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Exclusive: Sen. McCain Fires Back After Senate Rejects Proposal to Gut Earmarks

This is a rush transcript from "Your World With Neil Cavuto," March 3, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: Mighty Mac taking a step back — Senator John McCain's attempt to kill more than 8,000 earmarks in that massive spending bill just getting shot down. The president says he will sign it, despite all that pork.

Exclusive reaction from the former presidential candidate and Arizona senator right now.

Senator McCain, good to have you.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: Thank you, Neil. Good to be with you.

CAVUTO: Well, you tried. And the president is going to sign this thing anyway. What do you think?

MCCAIN: Well, I think it is disgraceful that the president is going to sign it, since he committed, not only during the campaign, but in debates with me, that he would work to eliminate pork barrel spending. But I have also got to tell you, Neil, in full disclosure, 40 percent of those earmarks where Republican earmarks.

Video: Watch Neil's exclusive interview

CAVUTO: That's right. That's right.

MCCAIN: So, it is a — it's a bipartisan disease. And we don't seem to get it.

CAVUTO: All right.

The president said that he would get rid of it, though, and would stop it, and would stop the Senate's fixation with it. Is he just going slow, because, because as his budget director said, this is last year's spending bill, and, from here out, we are going to get serious, or what? Is he just waiting and counting on these guys' votes for future things? What?

MCCAIN: If it's last year's spending bill, I proposed an amendment that you just noted got beat that put the level at last year's spending.

So, it's obvious that the — this is an 8 percent increase over last year's bill, Neil. When Americans are not being able to stay in their homes, losing their jobs, having to tighten their belts, what is it here in Washington? Business as usual.

And the president should lead, and the president should veto this bill and say, send it back to me without a single pork barrel project on it.

CAVUTO: This was shot down, largely, though not exclusively, along party lines, which tells me that, even for a lot of members in your own party, it's still near and dear.

And I suspect it is going to be very tough to break this sort of nicotine spending habit. What happens?

MCCAIN: Well, it is a habit. And it's become corruption.

We have former members of Congress that are residing in federal prison. This is a gateway drug. We have a former high-ranking staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee was just indicted last week.

Look, this isn't just bad. This isn't just waste. This is corruption. And, so, we are going to have to break it by the people of this country saying, we are not going to stand for it any longer.

And, by the way, I think we lost seven Republican votes on this. And — and...

CAVUTO: You did, yes.

MCCAIN: So, yes.

CAVUTO: Let me ask you. This comes at a time when there are all sorts of rumors in Washington that you and the president, though you started hitting it off — he had this dinner for you, I think, the night before inauguration, and then he was talking about how crucial your support was on the troop drawdown in Iraq — and then it seemed like the wheels kind of came off the goodwill wagon.

What has happened here?

MCCAIN: Neil, I am the loyal opposition.

I work with the president, as I did on the Iraq issue. I will work with him on other issues, health care reform and other — look, the country is in too bad a shape for us not to work together. I am committed to working with the president.

It does not mean that on something like on a pork-laden bill that wastes billions of taxpayers' dollars, that I would go along with anybody, including members of my own party.

CAVUTO: Democrats always counter, Senator, that there's only seven — I think $7 billion of it, only. That used to fund a lot more than just this in the past. Now I guess it's a rounding error.

But, having said that, what do you think of that defense, that, in the scheme of things, it is chump change?

MCCAIN: I say that, possibly, there is a tiny amount of plausibility associated with that argument when times were good.

Times are terrible. What could we do with those billions of dollars? Could we put some people back to work? Could we get some people some health insurance? Could we help this economy get better?

I mean, it is just so, so disappointing that, apparently, here, we don't get the message from the people in this country who say, stop doing this. Stop doing business as usual.

They voted for change.

(LAUGHTER)

CAVUTO: All right, but they also seemingly endorse more spending vs. more tax-cutting to get us out of this funk. What do you think of that and that the president remains popular, some of his programs less so, but he remains popular.

So, is that the American people's way of saying, we are OK with this?

MCCAIN: We proposed $420 billion of spending that frankly had more money in it for things like shovel-ready construction than the president's bill did. We also had a provision that, when we — this economy recovers — and it will recover — we were going to have to — after two quarters of positive growth, we would have an automatic path to balance budgets.

We are committing generational theft by accumulating this massive debt on our kids and grandkids.

CAVUTO: The president lately and his folks have been saying, Senator, that they don't pay attention to Wall Street, which I would gather is probably a good thing, given the way Wall Street has been performing.

But what do you think of that, that they draw a disconnect between the sell-off going on there and his programs or initiatives to maybe reverse that selling? What do you think?

MCCAIN: I don't think we should pay attention to the day-to-day trends on Wall — activities on Wall Street. We should pay attention to the trends.

Wall Street leads the economy. And, right now, we have not done enough to restore confidence, both on Wall Street and Main Street. And we seem to be playing catch-up. And nobody really understands exactly what happened and what is going on. And we need to do that.

CAVUTO: Well, do you think it is a protest to all the spending, Senator, a protest to the earmarks or a protest regarding just a lack of confidence, not only in this administration, but, collectively, Washington, to fix it?

MCCAIN: Well, you are smarter than I am at this, but I think it is a lack of confidence that we are taking the appropriate measures to turn this economy around.

For example, home values continue to plummet. When home values stabilize, then I think you will start to see the economy turn around.

So, I think it's fundamentally a lack of confidence in the measures that this administration has taken so far, including, by the way, failure of TARP 1.

CAVUTO: In fact, you wanted to get a commission going, you and Senator Dorgan, your Democratic counterpart, to look into maybe what happened with this whole financial thing, right?

MCCAIN: Yes. And I don't think many Americans really understand. And they have been dealt a cruel blow.

CAVUTO: All right.

Any regard from either party about whether there's bipartisan support for such a commission?

MCCAIN: Oh, I think, if we hear enough from the American people, it will be appointed. I think they want to know what happened, mainly because they want to know that we have taken these steps to prevent a reoccurrence. This is terrible and devastating. I don't have to tell you that or anybody who is watching.

CAVUTO: Senator, if you don't mind, while I still have you here, a big dustup in the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele going at it, Steele calling Rush Limbaugh an entertainer, and a mean one. I am paraphrasing. And then it got Rush involved, and even though a lot of the nastiness has subsided, I guess.

But what do you think of what is going on in your party?

MCCAIN: Oh, I think there's a lot of voices in our party. Rush Limbaugh is one of them, Michael Steele, I respect enormously, the governors, Pawlenty and Jindal and Palin and others. There's a lot of voices in our party. And I appreciate all of them.

And for us to get into some kind of contest, when we have just lost an election, about who does what, let's all work together as a party and get our party back on track. We just lost an election — two elections in a row, big-time. Let's get together.

CAVUTO: All right, so you don't buy the argument I think Mr. Steele raised in the beginning, that he was chafing at the notion that Rush Limbaugh has become the de facto spokesman for Republicans or at least the angry voice for Republicans?

MCCAIN: Well, I think Mr. Limbaugh speaks for a number of Republicans. I think Governor Pawlenty and Jindal and Palin and others do, and Charlie Crist and others.

I think a lot of us speak.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: I think I speak — still speak a little for the Republican Party.

Let's all speak for the things that we value and the things we believe in.

CAVUTO: All right. Senator, thank you very much.

MCCAIN: Thanks, Neil. Thanks.

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