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King: Health care, climate change top talk agenda

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. general in Iraq: "I believe we're on the right path"
  • GOP challenges President Obama on health care, climate change
  • Republicans assess impact of South Carolina governor's scandal on party
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham says Obama's actions will help GOP to bounce back
By John King
CNN Chief National Correspondent
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Editor's note: John King, CNN's chief national correspondent and "State of the Union" host, examines the news made in Sunday talk and offers up this Monday morning crib sheet on what to watch this week in politics. Please note that all quotes are from rush transcripts and are subject to change. If you'd like to receive a sneak peek of next week's news in your inbox every Sunday, you can sign up for the "Political Ticker -- State of the Union Sunday Edition" at

(CNN) -- A late June Sunday stirred memories of sparring of 16 years ago on the issue that was then, and is now, center stage in the nation's policy and political debates: health care reform.

CNN's John King looks back at Sunday's talk shows and what will make news in the coming week.

CNN's John King looks back at Sunday's talk shows and what will make news in the coming week.

We also heard a spirited debate over the wisdom, and costs, of the landmark climate change legislation that narrowly cleared the House of Representatives as the workweek came to a close.

To its backers, it is a giant step toward meeting what they see as a generational challenge to shift away from fossil fuels and toward an energy infrastructure that dramatically reduces U.S. emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.

To hear critics, the legislation amounts to more government intervention in the marketplace, ignores what they see as the big advantages of nuclear power and, as they see it, cedes more economic advantage to India, China and others.

Iran wasn't as much a Sunday flash point as in the previous two weeks, but it did not disappear entirely from the conversation.

And on "State of the Union," we made a point of beginning with another international story that, in our view, gets overshadowed too much: Iraq.

Future role of U.S. forces in Iraq

With a key deadline approaching this week -- and with 131,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq more than six years after the war began, we thought it the perfect time to catch up with Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Let's get to the "Sound of Sunday" ... and let's begin with the stakes in Iraq.

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John King: A simple question off the top. Are the Iraqis ready for these awesome new responsibilities?

Gen. Raymond Odierno: I do believe they're ready, John. They've been working toward this for a long time. And security remains good; we've seen constant improvement in the security force, constant improvement in governance. And I believe this is the time for us to move out of the cities and for them to take ultimate responsibility. ... They have improved significantly over the last 2½ years. We've seen incredible increase in their capacity and capability. They have proven it in combat operations, proven their flexibility and adaptable. So I am much more confident than I've ever been in the Iraqi security forces. ...

[The agreement with Iraq's government calls for U.S. forces to cede day-to-day operations in all Iraqi cities by Tuesday. It is clear the U.S. military wishes it had a little more time in some hot spots -- such as Baghdad's Sadr City -- but Odierno said such "tactical" concerns are outweighed at the moment by the "strategic" goal of transferring power to the Iraqis.

Odierno sounded optimistic, though he did share his biggest concern -- and a sober assessment that Iran continues to work to undermine the goals of the U.S. mission in Iraq.]

King: Let me ask you this question. What is your biggest worry?

Odierno: I think it has to do with if we see a breakdown in stability in Iraq, if we see a consistent increase in violence, if we see that the Iraqi security forces aren't able to respond, if we have some event that it caused some instability, then that would cause us to, maybe, after we're asked by the government of Iraq, to help. I don't see that right now. I believe we're on the right path.

King: When we spoke two months ago, sir, I asked you on a scale of 1 to 10, how confident you were that all American troops would be out by the end of 2011. Are you still that confident, sir? Is that still a 10 on this morning?

Odierno: It is. Actually, we're at 131,000 today, have been now for about a month. We'll continue to draw down slowly and deliberately over this year. What's good is, I've been given the flexibility to make those decisions based on the security environment on the ground. I believe we'll continue to slowly and deliberately withdraw our forces this year, but have enough forces here to ensure that we have successful parliamentary elections next January.

King: Has that situation in terms of Iran coming across the border in ways, or training people across the border, sending dangerous equipment across the border, is that better now than if we were having this conversation in the past? Or is it about the same?

Odierno: Well, I would say they still say they continue to interfere inside of Iraq. They still continue to conduct training; they still continue to pay surrogates to conduct operations in Iraq. It might be a bit less than it was. I think that's more based on the success of the security forces here than it is on Iran's intent. Read more of Odierno's interview

Relations with Iran

Before shifting to the home front, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made clear the Obama administration is ready for a dialogue with the Iranian regime despite its crackdown on demonstrators protesting the disputed election.

"What seems to be going on again is something that has been a traditional element of the regime's playbook, which is to blame the outside world, blame the West, blame the United States rather than to recognize and acknowledge that what has transpired in Iran is really between the people of Iran and their government. ...

"We didn't have diplomatic relations with Iran before the elections. Obviously we don't have them at present. We will continue to pursue the offer that the P-5, the permanent members of the [U.N.] Security Council, plus Germany, put on the table two months ago in April to give the Iranians a choice. This is up to them. They have one path, which is a path of ending their nuclear weapons program and acting responsibly, rejoining the community of nations, or another path, which is to face increased isolation and pressure. That is up to them. But we have not rescinded that prospect."

-- Rice on CBS' "Face the Nation"

Also a top presidential adviser disputed Iranian claims of U.S. meddling in the June 12 vote and causing the post-election political unrest.

"Well, first of all, you know, let's be clear that we didn't meddle in the election in Iran. The dispute in Iran is between the leadership in Iran and their own people, and plainly, Mr. [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad thinks that by -- by fingering the United States, that he can create a political diversion. So I'm not going to entertain his bloviations that are politically motivated."

-- White House senior adviser David Axelrod on ABC's "This Week"

(It's not every Sunday that you hear someone say "bloviations.")

Republicans slam Obama on spending

On the home front, health care and climate change were the vehicles for a spirited debate over the Obama-Democratic agenda.

Two of those involved in Sunday's sparring are possible 2012 GOP presidential contenders -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- and it was clear that more and more Republicans are determined to cast President Obama as a big-spending, big-government kind of guy. A third governor who says he's unlikely to join the next presidential race, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, also joined the debate on government spending with gusto.

"The president said not long ago in an interview, quote unquote, we are out of money. If we're out of money, quit spending it."

-- Pawlenty on CNN's "State of the Union" Read more of the interview with Pawlenty

"Well, I actually think that you're going to see the economy begin to turn around probably next year. Maybe you'll see the signs at the last half of this year, but next year you'll see a turnaround. This economy does turn around. I don't think the stimulus that was passed is going to be much help. The stimulus that was passed was unfortunately focused more on government and creating employment inside government than it was creating jobs in the private sector."

-- Romney on NBC's "Meet the Press"

"I'm very concerned on a number of fronts. One is the out of control, unsustainable, irresponsible level of -- excuse, federal spending and the debt and the deficit that's growing by the minute. That is something that is not responsible, something that's going to, I think, snap back and bite us in ways that are going to hurt the economy in the intermediate term. I'm concerned about this massive government encroachment in autos, health care, energy and other sectors. But President Obama inherited a very tough situation. I think we need to give him more than six months before you can make an ultimate verdict on how he's doing."

-- Pawlenty on "State of the Union"

"You know, governors -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- we have to balance our budgets. It's not easy. You're going to have to make tough decisions. People expect you to do that, and for a conservative Republican like me, people expect you to try to control spending. In other states where you have got liberal Democrat governors, maybe they expect tax increases, but people need you to do what you said you're going to do. And that's the big thing, regardless of what the issue is. ... Look, the American people right now are very concerned about our country's future. And they're very concerned about this incredible burst of spending, a surge of spending unlike anything in American history, where every month there's a new way to spend a trillion dollars."

-- Barbour on "Face the Nation"

Taxes on health care benefits?

Significantly, as the White House returned the GOP fire, it also shifted yet again in the crucial debate about how to pay for the overhaul of health care. Two weeks ago, both Vice President Joe Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius tried to slam the door shut on the idea of raising taxes on health care benefits provided by employers.

But this week, as the political and policy math gets more difficult, Axelrod added a soft-spoken but very significant "but" as he made it clear that, while taxing benefits is not the president's favored approach:

"He is very cognizant of protecting people, hard-working people, middle-class people who are trying to get along in a very difficult economy, and he will continue to represent them in these talks, but we're also dealing with punishing health care costs, and that's something we have to deal with."

-- Axelrod on ABC's "This Week" Read more on what Axelrod says

"Well, he vigorously opposed Sen. [John] McCain's idea to eliminate the benefits, the nontaxable benefits, because he figures that would really dismantle the employer marketplace. I think that he's open to discussion."

-- Sebelius on "Fox News Sunday"

One reason for that wiggle room is that taxing health benefits is the approach favored by Max Baucus, D-Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The panel's top Republican -- Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa -- said he could support that, too, but warned that if the president wants a bipartisan health care bill, Obama is going to have to endorse publicly the higher taxes on the middle class he vowed to oppose during the campaign.

"In my view and in the view of many other Republicans since the president denigrated John McCain's effort to move in this direction in the campaign, it's going to take -- in order to win over Republicans -- presidential leadership in order to move in that direction."

-- Grassley on ABC's "This Week"

GOP and climate change

Squeezing the climate change bill through the House by a narrow margin was a big deal, but the energy bill faces a tough road in the Senate, and the minority leader spent some of Sunday making the Republican case that there are better, targeted, incremental steps to deal with energy and climate challenges.

"Well, I hope it won't pass the Senate. The president himself said last year it will lead to skyrocketing electricity increases. Think of it as a light switch tax. I think the president's right. I think it's going to lead to significant increases in electricity across America in an effort to try to deal with a global problem. If we do have a global warming problem, and many people believe we do, we need to target it on a global basis. ...

"I don't think putting clamps on our economy when you know the Chinese and the Indians are not going to do it is a good idea. Why not develop technology to burn coal cleanly? The French produce 85 percent of their power from nuclear plants. They don't have a [carbon dioxide] emission problem."

-- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, on "Fox News Sunday"

Impact of Sanford scandal

There was another "price tag" debate as well: trying to assess just how much national damage to the Republican Party will be done by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's dramatic admission that he not only had a mistress but that he also lied to his wife and his staff in sneaking off to Argentina to see her.

Pawlenty had strong words -- and an interesting take on Jenny Sanford's decision to let her husband stand alone in making his confession and apology.

"Clearly, there's damage any time you have leading figures engaged in behavior that's sad and hypocritical. Some are going to say they don't walk the walk. So the actions don't ring true. It's a sad situation with Jenny and Mark Sanford. I'm proud of Jenny for her strength and commitment to her family. I was glad to see her not standing at the press conference like many have. Saying, 'Look, I'm ready to forgive him, but I'm not going to sit there and condone this in any way.' "

-- Pawlenty on "State of the Union"

King: I want to circle back a little bit. This became an issue and could become an issue in the state of South Carolina. When you leave your state [Minnesota], what is your responsibility as the governor to tell people where you are, how you can be reached and the whole combination of events that could play out from that? Because as you know one of the questions about Gov. Sanford, was he derelict of duty?

Pawlenty: Your staff has to be able to reach you and reach you quickly for all of the obvious reasons -- natural disaster, terrorism or other events. And so I'm very careful to make sure that numerous staff people and my security detail always know where I am and can reach me, and any governor should do that.

King: Sanford, was derelict in his duty?

Pawlenty: He should not have left the state and not let people know how to contact him. Read more on Pawlenty's view of the South Carolina scandal

For fellow South Carolinian, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, it was intensely personal:

"It's just, this is hard for me. I'm the godfather of his youngest child. This is not just some political observation. I talked to Jenny, and I tell you one thing, Mark Sanford is lucky to have Jenny Sanford, and I hope he realizes that and I think he does. ... Second chances are not deserved, but when they're [given], it's a blessing. So I hope Mark gets one."

-- Graham on "Meet the Press" Read more of what Graham says

And Barbour, the Mississippi governor, was one of several Sunday talkers who said the challenge for all politicians is to not open themselves up to cries of hypocrisy.

"For us as Republicans, the biggest issue about this or about spending or about other policy issues is Republicans need to do what they say they're going to do."

-- Barbour on "Face the Nation"

"People that are in -- in public life ought to be held to a higher standard, that -- that when -- I heard one governor, former governor say, 'Well, everybody makes mistakes.' Well, that's true. But not all mistakes are the same. And not everybody is a governor or a senator or a president. And we expect people to live by a higher standard, because what they do is going to be magnified. Their families are going to be hurt more by what they do. Their -- the things they care about will be hurt. And the culture of the nation and the people who follow them will be hurt."

-- Romney on "Meet the Press" Read more on Romney's take

Finally, Graham had an interesting take on GOP prospects, saying he is worried about the party in the long term, but that he is upbeat about the short term because of how Obama has governed in his early months.

"The Republican Party has an opportunity to get back in the game, and I appreciate the Democrats for making that possible. Without them we would be out of the game. If President Obama had gone to the middle and done all of the things he'd said in the campaign, we'd be toast. But he has not. I know bipartisanship when I see it. There has been no bipartisanship."

-- Graham on "Meet the Press"

All About Barack ObamaIranHealth Care PolicyMark SanfordIraq

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