'This Week' Transcript: Two Powerhouse Roundtables

Two Powerhouse Roundtables Preview Next Week's State of the Union

ByABC News
February 8, 2013, 12:56 PM

NEW YORK, Feb. 10, 2013— -- (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS (voice-over): Good morning, and welcome to "This Week."

(UNKNOWN): Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The state of our union.

OBAMA: Bottom line is this, people: We got a lot of work to do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: President Obama takes the stage. How will Congress respond?

BOEHNER: Washington has to deal with its spending problem. I've had enough of it.


FEINSTEIN: Please remove that woman.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... drone war drama. A new civil war in the GOP. And when have you heard presidential prospects talk like this?

RUBIO: Tupac's lyrics were probably more insightful.

CHRISTIE: I'm like, basically, the healthiest fat guy you've ever seen in your life.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We take on all the week's politics right now.

ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. Reporting from ABC News headquarters, George Stephanopoulos.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Hello again. Here in the Northeast, we are still digging out from that massive blizzard. New York spared the worst. More than three feet in parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts. Forty million people affected. Over 350,000 homes without power.

ABC News will keep an eye on that all day long, and right here we're grateful that everyone on the powerhouse roundtable made it in, planes, trains and automobiles, through the storm, because we have a packed week of politics. Around the table, ABC's chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, President Obama's deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, both White House veterans, and from the Congress, Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota.

Let's get right to it. Jon Karl, you've been digging into the White House right now. What are their plans for the State of the Union?

KARL: The White House -- the president wants to see this, the headline coming out of the speech as it was about jobs and the economy. That's going to be the focus here. They're a little stung, George, by some of the criticism of the inaugural, for not focusing on jobs and the economy.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, fair criticism, of course.

KARL: They don't want to argue that it's not fair, but that's -- so this is going to have new initiatives on infrastructure, on education, on clean energy, and it's going to be all about the middle class, expanding the middle class, and a big warning on this, the automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to go into effect on March 1st.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I do want to talk about that, that sequester, across-the-board spending cuts on March 1st. How about the tone, though? One of the things we've seen from the president since his re-election in November, fairly confrontational across the board.

KARL: And I don't expect to see much of a change on that, although on one issue, even as he's going to be proposing new initiatives -- and these are initiatives that will cost money. We're not talking massive new stimulus program here, but these are new spending initiatives. He is going to make what White House officials are describing as a progressive case for deficit reduction, that that still needs to be done, even entitlement reform. And the progressive case is, if these programs continue to grow out of control, they crowd out other initiatives, other priorities that are -- you know, that progressives hold dear, on education, on -- on infrastructure, you know, social programs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the other things we're going to see, Congressman Ellison, you and several other members of the Democratic caucus going to be bringing as guests into the chamber victims of gun violence.

ELLISON: That's right. You know, as a matter of fact, a young man named Semi Rahimam (ph), who lost his father in a tragic event in Minneapolis, is going to be joining me, and Jim Langevin and I and Rosa DeLauro have asked our colleagues. We've got about 30 members who are inviting victims of gun violence to be in the gallery. And we're really looking forward to -- to them being with us, because they -- they're witnesses to the need for sane, sensible reform in the area of gun violence prevention.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Cole, what's your sense of what can get done on that this year? Gabby Giffords will also be in the hall on Tuesday. It seems to me, reading the tea leaves, it looks like some kind of consensus is building around universal background checks, but the assault weapons ban likely to go nowhere.

COLE: I think, certainly, on the assault weapon ban, you're absolutely correct. Look, I think this starts in the Senate, and we'll see what Harry Reid can get done. I mean, most of the key players have NRA A ratings, including the majority leader, Chairman Leahy. You've got six Democrats up in states that the president got 42 percent or less in. I don't think they're going to be too enamored with this. So I think that pushes you toward things like background checks.

In the House, it's going to be tougher. I mean, that's just the reality of it politically. So I would expect something to be done. I think there's going to be a lot of hearings, but probably more in the mental health area, potentially in some of the background check area, but anything that hints towards some sort of national registry won't make it, and anything that really materially makes it more difficult for people to exercise Second Amendment rights, not going to happen.

ELLISON: You know, I -- I tell you, I don't -- I don't agree. I hope that -- I think the odds of something happening are determined by the determination of people who push those things. And when the folks who are going to be joining me and Jim Langevin, we don't want to take the right of folks to own a gun away. I own a gun myself. But we do believe that when you got 20 dead first-graders, we need action in this country. And I'm sorry, most NRA members agree with us, by the way, the membership.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me bring in Stephanie Cutter, because I think part of the question will be where the president does put the emphasis on Tuesday night. We heard Jon Karl say, and I think that's right, big focus on jobs. One of the things you're seeing coming into this -- and I want to put this up on the board -- President Obama's approval rating coming in at about 52 percent. That has him about where President Bush was at the start of his second term, pretty far below where Clinton and Reagan were, so how do you expect him to husband that capital that he has remaining?

CUTTER: Well, I think that he's going to continue doing what he has been doing. And you guys used the word confrontational. I would use a different word, where he's going to lay out the case for the things that he thinks this country needs to accomplish. They'll be very familiar themes. The economy will be central to this speech and how we grow the economy so that everybody can participate, a fair shot, pay your fair share.

But the other things that he does lay out, he'll lay out the looming deadline on the sequester, the tough choices that we have to make around it, and the consequences if we let the sequester go into effect, and, you know, cuts to some pretty critical programs. So I think the State of the Union is always an important moment in a presidency. This is another chance to make the case -- not just to the people sitting in that room, but to the country of the tough choices that we have to make, and I think he'll make it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Nicolle Wallace, a cautionary tale from President Bush's State of the Union address going into this second term, big focus on Social Security privatization, Social Security reform, fell aground.

WALLACE: That's right, because I think that he made the proposal to reform Social Security without having his own party onboard. That's a lesson for any president.

But I think President Obama did the Republican Party a huge favor by delivering an inaugural address that was historically combative. He did not deliver the kind of inaugural address that people are accustomed to in recent history. Instead, he came out and, really, in a spirited way -- I wouldn't call them fighting words -- but a very spirited defense of an aggressively progressive agenda.

I'm told by staffers from Marco Rubio's office that he was -- had a certain kind of response to the State of the Union in mind, he tore it up and started again. Republicans now are ready to, I think, go toe to toe with a very spirited president who I think is ready to advance a progressive agenda. I think that this will help Republicans really, you know, match spirit with spirit and make a conservative case.


KARL: You know, on Marco Rubio's response, you know, the expectation for some is this is a chance for him to really showcase his immigration plan, but I'm told that Rubio's response touches very little on immigration.

WALLACE: That's right.

KARL: This will be a very confrontational speech, taking on the president. It will touch on immigration, but it is not an immigration speech.


WALLACE: And the same themes that you describe, though, he's going to -- he's going to talk about the middle class, and he's going to talk about the same things you talked about, how to bring opportunity to every corner of the country, so I think it will be really a battle of ideas.

CUTTER: Which is great, and what it should be. I just want to take one note on the inaugural address. You know, it has been described as a speech with a list of progressive ideas, but if you actually look at what the president talked about, that's not progressive. That's actually the center of the country right now, whether it's gay marriage or climate change. Immigration, you've seen how far we've been able to move the immigration debate. That's where the country is. And I think as Republicans are trying to remake themselves and brush up on their talking points, they need to realize where the country (inaudible) critical issues.


STEPHANOPOULOS: I think you're right about where the country is, but one thing we've also seen in those issues like guns and immigration, climate change, very low on people's priorities now, economy front and center. That's what the president going to be focused on. You've all mentioned this sequester that is coming up, as well. I want to dig into that just a little bit, because it seemed like when this sequester was proposed back in 2011, it was proposed because no one wanted or expected it to happen. Take a look.


OBAMA: The whole idea of the sequester was to make sure that both sides felt obligated to move off rigid positions.

BOEHNER: The sequester is ugly, it was designed to be ugly, because we didn't want anybody to go.

LEVIN: The very idea of those automatic cuts is that they are so unacceptable that few of us will want to see them enacted and most of us will be willing to compromise in order to avoid them.


STEPHANOPOULOS: What a difference a year makes. Congressman Cole, it's gone from irresponsible to what seems like inevitable right now.

COLE: Well, I think it is inevitable, quite frankly. Look, for the -- this was a presidential suggestion back in 2011, an idea, and yet the president himself hasn't put out any alternative. Republicans twice in the House have passed legislation to deal with it, once as early as last May, again after the election in December. Senate's never picked up either of those bills, never offered their own thing.

Now we're at three weeks out, and folks are worried. They ought to be worried. On the other hand, they're -- these cuts are going to occur. Now, the real choice here is simply, do you want cuts to be redistributed in other ways, which is the sensible thing to do, or do you want to let this happen? I think Republicans are quite prepared to negotiate on redistributing the cuts.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you're saying all cuts. No -- Republicans are accepting absolutely no revenues?

COLE: No. Look, absolutely none. The president's accepted no spending cuts back in the fiscal cliff deal 45 days ago, so you get all -- no spending cuts back then. Then you're going to get no revenue now.

ELLISON: Well, Tom, the problem with saying this is the president's idea is that you voted for the Budget Control Act. I voted against it. We wouldn't have ever been talking about the Budget Control Act but for your party refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling, something that has been routinely increased as the country needed it. You used that occasion...

COLE: That's not the case.


ELLISON: You used it at that occasion in 2011, August, to basically say, we are going to let -- we're going to default on the country's obligations or you're going to give us dramatic spending cuts. That's how we got to the Budget Control Act.

But let me tell you, you know, the bottom line is, this sequester is going to put a million people out of work -- no, 600,000, excuse me, got to get my numbers right -- 600,000 people out of work, and this is going to increase unemployment, it's going to increase the deficit, because people paying taxes means that we're lowering the deficit. It's going to do -- it's going to do everything opposite to what your party says that they want. It's going to create uncertainty. It's going to increase the deficit. It's going to increase unemployment. It's going to be a problem.

COLE: That's -- that's why we've twice put out proposals that deal with it, Keith. We don't have a presidential proposal.

ELLISON: Take-it-or-leave-it proposals. Those aren't proposals.


COLE: We don't have -- even have a proposal from the president.

ELLISON: You got a proposal from the Progressive Caucus.


COLE: Well, you're not...

ELLISON: Let me tell you about the Balancing Act.


ELLISON: This is a great piece of legislation.

COLE: That's fine, but we don't have one from the Senate...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let him finish.

COLE: And I don't think you speak for the president, so let's see.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Jon Karl, take that up, though, the question -- the president has given a couple of speeches where he says wants a balanced approach, but no line-by-line proposal on the table right now.

KARL: Yeah, and there's been internal debate in the White House on this. But I've got to tell you, you know, at the White House, they seem like -- to think that there will eventually be a compromise here to avert these cuts. I see...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But not before -- not before the sequester starts on March 1st.

KARL: Not before March 1st. Eventually, the pressure comes, the negative consequences, but I see zero chance of a deal on this. I don't see any chance, because -- you know, you have Republicans, and Republicans have done a great job of saying this was the president's idea, they point to Bob Woodward's book, it was clearly the president's idea, but I've -- I've talked to Republicans -- and not just the radical House guys, but a prominent Republican senator this week told me that he loves the sequester, because it's actually real cuts.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to -- I want to bring that to Nicolle Wallace. I do think that's a pretty widespread sentiment right now. On the other hand, you hear from the White House and Democratic operatives who say that all may be well and good, but Republicans are going to get blamed for this.

WALLACE: Well, Stephanie talked about where the country is. The country is pretty strongly in support of big cuts to a bloated federal government. And I think if you take it to the whole country, that would include the defense budget. I think that no one is interested in cutting anything that would impede our military readiness. No one wants to take anything at all from any of our troops on the front lines. But to say that in the entire Pentagon budget there isn't an iota of room for cuts like this, for meaningful cuts would be lying.

KARL: This is significant. You have Republicans saying the Pentagon budget can be cut without jeopardizing national security. Not all of them. I mean, you have people like John McCain...

STEPHANOPOULOS: And Lindsey Graham this week, too.

KARL: ... warning that the sky will fall, but you have a lot of Republicans, privately and publicly, saying that there is room to cut the Pentagon budget.

WALLACE: Well, as long as you don't -- as long as you hold harmless everything that deals with troop readiness, everything that deals with troops on the front lines, with military families, but there's plenty of room in the procurement budgets, in the, you know, health care system, there's plenty of room for reforms and for -- and for making these cuts.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the -- and I want to come to that in a second, but the problem will be, I think, for the White House broadly and for the -- for the country is the point that Congressman Ellison makes. You hit the sequester right now, that is going to have a real economic impact right away.

CUTTER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think you'll hear the president most likely talk about that on Tuesday night -- it's Tuesday night. We can't have any more self-inflicted wounds on this economy. The economy is poised to take off, if we do the right things. Having massive across-the-board cuts to some critical programs -- I mean, you're talking about education, health care, things that actually we need...


CUTTER: ... cops -- to make this -- the economy grow. A couple of things. One, the president does have a plan on the table. It's the $4 trillion deficit reduction plan that's been on the table for almost two years now. It's balanced deficit reduction. We've already cut more than $2 trillion out of the budget. It's balanced revenue. It's balanced entitlement reform. That's on the table; it's been on the table.

Number two, where the country is -- the country believes we need to do something about deficit reform. But if you look at the exit polls from this last election, upwards of 60 percent people coming out voting for the president, voting generally, think that we need to reduce our deficit in a balanced way. Balanced means everybody pays their fair share.

WALLACE: But we...


CUTTER: Which means -- and that includes revenue. And right now, it's 3-1 in terms of cuts versus revenue. That's not fair.


COLE: ... politically, the Democrats are exactly where the Republicans were six weeks ago. Look, taxes were going up by law. The only question was, were you going to negotiate a good package, save as many of the Bush tax cuts as you could? We eventually got there, but we got there with no cuts from the president.

Now these cuts are coming by law. And it's law that the president signed and advocated. And he's put no real proposal on the table, with all due respect. And the reality is, the cuts are going to come. Now, we'll sit down and renegotiate where they come from. We think we can do a lot better job than across-the-board...


WALLACE: Can we just remember why these cuts...


WALLACE: ... enforcement mechanism for the balanced reduction...


ELLISON: The big difference is that with the fiscal -- fiscal cliffs on New Year's Day, you'd have high-income people who already have a lot of discretionary income seeing taxes go up. That's not going to hurt the economy. This thing is going to put 600,000 people out of work, and we're talking cops, we're talking teachers, pink slips will be going out on...


ELLISON: This is why we need to negotiate this thing and not just say it's going to be sequester or our way.


COLE: We've actually...


ELLISON: Oh, come on.

COLE: ... legislation twice.


CUTTER: ... remember why we did this in the first place. We did this not because we wanted these cuts to go into place. Nobody wanted these cuts to go into place.

ELLISON: That's correct.

CUTTER: This was an enforcement mechanism for Congress to come together, finally come together to pass balanced deficit reform, deficit reduction. These across-the-board cuts is not going to get us there, because it's going to strangle our economy, slow growth, which will increase the deficit.

COLE: It won't get us there until we deal with entitlements.

CUTTER: And the -- the choices that people are making here are an across-the-board cut, which could be 10,000 teachers, or asking oil companies to pay their fair share. That's what...


WALLACE: ... are not the victims -- the victims of the sequester. It's so funny to hear Democrats cry about the sequester. Democrats control the executive branch, they control the Senate, and they're in a position to negotiate with Republicans who have put out two packages of alternative cuts. So...

ELLISON: Two take-it-or-leave-it packages.

WALLACE: Well, Democrats haven't come to the table...


COLE: ... something in the Senate and respond. That's not take-it-or-leave-it. That's, like, the process. They haven't been able to pass anything. The president hasn't proposed anything. We're three weeks away. We acted in May of last year. We acted again in December...


STEPHANOPOULOS: And Senator Reid is now saying that he is going to pass a budget out of the Senate this year, but -- and I want to bring this back to Jon Karl, because when you look at the sequester coming in on March 1st, it seems like even the bigger hammer is three-and-a-half weeks later, March 27th, the entire government runs out of money. The last time that happened, the government shut down was 1995. That did backfire on the House Republicans.

KARL: Yeah, we face -- we face a government shutdown, and then not long after that, we have to deal with the debt ceiling yet again. So it seems to me that the real battle -- you know, like I said, there's zero chance that the sequester deal will happen before March 1st. Those automatic spending cuts will go into effect. You still start probably seeing notices going out from the federal government on furloughing employees, being on notice that they may be furloughed, but the real battle will be over the funding of the government, and that's a chance for those automatic cuts to be re-jiggered.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the other things you're seeing right now is this is against the backdrop of the Republican Party coming out of the last election talking about where they're going to in the future, how they are going to be seen by the public. You guys mentioned Marco Rubio, he's on the cover of Time magazine this week. I think he's being called -- right there -- the Republican savior. He put out a tweet saying there's only one savior, and it's not me. A lot of pressure on Marco Rubio. But he's just part of a piece right now. You've seen several top Republicans come out with speeches laying out their vision for where the party should be.


JINDAL: We've got to stop being the stupid party. And I'm serious. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.

(UNKNOWN): I would argue that a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy.

CANTOR: The average American is not thinking about and trying to wonder about where the Republican Party is. They're thinking about how to make their life work.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Your leader in the House right there, Eric Cantor, where is this debate headed?

COLE: You know, I think it's a really good debate for the Republican Party to have. When you lose an election, you ought to be a little bit reflective and you ought to think back and you ought to begin to say, what do we need to do to do differently?

Now, we didn't do badly in the election, but the president won with less than he was elected by in '08, lower popular vote, lower percentage, lower electoral vote. We held the house. We have 30 governors. So the idea that this is some existential crisis, I think, is really overdone right now.

But we didn't win. So what do we need to do differently? I kind of like what I'm hearing. I particularly like the very direct line that Governor Jindal took, you know, because I think we have done some politically stupid...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Can't be the stupid party.

COLE: That's right. Look, we nearly were in the fiscal cliff. We could have triggered a big tax increase. So I don't want to be stupid. But you also need to be principled and consistent in your values, and I think we are. And, you know, we'll see what happens in the next year or two.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And Marco Rubio does seem to be rising to the top of the heap right now.

WALLACE: Yeah, look, he's everything we need and more. He's modern. He knows who Tupac is. He is on social media. He's part of the sort of -- he has all the blessings of the old political establishment. He's close to the younger Bushes. He and Jeb Bush and George P. Bush create what I call that axis of enlightenment when it comes to immigration. I mean, he's got the policy. He's in touch with, I think, the lives of ordinary people. And he's a very accessible guy. He talks about being a working dad and juggling his own priorities.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You were shaking your head at Tupac.

ELLISON: You know, I think all of this stuff is just surface stuff. It's like lipstick on a pig. I mean, the bottom line is, the Republicans have a core values problem, not a "who knows who Tupac Shakur is" problem.


WALLACE: Well, I don't think -- I don't think Marco -- let me just say, I don't want to gloss over his credentials. I think when it comes to immigration reform, President Obama has stolen from Senator Rubio.



WALLACE: So you talk policy...

ELLISON: No, Rubio has a piecemeal approach to this immigration stuff. I mean...


WALLACE: Well, President Obama took pieces of that piecemeal approach.


ELLISON: Well, bottom line is, there -- I think where the -- where the country is, we want more aggressive, more direct reform on immigration reform than Marco Rubio is talking about. I think he's behind. I think he's fragmented on the issue. And I think that, you know, the Republicans are looking for anybody...


STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman, I think he's ahead of your caucus in the House on this, right?


COLE: ... we are in the fifth year of waiting for the Obama immigration plan. It was supposed to be unveiled within 100 days after his election in 2008, so the president's prettily skillfully used the issue, but he hasn't led on the issue. And we're still waiting for a bill. Now, Rubio is leading and leading with some considerable...


COLE: ... political risk to himself, which I admire. So, look, I think we're going to get there, but the real leadership on immigration isn't coming from the administration. It's coming out of the Senate.


CUTTER: First of all, the president put out an immigration plan in the first term. I was there; I helped work on it. Obviously, it was an issue in this past election. Republicans have come a long way, even compared to where we were just six months ago. Now they're talking about being for the DREAM Act. Now Marco Rubio is talking about earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That's a big step forward for Republicans. I hope he can bring the rest of his party along.

And, you know, I think that you're seeing a lot of movement on the Republican side on immigration for a very basic reason: the change in demographics in elections. And I'm...


CUTTER: That's fine. I'm glad they're coming -- I don't care why they're coming. They're just coming towards the president on immigration, and hopefully we can get something done.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get one more issue before we take a break, and it's another potential 2016 contender for the White House, Chris Christie of New Jersey. He started out the week opening up about his weight on "David Letterman," making jokes about it. A former White House doctor took issue with that and said she was worried about his health, Connie Mariano, and then he gave this press conference.


CHRISTIE: This is just another hack who wants five minutes on TV. If she wants to get on a plane and come here to New Jersey and ask me if she wants to examine me and review my medical history, I'll have a conversation with her about that. Until that time, she should shut up.


STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Jon Karl, he then called her and I guess they had a fairly heated conversation, says even though she's a Republican, not voting for him. But, you know, we're laughing about this right now, but Chris Christie talking about this first for a very good reason. This will be a serious issue if he decides to runs for president.

KARL: It is. But I've got to make two points here. One, this kind of reminds you of what Lincoln supposedly said about Grant and Grant's drinking problem. You know, Christie is the most popular Republican in the land. You know, you almost want to say find out what kind of doughnuts he likes and then ship up...



KARL: You know, the guy is doing just fine. Let's kind of give him a break. But I will say this. If he seriously takes on the issue of his own health and his weight the way -- remember, Mike Huckabee first became a national figure as governor of Arkansas when he dealt with his own weight, lost 100 pounds, became -- if he kind of turns this into a national version of "The Biggest Loser," a political version of "The Biggest Loser," you know, Christie can gather even more support. So many Americans relate to what he is dealing with. So many of us are overweight.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And I think a lot of them probably agreed with him in that press conference right there.

WALLACE: I know. But if you're going to run for president, my advice is to stop telling people to shut up. I mean, you know, he...


WALLACE: ... from New Jersey, and so I think that's New Jersey for, you know, "Give me a minute." But I think if he puts his weight on the table by bringing a doughnut on "Letterman," which was a very skillful political move, turning your own vulnerability or something you feel vulnerable about into something that you make fun of before anyone else does is political genius. But then it didn't take him 24 hours to reveal a rather thin-skinned side of the issue.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And that's what he's going to have -- we do have to take a break right now. We have a lot more roundtable coming up, the debate over drones, President Obama under pressure from both left and right. Plus, the New York Times says he's written the best book you'll read this year, and George Saunders is in our Sunday spotlight.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Lots more roundtable coming up. But first, Stephen Colbert, his sister is running for Congress. It's for real.


COLBERT: Quick advice for any of you Republicans out there who might end up in a debate with my big sister, this is how I used to win a lot of arguments with her when I was a kid. Right after she makes a good point, repeat it back to her in a dumb voice, like this. "Ooh, Social Security is a public trust to those who paid into it for their entire working lives." "Ooh. Stop -- stop copying me, Stephen, I'm telling Mom." Trust me, it works.




CHAMBLISS: Your view seems to be that even if we could save American lives by detaining more terrorists, it would be better to kill them with a drone or let them go free rather than detain them.

BRENNAN: Well, I respectfully disagree, Senator. I do -- I never believe it's better to kill a terrorist than to detain him.

CHAMBLISS: How many high-value targets have been arrested and detained and interrogated by the United States during your four years with the administration?

BRENNAN: I'll be happy to get that information to you, Senator.

CHAMBLISS: I submit to you the answer to that is one.


STEPHANOPOULOS: President Obama's pick for CIA director, John Brennan, faced some tough questions this week on the drone war. Let's talk about that on our roundtable right now. ABC News chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz replacing Jonathan Karl right now, because, of course, you spend so much time on this issue. And the drone war really has become kind of the signature characteristic of President Obama and the war on terror, dramatic expansion over the last four years, but this is the most scrutiny it's ever gotten.

RADDATZ: Well, that's certainly because of the testimony of John Brennan and what he brought to the Hill, what he talked about, which, frankly, wasn't very much. The drone wars have not been discussed for four or five years. No one talks about them. It's a brilliant strategy. If you don't talk about it, no one else will talk about them, either.

I just returned from the Mideast. I was in Israel; I was in northern Israel. A lot of people are talking about drones. A lot of people are talking about the effects of drones, George. As you know, I've been in all the places they're used, in Yemen, in Pakistan...


RADDATZ: ... and people there do not like them. John Brennan is able to say, look, it's very effective, and it's certainly been effective taking out core leadership, but when you talk to people on the street, you wonder what the long-term strategy is.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, but let me press you on that, though, because you're right, there has been a lot of discomfort on the ground with these drone strikes. On the other hand, it does appear that the number of civilian casualties has been going down since 2008, and certainly there are less casualties than would be caused by massive bombing.

RADDATZ: Well, I think one of the things is that, yes, I think they've become much more careful. I think John Brennan is probably very careful. No one wants to kill civilians. And yet the American public doesn't really know much about this.

I interviewed Stan McChrystal a few weeks ago, the former head of the Joint Special Operations Command, who ran a drone strike program. What General McChrystal said is, look, what concerns him is that they're now going after midlevel Al Qaida, they're now going after midlevel Taliban. So where does that stop? And who makes those decisions? And who makes the decisions that -- that something is imminent?

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Congressman Ellison, you've been on this for some time. You want much more oversight from the Congress.

ELLISON: That's right. You know, I've looked into this, I haven't found one public hearing on drones. Now, we had the Brennan hearings, but, you know, Congress has an oversight responsibility here. And, by the way, the president has invited the conversation. He said we need a legal architecture around this thing, so why don't we go do it?

I, by the way, don't think this is a partisan issue at all. I think that we need to get a hold of this technology, because certainly other countries will be weaponizing drones. Certainly we will probably have objections to how they use them, if they don't use them in accordance to due process and international standards. And, by the way, the paper that the president -- well, the administration released, you know, uses the term "imminent threat." But this...

RADDATZ: And who decides that, right?

ELLISON: Well, this is the broadest use of the term "imminent" I've ever heard.

COLE: A member of Al Qaida...


ELLISON: You know, yeah, if you're a member of Al Qaida -- not even that, if you're in affiliated groups. So it could be pretty attenuated. I'm glad the president invited the conversation. I think we ought to take him up on it and have -- put some real structure around this thing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Congressman, as he said, this has been somewhat bipartisan. A lot of Republicans also...


COLE: Let me first say I'm impressed -- the guy's got the material right (ph) in his pocket...


COLE: ... policy that started under President Bush continued and expanded under President Obama. I -- like everybody else, I actually think the hearings and discussion have been very helpful. There probably needs to be more of it.

The two things that come out of it that concern me the most, frankly, I think -- and this is not a criticism of the president. I think he's probably been more directly involved in some of the targeting decisions than if I were his adviser I would think would be wise. I think he should supervise -- the program he needs to be intimately familiar, but...


STEPHANOPOULOS: Like Lyndon Johnson, picking targets...


COLE: Yeah -- yeah, I think -- well, I think he's taking on too much risk for himself, quite frankly. But, again, that actually says good things about the president, not bad things.

The second thing is -- and this is to Senator Chambliss's point -- I really do think we are losing a lot of opportunities out there to actually extract people and -- and get information, and human intelligence is really much more important than taking out individual targets.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Nicolle, one of the ironies that a lot of people have sensed here is that even though President Bush -- Obama may have modified Bush administration policies, he's also continuing them.

WALLACE: Yes, and it's slightly hilarious that people have all this patience for a legal architecture to be crafted after the fact. If this had been President George W. Bush's administration revealing that this many drone attacks are going on, there would be impeachment hearings underway. So the hypocrisy sort of has Republicans steaming.

But I think the actual policy and the fact that President Obama has continued almost the entire basket is in the case of drone killings greatly accelerated their use has Republicans feeling pretty satisfied that the counterterrorism policies put in place by the Bush administration, which Dick Cheney was the architect of many of them, have been continued by this president, and it's a very interesting other side of the coin to this extremely progressive president on domestic policy.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Stephanie, it does seem as if the president is uncomfortable at least with one strain of the criticism, that he's not being as transparent as he promised to be.

CUTTER: Well, look, this is sensitive information. There is oversight through the intelligence committees, which is the way the law is currently set up. He has made it clear that he's open for a discussion about how these programs are handled in the future.

You know, the document that you're holding up is based on a legal architecture. But...

ELLISON: Not much.

CUTTER: But, you know, Mr. Brennan, the president, the administration has said that they want transparency, accountability, and a process to ensure that there's -- you know, everybody's aware of what we're doing going forward. There are elements of the -- of President Bush's war on terror that haven't been continued, many forms of torture. And, you know, the fact that the president just put this memo out, after it became known -- and, you know, he wants to work with Congress and be open and transparent about it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Another revelation this week on -- in the foreign policy area, pretty remarkable hearing by Secretary of Defense -- outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta conceding that there had been a real internal debate and that most of the president's national security advisers actually wanted him to arm the rebels in Syria.


MCCAIN: Did you support the recommendation by then-Secretary of State Clinton and then-head of CIA General Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Did you support that?

PANETTA: We did.

MCCAIN: You did support that?

PANETTA: We did.


STEPHANOPOULOS: You were in that region this week, Martha Raddatz, and it was pretty surprising to learn that not only Secretary Panetta, but also Secretary of State Clinton had pushed for this. The president said no.

RADDATZ: And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So he had military also saying we should arm the rebels. I think that came as a complete surprise to many people in the region, and I talked to very -- a lot of officials in the region about this. I don't think they're convinced that if the rebels were armed this would have changed much. A lot of the people I talked to said, look, we didn't know who they were then, and there was -- there was actually some disagreement in the military...


RADDATZ: ... the rebels -- we just don't know who they are. We -- we really shouldn't have been giving them guns, people I talk to. And yet, when you think about it, the United States really could have had someone to deal with in there, and that's probably the argument that Panetta would make, that General Dempsey would make, that Hillary Clinton would make. You had somebody there.

ELLISON: Well, let me tell you, you got nearly 800,000 displaced people, according to the U.N. You've got more than 60,000 people dead. If you talk to Syrian-Americans, you have maybe many, many more than that. We've got to do something. I'm even hearing reports that we're not even coming up to the plate on humanitarian assistance. I mean, we've...

RADDATZ: And you've got chemical weapons, which is...


ELLISON: Yeah, that's -- that's a complicating -- seriously complicating factor. But I just think that, you know, we've got to do more than we're doing. Now, you know, armed rebels are not -- this is a fact-based issue. I think this -- we could be doing a whole lot more, and I'd like -- I'd like to see it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator McCain was saying that, as well.

COLE: Well, I'll tell you what. I want to give the president some support here, actually. This is real presidential leadership. When you turn, you know, away from the advice of your very top leaders, that's a presidential-level decision. He deserves a lot of respect. And it's a tough call either way.

On the arms issue, I am very uncomfortable. I actually agree with the president. We don't know enough to be interjecting arms. There's plenty of people sending arms. The rebels haven't been short of arms. So I don't know that we need to take the lead.

On the other hand, I agree very much with what Keith said. We do need to be on the ground with humanitarian aid. We need to have political intelligence. We can provide a lot of communications and logistics, that kind of stuff that keeps us in the game, but arming people who may be the very ones that take the chemical weapons and misuse them, that would have been a disaster for us, too, so I think the president's been, frankly, appropriately cautious.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Stephanie, how would you respond, though, to people who say that this was interesting timing, that the president chose to say no to his entire national security team right in the middle of a campaign, just didn't want that trouble in the middle of the campaign.

CUTTER: Well, look, George, I think that there are decisions made with the national security team all the time. Sometimes the president agrees with the national security adviser; sometimes he doesn't. That's why the president has built the team that he has.

And, you know, I only know about this from what I read. I'm not inside the White House anymore. And my understanding is that Panetta and others didn't push for it because of the risks involved that the congressman just laid out, that because these arms could end up in the hands of Al Qaida or they could be used against Israel.

So this is -- this is why administrations are set up. This is why national security teams have been built. This is why the president wanted such strong personalities and expertise on his national security team. He doesn't always agree with them, but he gets their best advice and then he makes the decision. He's the commander-in-chief.

WALLACE: Just two quick political points. I think if you look at where President Obama's foreign policy is likely to crack wide open among partisan lines, this is it. This is -- you will see Senators McCain, I think, and Graham and others start to string together instances of America leading from behind and of this president's comfort in doing so in places like Libya and now in Syria. And I think this will become the most political part of the president's foreign policy.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We see scrambling of party lines over here, right?


WALLACE: But I think this is where he's opening himself up to criticism of what was a historically strong America, a strong role for America in the world is being deteriorated by decisions like this. And I think that -- like I said, the counterterror policies are pretty much in line with what Bush and Cheney advocated. It's his foreign policy in this very complicated, very fragile region...

ELLISON: I was going to say that.

WALLACE: ... where I think -- and, again, you know, you're going to see people parting with their own party, but I think Senators McCain and Graham and Chambliss and others are going to open up a line of attack.

ELLISON: In a region that is changing rapidly, the United States needs to be seen to be on the side of people who are fighting for -- for liberation, for democracy. And, by the way, is the world really going to miss Bashar al-Assad? I mean, it'd be great if he was gone. And...

CUTTER: And he will go.

RADDATZ: Something has to happen this year. I mean, that's the sense I got over there. Something has to happen. Either he is -- he is gone or it's fragmented completely. People are so nervous over there in that region.

I traveled to northern Israel and the Iron Dome, which is the missile intercept, that they're so nervous that Syria or Lebanon -- more likely Lebanon Hezbollah -- will start launching missiles towards Israel that they've got these interceptors set up all over the northern border. And those chemical weapons, if I can just say, those chemical weapons I was told are now all consolidated in certain areas. They believe it was Assad and the Syrian regime who helped Hezbollah get those, try to get those weapons...


STEPHANOPOULOS: So if they've -- if they're consolidated in certain areas, and Israel knows where they are, should we expect another strike from Israel?

RADDATZ: I think you very well will see another strike. If they do anything with those weapons, they said it's easier to take them out and it's not easy to take out chemical weapons than to send people in to safeguard them, because it would take so many people.

COLE: Well, again, remember, we went into -- were involved in Libya and weapons got out of Libya and we're dealing with them in Mali and other places now. At least those weren't American weapons, but we helped destabilize a country. We've released them through the region. We ought to be pretty careful here. I couldn't agree more with you about Assad. I really couldn't. But, again, I don't sense there's a lack of weapons in the region. And the rebels seem pretty well armed...


ELLISON: But there's a lack of humanitarian assistance.

COLE: Well, again, we agree on that.


COLE: But here be careful -- and there are times when you do break with your advisers. Frankly, President Bush broke on surge with almost all his advisers. I think he was right to do that. The president here, I think, is running risks. Now, the political risk is he owns it. I mean, you can't point to anybody else. I made this decision above people. That speaks well to him, and I hope history bears him out.

STEPHANOPOULOS: About -- about to -- again, Middle East policy more broadly, the president announced this week that he's going to go to Israel in March. You were there when the announcement came. What was the reaction? And what is the trip really about? I mean, we're hearing from the White House they don't really expect this to be the sign that the president is going to have a new peace plan on the table. It seems like it's largely about mending fences with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

RADDATZ: I think it probably is about mending fences. And, in fact, I've never seen lower expectations. As soon as the announcement was made, it's like, "Nothing's really going to happen. We're never going to get there." If you talk to people on the street -- and there are some people I've known there for 25 years who said, you know, nothing will happen, never ever has.

And usually you get a little bit of a spark, "Oh, the president is coming. Isn't that great?" People were talking to me about -- I said, oh, you know, the president's coming, what do you think? And they said, oh, the traffic is going to be terrible.





RADDATZ: So that's where the expectations are on that, but I do think he needs to mend some fences with Netanyahu. It's time that the president engaged over there.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And in part because, you know, we still have this issue, Congressman Ellison, of the coming confrontation with Iran. You've got two different messages from the Iranian leaders this week. The supreme leader says no direct talks. President Ahmadinejad today maybe said he might be open to it.

ELLISON: But, see, I think on that score, the president can't be criticized for not being in support of trying to make sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon. What I hope happens is that the president raises issues around settlement expansion. I'm very concerned...


ELLISON: Yeah, I mean, bottom line is, you know, after the U.N. vote, where the U.N. voted 138-9 to recognize Palestine's estate, there was housing settlements announced the next day, which was disappointing to me, in areas that -- that were thought to be part of the Palestinian state. So I hope after the president leaves this time, that there's no such announcement and nothing embarrassing happens.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I would be surprised if the president made a huge issue of that as he steps on Israeli soil.

CUTTER: Look, I think that they're viewing this trip as -- you know, it's our most important ally in the region. The president hasn't been there yet. It's an important trip. It's an important way for him to engage directly with the Israeli people, first and foremost. So I think that's the -- through the lens through which they're looking at this trip. Whether expectations are low on the ground, expectations -- keeping them low is always a good thing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: His new team should be in place by then. Secretary Kerry started this week, Secretary of State Kerry. Senator Hagel still waiting for his confirmation up in the Senate. And I was struck last night -- you were talking about Dick Cheney earlier. Dick Cheney giving a speech last night in Wyoming where he really took off on the president's appointments. Let me put it up here right now. He said that "the performance now of Barack Obama as he staffs up the national security team for the second term is dismal. Frankly, what he has appointed are second-rate people. Hagel was chosen because Obama wants to have a Republican that he can use to take the heat for what he plans to do to the Department of Defense." There is an unbowed Dick Cheney.

WALLACE: Well, listen, Senator Hagel didn't do his new boss, President Obama, any favors by looking befuddled and confused and totally clueless about what exactly the Department of Defense does, an agency where he's up to now run, so I don't think Senator Hagel did himself any favors or the president.

But I think that when you look at how Republicans have sort of stood back and I think given the president a lot of running room in foreign policy, it was because of a belief that Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates were incredibly competent and incredibly reasonable and really quite measured in their foreign policy worldview. There's trepidation that the coalition of Senator Kerry, Senator Hagel, and a sort of renewed former Senator Biden are going to have a much more left-leaning foreign policy.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, Senator Kerry approved overwhelmingly, but speak to this issue of Senator Hagel right now. The White House was not trying to defend his performance before the committee, but they're still pretty confident he's going to get confirmed.

CUTTER: Well, look...

WALLACE: And I love that Stephanie Cutter has to defend Senator Hagel. I just -- and Jay Carney, who was a White House -- a correspondent during the Bush years covering Senator Hagel. It makes me so happy. This is my karma.



CUTTER: Look, first of all, let me address Dick Cheney. I think the worst thing that we could do right now is take Dick Cheney's advice on foreign policy. So that's number one.

Number two, John Kerry comes to this job with so much experience, life experience, both on the job as the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. He has been an ambassador all over this world on behalf of President Obama, bringing, you know, conflicts on the ground to an end, and representing this country in a strong way, a balanced way, and a diplomatic way. And I think that, you know, his becoming secretary of state is a sign of strength for this administration and is being celebrated all over the world.


CUTTER: Secretary Hagel.


CUTTER: No, no, putting aside his performance at, you know, a committee hearing, which will have nothing to do with how he performs his job as secretary of defense, he also comes to this position with significant experience, both as an enlisted man, as a senator, and -- and has strong support across the board in being able to do this job, including from Republicans.

You know, what happened that day in the hearing, putting aside his performance, there was a lot of grudges being settled, a lot of personal conflicts being worked out, had very little to do with current foreign policy. For God's sakes, Afghanistan was barely even mentioned. It was all about the surge in Iraq. That is dealing with old wounds and not -- not something that we need to...


COLE: I think Stephanie needs to come back and be Hagel's communications director.



ELLISON: ... Obama administration, LaHood, Gates, Hagel.

CUTTER: Absolutely.

ELLISON: We're trying to do the right thing for the country, not score political...


STEPHANOPOULOS: We're out -- we're out of time.


STEPHANOPOULOS: ... anybody think he's not going to get confirmed?

ELLISON: He's going to get in.

CUTTER: He's going to be confirmed, absolutely.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Thank you all very much. It was a great roundtable. Stephanie's going to stick around and answer your Facebook questions for this week's web extra.

And coming up, best-selling author George Saunders getting so much buzz over his latest book "Tenth of December." He joins us next.


STEPHANOPOULOS: George Saunders coming up in the Sunday spotlight. "The Sunday Funnies" are first.


KIMMEL: U.S. Postal Service made a big announcement today. For the past few years, the Postal Service has been losing billions of dollars, so to cut costs, starting in August, they will no longer deliver mail on Saturdays. Which is -- really? They will still deliver packages on Saturdays, just not regular mail, which means we'll only get the Bed Bath & Beyond coupon packet on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Fridays now.

O'BRIEN: A Justice Department memo claims that President Obama has the right to order the assassination of an American anywhere in the world. Isn't that crazy? In a related story, Donald Trump has gone into hiding.

FALLON: The Federal Reserve was hacked on Sunday. It's pretty serious. In fact, they're saying the hackers could have made off with as much as negative $14 trillion. We don't have anything.




(UNKNOWN): Robin Roberts is coming back to the show. You know, she's...

(UNKNOWN): Oh, my god.

(UNKNOWN): Welcome back, girlfriend.

(UNKNOWN): Welcome back, Robin.

(UNKNOWN): Robin, I love you, God bless you.

(UNKNOWN): We have missed you.

(UNKNOWN): We love you.

(UNKNOWN): We love you.

WINFREY: Hey, Robin. Welcome back.

(UNKNOWN): Welcome back.

(UNKNOWN): Welcome back, Robin.


STEPHANOPOULOS: We not wait for that, Wednesday, February 20th -- excuse me -- Robin will be back. We are counting the days. And right now, we have the Sunday spotlight, shining this week on George Saunders. Short story collections almost never crack the best-seller list, but Saunders has done it with his new book, "Tenth of December." The New York Times hailed him as the writer for our time in a buzzy feature, saying he wrote the "best book you'll read this year." It is the best fiction I've read this year.

So it's a real pleasure...

SAUNDERS: Nice to be here.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... to welcome you to "This Week." And, boy, you must be loving all of this attention.

SAUNDERS: Yeah, I think when I was younger, I might have gotten a little bit, you know, neurotic, but now I'm just having a great time.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, and you've earned it. And the book really is remarkable. It's so rich in so many ways, funny and dark, realistic and absurd at the same time. But what I want to focus on for just these few minutes is that, you know, something that we talk about all the time here on "This Week," this -- you really seem to tap into this economic anxiety that so many Americans are feeling right now.

SAUNDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, it seems like that's the big American subject that we can't -- you know, you can talk about race, you can talk about sex, you can talk about your biopsy, but when you get into class, people kind of clench up. And I had -- you know, in my 20s, I had a series of that kind of classic American experience, where you are kind of going down and you think, "That's enough, now I'm going to turn myself around," and then you go down a little more. So I think that kind of had a tenderizing effect and kind of...

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say, when you started that, that experience, you were an Ayn Rand guy, you said.

SAUNDERS: I very much was. I went to the School of Mines in Colorado and kind of -- you know, kind of a dull-witted, sort of vaguely right-wing kind of person who didn't really know much about politics. And then I went to Asia in the oil business, and that really opened up my eyes, you know, to suffering and to the fact that wealth doesn't necessarily indicate that you are virtuous. It's just sort of -- an element of luck and so on, so...

STEPHANOPOULOS: And one of the things you write about is -- I think the phrase as you've said is the absence of wealth creates an erosion of grace.

SAUNDERS: Right, or as Terry Evelyn (ph) put it, capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body. You know, so fiction isn't actually a great propaganda tool. And, you know, often the first impulse of a writer is kind of to pull up the big (inaudible) of his ideas and his politics and just sort of stand there, reader, and dump it. But if you -- I find if you just concentrate on language and on making sort of lively human situations, then ideas and sort of -- they come out of the woods...


STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about. So if you set out to write overtly political fiction, it wouldn't work.

SAUNDERS: It never -- and I've tried. And it doesn't work. There's something about the intimacy of the exchange demands openness on both sides, and on the writer's part, opens means I really don't know. I might think I know, but I don't.

And it's weird, because the way to get to those ideas is through the language, paying attention, close attention to phrases and sentences, and if you do that in kind of an open state, not only will the ideas show up, but they'll be the highest form of your ideas. They won't be propagandist. They won't be superficial. But they'll be deep and sort of ambiguous.

STEPHANOPOULOS: It also seems like one of the things you're trying to create space for in those sentences is space for heart. And that's another way of reaching across our divides.

SAUNDERS: That's right. That's right. You know, I loved that Longfellow quote, which I'll probably mangle a bit, that said, if we could look into the secret histories of our enemies, we would find sufficient suffering and sorrow to disarm our hostility. And I think fiction is kind of almost like a mechanical way to work through your own shallowness. You start off with a kind of a condescending relationship to your character, almost by definition, and as you work with the sentences, you find that the bad sentences are equal to over-simplicity or condescension. And as you work with language, you move yourself towards complexity and often to a state of confusion where you really don't quite know what you think about the person.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You may not, but when you send it out into the world, when do you hope to get back?

SAUNDERS: I -- really, I think the highest version is, you're sending out a bundle of energy, you know, concentrated energy that you've made with your own sweat, really, and your heart, and it goes out and it jangles somebody. That's the highest form.

Now, there's another level where you do hope to make people more alive in the world, maybe more aware of the fact that there's -- we have more in common with others than we think we do. That's kind of a hope. But even that gets a little bit intentional. So for me, it's just trying to deliver an energy charge in a certain way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you did it for me, and you've done it for so many more. The book is called "Tenth of December." Thank you very much, George Saunders.

SAUNDERS: Thank you, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If you'd like to read an excerpt of it, go to our website at abcnews.com/thisweek.

And now we have some good news. As you know, this is the place in our program where we honor the sacrifices of our service members killed in action. But for the second week in a row, the Pentagon released no names of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

That is all for us today. Thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with us. Check out "World News" with David Muir tonight, and join us Tuesday night when Diane Sawyer and I will anchor complete coverage of the State of the Union starting at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. I'll see you tomorrow on "GMA."


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