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Transcript: House Majority Leader Candidates on FNS

The following is a transcribed excerpt of "FOX News Sunday," Jan. 15, 2006.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: President Bush's agenda and the fate of House Republicans in the fall elections could be determined by a fight on Capitol Hill. It's the battle to replace Tom DeLay in the very powerful post of House majority leader.

There are three candidates and they're our exclusive guests today, acting majority leader Roy Blunt, Congressman John Boehner, and Congressman John Shadegg. Congressman Blunt did what most frontrunners do. He insisted on being interviewed separately.

Congressman, we'll start with you. Good morning.

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ROY BLUNT, R-MO, ACTING MAJORITY LEADER: Good to be here, Chris.

WALLACE: You put out a statement yesterday that you now have the votes to be elected majority leader. Is this race over and in the interest of Republican unity, should these other two fellows drop out?

BLUNT: No, I don't think these other two fellows should drop out. They're both good friends of mine. They're both important members of the Congress, and they're going to be important to the future of the Congress.

I do think over the last seven years I've counted more votes than anybody else on the House floor, and I'm confident that we are now where we need to be to get this done, and we're going to be moving forward both to do what we can to bring our conference together, but also to talk about the important issues of reform, lobbyist reform, spending reform, the kinds of reforms we need in earmarks.

All are going to be important parts of this discussion, plus the bigger agenda of what we really need to do once we get beyond those issues as a Congress.

WALLACE: Now, you have been the acting majority leader since Tom DeLay stepped down in September. At the end of the last session, you had to pull a package of spending cuts off the floor when you couldn't push through drilling in Alaska. A spending bill was defeated on the House floor for the first time in 11 years.

Haven't you shown that you're not as effective as Tom DeLay in driving the Republican agenda?

BLUNT: Well, Tom DeLay was a great whip, a great leader. I followed him in the whip's job. He's a good friend of mine. I think once again Tom DeLay did what he thought was best for the conference when he stepped aside in the last few days and said we need to go ahead and fill this job permanently.

You know, I'm not in competition with Tom DeLay to see who can do the best job. He's a great guy, a great friend of mine. We had an incredibly strong finish in the Congress. We got all 12 of our bills across the floor separately, something we haven't done in years.

We had the first bill to look at mandatory spending since 1997. We had an across-the-board cut. I think part of what you've got to be doing — be willing to do as leader is take the blame occasionally and say you know, this might not be the moment to push this particular issue, let's come back with tax reconciliation, the extension of the president's important tax package, in two weeks rather than today, and in two weeks we'll have nine Democrats and we'll have virtually all of the Republicans, and we're going to go to conference a lot stronger than we would otherwise.

So you've got to be willing to make those decisions and, frankly, you have to be willing to take the heat.

WALLACE: All right. Now that Tom DeLay has stepped down, Republicans are saying — and you just said a moment ago that you have to show that you're the party of reform. You have to show that to voters. But some question whether you are the man to do that.

Let's take a look. In 2002, you tried to insert language into the Homeland Security Act to help Philip Morris tobacco while you were dating that company's lobbyist. Since 1999 you've received at least $429,000 in campaign contributions from lobbyists. And your campaign committees paid $485,000 to a firm linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Are you the one to clean up the House?

BLUNT: Well, I'm pretty sure that last figure is absolutely not accurate. But in terms of cleaning up the House, you know, the fact is that I have set or met the highest standards in the history of the Congress on that wall of separation between people who are in your family and the work they do.

My wife works for Philip Morris. She really works for Kraft Foods, which is part of that company now. She doesn't lobby anybody in the House of Representatives. That's about as strict a standard as you can get. It's the strictest that's ever been set by anybody.

In terms of that legislation that you mentioned in whatever year it was, that's since been passed by both houses of the Congress. It was good legislation. I wasn't trying to slip anything in. The New York Times is the only paper that's ever actually got that story right when they pointed out a letter from the majority leader at the time, Dick Armey, who said the leaders were working on this and we all worked together.

This was not something I was trying to do on my own. It was good legislation, since been passed by both houses. It was the right thing to do. We decided collectively it wasn't the right moment to do it. The sinister part about that story was somehow I was trying to slip that in. It just was not true. Look at the New York Times. They got the story right. The Washington Post got the story wrong.

WALLACE: All right. One of your rivals, this fellow right over here, Congressman Boehner, says that your party is stuck in neutral and that you have fallen into what he calls — you, the party, have fallen into what he calls a dangerous and demoralizing cycle of the status quo. How do you respond to Congressman Boehner?

BLUNT: Well, first of all, Congressman Boehner and Congressman Shadegg are both good friends of mine, and they're going to be an important part of moving our Congress forward. I like working with both of them.

John Boehner's been a great chairman of his committee. He's served our conference well. I don't think we're stuck on neutral at all. As a matter of fact, I think the finish of the last Congress, if you look at what we did, was one of the strongest finishes philosophically we've ever had.

The economy is headed in the right direction. We need to be sure that continues. We need to be sure that we continue to work for more energy independence. We need to be sure we defend the country in the right way and defend our values.

This is not a party stuck in neutral. This is an opportunity for reform.

WALLACE: All right, because we want to give all of you equal time. Congressman Blunt, thank you for joining us.

We turn now to Congressman Boehner. How do you respond to what Congressman Blunt just said? And since he was Tom DeLay's successor in this job, why shouldn't he keep it?

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER, R-OHIO: Well, I think the issue here is about just one issue for our colleagues, and that is which candidate can provide the real leadership to reform our party, to reform the Congress, and to provide the leadership to renew the confidence and courage of House Republicans.

You know, back in 1993 and 1994, we had confidence. We had courage. We wrote the Contract with America. And we became the first Republican Congress in 40 years. And if you watched us in 1995, '96, '97, we had confidence, and we had courage, and we were taking on the big issues that the American people sent us there to deal with.

That's the kind of renewal I think we need in our conference today.

WALLACE: All right. Congressman Blunt says that this race is wrapped up. Is it over, and what would it take for you to decide to drop out in the interests of Republican unity?

BOEHNER: Listen, I'm all for Republican unity, but what we've seen over the last week is what I would describe as a poll, each of us polling our colleagues. What really matters is when our colleagues actually vote and have a secret ballot election. We'll see where the votes really are.

WALLACE: All right. As we mentioned, lobbying reform is one of the big issues in this race and a big challenge for the Republican Party between now and November. And while we mentioned that Congressman Blunt has some baggage from the past, frankly, so do you, sir. Let's take a look at that.

In 1995, you passed checks from tobacco lobbyists to other congressmen on the House floor while lawmakers were considering ending a tobacco subsidy. Since 2000, special interests have paid for 31 trips that you've taken. And in 2004, the student loan giant, the Sallie Mae Corporation, threw a fund-raising party for you while they were at the same time lobbying the House Education Committee you chair.

Same question I asked Congressman Blunt, are you the right man to clean up the House?

BOEHNER: Chris, in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994, if you'll recall, I led an effort to help close the House Bank, close the House Post Office scandal, expose the dine and dash practices in the House, and worked to make Congress live under the same laws as all other Americans.

I've been in the middle of this reform effort for a long time. The checks on the floor was a big mistake, and I regret it. But I worked hard to change the rules of the House to prohibit this practice in the future. I've got a long record of being — of reforming Congress, and I think we need more reforms to make sure that there's transparency in the relationship between those who lobby us and members themselves.

WALLACE: Let me ask you about that, briefly, because we're going to run out of time here. What are the biggest differences between your lobbying reform package and Congressman Blunt's?

BOEHNER: I think both of us are supportive of what Congressman Dreier has been charged to do by the speaker in the speaker's plan. But I think the transparency that exists in this relationship — more of it would be helpful. Let the sun shine in, because that's the best disinfectant.

WALLACE: OK. Congressman Shadegg, who just entered the race, and we're about to hear from, says that neither you nor Roy Blunt represent a clean break from the scandals of the past. How do you respond?

BOEHNER: I've got a long record of real reform in Congress, and I think I can lead the effort to bring about the kind of reforms the American people are expecting from Congress.

I think there's a second point. The job of majority leader is to provide vision and work with all the committees in the House. And frankly, I think that what we need is a common vision.

You know, Ronald Reagan used to talk about the shining city on the hill. The American people expect us to deal with their issues, and I believe that my efforts at developing a common vision and helping House Republicans develop a common vision to deal with what the American sent us here to do — I can do that. I've been a legislator. I'm a committee chairman. I've worked with all my fellow committee chairmen.

WALLACE: Let me ask you, though, about one committee chairman and one of the issues that's out there. Should Congressman Bob Ney step down as chairman of the House Administration Committee, which would have to handle some of these lobbying reforms, given the fact that his name has turned up in Abramoff's guilty plea?

BOEHNER: I think Bob has to make some serious decisions about whether he should stay there, given the allegations that have been raised against him. And I know I've read recently that he and the speaker are having conversations about how he should handle that.

But for the good of House Republicans and the good of our party, I think Bob needs to seriously consider stepping aside, not that he's pleading guilty or anything else, but I think he should do what's in the best interest of our party.

WALLACE: All right. Congressman Boehner, we want to thank you so much. We're going to have to leave it there.

Now let's turn to the final candidate. We welcome Congressman John Shadegg, who's in Arizona. Do you want to respond to Congressman Boehner and Congressman Blunt on the question of reform, sir?

SHADEGG: Absolutely. Both of them are good friends. Both of them are working hard for the party and for the conference. But I don't think either one of them understands the consequence of the scandals that have hit Washington.

We have an agenda for the American people of smaller government, and lower taxes, and less regulation, and more freedom, but the American people aren't paying any attention to that agenda right now because we haven't engaged in the reform that we promised on the other side, and that is we're working to make government smaller, which is one of our 1994 promises.

But we also promised to clean up Washington in the practices of provisions being snuck into a bill late at night when nobody's around. That is, in fact, what happened in the past, and it continues to happen.

The Cunningham scandal demonstrates that we have serious earmark reform that we need to do. How did one member of the Congress sneak millions of dollars into a series of bills to favor a constituent or client that was, in fact, as we now know, bribing him? We need real and dramatic reform.

WALLACE: Congressman Shadegg, let me ask you about that and how much trouble the Republican Party is in, because Fox News Opinion Dynamics did a poll recently, and I want to show you two of the results from that poll.

First of all, do most elected Washington officials take actions as a direct result of campaign contributions? Sixty-five percent say yes, 21 percent say no. Do you think your member of Congress has ever taken money or things of value in return for a vote? Forty-four percent say yes, 33 percent say no.

You say neither of your rivals understands how much trouble the Republican Party is in.

SHADEGG: I think we need to send a clear message. It is tragic that the American people believe that. In fact, the vast majority of members don't do that. But it isn't just a question of some bad apples. There are some procedures. The earmark procedure allows people to put — allows powerful leaders to put provisions in, quite frankly, in secret, in backroom deals, that most members don't even know about.

And we need to clean that up and end that practice, and we promised in 1994 that we would end that practice. We need a clean break from the past. We need a new image. And we need to clean up these kinds of issues so that the American people can look back at our substantive agenda, which I think is vitally important.

WALLACE: Congressman Shadegg, we've been talking about your two rivals' history with lobbyists. Frankly, you have a history, too, and let's put that up on the screen, if we can.

You've returned $6,900 in campaign contributions from sources connected to Jack Abramoff. You held fund-raisers at sporting events in suites provided by an Abramoff associate. And in 2002 you wrote to the interior secretary taking a position that benefited Abramoff's Indian tribe clients.

Question, are you the man to clean up the House?

SHADEGG: Well, my record is dramatically different, quite frankly, than theirs. That number for me is a fraction of what it is for either one of them. But I never took a dime from Jack Abramoff.

What happened in my instance was there was one individual who happened to have previously worked for the House who came to me and proposed each of those events. I had no idea that Jack Abramoff was involved in any way, shape or form. And more importantly, the minute I discovered last year, in December, that there were links to Mr. Abramoff, long before he was indicted, I returned all of that money either to the tribes that were involved or gave it away to charities with regard to the money that came from Abramoff's associates.

Neither of my opponents have returned all of that money. And indeed, you know, I believe my record in terms of the level of taint that's there is dramatically different from either of them.

WALLACE: You say the level of taint. Do you feel that they're tainted?

SHADEGG: Well, I think that if you look at some of the things you've already raised in this show, the long practices that go on in the House that they've had a chance particularly to clean up and haven't cleaned up.

I mean, everybody here is talking about reform but we're not doing that. I proposed last year, the minute the Cunningham scandal happened, that we should pass a bill saying that no member who is convicted of bribery can collect his pension. That used to be the law. It's not the law now, and Mr. Cunningham will collect his pension. That's an outrage.

I proposed that reform. We should have enacted it the day after we came back into session following the Cunningham scandal, and yet we haven't. There are other reforms that we could do to clean up the Cunningham scandal.

We need to bring sunshine back to the earmark process so that no powerful member or leader can stick language or funding into a bill when members don't know about it and can't debate it on the floor.

WALLACE: Congressman, we've got less than a minute left. In your announcement statement, you said that Republicans have, quote, "lost sight of our ideals." Do you really believe that?

SHADEGG: I think that we are not conveying our ideals. We're sent there to accomplish two reforms, shrink the size of government and make it more responsive, and return authority to the states, and also clean up the back room deals in Washington, not have it be what it had been under the prior team that was in power.

I don't think we have gone far enough to deliver on either of those, and I think the American people are questioning, you know, did we change Washington or did Washington change us.

WALLACE: Congressman, we're going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you and also your two contestants for this job for being here with us today.