'This Week' Transcript: Shimon Perez, Sens. Dick Durbin and Mitch McConnell


JANUARY 4, 2009


STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning, and welcome to "This Week."


(voice over): Ground war in Gaza.

(UNKNOWN): Now is the time to do what needs to be done.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Back from Hawaii, Obama challenges Congress.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: If we don't act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that Illinois governor sparks a constitutional clash.

GOV. ROD R. BLAGOJEVICH, D-ILL.: I am appointing Roland Burris as the next United States senator from Illinois.

DURBIN: He has forfeited his moral authority to fill the Senate seat.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Topics, this morning, for our exclusive headliners, Israeli president Shimon Peres, the Senate Democratic whip, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and the most powerful Republican in Washington, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

George Will, Cokie Roberts, Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Jonathan Karl debate all the week's politics on our roundtable. And, as always, the Sunday funnies.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": The bad news for Governor Blagojevich is that there's no chance that President Bush will pardon him because Bush can't even pronounce his name, so...


ANNOUNCER: From the heart of the nation's capital, "This Week" with ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos, live from the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Hello again. There is no easing into the new year, these first few days of 2009. President-elect Obama begins lobbying Congress tomorrow to pass his massive jobs plan, just as a full-scale ground war in the Middle East presents his first diplomatic test.

We're going to dig into both those challenges this morning with our guests, plus the controversy over Obama's now vacant Senate seat.

But we begin in Israel, where heavy fighting continues today after thousands of Israeli ground troops moved into Gaza last night. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed and 2,400 wounded since air strikes began last week.

But that has not stopped Hamas from firing rockets into Israel, killing four and injuring more than 70 Israelis. Hamas vowed today to make Gaza a graveyard for Israeli forces.

And, for more on this, we now have an exclusive interview with Israel's president, Shimon Peres.

And, Mr. President, thank you for joining us.

As you know, Israel is under pressure, on many fronts, to curtail this operation. The U.N. secretary-general told your prime minister, today, to end the operation. The president of the General Assembly said, today, that "the Israeli invasion is a monstrosity."

How will Israel respond to this pressure?

PERES: Well, clearly, if there is somebody can stop terror with a different strategy, we shall accept it. We shall not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire and we shall declare a cease- fire. It does not make any sense.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no cease-fire?

PERES: Yes, they said they are going to have a cease-fire. They didn't respect it.

They did things which are unprecedented in the history even of terror. They made mosques into headquarters. They put in bombs in the kindergartens, in their own homes. They are hiding in hospitals. They are shooting endlessly for no reason, for no purpose, without any explanation and without any hope.

They are now beginning to feel the weight of their mistakes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There is some confusion over the Israeli end game. The prime minister said the goal is not to crush Hamas, but the foreign minister told me, just the other day, that Hamas in power is a problem for Israel, and eventually they must be removed.

Other Israeli officials have said the same thing. Can there be a negotiated peace with Hamas, or must Hamas be removed?

PERES: We don't intend neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas, but to crush terror. And Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it.

We were careful. We restrained. We waited. We gave them many chances. At the beginning, they say, you occupied Gaza. But we left Gaza completely. We dismantled the settlements. There wasn't a single Israeli.

They cannot explain why are they shooting, what for are they shooting, and they cannot hide that they are acting by orders from Iran. Iran has two satellites in the Middle East, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

They are serving a foreign country at the cost of their own security and lives of their own children and own people. STEPHANOPOULOS: You say you don't want to occupy Gaza, over the long term, but then how can you be sure that you will end the terror, that you will end the rocket firing on Israel?

And how will Gaza be governed?

Who can come in and offer some hope to the Palestinians who are living in Gaza and turn it into a functioning state?

PERES: Gaza is part of the Palestinian Authority. The present Hamas group revolted against their own authority. The head of the authority, the president of the Palestinian people, Mr. Abbas, was duly elected by 62 percent. They should come under the government of the Palestinian elected authority.

Anyway, we are not going to mix in in their politics, but we have decided not to permit to shoot against us. We have the means. Nobody else has the means. When they will stop terror, then we shall return to normal life.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Hamas was also elected in Gaza. Isn't -- won't it be a problem for Fatah leadership to come back or try to come back into power after an Israeli invasion? Won't they lose credibility with their own people?

PERES: Maybe, but that's not a reason to shoot at us. That's not a reason to kill our children. That's not a reason to have 80 or 90 missiles every day, for no reason (inaudible) civilian life. We cannot answer their questions, but we have to answer our own. Our government, with all due respect to public opinion, to pressures and so on, we have by law and by reason to defend our people, and nobody else has suggested how to do it otherwise.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, sir...

PERES: And for that reason, the Arab world is -- I'm sorry. And for that reason, the public opinion even in the Arab world is divided, because they understand that there is a senseless bloodshed, initiated and conducted by the Hamas people.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, sir, the head of the Shin Bet general security services told a cabinet meeting in Israel today, it's been reported, that Hamas has eased its demands for a cease-fire with Israel. Can you elaborate on that?

PERES: Yes. They made the demand, they made the suggestion to have a cease-fire and open the passages. To open the passages without control means to enable them to bring in more rockets, more missiles, more weapons, more supply from Iran. Doesn't make any sense that we should do it. Because it started with open passages. They could have moved around without any difficulties. We even permitted the supply of money, not only medical supply, money that we have collected to the Hamas. So what do they want, that we should open to them again, to have more supply of weapons and bombs? We say that they are -- we are not going to. And even today, by the way, one of the passages is open, because there is no shortage of basic needs in Gaza. We take care that medical equipment and food and fuel will arrive to Gaza, even today.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, Mr. President, thank you very much for your time this morning.

PERES: Thank you.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Now for reaction here in the United States, I am joined by the number-two Democrat in the Senate, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the senior senator of Illinois.

Good morning, Senator. Let me get your reaction right away to President Peres. You clearly saw him, heard him this morning, no cease-fire, no withdrawal now. Is that wise?

DURBIN: Well, it's understandable. The Israeli people, of course, have been the victims of the terrorist attacks by these Hamas rockets, which are now capable of longer ranges and more damage and bloodshed, and the Israelis want to bring an end to this.

When they left the Gaza strip, it was to try to bring peace to this area, return it to the hands of the Palestinians. And sadly, the Palestinian people have been victimized by incompetent and corrupt leadership, and at this point in time, I think the Israelis have said we have to put an end to these attacks from Gaza into Israel.

A cease-fire, I hope, occurs quickly. I hope it is of a permanent and verifiable nature. But it's understandable. Israel has watched as these rockets have been launched from Gaza time and again, killing innocent people in their territory.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, let me turn to the situation in your own state. Governor Blagojevich, of course, as you know, appointed Roland Burris to fill the Senate seat this week. Mr. Burris said last night he is flying to Washington tomorrow. He says he is ready to serve the people of Illinois. Have you spoken to him about what will happen when he comes to Washington this week to claim the seat he thinks is his?

DURBIN: Well, I've spoken to him repeatedly, and I've known Roland for over 30 years. And George, if you listen to the commentary of those of us in Illinois, who know Roland Burris, no one has raised any questions about his integrity or his personal background.

DURBIN: It's a question about the process. This governor, Rod Blagojevich, has taken the appointment of a Senate vacancy to a level no one even imagined. I mean, to think, in these words out of his own mouth, from the wiretaps, verified, to think that he believed this was some sort of an auction process, that he could find some political advantage, even some resources and money coming his way if he picked the right person, has really raised a lot of questions with (inaudible)...


STEPHANOPOULOS: But Senator, there's no evidence -- there's no evidence that the appointment of Burris himself was corrupt, and Blagojevich is the governor right now, so isn't this a legal appointment?

DURBIN: It is -- I have to look at it in this fashion. The governor of Illinois has the state constitutional authority to fill the vacancy. The Senate of the United States has the U.S. constitutional responsibility to decide if Mr. Burris was chosen in a proper manner, and that is what we're going to do.

Senator Reid has said from the beginning, and I agree with him, we have to look at this carefully, because Rod Blagojevich has brought questions -- raised questions by his conduct as to how this process unfolded. Not reflecting personally on Roland Burris, but to make sure that in the end, the person representing the state of Illinois, serving with me in the United States Senate, was brought to that position properly.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Back in 1996, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana was elected under contested circumstances. There was an investigation of the election, but she was seated provisionally by the Republican leader of Congress at that time. Will the Democrats seat Mr. Burris provisionally, as this investigation goes forward?

DURBIN: I don't believe that is the intention. And there's a real difference between what happened with Senator Landrieu. In her case, it was a matter of counting the votes. And that has traditionally been the reason for any election contests and recounts, as we have in Minnesota.

In Illinois, sadly, because of the allegations against Governor Blagojevich, there's a question of corruption, as to whether or not something was done which was entirely improper. Not a question of counting the votes. So I think that's the distinction, and why we're looking at this differently. There is no precedent. Nothing like this has occurred, at least in modern memory, in the U.S. Senate.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There is also the question of race. Congressman Bobby Rush, an African-American congressman from Chicago, has compared the Senate blocking Mr. Burris to some of the most notorious segregationists of the 1950s. Take a listen.


REP. BOBBY L. RUSH, D-ILL.: I'm talking about George Wallace, Bull Connors. And I'm sure that the U.S. Senate do not want to see themselves placed in the same position.


STEPHANOPOULOS: On top of this, you have reports in the Chicago Sun-Times that your leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, advised Governor Blagojevich not to pick African-American members of Congress, like Jesse Jackson Jr., like Danny Davis. Are you concerned about a racial backlash here?

DURBIN: First, let me say this about the allegations against Senator Reid. It's an outrage, that the Blagojevich people, in the last days of their administration, facing impeachment in Springfield, are now flailing in every direction, trying to show defiance in the appointment of Roland Burris and attacking everybody in sight.

Harry Reid did in this circumstance what anyone would have done as majority leader of the Senate. He called the governor to discuss filling the vacancy. He's done that, of course, in the states of New York, in Colorado, and in Delaware. It is the normal thing. I did the same. I announced at a press conference I was going to speak with the governor.

But to think that this governor, on his way out, is now flailing in every direction, trying to attack everyone, is just plain wrong, and the people of Illinois see through it.

Now, the bottom line is this -- this is not about race. We are so proud in our state to have elected great African-Americans. The first in our history was Roland Burris, elected statewide, and then Jesse White, our secretary of state, and of course Barack Obama as the United States senator. We have a proud record in the land of Lincoln of electing African-American candidates to statewide office. There is no question about race. When we said at the beginning, Democratic senators said we are not going to seat an appointment of Governor Blagojevich, it was before he'd chosen anyone, black, white or brown. So it has nothing to do with race.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, Senator, let me turn to the economic plan. President-elect Obama of course is going to meet with you and other congressional leaders tomorrow. Our next guest, Senator McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, has warned that this process should be transparent. Let me show you a little bit of what he said. He said that we hope that Democrats in Congress don't attempt to shut the American taxpayer out of this process by trying to pass a bill that hasn't been the subject of bipartisan review and that hasn't been available for public inspection.

Specifically, he and other Republican leaders and calling for public hearings in the appropriate committees, and for the details of this bill to be available online for the entire American public to read for a week before there's a vote.

You know that President-elect Obama has promised a more transparent government. Will you accede to these demands?

DURBIN: I can't tell you what the particulars are. I know that Senator Reid is meeting with Senator McConnell to discuss how we'll do this.

DURBIN: The bottom line is this. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid both know that we can't pass the economic recovery plan that this nation desperately needs without bipartisan cooperation.

We've got to put aside a lot of the squabbling that in the past and come together under this new administration and new leadership, to get the American economy back on line.

We need to create good American jobs, investing in American workers. We need to have the kind of investments that will help us expand our energy opportunities. We have to make sure that we have health care investments which make it more affordable and safer for people to go to the hospital.

And we have to invest in our libraries and laboratories and classrooms, for the 21st century.


DURBIN: This economy is in a tenuous position.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The other big concern of Republicans, and many Democrats as well, is preventing a huge increase in the long-term debt of this country.

What can you do to assure that there will be come kind of fiscal responsibility at the back end?

For example, will you institute pay-as-you-go rules for new programs? And at one point will they take effect?

DURBIN: George, we're facing a terrible dilemma, at this point. We have a national debt that is going to haunt future generations, and we have to deal with it.

But, at this moment in time, I think everyone agrees, economists both Republican and Democratic, that we need to stimulate this economy and spend money, despite this national debt, but spend it in a thoughtful way, investing our future, making sure that the decisions we make today can be justified in the long term, investing in this country in terms of good-paying jobs, right here at home; in terms of our schools, our health care and energy, so that, in the long term, we can say that was an investment worth the additional debt that it incurred.

But to do nothing and to hold back and to be meek in our approach may have the opposite effect. We may spend a little money and not really turn this economy around. And that would be a disaster.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Senator Durbin, thanks very much for your time this morning.

DURBIN: Thank you, too.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And now I have, here in the studio, the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell.

You heard Senator Durbin, there. Have your concerns been calmed down?

MCCONNELL: Look, I think everyone knows that half the American public is represented by a Republican senator. And all we're suggesting, here, is that we be a part of the process.

The president has said he wants to create 3 million new jobs, presumably as a result of this economic stimulus package. We want to make sure it's not just a trillion-dollar spending bill, but something that actually can reach the goal that he has suggested.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So how do you do that?

MCCONNELL: Well, let me make some suggestions. First of all, the president, incoming president, has said he would like for 80 percent of the jobs created to be in the private sector.

Well, do we really want to create 20 percent of the jobs in the public sector?

That would be 600,000 new government jobs. That's about the size of the post office workforce. Is that a good idea?

That's something that strikes us that we ought to take a look at.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't think it is?

MCCONNELL: Well, it may not be, but I think, at least, hearings, and some kind of bipartisan considerations would be helpful.

There is a bill, ready to go right now, George, that would spend $400 billion. That's the nine appropriation bills from last year that have already been vetted, been looked at by both Democrats and Republicans, could pass, on a largely bipartisan basis, very quickly.

We could pass that bill. Much of that spending is related to the kinds of items that may well end up in the trillion-dollar spending package.

So that's a place to start. Another example of something that I think ought to be considered: We could do a middle-class tax cut immediately. Right now, the middle-class tax rate is about 25 percent.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, President-elect Obama says he does want to do that, a $500 tax credit. MCCONNELL: Yes, right. This is the sort of thing we could -- we could have bipartisan agreement on. But Republican, by and large, think tax relief is a great way to get money to people immediately.

A possibility would be to take a look at the 25 percent rate currently applied to the middle class, lower it to 15 percent.

And with regard to the money to the states, one item -- one approach that I think we ought to take a look at, that I have a feeling won't be in the recommendation of the administration, is to make this money for states alone, rather than a grant.

You know, the way we're operating, under the TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the money that's being lent to financial institutions is at 5 percent over five years. And if it's beyond five years, the rate is 9 percent.

There are some states that are in good shape. In fact, I can think of at least two who have said publicly they don't want any of the money.

MCCONNELL: So why should we automatically provide funds to states...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, there are several states struggling...

MCCONNELL: ... that don't want it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... as well. Is that a red line for you? If these are grants to the states, you're not going to support it?

MCCONNELL: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying we want to be a part of the process. And it might make sense to lend the money to the states. It will make them spend it more wisely.

I think nobody thinks we ought to be spending this money on things like Mob museums and waterslides. And if the money were lent rather than just granted, states would I think spend it wisely, and the states that didn't need it at all wouldn't take any.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Two other ideas the Democrats are discussing on Capitol Hill right now are extending unemployment benefits to part- time workers and expanding health care benefits for the unemployed. Can you support that?

MCCONNELL: I might, but those are very big, systemic changes. What the speaker said last year with regard to stimulus packages I think makes sense -- timely, and temporary, and targeted. Do we in the name of stimulus want to make long-term, systemic changes that will affect spending every single year? I think that's at least worth considering, having hearings about, having bipartisan discussions.

What I worry about, George, here is the haste with which this may be done. This is an enormous bill. It could be close to a $1 trillion spending bill. Do we want to do it with essentially no hearings, no input, for example, in the Senate from Republican senators who represent half of the American population? I don't think that's a good idea, and I don't think that...

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you think it's unwise for the Democrats to push for this to be done by the time that President-elect Obama takes office?

MCCONNELL: No, it shouldn't be done. I don't think that they even seriously can defend, and I don't think my friend Dick Durbin was defending doing this without bipartisan consideration. And I -- you know, this was, I think, the Democrats in Congress idea, not the president's idea, to have it on his desk by January 20th. That's just not a practical thing to do.

If we want to do a bill immediately, again, my recommendation is the omnibus appropriations bill. It's ready. These were nine bills that were not passed by October when they should have been passed. They're ready to go. They've already been vetted by both sides, would pass on an overwhelming, bipartisan basis, and much of that spending, George, would be on things similar to what the president may be asking for in that package.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But isn't a lot of that money already out there through the continuing resolution? A fair amount of that money is...

MCCONNELL: No -- well, some of it is, but it's not -- it's not very targeted. A continuing resolution doesn't target things very much, doesn't have any congressional input in it. And it could be done quickly. If we want to do something quickly, let's do something that's already been vetted.

I don't think we have to delay the stimulus package for a lengthy period of time, but I've given you three ideas today that make a lot of sense, that ought to be considered.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Bottom line, will President-elect Obama get the 80 or so votes he's looking for in the Senate?

MCCONNELL: I think if they pursue a fair process, in the Senate at least, where fairness is typically the rule, and give both sides an opportunity to have input, to have it -- a true bipartisan stamp -- he's likely to get significant support.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you support the Democrats' refusal to seat Roland Burris?

MCCONNELL: I think there ought to be a special election in Illinois. Again, Senator Durbin suggested that initially, and then did a 180 today after that, and decided they didn't want to have a special election. I think the fear is that Republicans might somehow win the seat in Illinois if there's a special.

But the process is so tainted, it is such a tangled mess, as you can see, that the only way to clear the air and to have a successor chosen in Illinois that everybody can have confidence in, and a process that they can have confidence in, would be to have a special election.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, we're just about out of time, but do you agree with Senator Durbin that Israel's ground operation now in Gaza is understandable?

MCCONNELL: Absolutely. Hamas is a terrorist organization. Imagine in this country if somebody from a neighboring country were lobbing shells at our population. We'd do exactly the same thing. I think the Israelis are doing the only thing they can possibly do to defend their population.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator McConnell, thanks very much for your time this morning.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, George.