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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING

The Last Word: Eric Cantor

Aired September 13, 2009 - 12:00   ET

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


KING: We'd like to welcome back our international viewers for this hour. I'm John King. This is "State of the Union."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING (voice-over): The president makes a passionate health care pitch.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not the first president to take up this cause, but I'm determined to be the last.

KING: Did he win over Americans worried his way would hurt more than it helped? And can he twist arms in Congress to get the vote? And eight years after 9/11, the war in Afghanistan drags on with leading Democrats now challenging their president's decision to send more troops. We'll go inside the White House strategy with press secretary Robert Gibbs. Plus perspective from three key Senate voices, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, and Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Dianne Feinstein of California.

KING: He's at odds with the president on health care, but an ally on Afghanistan. The House Minority Whip Republican Eric Cantor gets "The Last Word."

FORMER GOV. ANGUS KING, I-MAINE: Generally, what people in Maine vote for is what works.

KING: Then our "American Dispatch" from Portland, Maine. A state known for its breathtaking coastlines and its independent streak takes a leading role in the health care debate.

This is the "State of the Union" report for Sunday, September 13th.

We begin this Sunday with a man who holds one of the most high- profile and toughest jobs in Washington. Whether the question is about health care, Afghanistan, education, Iraq, or just about anything else that crosses the president's desk, the White House press secretary's job is to deliver the answer to the news media and to the American people. Every White House press secretary calls the president boss. Not everyone also gets to call the president a friend. Our guest this morning does.

Robert Gibbs, welcome.

GIBBS: John, thank you for having me. KING: I want to start with this picture. Here's the front of "The Washington Post" and it shows a picture from one of the tea party protests. This one here in Washington, D.C., outside the Capitol. Tens of thousands protest Obama initiatives and government spending.

I want to get to some of their concerns, because even though you disagree with most of them or think the president's plan doesn't do what they say it does, it is affecting the tone of the debate across the country.

Let's start with one, taxes. If you talk to these people at the rally, they say there's no way if he gets his way that the president can pay for this health care plan without raising taxes on everyday Americans.

GIBBS: Well, I would say two things. One, that's not true. The president outlined a plan to Congress on Wednesday that first cuts waste and inefficiency from Medicare and Medicaid dollars that are there are being spent on health care, but aren't making us safer or healthier.

And the revenue increase that the president has proposed is actually on insurance companies that offer gold-plated health care plans. One of the messages that I wish would get through, not just to any group that was out in front of Capitol yesterday, but certainly throughout America, this president passed the broadest tax cut in American history at the beginning of the year by funding his make work pay tax cut that he talked about in the campaign that puts money directly back into people's pockets to get this economy moving again.

KING: Another thing, they say, is, what do you do about illegal immigrants? And they say, yes, the plan wouldn't cover illegal immigrants, but they could still walk into an emergency room and get treatment. There's not much a president can do about that, is there?

GIBBS: Well, look, John, understand that in the law, if I lose my health insurance tomorrow and get hit by a bus, I can do the same thing. The same thing is true for you, whether you were born in this country or not.

But what the president stated clearly to Congress on Wednesday is was that our plan would not cover illegal immigrants and illegal immigrants would not have the ability to participate, even in a health care exchange. I think that's important. That doesn't mean we don't have to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, but it's not being dealt with in health care reform.

KING: Where do we go from here? The president gave his speech. It certainly boosted morale among the Democrats and it certainly now has the Democrats talking about the compromises you need to make within the Democratic family. It did not produce a line of Republicans saying, Mr. President, we're on board. The Senate Finance Committee will come out with its bill this week. The president expects the Senate to pass legislation when?

GIBBS: Well look, I think the president has a deadline of getting this done this year. I think it's an important development that Republicans and Democrats are working together on the Senate Finance Committee to get something out of that last of the five committees this week. And we think next, getting something through the House and something ultimately to the president's desk that meets his test of safety, stability, and security for the tens of millions that are fortunate enough to have health insurance, but still deal with details like being discriminated against by their insurance company, and ensuring those that don't have health care have a path through a tax credit, ironically, to get the type of security that they need for them and their families.

KING: It was quite telling, the first big meeting after the speech was with the centrist Democrats. The president had a bunch of them down to the White House, they came back to the Capitol after. One of them, Tom Carper, of Delaware was asked about the public option, which, as you know, as you know, is a big divide within the Democratic family. Do you need a robust public option? The votes aren't there in the Senate. Senator Carper says the president could do the math.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. THOMAS R. CARPER, D-DEL.: He's not going to ban the principle of competition, the need to keep the insurance companies honest. I think the way to get there something he's willing to negotiate on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Even the speaker of the House has gone away from saying, I cannot pass a bill without a public option to saying, it's just one of the things out there. Is that over with now? Is the president -- I know he couldn't do it in the speech, it was not the goal of the speech, but in the private meetings now is he like, I would like it as much as you would, but the math is not there, let's move on.

GIBBS: Well look, John, I think what the president talked about on Wednesday, and in this meeting with centrists, and he would tell this to any Democrat or any Republican, the goal of a public option as Senator Carper just said, is to provide choice and competition. It affects only those in the private insurance where the small group and small business markets. So hundreds of millions of people that get their insurance like you and I do through employers won't be affected by a public option. But what it does is for those people that have to enter that private insurance market and don't have a choice or some competition between those insurers bidding to cover them, that we ensure that that happens and that improves quality.

KING: You used to work on the Senate. On a scale of one to 10, 10 being he'll get it, one being he won't, you know the math here.

GIBBS: Well, but I think what's important here John is as the president said, he prefers the public option. However, he said what's most important is choice and competition. We're willing to work with Congress to ensure that when the president signs that piece of legislation, that somebody like my friend in Alabama who started a small business and had to enter a private insurance market that's dominated -- 89 percent of which is dominated by one insurance company, that when he goes to buy insurance for his family and small business that he has more than one option.

That's what's most important here. I think what the president said to both Democrats and Republicans, to Republicans, we need to have that choice and competition, two ideals that quite frankly they've always fought for. And for our Democratic friends, the public option is a means to an end, but it is not all of health care.

KING: I want to go through the evolution of the health care debate, including some of the president's language. For months in the campaign, the president said this and he has said it as president, that don't worry, if you have health insurance, you have nothing to fear. Let's listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Under the reform we're proposing, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: But critics, including in television advertisements, has said that the president cannot make that case, he cannot guarantee that because if you change the marketplace, some employers, even though the president might not like it, might look for some other plan to cover. And so in his speech Wednesday night, it was very noticeable that the president's language shifted somewhat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Nothing would require. He did not use the word "you can keep it" anymore. He can see that at that point that he hopes it stays that way, but he can't guarantee it.

GIBBS: Well, look, my doctor may retire tomorrow. He can't prevent my doctor from retiring.

KING: But he can't prevent my employer in a different marketplace looking for different options.

GIBBS: Well, what a lot of employers are facing right now are the high costs of health care which is causing them to have to drop their insurance and making that change for people. I think the misconception the president has always tried to address are opponents that say if this bill passes, somebody else is going to pick your doctor, somebody else is going to pick your plan, somebody else is going to decide for you what test you can and cannot get. All of those things are simply not true.

KING: All right, we're going to take a quick break with Robert Gibbs. When we come back, much more on the health care debate, more on the political tone here in Washington, and of course the president's plans overseas, talks with Iran, and the war in Afghanistan. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: The reforms -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

WILSON: You lie!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: "You lie," as you know, Robert Gibbs, was from Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina. He later apologized, called the White House chief of staff, but the Democratic leadership in the House says unless he apologizes to the House, that they will pass a resolution or consider a resolution to sanction him.

Does the president think that's a good idea?

GIBBS: Look, I'm going to let the House figure out how to deal with that. The president accepts, as I said, Joe Wilson's apology.

I think what's important, and the president has said this throughout the campaign and throughout his time in Washington, we ought to have debates, we ought to have passionate debates. That's what our history is predicated on.

But I think what we have to understand is, how can we disagree without being personally disagreeable with each other? I think it's a good lesson for my 6-year-old that's watching and I think anybody that's watching that we ought to be able to have a passionate public policy debate, defend our positions based on fact, which in this case, wasn't happening, but also do it in a way that respects all of...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Well, some Republicans say the president crossed the very line you're talking about in the speech. He mentioned that some prominent politicians and people on cable television have promoted the idea that health care has these so-called death panels, which the president, in his speech, said was not true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: If you pull out the dictionary, Robert Gibbs, the person who tells a lie is a liar. So does the president believe that Sarah Palin is a liar? She's one of the people that talks about the death panels?

GIBBS: I think that, for whatever reason, despite many media outlets saying that what former Governor Palin was saying wasn't true, she continued to say it. I'll let Webster define how one -- what one calls her. I think in the absence of fact...

KING: If it's not the truth, is she lying?

GIBBS: Well, in the absence of knowable fact, sometimes what happens is we fill the void with stuff that quite frankly isn't true. I think one of the great developments in the president's speech is he got to address directly the American people and the perception of what was out there and what was actually contained in the bill and it's obvious and true that there aren't death panels.

We're not going to cover illegal immigrants. We are going to pay for this bill. All of which were misconceptions out there and I'm glad the president got to address them.

KING: The debate has turned very partisan and some of the language has turned coarse. One of the things that caught my eye is on the night of the president's speech, the Republicans chose Charles Boustany, a doctor from Louisiana, to respond.

Even before he spoke, the Democratic National Committee, which is staffed by people mostly from the Obama campaign, they closely coordinate their message with the White House, they put out a press release saying, Congressman Boustany, is quote, "in the pocket of the health care and pharmaceutical industries."

In the pocket because he has taken more than $537,000 in campaign contributions from health care PACs in his roughly four-and-a-half years in Congress. Using the same database that the DNC used, we went back and looked at some prominent Democrats.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken more money than that. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, more than that. Chairman Charlie Rangel of the Ways and Means Committee, more than twice as much as Congressman Boustany. Chairman Henry Waxman, who wrote the health care bill in the House, more than Congressman Boustany.

Over in the Senate, the majority leader, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, and the Senate Budget Committee chairman, all Democrats, have taken more than Congressman Boustany.

By the Democratic National Committee's definition, are all those prominent Democrats in the pocket of the health care and pharmaceutical industries? GIBBS: Well, look, I think if you look at the record of many of the people that you put up there, they are people that have fought for low-cost drugs for our seniors. They're fighting for health care reform. I...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: That's not what the DNC release said. It used a number. It used a number. GIBBS: I think the best thing that we could do is bring Democrats and Republicans together to solve one of the biggest problems, one of the problems that we have faced for the longest period of time in Washington, is health care reform. I think...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Would it help, then -- would it help, then, if the party you controlled didn't say people were "in the pocket" based on their money?

GIBBS: I think if we had a debate about the facts, if we all got in a room and discussed the issue and the importance of health care reform, I've been struck that even as Republicans -- some Republicans have said they don't favor what the president is doing, they've certainly come back from their town hall meetings understanding that we have to do something.

They've heard from their constituents that, for far too long, our premiums have skyrocketed, we've dealt with insurance companies that have discriminated based on what they consider a pre-existing condition, and more and more small businesses are having to drop their coverage as a result of those costs.

I think what the American people want most of all, whether you're protesting in front of the Capitol or you're at the president's rally in Minnesota yesterday, is for Washington to put aside the game- playing and start to begin to solve the very big problems that our country faces.

I think that's what the majority of people want to do in Congress. I know that's what the president believes he was elected to do. And I think it would be a good start to deal with health care.

KING: Well, let me ask you a final question on this point on the tone of the debate. If you watch these tea party protests, some of the language is pretty tough and you see some of the banners that are pretty tough.

I'm going to show you one right here that I found particularly distasteful, "bury Obamacare with Kennedy." This was distributed yesterday here in Washington during this by an anti-abortion group, a Catholic group here.

If you pick up Maureen Dowd's column in The New York Times this morning, she goes through Congressman Wilson's statement, some of the other things, and she says in her -- she has come to the conclusion, quote: "Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it."

Does the president believe that some of these attacks are based on his race?

GIBBS: I don't think the president believes that people are upset because of the color of his skin. I think people are upset because on Monday we celebrate the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse that caused a financial catastrophe unlike anything we've ever seen.

We've had to do some extraordinary things, both this administration, the previous administration, to rescue the financial system, to ensure that our domestic auto industry didn't go out of business, and to stimulate the economy. That certainly cost a lot of money, but it's something that we had to do.

The president doesn't want to be somebody who runs auto companies or bails out banks. I do think -- I do think, again, this rhetoric often just gets way too hot. I think what we have to all do is take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember who we're here to represent: millions of Americans that have health insurance but are watching their premiums double.

Millions of Americans that don't have health insurance and are literally one doctor visit away, one thing from a doctor -- one diagnosis away from losing their house. That's what we have -- that's what that as to motivate us, that's what as to bring us to work every day, to find a solution to that.

I think if we have a debate that's based on fact and not based on hot rhetoric or what gets us on TV each and every day, my sense is that we can turn off some of the bright lights, get around a table not unlike this and actually solve a big problem for the American people.

I think that would be a big boost in confidence in our government, because we'd be addressing a problem that has been facing millions and millions of people for quite some time.

KING: On that point, we will call it day. I wish we had more time. But, Robert Gibbs, we'll have you back at another time.

And from the administration's point of view to the difficult choices and divides in the Congress, three senators known for their independent streaks who have key roles in both the health care and foreign policy debates: Republican Susan Collins and Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Jeanne Shaheen, next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Beautiful shot of the Capitol. Look at that blue sky on a Sunday here in Washington, mid-September.

Joining us now, three members who work in that building, three members of the United States Senate, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Susan Collins of Maine, and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California.

Welcome. Let's start with the health care debate.

And I'll start with you as the Republican at the table. The president gives a big speech. One of the goals is to bring Republicans on board. More likely or less likely after that speech to join the Democrats? COLLINS: Well, I don't know that the speech really changed the dynamic, but I was glad that the president has followed up with some individual meetings and bringing people together.

I believe all of us want to see a bipartisan bill. That, obviously, would be the best approach. But what's in the bill will determine whether...

(CROSSTALK)

COLLINS: ... it has bipartisan support.

KING: You have said, Senator Collins, you don't want a public option.

COLLINS: That's right.

KING: What about a trigger? Would that be acceptable, if you have, maybe, co-ops and you see if competition takes place, but there's a trigger in there; if two or three years down the road, that hasn't happened, then the public option kicks in. Is the trigger acceptable?

COLLINS: No. The problem with the trigger is it just delays the public option. Because the people who are going to be making the determination about whether the market's competitive enough want the public option. So I think the trigger is just a delay.

KING: Senator Shaheen, you were in the meeting with the president the other day, and this issue came up. You were a supporter of the public option. Did you tell the president, sir, we can't get it; it's time to move on, or do you want to fight for it?

SHAHEEN: I am a supporter of the public option. I think that's a reasonable way to go. But I think it's important to stay focused on what we're trying to accomplish. And the president pointed this out in his speech.

We want to get competition in the health insurance market. We want to make sure that people who can't afford health insurance are going to have an affordable option that they can use. We want to improve health outcomes for people. And we want to, long-term, lower the cost of health care.

So I think keeping our eye on what we're trying to accomplish, what our goals are, are what we need to do. There are a number of ways to get there, and we need to -- to keep focused on the goal.

KING: If we keep focused on the goal, though, Senator Feinstein -- you have been here before, and reporting when you go home, people are worried about how much this is going to cost. The president says $900 billion. He promises it won't add a dime to the deficit. He says he can squeeze from Medicare and Medicaid most of the money he needs.

Does the math add up to you? Have you seen enough details to convince you, yes, I can sign on to that math?

FEINSTEIN: Well, for the first time, yesterday, I met with Finance Committee staff and White House staff, and for the first time, did see some of these details. And, yes, I believe it is possible to put together a bill which does not adversely impact the deficit and may -- I say, may -- even reduce it over time.

Important to me is, one, that you have insurance reform, major insurance reform. And that's not easy to accomplish, but it can be; secondly, that you have the individual mandate in a way that it does not create another entitlement; thirdly, that you don't just simply push the costs on to the states. I have a huge state, unable to bear more cost.

And if you can do these things, I think we've got a very good chance to put together a bill. The key to the public option and the reason people want the public option is to keep costs down. There is more than one way to skin that cat.

And I think the Finance Committee is aware of it. And, for example, an idea that's been put forward is to have, instead of the walls around every state with respect to purchasing pools, extend those purchasing pools nationally, have federal standards and regulations that must be followed.

I think the health insurance industry, the nine big, public companies do not have antitrust. Only baseball and health insurance is outside of antitrust. And they don't have a strong moral compass. And so they've made huge profits, and premiums have doubled in the last eight years.

So I think how you reform that industry is key to the bill. And for the first time now, I believe that ideas are floating which can enable a very prudent bill to be on the floor of the Senate.

KING: Well, Senator Shaheen, let me come back to you. Senator Collins says she can't support even a trigger.

So does the president have to make a decision? If a moderate Republican voice like Senator Collins, who is known to try to deal with Democrats, who voted for the stimulus -- if she can't support a trigger, does the president -- has two choices, one, give it up, or two, do this with all Democrats. What should he do?

SHAHEEN: Well, first of all, I think that we're going to have a bill that has significant bipartisan input, regardless of how the votes come out.

The bill that came out of the health committee in the Senate had 167 Republican-sponsored amendments that were adopted. So there has been significant Republican input already into the legislation.

And, you know, I think -- I think we can do what Senator Collins would like to see us do, what others in the Senate have said they would like to see, with a bipartisan bill.

We can lower costs. We can improve health outcomes. Senator Collins and I have legislation that I think is going to get incorporated into the Finance Committee bill that would lower Medicare costs for people who are hospitalized.

We know that a number of them go back into the hospital within 90 days. We can reduce that number. We can save $5,000 per Medicare patient. We can make them healthier. And those are the kinds of improvements we want to get into any health care bill.

KING: I want to get up for a second and walk over to the wall here. Because, as we discussed the substance of the health care debate, I want to show you something that I found stunning about the politics of the health care debate. And I'm going to pop this graph up here.

This is our latest polling; "Approve or disapprove of the president's handling of health care policy?" And the number that jumps out at me is this one right here.

Senator Collins and Senator Shaheen especially; Senator Feinstein from California are from states with a great number of independents in them, in some cases, more than Democrats and Republicans.

Sixty-one percent of independents -- 61 percent -- now disapprove, Senator Collins, of the president's handling of the health care issue. Your state has more independents than it does Democrats or Republicans. How did the president lose all those Independents?

COLLINS: Because he did not initially focus on cost. That is the number one concern, as I talk to my constituents. They're concerned that we may be creating an expensive new entitlement program. They're worried about the amount of debt that we already have accumulated. They're worried about the expansion of government's role in the financial system and the automobile industry and now in health care.

They're very concerned that we're not dealing with the number one issue. And that is the escalating cost of health care.

Jeanne Shaheen just mentioned the bill that we joined on together. There are a lot of bills like that that could save billions of dollars in health care costs while improving quality. That should be our focus. We should focus on delivery reform.

KING: If that's the case, Senator Feinstein, and there's a credibility question out there with the American people, can we afford this, post-Katrina America, a lot of people just think the government can't do anything big and get it right, should the president do this incrementally? Maybe take this legislation, take other legislation, prove that you're bringing down costs and do this in pieces, or do you have to do it in one, big sweeping bill?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I tend to be an incrementalist when I look at huge programs. It's very difficult to remake one sixth of the American economy at a time of tremendous economic angst out there. So I think that's part of it.

KING: Why doesn't the president disagree with you?

FEINSTEIN: Well, but I think the way -- now, I'm talking about the Finance Committee bill because I actually think that's the bill that is going to matter greatly in the Senate. And they have Medicaid and Medicare jurisdiction. Medicare begins to run out of dollars in eight years.

So the entitlement issue that Susan mentioned is really a very important one. And I won't vote for a bill that creates a new entitlement. And we pay, this year, over one-half of all the dollars go just to entitlements -- Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, veterans' benefits. And they are going up.

If you add interest on the debt, you come up to about 56 percent of every dollar is spent that way. This, long-term, is a very, very unsustainable system. So we've got to make these reforms.

So the key is that cost curve -- not that it goes like this, but that it continues to go like that, in the out years.

FEINSTEIN: And that will be the test of the bill that the Finance Committee puts forward.

KING: I want to move to overseas issues facing the president. One of the biggest challenges is whether to send more troops into Afghanistan. We saw five Americans killed just this weekend. The death toll has been going up.

Among the leading Democratic voices on foreign policy is Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who says before he will agree or support sending in any more troops, he wants the president and the United States to do a better job getting the Afghans up to speed.

Let's listen to Senator Levin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEVIN: We should increase and accelerate our efforts to support the Afghan security forces in their efforts to become self-sufficient, delivering security to their nation before we consider whether to increase U.S. combat forces above the levels already planned for the next few months.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Senator Collins, you were there recently. You have been at the Pentagon to be briefed on the plan. My understanding is you've also had a conversation with Secretary Clinton recently about this issue. Is Senator Levin right? Do we need to do more to train the Afghans before, before sending another U.S. boot on the ground? COLLINS: Well, he's certainly right that we need to increase the size of the Afghan army. When I was in Afghanistan, I was appalled that one of the most dangerous sections in southern Afghanistan, we had 10,000 American Marines and only 800 Afghan troops. That's just not right.

So he's right that we need to build up the Afghan army, but I'm going to await the recommendations from General McChrystal, in whom I have a lot of confidence, before making a decision on troops.

I will tell you, having spent two days there just last month, that I just don't know that more troops is the answer. We clearly need more American civilians to help build up institutions. We need to grow the size of the Afghan army. But we're dealing with widespread corruption, a very difficult terrain, and I'm just wondering where this ends and how we'll know when we've succeeded.

KING: Well, Senator Feinstein, you're the chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence. To the question of where this ends, it is eight years after 9/11. We've paused and reflected on that just the other day. You see the things that we can't see, the intelligence. Are we winning in Afghanistan? Are we any closer to finding Osama bin Laden? And does the president have a clear strategy, in your view?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I can tell you this. A lot of the leadership has been taken out, of al Qaeda. I can say and I think you would agree that Afghanistan and the Pakistani border are still the safe haven -- major safe haven for terrorists in the world. And these are people who will, if they can, come after us, not necessarily the Taliban, but certainly al Qaeda and other affiliated groups. So we have to consider that.

We have about 60,000 troops there, another 8,000 are moving in with our allies, it about equals the force that is in Iraq. To the best of my knowledge, the president has had no request for additional troops up to this time. My view is that the mission has to be very clear. I don't believe...

KING: "Has to be" means it is not now?

FEINSTEIN: I believe it is not now. I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan. I believe it will remain a tribal entity. I do believe that clearing out al Qaeda, clearing out the Taliban is a bona fide part one of the mission.

I do agree that training Afghan troops, Afghan police is an important piece of the mission. I believe the mission should be time- limited, that there should be no, well, we'll let you know in a year- and-a-half, depending on how we do.

I think the Congress is entitled to know, after Iraq, exactly how long are we going to be in Afghanistan.

So there's the mission and the time. And from an intelligence point of view, I think gains have been made. I think the use of drones have been effective, in terms of targeting leadership with careful intelligence. I think that has been one of the unsung successes.

KING: All right. Senator Collins, Senator Feinstein, Senator Shaheen, you're all welcome back any time, right here, as the health care and other debates go forward. And we -- thanks for coming in today.

And up next, we'll hear from one of the most powerful Republicans in the House, Minority Whip Eric Cantor gets "The Last Word" next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: Twenty newsmakers, analysts, and reporters were out on the Sunday morning talk shows, but only one gets "The Last Word." That honor today goes to the House minority whip, Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia, joins us from Richmond.

Congressman, good to see you. I want to start this morning with health care. Senator Kent Conrad, the budget committee chairman, a Democrat in the Senate but more centrist in than the chairman you deal with over on the House side, says they're pretty close to a deal.

He says the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, has said it is deficit neutral, that it brings down the cost curve in health care in a satisfactory way, and it would cover about 94 percent of the American people, and it does not have a public option. Instead it has the so-called nonprofit co-ops.

If that's the framework that comes out of the Senate, could you support that, sir?

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), MINORITY WHIP: Well, John, you know, really, the devil is in the details because I think what we saw on Wednesday night was a president who was playing very hard to try and coalesce the majorities that he has in both the House and the Senate behind his vision for how the health care system should look in this country.

And the American people have reacted to that. And we see in the polling that you just indicated on the show that the independents in this country have rejected the Obama vision for health care.

And there's a reason for that, because, as Senator Collins said, first of all, the president has not addressed the cost issue. And if Senator Conrad is addressing the cost issue, then perhaps they're moving in the right direction.

But I think underlying the fear that we're seeing out across this country is the sense that somehow we're going to be replacing government decision-making for that of the individual and their doctor.

The president, I don't believe, went far enough to allay those fears and I think all of us remain very, very cautious about how we're moving forward.

KING: I want to ask you your definition of bipartisanship. Because I was over at the White House earlier this week and I was told by a senior official, you know, bipartisanship isn't 10 or 15 or 20 Republican votes, it's the fact that we reach out and we try to get some of their ideas in our legislation.

And Jeanne Shaheen, Democratic senator from New Hampshire, said almost the same exact thing a little earlier. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHAHEEN: I think that we're going to have a bill that has significant bipartisan input regardless of how the votes come out. The bill that came out of the health committee in the Senate had 167 Republican-sponsored amendments that were adopted.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: If they pass a bill without one Republican vote or with one or two, but it has some Republican ideas, that makes it bipartisan, right?

CANTOR: No, I don't agree with that at all. True bipartisanship I think is going to be supported by the majority of this country. And that's what health care reform needs to reflect. Health care is personal to every single family in America. The bill that they're talking about is probably the most transformative domestic bill we've seen in probably a half a century. We've got to get this right.

Again, I think that where the American people are is they want to see some guarantees. They want to see real guarantees that the decision making that they have with their doctor won't be taken away by the government. They want to really see that there won't be a situation where the private markets will evaporate and what you'll have is a government that can enforce some type of discrimination for whatever kind.

And thirdly I think we're going to have to guarantee the American people that we're not going to break the bank. And that means imposing significant taxes that will wreck the economy that's already having difficulty.

So, again, bipartisanship really reflects underlying agreement on the part of the majority of the American people and we are nowhere near that yet.

KING: Let me shift issues to another difficult question, that is Afghanistan. The president may have to send more troops, four Americans have been killed there weekend. It was striking to me this morning that Senator Feinstein not known as a liberal and not known as a dove on national security, a much more centrist Democratic, said the president has not clearly explained the mission and that she wants a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. You have been a supporter of the president on this one. Should we send more U.S. troops or is Senator Feinstein right?

CANTOR: John, the point that I think Senator Feinstein tried to make was that the mission has not been clear. In my mind, the mission is very clear as far as where we need to go in Afghanistan. When I was there several months ago, it became very evident that we need to focus on the fact that we cannot see that country or the territories over in that region of the world ever again return to be a base from which terrorist organizations can launch attacks against the United States or our allies. It's that straightforward.

Now, we have a lot of complicated factors there that now have come into play with the difficulties with the Karzai government, with the difficulties in the type of corruption we may see in that region. But at the end of the day, we have got to stay true to our mission to defend the American people. And because we are in such a global environment where the global terrorist organizations have state sponsors, we know that the Taliban and others can return to that region and have a stronghold and we cannot allow that to happen.

KING: All right, more with the House Republican whip, the Minority Whip Eric Cantor in just a moment. We've got to take a quick break. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're back with the House Republican Whip Eric Cantor. Congressman, your colleague Joe Wilson, Republican from South Carolina of "you lie" fame during the president's speech last Wednesday said he's done apologizing. He called the White House, he apologized, he wants to put this behind him. Democratic leaders say they may bring a resolution to the floor sanctioning him, voicing their disapproval, saying he violated the decorum of the House. What happens if that happens?

CANTOR: You know, listen, John, there's a bit of irony going on here. The president's mission Wednesday night was to come to the Hill and he really said put the bickering aside and let's try to get something done. You know what? If you look back to his inaugural address, I think it was said that he made a comment as if to say, we are a young nation still but it's time to set aside childish things.

At this point, Joe Wilson has apologized. Joe Wilson as late as this morning has been on national television saying that he would never do such a thing again. He was sorry. The president and the vice president have accepted his apology.

So let's go about the business that we are trying to get done, which is to affect real health care reform so that we can provide the type of quality and care that the American people have become accustomed to.

KING: Is there a question or at least what do you make of the focus of the tone of our debates? Because during the president's speech, there were many shots of you in the chamber. And I know you know this is a bit of a controversy, that might be too strong, but you're using your BlackBerry during the president speaking. And your hometown newspaper, "The Richmond Times-Dispatch" this morning wrote an editorial said "disrespect need not be intended to occur. The BlackBerry should have stayed in Cantor's pocket."

CANTOR: Well, I think the "Times-Dispatch" also indicated that if I had been writing my notes with the pen and paper that perhaps the criticism would be there as well. You know, I think the point really is to try and focus on what's important here. What's important is we've got to look to how we get this health care reform done right, not just get it done. And there are areas that we can agree.

We know we can agree on how to work with the preexisting condition problem. We know that we can agree on how to do something about losing your health care if you lose your job. We know that we can work on the issue of tort reform and getting the lawsuit abuse taken care of so the lawyers can get out of the examining rooms.

Those are the kinds of things we can work together on and I think deliver for the American people on. But again I think we ought to listen to what the president said initially, which is let's set aside childish things, let's try and focus on what's important.

KING: Let me ask you quickly in closing, we're almost out of time, but you were on this program four months ago, we came out to cover a town hall in Northern Virginia, the launch of your National Council for New America. You said that was the type of thing you wanted to do, these town halls all across America to help you in the health care debate, to help you in these other debates. That organization best I can tell has fallen off the planet. What happened?

CANTOR: Well, no, John, we actually a few weeks just had a Web- based forum, a health care policy forum where there were over 100,000 visitors to join the discussion with members of the NCNA like myself. My intention is so that we continue to reach out and talk to as many folks in this country that want to be engaged in this process. And as we've seen over this past weekend, hundreds of thousands of people spent their own money, took their own time to come to Washington to engage in the debate surrounding health care reform.

It's that personal. And I think what we need to do is we need to foster those type of conversations. It's a good thing in this country if people feel the desire and have the ability and take advantage of it to be a part of the debate.

And really, I think it's time for Congress to mimic that type of intention, if you will, and set aside the partisan bickering. Let's get down to business. Let's try to work on things that we can agree on. Let's try and get it right. Not just having gotten it done.

KING: House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, sir, thanks for your time today and we'll watch you as the debate comes back here to Washington. Take care, sir.

CANTOR: Thanks, John.

KING: And up next, we get out of Washington and head to Maine for a peek at the beautiful coastline and how the health care debate is playing in a state known for its independent streak.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: If you ask here in Washington for a list of Republican senators who might possibly help President Obama pass health care reform, two come from right here in the state of Maine. Susan Collins, on the program earlier, here colleague Olympia Snowe, she is on the Finance Committee.

Now they're very skeptical, but the White House thinks maybe it can get them in the end. Why is that? This is state known for its independent politics. And these senators often defy traditional labels.

Here is one of the reasons why. Look at this last year. Susan Collins gets 61 percent at a time the president is getting 58 percent in her state. Another evidence of Maine's independent streak, Ross Perot actually came in second in Maine back in 1992.

And we care about independents because they have dropped off in the health care debate, 61 percent now disapprove of how the president is handling the health care debate.

So in our "American Dispatch," we decided to head "down east," as they call it, to Maine, to look at its independent streak, track the health care debate, and yes, watch the unconventional thing we do with one of its big exports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good morning, Senator Snowe's office.

KING (voice-over): The calls start early. This one adamantly opposed to an expanded government role in health care.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I understand. We will get this right into the senator for you.

KING: Minutes later, a very different perspective.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. So you would like her to consider the -- to support the public option. All right. All right. Thank you for calling in.

KING: Senator Olympia Snowe is one of two Republican senators for Maine trying to carefully navigate the health care debate in Washington, and in a ruggedly beautiful state whose politics often defy traditional labels.

(on camera): What makes Maine's politics so interesting and at times unpredictable is the state's independent streak. Think of it this way, this pot, 10 lobsters is the state's electorate.

Over here to my left, we'll place three, a little more than three in 10 in Maine are registered as Democrats. Now to my right, we'll place -- it's actually a little shy of three in 10, are registered as Republicans, but we wouldn't want to break a lobster in half, would we?

What that leaves you is four in 10 in the middle, "unenrolled voters" Maine calls them, or independents, which is why you can have a state that gives Obama such a big victory, yet has two Republican senators.

ANGUS KING (I), FORMER MAINE GOVERNOR: I think it goes back into history and location, a little bit away from the rest of the country. A hundred years, the people who worked here and built Maine were independent-type people, farmers, fishermen, and they're about as independent as they get.

KING (voice-over): Angus King served two terms as Maine governor, beginning in 1995, elected as an independent.

A. KING: What people in Maine vote for is what works. I would call it pragmatists. They appear less interested in partisan labels than in just getting the problem solved.

And by the way, I think Maine is in some ways a future predictor of where the country is going. More and more people are easing away from the rabid attachment to the parties and they swing back and forth. That's where elections are decided.

JOE RAY, OWNER, FREE RANGE FISH & LOBSTER: Right now I'm a little confused about everything that's going on.

KING: Joe Ray's Portland seafood business is doing well. Restaurant orders are down, but overall sales up as more people eat in. Full-time employees here get health care even though Ray says it's expensive.

RAY: Keep good employees, you know? Get good people so you don't have to keep changing the flow of people that are coming in and out. It costs money to do that, too.

KING: Ray, a self-described fiscal conservative, says with a slow economy and record deficits, it is not the time for expensive health care changes.

RAY: You know, I have three children and I'm concerned about what's going to happen to them. Are they going to be carrying this bill forever? That's my biggest concern. I mean, I just think that right now he's out there spending, spending, spending. And I just hope that it helps the country.

KING: House meetings on the Internet were a staple of the Obama campaign and are back now as part of the health care push. A half dozen friends and neighbors came to watch the president's speech in Paul Hogan's house in Kennebunkport.

Not bad, but not the intensity of last year's campaign.

PAUL HOGAN, KENNEBUNKPORT RESIDENT: I think there are lots of people who will get involved every two years or every four years and will talk to their neighbors for elections.

I think it is much harder to get people involved in an issue.

KING: Still, the mood here was upbeat. These Obama supporters believe in their candidate, their president is finally taking charge of the fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has been rudderless because he hasn't been at the helm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now finally he's taking the helm and hopefully we'll get on course.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: We'll be here again next Sunday. We'll see you then, 9:00 a.m. Eastern, for the first and last word in Sunday talk. I'm John King in Washington, have a great Sunday.

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