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Meetings with Ambassador Rice Unsatisfactory; Congress Tackles the Fiscal Cliff; Interview with Jim Greer

Aired November 27, 2012 - 11:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's 11:00 on the East Coast, 8:00 on the West Coast.

And let's start here, she's a potential nominee for a post that isn't even open yet. But if Susan Rice were to get the nod from President Obama to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, she would want to be on good terms with Congress. And that's why the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations embarked on a delicate bit of diplomacy this morning with three of her toughest critics on Capitol Hill.

Ms. Rice met with Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, all of whom had vowed to block her hypothetical nomination over what she said about that deadly attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

Here's what Graham said moments ago when that meeting came to a close.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: If you don't know what happened, just say you don't know what happened.

People can push you to give explanations and you can say, I don't want to give bad information.

Here's what I can tell you -- the American people got bad information on 16 September, they got bad information from President Obama days after and the question is should they have been giving the information at all.

If you can do nothing but give bad information, isn't it better to give no information at all?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Ah. So, let's go straight to CNN's Dana Bash.

So, Dana, before we heard that pretty explosive news conference, it seemed as though there was a bit of a softening of some of the GOP's opposition to Ms. Rice's moving up in the President's cabinet.

Now, after hearing that, I need to get some clarity if I can from you about whether the criticism is about Ms. Rice and what she delivered to the American people, which turned out to be wrong, or whether it is about the intelligence community and what they delivered to Ms. Rice.

Can you give us a feel?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the answer to that question actually is both. The criticism is of both.

But the focus this morning was on Susan Rice and is on Susan Rice because she is potentially the President's nominee to be the next Secretary of State.

And what Republicans, you heard from Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte, all three of them, her three biggest critics, came out and said that not only did she not answer questions and -- to assuage their concerns, they are more troubled than before.

The question is why, why I walked back from that stakeout right here with Kelly Ayotte, one of the three? And she said a few things.

She said, first of all, she does not feel that in her position as U.N. Ambassador -- U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., going out on five Sunday shows, she asked the proper questions she need to ask to make sure she was not misleading the American people about what happened in Benghazi.

She says that that's how she feels coming out of the hour-long meeting that she had behind closed doors with Susan Rice.

The second thing that she said she's concerned about -- she, meaning Senator Ayotte -- is that when Susan Rice was on these shows, she was very careful to read from the talking points that were unclassified, talking about extremist elements.

But she also went a step further in some of these interviews, saying that the Obama administration has decimated al Qaeda.

Well, what Senator Ayotte and other senators have said is that that was misleading because she knew in a classified way that al Qaeda might have been behind it.

So, that is what one of the -- or two of the reasons why at least Senator Ayotte said that she is troubled. And she said that she is still not ready to say that she will vote for her.

Not only that, but she still has a threat to block her nomination if Susan Rice is nominated.

BANFIELD: And is that the end of it, or are there future meetings? Is there going to be more consultation, or is that that?

BASH: No, that is not that. That is the beginning of this for sure.

We understand that the Ambassador is likely to be back later today for more meetings. Our Ted Barrett heard from Senate Corker, the Republican from Tennessee, that he has a meeting with Susan rice tomorrow, again, just like today's meeting. That was at the request of Susan Rice.

So, she is definitely making the rounds. She's trying to explain herself. But at least with these three Republican senators this morning who were -- who have been her harshest critics, you know, she -- as Senator Ayotte said, she is more troubled than before. So, this is hardly over. It's just the beginning.

BANFIELD: OK, interesting developments, though. Dana Bash on Capitol Hill, thank you for that.

Let me move over to the White House today. Even though it is connected, there's another big issue, that fiscal cliff, and the President is certainly in fact-finding mode it seems.

We've got 35 days to go before the new year and that new year will bring with it more than $500 billion in tax cuts and spending cuts.

Mr. Obama is in meetings with small business owners from across the country today. He is not, however, meeting with leaders of Congress today.

Our Dan Lothian is watching the comings and goings at the White House. And at some point, Dan, Congress is going to have to either come together on this and work with the President on this and, yet, we're seeing all these various different meetings all around the communities and the country.

It looks like there's a particular strategy that's playing out when it comes to the President right now.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. I mean, a lot of negotiations have taken place in the staff -- on the staff level.

The President himself did speak with Speaker John Boehner on the phone over the weekend. There was that meeting with the lawmakers, the leadership, just before the President went overseas on his Southeast Asia trip.

But so far, no additional meetings that we know of on the schedule for the President to sit down with congressional leadership to try to hammer this out.

I can tell you that I spoke with an administration official who told me that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will be playing a leading role in these fiscal cliff negotiations. He'll be part of a team that will also involve Jack Lew, who's the chief of staff, also, Gene Sperling, an adviser, and Rob Nabors.

But, again, it will be Timothy Geithner taking the leading role here.

We do expect behind the scenes the President himself is also actively involved, but we don't know of any additional meetings that will be taking place.

But, yes, you know, you do hear from some Republicans who are saying you know, where is the leadership from the President? They want to see the President more actively involved.

The President will be hitting the road this Friday to make his case for these middle-class tax cuts being extended for middle-class Americans, but for wealthy Americans to pay more, sort of pushing his case.

And, as you pointed out, the President also meeting with business leaders here at the White House today.

But some harsh criticism coming from Capitol Hill, from Senate leadership, Republicans who say the President should be spending time negotiating with them, not campaigning out on the road.

Take a listen to what Mitch McConnell had to say today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: It was with some concern that I read this morning that the President plans to hit the road next week to drum up support for his only personal approach to the short- and long-term fiscal challenges we face.

In other words, rather than sitting down with lawmakers of both parties and working out an agreement, he's back on the campaign trail, presumably with the same old talking points that we're all familiar with.

Look, we already know that the President's a very good campaigner. We congratulate him on his re-election. What we don't know is whether he has the leadership qualities necessary to lead his party to a bipartisan agreement on big issues like we currently face.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOTHIAN: So, Ashleigh, what you're seeing here is a slightly different strategy than we've seen in the past and that's the President focusing more on stakeholders, making his case to the public, bringing business leaders here to the White House, going on the road and spending less time with lawmakers, at least up to this point.

BANFIELD: Sounds like a pressure tactic rather than perhaps a negotiation tactic. But we'll keep on it, and let us know who else goes through those doors.

Dan Lothian, thank you very much.

Of course, as you know, as we watch this story playing out, each side wants the other to give in or at least give a little more in the fiscal tug-of-war.

So, in a little less than a couple of minutes now, we're going to see what the Republicans want from the Democrats and what they might offer to get what they want.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GROVER NORQUIST, AMERICANS FOR TAX REFORM: It's a little funny to watch a senator or congressman who got himself elected by promising the citizens of his state that he would go to Washington to reform government, not raise taxes to pay paper over problems deciding that when they haven't done that and the going gets rough that they have an argument with me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So, that is Grover Norquist if you don't already know. You probably should because he is making a lot of TV appearances and that was "Piers Morgan Tonight" last night.

His group, American for Tax Reform is behind that "no-tax pledge" that was signed by the majority of Republicans in Congress, but now a few high-profile members of the GOP are openly questioning their pledge and saying that it may stand in the way of getting a fiscal cliff deal done.

But that's one side of the equation. In exchange, those Republicans say, look, we'll back down, but not if we don't get something for it. We want some entitlement reform.

So, here are the big three entitlements -- Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Combined, they make up 43 percent of federal spending last year.

And joining me is John Avlon, CNN contributor, senior political columnist for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast" and all around very smart person.

You've got a column out today about this. It's great reading. There's a lot of math in it.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There's math.

BANFIELD: Tons of math.

AVLON: I was told there would be no math, but there's math.

BANFIELD: And you know what? That's a Chevy Chase line that bears repeating today because it is about the math and math means two sides of the equation.

AVLON: Yes and math is non-partisan.

BANFIELD: Math is not partisan.

So, there's coverage about Republicans and what they're willing to do to give up their pledge to raise revenue. And there's not seemingly as much talk about what the Democrats need to do.

How much do Democrats need to give up in the spending column and what do they need to give up in the spending column? AVLON: That's exactly right, Ashleigh, and that's why we need to look at the picture. Most of the debate today has been on Republicans being willing to give on tax revenues and rebuking Grover Norquist in the process.

But that's only part of the equation. You know, Lindsey Graham, one of the Republican senators who put some distance between himself and Grover's pledge said, look, I'm willing to give a little, but only if Democrats put entitlement reform on the table.

So, that's what's next. We've got to get a deal done. We need to define the common ground.

And here's what's interesting -- all those failed committees, Bowles- Simpson, the Obama-Boehner "grand bargain," a lot of this hard work has been done.

BANFIELD: And the Gang of Six.

AVLON: The Gang of Six ...

BANFIELD: We have three roadmaps, right?

AVLON: We do. So, we've got some specifics. We have a basis for common ground, so it's time to hold their feet to the fire on the specifics and both sides have got to give a little.

BANFIELD: So, these three plans that we have as roadmaps, it feels like Mideast peace that we're trying to achieve here.

AVLON: It's almost as complicated.

BANFIELD: So are they that -- I mean, how similar are those three plans? Can there be a marriage of the three?

Where do we stand in terms of figuring out what of those three plans works, what doesn't, or do we have to come up with a whole fourth agenda?

AVLON: No. That's the good news.

Despite all the failures of the debates to date, we do have a roadmap and there is a lot of overlap.

One of the interesting things that happened out of that Obama-Boehner "grand bargain" that failed in the summer of 2011, we actually have leaked documents that were given to Bob Woodward after the election that showed that the Obama administration was actually willing to give a lot on entitlement reform, significant amounts and issues like gradually raising the eligibility age for Medicare which could save a quarter of a billion dollars over 10 years.

BANFIELD: Some people say that's chump change, a quarter of a billion dollars over 10 years.

AVLON: It's the old joke in Washington, Ashleigh. You know, a billion here, billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money.

BANFIELD: It's a quarter of a trillion. Sorry. It's $250 billion.

AVLON: Yeah. A quarter of a trillion dollars. That's real money.

BANFIELD: And they still think it's chump change, but don't we sort of have to -- it's like death by a thousand paper cuts, this problem, isn't it? You have to solve each paper cut at this point.

AVLON: I mean, at this point, if it's not obvious that you can't the perfect the enemy of the good, no one's paying attention. I mean, both sides got to take on their ...

BANFIELD: you are so good. You should be a writer.

AVLON: You know, I thought about that, but I decided for TV instead.

BANFIELD: What about defense? Everybody talks about the defense offerings that the Democrats have come up with are colossal.

Is that not enough to assuage Republicans? Are they really sort of focusing on the entitlements? Those three, big three entitlement reforms?

AVLON: The point is that everybody knows, if they're honest, you need three things to get a deal done. You need spending cuts. You need tax revenue increases. And you need entitlement reform.

And so this is where -- I mean, whether it's Bowles-Simpson, the Gang of Six, Obama-Boehner, everybody agrees on that broad formulation, except the extremes on both sides, these professional activists who want all the pain to come out of the other side.

BANFIELD: Do you call them wing nuts or are they beyond wing nuts?

AVLON: They're not -- you know, wing nuts is a very specialized term for a kind of crazy. These are more hardcore activists and ideologues, people who are philosophically opposed to compromise because it's their way or the highway. They're the problem in Washington today.

BANFIELD: Last question, real quick ...

AVLON: Yeah.

BANFIELD: ... and that is a lot of people say this is going to come down to two people -- Obama and Boehner and whether they can get their ducklings to follow them.

AVLON: Ah, the "herding the cats" question. This is the question.

The good news is is Boehner's hand is actually strengthened after this election. Republicans need to understand that that ideological obstructionism was rejected by the electorate.

President Obama is a stronger position in to see get the deal done and it may look a lot like what was almost done two years ago. The difference is we've got to get it done now.

BANFIELD: Kind of like the election. We went through all that trouble and all that money and we have the same kinds of things still, right?

AVLON: But a big difference because I think the folks realize they've got to get something done now.

BANFIELD: It's good reading. It's great reading.

AVLON: Thank you.

BANFIELD: And I recommend people do that. Come back.

AVLON: Any time.

BANFIELD: Love to see you. John Avlon, best of the season to you.

AVLON: You, too.

BANFIELD: Thanks. John Avlon joining us.

And, also, remember, we're at 35 days, folks. That's all that's left until you pop the cork for new year's and then you deal with your bank account later.

Because if we don't get a deal done, automatic spending cuts go into effect and tax cuts expire and that means you and me.

You can keep one the news and analysis on the fiscal cliff by clicking on CNN.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Do you remember Florida on election day? That was hot. Yeah, those incredibly long lines of people standing out in that hot sun for hours on end, just trying to do the constitutional thing and exercise their right to vote. And those big, long ballots, some of them 10 pages or longer.

I remember them well because I actually saw this. I stood out there for 13 hours. And guess what? There are critics who say what I looked at and the hassle those people went through were all a big Republican plan to suppress the Democratic turnout.

Now, I was in a heavily-dominated Republican district, but I'll tell you what. It's been the claim of at least several former Republican officials that were interviewed by "The Palm Beach Post."

Among those, that person, the former governor, Republican Governor Charlie Crist who left the party and turned independent, and also Jim Greer, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Now, we should give you full disclosure here. Mr. Greer is under indictment currently, accused of stealing $200,000 from the Republican Party through a bogus campaign fundraising operation. He denies that allegation and he, in turn, is suing the party for $5 million, saying that the leaders knew what he was doing and that it was a strategic effort to actually get paid and they voiced no objection to it.

Now, those are the claims and counter-claims and Mr. Greer is kind enough to join me live now.

So the first question, Mr. Greer, is this -- are you making these claims to "The Palm Beach Post" which are very serious, suggesting that this is all about voter suppression, what I saw when I was down in Florida, those long, long lines and the difficulty in voting and the difficulty in voting early, are you saying this because you're accused of stealing money from the state Republican Party?

JIM GREER, FORMER CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN PARTY OF FLORIDA: No. I've always had a difference of opinion about how the Republican Party should win elections.

When I was chairman, Ashleigh, I created an African-American advisory council, a Hispanic advisory council, appointed the first black department head within the Republican Party.

Right after I left, they abolished all that. They got rid of those people within the party.

So, I've always had a difference in how we should win elections and, after I was forced out by the extreme right and the wing nuts of the party, I felt it was important for voters and citizens to find out what really goes on behind the curtain of the Republican Party.

BANFIELD: Well, then my -- I'm very curious because in this very lengthy interview that but with "The Post," you named people, specifically, Andy Palmer, Bret Prater, Randy Enwright, Jim Rimes, Kirk Pepper, Rich Heffley, Frank Terraferma, and you said that they all were in specific meetings specifically talking about how the voter turnout efforts on the Democratic Party are going to kill the Republicans' efforts on winning Florida.

And I think -- you actually -- let me just quote really quickly. I think you said something about -- I'm going to quote your words here.

"In the races I was involved in in 2008, when we started seeing the increase of turnout and the turnout operations that the Democrats were doing in early voting, it certainly sent a chill down our spines."

If those people that you mentioned were talking about strategies on stopping people from voting, why didn't you fire them all?

GREER: That's a very good question.

When you're chairman of the party and particularly at that time, there were things that I wouldn't allow to happen at the party. I did not, Ashleigh, and neither did Governor Crist allow any elections bills to move forward that would have restricted voting, that would have suppressed the minority vote. If you will note after Governor Crist was forced out of the party, after I was forced out as chairman, they all got together and, in 2010, is when they passed those election laws.

So, as chairman, I did not agree with nor did I permit the party consultants to form that legislation, get that legislation through, but when we were gone, when I was gone, they certainly did it in the immediate session right after I was removed as chairman or resigned as chairman.

BANFIELD: But why didn't you say something then? I mean, even at the time that you heard these things being bandied about?

I'm a new American. I've been through two elections now. I stood in a long line to vote in 2008 and I made a huge effort because I had to work the election to vote early through an absentee ballot in Connecticut.

I am -- I just find it despicable to hear conversations about making sure that some people don't get the chance to vote because you don't like how they vote.

How could you have stayed quiet?

GREER: Well, I didn't stay quiet when I was chairman. I didn't permit it to happen.

I didn't authorize it, I directed it not to move forward. When those consultants and some legislative leaders approached me about putting forth election changes to the law so that would benefit the Republican Party, I didn't agree to it.

They asked me to go talk to Governor Crist. I told them at that time I knew the Governor would support me on the position and would probably veto anything that changed the voting laws to keep people from voting.

So, at that time, I didn't permit it. I stopped it. I didn't authorize it. I wouldn't allow any funding for it. They wanted some funding to be paid out of the party to do certain things.

BANFIELD: But when you saw it continuing to move ahead because you saw that the supermajorities in Florida, they got this congress -- through their legislature. And HB 1355 is what many people say led to the calamity that we witnessed on election day. So ...

GREER: That's right.

BANFIELD: ... you could have said stuff earlier before the election. You could have gone to the press.

I mean, maybe you lost your power to do something about it, but you didn't lose your voice.

GREER: Well, if you'll notice, in January is when I resigned as chairman, when the party was taken over by the extreme right. I resigned in January. The legislative session started in March and that's when they put the elections bill that they wanted through, in March of that year.

I started talking about these issues shortly after that. Sunday wasn't the first time. It's the first time what I have said has been confirmed by other people, people that had the courage to finally come out and say what Jim Greer has been saying all along is, in fact, the truth.

But when I was chairman, I didn't permit it. When I was forced out in January by the people who want to win elections by not playing by the rules, they want to change the rules, they took over the party.

And shortly thereafter, I started talking about this. This past week was not the first time I brought these issues up.

But Ashleigh, when I was chairman, I did not permit it. I did not authorize it. I tried to make the Republican Party a different type of party, a party that was inclusive. A party that would talk about what it stands for, not trying to keep people from voting.

But when I was forced out ...

BANFIELD: Do you think Rick Scott, the current Governor of Florida, is in collusion with these consultants and planners in their strategy to try to curb the Democratic vote?

Do you think the current Republican Governor of Florida knew all about this and was in on it all the way along?

GREER: Well, let me say this, Ashleigh. The consultants, the political consultants, they're the ones that really run the party if you don't have a strong chairman.

I was a strong chairman. They didn't like that. I had the support of Governor Crist ...

BANFIELD: I want to know about this current Governor. What do you know and what do you think about Governor Scott?

GREER: Yeah, Governor Scott and the current and past legislative leadership, they believe in winning at all costs. They believe that we have to ...

BANFIELD: Governor Crist -- Governor Crist to his point when he was governor, he said, this was talked about in 2008. He didn't like the talk and he said, I'll veto anything that comes my way if the legislature passes stuff like that, that curtails the ability for people to vote.

Do you think that the current Republican Governor, Rick Scott, didn't have the same opinion and said, I will not veto anything like that, in fact, I think it's a good idea?

I need to know whether you think he did this or not. GREER: Yeah. Ashleigh, absolutely. Governor Scott agrees with and believes in what the Republican party political strategists, what the legislative leaders have done with the elections law ...

BANFIELD: Was he in on any of the meetings?

GREER: No, he wasn't. We didn't really know Governor Scott back at that time. He wasn't on our radar screen.

BANFIELD: I'm glad to talk to you. I'm very, very disappointed that this conversation would go on without someone screaming from a mountaintop, stop, it's bad and un-American.

But thank you, I do appreciate you, Mr. Greer, for coming on to talk to me.

GREER: Sure thing. Thank you, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And, by the way, I do have to say that we certainly reached out again and we've been doing this for many days to Governor Scott's office on this story.

He certainly had a chance to read this. It's a Florida newspaper. It's his state.

And so in deference here, Governor Scott's office sent us this which was very kind. It's a statement here to CNN.

It says this, "Governor Scott is focused on how Florida can run fair elections where all eligible voters can participate and he has said we must restore the people's confidence in our electoral process.

"He is encouraging Florida legislators to have a bipartisan, open, and vigorous discussion about what changes may need to be made to current Florida election law in the upcoming session. He is open to legislative changes."

And that comes to us by way of Melissa Sellers, very kind communications director in Governor Scott's office.

But still, no specifics about those very serious accusations made by not just Mr. Greer, but also the former Governor, Rick Scott, and another consultant -- excuse me, Charlie Crist -- and another who prefers to remain anonymous, anonymous for what that's worth.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)