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Interview With Ohio Senator Rob Portman; Interview With U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan; President Obama to Deliver State of the Union Address; Senator Reid on State of the Union

Aired January 28, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: OK. So I would advise taking the word strong and jobs and minimum wage out of your State of the Union drinking game, or you will be drunk halfway through.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. After a year of stumbles, tonight may be the president's last, best chance to put his agenda back on track. Expect a more assertive President Obama to say he's not afraid to go it alone.

A key Cabinet member and longtime friend will join us in moments for a preview.

The politics lead. It's sort of like when you have your dad drop you off a block from school. Democratic candidates afraid to be seen with President Obama in states where they may be vulnerable -- why the top Democrat in the Senate is saying invite him on the trail anyway.

And the pop culture lead. There's a time to be born and a time to die. Remembering the man who wrote "Turn, Turn, Turn" and so many other legendary folk songs, the only Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Famer convicted for contempt of Congress, folks singer Pete Seeger.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our national lead. We're coming to you live from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., where in just about five hours, President Barack Obama will speak to a joint session of Congress for his fifth State of the Union address.

And from everything we know so far, the tone will be less Al Green, let's stay together, as we have heard the president sing before, more of a Gloria Gaynor I will survive kind of thing. The president has spent so many nights thinking how Republicans have done him wrong, but now he's strong

He will say he's ready to go through it alone without Congress through executive orders like raising the minimum wage, but not for you unless you're a federal contractor, and not for all of them either, just those hired under future government contracts, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. To that idea, House Speaker John Boehner said today, big deal, Mr. President.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: This affects not one current contract. It only affects future contracts with the federal government.

And so I think the question is how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.


TAPPER: Not sure about the speaker's math there. The minimum wage plan did not seem to get too far under Boehner's skin, but if the president thinks the GOP is going to let him sit back and wave his presidential magical wand, well, Boehner says he has got another thing coming.

In the old days after the State of the Union speech, the opposing party would trot out a rising star to deliver its rebuttal. Of course, these days, one is no longer enough. This year, there will be no fewer than four Republican responses.

Washington State Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers will be the first woman to deliver the official GOP response in 10 years. Then there's Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who may hope to deliver his own State of the Union address some day. He will give an unofficial response.

What will all those Republican responses be talking about? Could it be education reform?

Joining me now is the education secretary, Arne Duncan.

Secretary Duncan, great to see you. Thanks for joining us.

Speaker Boehner spoke to reporters at a breakfast this morning and I want to read you what he said about the president being willing to bypass Congress on some of his initiatives -- quote -- "This idea that he's just going to go it alone, I have to remind him we do have a Constitution and the Congress writes the laws, and the president's job is to execute the laws faithfully. And if he tries to ignore this, he's going to run into a brick wall. We're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us."

Your response?

ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. EDUCATION SECRETARY: Well, I think, obviously, education should be the ultimate bipartisan issue.

And we have worked very closely with members of the House, the Senate, Republican governors and mayors across the country, and we're all in this together. But at the same time, if Congress continues to be dysfunctional, we just have to do the right thing. So, whether it's more children having access to early childhood education, whether it's continuing to increase high school graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, having more young people go on to college, Jake, I feel a real sense of urgency.

And I'm convinced the path to the middle class runs straight through American classrooms. And we all have to work together to help young people have the great education opportunities they desperately need and deserve.

TAPPER: Are there not issues though with the executive branch possibly overreaching? Remember, President Obama is not going to be president forever. There will be a Republican president someday.

Is there not a risk of setting a precedent that the next Republican president might follow and what's to your chagrin?

DUNCAN: Well, again, around education, we're all in this together.

What has been so interesting to me, Jake, is the president has talked more and more, for example, around early childhood education. This has become the ultimate bipartisan issue in the real world. And, in fact, we have more Republican governors investing in early childhood education today than Democratic.

So, again, getting outside Washington, people want to do the right thing and they know how important it is and we all just need to put politics and ideology to the side and just work together on behalf of young people, their families, and ultimately our country and our country's economy.

TAPPER: Yes, but I'm talking about the go-it-alone thing.

I understand that's not the goal. The goal is to work in a bipartisan way and as you have said a couple of times now, the has been a successful strategy when it comes to education. But you're here representing not just the Department of Education, but the Obama White House in general. And there are questions about whether or not the president's go-it-alone strategy which he says not as a first choice but a second choice, whether or not that might set a precedent that Republicans follow that you don't like in the future.

There are Republicans out there who want to do away with the Department of Education.

DUNCAN: Well, again, as you said, the first choice is always to work together. And I can't think of a better place to get past the historical dysfunction than around increasing educational opportunity for young people.

And so we hope we can continue to do that. But, at the same time, if Congress doesn't act, we have to continue to give our babies a great start at life. We have to continue to increase graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, and ultimately have more young people have the chance to go to some form of higher education, be it four-year universities, two-year community colleges, trade, technical, vocational training.

We have made some real progress. High school graduation rates are at 30-year highs. Dropout rates are down. College-going rates are up. But, Jake, we have a long, long way to go, and we have to get better faster, and, obviously ideally, ideally, we get better faster together.

TAPPER: Well, let's talk about that, the record of education.

You have been now secretary of education now since 2009. You were one of the fresh faces President Obama brought with him from Chicago. You were chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools. American students' scores are stagnant when it comes to how well they are testing, while countries in Asia rose. American students are struggling in math. Scores are below average compared to other countries, all while the United States does spend more than other developed nations on education each year.

Do you bear some responsibility for that and what can be done?

DUNCAN: So, again, there's some real signs of progress.

I'm actually very hopeful and optimistic, higher graduation rates, significantly lower dropout rates, more young people going on to college. But, as I said a second ago, we have to get better faster. I think we can learn some very important lessons from countries today that are out-educating us.

First and foremost, we have to do a better job of getting our babies off to a good start and investing in high-quality education. The United States is like 28th in terms of industrialized countries. So, other countries take this responsibility much more seriously, and the dividends long term are tremendous to society.

TAPPER: So pre-K education would help?

DUNCAN: Early childhood. Doing a better job of getting our great teachers and principals to the schools and communities who need the most help.

Other countries are much more systemic in terms of identifying that talent and getting it to the neighborhoods where historically too much of that talent has fled. So, there are very significant lessons, raising standards, higher standards. We have many states across the country starting to raise standards, which is very, very significant.

Other countries have done this five, 10, 15 years ago. The final thing I will say -- and I did a speech on this last week. We're really challenging parents to be more demanding, to expect more. And my wife and I have two young children. We have to be part of the solution. Schools can't do this by themselves.

So, for me, Jake, it's never about pointing fingers or laying blame. We all need to look in the mirror and what can we do collectively to support each other to educate our way to a better economy.

TAPPER: And, lastly, Secretary Duncan, there is this bizarre tradition we have this in country. Just in case the worst happens and every single person on Capitol Hill were to be destroyed in one fell swoop, there is a designated survivor from the Cabinet. You have never been the designated survivor.

Are you the designated survivor tonight? And is this an honor that you guys want or is it one that you dread?

DUNCAN: I'm not the designated survivor tonight.


DUNCAN: And I think the country is probably quite happy I'm not the designated survivor. I will be thrilled to be there.

And I have to say, Jake, it's just awe-inspiring being in that room. And for a kid from the South Side of Chicago, I get the chills. I get goose bumps every single time. It's an amazing, amazing opportunity.

TAPPER: So I will take that as nobody wants to be a designated survivor, a diplomatic way of saying it, but that's my interpretation.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, thank you so much.

DUNCAN: Thanks so much. Have a great day now.

TAPPER: When we come back, his approval ratings are not where they were a year ago, but they're better than Congress', so, how will this go-it-alone plan go over with the American public and with the other side?

Plus, a member of the 1 percent is sick of the treatment of the 1 percent. In fact, it reminds him of the targeting of Jews during the Holocaust. Does this war on the rich really exist?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD live from Capitol Hill, where right now it's time for our politics lead. In five hours, the president is expected to make the case that if we want to keep the American dream alive, the government has a significant role to play, from raising the minimum wage, to paying for college and retirement security.

President Obama has not shied away from blaming Congress for the lack of movement on these issues. And tonight he will lay out a strategy for getting around a divided Congress.

Joining us now with the Republican take, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.

Senator Portman, good to see you.

The White House making this case. The president is going to say he wants to work in a bipartisan fashion, but, if he can't, he is willing to go it alone, do some executive orders. What is your take?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: My take is that he hasn't tried and...

TAPPER: He hasn't tried to work in a bipartisan fashion?

PORTMAN: Right. Look, there is a lot we can and should do. The economy is in terrible shape. We have record numbers of long-term unemployed in America. Under his watch, take-home pay has gone down $4,000 on average for the families that I represent. So things are not working. And yet he has not come to Congress in a way that presidents that I have worked for -- and I have worked for a couple of them -- have and other Democratic presidents have.

Bill Clinton is an example who worked well with a guy named Newt Gingrich, who didn't he agree with on much, but he knew he had to work with him.


TAPPER: Can you give me an example of something that you wanted to work with the president and the White House on?

PORTMAN: OK. Regulatory reform. Everybody agrees regulations are choking small businesses. The president talks about it, does nothing. We've got a bipartisan bill, it's passed the House already. It's in the Senate. Get behind it, support it.

Tax reform. The president says he wants to reform the tax code. Everybody knows huge shot in the arm. We're losing people, companies overseas. Let's do it. We've talked about it for enough times. The president needs to engage and provide cover for it.

Energy. We've got a huge opportunity here in this country to open up more public lands to energy and become energy independent.


TAPPER: I don't mean to interrupt --

PORTMAN: Trade promotion authority.


PORTMAN: How about that one?


PORTMAN: Everybody knows that helped turn the economy. So, there's a lot --

TAPPER: And I know there's a fifth one in there somewhere. But something that -- I mean, because I hear Republicans and Democrats talk past each other all the time -- Democrats of the Democratic bills, Republicans of the Republican bills.

PORTMAN: That's not true. These are bipartisan bills. And, you know, this is the problem, is that the administration, if they really wanted to engage, could get with us and work on these issues.

Let's take stuff out of the president's own budget. You and I have talked about this one. But means testing in Medicare. TAPPER: Making wealthier pay a little bit more?

PORTMAN: Pay a little bit more for part B and part D. So, it would be for doctors visits and for prescription drugs. The president put it in his budget.

TAPPER: In the president's budget --

PORTMAN: In the budget, and yet, they will not work with us to try to implement that to be able to save billions of dollars over the first 10 years, $56 billion, over the next 10, $450 billion, exactly the kind of thing you should be doing to deal with the part of the budget that is on auto pilot that is causing us to go into these record debts.

TAPPER: But this is in the president's own budget.

PORTMAN: It's in his own budget.

TAPPER: But -- and you've gone to the White House or you've talked to the Democrats in the Senate and in the House?


TAPPER: But if it's in the president's own budget, why wouldn't they support it?

PORTMAN: I talked to an unnamed official in the Obama administration --

TAPPER: Right.

PORTMAN: -- in the cabinet level, as recently as today, about that issue.


PORTMAN: And I'm told no. We won't do it because in the budget, it's part of tax increases.

So, the theory is I guess you have to increase taxes on wealthy people in order to cut benefits for wealthy people, which makes no sense.

Here's my bigger point. There are lots of areas of common ground where we should be able to get together.

Another one I didn't mention is worker retraining that the president will probably talk about tonight. We have a bipartisan bill in the Senate. There's plenty approaches that are bipartisan to add more skills training to ensure that people can have access to the jobs that are out there because there's a big skills gap right now. We have 100,000 jobs in Ohio that aren't being filled and a lot of them require skills. Let's work together on that.

So, before using the mighty pen --

TAPPER: Right.

PORTMAN: -- to write an executive order, instead of signing legislation, try to work with Congress and let's get some stuff done.

TAPPER: But the Senate has passed a bunch of bipartisan things, a bunch of bipartisan items and legislation, and the House Republicans don't pick them up, because the House Republicans basically operate as a "we can operate as a monolith, we just need House Republicans. Speaker Boehner doesn't like to bring up things unless they're going to get a majority of the majority -- majority of Republicans.

The Senate, as you know, works in a bipartisan way because there aren't 60 Democratic votes. So, it passed through many ways.

Are these bills -- I'm not criticizing the Founders --


TAPPER: Don't --

PORTMAN: I mean, this is the way we're set up.


PORTMAN: So, I don't know what examples you're talking about. But I guess with immigration --

TAPPER: But all those things that the Senate passed. Would the House Republicans, would they pass them?

PORTMAN: Many have already passed the House. I mentioned regulatory relief, because it was something that is passed in the House. And there are Democrats who supported it over here in the House -- not many, but enough Democrats -- to get it through the Senate process.

It's bipartisan in the Senate. I'm actually a co-sponsor with another Democrat. We have Republicans and Democrats on it.

So, the point is, the president needs to use political capital with Democrats to get things done. And if he does that, we can make lots of progress. We're not going to agree on everything. But we can agree on some things. And so, rather than making a point of going around the Congress that was elected by the people, let's follow the constitutional process here and work together to get things done.

TAPPER: And just to circle back on this thing about means testing some parts of Medicare --


TAPPER: -- having wealthier people pay higher premiums, you're saying that the response from Democrats is that they wouldn't consider it because the president wants entitlement reform or social safety net program reform to be tied to -- they will only do that -- Democrats will only do that if Republicans will allow tax increases and you're saying that doesn't make sense because either way it's basically a tax increase on wealthier Americans?

PORTMAN: Right. I mean, the logic that you have to increase taxes on wealthier individuals in order to cut benefits for wealthier people doesn't make a lot of sense. So, it's an example of where the administration could say to Democrats, you know what, this one makes sense. It's in my budget. I'm going to give you some political cover on it. Let's make progress together.

It doesn't solve the whole debt problem but it does begin to take us down the road towards not leaving our kids and grandkids this unconscionable burden of debt and deficit (ph) --

TAPPER: And there's the debt ceiling debate coming up, where the Republicans are going to want something in exchange.

PORTMAN: We talked about it today with the administration --


PORTMAN: -- saying, look, what if we just did this issue, if we've actually made some progress on something, two-thirds of the budget that's on auto pilot, that's not appropriate. We have done a good job now on reducing the spending on the discretionary spending, which is appropriated every year, but two-thirds of the budgets, as you know, Jake, is off budget.

TAPPER: It's automatic.

PORTMAN: It's not appropriated every year. It's automatic. It's the entitlement programs, extremely important programs, but unless they are reformed they will both bankrupt the country and not be there for future generations. These are things that the president wants to engage. There's plenty of them to do it. Plenty of examples. I gave you five, I'm sure you got to --


TAPPER: So, you're saying, first pen, don't use it for executive orders, use it to write you a letter and invite you to the White House, you guys can solve these problems.

PORTMAN: Oh, I don't need to go to the White House. But, you know, in every level -- it's not just the president. It's his team.


PORTMAN: But it starts at the top. I do think it's a cultural issue. And look, having worked in a couple of White Houses, nobody likes to work with us in Congress. It's kind of a pain sometimes but that's the way the system is set up.

TAPPER: All right.

PORTMAN: The president cannot make the changes he's talking about making without making legislative changes, unless he wants to go around the Constitution and the Congress. And for that, he should work with us and we should work with him. I mean, we should be doing things to benefit the American people. We're not going to agree on everything but there's enough common ground on the issue of economic growth and jobs and secondly on debt and deficit, we should work together.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, thank you so much. Really appreciate it. Good to see you.

Coming up next on THE LEAD: vulnerable Democrats not exactly excited about standing arm in arm with the president on the campaign trail in some spots. What does the top Democrat in the Senate think? Our exclusive interview with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, next.

Plus, he was a one time communist. He spoke out against America's opposition to the Nazis, and yet, he became one of the most beloved singers in U.S. history. The complicated life of Pete Seeger coming up in our pop culture, right ahead.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're live from Capitol Hill -- where in just a few hours, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union Address. While his message tonight is expected to a progressive's dream come true, his agenda could also make some members of his own party uneasy, particularly those up for reelection in traditionally red or purple states.

CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash spoke exclusively with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about what he hopes to hear from the president and whether some of what the president has to say could encourage some Democrats to keep their distance -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The answer is, no. I mean, he is going all in. In fact, he's doubling down on President Obama, despite the fact that his popularity has waned. Never mind the fact that he hasn't been popular in some of those red states you were talking about. For those endangered Democrats, he's saying stick with the president.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Any time the president of the United States appears supporting a candidate, it helps. We -- you know, Ronald Reagan hurt me by coming to the state all the time.

Barack Obama is personally a very popular guy and people love this man. They love his family. Of course with what the Republicans have been doing, trying to denigrate him with what's happening with the rollout of Obamacare, but things, even this week, his numbers are going up again.

BASH: So you would encourage some of the most vulnerable Senate Democratic candidates to invite President Obama to appear with them?

REID: Yes, and they will. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Dana, what does Majority Leader Reid think about the rollout of Obamacare and how that may hurt Democrats running for office?

BASH: Well, he, like the president, admitted that it was a disaster, that's no secret, and it has been especially a disaster for some of those Democrats that we're talking about, the most endangered, those who, if they lose, enough of them lose, six of them lose, he will lose the majority in the Senate.

So what he told me is that he is actually going to allow and even encourage some votes on the Senate floor, ideas or prescriptions to change Obamacare to make it better, to try to help them because Obamacare is really hurting them back in their states.

TAPPER: All right. Chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash, thank you so much.

Coming up next, how many Republicans does it take to respond to one president? Apparently four -- which begs the question, is the Republican Party having a problem with getting on the same page?

And later, the queen put on a budget. A new report outlines the overspending and lack of income for the royals as their emergency fund is almost out of money.