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Capital Gang

Senator John Edwards Discusses Campaign Finance Reform, Taxes and Bush's Stand on the Environment

Aired March 31, 2001 - 7:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, THE CAPITAL GANG.

AL HUNT, GUEST HOST: Welcome to CAPITAL GANG. I'm Al Hunt, with Kate O'Beirne, Margaret Carlson and in Minneapolis, Robert Novak. Our guest is Democratic Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. John, it's good to have you here.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Thanks, Al. Glad to be with you.

HUNT: Thanks for coming. Senate Democrats, aided by seven Republican allies, beat back all killer amendments to the McCain- Feingold campaign finance reform. The bill, banning all soft money, was set for Senate passage Monday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: So, what have we done? We haven't taken a penny of money out of politics. We've only taken the parties out of politics. Mutual assured destruction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: I think we're taking a giant step forward with the adoption of McCain-Feingold in improving the climate and improving the public's confidence and their respect for the politics process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Added to the bill were amendments restricting so-called issue ads by outside groups that attack candidates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: To put it in plain terms for the people around the country, they are being subjected to ads that just about everybody knows are really campaign ads.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MIKE DEWINE (R), OHIO: We've all faced attacks where people have said things that we just, you know, shudder about and just can't believe that are running on TV. But you know what? That's part of the system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Bob Novak, are we witnessing a basic change in our political system?

ROBERT NOVAK, "THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": I don't really believe so, Al. I think that Senator McCain, who is a great idealist, thinks that this is going it make it possible to reform taxes, to stop pork barrel spending. It's going to do nothing of the kind.

Some of his colleagues think it's going it make it easier on them. They won't have to raise as much money. They're going to have to raise more money because soft money is out, and many of them think that they're going to get rid of outsiders being so daring to criticize them. I don't think those censorship elements of the bill will stand up in court. I think it is much ado about nothing, and it is not what I would call real campaign finance reform.

HUNT: John Edwards, much ado about nothing. You were a primary mover of this legislation.

EDWARDS: I think, actually, it's very important. Senator McCain and Feingold and I and a handful of others worked very hard to get this legislation passed. Let me give you an example, Al, of why it's important. First of all, the debate is not about politicians. It's about the American people, restoring integrity and making people feel like again this is their country, their democracy, their government.

But there are some very specific examples. Senator McCain and I have also worked on an HMO reform bill, a patients' bill of rights. But we haven't been able to get it passed yet. We've been working on this issue for years now, and the HMOs and health insurance companies gave $13, $14 million dollars in soft money last year in the 2000 election cycle.

If we can take that money out of politics, not only do we help get the people's will done. we also help restore the perception, the public perception, which is important. This doesn't solve all the problems, but it's a huge step in the right direction.

HUNT: Kate, there are strategists for both parties who go around saying this will be the death on us. Both can't be right?

KATE O'BEIRNE, "THE NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, we don't know. What they've now done is let the genie of a crusade against soft money out of the bottle, and no one quite knows what its real world effect if going to be.

We do know that incumbents come out ahead of challenger based on the Senate bill. You can be corrupted if anybody contributes more than $2,000, unless you're running against a millionaire. Then, apparently, you're not corruptible if you collect $6,000 per head. What the House members are beginning to realize, because this bill is now headed over to the House where they're going to take up their own version, is the Senate is only protected themselves against millionaire challengers.

So, the House is going to have a problem with that provision. And of course, it's much easier for senators to raise hard money. Senators can build up a war chest of money for 4 1/2 years before there's any challenger on the horizon.

HUNT: Much harder for House members.

O'BEIRNE: Much easier for Senate members because they have 4 1/2 years to build up a war chest of hard money. House members don't have that much time. So, I think we're going to see a conflict between the interests of House incumbents, who want to defend themselves and protect themselves, versus the kind of Senate incumbent protection we've seen.

HUNT: Well, Margaret, Tom Daschle delivered as promised in the Senate. Can Dick Gephardt do the same in the House and does he want to?

MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: He did. I don't know, but congratulations to Tom Daschle and to John McCain, said not to be a legislator, a maverick that couldn't get along with his colleagues. He took the most difficult change, that might be political suicide for some of your colleagues, and got it through.

He'd wake up in the morning and not know if he had the votes for an amendment that evening. So, it was quite -- it was quite something to watch, and it was something to watch you and your colleagues actually legislating in free form, and enjoying it, more or less.

(CROSSTALK)

EDWARDS: Very helpful...

NOVAK: You know what really...

CARLSON: Extraordinarily -- but let me just say, Kate has a point. It's going to be harder in the House, and Tom DeLay, who is going to be the Mitch McConnell in the House, plans to conference the thing to death and try to kill it there. And if not, Mitch McConnell's taking it to the Supreme Court, where what you may end up with, ironically, is soft money ban being killed and just the hard money increase being honored.

HUNT: Let me make a couple points here. I think McCain and Feingold deserve enormous credit. This is a rare, monumental legislative achievement. I think there are other people, including our guest, who I think were very involved in this, a lobbyist like Fred Wertheimer, who has been in this for 15 years.

But if there's one person who I think was absolutely critical to the success, it was Thad Cochran. When they got a conservative Republican from Mississippi that assured it, and the biggest hypocrites around are the National Right to Life, who just assailed John McCain last year for not being -- who has a pro-life voting record for campaign finance reform, they brought up a mischievous amendment, Bob Smith, Rick Santorum voted for it, that would take Right to Life out of every campaign, and is anything going to be done because they care more about money.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BEIRNE: ... what they do, in order to -- the president said as one of his principles, I don't want citizen groups gagged. Well, politicians hate being criticized, so they, of course, have gagged citizen groups. But the president told members this week save yourselves, because the expectation is the president's going to sign this.

HUNT: Bob Novak, jump in very quickly.

NOVAK: Yes, something that John Edwards just said is the same kind of thing that I've heard from John McCain over years, that people vote against their so-called patient's bill of rights, they vote for things because they're bought by the interests. Only pure people like John Edwards are OK.

So, I think that that is what's behind the propaganda on this bill, that somehow or another that people are not -- are going to change their votes because there's going to be less money. There's going to be just as much money and there's not going to be one vote changed.

HUNT: You know, John Edwards, it's funny. Bob Novak had a totally different view of the effect of money when it came to Bill Clinton and Denise Rich.

(LAUGHTER)

HUNT: Suddenly, he's changed his view.

EDWARDS: Well, I'd say two things about that. First of all, the focus of this debate should not be on the politicians, who's advantaged, who's disadvantaged. It should be focused on -- the focus should be on the American people outside the Beltway. That's what this is really about, ultimately.

And, secondly, with respect to what Bob just said about the patient's bill of rights, in fact, the patient's bill of rights that Senator McCain and I have drafted is supported by every health care group, all the doctors, all the patients, every consumer group in America. The only group that doesn't support it are the HMOs, and I just think that speaks volumes.

HUNT: That's the last word, John Edwards. I will say one thing, Kate. If this was going to help incumbents, they would have enacted it a long, long time ago. John Edwards and the gang will back in a minute with tax cut wars. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: Welcome back. President Bush tried to sound upbeat about a failing economy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm concerned about our economy. I'm confident, however, if we do the right thing, we can have economic growth the likes of which we have had in the past.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: Democrats pressed for an immediate $300 a person tax rebate for everyone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: We could get 435 votes for this tax cut this afternoon. You could run it through the Senate the same day, and we could put it on his desk. But they refuse to do it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL O'NEILL, TREASURY SECRETARY: I was here when they tried that in 1975, and it didn't work. If we want to change consumption patterns, we need to make a permanent change in people's tax burdens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: The House passed the Bush budget on a party-line vote, and it comes up in the Senate this week with the issue in doubt. Kate, does this Democratic rebate have any appeal for the Bush team?

O'BEIRNE: Well, first, we have to recognize why we're looking at a Democratic rebate plan. And it's very clever, really. I think the Democrats are beginning to get nervous about taking some responsibility for not helping with this weakened economy, so they wanted something that had the illusion of helping.

But they don't want to really do anything to help the economy because it's George Bush's economy now, and of course, they're hoping 2002 that the economy be weak. So, they designed this rebate that has an initial appeal because it appears to be giving money back to the American public. But, of course, it's a one-time boost in consumer spending.

The economy problem has nothing to do with consumer spending. That's holding up. We have a problem with investment capital. We have to reduce taxes on investment. They're hoping it will derail the president's tax relief plan. I think Republicans might wind up embracing it, as a matter of fairness, people spending money better than Washington does, adding a cap gains tax cut to it and also during the president's rate cut, which is what the economy really wants and needs.

HUNT: Margaret, you have a daughter getting married, couldn't you use that $300?

CARLSON: Please. If anybody would like contribute, I'm open. Kate, you are so cynical about Democrats. They're rooting for a bad economy, which is why they proposed it. No, actually, I mean, George Bush's position is we have a good economy, we need a tax cut. We have a bad economy, we need a tax cut.

The Democrats are taking him up on the second point and will give him help in the end, which is, we're going to do what your tax plan doesn't do. You say it's going to stimulate the economy and save us from a recession. But it's not going to because it doesn't take effect.

So, we're going to help you by proposing this now and getting this out there and we all take credit. George Bush should hope that this happens because doing something for 2006 is not going to do anything to help him before he's up for reelection.

HUNT: Robert Novak, you've never seen a bad time for a tax cut, have you?

NOVAK: Well, this is not a tax cut. This is a handout for the people. It didn't worked under President Ford. They laughed Jimmy Carter when he tried just about the same thing when his time was bad.

Now, the thing that gets me is that I never underestimate the stupidity of politicians. Even some Republican politicians think it might be a good idea. The only saving virtue it has is it sops up some of the surplus. Instead of putting it in government spending, it puts it out to the public, but you might as well take an airplane and fly over the country and drop the money for all the economic effect a $300 a person rebate will have.

HUNT: Bob, just quickly, Kate mentioned both a capital gains tax cut and lowering the top rate. If you had to chose, which one is more important?

NOVAK: Well, those are like choosing your two children.

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: More important than -- what's more important than anything at all, Al, is for Alan Greenspan to put a foot on the accelerator and provide some money for an economy that is starved for investment capital.

HUNT: John Edwards, is it tax cuts or is it Alan Greenspan that's the big issue?

EDWARDS: Well, I think two things. One, in terms of the tax cut proposal the president is making, I think it's very important for us to just be straight and simple with the American people. Nobody knows what's going it happen five or six years from now. For us to suggest otherwise is nonsense and the American people know that.

So, what's the reasonable and sensible thing to do, knowing that? The sensible thing is have a more moderate tax cut, one that pays down the debt, one that preserves Social Security and Medicare, and if five or six years from now, if, in fact, these surpluses come into being and at the same time, we've done when we can to pay down the part of the debt that's redeemable -- now, those are two huge ifs.

But if both those things happen, we can do another tax cut, we can do what's necessary to deal with what's coming in the next decade, which is the onslaught of the baby boomer generation, which no one is talking about and no one is doing anything about. Most people my age or around my age in this country really don't want their children saddled with this debt, saddled with this interest or, equally important, Al, saddled with taking care of us. We need to address that problem.

HUNT: Makes sense to me, Kate.

O'BEIRNE: I never hear Democrats worrying about commitments on spending with respect to not being able to predict the next five or six years. In fact, in fairness to the Bush administration, they are talking about a plan for Social Security in order to preserve it for younger workers and they're also talking about fundamental Medicare reform. They permit all of that in their budget.

But what they are saying is you can bet that the money will not be available for tax cuts in five or six years. If Congress, Republican and Democrats, have their hands on it, they will spend it. That's been the history of the past five or six years. Spending has been totally out of control, and the economy needs a cut on investment and capital. That's what this economy now needs.

CARLSON: Democrats balanced the budget, created surpluses and what they're saying is you don't know, especially now, how big the surplus is going to be. Bush will be blessed if he slows down...

HUNT: That 1993 budget deficit reduction that you referred to, Margaret, was the best thing that ever happened to Bob Novak. And on that, we'll take a break, and next on CAPITAL GANG, no to global warming.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: Welcome back. President Bush pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. That put him at odds with foreign leaders, including a visitor this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERHARD SCHROEDER, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): The German government and the European Union, needless to say, are decidedly in favor of not just signing this protocol, but also going in and ratifying the protocol, too. The American government, or the American president, holds a different opinion when it comes to this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I will explain as clearly as I can today and every other chance I get that we will not do anything that harms our economy because first things first are the people who live in America. That's my priority.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: President Bush also rescinded several of President Clinton's environmental regulations, including arsenic levels in water. Margaret, whatever the merits of the science, is this good politics?

CARLSON: Well, the science says don't wait. The politics of it is not that good or Bush this week wouldn't have decided not to drill in ANWR, in the Arctic refuge. He wouldn't have done that. This has not been a good period for him as far as the environment.

It looks like he may be trying save the economy at the cost of the environment and people don't like that. In the campaign, he didn't say that. If Al Gore were still alive, I don't think he'd be getting away with it to that extent he is.

O'BEIRNE: Was it the arsenic in the water that got Al Gore?

CARLSON: You know, like -- arsenic is -- we're in "Murder, She Wrote" country with that.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: I mean, really people understand -- wait a minute. We don't want arsenic in our drinking water.

HUNT: Robert Novak, would you say a word on behalf of arsenic?

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: He likes it in his water.

NOVAK: First place, I have to correct Margaret. The president didn't say he would change his mind on drilling in the ANWR. They don't have the votes in Congress because the greeny Republicans are so intimidated. This is very good politics.

The garden clubs are a minority in this country. People want to have progress, and they don't want to have these environmental extremists running the show. And this whole nonsense about arsenic in the water, it's at very low levels. But I think it's good politics to say we're for growth and we're not for these extremists on global warming.

HUNT: Thank you. I'm glad the pro-arsenic bloc is represented. John Edwards, it seems to me that Christie Whitman has almost run out of legs for George Bush to chop off.

EDWARDS: Yes, I'm with Margaret. I mean, do we really need a scientific study to tell us we need less arsenic in our drinking water? I mean, nobody could really say that with a straight face. I think the concern here is the laundry list is getting awfully long: Get with the HMOs on a patients' bill of rights, against workplace safety regulations. against these various environmental things we've talked about.

I think at some point, the American people are going to start to make a judgment about whose side the president is on in those issues, and I think that's a fair thing for them to do.

HUNT: Do you hear any Republican colleagues in the Senate upset about some of the environmental stuff or is this pretty much a Democratic...

EDWARDS: No, I think on the environmental issues there's a fair amount of concern, particularly about issues like in arsenic in drinking water, which they know will resonate with the American people. Parents don't want their kids drinking water that has...

NOVAK: That's just pure nonsense.

EDWARDS: I can hear Bob fussing in the background. It has too much arsenic in it.

HUNT: Kate, Bob says it's sheer nonsense.

O'BEIRNE: Look, it is so tempting to fool around about arsenic in drinking water. The standard is a 60-year-old standard. Whether or not the science could wait, Bill Clinton waited eight years. He didn't issue this proposed change until three days before he left office.

The president is OK on these issues, I think. I totally agree. Normally, the kind of appeals Margaret's making do appeal to a large number of voters. They're susceptible to the environmental appeal despite the bad science and the exaggerated scares when there's a strong economy.

When the economy weakens, that's not the case, and the president said this week my number one concern is the U.S. economy and jobs, and that's exactly what the American public's number one concern is. So, the green party in Europe can weaken their own economies and hobble their own businesses, but as long as President Bush explains to the public, I am sticking up for our economy and that's my top priority, especially with the looming energy crises, I think these appeals appeal to far fewer people.

HUNT: Bob Novak, if your team wins, I'll raise a glass of arsenic to them later day. We'll be back with a CAPITAL GANG classic on a recession 11 years ago.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HUNT: Welcome back. After two years, the first President Bush ran into deep economic trouble. Business wanted to get rid of the tough banking regulator, the Controller of the Currency Robert Clark, and so did White House Chief of Staff John Sununu. These were the comments of your CAPITAL GANG on December 8, 1990.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HUNT: John Sununu urges George Bush to steal a page from Jim Wright and fire the guy because he's too tough. Let me tell you something: Bob Clark says that he is the regulator from hell. That's because -- that's because there was such lax regulation during the '80s.

NOVAK: The congressman who are defending Clark, these are the same congressman and the same regulatory, big government attitudes that made us never recover from the Great Depression until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. What we need is to ease up on these screws, that's important, but that won't do it alone. We have to repeal the capital gains tax.

PAT BUCHANAN, HOST, CNN'S "CAPITAL GANG": Novak has a point. John Sununu clearly wants this economy back and moving along, and excuse me, it is in the interest of certain Democrats not to have things moving back up in '92.

MARK SHIELDS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Hey, Pat, we've lost 800,000 manufacturing jobs since George Bush became president of the United States. We are facing a recession with the most enormous deficit this country has ever had, and without the usual tools to deal with it of tax cuts and spending because we're locked into it because of the deficit.

NOVAK: Do you realize that people cannot get loans, their lines of credit have dried up, that they will not accept any real estate loans?

SHIELDS: The banks made bad loans, Bob.

BUCHANAN: They were too loose in good times and too tight in bad times.

NOVAK: Are you ready to strangle this economy, yes or no?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HUNT: Margaret, were you enthralled and enlightened by these decade-old arguments about the economy?

O'BEIRNE: Don't you just wish you had been there?

CARLSON: Oh, my God. Yes, the decades-old sit-com that was on. Well, we've replaced runaway surplus for the runaway deficit, and we're equally confused and equally unilluminating.

HUNT: Bob Novak, you were talking about a capital gains tax cut back then, 11 years ago. There's a constancy about...

NOVAK: I think Margaret is not being very courteous to her colleagues. I thought it was very illuminating. Those are the same debates still going on today.

We still need a repeal of the capital gains tax. We still don't understand that when you dry up investments, you have a recession. So, I thought it was -- I think that we ought to broadcast that all over Capitol Hill, and maybe Senator Edwards and other people will get a message from it.

HUNT: You know, I agree with Bob Novak because I think Mark Shields got it right. We were paralyzed back then by huge deficits.

EDWARDS: You know, we have extraordinary opportunities right now, Al, but the key to this is to pay down the debt and not go back it those huge deficits we had in the last decade. That's what we've got to avoid, and we can did what we need to do. We can do what we need to do about Social Security. We can do what we need to do about Medicare. We have wonderful opportunities, but we need to not squander them by fiscal irresponsibility.

HUNT: Kate?

O'BEIRNE: Back then, our friend Mark recognized that a weak economy needs tax cuts and he was sorry that the deficit didn't permit that. We have a surplus now. The public is being overcharged to the extent of $5 trillion over the next 10 years. So, Mark must be happy that now we can have the right remedy for a weak economy.

HUNT: Mark will be here to answer for himself next week.

HUNT: Kate has the last word. John Edwards, thanks for being with us.

EDWARDS: Thanks, Al.

HUNT: We hope you'll come back. We'll be back with the "News Maker of the Week," Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine and our look "Beyond the Beltway" at the professionalization of college basketball with sports expert John Feinstein and our "Outrages of the Week," all after a check of the hour's top news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

HUNT: Welcome back to the second half of CAPITAL GANG. I'm Al Hunt, Kate O'Beirne, Margaret Carlson, and in Minneapolis, Robert Novak.

Our "News Maker of the Week" is Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the bloc of Republican moderates in the Senate whose vote is sought by both sides on key issues. Olympia Snowe: Residence, Auburn, Maine; age 54; Republican; Greek Orthodox; married to former governor John McKernan; was in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1994, and has been a United States senator since 1995.

I sat down with Senator Snowe earlier in the week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HUNT: Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott says the Senate is going to take up the Bush budget next week. Will you support it, Senator Snowe?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: I do believe that we should bring up the budget resolution. Obviously, I've had differences with the president's budget and the specifics, but I think it's important for the Senate and for the Congress to address the issue of passing a budget resolution that's the foundation for everything we do this year.

We can't move without it. and I think it's important. I would even forsake the recess that is coming the week after next, in the event that we can't reach an agreement next week.

HUNT: You cited the tax cut a moment ago. You and the president traveled to Maine last week. Has he assuaged any concerns you had about his tax cut now? Are you on board?

SNOWE: Well, not yet. I mean, I agree with him on the premise that we need to have a tax cut and a substantial one both from the standpoint of tax burden to the American taxpayers, which is at a historic high, but secondly also because of the economy. And I have indicated to him on numerous occasions, including our trip last week to Maine, that I do support the idea of having a mechanism, a trigger mechanism, that can address...

HUNT: You need that to support a tax cut?

SNOWE: It's very important. That's exactly right. I do think it's important.

HUNT: Let me ask you this: Assess the first 70 days of the Bush presidency as far as ideology is concerned. Has he been moderate or has he been a little bit too conservative?

SNOWE: Well, I think he's been both. I think the most important thing that the president has done is to try to change the atmosphere in Washington, and what I've liked about his approach in his first 70 days is that he is trying to reach out.

HUNT: So ideologically, you have no real problems with him?

SNOWE: Well, I disagree with some of the things. You know, obviously on the carbon dioxide emissions and the mandates for the caps that I think are important. But I think that -- I sense a different approach. He's not a ideological president. Especially in the Senate, in a 50/50 Senate, you're going to have to work with both sides of the aisle.

HUNT: You cited on one of those disagreements on carbon dioxide. You've also disagreed with him on international abortion policy. You disagree with him on Arctic drilling. I think on the regulation of arsenic in water and on campaign finance reform. That's caused some conservatives to say that you're one of what they call RINO's, Republican in name only.

SNOWE: That's not true. I'm a Republican for the very reason I assume that many others are Republicans, and I've been a traditional Republican. I've been a Republican all of my life.

I believe in the principles of individual freedom and limited government. Government should play a role where it's important to play a role, and so I think that I am a Republican for the right reason, and it's unfortunate that people view me that way within the party because I think that I have been very consistent with the reason that the Republican Party was formed initially.

HUNT: The Senate is on the verge of passing McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. The key provision was one that you authored which limits independent expenditures before an election. Do you think that McCain-Feingold will become law and that it will be upheld by the Supreme Court?

SNOWE: I do, and I had believed from the outset that once we had the opportunity to thoroughly debate, amend the McCain-Feingold legislation on the floor of the Senate, that ultimately it will prevail and it will become law. I do believe it will upheld by the courts on the provisions that I have inserted with my colleague Senator Jeffords, and I do think it will survive and be sustained.

I also believe that we have to overhaul our campaign finance system. It's been a menace to the political integrity of the process and I think we are tainted by it. We have to change it and it will do that.

HUNT: Thank you, senator.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HUNT: Bob, do you consider Olympia Snowe a real Republican?

NOVAK: Of course, she is, and when I first started covering the Senate more than 40 years ago, there was about 15 or 20 of them, including the present president's grandfather, Prescott Bush of Connecticut, but things have changed. The parties have polarized. We really have parties that stand for something.

So, these three or four little New England Republicans, they're Republicans, but they're anachronisms, and they're the reason why there's a Republican majority in name only in the Senate. They really have less than 50 sure votes because they come from places that have moved far to the left that it's very hard for Republican presidential candidates to cover, and to have a real Republican majority in the Senate, they've got win seats that they don't have now in Georgia, Arkansas and Florida.

HUNT: Margaret, they may be a small number, but they really -- they have a lot of leverage, don't they?

CARLSON: Well, in a 50/50 Senate, they have tremendous leverage, and there are more of them than five. I mean, look at the coalitions that McCain got last week. You're going to find there are people...

NOVAK: Seven.

CARLSON: ... that joined with -- that joined with McCain, Fred Thompson, Mike DeWine, you're going to see people who are going to be able to move. All George Bush can count on on the Democratic side is the DINO, the Democrat in name only, Zell Miller. So, these people are very important, and the things they call for, I think he's going to have to negotiate on the trigger and whatever. He's just going to have to.

HUNT: Kate, of moderate Republicans, Democrat Barney Frank one time said they follow a pattern, ineffectual protests, abject surrender and then denial. I mean, they don't play hardball the way some other people do.

O'BEIRNE: That description actually sounds more like so-called conservative Democrats in the House, who talk a good game about fiscal discipline but are never quite there. Senators like Olympia Snowe, other Republicans like from Vermont and Rhode Island, they represent unfriendly GOP territory.

It's terribly important that Jim Jeffords and Lincoln Chaffee and Olympia Snowe -- her colleagues and Olympia Snowe, that they pick conspicuous fights with a conservative Republican Party, which the national party now is because that's what those liberal constituents want of them, and it is true on a lot of issues, you talk to the leadership, the Republican leadership in the Senate, they can only count on just above 40 members for a lot of issues, and then they have to start making deals like with a trigger to stop tax cuts in order to get Olympia Snowe's support. But there might well be some sort of a mid-course correction to get her on board.

HUNT: Bob, I wish you could, but we have run out of time. I'm sorry. I've got to go, but we'll come back to you in the next segment, which I know you want to talk about because next on CAPITAL GANG, "Beyond the Beltway" looks at the professionalization of college basketball with author...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: Welcome back. Now our look "Beyond the Beltway." America's attention this week is on the Final Four in Minneapolis, the final national collegiate basketball tournament. But critics point to the dark side of March Madness.

Writing in "The Boston Herald," Boston University Chancellor John Silber said, quote: "The professionalization of college sports corrupts institutions by lowering standards," end quote.

"The San Diego Union-Tribune" asked, quote: "When was the last time a winning coach was fired for not graduating his ball players," end quote

Joining us now from Minneapolis is one of America's top sports writers, John Feinstein. His newest book, one of many best sellers he's written, is "The Last Amateurs," and depicts the college players in the Patriot League.

John, there are great players on the floor in Minneapolis Saturday and Monday night, are they really professionals, though, in reality?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, SPORTS JOURNALIST: Yes, of course they're professionals, Al. Basketball is what they do. They don't choose a college. They choose a basketball department. They choose a basketball coach.

If you were to go into the locker rooms here and ask the scholarship players, the 45 scholarship players, what do you plan to do when you finish college -- note I didn't say graduate from college - the answer for 43, 44 of them would be, play basketball. There's nothing wrong with that. But when the NCAA insists on calling them student athletes, it's completely hypocritical because they are athletes, a few of whom try to be students.

HUNT: Well, if they are that, John, should they be paid? The NCAA just signed a $6 billion contract with CBS. Coaches get a lot of money. Schools get a lot of money. These kids get nothing. Should we pay them money?

FEINSTEIN: They should be paid, but not the way people are proposing through a stipend because trust me, college athletes have all the cash they need when they want to go out. Check out the cars in the parking lot sometimes. Check out the way they dress. They're fine.

But they should get some of this money. The way they should get it is through a trust fund set up so the day you graduate, you get your share of the trust fund. Now, the guys who are going to be millionaires in the NBA aren't going to care about $30, 40, $50,000, but 99 percent of the players aren't going to be millionaires in the NBA, and that money would have meaning for them and maybe you increase the graduation rate, which is currently 42 percent in Division I by giving these kids an incentive to graduate financially.

HUNT: Bob Novak, you and I share a love for this game, but John Feinstein really has a point. It's a real ruse to call them scholar- athletes, isn't it?

NOVAK: Well, who cares what you call them? John is a great sports writer, but he's a lefty in politics...

FEINSTEIN: Thank you for the compliment.

NOVAK: ... and he's all worried about what you call these people and the fact that they may not graduate. These are tremendous basketball players, many of them, if we didn't have this system, wouldn't go to college. They give tremendous pleasure to people like me and you, Al, and even to John to watch them. That's why I'm in Minneapolis wearing my Terrapin tie.

HUNT: Maryland Terrapin.

FEINSTEIN: I like the tie.

NOVAK: But John wrote a very good book, "The Last Amateurs," about the Patriot League, but people don't go out to see those players because they're not very good, and the dirty little secret is that a team in the Patriot league, Holy Cross, is giving scholarships. They won it this year. They're going to win it every year because they give scholarships. So, the last amateurs are losers.

HUNT: John, we'll come back to you in just a minute. Kate, you're on pins and needles, I know, about the NCAA tournament this year. What thoughts do you have?

O'BEIRNE: Well, Al, now that you have encouraged me to expend my repertoire by reading up on the professionalization of college sports, it does strike me that these young players are playing for commercial enterprise. They're not playing for old alma mater anymore, like the old movies use to have it, and it occurs to me, if they're not going to get an education, the system ought to reflect the fact that they're playing for a commercial enterprise and they at least ought to get paid.

I'm typically not in favor, as the mother of a college junior, of having college kids independently wealthy, but these are not college kids, and kids waiting for -- who have a trust fund waiting for them when they graduate also tend to be not the kind of students who most apply themselves. So, maybe they ought to get paid.

HUNT: Margaret Carlson, your thoughts.

CARLSON: Whatever happened to kids playing sports and competing and rooting for them when they're not seven feet tall and virtually professionals? I mean, these kids are now mercenaries.

HUNT: All these kids in Minneapolis?

CARLSON: A lot of the kids playing ball are just, you know, more or less hired to do so. They have what's called a college experience, because they're not really in college the way we think of it. They're in special dorms. They have special doing halls. They have tutors, if they're willing to go to them, and at the best basketball schools, the most successful ones, about 25 percent to 30 percent to graduate...

HUNT: Any exceptions?

CARLSON: ... and I blame it all on TV, actually. I mean, I think it's that TV has ruined this.

HUNT: John Feinstein, you wanted to pick up on this?

FEINSTEIN: You know what, well, everything that Kate and Margaret said is true. The problem is the college presidents, who are the only ones who can change the system, don't want to change the system. I was on a show last night with the president of the University of Florida, and he said, well, we need to cut back on the TV commercials. That's one way to cut back on the commercialization.

But you can't cut back on the TV commercials if you accept the $6 billion from CBS. You've got let them have their commercials to make the money back. The presidents don't want the system to change because the colleges are making huge money off of basketball. In fact, men's basketball funds all the other sports throughout most of the major colleges in this country.

(CROSSTALK)

HUNT: John, I agree with you, but doesn't the sports writing fraternity bear some blame, too? Not you, but some of your colleagues glorify people of, shall we say, questionable values, like Rick Pitino? The coaches are gods. It doesn't matter what their values are.

FEINSTEIN: We all -- I'm sorry, Bob. Go ahead.

NOVAK: There's such bleeding hearts. There's blood all over the place, here. I mean, who cares about that stuff? I'd like to know who is hurt by this system. I tell you who gains.

FEINSTEIN: The kids are hurt.

NOVAK: They're not hurt.

FEINSTEIN: Oh, absolutely. They end up with no education and no place to go after they're done with college because all they know is basketball, and if they can't make it in the pros, they look around and say where did everybody go who was telling me how great I was?

NOVAK: Wait a minute, let me get this in because I'd like to say most of these people would not have been in college in the first place. What college education -- I can give you so many people, some of them who didn't finish college who have a better life because of this system, and I tell you something else, I really enjoy it, and I resent you, Feinstein, trying to take my enjoyment away.

HUNT: Margaret Carlson has...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Bob, they're not in college anyway. It's not really college for them. Now, some schools do buck the trend, John. Look at Duke, where Battier has a 3.5 average and most of those students graduate and it's why they should beat the Maryland Terps.

HUNT: As a Duke alum, you wouldn't disagree with that, would you, John?

FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, Duke does a better job than most schools in that sense. But the fact is, Duke lowers its academic standards for basketball players, too. Shane Battier is the exception to the rule. He's held up.

You'll hear the TV announcers tonight talking about Shane Battier over and over and over again. You see, Bob would have enjoyed being in the Coliseum when the gladiators were out there, and that's what it's about for him, the pleasure of watching these kids, most of whom will be calling him saying, please give me a job some day.

HUNT: John Feinstein, I want to thank you for being with us, but let me tell you, I think you're going to be happy, my wife is going to be happy tonight. Bob, I'm afraid you're going to be sorry because I think the Duke Blue Devils are going to win it all. But we'll be back in just a minute...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HUNT: And now for the "Outrage of the Week." I was away last week, but I want to add my voice to those who so miss our colleague, Rowland Evans, especially the marvelous tributes from his partner Robert Novak. The powerful and the famous turned out to honor Rowlie last week. Equally impressive here at CNN was the effect he had on so many of the young and not yet famous. This son of a Maine line touched the lives of many diverse people, and I want to join them in saying we're going to miss him.

NOVAK: Thank you very much, Al.

Staffers on the Joint Tax Committee in the Republican-controlled Congress delivered a body blow to President Bush's call for the repeal of the death tax. They have estimated that the revenue loss from the repeal of the tax would be three times as much as the treasury's guesses.

That's because these people on the Joint Tax Committee have plugged into their computers the assumption that rich people would find new tax evasions to replace their evasion on the state tax if it were repealed. Now, these pointy-heads are the same people who cannot even come to realize that a tax cut would mean a positive gain in revenue. The outrage: Politicians who can't control their employees.

HUNT: Let's give some arsenic to those pointy-heads. Margaret, go ahead.

CARLSON: I'll miss Rowlie too, by the way. Actor Ben Stein must have scribbled his performance for the Radio and TV Correspondent's dinner Thursday night on the back of a napkin. He told stale priest and rabbi jokes, and even ridiculed the blind and the retarded. When the audience groaned, he scolded them.

His crowning moment was a joke in which John Hinckley is pardoned and learns that Jodie Foster is dating a talk show host. He did this joke on the 20th anniversary of that shooting at the very hotel where it happened. He should donate his substantial fee to Jim Brady, who is in a wheelchair thanks to that Hinckley guy he found so amusing.

HUNT: Kate. O'BEIRNE: The annual Jefferson Lecture is intended to provide a distinguished scholar a prestigious platform provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This week, the playwright Arthur Miller used the platform to slam Ronald Reagan, ridicule President Bush and adopt Terry McAuliffe's line on the presidential election.

Under the chairmanship of Clinton holdover William Ferris, this year's Jefferson Lecture was a political screed. What an outrage if the Bush administration doesn't replace Ferris with someone who will keep partisan politics out of the NEH.

HUNT: This is Al Hunt saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG. Tune in tonight at 8:30 eastern for "TAKE 5." "CNN TONIGHT" is up next.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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