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Transcript: Sens. Lieberman, Alexander on 'FNS'

The following is a rush transcript of the April 11, 2010, edition of "Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace." This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

CHRIS WALLACE, ANCHOR: Well, after the bruising fight over health care reform, the Senate returns this week to a set of potential battles — a vacancy on the Supreme Court and an arms control treaty with Russia.

Joining us from their home states are two Senate leaders, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Gentlemen, let's start with the new opening on the Supreme Court with the retirement of Justice Stevens.

Senator Alexander, you issued a statement on Friday in which you said this, "In truly extraordinary cases I reserve the prerogative to vote no on confirmation or even to vote to deny an up-or-down vote." Senator, what kind of nominee would you filibuster?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER, R-TENN.: Well, it's premature to talk about that before we even have a nominee, but that comes out of the Gang of 14 discussion we had a few years ago.

Basically, I was deeply offended by how the Democrats changed the rules on President Bush's Supreme Court nominees. And I said at the time that as long as the president nominated well-qualified people who'd be impartial that they should have an up-or-down vote and that I would vote to confirm them.

That's still my view. I voted for Justice Sotomayor. If the president picks someone from the fringe instead of from the middle, or if he picks someone who will apply their feelings instead of applying the law, then that might be an extraordinary case when I can't vote for that nominee.

WALLACE: But back in 2005, Senator Alexander, when the Democrats were in the minority — and as you point out, they were blocking Bush judicial nominees — you took a very different view. Let's put it on the screen. "I have said I will never filibuster a president's judicial nominee." Senator Alexander, what's changed?

ALEXANDER: Well, what's changed — the Senate is a body of precedence. I said that then. Then I worked with the Gang of 14 — I think Senator Lieberman was a part of that — to try to say...

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN, I-CONN.: I was.

ALEXANDER: ... that except in cases of judicial extraordinary cases, we're going to allow up-or-down vote. I still believe in that. That's my view. There was no even discussion of a filibuster of Justice Sotomayor. And I was one of the Republicans who voted to confirm her.

WALLACE: Senator Lieberman, what do you make of talk of a possible filibuster at this stage? And should the president nominate a moderate to avoid a partisan battle in the Senate?

LIEBERMAN: Well, of course, this is up to the president. I mean, this is one of the most significant rights and responsibilities that the president earns with his election.

And this particular president, Barack Obama, is a lawyer, has been a law professor, is very aware of the importance of the Supreme Court and our system of government.

So I think he's going to think long and hard about this and take advantage of it, because it may have one of the more lasting effects of anything he does in his presidency, as we see from Justice Stevens, who was nominated by President Ford.

Look, if recent history is any guide — and let's take President Bush and even the Sotomayor nomination by President Obama. President Bush nominated two people, Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, who had records generally that were thought to be conservative but were not, shall we say, provocatively conservative. The same was probably true of Sotomayor, Justice Sotomayor.

And I would expect here that to avoid a conflict, the threat of a filibuster, a real knock-down, drag-out battle in an election year, that President Obama may also want to nominate a justice who has the kind of capability that he will feel comfortable with but will not have a record either on the court — on a court or off that will provoke a filibuster.

This is a fascinating moment, because it may be for all these reasons, and acknowledging the fact that Justice Stevens became the leader of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, that President Obama may nominate someone, in fact, who makes the court slightly less liberal, at least for a while.

WALLACE: Well, let's talk — and obviously, we don't know. But there is a conventional wisdom here in Washington, and there are — according to that conventional wisdom, there are three front runners at this point. Let's put them up on the screen, Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Circuit Court Judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland.

Senator Lieberman — and I understand it's the president's choice, so don't — please don't give that answer. Is there anyone on that list that you would immediately rule in or, conversely, that you might rule out?

LIEBERMAN: No, because, frankly, I don't know enough about any of them. The only one that I believe I've actually met personally is the solicitor general, and she's a very bright and honorable person from what I could tell from the few meetings we've had.

But I don't know her background in terms of the opinions she holds, and that's why we have a Judiciary Committee, and we'll have the hearing. So it's too early to rank the nominees.

I'm also encouraged, frankly, by the mention by some people of the possibility that President Obama may choose someone who is not a sitting judge at this time. You know, the remaining eight justices on the Supreme Court are all — have all come to the court from appellate judgeships. Maybe we need somebody who's been a law professor, or a lawyer, a practicing lawyer, or a — or a person in public office like a governor or a senator.

WALLACE: Senator Alexander, looking at that list of Kagan, Wood and Garland, is there anybody — you talk about reserving the right to filibuster in extraordinary circumstances. Is there anybody on that list who would immediately be filibuster bait or, conversely, anyone on that list who would sail through?

ALEXANDER: Chris, that's a great question, but I'm not about to start picking nominees I would reject before the president even makes one. I think what — the thing to look for is is the president going to insist on this unusual standard he used as a senator and has talked about as the president, to pick a justice who's on his side, or on your side?

I mean, that's exactly what a Supreme Court justice is not supposed to be — not supposed to be somebody you can particularly depend on to be on your side in a controversial case. You want a Supreme Court justice who will be impartial — that's the oath — and whose judgment you can't predict.

One reason I voted for Justice Sotomayor was she explicitly rejected that feelings or empathy standard of the president.

WALLACE: The other big story this week, of course, is the signing of the new nuclear arms treaty with Russia in Prague this week.

Senator Lieberman, you say you may vote against it, depending on whether President Obama will modernize our nuclear arsenal. But the administration issued a Nuclear Posture Review this week in which it explicitly said it does not intend to build new nuclear warheads or to engage in underground testing. Is the president going to have to back off that strategy to win your vote for the treaty?

LIEBERMAN: Not just my vote. I think that this — look, let me say first about the START treaty that any time we're working on something with our old Cold War enemy Russia cooperatively, it's a good sign. And anything we can do to reduce the number of nuclear warheads in the world is a positive development.

But in my opinion, as we reduce the number of nuclear warheads America has in a world that is still dangerous, very dangerous, and in which the threat of the spread of nuclear powers, particularly Iran, grows every day, we have to make darn sure that our nuclear warheads are capable, are modern. And a lot of them are decades old.

So I feel very strongly that I'm going to be — I'm going to be real hesitant to vote for this treaty unless we have a commitment from the administration that they're prepared to modernize our nuclear stockpile.

I want to go one step further based on conversations I've had over this break with some of my colleagues. I don't believe that there will be 67 votes to ratify the START treaty unless the administration does two things — first, commit to modernize our nuclear stockpile so as we have less nuclear weapons we know they're capable, if, God forbid, we need them; and secondly, to make absolutely clear that some of the statements by Russian president Medvedev at the signing in Prague that seem to suggest that if we continue to build the ballistic missile defense in Europe that they may pull out of this treaty — they're just unacceptable to us. We need that defense to protect our allies and ourselves from Iran.

WALLACE: Senator Alexander, the president's going to need eight Republicans to vote for the treaty to get the super-supermajority of 67 votes. And if Lieberman is gone, then he's going to need nine Republican votes. What are the chances for that kind of bipartisan support for this treaty?

ALEXANDER: Well, it depends on how the questions are answered. The treaty is a step — it's a modest step in a direction that goes all the way back to President Nixon, President Reagan, the first President Bush, the second President Bush with the Moscow treaty.

I mean, reducing the number of nuclear weapons that are deployed to 1,500 gives us plenty to blow everybody to kingdom come if that's what we choose to do. But the questions are some of the ones mentioned by Senator Lieberman, and we need to take plenty of time to answer them.

Will we at the same time modernize our own force? Can we still verify as well as we did in the first START treaty? There is new technology. Will we be able to build our missile defense systems?

And then while the treaty may be in the right direction and the nuclear summit that's coming to town may be an impressive group of people, the nuclear posture statement that the president put out is troublesome to me. I mean, it takes away the ambiguity about our use of nuclear power. Ambiguity in foreign policy is sometimes very useful, as we've found...

WALLACE: So if I — if I may press, Senator...

ALEXANDER: ... in meeting with China and Taiwan.

WALLACE: ... if I may press, Senator Alexander, what are the chances at this point, and particularly given the fact that they have issued that nuclear posture, that you could pick up eight votes for this treaty, eight Republican votes?

ALEXANDER: It's way too — well, first, there's not a chance the treaty will be approved this year. It took a year and a half to approve the START I treaty.

And with the Supreme Court pushing to the front of the agenda in the Senate and jobs, terror and debt being our major issues we should be worrying about, this is a treaty for next year. And we can't answer your question until we ask all the right questions and get the right answers.

WALLACE: I want to switch to another subject. There are also reports, gentlemen, that the administration is considering in its new National Security Review taking out all references to the phrase "Islamic extremism."

Senator Lieberman, you are making public here on "Fox News Sunday" today a letter that you have just written to the president's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, in which you say this, "The failure to identify our enemy for what it is, violent Islamist extremism, is offensive and contradicts thousands of years of accepted military and intelligence doctrine to know your enemy."

Senator, what about the argument that we run the risk if we keep talking about Islamic extremism of turning off Muslim countries by appearing to attack their faith?

LIEBERMAN: Well, look, my letter to John Brennan is just kind of the result of me getting so frustrated by previous attempts to complain about this to the administration.

This proposed change in the national security strategy dropping the term "violent Islamist extremism" is not the first time it's happened. Defense Department did a whole report on the massacre by Dr. Hasan of 13 Americans at Fort Hood. Clearly, from the record, he was motivated by Islamist extremism, and they didn't mention that term there.

This is not honest. And frankly, I think it's hurtful in our relations with the Muslim world. We are involved in a war, as everybody says, for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. We're not in a war against Islam. It's a group of Islamist extremism (sic) who've taken the Muslim religion and made it into a political ideology. And I think if we're not clear about that, we disrespect the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are not extremists.

I mean, the clear reality is that this war started when we were attacked on 9/11 and 3,000 Americans were killed not by some amorphous group of violent extremists or environmental extremists or white supremacist extremists. They were violent Islamist extremists motivated and organized by the ideology preached by Osama bin Laden. And unless we're honest about that, we're not going to be able to defeat this enemy. So I think it's just time to blow the whistle on what I think is a terribly mistaken policy. It's absolutely Orwellian and counterproductive to the fight that we're fighting at risk of great life every day to stop violent extremism of an Islamist base.

WALLACE: Gentlemen, we have less than two minutes less and I want to get you both on one more issue.

Along those lines, Senator Alexander, after signing the treaty and talking with Russian president Medvedev, President Obama talked about imposing more sanctions on Iran this spring. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are going to be pushing very hard to make sure that both smart and strong sanctions end up being in place soon to send a signal to Iran and other countries that this is an issue that the international community takes seriously.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Senator Alexander, how confident are you that this new, which would be the fourth, round of sanctions against Iran will be effective in getting them to stop developing their nuclear program?

ALEXANDER: Not very confident, Chris. But I think the president should proceed with it, and I've signed a letter along with other senators suggesting that. Iran is our most dangerous situation right now. And that's going back to the nuclear posture statement of the president a couple weeks ago.

I don't think that taking away the ambiguity in our use of nuclear power is going to scare Iran or scare North Korea. I think only resoluteness on the part of the commander in chief will do that.

And the confusion in knowing who a terrorist is, whether it's someone flying into a Detroit airport trying to bomb it at Christmastime or whether it's not being willing to try a — the 9/11 mastermind in a military court — that kind of confusion that Senator Lieberman talks about does not help us in dealing in a forthright and candid way with Iran and others who are dangerous.

WALLACE: Senator Lieberman, we have about 30 seconds left. The president is holding this nuclear security summit here in Washington over...

LIEBERMAN: Right.

WALLACE: ... the next two days. He's meeting with the Russian president. He's meeting with the Chinese president in the next couple of days. Do you have any sense that he is on the right track to get Iran to stop?

LIEBERMAN: Well, the summit is a god idea, because it's all about stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to non-state actors, terrorist groups and criminal gangs.

But look, we've been negotiating, the Europeans have, for three or four years with the Iranians. We've been talking nice to them. We've been offering them opportunities to avoid a conflict. And all they do is continue to move ahead with a nuclear weapons program.

That will change the world as we know it and make it ever more dangerous. We've got to adopt tough sanctions. Congress, I think, can do that this month. It's in a conference committee.

And then the president, I think, has to be prepared to unilaterally apply those sanctions, because it's either tough sanctions on Iran, which they respond to — but tough sanctions are our last hope to avoid a very stark decision, either military action against Iran or a world in which Iran has nuclear weapons.

And when that happens, all the efforts that the president is making and others, our START treaty, nuclear summit this week, are going to be blown apart.

WALLACE: Gentlemen, we're going to have to...

LIEBERMAN: Thank you.

WALLACE: We're going to have to leave it there.

Senator Lieberman, Senator Alexander, I want to thank you both so much for joining us today. Please come back, gentlemen.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Chris.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you. Will do.

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