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Video: Cantor, Durbin forecast looming budget battle

updated 2/10/2013 12:58:22 PM ET 2013-02-10T17:58:22

DAVID GREGORY:

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And good Sunday morning. We're following the big weather story in the northeast as this weekend's huge winter storm blanketed the region from New York to Maine, as you know. New York City escaped the worst of it all. But more than three feet of snow fell on parts of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Powerful wind gusts, as well, cutting power and downing trees. Electrical power remains out in nearly 350,000 homes across the area this morning. So a lot of cleanup to do there.

Meanwhile, the political climate has our attention here in Washington as the president prepares to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night. As he begins his second term, we're being told he will return to his primary message of how to restore economic growth.

We're going to talk to both sides this morning. The number two Republican in the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and the assistant Democratic leader in the Senate, Dick Durbin. Joining me now, Leader Cantor, I want to begin with you. And welcome back to Meet the Press.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

It's a pleasure, David. Good morning.

DAVID GREGORY:

So there's so many areas that are contentious between Republicans in the White House right now. And chief among them is this "sequester" word, this dirty word in Washington. It means automatic spending cuts. $1.2 trillion over ten years could begin in a matter of weeks, with $85 billion in automatic cuts.

And here's the real question, to my mind, which is do you really want this, as a Republican leader? I mean look at the impact it would have in your state alone. The Associated Press wrote about this, this week. I'll put it up on the screen. "Sequestration," again, another word for "automatic spending cuts," "today a political football would cripple Virginia's economy if it happens. Proportionally, no state would suffer more than Virginia. The commonwealth would lose more than 130,000 jobs from defense cuts alone, more than any other state."

There's been some studies being done on this in the state. Not only is Virginia home to the Pentagon, the world's largest U.S. Navy base, in Norfolk, it's also a hub for Navy defense contractors, such as aircraft carrier built a Newport new ship building. Non-defense budget cuts would eliminate another 71,000-plus jobs in Virginia. So the impact, over 200,000 jobs, second only to California. You can't want this automatic spending cut to go forward.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

You know, clearly, this is not, David, the best way to go about trying to control spending. And we have demonstrated in the House for two separate occasions. One of the bills that we put across the floor that passed, I was the sponsor of, for exactly that reason. These are indiscriminate cuts. We can do a lot better. And what I hope to be able to hear from the president in the State of the Union is he wants to join us in trying to affect much smarter cuts in spending so that we don't have to have them.

DAVID GREGORY:

But that's what it's saying.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

And we don't have to have the impact that you discussed. But--

DAVID GREGORY:

Well, why not work with him on some short-term measure, which he's talking about, to delay this, find a different way to go about some of these cuts?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

You know, the problem is, David, every time you turn around, the answer is to raise taxes. And, you know, he just got his tax hike on the wealthy. And you can't, in this town, every three months, raise taxes. And again, every time, that's his response. And, you know, we've got a spending problem. Everybody knows it. The House has put forward an alternative plan. And there's been no response in any serious way from the Senate or the White House. And it's time we really got to do it.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. Well, listen to how the president responded to that in his Saturday address. He took on what the House plan is and really tried to put the pressure on Republicans over this whole business of the automatic spending cut. Here's what he said.

(Videotape)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right now, most Members of Congress - including many Republicans - don't think it's a good idea to put thousands of jobs at risk and do unnecessary damage to our economy. And yet the current Republican plan puts the burden of avoiding those cuts mainly on seniors and middle-class families. They would rather ask more from the vast majority of Americans and put our recovery at risk than close even a single tax loophole that benefits the wealthy.

(End videotape)

DAVID GREGORY:

Is the tax fight really over? Is there not even tax reform that's possible?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

So well, first of all, you know, the tax fight for the president means higher taxes, more revenue. Again, we can't be raising taxes every three months in this town, David. And the bottom line is we want tax reform, but we want to go plug those loopholes that the president talks about to bring down tax rates. Because we believe that's pro-growth, and we can get an economy growing again, let people who earn the money keep more of it. The President's not talking about that. What he's talking about is trying to raise more taxes for Washington to spend the money.

DAVID GREGORY:

So then how does this end? I mean, in the end, Republicans, from everybody I've talked to, they could live with this across-the-board cutting. It would hurt your state deeply, it would hurt the defense industry. But are you willing to just live with it?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

Well, here's what I hope will happen. You know, we have, in our alternative, several proposals that the president has actually come out in favor of. There are improvements to what's called The Medicare Provider tax, to get rid of the gimmick that states are playing. The president supports that.

And our plan says we have to bring federal employee pension benefits down in line with the market rates. Those are the kind of things that we're talking about as alternatives that make a lot more sense, that won't have the impact on the people who are out there working.

And, you know, the president, he's the one who proposed this sequester in the first place. So again, I'm questioning where this thing is going, because he's not moved in any serious way. But we remain anxiously waiting for him to come to the table to work with us to solve this problem.

DAVID GREGORY:

Bottom line, you could live with the sequester if it happens?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

I don't want to live with the sequester. I want reductions in spending that make sense. These indiscriminate reductions do not make sense. And we're going to hurt a lot of people. And it's up to the president, really, to act now.

DAVID GREGORY:

Let me talk about immigration. This is going to be a big focus. You gave a big speech this week where you talked about the future of the Republican Party. And to a lot of people listening, they heard a shift in position from you about-- how to deal with those illegal immigrants who are now in the country. Maybe they were the children of illegal immigrants. This is what you said on Tuesday.

(Videotape)

REP. ERIC CANTOR: One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents, and it is time to provide an opportunity for legal residents and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.

(End videotape)

DAVID GREGORY:

So the question is are you changing your position, are you moving to the middle, and are you willing to go all in to bring conservatives in the House to the table to support a pathway to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who are already here?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

David, it's been over ten years now where this problem has not been dealt with. And we've been unable to find any common ground. And what I said this week at The American Enterprise Institute was that I thought the best place to start was with children. You know, these are children who, due to no fault of their own, were brought here. And we do have a tradition in our country.

We're a country of immigrants. You know, I'm a second-generation American. My grandparents left the pogrom, the anti-Semitic pogrom from Russia to come here to realize a better life. In the same way, these children were taken, again, due to no fault of their own. It seems to me that's the best place to start. But--

DAVID GREGORY:

So you could support The Dream Act?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

I have put out a proposal. I don't know what The Dream Act, at this point, is. What I say is we've got a place I think all of us can come together, and that is for the kids. Now--

DAVID GREGORY:

Can you bring conservatives along to supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are here without having to first leave the country?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

There is a lot of movement right now in the House and the Senate on both sides of the aisle with folks having a lot of different ideas. I think--

DAVID GREGORY:

But yes or no to that question?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

I-- I--

DAVID GREGORY:

Because you could really do it. If you went all in, (CHUCKLE) you could bring along the right in the House, couldn't you?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

I think that a good place to start is with children. And listen, we've got-- you know, here's the difficulty in this issue, I think. And it is because we've got families who are here that become part of the fabric of our country, right? And we want to make sure that we're compassionate and sensitive to their plight. I mean these kids know no other place as home.

On the other hand, we are a country of laws. You know, we have a situation of border security that we've got to get straight. We have to secure our borders. And there is this balance that needs to take place. But the best place to begin, I think, is with the children. Let's go ahead and get that under our belt, put a win on the board, and so we can promise a better life for those kids who are here due to no fault of their own.

DAVID GREGORY:

Part of what you're talking about is re-branding the Republican Party. And that was, in part, what your speech was about. And there's a lot of ferment right now in the Republican Party. What's the right direction for the party to get back into power beyond controlling the House, but to win national elections?

A political team, on first read, had its own reality check for what you and other Republicans face. And I'll put it up on the screen. Talking about the challenge for the Republicans as they focus more on tone than policies. "Majority of Americans rejected some of the party's central principles, according to the exit polls from the November presidential election.

"For instance, 60% said income tax rates should either go up on all Americans, or those with incomes above $250,000. 59% said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 65% favored giving illegal immigrants a path to a legal status. It's rare to find politicians in Washington who believe their political beliefs cost them an election or a policy defeat. They almost always blame communication." Isn't this more than tone that's an issue? Isn't it more than re-branding? Isn't it some of the central beliefs in the Republican Party that have hurt it with the electorate?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

David, what I talked about this week at AEI was the need for us to connect our conservative principles with helping people and making their life work again. And I've talked about a man who is a dad here in the inner city of the District of Columbia who, all he wanted was to find a safe place for his kids to learn. He's got four kids.

And he discovered, after having fought with the local school system, The Opportunity Scholarship Program here in DC, something that Speaker Boehner has been an extraordinary champion on. And he realized the benefits of that. And now all of his kids have had an opportunity to start in that school. One is at The University of District of Columbia today.

I talked about working parents who are hourly wage earners who are having a tough time getting through the month right now. Those are the things that people-- that we've got to be concerned about. I don't think that Joseph Kelly, the dad here in The District of Columbia, cares one iota about re-branding the Republican or the Democratic Party.

I think what we care about, and what he cares about, is his kids. And that's where Washington really needs to remember is these are real problems. These people are having a tough time. And we ought to be about providing relief to those who don't have a job and those who do.

DAVID GREGORY:

But Leader--

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

And making their life work again.

DAVID GREGORY:

These core beliefs, I mean what you're talking about, as you admitted after your speech, is not really something that's going to be captured in new legislation. There are core beliefs of the Republican Party that the polls show were rejected by a national electorate that you want to try to recapture some of if you're going to get to become a national party.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

Not quite sure about legislation. We are going to have follow-up legislation to pretty much everything I spoke of this year. And that's the point. The point is we've got to be talking about helping folks. You know, I've got a constituent, she's 12 years old, her name is Katie. She was diagnosed with cancer at age one. I mean can you imagine? That is a parent's nightmare, the worst nightmare.

And the federal government's got a role in research, in basic medical research, trying to find cures for disease. We can work together on something like that. You know, we've got so many issues. We know, on the bigger macroeconomic issues, there's a real disagreement between us and the president. We ought to be making sure we manage down the debt and deficit. He doesn't share the commitment with us on that.

So okay, we're going to keep at it on that. But at the same time, you've got so many millions of Americans who feel that they have become an afterthought. My purpose in saying this is we have conservative principles that actually can work for their life again. And that's what we're going to be about promoting.

DAVID GREGORY:

And before you go, I want to ask you about the debate over drones as a key part of the President's national security policy. Why hasn't Congress passed any additional legislation to review drone policy, to really understand where there ought to be checks and balances in the time that's passed since the original authorization post-9-11 that gave the president the authority to have a kill list as the president works off of for drones?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

You know, I'm glad to hear that the administration has released the memo that is under discussion to intelligence commitments in both the House and the Senate. We're going to be about oversight and getting into examining that memo. But, you know, let's just say, suffice to say, I guess, David, is that, you know, we have a terrorist threat out there. Islamist extremists are out there still trying to kill Americans and go after what we stand for in this world.

And if we're going to continue to be the leading force for peace, prosperity and security in this world, we're going to have to have the tools necessary to do so. And I believe, just as in the prior administration, this administration, we can strike that balance to protect America, to employ technologies to do that, at the same time, upholding constitutional right.

DAVID GREGORY:

And you're not concerned about the current policy, even where it might target Americans who join the enemy?

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

Again, this is no different than the policy, perhaps, that was in place before. We'll find out about that in the oversight that we'll pursue.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. Leader Cantor, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

REP. ERIC CANTOR:

David, thanks.

DAVID GREGORY:

Coming up here, we're going to preview the President's State of the Union address. I'll talk with one of his closest allies in the Senate, as I mentioned, the assistant Democratic leader, Senator Dick Durbin. Plus, our political roundtable is here with reaction to Leader Cantor, as well as insights and analysis of all the politics behind the big issues: Gun control, immigration reform and more that the president will pursue in his second term.

Joining me, Democratic Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, Republican strategist Mike Murphy and the BBC's Katty Kay, as well as NBC's investigative correspondent, Michael Isikoff, who broke the exclusive this week that generated headlines about America's drone policy. It's all coming up after this short commercial break.

(COMMERCIAL OMITTED)

DAVID GREGORY:

It’s unofficial creed is "Rain, or shine, snow or sleet, we deliver your mail." But apparently The United States Postal Service was no match for Saturdays. This week, it announced that, starting in August, Saturday delivery will be no more. For many the decision to cut back to five days carries more symbolic consequences than practical.

In this information age of e-mails, tweets and text messages, what we affectionately call "snail mail" seems somewhat impractical. But the bigger question is this: Is the current model sustainable, even with the most recent change? While we increasingly live in a digital age, we still rely on the Postal Service's sprawling network that connects even the most remote areas of the country.

In fact, even FedEx relies on the Postal Service. 21% of its shipments are ultimately delivered by the mailmen. And if you take into consideration what it costs the consumer to mail a first class letter from Talkeetna, Alaska to Tallahassee, Florida, the U.S. Postal Service does it at the bargain price of less than 50 cents, while that same letter, if sent using a private carrier, would cost 50 to 100 times as much.

Nevertheless, the Postal Service handles 45 billion fewer pieces of mail today than just five years ago. After last year, suffering a nearly $16 billion shortfall, slashing Saturdays will only save The Post Office $2 billion and strip anywhere from 20 to 25,000 jobs from the payroll. (MUSIC) We'll be back here on Meet the Press to talk to Senator Dick Durbin and our political roundtable after this short commercial break.

(COMMERCIAL OMITTED)

DAVID GREGORY:

\We are back. We're going to speak to the assistant Democratic leader, Senator Dick Durbin, in just a moment. But I want to begin with our roundtable. Joining me here, Republican strategist, our friend, Mike Murphy, Democratic Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, NBC News national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, who of course broke the drone story this week, anchor of BBC World News America, Katty Kay, former speechwriter for President Bush and columnist for The Washington Post, Michael Gerson. Welcome to all of you.

So here we are. I wanted to get everyone to weigh in on this moment, the president and how he approaches the legislative end of his second term and his State of the Union address. And I thought The Washington Post summed it up well in the Fix column. This is how they wrote about it this week, capturing the moment.

"This time it's not about George W. Bush's impact, or an upcoming election, or recovering from major setbacks from the last one. Obama's trying to advance his most ambitious legislative agenda since his first year in office. And he's doing it on the heels of a reelection victory. The country just doubled down on Obama's agenda, which isn't something the president could have said even at his peak of popularity in early 2009." Mike Murphy, that's the backdrop. How do you see his approach?

MIKE MURPHY:

Well, I'm a critic of it. And I hope he changes it with the State of the Union for this reason: There's no doubt he won fair and square. He got 66 million votes. But 61 million people voted to fire him. And they're in about 230 Republican Congressional districts where those incumbents don't care about getting the e-mails from the president or Michelle, they don't care about speeches.

The President's got to do a "Nixon to China" move to get anything done. And that's good for the country to get something done. He's got to get out of the way on immigrant, quit wagging his finger, or the deal will blow up. And the Republicans, in the short term, have the politics to hunker down.

In the midterm election, some of those Senate races are in places where the President's unpopular. So the path he started on, which was, "I've got a very broad agenda, and I'm going to still keep a campaign style thing pressuring you," is not going to work with these guys. And that will result in gridlock for the country, which is horrible. If he does Nixon to China, he can have a historic stuff.

DAVID GREGORY:

Katty Kay, I guess the question is how much does he feel he has to do when he feels at the height of his confidence at the moment?

KATTY KAY:

Yeah, he's got this kind of fairly short window where he's just been reelected, it's his first State of the Union where he's not running for reelection. He can take that on board and decide he's going to try and push his agenda. But the window is short because, fairly soon, all of the members of the House are going to start thinking about those midterm elections.

If he wants to get big things done, he's going to have to get them done fairly soon. In 2012, he promised a fairer America. He raised taxes with the House, at the end of the year. And we'll see where inequality levels start to come down in America. But the big thing he's going to have to do is promise to get jobs for the country.

We're living in a world where robots are cheap and efficient and people are expensive and inefficient. And he's got to find a post-manufacturing America and lay out a plan for it where there is job growth. And that's the single biggest priority of his second.

DAVID GREGORY:

Well, and that's where the pivot's going to be, Mike Gerson. After the inaugural, this is part two, he wants to get back to economic growth.

MICHAEL GERSON:

Yeah, and I agree with that. I think that that's a smart part of the agenda. I'm not sure how much you get down with-- of that, though, with this outside game he's been pursuing. You're just constantly beating up on the Congress, a highly ideological inaugural address.

He has to make the choice in this speech, what I'm watching for, is whether he tries to continue that dynamic, which is highly polarized and doesn't get anything done, or whether he tries to break the dynamic. And on economic issues, I'm talking about long-term economic growth, you can't make that dynamic without talking in realistic ways about entitlement reform, realistic ways about tax reform that's just not progressivity, but actually, pro-growth tax reform. And that would be a huge concession for the president. He's going to have to do that in order to make this system work.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, we're hear from more around the table in just a couple of minutes. I want to bring in the assistant majority leader now of the Senate. And that is the Democrat from Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin. Senator, welcome back.

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Good to be with you.

DAVID GREGORY:

You just heard Leader Cantor a couple of minutes ago. And I want to get your take on how this standoff, this new standoff on fiscal matters ends over these automatic spending cuts. To hear the leader say, "We're not going to deal with anymore tax hikes," but that's what the president wants. He wants a different way of going about the spending cuts, and some way to find some additional revenue. How is it going to end?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

David, sequestration was designed as a budget threat, not as a budget strategy. And I think all of us understand, if it goes forward in less than three weeks, it's going to have a dramatic negative impact on many agencies, equally important, on the economy. So we need to come together.

What the President's proposing, for the rest of this year, at least, is that we deal with the sequester the same way we have the first two months: evenly split between revenue and cuts. I think that's a sensible approach. It's consistent with Simpson Bowles, which many Republicans say should be our standard. And it doesn't really impose a tax burden on middle income families.

DAVID GREGORY:

The president, a year ago in his State of the Union, laid out a kind of battle line in terms of how he would deal with Republicans. Here's what he said.

(Videotape)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.

(End videotape)

DAVID GREGORY:

But let me ask you what he has to show for that. One year later, we're back to lurching from crisis to crisis. You know, it's so absurd to people outside Washington who have to scratch their heads and say, "Wait a minute. Which is the White House that proposed these automatic spending cuts, and now they're saying it would be so awful." As Leon Panetta, the defense security, outgoing, saying it would hollow out the military and have grave reaction. I mean this is not how Washington is supposed to operate, is it?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

No, it's not. And let me explain. When the president proposed the sequester, it was as an incentive to those of us in Congress to work together on a bipartisan basis to solve these problems. It was supposed to be so awful that the super committee would finally reach a bipartisan agreement.

But because they completely rejected revenue, it's never happened. Now we've got through the fiscal cliff. We have imposed about, roughly $700 billion in new taxes on the wealthiest Americans over the next ten years. The president believes, and I agree, within tax reform, we can find additional savings over the next ten years. Use that to move toward deficit reduction and still keep this economy moving forward.

DAVID GREGORY:

So how do you-- gain this out? Again, I go back to what the president said a year ago, that he was going to fight obstruction with action. What is it that he has to show for that? The one piece of action he got a year later was increased revenues, which is what he campaigned on. What else does he have to show for it?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, I can tell you, we went through an election, David. Don't forget, (CHUCKLE) that was a pretty divisive time here in America when we made our choices. And the American people made a clear choice, I might say to Mr. Murphy. He did win fair and square. And I think his values and his policies he spoke to in the inaugural address were the same he took to the country.

So where are we today? There are positive signs. I listened to Eric Cantor. He's for The Dream Act. I introduced this 12 years ago. He's voted against it. Now he's for it. I believe he's for it. And that's progress. But I might say to him, for example, on immigration, we're moving on a bipartisan basis in the Senate. Senator McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake joining Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Michael Bennett and myself, in a group trying to come up with a bipartisan solution.

But it won't just apply to children. Eric Cantor's speech that he gave to The American Enterprise Institute, he quoted Emma Lazarus. And that great quotation that is found on The Statue of Liberty, it doesn't say, "I lift my lamp beside the golden door for children only." We have 11 million people in this country who need a pathway to citizenship. I hope that the Republicans in the House and Mr. Cantor will embrace that as part of immigration reform.

DAVID GREGORY:

And I want to get back to spending, but just continue that on that point, what I heard from him today was, "Look, we can get something along the lines of The Dream Act passed right away. And we may have to come back to this business of a pathway to citizenship for everybody else." But you think there's momentum on the Senate side to deal with everybody-- and deal with this pathway without illegal immigrants having to first go home?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Let me tell you this, David. The Dream Act means more to me than I can express. I met these young people. But they will tell you, "Yes, I want a future. But what about my mom and dad?" You know, they understand full well that these family structures are critically important to the future of America. In the Senate, we have a bipartisan goal of a pathway to citizenship, not stopping at The Dream Act, beginning with The Dream Act, and pushing forward.

DAVID GREGORY:

I want to get back to the automatic spending cuts and ask a fundamental question that I think Republican critics of this president are asking. Do you not concede that there is a spending problem in Washington? Even when it comes to the 50% cuts out of the sequester that are for the Defense Department. You have said in recent interviews you could live with those. You don't like the manner in which the cuts would be made, but you could live with those cutbacks to the Pentagon. So isn't there a spending problem here that must be addressed?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Absolutely. And I believe, as chairman of The Defense Appropriation Subcommittee in-- in the Senate, that we can save money, cut waste in the Pentagon, and not compromise our national security. But to do this in such a haphazard way over the remaining six or seven months is going to be unfair to the military and their families.

Think about this for a second. Cutting back on psychological counseling for the members of the military and their family during the remainder of this year, when we have this grievous problem of suicides in the military and readjustment when they come home from battle? We can't do that.

DAVID GREGORY:

But isn't there always a reason--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

Isn't there always a reason to spend the money in Washington?

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

Can't you always find a reason not to cut? Isn't this the Republican argument that, at least here, if worse comes to worse and the sequester passes, at least we'll get spending cuts, how else to force the President's hand?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

But listen. Do we really want to base our spending cuts on reducing medical research in America, on eliminating 70,000 children from Head Start, that early learning program that's so important? These things don't make sense. Let's sit down and do this in a thoughtful manner. And let's include revenue. We should have half of this as revenue from tax reform and the other half in spending cuts. And I support those spending cuts.

DAVID GREGORY:

Let me talk to you about the drone controversy and the debate in Washington. The Wall Street Journal, in its editorial on Thursday, wrote the following about sort of paybacks here and the hypocrisy argument. "You may recall that Mr. Obama and Eric Holder, before he became attorney general, denounced the Justice Department memos, the OLC memos, that explained why waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques were legal.

"Once he became attorney general, Mr. Holder ostentatiously made four of those memos public on April 16th of '09, along with plenty of moral preening about how the new administration had banned that sort of barbarism. Yes, this crowd doesn't arrest and interrogate suspected terrorists, it merely blows them away with missiles from the sky.

"Here's the political reality. This president, like the president before him, a Republican, they both believe that in the war on terror you should have strong executive power which includes the ability that Congress authorized for the president to independently kill people associated with al-Qaeda as he sees fit." Do you believe there should be a change in that authorization? Is that the debate we ought to have?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Let me tell you, David, two things. First, this president came to office. He's kept us safe with the best military in the world and the best intelligence agencies. And of course we know the fate of Osama bin Laden. And the same time, he's kept us out of further war. He understands that is something that shouldn't be done except in the most extreme circumstances.

He made it clear that he would prohibit torture. He wanted to close Guantanamo, and I supported it. But the rest of Congress did not. And now he's trying to come up with a legal architecture to deal with this new war on terrorism. I'm chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee in Judiciary. We're going to hold hearings to work on this element: How to mesh the constitutional principles and values with the new mode of war. It isn't just drones. It's a cyber war that is going on as we speak. It is a raging war between the United States and other countries that could be--

DAVID GREGORY:

But I--

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

--very damaging to us.

DAVID GREGORY:

But the fundamental question is: Do have a problem with the policy? Do you want to do, as a lawmaker? Will you do anything to change the policy? Or do you think Congress should have changed the law, in some fashion, to strip the use of drones against even American citizens who join the enemy?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Here's the balance we have to strike. The constitution said the American people will decide whether we go to war. The American people, through Congress, will vote on this.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

The question is: When it comes to drones, these remote strikes, or cyber security, are we at war? Is this an act of war? We're going to get into this constitutional question.

DAVID GREGORY:

Do you believe we're at war? Do you believe we're at war still?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

We are in a different kind of war. We're not sending troops. We're not sending manned bombers. And we're dealing with the enemy where we find them to keep America safe. We've got to strike a new constitutional balance with the challenges we face today.

DAVID GREGORY:

But I just want to pin you down. You don't believe the policy should be changed, do you?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, I can tell you the policy is really unfolding. Most of this has not been disclosed. I joined those other senators in writing a letter to the president asking for more detail. The policy's unfolding. But at least the president is engaged in this conversation to establish this legal architecture. That is a dramatic change from the past.

DAVID GREGORY:

Before you go, Senator, two quick ones. Should Senator Menendez, your colleague, who's facing questions from the ethics committee about dealing with some financial donors and other questions, should he retain his chairmanship?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Well, Senator Menendez has given us assurance that there is no substance to these charges. It's being looked at by the ethics committee. Of course I can't comment beyond that.

DAVID GREGORY:

What about Senator Hagel? Will he be confirmed or is there some discussion that he should pull back from this nomination and allow the president to nominate someone else?

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

I think Senator Hagel will be confirmed. And Republican senators have told me privately they are not going to initiate the first filibuster in history on a secretary of defense nominee. He's taken a lot of grief from members of his own political party, many of whom he served with in the Senate. At the end, I believe he's going to receive the necessary votes to be the next secretary of defense.

DAVID GREGORY:

Including the former vice president, Dick Cheney, who said that he was among those national security nominees who are, quote, "second rate choices by the president."

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

I'm not going to comment on Vice President Cheney's views of public service at this point.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. Senator Durbin, we will leave it there. Thank you very much for your views.

(OVERTALK)

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

Thank you.

DAVID GREGORY:

We're back now with the roundtable. Mayor Reed, we're going to get to drones in just a few minutes, even though we ended there. I want to pick up back on this politics now in Washington over these automatic spending cuts, and whether there's a spending problem. What's your reaction to what you heard?

MAYOR KASIM REED:

My sense is there is. But we have cut, the President's led $2.5 million in cuts, working with Republicans so far. I want to talk a bit about this notion of the president conceding, or him taking a more conciliatory tone. I don't agree with that. I mean I certainly believe he needs to reach out.

But the President spent his first term reaching out repeatedly, and he got the back of his hand from the Republicans at every turn, all the way up through the reelection. He won the election. So the notion that he should stay in Washington, not be out having a public conversation, I disagree with that. He stayed in Washington in the first term. And at the midterms, we got killed. He's going to be out talking to folks, and he's going to be inside of Washington.

MIKE MURPHY:

David--

MAYOR KASIM REED:

But he's cut $2.5 trillion. He's generated six million new jobs. And he's prepared to do more.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right. Why--

MAYOR KASIM REED:

That to go back when he was meeting with Mr. Boehner, they had a deal in 2011, right, that they likely would have loved during the most recent budget negotiations.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

Right. Well, let me bring in Mike Isikoff. Here's the issue. And the political pressure that's being brought to bear, you heard it from Senator Durbin, there's always a reason not to cut, because it's the worst kind of cut, right? So here's the calculus. And Politico writes about it on Friday for Republicans.

"Several polls released since November's election show Republicans would get the bulk of the blame if the so-called 'fiscal cliff' hit. If sequestration happens now, House Democrats say they'll have tangible proof that that GOP is a dysfunctional party that can't even tie its own shoelaces on something as essentially to its longstanding traditional as the Pentagon budget." Is that where the pressure is?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Yeah. I think the president clearly has the upper hand on the budget. Look, he won reelection. He won on the issues that he thought about and that were debated most heatedly. Revenues being a part of the equation for cutting the budget, the president won on that. So I think, you know, on that particular issue, he's got the upper hand. And it makes sense for him politically to hammer it strongly.

MICHAEL GERSON:

Well, I don't think that the deal being offered makes any sense for Republicans, because the deal that he's saying is: Give up spending cuts in trade for tax increases. Okay? There's literally no Republicans in the House or Senate that would support such a deal because of the preconditions of the sequester.

You know, I don't know if we end up there. I mean Republicans don't really remember how bad '96 was with the shutdown of the government, many of them. And the president can apply pain in cuts throughout districts across this country. He has a risk, though, as well, of an economic slowdown from these things. So I think that they may end up doing a three month extension, some kind of incremental reform on the European model, where we don't solve problems, we just kick them down the road. (LAUGHTER)

DAVID GREGORY:

But that-- I mean this is what-- you know--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

Mike, you're outside Washington now. I mean you tell anybody outside of Washington, "Well, here's how we'll solve this."

MIKE MURPHY:

Yeah.

DAVID GREGORY:

"We're going to wait a few months to solve this."

MIKE MURPHY:

We're designing a perfect incremental stall--

(OVERTALK) (LAUGHTER)

MIKE MURPHY:

--core competency is DC, which is why we wind up with sequesters running the country, because we can't. But the president has a problem here. He thinks the first step to flying a plane is to cut off one wing. He's not a candidate anymore. It's not about moving day to day polling numbers. Those Republicans are hunkered down. They can't care how unpopular they are, because in those 230 districts, they're pretty popular.

So the President's got a pretty simple choice. And the clock is running. Politics will take over everything in two years. The presidential primaries and everything else, and the midterm elections. If he wants to move now, it's got to be "Nixon to China." And there are seven magic words. If he would say this, he would unlock a lot of Republican votes. He'd have to fight his own party. But it's time for some of that. And those words are, "Change CPI and beneficiaries pay a little more."

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

MIKE MURPHY:

That's what we pay--

DAVID GREGORY:

That's for Medicare, that's for Social Security.

MIKE MURPHY:

That's the serious look at entitlements.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

MIKE MURPHY:

As the country needs.

DAVID GREGORY:

But Mayor--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

And they know how hard just the politics are on that. Plus the sense that the President's feeling, "Look, I don't have an opposition to trust in that if we move forward on something like that."

MAYOR KASIM REED:

The President's prepared to move. He showed, with Mr. Boehner, that he was prepared to do deals and then move. But he has to have a Republican Party that's really willing to dance with him. I know that. Now everybody's talking about sequestration and all of the needs for cuts and the rest. But we have a model in the U.K. where they have used this policy, and their growth in the U.K. Is about 1%.

KATTY KAY:

Yeah--

MAYOR KASIM REED:

So we're rushing to do something in the United States that is failing in Britain as we speak--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

Britain is well represented here by Katty Kay. So--

KATTY KAY:

(LAUGHTER) Yeah, and we are looking--

(OVERTALK)

KATTY KAY:

We are looking in Britain at the prospect of a triple dip recession, not only a double dip recession, a trip-- growth declined in America in the last quarter. What America need is investment in its future. The kinds of things that the sequester will cut are exactly the kind of things that are an investment in the future. R and D, education, infrastructure.

And what's more, it doesn't even tackle the long-term debt problem, because these cuts expire in ten years' time. So you have-- I mean of course America has to deal with entitlement reform. You've got to spend less on your health care. But this sequester is not the route to doing it.

DAVID GREGORY:

But--

KATTY KAY:

This sequester is--

DAVID GREGORY:

--can I ask?

KATTY KAY:

--killing growth.

DAVID GREGORY:

But Mike Gerson, can I ask you a question about-- you look at the flurry of activity here. Yes, he's going to have to deal with the budget in some fashion. They're moving forward on immigration reform and taking on the gun issue. This is where the outside gain may be helping the president, where he's got a real opportunity here. Even on guns, in a way that Bill Clinton didn't in the mid-'90s, where it was such a toxic issue.

MICHAEL GERSON:

Well, there may be issues where the outside gain helps. Unfortunately on immigration, it doesn't help at all. Right now, there are Republican partners like Senator Rubio that they don't need pressure, they actually need cover in their own party.

MIKE MURPHY:

Exactly.

MICHAEL GERSON:

And when he increases the pressure, he's actually empowering the critics, the conservative critics of immigration reform. So he's going to have to take an approach. If he wants to do that on the economy, which he's done, you know many times--

DAVID GREGORY:

Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON:

--and is likely to do in this speech, I hope he carves out immigration as an exception. Because that is both a huge need, a legacy issue for the president.

DAVID GREGORY:

Right.

MICHAEL GERSON:

It's a right issue for the country. And but it's going to require a legislative strategy of building coalitions, which he doesn't seem particularly interested in.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

But if he leads, Mike--

MIKE MURPHY:

Yeah.

DAVID GREGORY:

--he can face outright rejection--

(OVERTALK)

MIKE MURPHY:

He's got to make a choice. Is he still a candidate? And what he is about is making political victories. Because he can score on immigration, he can isolate the Republicans, he can blow up the deal, which is what will happen. Or, if he would get out of his bubble and pick up the phone and call some of these heroes like Rubio and McCain and Jeb Bush and others, who are doing this stuff on immigration, ask them what they need privately, they would ask him to go away.

(OVERTALK)

MIKE MURPHY:

Get out of the way, stop the finger pointing, stop the speeches, stop the politicization, and let them try to get a very hard thing done--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, quick point here.

MAYOR KASIM REED:

The president has certainly done that. He changed his speech in Nevada. He's done that. He's been listening to the Senate. And the only thing that he said is that he is definitely going to get a bill. So before we start calling other people heroes, all he said is he wants a bill. And he's backed up, just as you all said. And the Republicans continue to attack him on it.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, we're going to take a--

MIKE MURPHY:

It's going to take a bill that can pass. And he can ruin that.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, let me get a break in here. We're going to come back. I want to talk about drones. The president made the use of drones, of course, a cornerstone of national security policies. Is it time to rethink the rules? Should Americans be concerned? We get more from the roundtable on that right after this.

(COMMERCIAL)

(Videotape)

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. Some people regard death by drone as a necessary evil of our post-9/11 world, the way we have to do business against an enemy we can`t see, including, sometimes, Americans who have switched sides. Others see the use of drones by the United States as nothing more than execution by air, without due process, no court, no charges, no trial, and relatively little oversight. What`s beyond dispute is this -- drone attacks have become a huge weapon for this country. And this president has made unprecedented use of them.

NBC News has obtained a government document that lays out the legal argument to justify the president`s use of drones to kill al Qaeda suspects, including, in some cases, U.S. citizens.

Our national investigative correspondent, Michael Isikoff, broke the story and has our report.

(End videotape)

DAVID GREGORY:

Nightly News on Tuesday. We're back with our roundtable. And that document was obtained by our own investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, which spelled out the legal basis for even targeting Americans who join al-Qaeda. That's where the debate has been. But after all this happened this week, Mike, as you look forward, where is this debate actually going? What is the debate that we are actually having?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Well, it's-- it's a very difficult one, legally and morally and strategically. First of all, what was significant about the document that we reported on is it really did go beyond, in certain respects, what had been said publicly about what the legal foundations were for targeting Americans who are suspected of being operational leaders of al-Qaeda.

Attorney General Holder had given a speech last year in which he set out a three-point test for this. Number one, that the target is believed to be-- is going to pose an imminent threat of a violent attack. You read the memo, and you see there's a great elasticity to how that's defined. Imminent attack does not mean they have specific intelligence about an ongoing plot. It may only talk about recent activities and if that target hasn't renounced those activities, then it can be assumed. It's a broader definition of "imminence" than I think most people had realized.

The second part of the test is if capture is unfeasible. Well, what defines "Unfeasible?" And the memo talks about, "Well, if capture would pose an undue risk for U.S. personnel, that would be a factor in determining that it was unfeasible. These were issues that were not clearly spelled out by the administration beforehand. They use language that's very ill defined and open to broad interpretations. And I think that's why you're seeing so much attention to this issue.

DAVID GREGORY:

But it's still a question, Katty, as to whether lawmakers want to change the policy. Is the debate we're hearing, which John Brennan and everybody else is: Are you getting access to the documents, how much oversight is there? And before you respond, let me play John Brennan, who tried to clear some of the air about how difficult the process is that they go through.

(Videotape)

JOHN BRENNAN: I think there is a misimpression on the part of some American people who believe that we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there is no other alternative to taking actions that is going to mitigate that threat.

(End videotape)

KATTY KAY:

Well, members of Congress hate not being informed. But the downside of being informed is that you don't have some responsibility for the policy that's happening. We are now starting to have a discussion about the drone strikes and the benefits and otherwise of them to America's national security. I mean what struck me about those hearings, most of all, is we heard a lot about the legality or otherwise of striking American citizens, about how much information Congress was having or not having.

But we didn't hear-- what I'm hearing from national security is that there is a concern about that these drone strikes are not actually in America's long-term political interest in areas of the world like Pakistan and Yemen. We are turning large numbers of moderate Pakistanis, journalists, politicians, lawyers, doctors, the kind of people that shape policy in those countries, against us. Admiral Mullen, General McChrystal, have all expressed concerns that every time we have a drone that mis-hits somebody, kills civilians, we set back our strategy in those countries by months, if not years.

DAVID GREGORY:

That's the national security overseas. I guess, you know, Mayor Reed, there's also a question about where this goes. I mean I think that, ultimately, a lot of liberal critics are saying if this becomes more elastic, if this is unchecked, what are the limits to it? I mean look what's going on in Los Angeles, this pursuit of Chris Droner, who-- Dorner, excuse me, who is the officer there and the subject of this manhunt. You know, could we ultimately use drone technology to both, you know, track him and ultimately kill him if he's an imminent threat? Is that where it goes? And is that an appropriate use of it?

MAYOR KASIM REED:

I don't think it goes there if we prevent it from going there. The President's been very clear that he wants to create a structure that informs Congress appropriately. But we've got to remember, both President Bush and President Obama have kept this country safe.

And you know when you communicate with him personally, he takes nothing more seriously than being commander in chief. And he does not want to take a tool that saves American lives off the table. But he is open to having this conversation. He said it immediately and responded to Michael pretty quickly.

DAVID GREGORY:

But how open? I mean here's the bottom line.

MAYOR KASIM REED:

Yeah.

DAVID GREGORY:

As executives, a Republican and a Democrat believe the same thing, which is when you're fighting terror, the executive should have all the power. Because you know what? If something goes bad on your watch--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

--it's really bad.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Exactly. But the Obama people do have an incentive for trying to do something about this, to put some limits on it. And let me give you a statistic--

DAVID GREGORY:

Yeah.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

--that will illustrate that. You heard John Brennan's comment about it's only a last resort, it's very rarely that we do this. The total number of Americans who have been killed by drone strikes under President Obama is three. That happens to be exactly the same number of high value detainees who were waterboarded under President Bush.

And as we all know, waterboarding is-- and Michael will know this as well as anybody, is going to be part of the legacy of the Bush years. I don't think the Obama people want targeted killing of Americans to be very high up on the list of their legacy in national security policy--

(OVERTALK)

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

--which is why they have an incentive to try to figure out a way to do something about it.

MICHAEL GERSON:

There is an additional incentive here, as well, though. Because drones are central to the Obama approach on national security, precisely because they want to disengage from what they reared as messy counterinsurgency operations, like in Afghanistan. So what do you do when you disengage from counterinsurgency operations?

You have to step up counterterrorism operations, which is what drones do, and what they've done, in order just not to surrender this ground. So I think that the use of drones, expanded use of drones, is actually related to their broader strategy in (INAUDIBLE PHRASE).

DAVID GREGORY:

Let me go quickly around the table and something. I just want to save what little time I have left, moving away from drones to some of the hot political topics that we've got to around the table with. And Mike, I'll tee you up on these. There's three of them. Well get through what we can. Rubio, the savior, Christie and his weight, and Ashley Judd in the crosshairs. First of all, the question, and here Marco Rubio is on the cover of Time Magazine. Is he a savior of the party on immigration and the rest? He's giving a response to the State of the Union. He's pretty out front there as a leading voice for 2016.

MIKE MURPHY:

He's a huge Republican voice. And that's a good thing for the party. I'm a fan. I would say, though, if he's thinking of running for president, this is awful early.

DAVID GREGORY:

\Yeah, it does seem--

MIKE MURPHY:

It's way too early--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

And is this over-exposure?

MIKE MURPHY:

He should win this immigration fight. The best thing for the party, best thing for the country.

(OVERTALK)

MICHAEL GERSON:

And by the way, Rubio is not going to be focused on immigration in his response to the State of the Union. He's going to be talking about political philosophy, talking about how limited government helps the middle class. That would help him with conservatives, which I think is part of the goal here.

DAVID GREGORY:

Yeah. Katty Kay, here you have Chris Christie taking on his weight on his terms. Let me just show the pictures of him. On Letterman, he takes out the doughnut as he's being asked-- he said, "I'm the healthiest fat guy you know." He's taking this issue on. It would be an issue if he ran.

KATTY KAY:

Yeah, he jokes about it then. But he's also spoken about it much more seriously, about his efforts to try and lose weight, how much it's working, how much he identifies with other Americans. Clearly this is a huge problem for the country. People are dying, people-- the cost of health care because of obesity.

I'm not sure that joking and taking out a doughnut helps his cause and helps his presidential standing. His opinion poll ratings are incredibly high. He's shot back against Bush's former doctor, who said that he was sitting on a time bomb because of his weight issues. He's going to have to deal with it. I'm just not sure that dealing with a doughnut on Letterman is the way to do that.

DAVID GREGORY:

Mike Murphy, very quickly, Ashley Judd, is she a real threat down in Kentucky to Mitch McConnell, Carl Williams' group?

MIKE MURPHY:

Yeah.

DAVID GREGORY:

They're using that ad against her.

MIKE MURPHY:

Look, I think she could be-- first-time candidates have a lot of trouble. I worked for a Hollywood star, got elected Governor of California. (CHUCKLE) (UNINTEL) a lot of-- they can be very attractive. But I wouldn't bet against Mitch McConnell in the political knife fight in Kentucky.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. We're going to leave it there. And by the way, Mayor, for you to be here on your mom, Sylvia's birthday, that was a big deal. Happy birthday to her. And we'll be right back.

MAYOR KASIM REED:

Happy birthday, mom. (CHUCKLE)

(COMMERCIAL OMITTED)

DAVID GREGORY:

Thank you all for our terrific conversation. We cover a lot of ground. Quick programming note here, Tuesday night, big one here in Washington. I'll be joining Brian Williams and the rest of our political team for complete coverage of the President's State of the Union address. It's at 9:00 PM Eastern, 6:00 Pacific. And we hope that you'll join us. That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

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