The Last Word | March 06, 2013
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, HOST: Having just watched his show, I can tell you that Bill O'Reilly is just as ignorant tonight as last night about President Obama and spending cuts. Unfortunately, a lot of Republicans are just as ignorant as Bill O'Reilly . And so, the president had a working dinner with Republicans tonight to tell them the same things he's been saying in his speeches that they haven't been listening to.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Will breaking bread help break Washington 's budget stalemate?
JOY REID, THE GRIO: Politics is supposed to be adversarial.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: This is bull crap. It's jack what you're saying.
REID: We have two parties fire reason. Just do what you're supposed to do.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Obama goes on a charm offensive.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's trying to reach out to Republicans .
TAMRON HALL, MSNBC ANCHOR: Going around the public leadership .
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To hammer out a long-term budget deal.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL , MINORITY LEADER: I wish he had done more of that over the years. SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Where this goes, I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is a grand bargain insight again.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's willing to work with Republicans .
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is a caucus of common sense in the coming days and the coming weeks. I'm going to keep on reaching out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's inviting several Republicans tonight. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham .
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's got Lindsey Graham 's digits.
GRAHAM: The president asked that I get together a group.
ALEX WAGNER, MSNBC ANCHOR: Eleven Republican senators.
GRAHAM: I was honored.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: You know Lindsey Graham is ready.
OBAMA: In the coming days and weeks, I'm going to continue reaching out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's absolutely determined to try and get something done.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The GOP has been tagged the party of no.
O'REILLY: It's jack what you're saying.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now you have people like Speaker Boehner saying --
REP. JOHN BOEHNER , SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE : The president got his tax hikes. He got his tax hikes. The president got his tax hikes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, he doesn't want to have these one on one meetings with the president anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is still incentive among a lot of Republicans --
REID: Politics is supposed to be adversarial.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- to not cooperate with this president.
REID: All they really need is a hug and a lunch.
MCCONNELL: I wish he had done more of that over the years.
REID: President Obama is not their mom.
GRAHAM: Where this goes, I don't know.
OBAMA: There is a caucus of common sense in the coming days and coming weeks. I'm going to keep on reaching out.
O'REILLY: I've been relatively fair to Barack Obama. He doesn't do anything.
O'REILLY: It's jack what you're saying. He's not trying to solve the fiscal cliff. I'm not a partisan. But now, I'm really angry.
O'DONNELL: President Obama has just finished a working dinner with 12 Republican senators, the start of an outreach campaign that will include visits with the full Republican caucuses in both the House and the Senate . The two and a half hour dinner was held in a private room in the Jefferson Hotel in Washington . On the menu for discussion tonight were fiscal issues, immigration reform and gun control . Earlier, today a senior administration official told NBC News that the president believes a number of rank-and-file Republicans are not clear about his willingness to compromise. No kidding. Including on the issues of chained CPI and means testing for Medicare , and the president planned to make that explicit tonight. You know, for those Republicans who might not have been listening when the president said it explicitly on national television.
OBAMA: David , as you know, one of the proposals we made is something called chained CPI .
O'DONNELL: Or when he said it explicitly in the Capitol in his State of the Union Address .
OBAMA: We'll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors.
O'DONNELL: Republican Lindsey Graham offered this explanation this afternoon about how this dinner got scheduled.
GRAHAM: The president called Senator McCain and myself a couple weeks ago. And Senator McCain was his opponent, as you all know, in 2008 . I see the president reaching out. I'm assuming the president wants to talk seriously about the issues of the day. And if he just wants to have a dinner so we can get to know each other better, that's fine with me. So how do you say no to the president of the United States who would like to have dinner with some of your colleagues? You don't. And anybody who would do that in this business is in the wrong position. So, when the president asked that I get together a group, I willingly, and I was honored, to try to do that.
O'DONNELL: Joining me now is Nia-Malika Henderson , national political reporter for " The Washington Post ", who was part of the press pool covering the dinner at the Jefferson Hotel . Nia , what did you have access to? Did they let you peek in the room and see what the seating arrangement was?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: Not quite. We were camped outside in the bitter cold. Thank goodness it did not snow today. But we were across the street and we were actually very doubtful that the senators would come out and talk to us. Usually that happens after a White House meeting, but we thought they would just speed away and we would get sort of identical press speeches from each of their press secretaries. But they did chat. You saw John McCain . He came out and he talked about the meeting very briefly. He said it was a fine meeting, he expected more meetings. You had Mike Johanns out of Nebraska say that he came away feeling more optimistic about a grand bargain . He also acknowledged that he, of course, was not up for reelection, that everyone has to have skin in the game if a grand bargain is to be reached. But this was a meeting described by Pat Toomey as wide-ranging but primarily focused on these fiscal issues around Medicare , around chained CPI , around what the president is actually willing to do to reach a grand bargain . A lot of the folks, or at least two or three of the folks who were in that meeting, were actually part of the Senate discussions in 2011 around a grand bargain , and they had reached a grand bargain agreement that was in many ways grander than what was almost reached in the House . So I think those sorts of people, like Saxby Chambliss , like Mike Johanns who aren't up for reelection, could be part of this common sense caucus that we hear so often out of the White House .
O'DONNELL: I just want to go through the list of the 12 so everyone knows. Senator Lindsey Graham , Senator John McCain , Senator Saxby Chambliss , Senator Kelly Ayotte, Senator Dan Coats , Senator Tom Coburn , Senator Richard Burr , Senator Mike Johanns , Senator Pat Toomey , Senator John Hoeven , Senator Bob Corker, Senator Ron Johnson . I want to bring in Richard Wolffe and Krystal Ball to join this discussion. Krystal , one of the striking things about this, no members of the leadership and no senator who has a high-ranking position on one of the important spending committees. This is a very, very unusual assembly.
KRYSTAL BALL, MSNBC'S "THE CYCLE": It is, and obviously he feels like he's tried that route, he's tried working with the leadership , and just because he can get buy-in from the leadership doesn't mean he can get the rest of the caucus to go along. So, this is an opportunity, a chance to maybe try and kindle some goodwill with other members of the Republican caucus in the Senate . And, you know, to the extent that there is an opening here for a grand bargain , you have to say that actually the sequester worked in a way by creating an incentive for both sides. There are things that neither side likes in the sequester, to try to work something out. Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been very vocal about being uncomfortable with the defense cuts that are part of this sequester and wanting to do something about that. And Democrats , of course, uncomfortable with the size of the cuts in general. So I think to the extent that there is an opening here, you have to say the sequester worked in a way as it was intended.
O'DONNELL: Richard Wolffe , it sounds like, when you listen to Lindsey Graham , that this dinner was maybe weeks in the making. He said he got called a couple weeks ago. Then it seemed as though it was left to him to recruit some willing Republicans , and within the Republican Party these days, there can be a certain price to be paid, apparently, if you look too friendly with President Obama as these guys may have looked tonight and Senator Ayotte .
RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Maybe you had those worries by Senator Graham about looking unfriendly. You don't want to turn down the petition invitation.
BALL: As they have many times before.
WOLFFE: They have. But this is a different invitation, remember. This is an invitation not to come to the White House . They were meeting in neutral territory which in this time of austerity was, appropriately enough, a luxury hotel . We do know the president paid out of his own pocket, you know, because obviously the sequester has affected the funds he can draw on for this kind of affair. But, you know, there is a lot of theater here. We know that the Republicans are fully aware of what the president has put out there. I know that we're supposed to celebrate this moment when they can all come together and have a good chat and share some dinner together, but honestly, the contours of this are out there already. Do you think it's noteworthy the Senate leadership isn't there, wasn't there, because the only way to force House Republicans to accept a deal is with Mitch McConnell at the table as well. Are you going to bounce Mitch McConnell and then bounce him into bouncing John Boehner ? I think that's a stretch.
O'DONNELL: And, Nia , is there any word from Republican leadership about how they feel about this meeting? Because in normal times, the leadership of either party hates to see members dealing directly with the president.
HENDERSON: Well, you know, I bet Mitch McConnell is breathing a sigh of relief that he didn't get an invitation, one that he would have to turn down. He, of course, has said pretty steadfastly that he didn't want to negotiate with the president, didn't want to negotiate with Biden over the sequester and he, of course, might even face something of a primary challenge from his right in Kentucky . Next week, there will be meetings. The president will meet with the House , with the Senate , with those leaders there and the rank in file. So I don't think the leaders of either of these, the House or the Senate on the Republican side , are necessarily going to lose any sleep. But the rank-and-file members are meeting with the president. They described this as a first step, as breaking the ice. This hasn't been a good relationship the president has had with the Republicans for obvious reasons. His fault some, their fault, too. So, you know, I am optimistic. They were certainly optimistic coming out of there. These are the types of people that have been talking about the issues that are going to be important to this president, whether it's immigration, whether it's gun control . You have somebody like Tom Coburn who is trying to broker a deal on gun control , and, of course, Lindsey Graham , a real key person on immigration. And so, he is going to have to have a relationship and build trust with these folks if he is, in fact, able to get anything done for his final term.
O'DONNELL: I want to read some of the comments of the senators coming out of the dinner tonight where Nia and other reporters. These are spontaneous comments they gave to you and others. As you said, Mike Johanns , "I am more optimistic just from a personal standpoint. These are very difficult issues, but I do think there is a real fatigue in just going from crisis to crisis, but tonight was a good first step, a good step." You had John McCain saying, " All I can say is we had an evening that I really appreciated very much." You had Pat Toomey saying, "We had a wide ranging discussion about fiscal and other issues. I think it was a constructive discussion." Krystal Ball , those comments strike me as the most positive the president could have hoped for coming out of a discussion like that.
BALL: I absolutely agree, and markedly different than what we've heard from Republicans over the past several years. If you think about where they are, I mean, for the president, he wants to get past these budget crises and get on with the rest of his agenda. He has a lot of items that he wants to accomplish in the next four years and a short amount of time to do it. Republicans are also leery of just focusing their message on what they want to cut. Eric Cantor and others have said they don't want to be the party of no, they don't want to be just the party of austerity. They also want another message. So, they also have an incentive to move beyond this. So listening to those notes of warmth between the two sides, I have to say, like Nia - Malika , I am cautiously optimistic.
O'DONNELL: Richard , I want to go back to who paid for this dinner . And there are, I have to tell you, there are problems on this emerging already --
BALL: Uh-oh !
O'DONNELL: -- for everyone involved, because our NBC News report says, as for who paid for dinner , several senators said they had no idea. The problem there is the Senate ethics rules that do not allow anyone to pay for their dinners if it's more than $25, and at that place, Richard , you know it was.
HENDERSON: Oh, my goodness, yes.
O'DONNELL: If the president paid for dinner , as it indicates he probably did, there may be another problem there. The exception to this $25 rule is very simple. The exception is the old friend rule. You can pay if it was an old friend who paid. That is normally defined as someone you were very friendly with before you became a senator, and, unfortunately, the president never met any of these people before that. So I think we can wait for the Senate Ethics Committee investigation as to exactly what the propriety of this was. I'm going to have to wait for that.
WOLFFE: I expect future nominations to be strongly blocked by Republicans until we see the talking points about this.
O'DONNELL: Nia-Malika Henderson , Krystal Ball , and Richard Wolffe , thank you all for joining me tonight.
WOLFFE: Thank you.
BALL: Thank you, Lawrence .