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Capital Gang

Sen. Harry Reid Discusses Prescription Drug Benefits, Campaign Finance Reform and the Supreme Court

Aired July 1, 2000 - 7:00 p.m. ET



I'm Mark Shields, with Al Hunt, Robert Novak and Kate O'Beirne.

Our guest is Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic whip.

Thanks for coming in, Harry.

SEN. HARRY REID (D), NEVADA: Glad to be here.

SHIELDS: Good to have you here.

President Clinton offered a trade: a tax cut for a prescription drug bill.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let's pass a voluntary prescription drug benefit for seniors and disabled Americans on Medicare and marriage penalty tax relief for American families.


SHIELDS: House Republicans declined, insisting on a bill which uses private insurance companies instead of Medicare to pay for seniors' prescriptions.

Democrats staged a walkout from the House floor, but the bill passed on a party-line vote.


REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: The Republican plan is a sham. It's a hoax. It's a political fig leaf.

REP DEBORAH PRYCE (R), CONFERENCE SECRETARY: It's been clear from some time -- for some time that the issue of prescription drugs has been a political game to the Democrats all along. They didn't walk out on us, Mr. Speaker, they walked out on American seniors -- and shame on them.

CLINTON: The bill that they passed is an empty promise to most of our seniors.


SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, who won this skirmish in the prescription drug battle?

KATE O'BEIRNE, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, putting aside how the taxpayers fared in this one, I think between Republicans and Democrats, I think the furious reaction of House Democrats is evidence that the Republicans won this round.

House Democrats are convinced that the prescription drug, a new prescription drug benefit is key to winning back the older voters the party's been losing and in turn winning back the House. They have to be able to say, though, that House Republicans oppose a new prescription drug benefit. And now that the House Republicans held together, passed their own plan, the Democrats can no longer accuse them of that.

And the Republicans will argue that their plan doesn't jeopardize the solvency of Medicare, which they accuse the Democrats of doing by adding an expensive new entitlement on to a program facing bankruptcy.

SHIELDS: Harry Reid, a $40 billion entitlement a Republican House just voted. I mean, this is enough to keep Brother Novak up until the middle of the night. Isn't that a major contribution to the seniors' well being?

REID: It's interesting to find that the Republicans finally got religion on this issue. No, the Republican leadership, they've stated publicly how they dislike Medicare. It's a bad idea. And you'll find here that the Medicare plan -- pardon me, prescription drug benefit plan that they have is in name only. It's just like the patients' bill of rights that passed the Senate a year ago. It's a patients' bill of wrongs. It's in name only. And their prescription drug benefit takes care of insurance companies and people who make less than $12,000 a year. It doesn't make a dent in the problem that we have.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak, who's right here?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": That's not right. It does take care of catastrophic. See, the thing is the Democrats, don't want, when it comes down to it, they don't want private enterprise to be involved.

The whole question of the seniors and drugs is they don't want to pay any money for their drugs, even those who can afford it. People go to Miami, they go to play bingo, they do all these things, but what they don't want to do is pay any money for the drugs, and they want the government. So the Republicans understand the mood of these seniors.

And so what they're doing is they're saying, we have to have something we can vote for. And they should be a little ashamed of themselves, but at least they're using private industry instead of HCFA, the Medicare thing where, you know, they have a picture of Joe Stalin on the wall there because that's there idol.

SHIELDS: Hey, hey, enough of that baloney. But let's -- Al Hunt, this...

HUNT: Eighty-seven-year-old people more interested in bingo. Look, the Republican game, which Bob is close to getting here, was revealed when they had a pollster come and talk to the Republican conference three weeks ago, Glen Bolger. And you know what he told them? He said, Mark, it's more important to communicate that you have a plan than what's in it. Well that's exactly what they've done.

And to paraphrase Woody Allen, this is a travesty of a mockery of a sham. I mean, Bob says it's private enterprise. Now they would subsidize the insurance companies to subsidize seniors. The insurance industry says it won't work, seniors say it won't work, health experts say it won't work. Nobody thinks this plan -- it's a ridiculous plan.

But the worst thing is, Mark, they wouldn't give the Democrats a vote on their plan. Now in 1994...

NOVAK: That's not true.

HUNT: That's true -- the Democrats were, I think, penalized for their arrogance. They came up with closed rules and they disregarded the minority. In six years, the Republicans have become as arrogant as the Democrats were in 40.

NOVAK: That -- just a small correct -- factual correction. They had a recommittal motion, and they could recommit to have my bill passed. That's a vote on the bill.

SHIELDS: No, it's not a vote on the bill.

NOVAK: Yes, it is.

HUNT: Bob, Bob, it's what -- you covered the House long -- it's what you call a closed rule. You know you never bring up...

NOVAK: You always get one bite at the apple.

HUNT: Bob, Bob, you don't bring up non-revenue bills as a closed rule, and you know that.

NOVAK: But there's one bite at the apple. They got one -- if they had passed...

HUNT: Bob, Bob...

NOVAK: Wait a minute. Can I ask you a question? If they had passed the recommittal motion, would the Democratic bill have passed the House, yes or no?

HUNT: Can I ask you one question? Why didn't they allow a vote? Why didn't they allow an amendment?

NOVAK: They did allow a... HUNT: Why didn't they allow an amendment?

SHIELDS: They didn't allow a vote for a very simple reason, because they didn't want to have the Republicans on record against that.

HUNT: Because they'd lose.

SHIELDS: No, Bob. I think your argument is totally weakened, quite frankly, by the disclosure on Friday that these private insurance companies are dropping three-quarters of a million people off of Medicare. They don't want this. They -- the Republican urge to privatize Medicare is so transparent and so obvious, I just think they're going to be in political trouble.

REID: The reason the Democrats weren't allowed a vote in the House is because the bill would have passed.

O'BEIRNE: But let's look at what the Democrats are trying to do. I mean, two-thirds of seniors have some level of coverage. The problem is just not as broad as the Democrats would have you believe. Half of all seniors pay less than $500 a year on prescription drugs. There ought to be a narrowly focused program to address those in real need.

What the Democrats would do is substitute. We currently have private coverage for an awful lot of seniors. Once Medicare provides the benefit, they'll drop their private coverage, all come into Medicare, typical of Medicare benefits they grow widely out of control and the program's facing bankruptcy.

SHIELDS: Harry Reid, what will the president do?

REID: In 1965 when Medicare came into being, there was no need for a prescription drug benefit. Now you can't say you have a program for seniors and not have a prescription drug benefit. And the president has said, come along. Let's have a prescription drug benefit that we can agree on. There should be a bipartisan bill. It would be easy to do.

SHIELDS: Will he sign this one?

REID: No, he won't -- well, if he -- not unless he's lost his mind.

O'BEIRNE: And Republicans...

NOVAK: This is the bite-sized version of socialized medicine, of Hillarycare. Step by -- Instead of taking it all in one bite, they do it step by step.

But somebody -- I wish somebody would explain to me why they're -- you say there wasn't a vote on the bill, Harry, when if the recommittal motion had passed, that is a vote on the bill. That would have been the bill passed by the House.

HUNT: All I can say is, Mark, I've covered the House for years, and on non-revenue bills you always allow a vote. And...

NOVAK: Is somebody going to answer my question?

HUNT: I'll give you an answer.

NOVAK: All right.

HUNT: Because the Republicans knew they would lose. That's exactly why.

SHIELDS: And I just say this in closing, Bob. Any segment when you can use bingo for elders and Hillarycare in one paragraph is worth listening to.

REID: What about socialized medicine?

SHIELDS: Socialized -- and bite-sized.

HUNT: And Joe Stalin.

SHIELDS: And Joe Stalin. Bob, that just about does it. You're going to be silent the rest of the show.

Harry Reid and THE GANG will be back with victories for campaign finance reform and abortion rights.


SHIELDS: Welcome back.

On a midnight roll call, the House voted to require disclosure of all contributors to so-called 527 political action groups called stealth PACs.


REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Let no member in this body or no one in this country make the mistake of thinking this is comprehensive campaign finance reform, because it's not.

REP. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: This bill is a sham when it comes to real campaign finance reform. We should have gone the whole way and forced anybody from the right, from the business community to the left and the labor community to have to square with the American people about where they get their money.


SHIELDS: The Senate next passed the bill by 92-6, thus completing action on the very first campaign finance bill to be passed in 21 years.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This bill will not solve what is wrong with our campaign finance system. It will not do away with the millions of soft money dollars that is polluting our elections.


SHIELDS: Al Hunt, is this a milestone or a reason not to do any more?

HUNT: Mark, it's probably both. It's rare when you have almost 200 House members and over 40 senators switch their vote in a matter of a couple weeks. This says something, I think, about public pressure.

But the issue is most crystallized when Mitch McConnell, the poster boy of this show, stood up on the Senate floor and said this bill is probably unconstitutional, but I urge all Republican senators who are up for re-election to vote for it.

What did that tell us? It told us, No. 1, the hypocrisy of the McConnells of the world. Secondly, it told us that those who say that the public doesn't care about this, that that's just not the case. The John McCain candidacy left footprints. It wouldn't have been passed if it hadn't been for the effect of John McCain. And if people don't care about it, why should senators up for re-election vote for it, according to Mitch McConnell?

I don't think this is a very big deal. This is an egregious loophole that should have been closed. It doesn't address, as Senator McCain said, the broader issues of campaign finance reform. The McConnells think they can now kill everything, but, you know, it may build some momentum now, at least keep pressure on.

SHIELDS: Bob, two weeks ago, eight Republican senators for the first time voted for campaign finance reform, all of whom happened to be up, had a miraculous road to Damascus experience. And yesterday on the Senate -- I was up in the Senate press gallery watching John Ashcroft, Slade Gorton, Rod Grams, Rick Santorum, Bill Frist, John Kyl all become battlefield converts to campaign finance. What's going on?

NOVAK: Well let me try and explain it to you, Mark. In the first place, Marty Meehan, John Kasich and John McCain don't think it's campaign finance reform -- and I don't either. In the first place, it's an outrage that they were not disclosing these contributions on these 527s. It was absolutely wrong, and it was an indefensible position. They -- the Republicans flinched, as they usually did, because they didn't carry the same disclosure requirements to labor, to business, to environment groups. It could much farther than the 527s. So this was the easy way out.

They're just running for the exits to get this session over and get these votes on the record, but the CNN poll shows that of all the people who think this is a most important issue, you know what the percent is? It's 5 percent of the voters -- insignificant.

SHIELDS: Insignificant. Harry, then why are these Republicans all changing?

REID: Well, I think we should give credit to John McCain. The 527s are one of the reasons he was defeated in his presidential quest...

SHIELDS: Used against him by Bush supporters and...

REID: ... And John McCain, as we learned from his experiences in Vietnam, doesn't quit. And he and Russ Feingold, of course, are responsible for this. He has been able to have the American people now be concerned about it.

I don't know what poll Bob's talking about, but we get mail and we get phone calls, and people in Nevada are concerned about this issue. And it's the first since I've been in public office that campaign finance has been even an issue. And that's because of John McCain.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, John McCain -- uncombing him from the Democratic Senate whip.

NOVAK: That's surprising.

O'BEIRNE: I favor more political speech not less, but I understand why members of Congress running for re-election hate these outside groups that come in and criticize them. They're groups that threaten their job security, and I can see why they want to shut them down. This, I think, will have a pretty insignificant impact.

I think what was shown during this week was the hypocrisy of people screaming for campaign finance reform, the outside groups and the parties, because plans to have these rules apply across the board to everybody, including unions, Common Cause even opposed that. So it seems that you have a freedom to associate if you associate under certain parts of the IRS tax code. But if you associate under another part of the IRS tax code, you have no such freedom. So I actually agree with my hero, Mitch McConnell. This is probably unconstitutional.

But there is a very significant audience for it, small but significant. "The New York Times" editorial board and this panel represent a big percentage of the people who want this, because you talk to House members, Senator, they tell me they don't get a single phone call or letter on campaign finance reform, but a lot of members are spooked by the media campaign.

SHIELDS: You know, I just love this argument, Kate, because we were told that John McCain did well because he was a hero. That's why he did well. John Glen was a bigger hero than John McCain, but he didn't do as well. John McCain did well because he represented reform in our system.

And I'll tell you, John McCain is sitting right now with 150 invitations, 96 Republican House and Senate campaigns, beseeching him to come in. I don't know how many Mitch McConnell's got, I don't know how many Trent Lott's got...


SHIELDS: Let me just say one thing, Bob, on this. John McCain is the most popular figure in America right now. He is 27 percent higher in "The Wall Street Journal"/NBC News poll among independents than is George Bush, he's 49 percent higher than Al Gore.

NOVAK: Can I make a caveat, please?

SHIELDS: I just want to say one thing. Mike Castle, Republican Congressman from Delaware, said he's the most popular figure in the country, and he's outside force to be reckoned with, and he changed votes in the House of Representatives.

NOVAK: Mark, if I could just say one thing, all due respect, Harry, he didn't lose that nomination because of the 527s. We're not going to discuss...


NOVAK: Yes, he did. He said the 527s was why he lost the nomination. That wasn't the reason.

HUNT: Can I tell you something, Bob? I hope this is a down payment, because I hope we come back later and address some of those other groups, unions, corporations environmental groups.

NOVAK: I hope so, too. I'm with you. I've always been with that.

HUNT: I think we ought to do that.

REID: Or the (OFF-MIKE) interests and do something good. At least let's get off the soft money. Let's get rid of corporate money, which was banned in this century, in the early 1900s, we've got it back...

SHIELDS: 1907.

REID: It's destroying our American political process.

SHIELDS: Thank you.

Next on CAPITAL GANG, the Supreme Court and abortion.


SHIELDS: Welcome back.

The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled unconstitutional the statute of 31 states banning the partial-birth abortion technique. The majority opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer said, quote, "The result is an undue burden upon a woman's right to make an abortion decision," end quote.

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said, quote, "The notion that the Constitution of the United States prohibits the states from simply banning this visibly brutal means of eliminating our half-born posterity is quite simply absurd," end quote.


GORE: The next president will nominate at least three and probably four -- perhaps four justices to the Supreme Court. One extra vote on the wrong side of those two issues would change the outcome, and a woman's right to choose would be taken away.

BUSH: Unlike Al Gore, I pledge to fight for a ban on partial- birth abortions.


SHIELDS: Bob Novak, who does -- whom does this decision help in the presidential campaign?

NOVAK: I'll tell you that in a second, but first I want to say that Stephen Breyer now goes into history books with Chief Justice Roger Taney, because this is like the Dred Scott decision. This is an outrageous decision. It is -- it took whole the abortion lobby's arguments and just put them into a legal opinion of the Supreme Court.

Now it helps George Bush, because what it does is it solidifies the conservative vote with him. They know now that there's one vote difference on something as unpopular and as outrageous as partial- birth abortion, and they know that they cannot mess around with Pat Buchanan or some other kind of fringe candidate. The people who are anti-abortion have to go with Bush.

REID: How about Ralph Nader?

NOVAK: Have to go with Bush.


HUNT: You know, you look at a leading indicator, how do candidates react to things? And George Bush decided not to talk much about this. We had one sound bite, but he's laying, you know, laying low on this, whereas Al Gore has added three new words to his everyday lexicon. Along with risky and leadership and prosperity, it's going to be 5-4. He's going to be talking about the Supreme Court all the time.

On this particular issue, Bob, I don't think your analysis is quite right, because I think seven of the nine justices made quite clear that they would support any ban on this offensive late-term abortion procedure called partial-birth abortion if it limited to that and did not, as the Nebraska law did, also jeopardize other. Seven of the justices made quite clear of that, and Clinton said he'd sign such a bill and protect the health of the woman.

Now you can get that victory, or you can have the issue. That's your choice.

SHIELDS: Harry Reid, you look at this, you've got Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate who voted to outlaw this partial-birth abortion procedure. For Al Gore to make this an issue in the campaign, doesn't that -- I mean, it may be a great fund- raising device and it may have an appeal to certain folks who are concerned about the court, but doesn't it risk jeopardizing the Democratic majority?

REID: Mark, I don't know about Al Gore, but here's how I feel about it. No matter how you feel about the issue, the court's ruled and we're stuck with that. That's the way it is. And I think if we were looking at helping women, we should have to go into other things. I think pay equity is something we need to worry about, I think we have to look at minimum wage, which is something 70 -- 60 percent of the people draw minimum wage are women, 40 percent of them that's the only money they get.

I do think Al Gore raises a very, very important point, and that is the Supreme Court issued opinions this week -- it was unbelievable. I don't ever remember a week that they issued so many important decisions. And I think the 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court is something that both Bush and Gore should talk about, because I think it's important. Because having been in the Senate as long as I have, it's very important who they send us, because it makes a great deal of difference as to what the law is in this country.

SHIELDS: And, Kate, Ronald Reagan sent us Sandra Day O'Connor, who was the fifth vote.

NOVAK: And I said it was -- I wrote it was mistake when he named her.

O'BEIRNE: When the abortion debate focuses on partial-birth abortion, that is a big problem for Al Gore. The big division on this issue is on the Democratic ranks, not the Republican ranks. Seventy- three House Democrats voted to uphold the ban, to overturn the president's veto...

SHIELDS: Include Dick Gephardt and Dave Bonior.

O'BEIRNE: As has Harry Reid. How can Al Gore possibly look at a Dick Gephardt as a running mate or an Evan Bayh or even a good, loyal Democrat like Harry Reid, because they support the ban, as do the overwhelmingly majority of the American public.

We now have -- and I disagree with Al -- I can't imagine that those five would permit any ban on this brutal procedure where a baby's skull is crushed and the brains sucked out.

NOVAK: This skull thing is a red herring.

O'BEIRNE: It is a red herring. The health exception would have an abortionist, an abortionist himself, decide what is the safest way to kill this baby. So the only remedy is to have justices who will recognize -- anybody who defends Roe v. Wade now, you've got to defend this brutal procedure. I think that's a problem for defenders of Roe v. Wade, which the public's split on.

SHIELDS: Last word, Kate O'Beirne.

Harry Reid, thanks for being with us. THE GANG will be back with the "Outrage of the Week."

ANNOUNCER: Our viewer "Outrage of the Week" is from Denny Conroy of Columbia, Maryland. He writes:

"It is ludicrous that Gary Graham was killed by the state of Texas. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously suspect, especially when something traumatic happens. The United States needs to join the rest of the developed world and abolish this hideous punishment."

If you have an "Outrage" for next week, our e-mail address is Or call the toll-free number at 1-888-847-8660. We'll choose one "Outrage" to air at this same time next week on THE CAPITAL GANG.


SHIELDS: And now for the "Outrage of the Week."

Enough, enough, enough -- enough about John Rocker! The 25-year- old Atlanta Braves pitcher made some dumb, insensitive and outrageous comments to a "Sports Illustrated" reporter, who printed them. But John Rocker is not to be confused with the Klan or other racist bigots on the either side. John Rocker has apologized for his stupidity. Now can't we all drop it and go back to baseball?

Bob Novak.

NOVAK: Elian Gonzalez tonight is in communist Cuba, his future radically constricted for at least as long as Fidel Castro is dictator. Don't believe this was not a political decision. It was Bill Clinton seeking warmer relations with communist Cuba, who determined Elian's fate. If either Al Gore or George W. Bush were president, the little boy could look forward to a life of freedom in America. Instead, President Clinton determined that the boy's mother died in vain.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne.

O'BEIRNE: The president provided the final outrage in the tragic case of Elian Gonzalez.


CLINTON: Well, if he and his father decided they want to stay here, it would be fine with me.


O'BEIRNE: Fine with me? The administration saw that Elian's father was always in the company of Cuban officials and never protested that family members were left as hostages back in Cuba. We don't know what a free man would have done.

SHIELDS: Al, do you have a non-Havana "Outrage"?

HUNT: Mark, I don't have anything to say about Elian. I feel kind of out of it. I apologize.

I will tell you this, Mark, politicians and pundits had a ball mocking New York Senate candidate Hillary Clinton, when this native daughter of Illinois said she grew up cheering for the Yankees. A "Washington Post" profile this week quotes an article from 1992, eight years before her Senate candidacy, quoting a close childhood friend on the young Hillary's love for baseball, cheering for the Chicago Cubs in the National League and the New York Yankees in the American. I guess those pols and pundits just lack the news-retrieval system.

SHIELDS: I apologize, Mrs. Clinton.

This is Mark Shields saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG.

Next on CNN, "SPORTS TONIGHT" reports on the Atlanta Braves versus the New York Mets in fight for first place.



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