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'Special Report' Panel on Roland Burris Senate Squabble; President-Elect Obama Talks Tough

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from January 7, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DICK DURBIN, D-ILL.: Everyone has to present a certificate signed by the governor, cosigned by the secretary of state — never been waived in the history of the United States Senate. So it's an important rule and one not easily challenged or changed.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID, D-NEV.: We believe that the certification by the secretary of state is vital.

JESSE WHITE, ILLINOIS SECRETARY OF STATE: My signature is not necessarily required in order for the Senate to place the gentlemen in the seat that he was appointed to by Governor Blagojevich. My signature is mostly ceremonial rather than being a point of law.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY.: I think the unanimous Republican view is that this is a mess.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, HOST: the sights and sounds of the Roland Burris circus, another day of it.

Some analytical observations of this from Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, Mara Liasson, national political correspondent of National Public Radio, and Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call — FOX News contributors all.

Fred, your take?

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think Roland Burris is going to be a U.S. Senator pretty soon.

And the truth is, the secretary of state, is merely a clerical role. That's all he does. When he registers that Governor Rod Blagojevich has named Roland Burris to the Senate. That's what he does. He's not regulating. He's not judging. He's not measuring whether some vote is accurate or not. He's just registering it. That's all he has to do or not do. It really doesn't make any difference.

The Democrats — look, I will give Harry Reid and Dick Durbin credit. They realized this is a huge mess for them. It is a great political embarrassment. And they're trying to get out of it, and I think that's wise.

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: There's nothing more entertaining than politicians who got themselves tied up in really a bad knot and are trying to untangle it.

We knew the jig was up when they hung this whole thing on the fact that he didn't have the secretary of state's signature. "That's the only reason we're not seating him."

Anyway, look, they have charted themselves an escape path, which is the Supreme Court of Illinois will determine whether White has to actually sign or his signature isn't needed, and Burris has to, quote, "testify successfully" in front of the impeachment committee.

BAIER: For Rod Blagojevich.

LIASSON: For Rod Blagojevich. And I assuming he will say that, of course, he had no conversations with him, he wasn't asked to do anything in exchange for this seat, because that is the cloud that hangs over this entire thing, is that Blagojevich was allegedly trying to sell the seat, not necessarily to Burris, but to others.

So it sounds like after they go through a few of these motions, this kabuki dance, he will be the senator.

MORT KONDRAKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, ROLL CALL: If a mischievous Republican, say Karl Rove or Lee Atwater, the ghost of Lee Atwater, who is George H. W. Bush's famous political fixer, had contrived a scenario to make the Democrats look bad, they could not have done it better than the Democrats have done it for themselves.

I mean, Durbin and Reid look like perfect fools in all of this. And now they finally decided to stop digging themselves into a hole, and they're going to climb out of it. And the scenario that Fred and Mara talked about is exactly right.

It is dumbfounding that these guys didn't quit this a long time ago. But, you know, they're quitting now, so, you know, maybe one of these days Burris will be sworn in, and we'll stop talking about this.

BAIER: Yes, because, Fred, the story now has just been processed. And now it's trying to save face.

BARNES: Yes. And, look, they have competing interests here, Democrats do. One, they don't want to have any dealings with Rod Blagojevich because he has been caught in the scandal.

So they want to separate themselves from him, which was the real reason, as Mara was saying — it wasn't the secretary of state's signature not being there. It was because he was Rod Blagojevich's pick. That's why they didn't want him. Now they're saying it's the signature.

And they especially don't want a special election where a Republican might win.

Actually, though, Republicans would be delighted to see Roland Burris as the senator and running in 2010. He is not a very strong candidate. He has lost a number of statewide elections. And, who knows? Mort's favorite Republican Mike Kirk might run and beat him.

BAIER: This was kind of shocking how this termed, Mara. Only one day ago it didn't seem like Roland Burris had a chance. And then suddenly he does.

LIASSON: The fact that Harry Reid over the weekend had said he was open to negotiations, he is an old trial lawyer. I think they realized they were getting themselves into trouble.

But, look, the focus has been on the ham-handedness of the Senate Democrats. But let's not let the Illinois Democrats off the hook too easily, because, look, they had a lot of opportunities to do something about this.

They could have called for a special election. They didn't have the nerve to do that, because they were afraid they might lose, or they could have passed a law with a veto-proof margin early on saying that Blagojevich couldn't make this appointment. They didn't do that either.

BAIER: Republicans just sit back say "This is good stuff"?

KONDRACKE: They just enjoy it.

But it really is a sideshow. It is the second ring of the circus. It is great to talk about and it's great to watch. And I guess the overriding lesson of it is, is that Harry Reid always pops off before he has thought something through.

He went out there, and I guess Dick Durbin was part of it, making this statement — "We will not seat anybody that Rod Blagojevich appointed."

BAIER: But you had 50 senators sign a letter that if Rod Blagojevich appoints something, they will not be seated.

KONDRACKE: That was a ploy to force Blagojevich into doing nothing or into resigning, or something like that. They were trying to put pressure on him not to do this.

But once he did it, and it was clearly legal under the law what he did. I mean, if he signs a bill in Illinois it's a law, right? So if he signs an appointment to a senator, he is the senator.

BARNES: But, Mort, how can you criticize somebody for popping off before they thought something through? I mean, that's what we do!

KONDRACKE: I beg your pardon.

BAIER: We'll leave this topic on that.

President-elect Obama is talking tough about earmarks while he is pitching a massive stimulus package. How will this all play out on Capitol Hill? The panel weighs in on that when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I think it's important for us not to have earmarks here. It's important for us to have transparency in how the money is spent. I intend to make sure that we have unprecedented measures to ensure that taxpayers can keep track of how this money is spent.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ., FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our goal is not transparency. Our goal is elimination of earmarks. There's no place for them in the process.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-MO.: Until we expose how much of this money might have been wasted through the earmarking process, we're probably never going to get the public's full support to getting rid of earmarks entirely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: There you see President-elect Obama today talking about no earmarks in his stimulus package. And that's going to be a massive package. Harry Reid says it could be $1.2 to $1.3 trillion. This as a bipartisan group of senators is trying to pass stricter limits on earmarks, local pet projects slipped into spending bills.

And the Congressional Budget Office just came back with a new deficit projection for this year — $1.2 trillion.

We're back with our panel. Mort, factor all this in.

KONDRACKE: Gradually but gradually, this horrible situation of just earmarks and pork just tumbling out is being brought under control. I mean, the record is 14,000 earmarks in 2005 under Republican Congress — Republican president not vetoed. So they gradually have been paring this down.

And now they're going to limit the number. The Democrats have cut it in half. Now they're saying there will be none in these appropriation bills, none in the stimulus package, and so on.

The question I have — a couple of questions. One is, you know, who decides what is in the stimulus package? There are projects, road projects and bridge projects and all of that. Is it strictly bureaucrats who will decide what is in there?

And what about the possibility of so called phone marks, where a member of Congress calls the bureaucracy and says "I want this project in there, and, by the way, I fund your agency." There is no control over that.

I do think with transparency, the idea that all of these projects will get listed, and Citizens against Government Waste and organizations like that can eyeball them and see what's in them and bring them to people's attention, is a very good step. But, you know, members of Congress ought to have some way of saying what happens in their district. I mean, that's what they were elected for, was not only to bring home the bacon, but also to decide that, look, you know, we need a bypass to such and such highway.

LIASSON: Yes, but that is not what is going to be done away with. An earmark is something that is not a part of the regular appropriations process, that you don't get to vote on. You don't know even know it is in there, because at the last minute it is slipped in right at the end, and nobody knows it is in there until it is too late.

I think that having transparency and having earmarks be at least an issue, and, ironically, this is something John McCain has campaigned against for years. This was one of his pet peeves, and now he has kind of backed this. This, I think is his way back into action now, pushing this reform.

But I think it's a good thing. And I think-Claire McCaskill has said it might be hard to get the public for this. I don't think it will be as hard as she thinks.

BAIER: Fred?

BARNES: Bret, remember what Barack Obama said about earmarks during the campaign when they would be brought up by John McCain, and he said look, we have a $3 trillion budget. And earmarks are about $17 billion, or somewhere in that neighborhood. It's a small issue.

And then we have the stimulus package, which is going to be, as you said, Harry Reid was talking about $1.2 to $1.3 trillion. Earmarks don't matter here.

You're going to have state and local pet projects just because the way this thing is being done. It is being handed over to governors and mayors to come up with their projects, supposedly shovel ready. And maybe there will be some transparency.

Look, what Barack Obama could do, if he wanted to, is use a huge chunk of that infrastructure money to do something with a broader national purpose, like modernize the Interstate highway system, which could be done- -remember, it was designed in the '50's, and Americans live in different places now.

KONDRACKE: And just to follow up on what Fred said, not only is the deficit going to be huge, but the federal debt is going to be huge. It has gone from 57 percent of GDP when Bush took over to 75 percent, probably, next year. It might go up to 100 percent of GDP, which is higher than it was during World War II.

And Obama is promising that he is going to get it under control, but I don't know how.

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