  Excuse me.  I have a problem.  This is where the argument‘s gotten, where liberals are quoting Joe Lieberman about what the Senate‘s capable of doing.  Joe Lieberman represents Hartford, Connecticut.  He still does.  He always will.  He won‘t be a senator for any other state, will he?  So he‘s still going to be there, looking after the insurance industry up there.  He‘s still looking out for Joe Lieberman, right?  And you‘re saying you‘ve got a new Joe Lieberman you‘ve just pulled out of your pocket now.  I‘ve got a progressive Joe Lieberman in here...

BURNER:  I‘m not suggesting...

MATTHEWS:  ... who says that he hasn‘t...

BURNER:  ... he‘s a progressive.

MATTHEWS:  ... been pressured enough by President Obama and he‘d like to be whipped some more?  What are you—you‘re saying he wants to be pressured more.

BURNER:  I am not suggesting Joe Lieberman is progressive.  I am only...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry.  But you‘re saying he‘s trustworthy.

BURNER:  I am saying that he said today that the president never talked to him about a public option, never talked to him about the Medicare buy-in.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Maybe because he knows who he‘s talking to.

BURNER:  It‘s possible, but it‘s also the case that we haven‘t had...

MATTHEWS:  Look, I‘m—all opinions are valid here.  But I just don‘t think Joe Lieberman is a credible source of information about the chances of progressive legislation in this country.  What do you think?

BURNER:  I am all for taking down Joe Lieberman.  He deserves everything he‘s going to get for throwing the American people under the bus.  But there is more that the Senate could, and frankly, is going to have to do.  The Senate is going to have to play ball with the House.  And the House bill does address things like repealing the anti-trust exemption for the insurance companies so that they actually have to compete each other.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BURNER:  It has a national exchange, rather than state exchanges, so that people are going to have much—a much broader...

MATTHEWS:  So you want the House...

BURNER:  ... range of choices.  I do want...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... it sounds good for me, too.  I mean, it sounds good.

BURNER:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  So...

BURNER:  If what we end up with is closer to the Senate bill than the House bill, I think it is a good bill.  The problem is...

MATTHEWS:  You mean closer to the House bill.

BURNER:  Close to the House bill than the Senate bill, yes.  I‘m sorry.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s all right.

BURNER:  What‘s happening right now, though, is that...

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you because we have to cut to the chase here.  Do you think it‘s better if they get a bill if they can push it more to the House side?

BURNER:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Nate, what do you think?  I‘ve been talking to Darcy too much for you, but do you think there‘s going to be a push to—say let‘s use the usual terms—to the left, in the conference report?

SILVER:  (INAUDIBLE) a little bit.  But we have to remember that Ben Nelson kind of said, Hey, if you tinker with this too much, I‘m going to turn into a vote against cloture.  He‘s voting for a bill which is probably about 29 percent, 30 percent popular in Nebraska right now.  So to get his vote at all—I know people don‘t want to hear this—but it‘s a pretty significant achievement by Harry Reid, maybe by the White House.  I wouldn‘t give the White House a high grade on health care, either, but it‘s still a very impressive, but risky, of course, political accomplishment to...

MATTHEWS:  So they‘ve pulled the rubber band about as far as the rubber band will pull without snapping, is what you‘re saying.

SILVER:  I think maybe if at the very, very start of the process, Obama had been a little bit more forthright with pushing for a public option, it might have mattered.  But for the most part, this is probably, you know, frankly, a little bit better than I thought where we would end up six months ago, especially in an environment where presidential popularity is down to 48, 50 percent, where the bill only has about 30, 35 percent approval.  It‘s a gutsy move by Democrats.  Not the best bill it could be.  But they‘re not—you know, they‘re taking some risks here.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Your last word?  You think there‘s more give in Ben Nelson, huh?

BURNER:  I think Ben Nelson just got $100 million a year for the state of Nebraska in Medicaid subsidies, which the people of Nebraska are going to be very grateful for, whatever the people in the other 49 states of the union might think, and that that‘s a pretty huge deal for him to walk away from.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Yes, those pro-lifers are very tough.  Very tough.  Anyway, thank you.  Thank you, Nate, thanks for—Nate, as always.  Thank you, Darcy, for joining us.  Stay—come back again.

Coming up: A nasty health care debate on the Hill has led many to wonder, can senators, U.S. senators, look beyond politics and be, well, a bit more civil?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TOM COBURN ®, OKLAHOMA:  It‘s not about being bipartisan.  It‘s about—it‘s—you get—you get to take this or leave it.  What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can‘t make the vote tonight.  That‘s what they ought to pray.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Oh!  Strange use of prayer.  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That was Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn last night on the Senate floor, asking for God‘s help in keeping people from getting to the floor.  You‘ve got to wonder how prayer is used these days.  Anyway, Senator Dick Durbin reacted to that.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS:  I don‘t think it‘s appropriate to be invoking prayer to wish misfortune on a colleague.  And I want him to clarify that.  I‘ve invited him.  I‘ve tried to reach out to him.  He is my friend and I have worked with him.  But this statement goes too far.  The simple reality is this.  We are becoming more coarse and more divided here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You‘ve got to wonder, is the Senate turning sour?  What‘s going on?  The so-called greatest deliberative body—that‘s what I always thought it was—is into name calling like on a schoolyard.  Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey is a Democrat.  He‘s sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Senator Casey, new to the Senate as you are, are you amazed that a senator has invoked God‘s blessing on bad weather so that the people who are the lame and the halt will have a hard time getting through the snow and vote at 1:00 o‘clock this morning?

SEN. BOB CASEY (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  Well, Chris, it was a very strange statement, even for the Senate.  But I think we can get past this chapter and begin to work together again.  But it was clear many, many months ago that the Republicans in the Senate had one mission, and that was not just to slow down the process to get a bill passed, they were out to kill the bill.  And they‘ve been trying ever since.  But I think we‘ve overcome that.  I think we can pass a bill that‘s going to cover 31 million Americans.  I think it‘s moving in the right direction.

MATTHEWS:  Explain the conundrum to me, the conflict between the conservatives who are united in believing if they can kill this bill, they‘ve got a big win and it really hurts the Democratic cause, the liberal cause, the progressive cause, and those on the left who can‘t seem to decide that‘s the case.

CASEY:  Well, it is difficult, Chris, because this—as we‘ve said many times, this is a piece of legislation that‘s literally going to affect every American one way or the other.  When you have that kind of seismic change, you‘re going to have the kind of conflicts we‘ve seen in both parties and within both parties.

But I think once this is in place, once we have a bill that‘s been enacted and we begin to implement it—the small business tax credits this coming year, help for children with preexisting conditions this year and not waiting until the full bill is implemented—once that‘s happening and people are seeing the results of it, I think we‘re going to have a lessening of the rhetoric and conflict.  But it‘s going to take a while, and we‘ve got—we have our work cut out for us, even after the bill is passed.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get down to our shared philosophical belief, Senator.  And I share it with you.  Your dad once said heroically that if a criminal defendant has a right to a lawyer in our justice system, that a family has a right to a doctor.  How close will we be to that dream and that idea and that ideal if we pass this bill in the Senate this Christmas Eve?

CASEY:  Well, Chris, I think we‘re very close to that, when you cover 31 million Americans who don‘t have any coverage at all and when you also put in the kind of protections for people that actually do have coverage.  That was one of the more interesting parts of this debate.  It didn‘t get a lot of attention, but people who are covered are at risk all the time if they have preexisting conditions, or the limits on their coverage for a year or for a lifetime.

So I think we‘re going to get very close.  Whether 31 million covered is universal and whether you‘ve been able to give meaning and integrity to that point of view that everyone has a right to health care, we‘ll have to see.  But I think we‘re very close to it, or will be very close to it when the bill is fully implemented.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a pro-labor Democrat and on issues like this, you‘re pretty progressive, so let me ask you this.  How important was the public option issue to you in terms of getting a bill and getting a bill with the public option?  How many yards differences is there between the two?

CASEY:  Well, I believe it was very, very important to make that part of the legislation.  I voted for it, as you know, this summer in committee.

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

CASEY:  I thought we had worked out not just a good public option for the—from the Democratic point of view, but also one that people even in the middle could have confidence in.  I thought it was very important for cost control and for injecting competition.  I don‘t think, however, that if we end up without it at the end of the day when the bill‘s enacted that that will remove the chances that we can control costs and have substantial reform.

Covering 31 million Americans and having deficit reduction of $130 billion over 10 years and a lot more, as much as—more than $650 billion over the next 10 years, that kind of combination, I think, is going to be helpful in terms of coverage, but also in terms of beginning to—to—to control costs. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, sir, thanks for joining us on HARDBALL.  Big week.

CASEY:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  New Hampshire—New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg is the top Republican on the budget committee. 

Senator Gregg, I have offered the conundrum—I will give the same one to you—why is your convinced that defeating this bill is mightily important ideologically and the other side of the aisle can‘t seem to decide what they believe? 

SEN. JUDD GREGG ®, NEW HAMPSHIRE:  Well, I think it‘s not an issue of ideology.  It‘s just an issue of practical governance. 

You know, if you grow the government by $2.3 trillion, when you already have a government that you can‘t afford and that‘s headed down a road of debt levels which are unsustainable and will lead us into some level of fiscal insolvency as a nation in 10 or 15 years, you don‘t add another—you don‘t keep digging and add another $2.3 trillion of costs on top of that government. 

In addition, you have got the Medicare situation, where massive amounts of reductions in Medicare proposed in this bill, $500 billion in the first 10 years and $3 trillion over the first 20 years, and instead of using those dollars to shore up the Medicare system, they‘re essentially used to create a new entitlement. 

And we know, as we create entitlements around here, that they never get fully paid for.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

GREGG:  And they end up going on the debt, too. 

So, I think the issue is, basically, we don‘t think this, in the end, significantly helps the health care system in this country.  And we think it very negatively impacts the fiscal health of the country.

I would like to go to one point you made.  Does this get us closer to getting a doctor for everybody?  No.  No, it does not.  First, it leaves 24 million people uninsured.  And, secondly, we won‘t...

MATTHEWS:  Who are those people? 

GREGG:  ... won‘t have any more doctors than they have today.

Well, according to CBO, they‘re people of basic—who basically don‘t fall into being able to be qualified for Medicaid, which is being expanded to 133 percent of poverty, and won‘t be available to the subsidy for the quasi-public plan in the exchange. 

But, equally important, the president‘s own actuary—the president‘s

own actuary said that, because of the massive reductions in Medicare cuts -

Medicare reimbursements here, that about 20 percent of the Medicare providers will become unprofitable and probably leave the system. 

So, it will be much harder for a senior citizen to find a doctor.  And obviously that becomes an issue of availability of medicine, too. 

MATTHEWS:  Where is the Republican plan that would fill that hole? 

GREGG:  Well, I can give you mine.  I...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, but where‘s the Republican plan?  You are a member of the Republican Caucus all these years.  You‘re a fiscal conservative.  You‘ve been in the Senate for a number of terms now.  And I have been waiting since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, when he talked about it, for the Republican Party to have a plan for a national health care plan. 

And what you do is, you wait for the Democrats to offer one, and you do find the problems with it, but you don‘t offer an alternative, do you?  Or do you? 

GREGG:  Well, actually, there have been a series of alternatives offered by the Republican Party. 

Of course, we did Part D expansion, which I didn‘t support because it wouldn‘t paid for.  But that was a major expansion.  We have offered a major expansion in the area of small-business insurance plans.  We have offered major expansion in the area of catastrophic coverage.  We have offered a proposal which was bipartisan, the Wyden-Bennett proposal, which had bipartisan support here...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But to fill the hole you just mentioned.  You mentioned the 20-some million that are not covered by the Democratic plan.  Is there a Republican plan to fill it? 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGG:  Yes.  The way you cover those folks, in my opinion, is, you use catastrophic insurance, because a large percentage of those people are basically younger people who can afford insurance, but decide not to buy it. 

But rather than requiring them to buy a very expensive health care plan, which they don‘t need all the bells and whistles on it, you let them down a stripped-down catastrophic a plan, so that, if they‘re seriously injured or have a serious illness, their care will be taken care of. 

But then you give them an HSA possibility, where they can save money for the purposes of the day-to-day costs of health care.  There are a lot of different ideas like that out there.  That‘s the one that‘s most attractive to me.  And we have proposed it.

Unfortunately, we didn‘t get to offer it as an amendment, because, as you know, this bill‘s only been on the floor for 48 hours, and we are going to be forced to vote on it almost instantaneously. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s wrong with the Senate? 

Is there something wrong with it institutional now?  Because people talk about the fact that, because of partisanship, you‘ve got to vote at 1:00 in the morning.  You‘re going to vote on Christmas Eve, apparently.

Without casting blame, it‘s just a weird way to do business.  What‘s

went wrong—what has gone wrong in your lifetime as a senator that‘s gone

too many House members?  What‘s going on here? 

GREGG:  Well, that‘s a superb question.  I don‘t know the actual answer to that question. 

But I think it‘s a variety of factors.  I would put at the top of the list the fact that the efforts to reach bipartisanship seem to have failed on this bill.  We‘re doing bipartisan things in other areas in the Senate, which have been very constructive.

Kent Conrad and I have a good proposal and we‘re working on regulatory reform.  But on this bill, it was so big, and the different interest groups were so hugely invested in it, there was—we weren‘t able to reach a bipartisan agreement.  And, as a result, the majority decided to use the rights of the majority to try to ram it down the throats of the minority, and the minority‘s using its rights to try to make sure that doesn‘t happen. 

And, so, we‘re in this very, I think, unfortunate situation—more than unfortunate—where you‘re having these midnight votes and where you‘re basically not getting good debate and good airing of the issues and the amendment process has basically been sidetracked.  And that‘s not what the founding fathers wanted out of the Senate. 

We were supposed to be the saucer into which the hot coffee was poured.  And, unfortunately, we‘re becoming a hot coffee urn also. 

MATTHEWS:  Senator, a lot of people grew up dreaming to be United States senators.  Maybe I‘m one of them.  I have at different times in my life wanted to be a senator and given up on it.  Why are you walking away from it? 

GREGG:  Well, you‘re something much more worthwhile.

Excuse me?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Why are you walking away it?

GREGG:  Well, because I have been in government now for 30 years.  And my wife and I have dedicated a large part of our life, obviously, almost all our professional life, to public service.  And we just decided it was time to move on. 

I‘m a big admirer of the Senate.  Listen, the Senate is filled with really good people.  They‘re hardworking; they‘re thoughtful; they‘re intelligent.  Sometimes, we get at these loggerheads.  Sometimes, we disagree. 

You just had Bob Casey on.  He‘s one of the most talented people in the Senate, in my opinion, a really talented guy.  There are good people here.  And this is a good institution.  It just sometimes runs off the rails because we get so intensely involved in some of these issues. 

But this is an unusual issue in that instance. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

Well, you know where you‘re going to be New Year‘s Eve.  I mean—sorry—Christmas Eve. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Senator.  Merry Christmas.

GREGG:  Hopefully not New Year‘s Eve. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

GREGG:  Hopefully not New Year‘s Eve. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. 

GREGG:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, sir.

Up next:  He‘s been out of office almost a year.  Still, he just won this title, conservative of the year.  I love the way I said that.  Anyway, I love the way I said it.  Wait until you hear why he got this title and who he got it from. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.”

First up:  Those soldiers of the right over at “Human Events” magazine came out today with their conservative of the year award.  They gave it to the bathtub ring of the Bush administration himself, that residue of eight years that won‘t leave us, Dick Cheney. 

Here‘s neocon John Bolton, George W. Bush‘s U.N. ambassador, explaining the pick—quote—“Cheney‘s quiet, inner-directed motivation is simply impervious to the attacks orchestrated against him by the Chicago machine style politicians at the White House.  It‘s yet another important reason to have confidence that Cheney‘s solid policy analysis will yet prevail in the national political arena.”

Funny you should mention Chicago.  Cheney‘s solid policy analysis, as you call it, included exquisitely and quietly, as you put it, and inner-directedly, as you put it, running an office that ended up being prosecuted by the U.S. attorney based in Chicago—there‘s the Chicago connection—for five felony counts against Cheney‘s chief of staff, not exactly the Nobel Prize for Peace, is it? 

By the way, is breaking the law in the CIA leak case the current definition of conservative? 

Now for the “Big Number” tonight:  When it comes to paying out over health care reform, who‘s the tops?  Big pharma, P-H-A-R-M-A.  That‘s pharmacy.  How much have they spent, that lobbying organization, to lobby Congress on reform in just the first nine months of 2009? -- $199 million, the most any industry has ever spent on lobbying in a nine-month cycle.

Pharma lobbies with a record $199 million—tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Now to some wondrous news on the home front.  This weekend, La Salle College High School, my high school, won the Pennsylvania football championship.  They beat State College High up at Hershey in a real snowball that Vince Lombardi would have loved.  We‘re talking Pennsylvania, by the way, the home of a lot of kids from the coal mining areas, real deer hunter country, the home turf of Joe Paterno, JoePa, and Penn State. 

Now there in the trophy case for every freshman in my high school to see, along with those other Hall of Famers like Tom Gola and Paul Arizin, sits this year‘s best football team in Pennsylvania, La Salle College High School.  It‘s an all-boys Catholic high school out there on Cheltenham Avenue, a place where the team and the band and the fans know, because they have proven it again, that greatness requires greatness.

And now they brought it all home to their classmates and parents, all wrapped up—they there are—all wrapped up for Christmas, the Pennsylvania state championship for football in the big schools, La Salle High School. 

Up next:  Senator John McCain seems to be leading the charge against President Obama on health care, Iran, and global warming.  What is on this guy‘s agenda?  Is he just mad or what? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good day.  I‘m Tyler Mathisen with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Increasing investor confidence in the economy sent stocks a little bit higher today, the Dow Jones industrial average up 85 points.  It closed at 10414.  The S&P 500 gained 11 ½.  It finished at 1114, good day there.  And Nasdaq jumped about 26 points, tech stocks hot, ending up at 2237.

Both the S&P and Nasdaq finished at 14-month highs.  Their numbers show an increase in companies hiring temporary workers.  That may suggest that employers may soon begin to hire full-time permanent workers once again.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics says temp staffing increased 2.9 percent in November, and that‘s the largest jump in five years. 

On the other side, Ford Motor offering buyouts or retirement packages to all of its 41,000 hourly workers.  A Ford spokesperson says the automaker still has more workers than it needs, given current sales levels. 

And that‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Senator John McCain has seized on just about every opportunity to criticize President Obama and his Democrats.  He led the charge against the president‘s timetable in Afghanistan.  He criticized the decision to move Guantanamo detainees to a U.S. prison.  He bashed health care reform and does it again and again.  He slammed Al Franken for shutting down Joe Lieberman on the Senate floor the other day. 

And now the maverick-turned-Republican-loyalist has accused the president of being more partisan than, guess who, Bill Clinton. 

Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “FOX NEWS SUNDAY”)

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, “FOX NEWS SUNDAY”:  Has he been the president he promised when he ran against you? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  No, in this respect.  He said there would be a change in the climate in Washington. 

There‘s been a change.  It‘s more partisan.  It‘s more bitterly divided than it‘s been. 

WALLACE:  More partisan than Bill Clinton? 

MCCAIN:  Oh, in some ways, of course, yes.  At least under Hillarycare, they tried seriously to negotiate with Republicans.  There has been—there has been no effort that I know of that is—serious across-the-table negotiations, such as I have engaged in with Democrats and with other administrations. 

And that was the commitment that the president made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s called the alley-oop, by the way, by my friend Chris Wallace.  You put the ball right near the rim, and let the guy put—more partisan than Bill Clinton? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Yes, yes, yes. 

What is behind John McCain‘s transformation from maverick to de facto leader of his own party?  Eugene Robinson is “Washington Post” columnist and MSNBC political analyst.  And Pat Buchanan is of course an MSNBC political analyst.

Pat, let me ask you about—other people have lost presidential hopes.  Like, of course, the great Bob Taft almost was president a couple of times, and then he became sort of the spiritual leader, Mr. Republican. 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that what John McCain‘s up to right now, to become Mr.

Republican? 

BUCHANAN:  You know, I think McCain has this point, Chris.  He was a bipartisan vote.  He had the gang of 14.  You would have seven Republicans, seven Democrats.  Even on health—even immigration reform, which I was against, he had a lot of Republicans with him. 

I think the Democrats have so structured this thing, that they have got every single Republican against him, certainly in the House on the stimulus package and health care.  And, in the Senate, they don‘t even have Olympia Snowe. 

I think they—if you will, McCain‘s got a point.  He‘s been driven away from the idea of bipartisanship.  Is he supposed to go out there and stand alone?  I mean, look, Joe Lieberman stood alone.  Did you guys call him a maverick? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s one side of the point. 

You know, Pat, you do it well, but it is one side.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Gene, another side, please? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, another...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s turn the pillow over to the cold side. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Where shall I begin?

First of all, there used to be more than perhaps two moderate Republicans in the Senate.  There used to be enough to make a Gang of 14.  There‘s just not enough anymore.  To lay all this at the feet of The democrats is, I think, absurd, given the fact that the Republicans have basically decided to say no.  Just no, no, no. 

MATTHEWS:  All politics is local, which oftentimes tends to be true.  Could it be that John McCain, as good a man as he is, and a patriot, as he clearly as, has served this country in a million ways—let‘s talk politics now that I‘ve done that prelude.  He‘s facing what looks to be perhaps a right wing challenge at home in Arizona.  He doesn‘t have to worry about the general election in Arizona for the rest of his career.  He only has to worry about somebody from a wing, from a wing, from the right wing out there challenging him.  Isn‘t what‘s his name, J.D., going after him?  The radio guy? 

BUCHANAN:  A buddy of mine. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re smiling.  Who are you going to vote for in that race?  Who would you be for? 

BUCHANAN:  I would vote for the guy who is a good friend of mine, J.D. Hayworth. 

MATTHEWS:  There‘s the issue.  You have now sized it up, without all that foreplay you gave me two minutes ago.  It‘s really about the fact that McCain has to fight off the right wing guy. 

BUCHANAN:  Is that a factor?  I would say certainly it‘s a factor there.  Chris, he is the leader of the Republican party.  He‘s its nominee.  He can‘t be up there, one guy—

MATTHEWS:  Why is he jumping into the fight, like you would do, jumping in on the side of Lieberman is this little intramural fight with Al Franken? 

BUCHANAN:  That was a terrible thing Al Franken did.  Chris, you don‘t do that, a young freshman senator gaveling down a senator. 

MATTHEWS:  He was under parliamentary orders.

BUCHANAN:  That insulted the guy. 

MATTHEWS:  They were under—the whole party was doing that.  The parliamentarian was whispering in his ear.  You know what goes on in the Senate. 

MATTHEWS:  I didn‘t see one guy stand up and say what Al Franken did was a nice thing to do. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s McCain and what he had to say about what happened. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  I have always taken every race that I‘m in seriously, no matter who‘s running against me.  But the fact is that I have gotten back in the arena.  I have fought for the things that I believe in. 

I believe the job of the loyal opposition is to work with the president and the Democrats where you can.  But where it‘s philosophically, fundamentally different, do everything you can to see that your point of view prevails. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I wonder if he hasn‘t changed.  He used to be the darling of the press corps.  Remember that, when he was taken off Bush. 

ROBINSON:  I‘m not going to say there‘s some—any sort of resentment, given that someone else was the darling of the press corps during last election. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you still on his Christmas Card list?  I think I‘m off it.  What do you think? 

ROBINSON:  I think I kind of am, too.  But look, are we really sitting here and predicting that John McCain, for any length of time, is going to be an orthodox anything?  I mean—

MATTHEWS:  You said something to somebody in the last few hours that It think is absolutely brilliant, as I often expect from you.  You said whatever he is now he‘ll change, because he‘s always changing. 

ROBINSON:  Yes, he does.  That‘s John McCain.  That‘s his history. 

Why do we expect it to be different? 

MATTHEWS:  Give me the side of the DNA of this guy politically.  What makes him every six months or so, the minute you think you‘ve got him down—always a maverick; the press loves him; he‘s not really conservative.  And then he says, well, I don‘t like what you‘re calling me. 

ROBINSON:  I think he‘s an iconoclast.  He does march to his own drummer.  But he also is—

MATTHEWS:  Is he out to screw with our heads?  Is that—

BUCHANAN:  No—

MATTHEWS:  Is that what he really likes to do, keep everybody guessing?  I like to do it, Pat. 

BUCHANAN:  You mentioned interest in Arizona.  Look at his political interest in 2000.  He had Bush, who had the right pretty much locked up.  And he‘s got the—

MATTHEWS:  They slimed him down in South Carolina. 

BUCHANAN:  He‘s got this huge constituency of press guys on the bus, who are adoring him.  He‘s playing to them.  Also, he doesn‘t like right wingers.  They‘ve given him a very bad time.  And he has a natural tendency to go get in fights with people.  He‘s a fighter. 

MATTHEWS:  Like somebody else I know. 

BUCHANAN:  Yeah, that‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  Merry Christmas, Pat. 

ROBINSON:  But wait until the—

MATTHEWS:  By the way, I was just at a wedding party this weekend, an engagement party with my family.  You‘ve got to have the strangest, strangest supporters out there.  I can‘t explain you.  I can‘t explain you.  Genial, but on the right.  Don‘t get wrong about this guy. 

ROBINSON:  He does have the strangest supporters.  You know, wait until something about the orthodox Republican party ticks him off. 

BUCHANAN:  Take a look at—if he wins the election, I bet he‘ll go for path to citizenship.  I bet he‘ll go to it.  

MATTHEWS:  So he‘ll switch back?  

BUCHANAN:  I think he‘ll switch back, because he‘ll have six years. 

That‘s what he believes. 

MATTHEWS:  What is he?  A maverick or is he a right winger? 

BUCHANAN:  I think he‘s an establishment Republican very much.  He‘s NAFTA, GAT, open borders, all that stuff. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘ve got the list.

BUCHANAN:  Look, ever time I‘ve got an issue that‘s really important to me, he‘s on the other side.  But now Obama—I think it‘s not Obama‘s fault.  I think he‘s tried to be bipartisan.  The Democrats have driven this party together.  They really have. 

MATTHEWS:  You think it‘s all the Democrats‘ fault?  It couldn‘t be Mitch McConnell?  It couldn‘t be the man behind the curtain, Mitch McConnell, who is leading the most obstructionist minority party we‘ve ever seen.  He won‘t even come on television and say something nice.  He just sits behind the curtain and holds things up. 

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  Pat, the Democrats in the Senate is going to be voting on Christmas Eve at 7:00 because of what?  The nice guy behavior by the Republicans or what, or obstructionism? 

BUCHANAN:  You say obstruction brings them in on Christmas eve.  But it‘s fine to gavel down Joe Lieberman when he wants only a minute. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s bring in the 92-year-old guys at 4:00 in the morning next time.  Thank you, let‘s bring them in in wagons.  Thank you. 

You guys are unbelievable.  You smile about it, but you‘re ruthless.  Pat Buchanan, Merry Christmas.  Gene Robinson, thank you.  You ever get a Pulitzer Prize out of this board?  You never got one, have you?

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  Up next, Democrats got the 60 votes they need for health care.  But some say still kill the bill.  What‘s that all about?  The politics fix, that‘s next.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back.  It‘s time for the politics fix, with the “Politico‘s” Jonathan Martin and the “New York Observer‘s” Steve Kornacki.  Steve, I‘ve always said to people—Jonathan as well—I‘ve always said to people, if you want to understand politics, don‘t watch the speeches; don‘t go to the conventions.  Watch that recount vote for five weeks back in 2000.  That‘s real politics, both sides playing their game with lawyers and tricks, and it doesn‘t look pretty.

This fight over health care, it seems to me, is another great example of how representative democracy actually works.  It‘s not pretty to watch.  It‘s messy.  I think it‘s pretty clean, in terms of it being on the surface.  But what do you think of what the American people are seeing?  One O‘clock this morning, 60 Democrats showed up on Capital Hill in Washington and voted party line against a Republican party that voted party line.  And that‘s how we‘re creating a brand new era of health care in this country, it looks like. 

STEVE KORNACKI, “THE NEW YORK OBSERVER”:  I think what the people are seeing is a question of what they see now and what they are going to see in—I don‘t know—two, three, four, five years.  The parallel I kind of draw, if you can remember, the start of Bill Clinton‘s presidency, all the way back in ‘93.  we talk about health care reform, but he actually had a budget that passed through, very contentious, strictly party line votes.  All of the House Republicans, all the Senate Republicans were against it.  Passed by a single Democratic vote.  The Democrats said then what the Democrats say now about this: we got it through; people are going to reward us for this.  Of course, they didn‘t.  It was a catastrophe in 1994.   

MATTHEWS:  What caused that downfall of the Democrats in ‘94?  I‘ve never been quite sure.  I thought it was real anger over health care, and the attempt by the Clintons and Hillary Clinton.  They just didn‘t like the looks of a closed door meeting.  They wouldn‘t even let doctors or nurses in the door.  It seemed arrogant and it seemed like best and brightest and people didn‘t like it.  What was your thought about why that happened in 1994?

KORNACKI:  I think a lot of factors.  It‘s just the reality of midterm elections that people are always sort of disappointed, because they don‘t see the president, who was elected two years ago, fulfilled their expectations.  And I think the Clinton budget example is important to me, in terms of bringing it up, because what happened was there was a lot of anger from that in 1994, and then it actually started to work.  And Wall Street‘s conference was restored.  Clinton was re-elected, and we had the roaring ‘90s. 

I think something similar might be setting up with health care now, where a lot of the stuff is not going to be implemented until 2013, 2014, something like that.  In the short term, it‘s going to be very easy to score political points against this, say this monstrosity has been forced upon us.  I wonder a few years from now, when it‘s implemented and people actually start to feel it, does it begin to change? 

MATTHEWS:  And, by the way, the implementation will probably occur after the next election for president. 

JONATHAN MARTIN, “THE POLITICO”:  Right.  But when you have to get 60 votes, Chris, the sausage make is never pretty.  There‘s a reason it‘s called sausage making.  When you come down to having one or two members that are the crucial vote, like you did then when Clinton was passing his budget, you have to really talk to them about, what do you need? 

MATTHEWS:  Make your point.  Here‘s a senator, appointed Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado, who was criticized because he didn‘t play squeaky wheel, because he didn‘t go out and complain enough to get some pork.  Here he is complaining about the complaint.  This is how bad it got. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D), COLORADO:  There was a report this morning criticizing me because the National Republican Campaign Committee was rejoicing that I didn‘t ask for special favors.  Only in Washington would someone be attacked for not negotiating a backroom deal.  And just because others choose to engage in the same tired Washington rituals doesn‘t mean that I have to. 

So I have a message for the columnists, the political professionals and those back home, I‘m not happy about the backroom deals.  I‘m not happy that the public option was held hostage by people in our own party.  I do not support rewarding delay with special deals.  I‘ll let others justify their vote and their tactics. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  How cynical are people?  Do people want their senator, no matter what they say, to grab the pork and run?  Do they? 

MARTIN:  Michael Bennett is taking one strategy, taking the high road strategy.  But Ben Nelson‘s not going to apologize for getting his state Medicaid basically for free, on the dime of the federal tax payer, in perpetuity.  

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to come back.  We‘ve got to continue this conversation.  Will anything change or is this just going to be as cynical as ever?  Jon, stay with us.  Steve, you‘re first when we come back.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Jonathan Martin and Steve Kornacki with more of the politics fix.  Steve, it seems to me now, if you look at where this thing heads between now and the State of the Union in late January, if you want the health care bill to pass, if you want 90 percent, or 70 percent, or whatever percent it is of what progressives or liberals want, in terms of making a national health care plan become a reality, you‘ve got to get 218 votes in the House.  It looks like they‘ve got 60 votes in the Senate, if you don‘t wiggle around too much here. 

Isn‘t Nancy Pelosi the most important person in the country for the next month? 

KORNACKI:  Sure.  I think, obviously—my expectation, and I think most people‘s expectation, is it‘s going to be ugly.  There is going to be a lot of noise from the left that this doesn‘t go far enough; we sacrificed too much.  There are going to be some defections, I think, who maybe didn‘t defect in the first one.  You see how these things go.  And there‘s going to be arm twisting, in the end. 

And I think the argument that is really going to carry the day, from Nancy Pelosi and the White House, with the progressives in the House, is going to be: do you want to be the one vote that takes down the Obama presidency, and do you want to take it down at the expense of what may not be perfect, but what is the most revolutionary reform to the health care system in 30 years?  From a historical standpoint, you could say it‘s outrageous that something this watered down—

MATTHEWS:  You‘re saying that.  That‘s your phrase, not mine.  That‘s your phrase.  Steve, that‘s your phrase.  I think you‘re wrong about watered down.

MARTIN:  How many progressives in the House are going to have the courage to cross over and vote against what is the most sweeping health care change in a generation?  I don‘t think very many are. 

Here‘s the other argument too: this is a foundation.  What the progressives are going to hear, this is a foundation.

MATTHEWS:  This is a start.   

MARTIN:  You can do more from here, but don‘t vote against a start.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it was helpful to the ‘64 Civil Rights Bill, which was really the founding document for civil rights in this country, to have the‘57 bill passed?  Did that hurt the chance of the ‘64 bill to be passed?  I would argue, even with the jury trial provision, which helped white juries to fight civil rights, it was still better to move forward.  By the way, Kennedy voted for that. 

KORNACKI:  You can look at Social Security.  You can look at Medicare.  You can look at civil rights.  You can look at every major progressive social advance in this country and it always started with something that was flawed.  And it always started with something that people said didn‘t go far enough.  I think you‘re right. 

MATTHEWS:  Steve, get on the bus.  Thank you, Jonathan Martin, Steve  Kornacki.  I love your paper.  I love your paper.  I love all papers, actually.  This is how we find out these things.  I love to pick up a newspaper in the morning. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz. 

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

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