NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript



MR. GREGORY: So, Chairman Ryan, let me start with you. Is that what we can expect from Republicans in this campaign, is a faith-based broadside and an attack against the president's leadership?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): Well, I couldn't hear all of that clip from Rick Santorum, but what I would say is what we're getting from the White House with this conscience issue, it's not an issue about contraception, it's an issue that reveals a political philosophy that the president is showing that basically treats our constitutional rights as if they're revocable privileges from our government, not inalienable rights by our creator. And so what I would simply say is we're seeing this new government activism, sort of a paternalistic, arrogant political philosophy that puts new government-granted rights in the way of our constitutional rights. And so what I think it really is is that it's an argument for freedom, for our founding principles and for protecting those constitutional rights which right with his new mandate from HHS, like I said, it's really not about contraception, it's about violating our First Amendment rights to religious freedom and of conscience. That's what I think he's trying to get at.

MR. GREGORY: You think it's an appropriate part of the debate for a Republican contender for the White House to say the president has a phony theology as part of his agenda and say things like, "Well, if he says he's a Christian then he's a Christian." Haven't we been through all of this before trying to demonize the president?

REP. RYAN: Yeah, I wouldn't, I wouldn't characterize it that way. I would simply say that he has a political philosophy that believes that he can mandate certain benefits and activities of the American people which conflicts with their constitutional rights. He believes that these new government-granted rights trump our constitutional rights such as our First Amendment rights to conscience, to freedom of religion. So I would, I would go after him on his political philosophy, which violates our founding principles.

MR. GREGORY: Congressman Van Hollen, how do you see it?

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): David, what you're seeing here is that as the economy is improving and more and more people are going back to work and it's clear that the president's policies on the economy are working you find Republicans going back to the old red meat social issues that helps rile up their base. That's what's going on. The president put on the table a very principled compromise on this issue, making sure that women would have the health care they need, including contraception, and also making sure that people could pursue their own religious liberty. And that's why groups like Catholic Charities, the Catholic hospitals associations have said this is a fair compromise, that it accomplishes the goal of both women's health as well as religious freedom.

MR. GREGORY: How do you respond, though, more generally to what you heard Senator Santorum say out there on the campaign trail energizing the base by talking about a phony theology that he believes the president adheres to?

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Well, if what he's saying, and again, I didn't hear all the tape, but what, if what he's saying is he's actually questioning the president's faith, that is a new low in American politics, certainly something that has no place in our political dialogue. Again, if that's what he meant, he should retract and apologize for the statement.

MR. GREGORY: Well, part of this, of course, is not just happening on the campaign trail, Chairman Ryan, as you well know. Republicans in the House are taking on this issue of contraception and what they see as a religious freedom test. And this was the image at the first of two hearings...

REP. RYAN: Right.

MR. GREGORY: ...by the House Government and Oversight Committee, all men, all religious leaders, all men, no women. You heard Nancy Pelosi, she had a few things to say about that. Listen.

(Videotape, Thursday)

REP. PELOSI: Where are the women? And that's a good question for the whole debate. Where are the women? Where are the women on that panel? Imagine they're having a panel on women's health and they don't have any women on the panel. Duh.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: I mean, this was the "duh" moment. There was a second panel where there were women, but there's still a larger question here. There are Democratic leaders who are women who are using this for fundraising to say to a lot of women around the country who understand that contraception is not just about birth control but about women's health, that this should really be an issue. Are you concerned as a Republican that Republicans are overdoing this issue and could actually hurt the party's chances in November?

REP. RYAN: No. I'm concerned that the issue might get misconstrued. Look, every person in America, men or women, are free to use contraceptions as they want to. That's not the issue here. The question is, is should the government have the kind of power to mandate these things of us. This compromise is really a distinction without a difference, it's mandating that everybody pay for everyone else's free, you know, birth control and contraception. The question is, is can the government mandate that people violate their religious teaching, their conscience, their freedom of religion. Look, I can tell you as a Catholic the charities and the hospitals, they don't enforce doctrine, they don't interpret it. It's the bishops and they're very clear in saying this is a violation of our constitutional rights. So it's an issue of constitutional rights and of the government having the kind of power to trump them. Look, the way I look at this is if the president is willing to trample on our constitutional rights in a difficult election year, imagine what he will do if in implementing the rest of this law after he doesn't have to face the voters again if he gets re-elected.

MR. GREGORY: Well, so you have two different visions here, Congressman Van Hollen, which is what you heard Congressman Ryan say or whether this is fundamentally a women's health issue and protection of accessibility to key elements of women's health. Is that what you're going to see play out here?

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Yes, that's the debate and it was quite a spectacle the other day when the Republican chairman of the committee, Darrell Issa, refused to allow the Democratic witness, a woman, to testify on that full first panel. And I do think it strikes the American people as strange to have a panel that's talking about this issue, trying to protect women's health and also protect religious liberty, without having a woman on the, on the main panel and denying her the right to testify.

Look, I think that Republicans are making a big mistake. After the president made the principal compromise that he did to make sure that we protect women's health and we also protect her religious liberty. A lot of states have insurance requirements that also meet that balance and that test and that's all the president has done in this case.

MR. GREGORY: I want to get to one more issue before I do turn to the economy and the budget that--because it's really on top of the news throughout the week, and that's gay marriage. You saw the veto in New Jersey, Maryland Congressman Van Hollen, as you know, has passed this and ultimately we're going to get to eight states, if it's signed in Maryland, who have recognized same-sex marriage in their states. It's a significant part of the population. Is this--should this be a campaign issue as we move in this country toward a situation where blue state America, if you will, is supporting the rights of same-sex couples to marry and red state America is voting against it or doesn't want to have it on the ballot?

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Are you asking me, David?

MR. GREGORY: Congressman Van Hollen, that's for you. Yeah, go ahead.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Yes. I'm sorry. Well, no, I--certainly this is a legitimate issue and part of the debate we should have. I support civil marriage equality. People have different views on this. But I think that the main focus of the American people remains on the economy and jobs and that's why it's interesting to hear Republicans trying to switch the subject in so many areas because what we're seeing is the president's plan has been working, he inherited an economy that was in total free fall, we've passed the recovery bill, we helped rescue the auto industry, we have now seen 23 months of consecutive private sector job growth, three and a half million new jobs created.

MR. GREGORY: OK. Right, but...

REP. VAN HOLLEN: We need to nurture that. That should be the focus.

MR. GREGORY: But we're--I know, and we're going to get to the economy. But I asked you a direct question about same-sex marriage. You don't support same-sex marriage, do you?

REP. VAN HOLLEN: No, I do, I do support civil marriage equality. I--especially with the provisions they have, for example, in the Maryland legislation that's being worked on to make sure...

MR. GREGORY: But you don't support, you don't support what Maryland has passed as a state, do you?

REP. VAN HOLLEN: I support what Maryland has passed, yes.

MR. GREGORY: So same-sex marriage is, in your view, constitutional and same-sex couples should be fully recognized as a marriage?

REP. VAN HOLLEN: I support the Maryland legislation, yes.

MR. GREGORY: Congressman Ryan, do you think this is an issue that's legitimate for the presidential campaign? Do we have to come to a point where the country reconciles different views about this and we have a consistent way of looking at same-sex marriage?

REP. RYAN: Actually, I came on to talk about the debt crisis we have and the budget and I think that's really the driving issue of this, this election.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

REP. RYAN: But I supported the Wisconsin amendment to define marriage between a man and a woman. Look, Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act. If I recall from the last presidential campaign, President Obama, Vice President Biden said that they support marriage as being between a man and a woman. So you know, I don't know why we're spending all this time talking about this. We've got a debt crisis coming and the administration just gave us a budget that just simply charts another path to debt and decline. It's an unserious budget that just fails at tackling these challenges and I think that's what we ought to be talking about right now.

MR. GREGORY: Well, but as you know, there's a presidential campaign and you're a Republican leader in the Congress and the reality is that these social issues are occupying a lot of bandwidth with the Republican primary voters. So you may want to talk about other issues, the truth is some of the standard-bearers of your party are also talking about these issues and that's why I wanted to get your views on them. But I do want to move onto the economy.

REP. RYAN: Oh, sure. But I don't think...

MR. GREGORY: And let's, let's just talk about the payroll tax cut, then, that was passed this week. Neither of you actually supported it and my question for you, Congressman Ryan, is do you think this has any economic impact on spurring economic recovery or jobs?

REP. RYAN: Well, I think Chris did support it, so just to set the record straight on that. I did not because I don't think this works to grow the economy. Look, stimulus spending and temporary tax rebates, they didn't work when President Bush tried them. They didn't work when President Obama tried them. And they're a very poor substitute for pro-growth economic policies. And that's the problem here is these are crowding out what we could otherwise do to bring more certainty to job creators. This does not do that. And what just drives me crazy is we couldn't get the Democrats in the Senate and the White House to support cutting $100 billion over 10 years to make sure that this did not hurt the deficit. Look, $100 billion over 10 years of spending cuts, they couldn't come up with? The president just gave us a $47 trillion budget and he wouldn't agree to spend $46.9 trillion to help pay for this? And so we supported extending this holiday, paying for all these things with spending cuts. I voted for that.

But now we're talking about not paying for these things and I don't think this works. It's just not good economic growth policy and we've already sort of proven that these temporary, sugar-high economics, these stimulus effects just don't work to grow the economy and they're a very poor substitute for lowering tax rates, for having predictable regulations, for getting rid of crony capitalism, for addressing the real drivers of our debt, which would do so much more to grow our economy than doing these sorts of things.

MR. GREGORY: Congressman Van Hollen, I spoke with business leaders this week at a discussion, a panel here in Washington. You can't argue that this is somehow a big profile in courage to extend a tax cut that's not paid for at a time of great fiscal imbalance in Washington.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Well, first, David, I do support the extension of the payroll tax cut. We, the Democrats, did want it to be offset. We proposed that we offset it by closing a lot of corporate tax loopholes, that we offset it by asking folks at the very high end of the income scale to pitch in more. We did not think it made sense at all to be providing 160 million working Americans with a payroll tax cut to help them and at the same time cut things like the Medicare support and increase their premiums to help offset it.


REP. VAN HOLLEN: That didn't make any sense at all. With respect to...

MR. GREGORY: So you voted against--and that's why you voted against it.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: No, I--yeah. I voted against it because of one of the, one of the pay fors disproportionately impacted a lot of federal employees. But I signed the Conference Committee Report. Your question was did you support the payroll tax cut and I do, very, very strongly.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Because Paul is not right on this. It will help economic growth. It could add up to 1 percent to GDP this year. It's common sense. You're putting more money in the pockets of the American people. Then they can go out and spend that money buying goods and services. That means businesses, small businesses can sell more goods and services. They can hire more people. Just as the Congressional Budget Office determined that the Recovery Act at its peak in 2010 saved or created up to 3.3 million jobs in the economy, and just as the auto rescue helped save the auto industry and save about a million jobs, the payroll tax cut is an important step.

MR. GREGORY: All right. So let me...

REP. VAN HOLLEN: It's not the be all and end all, but it's an important step.

MR. GREGORY: So Chairman Ryan, let me ask a larger, philosophical question right now. Vision of government, we've got a budget here that's probably not going to be passed because they haven't passed one in over 1,000 days. We're in a campaign year, so budgets seem not to really matter. What you have are campaign blueprints and you have a Republican vision of what government ought to do for Americans and a Democratic vision of what they ought to do. I had the chief of staff, Jack Lew here, former budget chairman, excuse me, former head of OMB for the president. And I asked him about what was necessary now and I want you to respond to what he said.

(Videotape, last Sunday)

MR. JACK LEW: I think that there's pretty broad agreement that the time for austerity is not today. We need to be on a path where over the next several years we bring our deficit under control. Right now we have a recovery that's taken root and if we were to put in austerity measures right now, it would take the economy in the wrong way.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: So this is the fundamental point, Congressman Ryan, do you disagree with that? Because Ben Bernanke, the Fed chief has made this point, which is protect the recovery, don't get into the realm of austerity where we're belt-tightening to the point, you know, that you see what's happening in Greece, that you could that you could hurt recovery that's occurring here in the country.

REP. RYAN: Well, first of all, the White House's rhetoric just doesn't match the substance. What Chairman Bernanke said to us in the Budget Committee is if you put in a place a long-term plan to fix our debt crisis, that will help the economy today. The issue, David, is that the White House isn't even trying to solve this problem. When you strip away all the budget gimmicks and the accounting tricks, they just gave us a budget that has a net spending increase of $1.5 trillion and a tax increase of $1.9 trillion. It's not leadership. If you just did nothing, the debt is set to go up 78 percent. If you pass the president's budget, it goes up 76 percent. So what they're doing is they're not leading. They're ducking responsibility and that threatens our economy. And that will make us more like Greece.

Here's the issue, if we keep kicking the can down the road and we don't face up to these great fiscal challenges we have, we have a debt-fueled economic crisis ahead of us. And if we don't address them now, then it gets ugly like Greece and then you have to impose the kind of austerity that they're imposing in Greece. We're saying let's, let's fix this now where we can do it on our own terms. Let's put in place a plan to get this debt under control, to reduce our tax rates, broaden the base, and you can actually get more revenues into the government that way. And so we're actually giving the country a very clear and specific plan to get us off this path of debt onto a path of prosperity. And what we think we will achieve by actually offering credible solutions vs. the White House, who isn't, is that we'll give the country a choice of two futures.

We feel we owe the nation an opportunity to choose which path they want for America and we're going to be specific. What is frustrating about the White House is they've had four budget submissions and they've decided to duck, challenge--this challenge every time. More debt, more spending, more taxes. That hurts our economy. That will lead to austerity and we think that's wrong and that's why we've put up alternatives and all we seem to get from the president--look, we had Tim Geithner who came to the committee on Thursday who said, "We don't have a definitive solution, we just don't like yours." I can't think of a more perfect example of what sums up this administration's utter lack of leadership. We have a debt crisis staring us in the face and they're ignoring it.


REP. RYAN: And that will lead to Greek-like austerity.

MR. GREGORY: Congressman Van Hollen, respond.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Thank you very much. First of all, Jack Lew and Ben Bernanke are right. If you have a strict austerity policy right now, it will send our economy into a downward spiral. We will lose the gains that we've made, which is why we need to follow up with the rest of the president's plan. In addition to the payroll tax cut, the president proposed last September that we have a major infrastructure investment. We have 13 percent unemployment in the construction industry. We have roads and bridges and airports that need to be renovated and built. We need to put those things together. That's the one piece of what this president's jobs plan and budget does.

The second part is we need to balance the deficit in a--deal with it in a balanced way. This is not a question about whether or not we should reduce the long-term deficit. It's how. The Republicans and, and Paul Ryan's budget does this, it's a one-sided, lopsided approach. They want to take it all out on middle income Americans, and the result is that you're going to have folks like on Medicare, seniors with 23,000 median income, taking the burden for increased medical costs because they do not want to ask folks at the very high end to pitch in by closing corporate tax loopholes and by going back to the same top tax rate that was in place during the Clinton years when the economy boomed and when we balanced our budget by the end. They don't want to do that. They've all signed a pledge, not all, 98 percent of the House Republicans have signed a pledge saying they won't close one tax loophole for the purpose of deficit reduction. The first action taken by the House of Representatives when the Republicans took charge was to change the House rules to say that you don't have to pay for tax cuts for the folks at the very top. You can put that on the credit card. What we need to do is take a balanced approach to deficit reduction. That's what Simpson-Bowles did. That's what other bipartisan groups did. We need to make some cuts, and the administration's budget makes $2.50 in cuts...

MR. GREGORY: All right, let me...

REP. VAN HOLLEN: ...for every $1 in revenue.

MR. GREGORY: Let me get in here.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: That's a balanced approach. That's fair. That's what the American people want.

MR. GREGORY: All right. You've got two visions there. I want to do a quick one for each of you before I'm out of time.


MR. GREGORY: And, Congressman Ryan, if you want to add something on. I do want to ask you a straight up...

REP. RYAN: They don't take...

MR. GREGORY: ...political question, Congressman Ryan, first, which is if Mitt Romney, who I thought at some point was the front-runner on the Republican side, loses Michigan, do you think it's possible and even advisable that someone else should get into the race on the Republican side?

REP. RYAN: I don't see how that can happen. It's just too late, I think. And first of all, it's February. These things have a way of taking time. I assume this, this is going to drag out well into April, so we'll be relevant here in Wisconsin. And I just--I have a hard time seeing how somebody could get in at this late date.

MR. GREGORY: You wanted to make another quick point, though, on, on what Chris Van Hollen said.

REP. RYAN: Well, yeah. Look, I would say I hardly think a budget that never ever proposes to balance the budget is a balanced plan. We're talk--we already proposed closing loopholes so, for economic growth. There's a bipartisan consensus that the best way on tax policy for growth is to lower tax rates by closing loopholes and doing our entitlement reforms in a gradual way so we can save these health and retirement programs. The president's plan, however, does the opposite. He's got massive tax hikes, massive debt increases which threatens our economic security. It leads to rationing Medicare, which threatens our health and retirement security. And his budget hollows out our national defense, which threatens our national security. And so I would simply say...

REP. VAN HOLLEN: David, David, if I could respond to that.

REP. RYAN: ...that we, we are, we are with this bipartisan consensus and the president's not.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Thirty seconds there, Congressman.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Dave, Dave, well, well, look, David, Paul's talking about tax reform but not the way the bipartisan commissions have. We all want tax reform, it's just the Republicans don't want one penny of tax reform to go toward deficit reduction. And if you don't do that, it means you do have to whack seniors on Medicare. It means you have to cut deeply into critical investments in our national infrastructure, in education, in science and research. That's why every bipartisan group that has approached this has taken the balanced approach, not the approach that asks middle income Americans and seniors to bear the entire burden of deficit reduction.

MR. GREGORY: All right.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: And that's what this debate it all about.


REP. VAN HOLLEN: Whether you want a balanced approach or a one-sided approach that the Republicans have put forward.

MR. GREGORY: And, and we are going to...

REP. VAN HOLLEN: It's not whether we reduce the deficit. It's how.

MR. GREGORY: We're going to leave it there. And just to prove the point to both of you, see, on MEET THE PRESS, we can talk social issues, we can talk faith, and we can also talk about the budget and the economy. See, we can do it all.


MR. GREGORY: I think you both very much.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.