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Bush Pressed on Agenda

Aired March 16, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE: the president and the press. On Iraq, President Bush discounts the Italian pullout and points to progress, as Iraq's parliament meets for the first time.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've always said this is a process. Today was a step in that process.

ANNOUNCER: Social Security. The president still wants private accounts, and he calls on Congress to find out what Americans want.

BUSH: I urge the members to go out and when they go home to talk to their constituents, not only about the problem, but about solutions.

ANNOUNCER: A controversial pick for the World Bank. The president names a high-ranking Pentagon official as the bank's new boss.

BUSH: A man of good experiences. He helped managed a large organization. The World Bank is a large organization. The Pentagon is a large organization.

ANNOUNCER: Grading the president as he meets the media. How did he do?




ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.


President Bush held a news conference at the White House this morning, saying he has not yet begun to fight on Social Security, taking a firm stand in Iraq, and naming a brilliant new head of the World Bank.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Mr. Bush says his collapsing Social Security plan is in great shape, that he has confidence in the ethically challenged Republican leader in the House, Tom DeLay, and that his coalition in Iraq is in great shape, although countries from Italy to Ukraine are calling it quits. I almost expected the president to predict the Golden Grizzlies of Oakland University to reach the Final Four.

But before we get to Mr. Bush's daydreams, let us begin with the best little political briefing in television, the CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

As Bob mentioned, President Bush today announced he is appointing Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank. The president called Mr. Wolfowitz -- quote -- "a man of good experiences" -- close quote. Indeed, Mr. Wolfowitz does have experience, lying about weapons of mass destruction.


BEGALA: He has experience insulting the four-star general who said we'd need more troops to prevent an insurgency after invading Iraq. And he has experience telling the American people that Iraq could -- quote -- "really finance its own reconstruction" -- unquote. So far, it has cost us over $300 billion of your money.

As the No. 2 man at the Pentagon, Mr. Wolfowitz did not know the number of Americans killed in Iraq, and the Bush administration cannot account for $2.4 billion of your money that was supposed to have been spent to rebuild Iraq, lost lives, lost money. That's the experience Mr. Wolfowitz brings to the World Bank. Wolfowitz himself is said to be pleased and honored to head the World Bank, and he looks forward to invading the International Monetary Fund.


NOVAK: You know, Paul, I think, for your own soul, you ought to stop this politics of personal destruction, which is a phrase your boss Mr. Clinton said.

Paul Wolfowitz has devoted his entire life to public service. He's been a brilliant diplomat, ambassador to Indonesia, served in the State Department, served in the Pentagon, a selfless person.


NOVAK: A brilliant person. And I think it is a shame that you just -- not knowing anything about him, just personally attack him.


BEGALA: That wasn't personal attacks.

NOVAK: Senator -- Senator...

BEGALA: That was about his record.

NOVAK: Senator Robert Byrd, the senior U.S. senator, appeared today at a MoveOn rally protesting President Bush's judicial nominations.

Now, it may seem strange that Senator Byrd, who has called himself conservative, is concerting with the far-left MoveOn gang. But Byrd is conservative no more. He now takes the same position as other leftist senators attending today's rally, Teddy Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton.


NOVAK: The MoveOn rally came a day after Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid threatened to close down the Senate if Republicans force an up-and-down vote on judges. Oh, say, Republicans, throw me into that briar patch, Harry. They remember the public's outrage after Newt Gingrich made such threats.

BEGALA: Well, there's a huge difference. Newt Gingrich shut down the government. What Harry Reid is going to do is shut down the Senate. I think that would be great. We won't have to listen to Rick Santorum bloviate anymore.


BEGALA: I think -- well, I think it would be great. If they shut down the Senate for four years, the government will still run. We'll still have law enforcement, Homeland Security, national parks. But we just won't have to listen to Dick Cheney drop the F-bomb on the Senate floor anymore.


NOVAK: Let me try to explain -- I know you don't understand very much how the government works, but when you close down the Congress, as Newt Gingrich did, that closes down the government. It doesn't provide any money.


BEGALA: They have plenty of money.

NOVAK: Newt Gingrich wasn't president. He couldn't close any places.


BEGALA: ... plenty of money.

Well, the ever vigilant folks at the Center For American Progress today report that the Bush White House allowed Halliburton to censor a report on the company's allegedly corrupt practices in Iraq. Congressman Henry Waxman has obtained an unredacted copy of the report, which alleges that Halliburton may have ripped off the taxpayers of the United States for up to $100 million.

Now, you'd think the president of the United States would be angry about a corporation ripping off the people of the United States. But you would be wrong. Instead, American Progress alleges President Bush's henchmen allowed Halliburton to hide the truth. Meanwhile, NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski reports that a different audit found that Halliburton had -- quote -- "a staggering $1.8 billion in unsupported costs" -- unquote.

Vice President Dick Cheney is no longer Halliburton's CEO, but the ethical standard he set there apparently lives on.


NOVAK: You know, Paul, shame on you for not saying that that -- who did that other audit. The other audit was done by the Pentagon. In other words, the Pentagon is doing, is auditing its own spending, which is -- which is the way it should be in the government.

It was very difficult for Halliburton to do necessary work quickly after the invasion of Iraq. There were mistakes made. But the important thing is, it isn't some Clintonista think tank that is doing the investigating.



NOVAK: It's the Pentagon.



BEGALA: It was censoring. It was censoring.

NOVAK: Good news today for Americans who treasure energy independence, bad news for tree-huggers. The Senate voted 51-49 against blocking a provision in the budget resolution which authorizes oil drilling in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

At this stage in the final budget, it means ANWR, for the first time, cannot be filibustered. Democrats hate this much democracy, because now this provision may be carried by a simple majority of just 51 senators, or 50 senators, not needing a supermajority of 60. At what price? Not destruction of wildlife. Drilling is to be done in an area about the size of Dulles Airport outside Washington.

Not one fuzzy animal, Paul, is threatened, only fuzzy-minded liberals.


BEGALA: Well, first off, all that drilling in the Alaska wilderness would get us, if the oil is there -- and there are no guarantees -- is six months worth of oil. And for what? For destroying a wilderness permanently. And I can't think of one good reason.

I'll give you 68 million -- 65,836,000 reasons, $65,836,000 the oil and gas industry has given to Republicans since George Bush took over the Republican Party, $65 million.




NOVAK: Paul, how can...

BEGALA: This is corruption. It is bought and paid for.

NOVAK: How can you say it's going to destroy the wildlife refuge when it's just a tiny, infinitesimal fraction of this huge area? Don't you know that?

BEGALA: See, actually, I know a little bit about oil and gas, because my father was in that business all his life.


NOVAK: Answer my question.

BEGALA: They have to get the equipment in, Bob.

NOVAK: Oh, that's silly.

BEGALA: It's not just going to grow up out of the ground. They have to destroy everything in its path to get to the area and then create the footprint.


BEGALA: And they are lying when they say it's the size of Dulles Airport.

NOVAK: I guarantee you, no fuzzy animals will be hurt by this.

BEGALA: They gave $65 million from the Republicans -- to the Republicans.

Well, anyway, we have this news just into CNN, they tell me. A California jury has reached a verdict in the murder trial of actor Robert Blake. Blake is on trial for the murder of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, nearly four years ago. CNN will bring you live coverage of the verdict as soon as it is announced, when it is announced, that is, at 5:30 Eastern.

And then, up next on CROSSFIRE, President Bush holds a press conference and says he's convincing Americans to support privatizing part of Social Security. So, why do the polls show support for his plan dropping faster than the Dow Jones today?

And, later, a professional athlete on the Hill and he's not involved with the steroid scandal. Pretty good news, at that. We'll tell you who he is and the good work he's doing here in Washington later in CROSSFIRE. ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.



NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

President Bush stuck to his guns on private accounts and his press conference today as part of Social Security reform, and he put pressure on members of Congress to talk to their constituents when they go home for Easter break.

Here to take a closer look at how the president is pushing his whole agenda, Democratic strategist Peter Fenn and former Congressman Bob Walker, Republican of Pennsylvania.


BEGALA: Guys, good to see you again.

Bob, first, it's always a good thing when the president holds a news conference. He seems to be holding more since his reelection. I salute and applaud that. It's good for the country. It's good for the president, actually, too. It's good for the White House, having worked there. He said several things today, though, that I found striking.

Here's what he said about his coalition. On the day that we receive news that the Italians are going to pull out of the coalition, begin to reduce troops right away -- by '06, they'll have no troops there -- this is what the president said in light of that news about the coalition in Iraq, that is.


BUSH: I think the coalition is -- has been buoyed by the courage of the Iraqi people. I think they've been pleased and heartened by the fact that the Iraqis went to the polls and voted and are now putting together a government. And they see progress is being made.


BEGALA: It depends on -- I guess it depends on what the definition of progress is, Bob. Here's a list of the countries that were in the coalition supporting President Bush and the war who have either left now or have announced that they're going to leave, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine.

That's astonishing. And, by the way, no new countries have joined. How can the president say this is going well and coalition is buoyed, when, in fact, it is sinking?

BOB WALKER (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, first of all, there was another very important event that took place today. And that is that the legislature was stood up for the first time, something that we've discussed on this show before and I believe you said wouldn't take place.


BEGALA: Actually, I never said that, but that's fine that...


BEGALA: They don't have a government yet and we're two months after the election.


WALKER: We've had a discussion about the fact that we weren't -- that it was going to be very problematic getting there and so on. And they got there. And it's -- it's one of the really important piece of...

BEGALA: Was it worth 1,500 Americans dead, Bob? I don't think so.

WALKER: I think -- well, I think that the changes that are taking place in the Middle East towards democratization and so on are something that are important for us for the future of the world, and that those American lives, we all mourn the fact that people died in this eventuality.

But the fact is that Americans have died in support of freedom for a long time in the world.


WALKER: And this is another case where they've done it and where I think it's going to end up having been something that was very worthwhile in history.

NOVAK: Peter Fenn, in all due respect, you're able to attack the most reasonable and perfect statements by the president. I want you to listen to something he said at the press conference, in case you missed it. I want you to listen.


BUSH: It's amazing how much progress has been made, thanks in large part to the courage of the Iraqi people. And when I've talked to people, most understand we need to complete the mission. And completing the mission means making sure the Iraqis can defend themselves.


NOVAK: Anything wrong with that, completing the mission, making -- making sure they can defend themselves?

PETER FENN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know, I'll go to your beloved "Wall Street Journal" from last Friday, where they talked about continuous war, continuous conflict.

That is the problem. When you have our partners taking off, when you have fewer and fewer supporters from the international community to end this war, you've got a serious problem. Now, we all hope that what he says is correct. The trouble is, I have difficulty believing this president, because he certainly didn't sell us on weapons of mass destruction. He certainly didn't sell us on the fact that nothing was happening in those prisons.


FENN: I mean, everything that this president has said so far about Iraq has, unfortunately, been proved not true.

NOVAK: Peter, you're always -- once again, you're out of step with the American people.

And I want to show you a poll, a recent poll just taken on the direction of Iraq. Now, in September, when the -- if you take a look at it, in September, when the Democrats were attacking the president, wrong direction, 45, right direction 42. Now it's completely reversed. The American people, 62 percent right direction, 23 percent wrong direction.


NOVAK: Is there something -- are the American people stupid, gullible?


Look, I think, when you have, as Bob said, when you have an event like today...

NOVAK: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Those were Iraqis polled, not Americans polled. But the Iraqis think they're in the right. That's even better. Isn't that better?

FENN: Well, the trouble is, when we started this, there were 5,000 terrorists. Now there are 25,000 terrorists. The key question here is, can -- you know, can we get these security forces set? Can we stop the violence?

NOVAK: What do you think of what the Iraqis think, that they're going in the right direction, though?

FENN: Well, I like to hear that. I mean, we all like that.

NOVAK: Well, I'm glad...


NOVAK: I'm glad you like to hear...


FENN: Who wouldn't -- no, who wouldn't like to hear that?

BEGALA: I really don't care if the Iraqis think they're going in the right direction. I think it's deeply offensive, what the president said.

He said -- and I wrote it down -- the sound bite Bob played. The progress there is thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people. That's a load of bunk. It's thanks to the courage of the American soldier, who is over there risking his life...


BEGALA: So a bunch of Iraqis can vote for a pro-Shiite, pro- Iranian, anti-American government, a leader who won't even shake hands with women. Come on. That's insulting to our soldiers.


WALKER: I think there's lots of courage -- I think there's lots of courage displayed by the American soldiers who are there.

BEGALA: Shouldn't a commander acknowledge that, instead of the Iraqis?


WALKER: The Iraqis also showed a tremendous amount of courage in the face of terrorist threats to go to the polls, elect a government and now, in the face of more terrorist threats against that government, have shown their willingness to stand behind trying to put freedom in place in their country.



BEGALA: And to vote for a pro-Iranian, Shiite, mullah-dominated government that is going to side with the Iranians against us.

WALKER: I'm sorry, Paul. Democracy sometimes means it doesn't look exactly like America would like it to look.


WALKER: That's...


FENN: But we -- we -- we -- we -- when are we going to leave? When are we going to leave?

WALKER: Well, the president said in his press conference, that we're going to leave when....

NOVAK: When they can defend themselves. Do you have an objection to that?

FENN: Well, and when will that be? When will that be?

NOVAK: But do you object to that?

FENN: Well, the question is -- I think...

NOVAK: You won't answer.

FENN: Well, no. I think we'll be there...


BEGALA: When will they be able to protect themselves, is the question.


NOVAK: All right, we're going to have to take a break. Next on CROSSFIRE...


NOVAK: Next on CROSSFIRE, Paul Wolfowitz and the World Bank, why a hawk on Iraq is a good choice.

After the break, Wolf Blitzer will have more on a breaking story. There is a verdict in the Robert Blake murder trial.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Coming up at the top of the hour, court officials say the jury has reached a verdict in the Robert Blake murder trial, the announcement expected within the next hour. We'll have it here live.

We'll also hear from Senator Edward Kennedy on why he won't be meeting with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams.

And, as Congress gets ready for hearings tomorrow on baseball and steroids, we'll talk with former Oakland slugger Jose Canseco about his allegations.

All those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

BEGALA: Thank you, Wolf. We look forward to your report at the top of the hour and then the Robert Blake verdict at 5:30 Eastern.

Here on CROSSFIRE, we're talking about President Bush's press conference today, where he announced that he wants Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to be the new head of the World Bank. Why choose a man with no experience in banking or finance or development, but lots of experience in botching an occupation?


BEGALA: That's the question in this segment.

Bob Walker, a former Republican congressman of Pennsylvania, is with us, and Peter Fenn, the Democratic strategist.

Bob, let me ask you, why a guy with no experience in finance or banking? Why a guy who didn't know how many people were killed in Iraq when he's the No. 2 guy at the Pentagon and didn't know where $2.5 billion of our money went? Why put him in charge of the World Bank?

WALKER: Well, I think, first, the reason why they did it is because he understands this administration's policy in moving toward bilateralism as a way of conducting foreign policy. And I think that what...


BEGALA: Bilateral meaning one country invades another country? That's bilateral.



WALKER: No, bilateral, bilateral relations, bilateral relations meaning that, as you set up trade and development and some of these kinds of things, that you do it on a country agreement basis between two countries and so on.

NOVAK: Peter...

WALKER: And that it works pretty well.


NOVAK: Peter Fenn, the press conference, to a great degree, was about Social Security. And the president -- you know, there's a long way to go before this is determined. But the Democrats are doing a victory lap on Social Security. This is not over.

But I want to -- I want to read you what Senator Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, vice presidential nominee, presidential candidate, said. He said: "There's a whole attitude out there, just say no. In other words, let the president sink with this proposal. We are winning. But we are not winning. We are not winning," he said, "because the victory here is so solve the Social Security problem."

However you feel about the merits of the case, isn't Senator Lieberman correct, that this negativism by the Democrats does the party no good in the long run?


FENN: Look, look, negativism is not what's going on here. We have a retirement problem and a retirement crisis. We have a Medicare, Medicaid crisis. This president of the United States should do one thing right now.

He should get up before the American people and say, privatization is off the table.


FENN: We are no longer going to talk about privatizing Social Security, for two reasons. No. 1, it doesn't solve the problem. It has nothing to do with the costs. And, secondly, this is bad public policy now.

NOVAK: Those are Democratic talking points, because he has never come out for privatizing the Social Security system. But, nonetheless, Peter, I asked you a question.

FENN: Just private accounts.

NOVAK: And, you know, I'm very naive.


NOVAK: I always expect you to answer my questions. I'm just saying that the -- do you think -- quite apart from what the president says, Joe Lieberman is saying the Democrats are not winning anything because they have no proposals. They have nothing positive to say.


FENN: Listen, Democrats...


FENN: No, no, no, no. Democrats have a lot of ideas on this, have put forth a lot of thoughts on Medicare and Medicaid.



FENN: Listen, there are a whole of -- but the whole point is...

NOVAK: What have they said on Social Security?

FENN: You have to -- you have to -- no, you have to -- well, there are a lot of ways to do this.

NOVAK: What did they say, though?

FENN: Well, some folks say, listen, we got to raise the $90,000 cap. Some say, listen...

WALKER: Raise taxes.

FENN: Oh, raise taxes.

NOVAK: I haven't heard them say that.


BEGALA: That's a Republican proposal from Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.


BEGALA: Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, has said this.


BEGALA: Excuse me for talking while you're interrupting.

He said, first, Mr. Bush stop stealing from the trust fund, which is he's doing to finance the tax cuts for the rich. Second, pay back the trust fund, the money you've already stolen, Mr. Bush. And, third, let's try to secure retirement savings, separate and apart from taking money out of Social Security. That's a Democratic position, isn't it?


BEGALA: Isn't it?


WALKER: Well, the fact -- the fact is, is we have -- we have a long history of Congress spending the money that came into the Social Security trust fund. It's not just President Bush.

But the point is that what I don't understand is why Democrats, when we've had discussions on this show about income tax cuts, you said, cut the payroll tax. Here's a cut of the payroll tax.

NOVAK: All right, and that is the last word.

Thank you, Bob Walker. Thank you, Peter Fenn.


NOVAK: Next on CROSSFIRE, a pro athlete heads to Capitol Hill for the off-season. Meet the NFL player who is tackling a new role in Congress. That's it.


NOVAK: A pro athlete comes to Capitol Hill without controversy.

Carolina Panthers safety Colin Branch is in a team program that helps players prepare for post-football careers. He's putting his degree in public policy to work with an internship with Republican Congresswoman Sue Myrick of North Carolina. Branch will answer phones and take on other jobs in her Washington office.

It could lead to something. Remember, former Congressman and Cabinet Secretary Jack Kemp, as a pro quarterback, he spent some of his off-seasons working as an intern for the then governor of California, a guy named Ronald Reagan.

BEGALA: Good point. I'm glad he's doing it.


BEGALA: From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

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

Stay with CNN. There's a verdict, a verdict, in the Robert Blake murder trial. We'll have live coverage at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.



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