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Ethics Questions Continue in House; Texas Legislature Curbs Sexually Suggestive Cheerleaders

Aired May 4, 2005 - 16:30   ET


Announcer: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Paul Begala. On the right, Joe Watkins. In the CROSSFIRE: the battle over ethics in Congress. The House Ethics Committee gets back to work. Near the top of the committee's agenda, did Tom DeLay break the rules when a powerful lobbyist paid for his travel? And, some Democrats face questions over whether the same lobbyist paid for their trips, too. Does Congress need to clean up its act? And what do the American voters have to say about the ethics of their elected leaders?


ANNOUNCER: Today, on CROSSFIRE. Live, from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Joe Watkins.

PAUL BEGALA, ON THE LEFT: Hello, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

After a hundred days of dormancy, the House Ethics Committee got back to work today. Republicans had repealed -- they have, rather, repealed new rules that were put in place to protect Tom DeLay. But Mr. DeLay's purged the independent Republicans who had admonished him and now has left the committee with just five Republicans, each of whom has financial ties to the unethical Republican leaders.

Democrats meanwhile have introduced a tough new ethics law, and the question is, will Republicans support it?

JOE WATKINS, ON THE RIGHT: And, for all the questions about DeLay, let's not forget some Democrats have had their own problems with House travel rules. Are Democratic leaders taking Tom DeLay to task over problems that their own membership is equally guilty of? Congress and ethics, but first the best political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

The man believed to be in charge of al Qaeda's global operations has been arrested in Pakistan. According to President Bush, the capture is a critical victory in the war on terror. Abu Faraj al Libbi, the alleged number-three man in the terror organization, arrested in Pakistan. He was picked up with 10 other al Qaeda suspects on the Pakistan frontier. Officials think he's the man who cooked up two attempts to kill the president of Pakistan. Pakistan's interior minister says, he was the most wanted man in the country, and U.S. counter terrorism officials say it was American intelligence that led to his capture. Let's hope he gives up information on Osama bin Laden so we can get him and the rest of their still dangerous crew. This is good news, Paul.

BEGALA: Amen, and let's hope he does give up some information.

First up, congratulations to the Pakistanis who caught them. Always interesting to see the American bureaucrats saying, we really did it. Well, whoever did it -- thank God he's been caught. But, I've been saying for quite a while, I don't think this administration has been serious enough on the war on terror. We are still not inspecting containers that come into our country. We're still not inspecting food that comes into our country. We're still not securing our borders, so, while that's good, I hope would he do a whole lot more in the future. So, congratulations to all that helped to capture him.

WATKINS: Well done.

BEGALA: Speaking of terrorism, today released a new ad calling on Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist and House Republican Leader Tom DeLay to disavow the Reverend Pat Robertson's claim that liberal judges -- ha, get this -- are a greater threat to America than Osama bin Laden's terrorists.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last Sunday, Pat Robertson, a leader of the religious right actually claimed that federal judges are a more serious threat to America than, quote, a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings, unquote. Will Bill Frist and Tom DeLay continue to pander to the radical fringe?


BEGALA: Yesterday on this broadcast Republican Congressman Peter King of New York had the guts to whole-heartedly repudiate Robertson's hateful comments. Good for him, but don't hold your breath waiting for Frist or DeLay to show the same spine Pete King, because, when the radical right says jump, the Bush Republicans are already in the air before they ask how high.

WATKINS: Well, the good thing is that Tom DeLay and Bill Frist are doing the right thing. I mean, Bill Frist is trying to get these judges that have been nominated to the floor to be voted on, and Tom DeLay has successfully gotten through the budget. He's done a very, very good job.

BEGALA: Well, but you don't believe that terrorists are a less threat than judges, do you?

WATKINS: Well, terrorists obviously are a great threat, and I'm glad that we caught this bad guy...

BEGALA: Are judges a bigger threat to our country than terrorists?

WATKINS: Well, the good thing is that Pay -- this is America. He has the right to say.

BEGALA: You guys are so crazy! I'm giving you a chance to just point out that he's nuts and no decent Republican would agree with him.

WATKINS: Oh, well, Pat Robertson has the right to talk about liberal judges, and I'm glad that he is talking about them. Now, I wouldn't necessarily equate them on the same level as Osama bin Laden.

BEGALA: What would you do if a liberal had said that? What if Reverend Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton had said conservative judges are a bigger threat than terrorism? We'd have -- the whole thing would be going crazy, and to -- John Ashcroft would be out there trying to arrest them.

WATKINS: Despite Democrats do-nothing efforts, the Republicans in Congress are able to point to a list of accomplishments made in the first 100 days of the current session. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders touted some of them this morning, including an energy bill that will create a half million jobs, repeal of the death tax, an acting tort reform, a multibillion dollar highway bill, and passing of a budget that cuts the deficit, supports tax relief, and job creation. The speaker pointed out that Democratic leaders have only offered rhetoric and are calling on them to try some bi-partisan cooperation for a change.

So, how about it: cooperate or just continue to be against everything? This is the big thing, Paul, and you even said it -- if Democrats would just layout an agenda for what they are for, that would be a great thing.

BEGALA: I think they should and they will in the fullness of time, but let's first look what the Republicans are for: an energy bill that takes money from you and gives it to the big oil companies who happen to give money to the Republicans, OK? A bankruptcy bill that takes money from you and gives it to the big credit card companies.


BEGALA: The repeal of the estate tax, which is the Paris Hilton tax, so that Paris Hilton no longer has to pay any tax, but the waitresses who serve her pay taxes. That is a sin and it is wrong. Republicans should not be claiming credit for any of that.

WATKINS: Well, and bankruptcy -- this is protecting small business people. They deserve their money.

BEGALA: No, it's not. It's protecting the big credit card companies who give big donations to Republicans. This is whore-House politics. That's why we need ethics reform.

Well, as the country singer and novelist-turned-Texas- gubernatorial-candidate Kinky Friedman likes to note, Texas is first in executions but 49th in education. The Republican-controlled Texas legislature cannot pass a budget, can't pass a school finance bill, and cannot pass campaign reform but the Texas House did pass a bill regulating what it calls, quote, "overtly sexually suggestive performances," unquote, by high school cheerleaders.

Give me a break, guys. When I was a kid and Democrats controlled Texas we were known for the lusty, busty, Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Now, those were the days! But, today, politicians seem to want cheerleaders in Texas to perform in burkas. If the Texas Senate passes this idiotic bill, if it reaches Governor Rick Perry's desk, if he had any red-blooded Texas machismo, he would veto this nonsense, but fat chance of that. Perry, a Republican, is the first governor of my state to graduate from Texas A&M, which is an alleged college that doesn't even allow women to be cheerleaders. I guess they're worried the female Aggies will wander out on the football field and graze.

WATKINS: My, my, my. Something tells me you're not a not big fan of Texas A&M, Paul.

BEGALA: They are my rivals. They are fine people, but they're my rivals. But, this is a crazy bill. They should not be regulating high school children. They ought to at least try to be passing the budget or help the healthcare for those children.

WATKINS: No doubt about it.

BEGALA: It's just outrageous.

WATKINS: Well, the Democrats have developed a case of selective outrage when it comes to ethics in Congress. Next, we'll debate the battle over ethics and what impact it will have on politicians at the polls.

And, is Jennifer Lopez -- that's right, J. Lo -- getting ready to hit the campaign trail? We'll tell you about her political aspirations later on CROSSFIRE.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The embattled House Republican leader, Tom DeLay, ran away from reporters today rather than stand up like a man and answer serious questions about his very serious ethical shortcomings. The House majority leader is in fact becoming a liability with for party with Americans wondering why it is that Republicans would choose as their leader the Congressman who has been admonished by the Ethics Committee more than any other member of Congress. Meanwhile, Democrats are proposing a tough new law to crackdown on lobbyists and approve the House's ethics.

In the CROSSFIRE, two members of the House join us from Capitol Hill today. They are Maryland Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen and Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King. Thank you both very much for joining us.

(APPLAUSE) WATKINS: Congressman Van Hollen, this is very interesting, the events of the last few days have been very interesting, obviously. It's been shown that at least two Democratic lawmakers, interestingly enough, took a trip that was also paid for initially by Jack Abramoff's credit card.

And they said a lot of the same things that Tom DeLay has said. That they didn't know, they weren't aware of the fact that it was funded by -- that Jack Abramoff paid for it with his credit card. Now, is it fair to hold Congressman Tom DeLay to a different standard than those Democratic lawmakers?

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, (D) MARYLAND: This piece of legislation that we've introduced today will hold all members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to the same standard. What this is about is restoring public confidence in Congress.

I think anybody outside the beltway reading the newspapers and watching television understand very clearly there's much too cozy a relationship between the billion dollar a year lobbying industry and members of Congress. And that has a direct impact on the quality of the laws that we pass.

I think we want a Congress that responds to the public interests, not special interest lobbyist. So, this piece of legislation is intended to build a little more separation between members of Congress and lobbyists, to provide a little more sunshine. I believe sunshine is the best disinfectant. And it applies to Republicans and Democrats alike.

WATKINS: All right. So, you would hold, then, the Democratic lawmakers to the same standard you would hold Tom DeLay.

VAN HOLLEN: Absolutely. This is a piece of legislation. We want to modify the rules and the laws to clean up the lobbying laws and the ethic laws that so we can have the public interest triumph over the special interests. That's what this is all about. And I hope we would have bipartisan effort. I would hope we would have votes from Republicans and Democrats to pass this legislation as soon as possible.

BEGALA: In fact, Congressman King -- thank you for joining us. It's nice of you to do this. I know you are busy and you have votes to cast on the Hill today. But let me go over for the audience and for you in case you haven't had a chance to look at this new legislation, what this new bill that Congressman Van Hollen refers to would do.

It's sponsored by Representative Marty Meehan who is a Democrat from Massachusetts, Congressman Rahm Emanuel is also the sponsor. He's a democrat from Illinois.

This is what they're bill would do, among other things. It would ban trips for members of Congress and their staffs if foreign agents pay for those trips. Second, it would require organizations that pay for trips like this to disclose in advance where the money they are using came from and to guarantee that the money that they are using was not being used as a front for lobbyists.

Third, it would increase from one year to two years the amount of time that former lawmakers and staff members have to wait before they can come back and lobby you and your colleagues in Congress. It would also increase a variety of violations. And as Congressman Van Hollen points out, increase disclosure and reporting.

It seems to me, that it's a shame there's not a Republican co- sponsor for this. So, make a little news on CROSSFIRE, Congressman King. Tell me will you co-sponsor this piece of good government ethics legislation.

REP. STEVE KING, (R) IOWA: First of all, nobody offered it to me.

I haven't had an opportunity to review the legislation. In fact, the summary have you given me is the first exposure I've had to those proposals that came. I did know there was something rumored to be introduced. But if it's been filed, than it's just filed most recently.

I would say this...

BEGALA: It's only been a few hours ago. In fairness to you, that's right, it's only been a few hours. I'm being a little facetious to put you on the spot.

KING: And that's fine. I'm supposed to be in the business to be able to handle that when it comes that way. And some of those changes seem to me to be fine. They might be window dressing on the front.

But I would ask this question, and that is, we have a conference rule that holds our leaders to a standard and it's a high standard. And I'd ask if Democrats are really concerned about this they should hold their own leaders to a standard as high as Republicans hold their own leaders. And that's an issue that came out several months ago. That's not part of the legislation from what I can hear. And I would ask the Democrats to hold their leaders to the same standard as we hold ours to.

BEGALA: Congressman Van Hollen, your reply?

VAN HOLLEN: Look, I think everybody should be held to the same standard. That's what this legislation would do if we could get it passed. I hope my colleague after he has an opportunity to read it. will join us as a co-sponsor, because it does exactly what you said I does. It increases the transparency, so that the public can have a better understanding of the relationships between members of Congress and lobbyists.

It says that members of Congress shouldn't be able to just leave Congress and go out and cash in within two years of their job here. Here we're supposed to be looking out for the public interest. I don't think people should be cashing in to make a personal fortune off of their work here on behalf of the public. It does a number of things like that, tightens up some laws with respect to travel and disclosure. I think it's well overdo. I think, as I said, the relationship between lobbyist and Congress is way too cozy. I think the American people know it. This is reform that is needed. And we should pass it as soon as possible.

WATKINS: Congressman, tell me this, obviously this Pandora's box has already been opened up. We're look into everybody's -- that is the members of Congress and their travel expenses. And obviously now the Democrats are finding out that some of their own may have had their hand in the cookie jar, or at least might get stung by opening up this hornet's nest.

Let me ask you this. Do you really think this is the most pressing business of the Congress? I mean, how about gas prices? Doing something about gas prices. Or maybe doing something about Social Security or the budget? I mean, aren't these more pressing things than travel expenses?

VAN HOLLEN: Actually I'm glad you asked that. Because I think this goes to the core about everything we do in Congress whether it's energy bill or healthcare legislation. The lobbying industry spends billions of dollars trying to influence members of Congress to get special interest provisions into legislation.

They are not spending that money, because they think they are wasting that money. They are spending that money because they think it helps promote their client's interests.

And I could point to numerous provisions in the energy bill and healthcare bill I think arrive there primarily because they had lobbyists backing them up, lobbyists wining and dining members of Congress, lobbyists taking members of Congress, indirectly, on to trips.

That's -- this goes to the core of every piece of legislation that Congress deals with. If we can't get the ethics straight, we're not going to get good legislation.

KING: And I'll say that there's another motive involved here, and that's to continue the ethics debate. Introduce another piece of legislation so we could have more national media and we can talk about the ethics debate some more. And it's because the Democrats don't have an agenda.

BEGALA: That's a good thing, right. It's a good thing we're talking about cleaning up the Congress, right? You're not pro- corruption are you?

KING: I'm all for sunshine. Let's do the sunshine. Let's shine the brightest light we can on everybody. Let's hold everyone to the same standard. Let's not wall low in this ethics thing and introduce legislation and continue this debate. Let's get on with the business of this Congress.

Now, that's been the effort on the part of the Republicans all along. And that's why we back to the 109th Congress rules. Tom DeLay couldn't get a fair hearing. Now maybe he will get a fair hearing.

But I don't think the Democrats are willing to drop the politics of personal destruction. That has been the strategy. It's been stated by their conference chairman. And I think we're going to see this continue until such time as something else comes along to change the subject. That means, we've got to move ahead with Social Security. And that's what I'm ready to do.


BEGALA: Congressman -- I'm sorry, Congressman Van Hollen, we're going to take a quick break. We'll come back to both of you in just a moment.

When we come back, I'm going to pick up on a point Congressman King just made. And in fact ask, is Congressman DeLay is going to get more than a fair hearing on a committee on which every single Republican has financial ties to him?

And then, you are going to want to stay tuned for this, update on J.Lo. Her political aspirations later on the CROSSFIRE.


WATKINS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. For all the Democrats complaints about ethics violations in the House, a fair number of Democratic members and their staffs had to refile their travel paperwork in the last few weeks.

Still in the CROSSFIRE joining us from Capitol Hill, Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen and Iowa Republican Steve King.

BEGALA: Congressman King, before the break, you had suggested perhaps Democrats were motivated by partisanship. I don't doubt that both parties act in their party's interests. So, I took a look today at a comment from Larry Noble, who's not a partisan. He was long-time general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. In fact, I believe he started that job when Ronald Reagan was president. He now runs the Center for Responsive Politics -- strictly a non-partisan group. He points out that every single Republican member of the House Ethics Committee has financial ties to Tom DeLay. They've either given money to Mr. DeLay or received money from DeLay. And he says this.

"I hope the public pressure will be sufficient to force the committee to appoint an outside counsel. If not, everything will be under a cloud. If they want to be taken seriously they will appoint an outside counsel with a broad mandate."

This is what happened when the Ethics Committee was investigating Jim Wright the Democratic speaker who was accused of unethical conduct. They brought in an outside counsel. Shouldn't they do the same thing with Tom DeLay?

KING: Well, first of all these charges that have been made have been -- they're old charges that have been made over and over again. I don't see a reason why we should appoint an outside counsel. In fact, we have now rearranged the rules. Have gone back to the 108th Congress rule. Democrats and Republicans have agreed to use those rules, so that's a path to go. And by the way, we can do this behind closed doors in a fashion that doesn't gin this thing up and erode the confidence of the public in this Congress. Tom DeLay has stood up and he's been a leader. The Democrats recognize he's been an effective leader. The strategy came from that. They identify the person that promoted our agenda most effectively and began to figured out a way they could...

BEGALA: We talked him into taking those lobbyist trips with all those scum bag lobbyist?

KING: Well, Democrats and Republicans took the trips. And I say we shine the light on all of that. Let the public decide. We had an ethics decision last November 2, that's called at the ballot box. As long as the public has full information, that's the job of journal is as well. Get the truth out there, and let the public decide at the polls.

WATSON: Congressman Van Hollen, it seems to me that this is so much about trying to get Tom DeLay. I mean, this seems like an elaborate strategy on the part of Democrats to try to keep the focus on Tom DeLay and try to really taint him any way they can. Now, when Nancy Pelosi, for instances, when one of her staff people incorrectly fills out travel forms it's called a technicality. It's a minor technicality that can be changed. Other Democrats have done the same thing. Why is it that the party is so obsessed with getting Tom DeLay as opposed to getting on with the business of this country?

VAN HOLLEN: Look, Tom DeLay wants to pretend this is all about politics. The Democrats are out to get him. Last Congress the Ethics Committee appointed on the Republican side with members by Tom DeLay cited him for three violations of the Congressional ethics. And the first order of business when we came back this year that Tom DeLay put on the agenda was not to change his conduct, but to change the rules by which that committee had sited him for violations.

This is not about Democrats or Republicans. This is about people changing their conduct, people abiding by the rules of the road. That's why we need this new piece of legislation that we introduced today.

KING: I can't let that go. Tom did not violate ethics...


BEGALA: That will have to be the last word. Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

And Congressman Steve King of Iowa, sorry to cut you gentlemen off, because we only -- only got so much time. Thank you very much for giving us some of yours.

Meanwhile J.Lo, yes J.Lo has tried her hand at TV, and movies and at music. Now she's got another agenda in mind. It may mean a move to Washington. We'll have her story next in the CROSSFIRE.


BEGALA: And now this -- she went from being a dancer on "In Living Color" to a movie and recording star, And now Jennifer Lopez or J.Lo or as I like to call her Jenny from the block, whatever that means, she wants to change her address from that block in the Bronx to Washington. She tells the German celebrity magazine "Bravo," that she wants to be the first female president of the United States. Well, her qualifications, well she tells the German publication she's a real powerhouse. The first thing on her agenda, well, that would be to redecorate the White House. Powerhouse move at that. She says 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't look very cozy.

WATKINS: Well, you can never under estimate Jennifer Lopez. I mean, she went from being a dancer in "In Living Color" to being a superstar.

BEGALA: You know who else was a dancer there?


BEGALA: Hillary Clinton. And she will be the first female president. Hillary can move. I could -- I have danced with Hillary Clinton.

From the left I'm Paul Begala, that's it for CROSSFIRE.

WATKINS: From the right, I'm Joe Watkins. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE. "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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