Inching Toward A Deal On The Debt Ceiling

Guests

Ken Rudin, political editor, NPR
Gov. Haley Barbour, Republican from Mississippi
Sen. Kent Conrad, Democrat from North Dakota

The Senate's Gang of Six presented a compromise package to address the debt, complete with $3.7 trillion in cuts over the next decade. It won the praise of President Obama, and although Majority Leader Eric Cantor didn't endorse the plan, he called it "an improvement over previous discussions."

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Elizabeth Warren passed over, Rick Perry called, no deal on the deficit and Bachmann says the president's got a lot of nerve. It's Wednesday and time for a...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Chutzpah...

CONAN: Edition of the political junkie.

RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that add: Where's the beef?

BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

LLOYD BENTSON: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. Minnesota gets a deal everyone can be disappointed with, plenty of disappointment in D.C. as polls show that Republicans get most of the blame in the deficit debacle, but the president's numbers are down, too.

Veteran Democrat Dale Kildee will retire, but the Michigan seat could stay in the family, and the first returns from a Wisconsin recall election. Late in the program, we'll talk with Mississippi Governor, Haley Barbour, who flirted with a presidential bid earlier this year, and with Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, a card-carrying member of the Gang of Six.

But first, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. As usual, we begin with a trivia question.

KEN RUDIN: Hello, Neal. Okay, well, there's been a lot of speculation on which Massachusetts Democrat is going to throw their hat into the ring to take on Senator Scott Brown next year. We'll be talking about that in a little bit, with Elizabeth Warren news.

A lot of Democrats are said to be nervous taking on Brown, who has almost $10 million in the bank. And a lot of people are waiting to see what'll happen with John Kerry - Senator John Kerry, who is rumored to be a possible secretary of state in the second Obama term.

CONAN: There's a lot of ifs there.

RUDIN: A lot of ifs, a lot of ifs and a lot of talking by Ken. But anyway, so anyway, Kerry, as you know, was the - his party's presidential nominee in 2004.

CONAN: I remember that.

RUDIN: Yes, it was in all the papers. Which leads to this week's trivia question: Since the 17th Amendment to the Constitution came in 1911 - that's what called for direct election of senators - which senator served the most years in the Senate after he was defeated for president in the general election?

CONAN: So if you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, if you remembered all of that - we'll recap: Which senator served the most years in the United States Senate after being defeated for president in the general election? - give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. That's since 1917, or Ken Rudin's lifetime, whichever is longer.

Ken, actual votes - we always begin with actual votes when we can - actual votes cast yesterday in Wisconsin.

RUDIN: Yes, remember that's the one where nine state senators, six Republican and three Democratic, are up for recall elections. They got on the ballot. And yesterday was the first one. It involved - in other words, it didn't involve a primary. This was the actual vote for recall of a state senator. It was a Democrat, Dave Hansen, who won overwhelmingly, as expected.

The Republican who they put up against Hansen was - didn't raise any money, was questioned about his legal past and things like that. So it doesn't tell us too much. But there will be in August, August 6th - and I think it's the 9th and the 16th or something like that, sometime in August, sometime in 2011, there will be...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Sometime this millennium.

RUDIN: Exactly, the actual recalls of the state senators. And again, Democrats need a net gain of three to take control of the state Senate, which could upset all of Scott Walker's plans.

CONAN: And Governor Walker was talking not very positively about his chances.

RUDIN: Well, you know, the polls, his polls have plummeted. A lot of Democrats seem very energized in Wisconsin. So we'll see in Wisconsin. But of course if the Democrats do pick up those three seats, which is possible, that could change the whole political dynamic in the state.

CONAN: Well, let's move on, then, to the news about Elizabeth Warren that triggered this week's trivia question, the - well, should, might have been director of this new consumer protection agency, passed over for that job and, well, maybe now - well, certainly back at Harvard - but may be running for Senate.

RUDIN: Right. First of all, President Obama, you know, Elizabeth Warren is the one who created or set up this whole organization. He picked Richard Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general. They said that the Republicans would never support her to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But for all we know, the Republicans may not support Cordray, either. So some Democrats are upset that President Obama didn't fight for Elizabeth Warren. Anyway, Massachusetts Democrats seem to be very happy with that. She is - seems to be the choice of many, certainly Washington, D.C., Democrats, to run against Scott Brown next year, and she hasn't said what she's going to do, but she's certainly going back to Harvard, and she will give that considerable thought.

CONAN: And there are other Democrats in Massachusetts also mulling a run for that seat who are not necessarily happy with, suddenly, Elizabeth Warren getting so much of the attention.

RUDIN: Right, Setti Warren, who is the mayor of Newton; Alan Khazei, who's a fundraiser guy, an activist; Bob Massie. There are some Democrats already in the running, but the fact that Scott Brown has almost $10 million in the bank, Democrats feel that in an overwhelmingly Democratic state like Massachusetts, the least the party could do is put up somebody who has a national reputation, and Elizabeth Warren would bring that.

CONAN: A long-standing Democrat in the House of Representatives, Dale Kildee, announced that he will not run for re-election, announced his retirement from that seat of, what, of Flint, Michigan, right?

RUDIN: Flint, Michigan, right. He was first elected in 1976. He's retiring. He's 81 years old. It seems like Michigan Democrats have a monopoly on 81-, 80-year-old - they have John Dingell, who was first elected in 1955; John Conyers, elected in '64 also in their 80s.

But anyway, Dale Kildee's successor could be his nephew, Dan Kildee, who is a former local county treasurer. Either way, it should stay in the Democratic column.

CONAN: And there is other news about the House of Representatives, a new member from California.

RUDIN: Janice Hahn, who won the special election to replace Jane Harman, was sworn in yesterday. It's now 240 Republicans, 193 Democrats. But she may not be long for this world or at least the political world - her district may be merged with Henry Waxman in the new redistricting in California. So we don't know what her long-range plans are.

Still two vacant seats in the House, Anthony Weiner's in New York and Dean Heller in Nevada, both will be filled in September special elections.

CONAN: Heller went - elevated to the Senate, and Weiner, of course...

RUDIN: Elevated to obscurity.

CONAN: Disgrace, yeah, exactly. Maxine Waters, whose ethics had been challenged, may now be challenging the Ethics Committee.

RUDIN: She is. She - the charges were that she helped a bank in which her husband stood to gain financially, she helped it gain federal bailout money. And she said that apparently the House Ethics Committee lawyers spoke to the Republican staff members on the staff of Jo Bonner, the congressman from Alabama, who is now the chairman.

But last year, apparently the investigators were talking with him about the charges, which is against the rules, and she's saying that this is a conflict that's inappropriate, and the case should be dismissed.

CONAN: We have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question. Again, that is...

RUDIN: Could you remind me of the question because I'm so confused.

CONAN: So confused, the U.S. senator, who has served the longest time in the Senate, after losing a race president of the United States.

RUDIN: Who stayed in the Senate.

CONAN: Who lost the general election for president but stayed in the Senate, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Lynn(ph) is on the line from Jacksonville.

LYNN: Hi, my guess to your quiz is Ted Kennedy.

CONAN: Ted Kennedy of course a long-serving member of the United States Senate, but...

RUDIN: Who did run for president in 1980, but he was never his party's nominee.

CONAN: He did not lose in the general.

RUDIN: Right, he lost to Jimmy Carter for the nomination, didn't lose the general election.

LYNN: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Lynn. Let's go next to - this is Bob(ph), Bob with us from Sacramento.

BOB: Yeah, Barry Goldwater.

CONAN: Barry Goldwater did run for re-election to the Senate and was elected.

RUDIN: Well, he wasn't elected president. Barry Goldwater is a good guess, except when he ran for president in 1964, Goldwater could have opted to stay in the Senate, he could have run for both, but he decided to retire from the Senate in '64. He did come back in the Senate in '68 and served until he retired in 1980. I'm going on too long. But the point is he didn't stay in the Senate when he was defeated for president, he left the Senate.

BOB: Okay.

CONAN: All right, Bob, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Bob didn't sound convinced with my answer.

CONAN: No.

RUDIN: Neither did anybody else in this...

CONAN: I thought it was the one who served the longest in the Senate.

RUDIN: But he left the Senate.

CONAN: Yeah, but he came back and served in the Senate.

RUDIN: That's why I said who stayed in the Senate.

CONAN: Who stayed in the Senate, all right, all right.

RUDIN: I did say that.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph), John's with us from Buffalo.

JOHN: How about Alf Landon?

RUDIN: Well, Alf Landon, who ran - who was the governor of Kansas, who lost to FDR in 1936...

CONAN: Later starred in his own sitcom. That's right, called "Alf."

Yeah.

RUDIN: And the lord Alfs those that Alf themselves. Alf Landon was never a member of the Senate.

JOHN: Ah, sorry.

RUDIN: His daughter was, of course Nancy Landon Kassebaum.

CONAN: Thanks. Let's go next to Chad(ph). Chad's on the line from Tallahassee.

CHAD: Hubert Humphrey.

CONAN: Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

RUDIN: Well, when Huber Humphrey was elected - ran for president in 1968, he was no longer a senator. He was sitting vice president. He was vice president when he lost to Nixon in '68. Of course, he did come back...

CONAN: This is a trivia question with footnotes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Well, you know, it's like Roger Maris' homerun record, you know.

CONAN: It's got an asterisk.

RUDIN: It does, but anyway...

CONAN: It never did, by the way.

RUDIN: He was vice president in '68, came back in 1970 to win the Senate, but he wasn't senator when he lost.

CHAD: Okay, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Nobody's buying this at all.

CONAN: Nobody's buying it. I'm not buying it. John(ph), John's on the line from Charlottesville.

JOHN: Hey, my guess is Adlai Stevenson.

RUDIN: Well, Stevenson, who ran for president twice, in '52 and '56, lost to Ike, and Tina, President Eisenhower, but never served in the Senate.

CONAN: Thanks very much, John.

JOHN: Okay, thanks.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Tony(ph), Tony with us from Lake Water in South Carolina.

TONY: Yeah, how about everybody's favorite Dixiecrat, Strom Thurmond.

RUDIN: Well, Strom Thurmond did run for president in 1948, but at the time, he was governor of South Carolina. He wasn't a senator at the time. The question, if you can recall back then...

CONAN: We don't have time for that.

RUDIN: But it's not, it's not - he was not a senator when he ran for president.

TONY: Dang.

CONAN: Thank you very much, Tony. Let's go next to Curt(ph), and Curt with us from Redwood in California, Redwood City, I assume.

CURT: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

CURT: Yes, hi, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes.

CURT: Hi, George McGovern?

RUDIN: Thank goodness.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: The pearl of an answer, yes, George McGovern is the correct answer. He served eight years. He ran for president in '72, lost to Nixon, was defeated eight years later for re-election to the Senate. If John Kerry serves in the Senate one more year, he will tie that record.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, congratulations, Curt.

CURT: Great, thank you very much.

CONAN: Stay on the line. We will collect your particulars and mail you a Political Junkie official winner T-shirt in exchange for your promise to take a digital picture of yourself and email it to us so we can post it on our wall of shame.

CURT: I will certainly do that.

CONAN: All right, congratulations.

CURT: Thank you.

RUDIN: Am I off the hook...?

CONAN: You're off the hook for this now. I can't wait to read the email that you get on this one. In the meantime, we will be going on to discuss the big issues of the day, the rush up to the debt limit ceiling, again August 2 now less two weeks away. Our next guest will be Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, former national chairman of the Republican Party, and talk about the debt ceiling from his point of view.

Also talk about some members of the Republican presidential field. Haley Barbour was thought to be considering putting his name among them for the nomination for president this year. If you'd like to talk with Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, if you vote in Republican caucuses, about this year's presidential field, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday. Political junkie Ken Rudin is with us, as usual. You can find his latest blog post at npr.org/blogofthenation. No ScuttleButton puzzle this week. He promises a doozy for next week, though, so stay with us for that.

Thirteen days and counting until the federal government risks default unless the president and congressional leaders come up with and get enough votes to pass a deal to raise the debt limit. There's a renewed optimism for a plan coming from the Gang of Six in the Senate. More on that a bit later in the program.

We talked, on Monday, how a default might affect you and me. It will also reverberate through all levels of government. Governors across the country are trying to prepare their states, unclear what happens to them if the federal government does not increase the borrowing limit and runs low on cash.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, told Bloomberg News over the weekend that a default would shatter any economic recovery.

Governor MARTIN O'MALLEY: There's a very fragile jobs recovery that is happening in our country, and that jobs recovery can be wrecked in two ways. One is by needlessly plunging us into a default. The second way is with massive public-sector cuts that result in huge public-sector layoffs of teachers, fire and police.

CONAN: Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland with a partisan view of the undergoings in Washington, D.C. Joining us now on the phone from San Francisco is Republican Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Governor Barbour, always good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION. Governor

Governor HALEY BARBOUR: Hey, Neal, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And the National Governors Association summer meeting just wrapped up. What was the mood of you and your colleagues?

BARBOUR: It was very interesting. The mood wasn't bad. There is concern about the debt ceiling. I think virtually every governor there would say it is not good for the country, for the economy and therefore for any states if we have a default.

But a lot of other - a lot of governors will also tell you that if we don't do something about the underlying problem, if we just extend the debt ceiling like the president originally asked for, then that's terrible, too, because we've got to deal with the spending we have in this country.

Today, the government, the federal government, takes in about $6 billion a day on average. It spends about $10 billion a day on average. So a lot of people talk in terms of 42 percent of what we spend is borrowed, which is accurate. But what people need to focus on, we are spending two-thirds more than we're taking in. We are spending $10 for every six. So it's a two-thirds excess spending issue.

CONAN: We're now down to less than two weeks to go, though, before we hit this deadline. Is that kind of compressed timeframe the right moment to be deciding on these major questions? Isn't that what elections are about?

BARBOUR: Of course, we had an election, and the election was overwhelmingly won by the people who said raising taxes in a recession would be terrible. It was overwhelmingly won by people who said we don't have a one and a half trillion dollar deficit each year because we tax too little, it's because we spend too much.

However, the president is still in office, and he has a different view, and so...

CONAN: And there's still a Democratic majority in the Senate.

BARBOUR: So we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

CONAN: And we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So it's more important to get a deal, that is, well, does something. What about the grand bargain that we heard about from the president and the speaker of the House?

BARBOUR: As far as I can tell, the grand bargain from the president's side, never had any specific spending cuts. And the speaker was unable to get all of his members, or enough of his members, to support a grand bargain that had uncertainty about spending cuts and tax increases.

Myself, I ran the political office for Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan had to compromise on everything. And if you get enough in terms of spending reduction, if you do enough to control spending, then like Reagan, I would say okay, we'll hold our nose and take something reasonable about taxes, particularly in terms of the president's own deficit commission recommended, where you would lower rates but you would do away with deductions so that you would get a net revenue increase for lower rates.

Those kinds of things I - you know, I would take an old Reaganite. But I don't think Boehner could produce that, and I don't think the president ever was willing to get down to the specifics of what are we going to cut.

CONAN: Well, we'll talk about that a little more with Senator Conrad later in the program, when - that's along the lines of the Gang of Six proposal, as well.

But I want to get to other things, too, but this - if we do go into default, we've already heard from some of the ratings services that the ratings of the bonds for a number of states - six or seven states, including Virginia and Maryland - would be downgraded as well as the bonds from the United States.

This of course would have direct impact on the states. Is it not important that the federal government be able to back you guys up? Of course, you have to have a balanced budget by your constitution, and you do, but - and congratulations on that, by the way. But the federal government's a little different, isn't it?

BARBOUR: Well, of course it is. They have a printing press. Unfortunately, they've used it too much. But your point is will the state be negatively affected. Just as I said in my opening remark, if it's bad for the country and it's bad for the economy, it's going to be bad for states.

If states are issuing - and we typically issue bonds once a year, and if states are issuing during the time that the country's in default, and there's a - and it makes interest rates higher, obviously that's an adverse effect. For our existing bonds, I don't think it has any appreciable effect on state treasuries. It may have some effect on state reputations.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Governor Barbour, you were just talking before about how you worked with President Reagan, and you talked about compromise. And Neal just talked about ratings. Let me talk about another ratings, and the ratings I'm thinking of is November 2012.

The polls we've seen lately, it seems to me the Republicans in this whole battle here, the Republicans are taking the bigger hit. More people feel that the Republicans' inability to accept the thought of more - of taxes is just really hurting them with the public. Even a majority of Republicans say that the Republicans in Congress should be negotiating more.

And you also have threat if they do negotiate on taxes, you have the folks like Grover Norquist threatening primary challenges. My question is, my long-winded question is: Has the Republican Party boxed itself into a corner in that they're so absolute about taxes that they cannot break these pledges?

BARBOUR: You know, Ken, if you take your attitude, then you've got these Democrats that say we're not going to do anything about Social Security, we're not going to do anything about Medicare.

RUDIN: But the president was talking about making changes there.

BARBOUR: The president himself says Medicare is unsustainable. The actuary for Medicare says it's going to be bankrupt in 10 or 12 years. And so have the Democrats boxed themselves into a position that they're going to get that issue crammed down their throat in next year's election, when people realize hey, you better believe Medicare costs are going to go up because it's going to go bankrupt if these people don't get the political courage to do something about it.

RUDIN: But the president did...

BARBOUR: I mean, it cuts both ways is my point.

RUDIN: No, and I agree with you, but the president did say, to the horror of many progressive Democrats and liberal Democrats in Congress, the president did say that we will have to cut back, make cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Not every Democrat agrees with that.

BARBOUR: Those of us on the outside, we're looking forward to hearing what he means by that in detail. I hope that that turns out to be right because Medicare is unsustainable, and there's no argument about that. We've got to do something about it.

We can agree or disagree on what to do, but it's getting old for Democrats to say we're not doing anything, we're not changing anything.

Now, as far as the election is concerned, you know, Ken, usually when the incumbent's up for re-election, the election is about his record. And if Republicans can keep the election about President Obama's record, about his policies and the effects of those policies, Republicans are going to win the election.

CONAN: Which is - provides us with a perfect transition point to ask you: As you look around at the Republican field, again you had briefly considered being part of that field yourself and decided it against it in the end. But as you look around, who looks well-positioned to you?

BARBOUR: Well, most open nomination contents since I've been involved, and that goes back to 1968. In fact, our nomination contest looks more like Democratic presidential nominating contests often look: no real frontrunner, large field out of which comes in 1976 Jimmy Carter, who this time in that (unintelligible) had like one percent of the vote. 1988 comes Michael Dukakis, unknown to most people at this stage in 1987. 1992 Bill Clinton, who nobody gave a shadow of a chance at this point in 1992, in 1991.

Two out of three of them won.

CONAN: They were special circumstances, but every presidential election is a special circumstance, so I'll grant you that. Is there anybody who you would think about endorsing at this point?

BARBOUR: Well, at this point, I have not endorsed anybody. I don't have any current intention of endorsing anybody. In 2008, I never endorsed anybody for the nomination. So I don't feel like I have to, but I certainly don't feel any time pressure. The field is still growing, and so I don't have any intention of doing anything anytime soon.

CONAN: Well, we have some callers on the line, people who vote in Republican primaries who want to talk with you about some of the field. 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. Jerry is on the line from Cookeville in Tennessee.

JERRY: Hello. And first of all, I'd like to say thanks for taking my call, and it's an honor to speak with you, Governor Barbour.

BARBOUR: Well, thank you, sir, meeting my neighbor from Cookeville, Tennessee.

JERRY: Yes, sir. Anyway, all the stuff that's going on in this country today I find it quite amazing that Senator Reid hasn't put up a budget in two years, yet they blame the Republicans for not doing anything. But my question to you, Governor Barbour, is the way that things are working out right now, some people are talking about Governor Perry might get in, and that would kind of, you know, mix the field up somewhat. But in the event that, say, Michele Bachmann should win, do you think there's any chance that they might ask Senator Rubio from Florida, who I consider is one of the brightest young men I've seen come along in a long, long time. I think he would be not only a great vice president but a great president. And I would like to see him debate Joe Biden. That's if Joe Biden can stay awake.

BARBOUR: You know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARBOUR: ...let me say, Marco Rubio is extremely attractive as a person. He's got a wonderful life story. He is from a very important state, Florida, and he would have great appeal to Latino voters, Spanish-speaking voters, not only in our part of the country but all across the United States. There's a lot to recommend Marco Rubio as a running mate for somebody, but there are a lot of other good people, too.

CONAN: Rob Portman of another important state, Ohio, has been mentioned, too.

BARBOUR: Yeah. Rob's got a great record in government. He's from a very critical state, as you say. And they're - it will - talking about these two is not to say there aren't a lot of other really good people.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JERRY: You bet.

CONAN: We're talking with Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Of course, political junkie Ken Rudin is here with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken?

RUDIN: Governor, piggybacking a little bit off Jerry's question. He mentioned Rick Perry. The word on Rick Perry is that he's talking to a lot of donors whether there's enough time for him to get in the race. Do you believe there's enough time?

BARBOUR: Sure. I believe there's not only enough time right now. I believe six weeks from now there will be enough time. I just don't see the time pressure is here, Ken. The news media is dying for this nomination contest to start, but millions of Republican voters are very comfortable saying, well, let's see who all runs, let's take some time to get to know them better. I'm in no rush. If you look at the fundraising, you can see that in the first half of the year a lot of donors just sat on the sidelines because they want to - they feel like it's early. They want to know more. But the news media is acting like this is going to be - going to be decided next week, and, of course, it's not.

CONAN: Do you think that Newt Gingrich has undergone such damage to his campaign that he's now dropped into the lower tier of candidates?

BARBOUR: No. I think Newt has a following. A very bright, you know, somebody asked me one time, he said, well, you know, all his staff quit. Well, you know, in my 42 years of presidential politics, I've noted voters don't vote for the staff. You know, I used to - I've been on people's staff. Voters don't vote for the staff.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Eric. Eric calling us from Birmingham.

ERIC REMINGTON: Yes. Governor Barbour, pleasure to talk to you. I'm actually from Yazoo City originally.

BARBOUR: Are you really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REMINGTON: I am.

BARBOUR: What's your last name, Eric?

REMINGTON: Remington.

BARBOUR: You're not Hank's brother, are you?

REMINGTON: I'm Hank's son, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARBOUR: Oh, hey. OK. Sorry, y'all.

REMINGTON: Yeah. My...

BARBOUR: Small world.

REMINGTON: Yeah. It is. My question is I read a compelling article once that would - made the case for you being a vice presidential candidate. Do you think you would consider a run at that or going on - joining somebody's ticket there?

BARBOUR: Oh, Eric, that's flattering, but I don't see why anybody would pick the governor or any Republican will pick the governor of Mississippi for his running mate. If our candidate, he or she, doesn't carry Mississippi, they won't carry five states. We're talking about Marco Rubio or about Rob Portman. You know, they're two guys who could really might - could make the difference in very important states. And then, Rubio has the additional appeal to Spanish-speaking voters. You know, I just - I wouldn't advise my candidate for president to pick me.

REMINGTON: OK. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks.

BARBOUR: Thank you, Eric. Tell your folks, I...

RUDIN: I just want to add something that I think one of the reasons that George Bush picked Dick Cheney. He helped him win Wyoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And Joe Biden brought Delaware into the...

BARBOUR: Well, you know, it really is one of the times that it was very obvious that he did not pick him to be his political running mate but to pick him to be his partner in governance.

REMINGTON: Right.

CONAN: There's a difference. It's interesting, Rick Perry mentioned this week, I think, that he said he'd been called to be president - if he's vice president, you'd just get a text message?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARBOUR: Well, I've never been asked, so I wouldn't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It's interesting. As you look around, there's one issue that has come up in the past few days, and it seems to come up every time a woman runs for president. There are questions about her strength. And this has to do with the story about migraines and Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota. Is this a real issue? Should we be able to get past these issues?

BARBOUR: I don't think it's much of an issue. I mean, people have - all sorts of people have various and sundry health problems. You know, President Kennedy had a bad back. Obviously, President Roosevelt, one of the greatest of all presidents, was in a wheelchair, he had very serious health problems. What people - and it ought to be - all the cards ought to be on table face up. If somebody's got some kind of health problem, the country ought to know it. And then, voters will determine has that person been able to deal with it, has it had any adverse effect on their behavior or on their decision-making.

And I can't see anything in Michele Bachmann's career, including all of those foster children she and her husband so courageously took in over a period of years. I can't see any adverse effect, and that's the question here.

CONAN: Governor Barbour, you're welcome back anytime. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day.

BARBOUR: Thank you, Neal. Thanks, Ken.

CONAN: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour with us on the line from San Francisco. Ken Rudin is going to stay with us. You can never get too much Junkie. Up next, Senator Kent Conrad on his way to the White House to be talking about, well, what else? The debt ceiling. Stay with us. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Right now, Political Junkie Ken Rudin stays with us. And President Obama earlier today summoned top Democrats from the House and Senate to the White House. They're set to meet in just a few minutes, likely to discuss a plan from the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators working on a deal to reduce the deficit by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade. The president expressed initial support. At least one top Republican did, too. Senator Lamar Alexander says it gets his approval.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER: I mean, Senators Crapo, Coburn and Chambliss are three of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus, and if they study something for six months, tell me it's good for the country, that means a lot to me, so as one senator, I support it.

CONAN: Joining us now is Senator Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, the chair of the budget committee, and along with Mark Warner and Dick Durbin, the Democrats on the members of the Gang of Six. Senator Conrad, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Senator KENT CONRAD: Yes, sir. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And did you know in advance the president would approve your plan?

CONRAD: No.

CONAN: And are you pleased?

CONRAD: Absolutely. You know, I hope that more people when they've had a chance to examine it, will realize that while there may be specific elements that they don't like, there's specific elements I don't like. But at the end of the day, this is a compromise between the two sides, something we see too little of in this town, to address a major national challenge, and that is the debt threat confronting the country, something if we don't deal with it effectively is going to lead to a fiscal crisis.

None of us know when, but we know with assurance that it will. So, you know, to me, the options here are pretty clear. Either we find a way to come together and do something significant, or we're going to let this country drift right off a fiscal cliff.

CONAN: There's going to be parts of this plan that some Democrats are going to have a hard time swallowing. There are changes to, for example, some of Senator Kennedy's most treasured achievements.

CONRAD: Yes. That's true. The class act is eliminated under this proposal because over the long term it is not fiscally sound and virtually every objective observer who has examined that legislative act has concluded that that is the case. We've also got $500 billion of savings in the health care accounts over 10 years. I've asked people to remember that we're slated to spend well over $10 trillion in those accounts. So 500 billion sounds like a lot, but as a percentage of what's slated to be spent it's relatively modest.

So, you know, that's true in so many of these circumstances. There are things that are tough for Democrats to accept because they are very significant spending cuts in discretionary spending, as well as entitlement reform, but on the Republican side, there's revenue, and that's hard for them to accept. And, you know, at the end of the day, it's going to take doing things that all of us have a hard time accepting to meaningfully reduce the debt load on this country, which is now a comparison to our gross debt, 100 percent of the gross domestic product of the country, which virtually every economist has told us is unsustainable over time, will weaken our economic position, will reduce economic growth, will cost us jobs. And so this is something we've got to face up to.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Senator, you have a lot of things that are still standing in your way. You have to get language by August 2nd. You have the active opposition or at least the public opposition of Senator Reid, and you also have the House Republicans who are probably not going to go along with any kind of deal that calls for more taxes. How do you get past all that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONRAD: I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONRAD: What I do know is that six of us - three Democrats, three Republicans - representing a broad swath of the philosophical makeup of the United States Senate have found a way to come together. We briefed about 50 senators yesterday morning, and senator after senator stood up, Republican and Democrat, and said, count me in. We have had the chance to go brief - on the House side, we've had the chance to do a briefing last night for 79 senators' staffs and got a good response there. We've got lots more work to do. At the end of the day, people are going to have to decide, is it better to kick this can down the road or is it better for us to face up to this and swallow hard and do things we all know need to be done.

And by the way, I call this sort of the five percent solution, because it's about five percent more revenue than we otherwise have. It's about five percent less spending than we would otherwise have. So, you know, it isn't that draconian, but if we don't do it the results could be serious for the country in a way that's harsh and negative over time.

CONAN: There isn't a lot of time. All of this has to come quickly. And the legislation, as I understand it, would have to be drafted and presented in the House first.

CONRAD: Well, actually, not, because the way the Senate rules work, we could take a House vehicle, and we have two House vehicles that are sitting over here right now. We could take those vehicles and strip out what's in them. We could replace it with this plan or something that involves this plan and send it back to the House. So that's a hurdle we could deal with. We've already drafted this legislatively. We have a draft. It needs to be updated for the most recent decisions that have been made. It needs to be flyspecked, gone over very carefully. But we already have a legislative draft.

CONAN: And then it has to be scored and committees would want to hold hearings, no?

CONRAD: Oh, absolutely. You know, this contemplates a process over many months. It is not something that is designed to be completed in terms of the full action in a matter of days. This is designed to be done over many months, because after all, you're calling for a fundamental reform of the tax code of the United States. That's not going to happen in just a few days.

CONAN: Do you think that there's enough trust in Washington these days that the House of Representatives and the Senate would vote to raise the debt ceiling before August 2nd, on the promise that this legislation is going to through?

CONRAD: Well, probably only a short term extension of the debt before a chance for a full consideration. There's another possibility, of course, and that is that the committee, the special congressional committee that McConnell and Reid contemplate in their provision, might guarantee a vote for what we have proposed. So a lot of different options on the table.

CONAN: So the McConnell-Reid plan might still be in the mix?

CONRAD: Oh, yes. I think, certainly, it's in the mix. Two leaders have worked diligently on this plan. You know, as a I said, when Senator McConnell came out with this plan, a little hard for some of us to understand how we'd extend the debt limit not doing anything about the debt. Senator Reid has attempted to address that by calling for a special congressional committee of 12 members, given the responsibility to come up with the plan by the end of this year. And, of course, they could take the plan that the group of six has worked on and given assurance that there would be a vote on our plan by the end of the year.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Senator, this has been a very important issue for you, for your entire Senate career. I also know, you know, that you're not running for - seeking re-election next year. Not to write your political obituary yet, just yet...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...but how important is this to you? And how do you want to be remembered by for the kind of issue that you've been fighting for?

CONRAD: Well, I'd like to be remembered as somebody who saw a problem facing this country that's extremely serious and had the sufficient grit to take it on and try to find a way to avert a crisis that is clearly headed our way.

You know, there was a study that was done earlier this year, 200 years of economic history, 44 countries that concluded when countries get to a gross debt of more than 90 percent of their GDP - which is our where our country is today - their future economic prospects are significantly reduced. The future economic growth is reduced, job creation is reduced, economic opportunity is reduced. And that's what this is all about at the end of the day. What kind of future are our kids going to have, our grandchildren going to have? What kind of economic future is this country going to have and, you know, a country that gets debt levels too high limits it economic future and the economic future of the people that live there.

CONAN: Senator, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

CONRAD: You bet.

CONAN: Senator Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Budget Committee, of North Dakota, and one of the members of the Gang of Six. And, Kent, it's interesting. He's laying out, well, months - presumably by the end of the year is what the timeframe, might be something along those lines - to get this passed. Nobody thought you could get in through the next two weeks.

RUDIN: No. And as the senator says, he thinks there might have to be a short-term deal. And the president - apparently, President Obama has agreed to some kind of a short-term deal and there may just be McConnell-Reid for the interim part. But as you said, this is, you know, extremely important to him. It's always been important to him. And the key is whether you can get the Republicans in the House to come along because, apparently, he's getting some considerable support among Republicans in the Senate.

CONAN: And we had a long-winded trivia question that was hard to explain. McConnell-Reid, we're doing Junkie the whole hour. We could not explain it in the whole hour because it's pretty convoluted. But basically, it provides a way for the House and Senate to raise the debt limit and not vote for it. So that's basically it.

RUDIN: But there are real sacrifices and real compromises being made by the Gang of Six, that both sides are giving in more than they would like.

CONAN: And we'll have to see how that works out. Political Junkie, Ken Rudin, with us, as he is every Wednesday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And, Ken, it was interesting that while the Senate was taking up this Gang of Six proposal, it really overshadowed the vote yesterday in the House of Representatives on the cut, cap and balance. This is a bill that got only, as far as I know, well, Republican support and, well, it's dead on arrival in the United States Senate.

RUDIN: Well, yes. The vote was 234 to 190. It cuts - I mean, tremendous cuts in spending. It would, you know, all that said, but five Democrats did vote for it, nine Republicans voted against it, including, interesting enough, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. Michele Bachmann said it just didn't go far enough. So - but it really was on party lines. But I have a sense that, for the most part, this was a vote that they needed to have, because if the Republicans in the House are going to compromise and they may have to, these are the votes they need - somebody said - to get it out of your system, because it's not something they would like to do. But they want to go on the record saying, this is what our core principles are.

CONAN: So having voted for it, maybe now they can talk about something a little bit more towards the political center.

RUDIN: Maybe, right.

CONAN: Interesting, during the debate, the Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz took to the floor and ripped the GOP's cut, cap and balance bill and did not spare her fellow Floridian, Congressman Allen West.

Representative DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Incredulously, the gentleman from Florida who represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries as do I is supportive of this plan that would increase costs for Medicare beneficiaries, unbelievable from a member from South Florida.

CONAN: And today, well, Congressman West seems to have taken that personally.

RUDIN: Yeah, well, he does. I mean, first of all, we should point out that Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the chair of the Democratic National Committee and a lot of what she says is political by nature. But, again, he really went on a tirade against her and called her vile and all these things...

CONAN: Despicable?

RUDIN: ...despicable and vile. It was just...

CONAN: Cowardly.

RUDIN: It's got ugly. First of all, you don't mess around with Allen West and you don't mess around with Debbie Wasserman Schultz. So this is, I think, a little skirmish that will continue.

CONAN: Speaking of Florida, another South Florida lawmaker, Senator Marco Rubio told "Fox News Sunday," the president is not carrying any weight in this debate.

Senator MARCO RUBIO: So where's the president's plan? I've never seen a piece of paper with the president's name on it that's his plan to solve this problem. I've seen press conferences. I've seen lectures that he's given to the Congress. I've seen these press avails where the camera comes in and takes a bunch of pictures. I haven't seen a plan. Where is the president's plan?

CONAN: And that's what Governor Barbour was saying earlier today, too, light on specifics.

RUDIN: Well, yes and no. I mean, look, first of all, this is the Political Junkie segment of TALK OF THE NATION, and by talking about - in political terms, if the president thought he was, perhaps, losing this argument - and, perhaps, there will be a cap plan coming from the White House - but my sense is that it seems like with the Democrat - with the Republicans losing the momentum, with more and more polls showing that the Republicans in the House...

CONAN: The president's numbers down too.

RUDIN: His numbers are down, too, and so are Nancy Pelosi's and the Democrats in the House, but no - none worst than the Republicans in the House. And I suspect that this is a political calculation, he seems to be just sitting back and waiting for Congress to do its thing. But in fairness to this argument, the president is not - I mean, some people will say that he is following more than leading, that it is the Kent Conrads, it is the Mitch McConnells of the world who are taking the bull by the horns and not the president of the United States.

CONAN: But speaking of the politics of it, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed his own plan. This is the McConnell-Reid plan, as it's known now, the delicate set up of arrangements where it's - boy, it's complicated. But anyway, that - but this - he - that would spare the Republican Party in the House of Representatives from having to vote to increase the debt limit. He told radio host, Laura Ingraham, it's a way to prevent default. Listen to him.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL: Default is no better an idea today than when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995, is that it destroys your brand, and it would give the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy. Look, he owns the economy. He's been in office almost three years now, and we refuse to let him entice us into co-ownership.

CONAN: Co-ownership of the economy that the - some Republicans apparently willing to go over the brink and hit - go over the - go through the debt ceiling and go into default. And this is bad politics.

RUDIN: Well, what Mr. McConnell is doing is certainly politics, because he just wants, basically, the Democrats to have vote on this and not the Republicans.

CONAN: Three times between now and election day.

RUDIN: Exactly right. And that's why what Senator Conrad was saying was so interesting because, in a word - the word like compromise - what you don't hear that much. I think Senator Barbour said the same thing, compromise is not a word you hear too much about in Washington.

And if this bill - if this Gang of Six proposal does come to pass, it may change the atmosphere in Washington and may give the public more confidence. Otherwise, you know, I don't know why there's not a call for a third party in this country. Because if Democrats or Republicans indicate that they can't do the job, then somebody is going to have to step forward and there may have to be another party. But until that happens...

CONAN: The Gang of Six's proposal is complicated. McConnell-McCain - McConnell-Reid is complicated. Getting a third party together between now and election day, that is complicated.

RUDIN: Well, than I should - may be it's time for me to repeat the trivia question because that was very easy to understand.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Right, by comparison. Ken Rudin will have another trivia question when he returns next Wednesday for another edition of the Political Junkie. Ken, as always, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, American cities face a lot of problems, from crumbling infrastructure to underemployment. We'll talk about American cities in the 21st century. Newark Mayor Cory Booker will be among our guests. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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