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State of the Union Address; Spending Cuts?

Aired January 25, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Welcome to our special coverage tonight live from Capitol Hill where in just two hours the president of the United States delivers his State of the Union Address to the Congress and to the American people. It will be a very different speech this year. The Democratic president will be speaking in a House chamber now under Republican control and to a country that delivered what the president himself called an election shellacking just 12 weeks ago.

But tonight President Obama will outline a course he hopes will strengthen a fragile economic recovery, not to mention his own reelection prospects. He will acknowledge the ties and increase Republican power here in Washington, mandate a focus on deficit reduction. And we're told the president will call for a five-year freeze on federal spending.

But the president will also forcibly make the case for some new targeted spending. Investment is his preferred word and infrastructure and research and development. Most Republicans already have said no that there's no room for new spending and that a spending freeze isn't enough, that there must, must be deep budget cuts. We have a packed hour ahead with new details of the president's proposals and new drama as the Republicans answer with not one but two responses, exposing a new continuing Tea Party tensions with the GOP establishment.

Let's set the table with what you need to know right now. Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is with me here on Capitol Hill but first senior White House correspondent Ed Henry with the latest on the president's proposals and his goals -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, what's interesting to me is that senior aides are saying the president is going to use two very recent events, the midterm election as well as that Tucson shooting tragedy to try and grab the attention not just of the Congress but the entire nation. In the words of one top aide, the president's message is going to be quote, "lower the tone and raise your sights", the sights about the future that the president is going to have what aides says is very optimistic, sort of Ronald Reaganesque kind of tone to this speech.

He's going to note that Gabby Giffords is not in the chamber tonight and he's going to say look it's a good thing the Democrats and Republicans are sitting side by side tonight, but that the key is going to be what are you doing next week and the week after? Are you coming together on some of these big issues? And secondly in terms of the election he's going to say look, it's over, it's in the past, we got the message, now what are you going to do moving forward?

And so he's going to be talking a lot about the economy in that context and saying both sides need to come together on that, noting that Wall Street is doing pretty well right now. Corporate profits are up but at 9.4 percent unemployment this president realizes a lot of Americans are not feeling that bounce right now and that's why there's going to be some tough choices to fix this. You mentioned that five-year budget freeze. The president is going to say look these are tough choices and it's this generation's sputnik moment, John.

KING: Ed, stand by one second. I want to bring Dana Bash into the conversation. You hear Ed, the president acknowledging the new environment. From the official Republican response already we have a sense that essentially what he's going to say is don't believe what you just heard. We've heard this before.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh there's no question about it. Look, as much as this is a test for the president coming before a new Congress, this is a test for the new Congress and Republicans who now control the House especially, they're well aware of that. We saw that in the hours leading up to the speech tonight in that very House chamber where he is going to speak.

The Republicans passed a resolution saying we're going to keep our campaign promise to roll back spending to -- your president -- Mr. President back to 2008 levels and you mentioned the speech that we're going to see immediately afterward. It is from the House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. We did just get some new excerpts where he's going to make clear -- we've heard from Republicans over and over that investments as you mentioned, investments is really about new spending.

And he's going to saying look, 25 percent. That was the increase in domestic government agency since President Obama has been president, 84 percent if you include the stimulus. And as you mentioned he's going to say all of this new government spending was sold on us as investment but that didn't happen from his perspective and from Republicans' perspective because look at where the unemployment rate is right now.

KING: And Ed Henry, the president comes here with the polls showing he's had a bit of a rebound since the election, but he has to know this is his moment, going into these, what will be a tough year ahead especially with the Republican House, that if he is going to get the upper hand and the early stage, if you will, tonight is his big chance.

HENRY: It really is. They realize this is the chance to grab the nation's attention on that very issue. And what he's going to try to lay out is, look, while it seems like there are big differences and there are the fact of the matter is that right after that midterm election we saw in December both sides come together on the tax deal, on repealing "don't ask, don't tell". He's going to try to build on that to say, look, there are going to be a lot of fights ahead because there's another election coming up.

But there's another narrow window here in the next few months to get some other big things done on cutting the deficit, for example. That's why he's going to call for that budget freeze. And he's going to sort of issue a challenge tonight to this Congress, to put some of those differences aside, at least work together for a few months before the elections pretty much take over -- John.

KING: Ed Henry at the White House. Thank you. Ed will be with us throughout our coverage tonight and Dana, before I let you go, a quick point on the atmospherics. Date night, prom night many have called it. It will look different on the floor but how long will that last, until the president leaves the chamber, when we get to the spending, the budget issues, back to the health care fight?

BASH: Or will it even not last while the president is in the chamber because yes, Republicans and Democrats are going to be sitting together, but it is hard to imagine that you won't still have Democrats standing up at the logical applause lines for their issues and Republicans sitting on their hands or maybe standing up for the logical applause lines on their side.

But, look, the reality is that it is going to feel different. Already I was in the chamber before coming over here. I saw the kind of typical members of Congress who sit there for hours and hours, who wait and hold their seats. Now they're doing it together. Eliot Engel of New York, Jean Schmidt of Ohio, they're sitting next to each other on the Republican side of the aisle.

KING: We'll see how that one plays out. Dana Bash, thank you. Dana will be with us all night too.

When the president speaks tonight, the most immediate sign of how much Washington has changed will be over his shoulder. The Republican John Boehner will be in the speaker's chair. The new Republican majority says cutting spending is by far its top mission and already there are signs some Republicans want to cut even more than their leadership. Among them is Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana who gave up a leadership post because he wanted the freedom to speak more freely and the freedom perhaps to consider a run for president. Congressman it's good to see you on this night.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), INDIANA: Thank you, John.

KING: You do not believe there's any room for new spending at this moment, correct?

PENCE: Well it's not just what I believe, John. I think the American people sent a deafening message on Election Day last November that they want a fundamental change of direction. They want us to end this era of borrowing and spending and bailouts and takeovers and turn this national government back into the direction of fiscal solvency and reform.

(CROSSTALK) KING: So what does the president have to do that he will call this a sputnik moment. He will say just like John Kennedy responded to the Soviets who were in space before us that if we don't invest in research and development, in new roads and bridges, in new science projects --

PENCE: Right.

KING: -- that we will fall behind China, behind India. Is that completely out of the realm or will you say, I will listen to you, Mr. President, if you show me first a lot of cuts.

PENCE: Well let me say we welcome the president of the United States to the House chamber today. He'll be given the respect that both he and his office are due, but, you know, I'm thinking back of the 1990s in the Clinton era when I think the word investment became a synonym for more federal spending. Not only are House Republicans onto that, John, I think the American people are on to that.

They know that we're running now multiple years in a row more than $1 trillion deficits, the kind of investment we should be encouraging is investment in America by Americans and by American businesses and, frankly, many of us are hoping tonight that the president will open the door to additional tax relief that will release some of those corporate profits, additional tax relief that will encourage investment by Americans in the city and on the farm in ways that will create jobs. Washington investment is not going to get this economy moving again. Getting the American people to invest and believe in their future again will.

KING: Tonight is in many ways the first act in a great new drama of divided government. And not only do you have how will the president and the new Republican House get along but you have in your own caucus in the House debates about the levels of cuts that should be necessary and you have seen this play out in recent days where I believe you are on the side of those saying the leadership so far is being too timid, needs to cut even more. You obviously only control the House of Representatives, so how far do you think the House needs to go, essentially for leverage when you get into the negotiations with a narrowly Democratic Senate and a Democratic president who won't do -- you won't get as much as you want and you know that.

PENCE: Well, look. I don't know that. I really believe that a minority in the Senate plus the American people equals a majority and House Republicans are determined to do two things. Number one, we're going to keep our promise to the American people. Our resolution today, we embraced $100 million in cuts this year. But as we move legislation forward in the coming weeks, you're going to see House Republicans say we can do more. We can -- we can find greater savings in every area of government. We're going to lay out both in a resolution, in the debt ceiling vote ultimately in our budget, as Paul Ryan will discuss tonight, a vision for really putting our nation back on a pathway toward fiscal solvency and that lodestar of a balanced federal budget. The American people know we have to do better. House Republicans are going to drive toward that and I believe with the American people on our side, anything is possible. KING: You mentioned the official response from Paul Ryan. Michele Bachmann will also give a response. It was originally set up as just to go to the Web site of the Tea Party Express. Now she has invited in cameras. And some see this as a little bit of a tug-of- war, little bit of a turf battle where the Tea Party Express still a bit suspicious of the Republican leadership of the Republican establishment. Do you share that suspicion and do you worry at all that it sends a mixed message to the American people about sort of who speaks to the Republican Party?

PENCE: I'm not worried at all about a mixed message. Paul Ryan is going do a terrific job tonight. He is a principled conservative and is going to present a winning and positive and substantive message and Michele Bachmann I know will do the same thing and look, the more voices we have in the public debate that are calling for fiscal responsibility and reform and putting our nation back on a pathway to growth, the better.

KING: You could be in a leadership position in this Congress. You decided not to run for reelection of that position to give yourself a little time to think, a little freedom to speak on issues like this, but also to decide whether you want to run for president or maybe for governor of Indiana. As you know, a number of conservatives have looked at some of the others thinking about running and they're not happy and they've started a "Draft Mike Pence" movement. Can you tell us tonight are you going to run for president?

PENCE: Nice try, John. Look, we're nearing the end of a process that began a couple of months ago and my little family and I are just trying to discern where we have the best opportunity to serve and to advance the conservative values that carried us into public life 10 years ago, but no decision tonight, but we'll keep you posted.

KING: You won't tell me whether you want to deliver a State of the State Address some night in Indianapolis or whether you'd like to give a State of the Union Address over there some night?

PENCE: I'll tell you some day.

KING: What's the biggest decision maker for you?

PENCE: Well the biggest decision maker for us is really where we can make the most difference for the values that carried us to public life. Look, you know, I was called into public service --


KING: -- hard for a House guy to win the presidency.

PENCE: I was called into public service to really stand for a set of principles. I've been very humbled by the encouragement we've received from people around Indiana and around the country to see some consistency in the way we've advocated the principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility, traditional values, and a strong defense. And what our little family is trying to discern with some help from some good counsel is where do we have the opportunity to really make a big difference for those values in the years ahead.

KING: Congressman Pence, hope you'll stay in touch as you make that decision. We're going to head to break now. Congressman Pence may be running for president in the next cycle.

When we come back, the man who was the president's opponent in the last election cycle, with divided government you have gridlock or compromise. Senator John McCain joins us next to talk about what he sees around the corner.


KING: One of the big questions as we head from here into divided government is will there be compromise or (INAUDIBLE) gridlock. One person who has voiced a willingness, a willingness to talk to the president, to cooperate with the president is the man who was his Republican opponent in the last election. In a moment we'll introduce who John McCain will be sitting with tonight at the State of the Union.

But let's start first with Senator McCain. And Senator McCain, let me start that if the -- if you're willing to reach out to the president and work with the president on some issues, when he says new investments tonight and that America has a sputnik moment and must make some new investments to be able to compete in the global economy, are you willing to say I'll work with you on that or is that just out of bounds until we get big spending cuts?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well first of all, John, we have to cut the spending and that was the message of the election of November the 2nd and so that really has to be our first priority. But if there are things that pure research and development that the federal government can do better than anyone else, that's how we got the Internet, then I would certainly support those.

But if it's an increase -- just increases in spending like the stimulus package was, which, as you know, they promised eight percent unemployment, still 9.4 percent, that kind of thing can't be acceptable. By the way, I'm glad that he's going to call for a ban on earmarks. I'm with him all the way on that. In fact, I'd like to work with him on an enhanced rescission, which is sort of a constitutional version of a line item veto and so there are areas that I think we can work on. I also would like to say we're very grateful that he's going to honor the families of the -- the victims of the tragedy in Tucson tonight. That means a lot to all of us all over the country, especially Arizona.

KING: Are there other issues? Let's say, for example, I would expect the president tonight I'm told to say that maybe we can bring back the DREAM Act, which would help illegal immigrants who came into this country at a very young age, if they join the military, if they're on the college track, that they could be granted a path to citizenship. You would not work with the president on that in the lame duck session. The White House would very much like your help. Can they get it? MCCAIN: If we secure the borders and we can secure the borders. We have not secured our borders. If we don't have secure borders, John, then five, 10, 15 years from now we're dealing with another group of young Americans who were brought here illegally by their parents. So it's foolish to move forward with something like the DREAM Act until we get the borders secured and we can. And with people and surveillance and with fences we can do it. And by the way, as you know there's been a colossal failure and a waste of about $1 billion on a thing called SBI Net (ph) support -- secure border initiative. It's disgraceful.

KING: It's an interesting night, Senator, as we wait to hear from the president. It's always a big night on Capitol Hill. What's interesting tonight is this post Tucson effort at civility and bipartisanship on the floor, so I'm going to let you have a unique role here and tell me as we introduce your date -- I'll use the term loosely -- tell me why, why and your date is sitting here with me, so be polite and then we'll bring him into the conversation.

MCCAIN: He's one of the nicest people that I have had the honor of knowing. He and his cousin and his uncle was -- Morris Udall was one of the most decent men that ever graced the halls of Congress. And both Udall's are carrying on in that tradition of his father, Stewart Udall, who was a great secretary of the interior and both of them happened to have grown up in Arizona, as you know.

KING: Tom Udall is with me and how can we get more than just appearances tonight, pictures of bipartisanship. On what issues can you maybe nudge, pull, prod your friend Senator McCain to say, look, you're maybe too far to the right for my view on this, but let's make common ground. How can we come back in six months and say this wasn't just for show, it was actually for progress?

SEN. TOM UDALL (D), NEW MEXICO: Well, one of the most important things I think is the symbolism to start with because we haven't done this in a very long time. We've been divided and we've seen the State of the Union speeches, and what ends up happening at those speeches, if it's a Democratic president, frequently the Democrats are jumping up and down and the Republicans sit on their hands.

And tonight we're going to be sitting with each other and sharing thoughts and conversation. I'll never forget going to Iraq with Senator McCain. He invited me on a codel with a couple of governors, a couple of House members and spending that time with him and being able to talk about the wars and where we were headed gives you an opportunity to find that common ground so that you can, in fact, work on ideas and move things forward. So there are many things I think we're going to visit about tonight, and I hope six months from now we're really at the point where we can work together constructively on specific proposals.

KING: It is --

UDALL: And the DREAM Act would be one for me, John. I know Senator McCain has been involved with that in the past and maybe there are some changes we could make to it and try to tweak that. KING: It is clear if you hear Senator McCain and Congressman Pence was with us earlier in the program, Republicans are very skeptical that the president's commitment to deficit reduction and spending cuts is genuine. Many of them see it as a post election messaging shift. They want to see the (INAUDIBLE) shift. What do you need to hear from the president as a centrist Democrat that convinces you you'll be able to go home and say we have a different outlook now?

UDALL: Well I don't think that there's any doubt that the president coming out of the last election has a different message and he's trying to connect with the American people on jobs, on moving our economy forward, and I think it's a good word when you say investing, John. When you talk about investing in America, investing in education, investing in energy research, we need to do those things.

And there's got to be a way where we all look out for the country. I think the thing that frustrates people is when they watch their television, see us on C-SPAN, we seem to always be arguing and they don't know the good things that are happening in the committee rooms and other places, some of these -- like that trip to Iraq I talked about with Senator McCain where we visit about things. I remember Senator McCain we came back from Iraq and we issued a common statement. We went to the White House together. We briefed President Bush together. It was -- I think he felt you know here are two different perspectives from people that went over there and he was interested in seeing that.

KING: Well Senator McCain, do you believe, as someone who has been through a presidential election, who knows that the next presidential election is already in the early stages upon us and that will intensify with every passing day here in Washington, can we have a temporary moment of adult conversations, not that there won't be big disagreements, but adult conversations about those differences. And as you answer that question, as you close, if you could just explain.

You're wearing the black-and-white ribbon in honor of Congresswoman Giffords from your state. She's a Democrat, of course, but (INAUDIBLE) an empty chair on the floor tonight, so first assess that. Is there a window and then close with a reflection on the missing congresswoman tonight in the room.

MCCAIN: Well first of all I believe the situation compels us to try to find common ground and I do believe the president has learned from the results of the election last November and we should be moving forward. But I also don't think we should lose our passion. You know the most passionate guy I ever dealt with was Ted Kennedy, and it would be passionate and I've been nose to nose with him. And as soon as it was over, he'd throw his arm around me and give a big laugh.

So we don't want to lose our passion because things are tough. But as far as Gabrielle Giffords is concerned, she is making amazing, amazing progress. We're so pleased. She is -- she is, I believe, got a good chance of recovery from everything that I hear of. Let's not forget the 9-year-old Christine Taylor Green, Judge Roll who covered another individual's body with his own and the others who were victims as well. So we celebrate their courage, we honor their lives, and we pledge to do what we can to make them proud of us.

KING: Senator McCain, we appreciate your thoughts and especially that last little bit of tribute there tonight. We'll touch base in the days ahead to see what you think of the speech (INAUDIBLE). Senator Udall, thanks for stopping in as well, you guys behave. (INAUDIBLE) we'll keep watching on that one. When we come back the challenge for the president, Democrats, Republicans -- our contributors with us after a break.


KING: "The Best Political Team on Television" with us throughout the night to assess the stakes for the president and his speech and of course the Republican responses. Let's check in with several right now. Erick Erickson from with us, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, David Gergen, a veteran of four presidencies, and Paul Begala with us from D.C.

David Gergen, I want to go to you first because you have been with the president as he puts the final touches on the State of the Union Address. For this president, so soon after the shellacking what is challenge number one?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, I think, John, he's got a great opportunity tonight because the country sort of likes what it's been seeing of Barack Obama since the election. People have been -- you know we have seen the polls go up pretty sharply, and so that gives him an opportunity for people are going to say, well maybe there's a new Barack Obama, not the guy we saw before the elections in last November, but this new Barack Obama.

What is -- where's he trying to go with this presidency? What's the major theme and emphasis? And I think the real question tonight, can he change the conversation of the country to come to what he's calling this generation's sputnik moment. And that is given the international global competition we face, the disappearance of American jobs, can we renew this economy and put -- make ourselves much more competitive. And if he can bring the emphasis to that instead of us continuing to talk about all the things we've been talking about for the last two years, that would be -- that will be the beginnings of a political success.

KING: And Paul Begala, you are "A", a wordsmith and "B" you worked for a Democratic president. The last Democratic president to face a midterm election very much like this one, to have Republicans seize power -- in Bill Clinton's case it was both the House and the Senate. In terms of the repositioning of President Obama what do you think he needs to say most of all tonight?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well I understand the sputnik moment, but it happened, as I recall from history, 1957. I'm an old man. I wasn't even born then. Barack Obama was not even born then. But if I can torture this sputnik metaphor, he needs to bring it back down to earth.

OK in other words, he needs jobs, jobs, jobs. And I'm all for competitiveness, whatever that is. It is five syllables. We want jobs. And this president has a wonderful opportunity. I think he's got quite a good agenda frankly for jobs talking to some of his economic advisers. But rhetorically as a wordsmith, I would hack and close the site of and just have these guys speak English or American English just for once.

KING: Erick Erickson, as the Republican in our group here, obviously the optics, we will see a Republican speaker over the president's shoulder. We'll have two Republican responses after -- one the official response -- one a Tea Party response. The president obviously can speak for an hour or so. He has the grand stage. He has the greatest opportunity to communicate with the American people. What do you see as the challenge for the right on this night?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well you know I'm not sure honestly that there is really a challenge for either side when you look at this thing historically and what it does to the polls. No one outside a political junkie really ultimately pays attention. The careful thing, though, for the Republicans are going to be there are a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill praying that Michele Bachmann makes Paul Ryan look like the very reasonable Republican. If she uses the word "socialism" tonight it's game over. That's all we're going to talk about the rest of the week and that will be a big problem for the Republicans.

KING: Cornell, you're a Democratic pollster, but just help me broadly understand. In public opinion we've seen the president come up among Independents since the election. Obviously there's polarization in the rest of the electorate. If this is an opportunity to make a new impression, obviously for the Republican House it's a first impression. For him to make a new impression, what is the most important part of the electorate the president needs to say tonight? Look we are going to have a tough year debating big issues. Here is why I'm right.

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: By the way, Erick's my bi- partisan date for the night.



BELCHER: What I think, I think what you've been seeing him do is tact to the independent voters. We have bounced up 14 points among independents. For better or worse, again, the independents, they want to see Democrats and Republicans working together. Even though we know in our hearts, that isn't Washington they don't understand why it is. He's going to continue to sort of move and sort of talk about Democrats coming together, talk about us getting bigger. Again, going back to the theme, it's not a red state, it is not a blue state. It's the United States. I think you're going to see it very much in that vein, sort of pulling us together. Uniting us and compelling us toward something bigger.

KING: David Gergen, in this Internet age, cable television age, Twitter and everything else, is the State of the Union as important as it once was?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's a very good question and my tentative answer is no, but I think if a president really seizes that podium and can change it into something else, I think it could be. It's too much a laundry list. It's too familiar. And, you know, all the cheering in the past, I hope this way, this form of seating, actually gets rid of some of the hyper-cheering that we've seen from one side versus the other. And then you can have a real conversation with the public, but the way it's been done in the last few years, John, it hasn't made that much of an impact, nothing like inaugural addresses.

KING: David, Paul, Erick and Cornell, will be with us throughout the night.

To David's point, I was at a breakfast this morning with House Speaker John Boehner and he said he's always thought the up and down, up and down, and the stone silence was a bit too much and he hopes that changes not only for tonight but for the future. We'll see how that plays out. When we come back, a break from presidential focus of the president to a key Democrat who's on the ballot in 2012 if-if he decides to run for reelection. Jim Webb has been keeping his cards close to his vest. We'll talk to Jim Webb when we return.


KING: Welcome back to our special program tonight. We live on Capitol Hill. We are about 80 minutes away from the president's State of the Union Address, under the Capitol dome you see behind me. The president's address tonight will help frame the big debates of 2011 and into the 2012 election campaign. The president will be up for re- election. There will also be 20 Democrats in the Senate up for re- election that year. And after seizing the House in 2010 the Republicans believe that because there are 20 Democrats on the ballot in 2012 they have the chance to take the Senate as well.

One Democrat who has not yet said whether he will run for re- election is Senator Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia. He won in 2006, a good year for the Democrats, many think especially in Virginia 2012 will not be as good a year for the Democrats. So, will Senator Webb run for re-election or not? We begin our conversation in his office earlier today, right there.


KING: Senator, thank you for your time.

I want to start with the big question people are asking. That is, will you run for re-election? Your rival from the last campaign, Senator Allen, announced he would like a comeback for this seat. Will you be the Democratic candidate?

SEN. JIM WEBB, (D) VIRGINIA: We're still talking about that, particularly inside my family. It's an eight-year commitment. People get excited about elections, but it's eight years. So I've said that I'll make a decision before the end of the first quarter, and we will. KING: Is there some hesitation there? If you look at your fund- raising, a lot of people would say -- especially, if you're gong to have a big high-profile race in 2012, you'd better start raising money. You have delayed doing that. I know it's not your favorite thing in the world. Where's your head in the moment? Leading in, leading out?

WEBB: I don't want to be out asking people for money unless they can be certain that I'm going to use it for a campaign. When you go back to the '06 campaign, I announced nine months almost to the day before the election with zero dollars and no campaign staff, and we were 33 points behind, and we raised enough to win. I don't want to go through that process again, but I'm not -- I'm not worried about the fundraising side. This is much more a personal, family decision that we have to resolve.

KING: And as you know and I'm sure some of your advisers tell you, this is not '06. It was a pretty good year for the Democrats, even in a state like Virginia, you won a very close race. You were way behind. People didn't think you had a chance. But if you look at the climate now, a lot of people think 2012 will not be as favorable to Democrats and Virginia will not be as favorable to the Democrats. And they say, Senator, if you want to keep this seat, you have to get going. How much pressure like that are you getting?

WEBB: A lot of people are giving me a lot of advice. Again, I think what we've been able to do up here since I've come to the Senate speaks for itself. We've been the principle voice up here for criminal justice reform. I've got the subcommittees on the -- the two most important subcommittees, Armed Services and Foreign Relations. We've been the voice in terms of reengaging what East Asia and Southeast Asia. We passed the GI bill. We've done a lot of good work up here and I think people respond to that.

KING: Would you like a chance to run against George Allen again? He's not guaranteed the Republican nomination, of course, but would you like that?

WEBB: It's not in the formula. It's whether or not we want to make the decision to be up here for another eight years and do what it takes to do that.

KING: I don't want to overly dwell on this but are you leaning one way or the other, 50/50?


WEBB: Again, we'll have a decision this quarter.

KING: Fair enough.

Part of your decision, I assume is based on whether you think this is a productive enterprise. The president has a big speech to the nation tonight at a time of divided government. What do you need to hear from him? WEBB: I ran as a Democrat because I believe that the Democratic Party is the party that has historically taken care of working people. The party that has measured the health of society not at its apex, but at its base. The president, I think, finally hit that spot in the lame duck when he brought people together on the extension of the Bush tax cuts, but also the provisions in there that extended to unemployment, and gave business credits and those sorts of things. I think you're going to hear tonight, hope you're going to hear that same sort of formula. We've got to come together for the good of the country despite philosophical differences, and move things forward, number one.

Number two, I personally will be looking at - in addition to that is this is not parliamentary system. He is not the prime minister. So I'm not obligated agree with the president on every issue either, so I'll look very carefully at what he's proposed. I hope to be able to agree with it but I don't feel obligated to.

KING: I was at a breakfast with the speaker this morning, the new Republican speaker at the House who said calling for more spending is not exactly a move to the middle. We do expect the president to talk about some cuts and deficit reduction. But also say that he believes there needs to be, he'll use the word "investment", but targeted new spending on things like infrastructure, research and development. Good idea? Or does the president need to have no new spending?

WEBB: Well, let's see what the proposals actually look like before we have the debate, but certainly there's room for cutting back in the federal budgetary process. I was in the Pentagon when they announced the Gramm-Rudman cuts, which was a 5 percent reduction in the overall budget, which ended up being a 10 percent reduction in operating budgets because of entitlements and those sorts of things. There are places we can reduce federal spending. At the same time we do need to get infrastructure programs going. Look at China right now. The money that they have been put in infrastructure is putting them in a difference place in terms of vibrance their economy. So let's see how the president proposes that. But doing that is a healthy thing for our country.

KING: The Senate will be, in my view, the most interesting place in town because you know the House Republicans, they can pass what they want to pass. You have a Democratic president down the street who has to wait for Congress to act on these matters. How do you see the role as the Senate, your role in particular as someone who wants to represent the middle in this time and in this uncertain time of divided government and a very narrow Democratic majority over here?

WEBB: I think it's going to be equally interesting in the House because we have a situation now where the Republicans who were elected in this last office have a certain on obligation to the people who elected them, some of whom may have unrealistic expectations but they're going to have to produce. They are going to have to work with us.

KING: There are some conversations that are quite familiar post- Tucson to post-Virginia Tech, which, of course, happened in your state. And people are saying, A, there are holes in the mental health system we need to deal with. Some say there are holes in the gun control area to deal with. You colleague Frank Lautenberg just today says he wants to propose going back to assault weapons bans style language, you can't buy those big magazine clips. You can't buy a clip that you can put 30 bullets. Good idea, or is that not the problem?

WEBB: I think that if you look at the public mood right now, we do have views on the extremes on those issues, but people want to be able to defend themselves. They want to be able to defend their homes and their families. And that's my starting point on this issue. The second one is if you look at Virginia Tech and if you look at the Tucson incident, the thing that these two people had in common, two things in common, they kill people, but the other thing is they are mentally ill. And we have had very lax laws with respect to how we deal with mental illness.

There were clear signals in both of these. We dealt with this in detail when we examined the Virginia Tech situation, where this is a young man who had had clinical assistance over a period of time that was never communicated from one health provider to another when he was down at Virginia Tech. So we need to make sure that those types of individuals get the care that they need, and don't have weapons.

KING: There's a lot of drama about tonight's speech, about this proposal, to have bipartisan seating. Does Senator Jim Webb have a date, or do you think it's symbolic or is it silly, or what?

WEBB: It's a little silly, but it's not harmful. I've got a lot of friends who are Republicans, and I don't quite see myself walking up to one of them and asking if they want to sit with me. I have a favorite spot, which is fairly close to the door. I'll probably stay in that spot.

KING: Amen to that. Let me close where I began.

You were talking about why you ran as a Democrat and the values in the Democratic Party that are so important to you. If you do decide to run again, is there any chance you would not run as a Democrat, that you would run as an independent, or if you run, would you run as a Democrat?

WEBB: I've been through a journey in my life on this. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is probably my role model. He was very comfortable serving in a Republican administration. I am very proud to have served in the Reagan administration. But in terms of the political values, when they are implemented properly, the Democratic Party is the party I identify with.

KING: We'll come back and check on that decision a little further down the quarter, I guess.

WEBB: Good.

KING: Senator, thanks for your time. WEBB: Good to be with you.


KING: A little more than an hour away from the president's State of the Union Address, in the United States Capitol. We can show you alive picture Statuary Hall is just outside the House chamber. People now beginning to mill by as you can see a big media presence, members of Congress coming in to get their seats, always a source of great theater.

When we come back, our Kathleen Parker joins us, among the questions, is Michele Bachmann, the toast of the Tea Party, what to make of all this theater tonight. Stay with us.


KING: A little more than an hour away from the president of the United States delivering his State of the Union Address. It's a big night for the Democratic president, a big night for the new Republican majority in the House.

As I'm joined by Kathleen Parker, co-host of our 8 o'clock program, "PARKER SPITZER". In an odd way it has become also a big night for the Tea Party. Michele Bachmann deciding to give the response for the Tea Party. Why does that matter?

KATHLEEN PARKER, CNN CO-HOST, PARKER SPITZER: It's always a big night for the Tea Party, these days. It seems like, but Michele Bachmann has successfully sort of stolen know, it's always a big night for the Tea Party these days it seems like. But Michele Bachmann has successfully sort of stolen the show. She has decided to give her own response to the State of the Union, and done so kind of on her own. She has put, you know, she has put maverick in upper case all of the sudden. So she is a problem for the Republicans.

KING: You do see it as a problem?


KING: Not just fun theater, not just awkward, but a problem?

PARKER: It's fun theater for us, but I think internally she is a challenge for them because she is, as I said, not only is she stealing the show, but she is positioning herself. She didn't get anybody -- she didn't go and talk to John Boehner about doing this. She is on her own. She is very much going rogue, positioning herself possibly for a presidential run. And you know, Michele Bachmann is -- she is a lightning rod. She is forcing the Boehner establishment part of the party to sort of reckon with the Tea Party in a different way. It's making it awkward.

KING: That's an interesting point. I was at a breakfast with the speaker this morning. I know you're talking to him tomorrow. This is a management challenge for him. He has all these new members. He has all this new energy, which is on the one hand is great. Ideas, vitality, energy to a town that sometimes gets flat. But managing the expectations, and the verve, if you will of some of the Tea Party members, pretty tough.

PARKER: That was always a big problem. John Boehner, he recognized the power and the anger of the Tea Party. He kind of rode that into town. He was careful to manage them and respect them. But now those that are in the Congress don't actually know John Boehner. He has to street them with a little bit gingerly. And yet, you know, they don't really quite know what they can expect from him. So it is a management problem.

He was careful in the very beginning to not raise expectations too high, as you say, because there is a limit to what the House can actually do. And some of these newer members and some of the activists Tea Partiers out in the heartland, really weren't as knowledgeable as how things work here in Washington. And so there is all of that. You don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. You don't want to insult anybody.

KING: You come up at things from the perspective right of center. But what is the challenge for a Democratic president to in some ways he is trying to reintroduce himself to the American people after getting thumped pretty good in the election.

PARKER: He did get thumped. But this is a great opportunity for the president and really in kind of an awful way. Because we are at -- I hate to use the cliche, but we really are at a tipping point. The Tucson shootings were the moment I think that sort of forced us to say, you know, we've got to do something in this country to come together. And he handled that speech very well. He used a word out in Tucson that I'm going to be listening for myself tonight. And it's not Sputnik. I know everybody is talking about the Sputnik moment. I'm done with that already. Cliche, done.

But he used a word that is kind of tricky for President Obama, which is "exceptional". He called America "exceptional". I think a lot of people out there in the heartland remember this speech. We love to parse it. We parse to within an inch of its life. But to folks out there, the speech is not about words. It's not about Sputnik. It's about an impression. And the impression that the president could give tonight is that I am completely behind this country. We are exceptional. We are an exceptionalist nation. Because that's what most people actually do think.

KING: I think you can very much look for that language in the speech tonight from what I know of. Kathleen Parker, good to see you in person.

PARKER: Good to see you, John.

KING: When we come back, a few last-minute details from our reporter from the White House and Capitol Hill as we ramp up, a little more than an hour away now from the president's State of the Union Address to the Congress and the American people.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: A little more than an hour away from the president's State of the Union address. Let's check in with our Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry.

Ed, is this president scribbling to the last minute, or is he ready?

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, John. One thing I'll be looking for, for sure, is just how optimistic the president is. What we're hearing from aides is that he is sort of going to be stealing a page from Ronald Reagan and showing kind of that sunny optimism, saying that there are big challenges, but we can rise to the occasion. Also, how much is he going to steal a page from Bill Clinton, who had a similar kind of State of the Union in 1995, where he had to pick up from the ashes of that election. How much does he borrow from Bill Clinton? We've been hearing about personnel moves, about policy moves that show he is borrowing the playbook. How much does he sort of mirror that same message from Bill Clinton tonight will be something we'll watch as well.

KING: Ed Henry, thanks, just outside the House chamber in Statuary Hall our National Political Correspondent Jessica Yellin.

Jess, not just the president facing challenges tonight but the Republicans as well.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NAT. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. We've made a lot about the fact that Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan are both giving separate rebuttal comments after the State of the Union. But that's much more of a one-night show. The real challenge ahead for Republicans is will the Republican leadership and the new Tea Party activists, who have just been elected, agree on these spending cuts ahead?

The president, he has a big challenge, but there seems to be clear signs of differences in the party, and they could have really troublesome clashes within their own ranks after tonight, something we'll no doubt be watching in the weeks ahead, John.

KING: Fascinating. Jess, in a great position outside the House chamber. Joining me, right here, our Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

And as Jess notes, this is an early act that is sort of a chess game of divided government.


KING: The president gets this great platform with the American people. We don't know how this is going to end. But it's an interesting beginning.

BORGER: We don't because the president is going the say look, we have to kick this up another gear here, or we're going to consign our children to a kind of future that we don't really want for them. So you got to come along with me on the innovation.

And Republicans are going to say, not so fast. We have to talk about the here and now. And we have to cut, or our children will not have a good future. So it's really a theological argument, if you will, between Republicans and Democrats. And the president, the big question is, can they work this out?

KING: Can they work this out? We won't know the answer for that for months. One of the interesting things is the president is going to try to rally people with an optimistic speech saying I know you're in a funk. I know we've had a few tough years, but we're starting to come out of it.

BORGER: Right, turning the corner.

KING: If we rally, we can compete with China. We with compete with India, if you lift your heads up. That is the president's big goal tonight.

BORGER: You talk about Ronald Reagan, morning in America. Restore America to its greatness. That's what he is going to talk about.

KING: We will get an optimistic tone from our president tonight. We are about an hour away from the president's speech. And as CNN's continuing coverage of the president's State of the Union goes on, I'm joined by my colleague, Wolf Blitzer, in New York.