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John McCain, Patrick Leahy & Ray LaHood on "State of the Union"

John McCain, Patrick Leahy & Ray LaHood on "State of the Union"

By State of the Union - February 24, 2013

CROWLEY (on-camera): With just five days to go until automatic spending cuts kick in, the Obama administration is ratcheting up warnings about aircraft carriers that can't make it to the Persian Gulf and commercial airlines that won't fly. If you're planning on flying anywhere in the next month or so, the transportation secretary warns you should brace for more flight delays and longer wait times at airport security checkpoints. Secretary Ray Lahood joins me now. Thank you so much for being here to talk about this.

LAHOOD: Thank you, good morning. CROWLEY: Help me understand this. As far as we can figure out, the FAA budget -- when I'm talking about the transportation -- is about $15 billion, give or take. They're going to have to cut $600 million. About four percent. Why is that enough to cause planes to be delayed for an hour and a half? There surely must be things inside the FAA budget where you can get rid of four percent.

LAHOOD: And we're going to do that, Candy. We have been spending the last several months looking at and we will really focus on this now, every contract, to see what penalties we might have to pay. We're going to cancel contracts. We're going to look at everything we possibly can to get to where we need to be, which is about $600 million in cuts.

But we can't do it without also furloughing people, and we're going to have to -- the largest number of people --

CROWLEY: -- is just that a very big budget. And let me add something else. A Republican from Capitol Hill in a leadership office messaged and said, listen, the Budget Committee took a look at some of these numbers, and they found that post-sequester, your post-sequester total at FAA ops and facilities and equipment is going to be about $500 million more than 2008, and the planes were running just fine.

So what -- I'm trying to figure out, as you know, people are saying the administration is exaggerating this. So, if you're going to be having totals, inflation adjusted, at 2008 levels, why all of this sturm and drung about oh my goodness, all the planes are going to be late?

LAHOOD: Well, first of all, we're required to cut a billion dollars. The largest number of employees at DOT is at FAA, of which the largest number are FAA controllers. We're going to try and cut as much as we possibly can out of contracts and other things that we do. But in the end, there has to be some kind of furlough of air traffic control -- air traffic controllers, and that then will also begin to curtail or eliminate the opportunity for them to guide planes in and out of airports.

CROWLEY: Sure.

LAHOOD: It's a big part of our budget.

CROWLEY: Is it true that domestic flights are down 27 percent from pre-9/11 levels and the budget of the FAA is up 41 percent?

LAHOOD: Well, lookit, we know that airlines have consolidated. We've approved some of those consolidations, and in doing that, you know, a certain --

CROWLEY: There's less traffic.

LAHOOD: There is less traffic, of course. CROWLEY: But more budget. LAHOOD: Well, lookit, budgets have -- you know, go up and down. But the bottom line here is, is that there is sequester required. It's required by law. It means we have to make these cuts. This is not stuff that we just decided to make up to try and --

CROWLEY: Sure. No, I understand. I guess, what I'm trying to get at is that people think, wait a minute, there surely has to be money that you can take -- and you say you're going to look at it -- without having to have delayed flights. And the idea is that this was kind of ginned up by the administration and not just you, but you know, aircraft carriers can't go here and there, to try to put pressure on Congress.

And I want to -- and I want to -- speaking of pressure on Congress, you were quite vocal about who you blame for this when you did your news conference. I want to play just a little bit of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAHOOD: This requires Republicans stepping forward with some ideas about how to keep essential services of government running at the level that people had been accustomed to. This is not rocket science. This is people coming together, the way that other Congresses have done, to solve big -- solve big issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: You're a Republican. You spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill before your current job. I understand that you work for the president now, and he's a Democrat. Is it all the Republicans' fault?

LAHOOD: Well, lookit, this sequester is very serious business, and it requires us to make the reductions that we're making. It requires us as painful as it is to furlough the people that we're going to have to furlough. And we're taking it very seriously. We hope that this week, Republicans and Democrats will step forward.

The president put forth a plan to find the $85 billion. $85 billion is a lot of money, Candy, and we -- there has to be shared sacrifice here. We're doing our part. And part of what we're doing is saying to people that these reductions are, these furloughs, these --

CROWLEY: Do you think, do you think, though, that Republicans are solely to blame for this? It just seemed that way when you gave your news conference.

LAHOOD: Well, lookit, I'm a Republican. My audience is trying to persuade my former colleagues that they need to come to the table with a proposal, which might be they haven't done. While the president has, the Republicans haven't. I also at that news conference said that everybody around here ought to go take a look at the "Lincoln" movie, where they did very hard things by working together, talking together and compromising. That's what's needed here. CROWLEY: Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, thank you for your time this morning. And thank you for your service. This might be your (INAUDIBLE) at least as transportation secretary. I know you are retiring. Thank you so much for your service on Capitol Hill as transportation secretary.

LAHOOD: Thank you, Candy.

CROWLEY: When we return, Republicans are demanding more answers from CIA nominee Brennan and a replacement for Hagel as defense secretary. Might the president's former rival help get those nominees through confirmation? John McCain is up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: Joining me now is Senator John McCain of Arizona. I want to talk to you about these sequester, these budget cuts, automatic budget cuts. You heard transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, talking about them. Here's my question for you. Everyone thinks this is a -- bad things are going to happen when these forced cuts go into effect.

You know, the military says that the training is going to suffer, that they're not going to be able to get ships to the Persian Gulf. You know, we can't inspect meat. The planes are going to slow down. If it is this dire and everyone agrees it is this dire, what happens? Congress goes on recess and the president goes golfing.

Why isn't somebody in a room somewhere, in a shirt they've had on for three days, ordering takeout pizza with a bunch of people trying to figure it out if it's that bad?

MCCAIN: That's exactly what we should be doing. And I won't put all the blame on the president of the United States. But the president leaves. The president should be calling us over somewhere, Camp David, the White House, somewhere, and sitting down and trying to avert these cuts. Let me just say a word about the cuts really quickly.

We have already cut $87 billion out of defense Under Secretary Gates. We are on track to cut another $487 billion already out of defense. Now, you lay on top of that these enormous reductions as well. Then -- and by the way, defense is 19 percent of the overall discretionary budget. Defense has taken 50 percent of the cuts.

And if we don't believe our military leaders, then who in the world do we believe? And I think that what we are doing now to the men and women who are serving is unconscionable, because they deserve a predictable life in the military, and also, these federal employees who don't know whether they're going to be laid off or not, not to mention these contracts --

CROWLEY: Doesn't that make my point? Shouldn't somebody somewhere --

MCCAIN: Absolutely. And I stand -- (CROSSTALK) MCCAIN: Senator Levin, and Senator Graham, and Senator Ayotte and I and Senator Reid tried a year ago. A year ago. Senator Graham and I, Senator Ayotte went around the country to these various places, including Norfolk, Virginia, where the president, I understand, is going this coming week, warning of the effects of these cuts.

And I say to my Republican friends, if you want to just give the president flexibility as to how to enact these cuts in defense spending, then why don't we go home and just give him the money? I am totally opposed to that. We spent too long on defense authorization and finding out what this country needs to secure this country without saying, hey, well, we'll just let the president have the, quote, "flexibility."

That's not the answer. The answer is to prevent these reductions. We are already cutting defense. I can find lots of waste and mismanagement, but, by God, across the board cuts are the worst and most cowardly way to approach this situation.

CROWLEY: And yet, we're headed there.

MCCAIN: Yes, we are.

CROWLEY: I mean, you know, again, it's so frustrating because you think somebody ought to pick this up and do something about it.

MCCAIN: And again, Republican leaders should be saying to the president, along with Democratic leaders, let's sit down and work this out. That's way we've avoided crises in the past.

CROWLEY: What do you make of Secretary LaHood, a Republican, blaming Republicans for this?

MCCAIN: Shame on Ray LaHood.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: No, listen, I understand, but, you know, I think there's a Bob Woodward piece in "The Post" this morning that gives the tic-tac about who really the idea for sequestration was, and we know who now it was. It came from the White House and the president's aides. Despite that, the president said --

CROWLEY: Congress went for it.

MCCAIN: The president said during the campaign, won't happen. I said during the campaign, and so did others say, we got to stop this from happening. The president has now said it was Congress' fault. We know the president wasn't telling the truth about that.

CROWLEY: Fifteen of your colleagues -- I want to switch to Chuck Hagel -- nominated to be defense secretary. Fifteen of your colleagues, including Jim Inhofe, sent a letter to the president saying, withdraw this name, there is just many reasons why he should not be secretary of defense? Why didn't you sign that letter? MCCAIN: Because I do not believe Chuck Hagel, who is a friend of mine, is qualified to be secretary of defense. But I do believe that elections have consequences, unfortunately, and the president of the United States was re-elected. I believe that when the questions are answered, and I believe they will be by this coming week that the president deserves an up or down vote.

Now, Democrats will say, well, we've never done that before. Well, they had. And they did with Bolton and with John Towner (ph) and with others, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't give Chuck Hagel an up or down vote. And I think we should.

CROWLEY: As far as you know, is there anything standing between Chuck Hagel and that vote? A hold? Anybody willing to do that? You think this will happen?

MCCAIN: I think it will happen, barring some additional revelation concerning his comments about Israel and all those other really unfortunate things he said in the past.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you about John Brennan, nominated to be CIA director. You have wanted certain information about Benghazi, about that. How far are you willing to go to delay the Brennan vote in order to get the information you want?

MCCAIN: I think it depends on his answers, to start with. But second of all, we still don't know who was rescued from the consulate in Benghazi. We still don't know who made out the talking points. We still don't know -- Mr. Brennan said that he was opposed to waterboarding and torture, but at the same time, he has said it has saved lives.

I'd like to know what lives were saved, because the information that I have is it saved no one's life. In fact, it was a lot of misinformation.

CROWLEY: If you don't get answers, would you put a hold on that? Would you try to slow down?

MCCAIN: I think you examine your options when you decide on -- when you -- on the information, but he needs to answer these questions. And they say why now? It's the only time we have the maximum leverage. That's just a fact of life around Washington. But, look, I don't want to put a hold on anybody, but the American people deserve answers about Benghazi.

There are so many questions that are still out there, including what was the president doing the night Benghazi happened?

CROWLEY: And let me turn you finally to a domestic issue here and that is immigration. You had quite the town hall meeting or series of them when you're out in Arizona. I just want to show our listeners a little bit of what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're going to be on Medicare. They're going to be on welfare. They're going to be on food stamps --

MCCAIN: Again --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know it. And what's going to happen --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you don't -- why bring 30 million people into the United States? Cut off their welfare and all their stuff and they'll go back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: So, lots of echoes here of previous elections.

MCCAIN: Yes. But you know, people -- some people say, oh, look at that. That's what town halls are supposed to be about. That's why they're always packed, as you notice. I've had town hall meetings for 30 years, and sometimes, they become very spirited. I enjoy them. We don't screen anybody who comes to our town hall meetings and it gives the people of Arizona a chance.

Now, I didn't believe that that person was correct with his facts. So, I fired back at him. And people said, good, that's what we want to hear. This is a debate we want to hear. So, I'm proud of that. And if anybody doesn't like it, then, you don't have to come to the town hall meeting.

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: What does it tell you about the base of the Republican Party? Does it tell you that you've got a problem here in selling immigration reform?

MCCAIN: Actually, the majority of Americans and I believe the majority of Republicans, as long as they -- one, that the borders is effectively controlled and, two, that the people who are here illegally get in the line behind everyone else who came here legally because they broke the law. But just because they broke the law doesn't mean they're condemned forever to a twilight status.

So, I think that most Americans, if these people who have come here illegally, pay back taxes, pay a fine, learn English and get in line behind everybody else, that that's a key element of it. And most Americans now realize we can't have 11 million people sit in the twilight -- in the shadows of America forever.

CROWLEY: You know, most Americans don't vote in Republican primaries. What do you think the effect is going to be next year?

MCCAIN: I think it's going to be OK as long as they are satisfied that we have effective control over our border and we don't make the mistake of 1986. We gave amnesty to three million people, and then we ended up with 11 million here illegally. We can't have a third wave.

CROWLEY: Senator John McCain, good to have you.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on.

CROWLEY: A U.S. delegation went to Cuba this week to meet with President Raul Castro about securing the release of an imprisoned American, but they came home empty handed. Would ending the embargo help bring an American prisoner home? Senator Patrick Leahy joins us next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEAHY: I think everybody realizes this is not the 1960s. This is different century, different world. We have to adapt to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: It's been almost two decades since Congress passed major gun control legislation, almost three for immigration reform. As we explain it in Washington, the politics are difficult. But the overwhelmingly Democratic Hispanic vote in November's election and December's horrific mass murders inside a Connecticut elementary school transformed two of the most volatile issues on the Congressional docket into the two most likely to see action.

Public opinion favors reform on both issues and that tend to concentrate the minds of politicians, not to mention give them some cover. Still, the politics remain difficult.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You don't need an ar-15. It's harder to aim. It's harder to use. And, in fact, you don't need 30 rounds to protect yourself. Buy a shotgun.

WAYNE LAPIERRE, EXECUTIVE VP AND CEO, NRA: See, it's not about making our kids or our streets safer. It's all about their decades' old agenda. The elites in Washington are not serious.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: As for the politics of immigration, consider the ruckus after the president's idea of reform was leaked into the delicate atmosphere of ongoing bipartisan negotiations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) NEW YORK: I know that Senator Rubio was upset with this leak.

REP. PAUL RYAN, (R) WISCONSIN: Leaking this out does set things in the wrong direction.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CROWLEY: And in reality, the specifics are a lot more difficult than the general notion of reform. Under what conditions should undocumented workers be allowed to pursue legal status. Should legalization be tied to border security? Should gun magazines be limited to what, ten rounds? Seven rounds? And what exemptions should there be to universal background checks?

Just because most lawmakers want to do something doesn't mean they want to do everything. You know what is in the details.

Eventually immigration and gun control reform, details and all, will run through the judiciary committee. Its chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy, is here next with his take on what's doable in 2013.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAPIERRE: This is not universal background checks. This is universal registration of all of your firearms and all of people like you all over America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: That was Wayne Lapierre, executive vice president of the NRA, speaking last night at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo.

CROWLEY: Joining me now is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Is that true? Because you know that's what some gun hunters -- gun owners fear, and that is that a background check is nothing more than a way to get registration.

LEAHY: No, it's not going to be registration. And, of course, the speaker knows that, but he's paid very well to stir up his membership and help increase dues-paying members.

But I think we ought to lower (ph) the rhetoric and talk reality. I'm a gun owner. A lot of people in my state of Vermont are gun owners. But I know last time I went in to purchase a firearm, I had to go through a background check. I didn't have any problem with doing that.

CROWLEY: And what do they do with that information? When you go in and you say, this is my name, this is my address, this is my phone number. No, I don't have any mental health problems. I pass all of this. They put it in a background check and what happens to that?

LEAHY: They check to see if you told the truth and then it's cleared out.

CROWLEY: It gets deleted, is what you're saying.

LEAHY: Yes. But what happens, I don't mind having a background check for me, but I don't somebody who has two felonies, maybe for armed robbery, to be able to come in and have (ph) a background check. And unless you have a universal background check, it doesn't apply to somebody who may have had felonies.

The fact is most gun owners I talk to in Vermont say, OK, the rules are -- as long as it applies to everybody. Don't make exceptions. And unfortunately, the speaker was talking about making exceptions.

I don't think there should be exemptions at a gun show, or for straw purchasers. We want to say to everybody, so that if you have a violent crime in your background, if you're under a restraining order, if you have some of these problems, you're not going to be able to legally purchase a firearm.

CROWLEY: At gun shows, is what we're talking about here.

LEAHY: At gun shows or --

CROWLEY: Expanding background checks to gun shows and private sales.

LEAHY: And gun stores. You know what I mean, your local gun store has to pay taxes to the community, to the state, fill out all these rules and all. Why should they have stiffer rules on them than somebody who comes in, sets up in the fairground for a week.

CROWLEY: And we just want to clarify, when you say the speaker in your previous remarks, you're talking about Wayne LaPierre, not Speaker Boehner.

LEAHY: No, no, no, not Speaker Boehner.

CROWLEY: OK. And what you're saying is that all of that information, if you were a law-abiding citizen with no felonies on your record, no mental health problems, whatever information you have given to that gun store or whoever, that is then fed into for a background check, goes away. They press delete. So no one knows you own that.

LEAHY: It's not a registration. It's not a registration. You don't find out -- but if you've -- but if you've lied about it, then that is going to be retained.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, I want to move you, because there are so many issues that are coming to your committee, and I wanted to ask you about immigration. You made an opening statement during one of your hearings that just said, you know, that you basically oppose the idea of tying border security to allowing undocumented workers to begin a pathway towards legalization. And yet what we're led to believe is that bipartisan committee wants to do exactly that.

LEAHY: No. What I'm saying is don't make the perfect the enemy of the good. If you say there must be total security before we can go forward, that's never going to happen. We spend billions and billions of dollars --

CROWLEY: But you wouldn't mind measurements along the way. LEAHY: But I don't mind measurements. I think this administration, the Obama administration, has spent more money on border security than any administration in history. There are still going to be some people getting through. I just don't want it to be a case where you say, well, until we know that not one person can get through, will we have immigration reform. That's never going to happen.

We're (inaudible) -- improve border security, of course. But at the same time, find some way to have immigration reform. The time is now. It's unrealistic to expect that suddenly you're going to have 11 million people, well, we'll just throw you out of the country, you couldn't do it. And we're not going to do it. Let's find out how they come in, in the same way my maternal grandparents came in, or my wife's parents came in. Let's have some way to make sure they can become citizens.

CROWLEY: I want to ask you about your recent trip to Cuba, but just a wrap-up question on both these issues, guns and immigration. At the end of the year, will you be able to say that this first year of this Congress passed both immigration reform and gun control reform in some manner?

LEAHY: I think we will. If people want to come together. I don't want it to be a partisan bill. I'm working with both Republicans and Democrats. Unless we work with both Republicans and Democrats, we'll pass nothing.

CROWLEY: You were recently in Cuba. You met with Alan Gross, who is an American prisoner in Cuba, he is a contract worker. He's been detained since 2009. You also met with Raul Castro, the new president. Did you speak to him about the fate of Mr. Gross, and what did you find out about, A, Mr. Gross' health, and, B, whether there's any room in there to get him out?

LEAHY: Well, I have spoken twice to President Raul Castro about Mr. Gross. Both my wife and I have met with him twice.

I met with Mr. Gross twice. I did this past week.

I said I would have loved to have just put him on my airplane and brought him back out with me. That's not going to happen. He's not going to be -- he is not going to be released by the Cubans because of pressure from the United States. That does not work. It hasn't worked in the past.

I think there are ways that he can be released, but it's going to require some give and take on both sides and some quiet negotiation.

I think the worst thing that can happen is if we stay either in our country or in their country in this 1960s, 1970s Cold War mentality. We're a different century now. We should be looking at what's the future for their future and ours, what's the future for their children and our children, and I think if we do that, I think we can find things not only to settle the Alan Gross issue, but a whole lot of other issues. CROWLEY: So you're suggesting perhaps that you could say, listen, what about if we ease the embargo further or got rid of the embargo, in -- if you'll let him go, I will work it, that kind of thing?

LEAHY: I'm not going to go into specific things, but we have a number of issues that we should be looking at. We have them on a terrorist list. It makes no sense. They've been working to help the Colombians on the issue of the FARC. They've been very effective. They've worked with us on drug interdiction. That's something that can be removed. There are a lot of things that we can do. The embargo is an obvious one.

The idea that you and I have to get permission to go to Cuba from our own government, you know, it makes no sense.

CROWLEY: That's sort of a relic of the past.

LEAHY: Yeah.

CROWLEY: Yeah. Listen, you have a lot on your plate, Senator. I wish you good luck in the coming months.

LEAHY: It is going to be an interesting year.

CROWLEY: It will. 

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