Sen. Marco Rubio on preventing Iran nukes, minimum wage, 2016 race

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," July 23, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Welcome back to Center Seat. Florida Senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio joins us tonight for Center Seat. Also on the panel: syndicated columnist George Will; Charles Lane opinion writer for The Washington Post; and Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard.

Before we get started, George, a little disclaimer.

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Yes. My wife, who was a colleague of Senator Rubio's in the '96 Dole campaign, is working for your rival Scott Walker.

BAIER: So we wanted to say that off the top before we get started.

OK, Senator, today you spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill in that Senate hearing on Iran, questioning Secretary Kerry. A lot of questions about Iran. We asked people to write in on Twitter. And @KDGolf says "Name three unacceptable terms of President Obama's Iran deal, and what is the Marco Rubio better deal?"

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, there are more than three, so three is easy. The first is we have -- Iran now retains a much more sophisticated infrastructure of enrichment than what they have today. The centrifuges that they have now are, quite frankly, ancient. As Bob Corker said today, they're antiques. They will have less of them, but the ones they are going to have will be better, and they'll continue to expand that capability for years to come.

The other is this down payment, this immediate signing bonus that they get that the administration said today would be about $50 billion. And they think this money is going to be spent to rebuild the Iranian economy. But in fact nothing in Iran's track record suggests that. In fact it suggests it will be spent on arming, training, and equipping their surrogates in Lebanon and in Iraq and Bahrain, the 14th of February movement, or the Houthis in Yemen, not to mention all the other things the Quds force does around the world.

And I think the third and the one I tried to zero in on today, this ambiguity. There's a term -- there's so many things we could point to, but there's this item in the third annex to the agreement that says that we are now obligated, we and all the partners are obligated to help Iran protect its nuclear program from sabotage or from attack. And so I asked Secretary Kerry today, does that mean that if Israel, for example, undertakes a campaign of sabotage against the Iranian program, are we now under that provision required to assist them? He says no. But any plain reading of that is that, yes, we are now obligated to help Iran protect itself from anybody who tries to sabotage their program, Israel included.

BAIER: All right, so let's get past the vote on Capitol Hill and counting heads. There's a battle in the campaign between Governor Walker and Governor Bush about getting rid of the Iran deal. Can you get rid of it on day one?

RUBIO: You can, and I'll tell you why. Because the sanctions on Iran, the U.S. sanctions, the international sanctions you cannot get rid of, or the re-imposing the international sanctions are much harder to do because that involves other countries.

The U.S. sanctions, the American sanctions on Iran are in our laws. There's a law passed by Congress, signed by the president, although he tried to undermine those sanctions and objected to them. And those are still in in place. What the president is using is a national security waiver. He's in essence saying I'm using this waiver to prevent these sanctions from still being imposed.

The next president could just lift that with the stroke of a pen, lift that waiver and immediately re-impose sanctions. You can do that on day one in the first hour of your presidency, or the first week of your presidency.

BAIER: Would President Rubio do that?

RUBIO: Absolutely. And I said so today at the hearing.

BAIER: Steve?

STEVE HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Jumping at Russia, in your campaign appearances you have been talking about Vladimir Putin having the United States and Russia on the verge what you call Cold War two, and said that Putin has, among other things, contemplated using tactical nukes. When has he done that? And what would you do to counter Vladimir Putin if you were --

RUBIO: Actually their printed military doctrine now contemplates the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the battlefield. And it specifically talks about if there is a NATO advance in order to stop it that we would immediately deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield to at least stop their advance and slow them down.

It's part of a bigger problem, and that is that Putin and the Russian Federation military leadership legitimately believes that NATO and the United States working through NATO wants to keep Russia isolated, poor, and weak. They believe this. And as a result they are now adjusting their tactics in that direction. We know that's not true. Our intent is to, quite frankly, just not have Putin invade his neighbors and take over Crimea and countries of this nature. But they think our goal is to keep them weak and isolated. They legitimately believe this, and they now have military doctrine that reflects that.

HAYES: So what would you do to counter him?

RUBIO: Well, I think reinvigorating NATO is critical. One of the things we have to remember is that over the last 20 years, especially over the last 10, what we have asked of NATO countries is to invest in programs and technologies and in training that makes them able to come to our assistance in Afghanistan or in Iraq or wherever NATO might be deployed around the world. In fact in the 21st century NATO must be now able to confront an eastern threat, a threat to a NATO country's own territory. And they haven't invested significantly in that. So it's good to see, for example, the Baltic states are now beginning to invest in anti-tank weaponry, which is the kind of weapon they would need in order to stop a Russian incursion into Estonia or Latvia or other of the other countries immediately on the border.

BAIER: George?

WILL: Going back to Iran for a minute. Last week was the 70th anniversary of the dawn of the nuclear age. That means we're dealing with a 70-year-old technology. Is it realistic to believe that a country with a lot of determination and a lot of money, such as Iran, can be prevented if it really wants to from getting nuclear weapon?

RUBIO: Well, you can prevent them and their ability. You can certainly set back significantly their ability tone rich uranium, which is one of the things they need. The president in the White House and Secretary Kerry keeps talking about they can't unlearn what they know. Knowing how to build a weapon is not the biggest impediment. There are high school students potentially in America know how to do that.

The biggest impediment is do you have the infrastructure and the material that you need to build a weapon? And I think we can set back their enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.

The other thing you need is a delivery system. They need a long-range rocket, for example, in order to threaten America. And we can through sanctions and other measures slow down their ability to acquire a long- range rocket.

Ultimately the best we can do is give them a very clear choice, and that is you can either have an economy or you can have a nuclear program, but you cannot have both. That's what sanctions were allowing us to do, increased sanctions would allow us to do more of, and getting rid of sanctions actually takes away.

BAIER: We'll have more with Senator Rubio when we come back. We'll start with Chuck Lane on domestic policy.


BAIER: We are back with our panel plus Senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio in our Center Seat. Chuck Lane?

CHARLES LANE, THE WASHINGTON POST: Senator, as you know, there's a movement across the country to raise the minimum wage as high as $15 an hour. It's already passed in Los Angeles. It's moving ahead in New York and D.C. What's your position? What do you think the Republican position ought to be on the minimum wage and more generally on the issue of increasing the rewards to work and the incentives to work?

RUBIO: That's a great question. First of all, I actually think $15, forget about minimum wage. On $15 wages, you can't raise a family or feed a family on that. I'm concerned about a minimum wage at $15 that would actually cost people employment. Maybe not in a big company, but in a small or midsized business that only has x amount of money. They have a very tight profit margin. If you raise their costs of employing, if you make employees more expensive, they're either going to have less employees or they're going to automate even quicker than they would because you're going to make a person more expensive than a machine. I'm worried about the people who may lose their jobs, lose hours, or may never even be hired because of a minimum wage increase.

I think a better approach is two things. One is investing in revolutionizing higher education, and by that meaning making it more available to people to learn at their own pace online, on weekends, on nights, through a variety of different sources that allow them to package learning and receive the equivalent of a degree or a certificate on a competence method. I've outlined clear plans to do that.

And the other is a proposal I have called a wage enhancement proposal which allows us to go to people and say rather than staying and collecting the equivalent of $7 an hour of federal benefits or whatever it may be, we prefer you to go out and work, and they we'll make up the difference with wage enhancement much the same way the earned income tax credit works, and we will deliver it to you in your paycheck as opposed to once a year or on a monthly basis so that people are working. Because when you are working and not sitting at home you're gaining experience and education. You're gaining the sorts of things that make you more employable in the future.

I think that's a much better approach than simply saying we're going to raise the minimum wage to $15. You're already seeing the impact of having, for example, in San Francisco, where even some big companies like Chipotle has raised the prices and has reduced workforce in some places as a result of it.

BAIER: Senator, questions about your experience. And you've talked about your resume a lot. Your former Florida colleague, Jeb Bush, also had some things to say about that recently.


BAIER: Does Marco Rubio have the experience to be president?

FORMER GOV. JEB BUSH, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have more experience to be president. If you look at the kind of leadership that we now need to forge consensus, we've had a president who was gifted, who was charismatic. His name was Barack Obama. There was nothing in his past to suggest that he could fix the things that were broken. In fact, he's made them worse. And so I think the practical experience of being a governor for eight years and being on my life journey is one that is better for the country right now.


BAIER: He says he says that not disparaging you but, as I heard it, he was comparing you to Barack Obama.

RUBIO: Well, a couple of points. The first thing is Barack Obama has failed as president because his ideas don't work. They've never worked. And they wouldn't have worked had he served 50 years in the U.S. Senate. The ideas of big government, the ideas of American retreat on the global stage, these are bad ideas no matter how much experience you have with them.

The second point I would make is it is true there are people running for president that have lived longer than I have. But no one running for president has more experience on the real issues our nation confronts right now today in a 21st century dramatically different from the 20th century than I have on those issues. It is true there are people running for president that have more experience on the issues our country might have faced 18 years ago or 10 years ago. But the world is changing. And no one who is running for president has a more experience than I do on the issues confronting our country right now.

BAIER: What about an executive or a former executive of a state? Why is that person not better positioned than you are?

RUBIO: The presidency of the United States is a unique office. It's not like being a Senator. It's not like being a governor, either. In fact the most fundamental challenge any president will face is the national security challenge. Presidents don't create jobs. They propose -- they put forth policies that create an environment conducive to job creation. But the people who believe that government creates jobs is in the other party.

But the most important challenge that the president faces is on national security. And I am very confident in not just my knowledge but my history of making judgments and decisions on the national security issues before America at this moment where we face multiple threats, whether it's China in the Asia Pacific region, Russia and Europe, which we've covered, the spread of radical jihadists across multiple different groups through North Africa, the Middle East, and even into southeast Asia in some places, and of course the risk that Iran now poses as a result of this deal. And those are issues I deal with on a daily basis for four-and-a-half years now.

BAIER: Steve?

HAYES: I was with you last Friday in Council Bluffs covering your appearance there in Iowa. And you got a very colorful question from a local resident who wanted to know -- who compared progressives to termites and wanted to know if you would play the role of the Orkin man. You didn't really answer his question, but you volunteered in your answer a long speech about the need for entitlement reform.


HAYES: Isn't that crazy, to volunteer to talk about entitlement reform?

RUBIO: Well, I heard that in this very room, by the way, in 2010 when I was running for the U.S. Senate for the state of Florida, a state that has a significant number of people on Medicare and Social Security, one of them being my mother. And I don't want to change anything for people like my mother who are on those programs now. But I understand that people like me will never see those programs and our country will be bankrupt unless we reform those programs for future generations.

So I don't believe it's crazy. I think people understand that this is a reality. And the sooner we act, the less disruptive the changes will be and the more of it we'll be able to fix. The bottom line is Medicare and Social Security, as you were reminded again this week will be bankrupt and they will bankrupt our country and they will trigger a debt crisis. I want those programs to exist for my generation and people younger than me. But that will require those programs to be different for my generation than their right now for my mom.

BAIER: All right, more with Senator Rubio, some of your questions and the panel after a quick break.


BAIER: And we're back with Senator Marco Rubio in our Center Seat. George?

WILL: A short question and a long one. Short question is do you believe the Republican Party ought to stipulate to be eligible to participate in a debate you have to pledge that you will support the nominee of the Republican {arty?

RUBIO: I'd love to see everybody stipulate to that. Obviously there's one person running that won't and we know who that is. But I think that's an issue that will come up in the debates and voters will take that into account. I hope they will, anyway, in their decision decision-making.

WILL: Next March 15th I believe is the Florida primary, winner take all, 95 delegates or something like that. Is it make or break for Bush or Rubio?

RUBIO: I think it's hard to be president of the United States if you can't win the primary of your own state. And there is a long way to go between then and now, a lot of votes to be passed, a lot of primaries and caucuses to be held. And these things have a way of working themselves out. So we will see.

BAIER: Senator, we almost made it through three panels without mentioning Donald Trump. But we will mention him now. You were asked about him the other day. You said that -- you really criticized him for ad hominem attacks that he makes on the campaign trail. Then you said something that got a lot of response. Take a listen.


RUBIO: We already have a president now that has no class.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: You know, that's the kind of slur. That's not a political charge. That's a slur against a man, against the president. And this sleazy comment that he has no class, what does that mean? I'd like to get him under sodium pentothal and say, Buster, what do you mean by no class? What do you mean by that? And find out what he does mean. It's a cheap slur that works with the cheap seats in the Republican Party.


BAIER: All right, so we don't have sodium pentothal and I'm not going to call you Buster. But what about that?

RUBIO: I think it's important for the president of the United States to be someone that can conduct and be engaged in a public debate on an issue without demonizing their opponents, that can hold his speech where you don't invite Paul Ryan, sit him in the front row of the speech, and them lambast and attack him in front of everybody knowing that he can't respond.

I think it's important for the office the presidency to be someone that is capable of doing those things. So I said repeatedly, Barack Obama I think is a great husband and a great father. But I do believe the way he has conducted his presidency has been divisive. I think he unnecessarily demonizes his opponents on policy issues.

In essence it's not that there's disagreement on policies. He actually wants to convince people that you are a bad person, that you don't care with the disabled or children or women or someone who is being hurt. And I just think that's bad for the country. I truly believe that sort of activity, and he is not alone in it, but I do believe that sort of activity is not what we need from a president.

BAIER: So you stand by that statement that the president has no class?

RUBIO: I think in the way he has conducted himself on the presidency on some of the major issues of our time, he has not conducted himself of the dignity of worthy of that office, particularly this demonization of his political opponents and the divisions he's driven in America which have made it harder for us to solve our problems and have poisoned the political environment as a result.

BAIER: Steve?

HAYES: Several times Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has mentioned you as a potential running mate. What do you -- how do you respond to that? And would you consider him as a potential running mate if you were the nominee.

RUBIO: Look, I think we have a talented field of people running. I say that all the time. We are fortunate to have so many good people on the Republican side that want to run for president. The Democrats can't even come up with one good candidate. And so I think it's a good testament to the strength of the Republican Party.

And I think from the field potentially the next vice president is going to come from there. As far as Governor Walker is concerned, there may be a ticket with him and I on it together, but I'm hoping it will be in alphabetical order.

BAIER: Chuck?

LANE: Another one of your rivals, Senator Ted Cruz, just held a hearing the other day. The theme was the lawless Supreme Court and what he had in mind with the rulings that just came down on Obamacare and gay marriage. Do you agree with him that the court is lawless and out of control? And tell us about your approach to nominating new justices on the court.

RUBIO: Look, I'm a big believer in the separation of powers. I believe the judiciary is an important part of that. I think, unfortunately we have on some cases, five justices, the majority of that Supreme Court, that do not understand the proper role of the court. And the proper role of the court is to interpret and apply the constitution, not to reinterpret, not to expand it or to creatively come up with ways that they can expand it to reach a policy conclusion that they want.

In the particular recent decision on the definition of marriage, I believe they overreached. And some other decisions involving Obamacare last year and again this term, the same is true. And my view is the next president must nominate Supreme Court justices who understand the proper role of the judiciary.

BAIER: Quickly, Senator, I want to just get to one poll that's out this week. Pew research has support for reestablishing relations with Cuba rising to 73 percent of Americans. That's 56 percent Republicans, 83 percent Democrats, 75 percent independents. Are you on the wrong side of this debate?

RUBIO: I'm on the right side of history when it comes to this debate. But here is my position. I have no problem with reestablishing relations with Cuba when Cuba is a democracy, when Cuba acknowledges human rights, when it respects the dignity of all the people that live on the island, when they allow the people of Cuba to have free and unfettered access to news on the Internet and from anywhere in the world.

And I think if you are going to give them diplomatic recognition and more economic activity, there should be something in return that benefits the people of Cuba in terms of a democratic opening, and ultimately it behooves us in our national interest not to have anti-American, communist dictatorship 90 miles from our shores.

So I want to see American foreign policy towards Cuba used in a way that leverages our influence and power to support democracy and freedom. And that's why I have taken the position I have on Cuba. And I know that when I explain those details to people, many of them agree, because it's not in a vacuum.

BAIER: Senator, thank you for your time.

RUBIO: Thank you.

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