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Can President-elect Bush Really Change the Tone in Washington?

Aired December 14, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: We must put politics behind us and work together to make the promise of America available for every one of our citizens. I'm optimistic that we can change the tone in Washington, D.C.


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, can President-elect Bush really change the tone in Washington? Will he be an uniter or a divider?

ANNOUNCER: Live, from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The nasty war chants of the election campaign and the long, long recount have been replaced by the soothing chants of bipartisanship, bipartisanship. But in pleas for everybody to get together, you sometimes find a little barb.


REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: There are still some Republicans in Washington who have not yet heard this message. We appeal to those who would remain committed to the "my way or highway" agenda.


NOVAK: In the spirit of bipartisanship, Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana heads to Austin tomorrow to see the Bush people and maybe talk about a Cabinet post. The bipartisan event of the month will come next Tuesday when George W. Bush arrives in Washington to meet Al Gore.

And now the news of the day: Vice President-elect Dick Cheney finally receives from the Clinton administration the keys to the long locked government transition office. Is that as bipartisan as we're apt to get?

Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for, is sitting in for Bill Press -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, GUEST HOST: Thanks, Bob, You know, Congressman Burton, last night, Governor Bush profiled as "Captain Bipartisan." We all saw a lot of pretty pictures of him in the Democrat-controlled Texas legislature.

Well, you know, I did some checking, and actually I wrote a story about it for You know, a lot of members -- a lot of Democratic members of the legislature were not invited, were not allowed in to hear Governor Bush speak. There were a handful, the ones -- the conservative Democrats that he worked with, but that was not the Texas legislature that we saw. That was Republicans and a few Democrats. Now, is that your idea of bipartisanship?

REP. DAN BURTON (R-IN), CHAIRMAN, GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE: Well, think I'd rather start off by talking about Washington, D.C., and the problems that we're going to face here. I think that if the Democrats in the House and the Senate, like Paul Wellstone, my good friend here, are willing to compromise on some of the things that they want, I think they'll probably find that the Republicans are willing to meet them halfway. And I think that's what President-Elect Bush is talking about: working together.

But one side doesn't get all. I mean, when I hear Dick Gephardt talking about, you know, the Republicans and the hard-core have to start moving our way, you know, it's a two-way street. We're going to have to work together to get the job done for America.

TAPPER: Now, I hear you and I understand why you wouldn't want to talk about last night with Governor Bush not inviting all these Texas Democrats. But the point is...

BURTON: Well, I wasn't invited either.

TAPPER: But you weren't in Austin. And the point is, if you can't even get along with Texas Democrats, who, you know, these are not the most liberal Democrats. They're not like Senator Wellstone here, right? These are Texas Democrats.

If you can't even get along with them, how are you going to come to Washington and get along with Ted Kennedy and Maxine Waters?

BURTON: Well, Jake, let me just say this to you. A lot of people in the media, my good friend Jake from "Salon" magazine, are all trying to start to drive a big wedge between the parties right off the bat, and we're not going to bite on that. We need to get the job done for America and we're going to try to work with the Democrats wherever we can.

NOVAK: Senator Wellstone, I know you nearly always follow the marching orders of your leader...


... Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota. So I'd like you to listen to what he has just had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER: Bipartisanship isn't an option anymore. It is a requirement. The American people have divided responsibility for leadership right down the middle. We must govern from the middle, or we will not be able to govern at all.


NOVAK: Do you agree with that 100 percent?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE (D), MINNESOTA: Yes, as long as I get to define it.


Seriously, you know what I think is getting confused: I think people in the country want us to be bipartisan. What they mean by that is they want civility. You know, you and I, we don't agree, but I think we like and respect each other. That's what people want.

There's going to be debate. The question is whether it's a thoughtful debate and a civil debate, and the second thing is definition of center: a politics in Washington that speaks to the center of people's lives.


You know, I can't afford child care, health security, a job I can support my family on. Let's get some of this money out of politics. That's what it has to be. I'm absolutely for that.

NOVAK: Paul Wellstone, you and I have -- I think we can agree. We're realists, aren't we? And I think we can agree what's going on here isn't really on the level.

Isn't what -- when Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt are talking about bipartisanship, what they're saying is they want the Republicans to adopt the Democratic programs on health care, patients' bill of rights, on minimum wage, on targeted tax cuts. As long as the Republicans and George W. Bush will buy your program, bipartisanship is alive. Isn't that about right?

WELLSTONE: And then the flip side of the coin would be what the Republicans really mean by bipartisan. I don't think so. I really hope -- here's what I hope for. And I don't want to sugar-coat anything. I hope for real debate about issues that are important to people's lives, that people can say they are doing our work.

People don't mind if we have the debate. They don't mind if there are differences. They don't mind if there are different votes. But what they would like is to see us focusing on issues that are important to them and being hard at work.

I think we can do that. But you know what? There're going to be a lot of differences of opinion. There's going to be a major debate, and hopefully it'll end up being something good for the country. We'll see, we'll see.

Surely, for example, George W. Bush, who's going to be our president, he knows that in the Senate people have to come together. I know the rules of the Senate. Other senators know the rules. If you want to get something done in the Senate, you've got to bring people together. I hope we do that.

TAPPER: And this is what President-elect Bush had to say about this last night.


BUSH: I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.


TAPPER: "Bitterness and partisanship of the recent past" -- so many directions to go with this, but let me just say that in 1992, when the Republicans were in the minority, they talked about how they thought that each committee should allot a third of its budget for the minority party.

BURTON: Right.

TAPPER: But you as the chairman of the Government Reform Committee have not allotted a third to the Democrats, right -- it's been a quarter. So in the...

BURTON: About 28 percent.

TAPPER: 28 percent, but not a third.

In honor of Governor Bush's speech last night, the lovely recitation of Kumbayah that we all came together and enjoyed, are you willing to at least go to the third level for the funding to help bring at last your committee together?

BURTON: Jake, we'll certainly try to do everything we can to work with Henry Waxman, who will probably still be the ranking Democrat on the committee. But you have to remember, when we were in the minority, we were getting something like between 10 and 18 percent of the budget for our staff, and we've increased that dramatically to 28 percent on our committee.

And sure, we can always go higher, but we want to make sure we've got a good working relationship with the minority, and if they're willing to work us, we'll take a look at it.

TAPPER: Do you have a good working relationship with the minority?

BURTON: It's better in the last couple of weeks than it's been in the past.

NOVAK: You're out of session.


BURTON: Well, no, no, no. We had a couple of very contentious hearings, and Henry Waxman seemed to be in a better frame of mind, and I think I was as well. And I think we're going to do better in the next session.

WELLSTONE: Bob, before you ask me a question, because I want to make sure I gave a totally honest answer to your last question -- maybe this is what you want to hear me say, but I have to say it because it's true. I think that where we can work together, I'm all for it. If however, President Bush comes in with an agenda of huge tax cuts, mainly going to the top 2, 3, 4, 5 percent, not investing in children, education, health care, then I believe Democrats should be principled opposition to that. And I hope Democrats will stand up for what they believe in.


Sure it is, because then maybe you can a find middle ground, but of course, you work for what you believe in.

BURTON: Let me just say, he's going back to the rhetoric we heard in the campaign, and it sounds very much like Mr. Wellstone, Senator Wellstone...


NOVAK: Sounds like Karl Marx to me.


WELLSTONE: Education for children and health care, there you go.

BURTON: Sounds like Senator -- sounds like Senator...

WELLSTONE: That's really -- there you go, Karl Marx.

BURTON: It sounds like Senator Wellstone wants to go right back to the Democratic agenda that was expressed throughout the entire campaign, and that doesn't sound like the middle of the road to me.

WELLSTONE: Do you want to know something? I think that's the center of people's lives.

BURTON: That...


... decided the election.

WELLSTONE: I don't like to -- I don't like to just look at polling data, though it'll show you that you go into any coffee shop in Minnesota, people don't say to me: Geez, Paul, can they do something about that estate tax? I know it helps the top 2 percent of the population.

BURTON: No, wait a minute...

WELLSTONE: You know what I hear people talk about? People are talking about making sure that something can be done for their parents and health care, prescription drug costs, people talking about education for children, affordable child care.

You know what? That is the center of politics...

BURTON: But those are all things we're going to address.

WELLSTONE: And people want campaign finance reform. If we address that...

BURTON: We're going to...

WELLSTONE: Good, good.

BURTON: ... but we're also going to address the issue of cutting the taxes of Americans...

WELLSTONE: Good, good, good...

BURTON: ... as much as we can across the board.


WELLSTONE: Where we can agree we'll agree, and where we disagree we'll disagree. And that will be good if it's done with civility.

I like you tonight.

BURTON: I like you too.

WELLSTONE: We're doing fine.

BURTON: You look like Rex Harrison.


WELLSTONE: We're doing fine.


NOVAK: Paul Wellstone, you may be surprised. You are not the favorite Democrat in the Senate of all the Republicans in this new administration. I don't know if you know who it is...

WELLSTONE: Not the favorite.

NOVAK: Favorite Democrat in the Senate today of the Republicans is John Breaux of Louisiana. Let's listen to something he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: The Senate is absolutely tied, and House is almost tied. So, if we don't work together, we aren't going to be able to get anything done. This is a unique opportunity I think we have.


NOVAK: Now Senator Breaux went to Austin today, and there's a rumor that he can be secretary of energy. Now, that's bipartisanship written large -- a Democratic senator in the Republican Cabinet. Would your urge John to take that?

WELLSTONE: Listen, I think if President Bush is serious about bipartisanship, he'll offer me secretary of labor.



NOVAK: He is going to Austin tomorrow.

WELLSTONE: I think that -- listen, John should visit. People should talk to each other. We should have civility.

NOVAK: Answer the question.

WELLSTONE: Well, I'm going to answer your the question. I like -- people agree or disagree, but you know what I think John will do? I think John will stay with the Democrats in the Senate. That's exactly where he's going to stay. We're 50/50 in the Senate, and we can be a really important part of fashioning good public policy.

NOVAK: We've got to take a break, soon, but let's be honest, Senator.

WELLSTONE: I'm being honest.

NOVAK: Isn't it a fact that if John Breaux took a Cabinet position, the Republican governor of Louisiana named a Republican, his life wouldn't be worth a nickel in this town. The Democrats would really be after him, isn't that true?

WELLSTONE: I think Democrats would not be pleased, but I don't think Democrats have to worry about that because I don't think that's what John will do any way.

TAPPER: All right, well, don't miss your chance to debate me online tonight. Just go to right after the show. And when we come back, Congressman Burton will tell us all about Tom DeLay's place in this warm and fuzzy bipartisan, "we are the world" kind of town. Back after this.


TAPPER: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Sitting in for Bill Press, I'm Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for America is divided, like the fable "Batman" archvillian Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two Face, who flips a coin to decide which side of him will prevail, good or evil. And right now in Washington, we're all flipping coins. Here to shed some light for us are two esteemed Congress, Republican Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the Government Reform Committee and Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota -- Bob.

NOVAK: Senator Wellstone, you choked, you gasped when you talked about the Republican attempt to repeal the estate tax, the most barbarous piece of tax legislation we have in the country where vast amounts of Democrats voted for it -- almost enough to override Bill Clinton's veto.

So, you say that you don't want repeal it. Can you tell me in the spirit of compromise, one piece of Democratic -- I'm sorry one piece of Republican-sponsored legislation in the last Congress that you would accept in return for the Republican's acceptance of your legislation?

WELLSTONE: One piece that I would have or did?

NOVAK: That you would.

WELLSTONE: Well, in the last...

NOVAK: That you opposed before, yes.


WELLSTONE: I think -- OK, I was going to say one piece of legislation I'm really proud of is with Sam Brownback.


NOVAK: I want -- compromise means giving in a little.

WELLSTONE: I'm pleased to do that, but I think you misunderstood my point. First of all, I think on marriage penalty tax there is plenty of room for compromise on that.


NOVAK: Would you accept the Republican marriage tax?


WELLSTONE: No -- there were two proposals -- Bob, compromise...


NOVAK: I want to see Republican legislation.

WELLSTONE: See, your definitions -- you'll notice your definition is Republican. There was a Democrat proposal, a Republican proposal. The Democrat proposal I thought moved more toward relief for families. There surely could be a common ground there. That's one good example but here's what I'm saying to you. What I'm saying to you is that if you want to talk about the estate tax, and you think that's the number one priority for Minnesota families or families in this country, you're dead wrong.

NOVAK: It is for my family, a number one priority.

WELLSTONE: Given the income you make, it probably is, Bob, but for most -- I'm sorry. I'm going to say this again. People want to see a government they can believe in. They want big money out. They want reform. They want good education for their kids. They want to have health security. Let's focus on those issues. Real issues.

NOVAK: I want to see if you really are interested in bipartisan compromise. I'll make a deal...


WELLSTONE: Every time I'm don't agree with you, I'm not interested. That's the standard. It's unbelievable. God, I'm glad you're not in Congress.

NOVAK: If the Republicans were to agree to the patients' bill of rights, the HMO reform as you write it, would you agree to the full repeal of estate tax.

TAPPER: That's a deal. I mean, that's...

NOVAK: Would you? Yes or no.

WELLSTONE: Maybe we'd have to see. Maybe.

NOVAK: Maybe.

TAPPER: I'd go along with that.

WELLSTONE: But you know what? I think that what is going to be even more important -- that kind of dealing is fine if it's good for people. But most important of all. I'm going to tell you again, you can have bipartisanship as defined by who has power in Washington, D.C. and defines what is realistic. Don't forget all those people out there in the country you represent and don't think the estate tax is the number one priority for 95 percent of families in the country. It isn't.


NOVAK: But you want the Republicans to accept what the people in the blue areas in this country want. You know what I mean by the blue areas?


TAPPER: All right, here we go. Listen, Senator Wellstone is talking very civilly, very responsibly, very maturely.

WELLSTONE: I'm trying to. He's taunting me. TAPPER: I know, he's goading you. He's goading you. You can imagine him in grade school. But there is someone, a colleague of yours, as a matter of fact, who does not always talk the nice, soft civil way Senator Wellstone is. His name is Tom DeLay. He's the majority whip, and there's some comments of his that I would like to read.

They are: "Finally, the Republican Party is the majority party of this country. We got the House, the Senate, the presidency and the majority of governors. The things that we've been dreaming about we can now do unfettered."

What are those things? Because I thought Governor Bush ran on education. I don't think Tom DeLay's talking about education. Actually, in a story I read, he was talking about abortion -- the partial-birth -- so-called partial-birth abortion bill and tax relief -- tax cuts. That does not square with Governor Bush said. So, you tell me who's going to run the show in the House.

BURTON: Well, the partial-birth abortion bill passed both Houses without a great deal of difficulty.

TAPPER: So is that a top priority for you guys?

BURTON: Well, I think it will be one of the things that'll be a priority. I think the tax cuts are definitely going to be a top priority. And Senator Wellstone, he says, you know, the estate tax is not a big thing, the death tax. But when you have a business or a farm or some assets that you want to pass onto your family, and you have a huge tax staring you in the face, it can destroy a farm, it can destroy a business. That's something that the American people want to see change.

TAPPER: You know something, I just got an e-mail from...

BURTON: No, they really don't.

WELLSTONE: But Dan, you know very well, look, I come from an ag state, you do, too.

BURTON: Well, so do I.

WELLSTONE: You know very well that there are all sorts of adjustments now for farmers and we could do much more for farmers and small businesses. That wasn't the estate tax proposal you all had.

There is room for compromise. I'm just telling you that by and large, the distributional impact of this, almost all of it goes to the top 2 percent of the population. Why aren't you as concerned about the vast majority of the rest of the people?

BURTON: Well, we -- we are. We are.

WELLSTONE: Well, let's see.

BURTON: We want an across-the-board tax cut to put money back in everybody's pocket.

WELLSTONE: If you are -- if -- if President Bush and the Republican Party is concerned about an agenda that speaks to the center of people's lives, you know what, I'll be there with you. But if you want to just go with an agenda that basically gives to wealthy people and forgets all these other issues...

BURTON: No, no, no. Paul...

WELLSTONE: ... then you know what, I'll be in principled opposition, and that may be what happens. We'll see what happens.

BURTON: ... your rhetoric -- your rhetoric sounds so good and so conciliatory.


BURTON: But when you talk to Bob about specifics, you still don't want to move anywhere beyond where you already are. You want more spending you don't want the tax cuts. You want the same kind of liberal agenda you've been talking about for years.


WELLSTONE: See, now I'm sure glad that people are listening to us...

BURTON: I am too.

WELLSTONE: ... because didn't I just say one minute ago to Bob that when it comes to tax cuts, I think there's plenty of room for compromise. Absolutely.

TAPPER: You did, I heard.

WELLSTONE: So don't tell me I'm not interested if I'm interested in that. I'm just telling you...

BURTON: What tax cuts are you for? What tax cuts are you for?

WELLSTONE: ... I just know the people I represent and the people...


Listen, I -- I -- let's start with the payroll tax. Let's start with the most regressive tax of all, and let's also talk about the marriage penalty tax, OK, and let's also talk about what we can do for small businesses and family farmers.

But you know what else: I represent people in Minnesota, and jobs, health care, education.

BURTON: Those are going to be on the table. Those are going to be on the table.


NOVAK: Thank you very much, Senator Wellstone. Thank you very much, Chairman Burton. And Jake and I will be back with closing comments.


TAPPER: I'll be in the "CROSSFIRE" chat room right after tonight's show. To chat with me, just log onto

You know, Mr. Novak, Lieutenant Novak, remember gays in the military? Remember? Clinton didn't see that coming and all of the sudden his whole presidency thrown into chaos. I've got it right here. I've got it: George W. -- President-elect George W. Bush's gays in the military.

I got an e-mail. I'm on the Liberty Alliance e-mail list. I don't know if you know that, but that's Reverend Jerry Falwell. And he's already alerting the troops, the Christian Conservatives in the country, to level the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education funding bill, because money is going to Planned Parenthood. This is about abortion. This is about young girls -- quote -- "young girls should be given abortion information, in some cases abortion pills at school" -- unquote. That's what they're fighting against.

This is what George W. Bush is going to have to fight against. The conservatives, not the liberals, the conservatives.

NOVAK: Jake, it's pretty clear what's going on in this town. I've been here a long time. And people like you, on the left, and all -- and your minions are all saying: Those are the bad guys, George W., you've got to fight them; David Bonior is your friend, it's Tom DeLay who's your enemy.

It's a con job. Is George W. Bush smart enough to detect it? I hope so.

TAPPER: OK. From the left -- from the left, sitting in for Bill Press, I'm Jake Tapper. I'll be on "THE SPIN ROOM" later tonight. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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