McCain: Boehner's Leadership at Stake with Debt Bill, Obama Now a Bystander in Debate

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," July 28, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Joining us is Senator John McCain, who has been taking on conservatives reluctant to raise the national debt ceiling. Good evening, sir. And you know, you're getting so much information coming out of the House tonight. I don't know how much to believe and how much not. But I will tell you, the latest report from one of my colleagues, Chad Pergram, is that Congressman Chaffetz, who's opposed to the Boehner bill, says, I think they'll call the vote tonight and it will pass. So that sounds at least like he's saying that Boehner has the votes, but this seems like voodoo at this point.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: Well, I think he probably does. It's unfortunate, at least in my view, that he had such difficulty. But as you know, there are very strong feelings. There are members who were elected simply on the single issue of cutting spending and getting our mortgaging of our children and our grandchildren's future off of our backs. And so, obviously, they felt very strongly.

And so in answer to your question, I think he probably has the votes, but I think he may have to change his original proposal some -- I've heard maybe add the balanced budget amendment to it. I'm not sure that's true.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you've been very hard on these -- and it's generally sort of the new Republicans, the Tea Parties. You've been very hard on them. They ran on that. Do they not owe it to their constituents to say, "Look, I'm running on this," and now when push comes to shove and they've got the vote, they don't -- don't they sort of have to keep their promises? They can't say, "Oh, never mind."

MCCAIN: No, absolutely they do, and I think many of them are. What I have criticized is the practice in the Senate of telling our constituents that there's some way that we're going to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in the United States Senate under its present numbers. That would require 67 votes. There is no way that that's going to happen.

And we control -- we Republicans control one third of the government, which obviously limits the amount that we can do. But to say to your constituents and our fellow citizens, Well, we can pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution -- we can't. We can't. There's not 67 votes there to do so.

And so let's be honest with the American people. We have to have a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution if we're ever really going to get spending under control. I was around when Gramm-Rudman had these strong and stringent requirements on spending, and then future Congress just declared an emergency and made that legislation null and void.

So I am a strong supporter of the balanced budget amendment. I will take second place to no one as far as being a fiscal conservative. I have voted for the balanced budget amendment 13 times. But I have to be honest with my constituents and tell them this Senate is not going to pass it, but we can't give up the fight.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. So tonight -- I know that you're in the Senate, but you at least once were in the House. There's all this sort of effort to get these votes, to peel them off. What's going on behind closed doors? How does Speaker Boehner -- how does he get the votes?

MCCAIN: Well, I think he appeals, obviously, to his leadership. This is really -- his leadership of the Republicans in the House and being speaker is clearly at stake here, if he can't bring his people along. I think he is agreeing to make some changes in hopes that would pick up additional votes. I think he's trying to explain to them what I said, and that is, if they pass it through the House, it comes to the Senate, Harry Reid will, quote, "table" it, in other words, turn it down.

But now this -- the House of Representatives has acted in a meaningful and important way. They're cutting spending. They are raising the debt limit. There is no tax increases. So we have achieved a lot of the goals pretty much of what you can do controlling one third of the government.

And I think that Mitch McConnell's last option of a committee, bipartisan -- remember, we only have control of one third of the Congress, and yet this would be 50/50 Republicans and Democrats -- and that committee report out, required up or down vote on what they find, I think, and also a short-term increase in the debt limit, so we can go back and fight this again in a few months.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, let me tell you the sort of the what I think some Americans are thinking, the ones who are really -- who really sent these members of Congress to vote for a balanced budget and to fight tooth and nail for it tonight -- is I suspect that some think that what's going on behind closed doors, as someone who ran on it, who now suddenly comes out and says, I'm a (INAUDIBLE) adopting your thinking that something is better than nothing and we move forward -- is they're going to think it's a little like when Senator Harry Reid wanted to get something out of Senator Ben Nelson. And suddenly -- I mean, there's (INAUDIBLE) the suspicion is, is that, you know, like, some congressmen (INAUDIBLE) bought off with something for his district.

MCCAIN: I know John Boehner. He would not engage in that practice.

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, not -- I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it. But I'm saying...


MCCAIN: ... John Boehner wouldn't do it...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... they're wheeling and dealing. No wheeling and dealing tonight.

MCCAIN: ... simply because -- I think he's appealing to them on other grounds. If it came out that John Boehner behind closed doors -- and it would -- people like you have too many sources -- that he was doling out goodies, that would be terribly damaging.

Let me also point to one other benefit, that the House passes the Boehner bill, it comes to the Senate, and Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell and John Boehner then sit down and work something out.

Who's missing from this equation? The President of the United States! He has been completely divorced from the process. Last we heard from the president was Monday night, when he said he had to have tax increases as part of any legislation, and Harry Reid has already agreed not to have tax increases! The president is now a bystander. The President of the United States!

VAN SUSTEREN: What difference does it make?

MCCAIN: Talk about leading from behind!

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, suppose he's, quote, "leading from behind." If something's achieved, how does that matter?

MCCAIN: Because the President of the United States is elected to lead, Greta! The President of the United States -- every previous president I know has been not only active in the process but led in the process. That's the job of the president!

VAN SUSTEREN: Has he not been making phone calls? And is it considered leadership if he's dispatching Vice President Biden up to talk to people and if he's making phone calls and putting people in the same room?

MCCAIN: Well...

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, things that we not necessarily see. Is that leading or not?

MCCAIN: Well...

VAN SUSTEREN: We got -- we got a primetime address the other night!

MCCAIN: You know what is really leading?


MCCAIN: Is to say, Here's my plan. Here's what I want us to do.

VAN SUSTEREN: Has he ever put any plan up?

MCCAIN: Never! Never!

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, why do they keep saying that he has a plan?

MCCAIN: He has lectured. He's lectured. Maybe -- remember Richard Nixon had a plan to end the Vietnam war? This is the best one since then!


MCCAIN: He has not come forward with any specific plan. And maybe I'm wrong, but I remember presidents saying, Look, this is what we got to do, A, B, C, D and E. Now, my dear and beloved friend, Lindsey Graham, who's coming on here in a minute or two, may disagree with me. But one thing we're all in agreement on is the president is not leading! And the job of the president is to lead! So really, this issue may be decided by Boehner, McConnell...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you know what...

MCCAIN: ... and -- Boehner, McConnell and Reid.

VAN SUSTEREN: I thought that it was -- I did think it was rather disgraceful -- I mean, the poor president -- nor not the poor president, but the president got hit with the comment from the -- from the CBO that, We don't score speeches, which I thought that the CBO was saying that, Mr. President, you're not doing your work. I thought that was sort of the worst indictment of his performance on that.

MCCAIN: That was probably devastating to...

VAN SUSTEREN: I thought that was devastating.

MCCAIN: The CBO is nonpartisan.

VAN SUSTEREN: And that really -- that really did sort of, you know, slap the president down a little bit, like, Give us a plan. But the White House says it has a plan. I've not seen a plan. Ed Henry, who works with us, he hasn't seen (INAUDIBLE) keeps asking for it. Every time he does, he gets a little bit insulted, but...


VAN SUSTEREN: But I mean...

MCCAIN: I just want to point out one other thing, Greta. I was around in 1995. We shut down the government. I remember them turning people away from the Grand Canyon, and people were up in arms. One, we shouldn't shut down the government. We shouldn't do that to the American people.

And number two is, this country, the greatest country in the world, should not default on its debts! And to somehow say that, Well, we can prioritize and we can pay this bill and that bill -- the reality is, if you don't have 40 percent of the money to pay your debts, then something is going to happen that's bad. And the markets, I'm afraid -- I'm very much afraid, I hope not -- may react in a very unpleasant fashion.

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm curious. Did President Clinton handle that differently than President Obama?

MCCAIN: Well, he was much more engaged. I mean, he didn't give a lot of speeches. He gave some. But he was totally engaged, if you remember. I mean, he was one on one. You know, one thing about President Clinton -- and I say this -- we disagreed on a lot of things. When he was in the room, he was the smartest guy in the room on that issue, and that's the way he handled the '95 crisis. And frankly, it was a disaster for Republicans, as you might recall.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, thank you. And of course, we're standing by, waiting to hear what the House of Representatives -- we think there's going to be a vote right next door, but we're standing by...

MCCAIN: They'll pass it.

VAN SUSTEREN: You think they're going to...

MCCAIN: They'll pass it. And tomorrow, we'll have another day.

VAN SUSTEREN: You say they're going to pass it. Well, we're just standing by. Something's going to happen. We're following it as close as we can. Thank you, sir.