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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Interview With Abdullah Abdullah; Interview With Senators Brown, Hatch, Nelson
Aired October 25, 2009 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KING: I'm John King and this is STATE OF THE UNION.
ABDULLAH: Let's give the people of Afghanistan another chance.
KING (voice-over): The political crisis in Afghanistan. Will a runoff election bolster support for President Obama's war of necessity? Presidential challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah shares his thoughts on corruption, the Taliban threat, and whether the United States needs to rush in more troops.
Then, delicate negotiations on health care, rising unemployment, and pressing foreign policy challenges. Get perspective from three leading senators from across the political spectrum: Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Then, our American Dispatch from Nebraska. The unemployment rate is half the national average and conversion of corn to ethanol one reason the farm economy is showing strength.
This is the STATE OF THE UNION report for Sunday, October 25th.
KING: We begin this Sunday with a man just about everyone predicts will lose an election being held two weeks from now half the world away from Washington in Afghanistan. Before you reach for the remote, take a close look at the enormous stakes. By the end of this year, there will be nearly 70,000 U.S. troops across Afghanistan, stationed, 23 battalions across the country like this.
And remember, right here last weekend, the White House chief of staff said it would be irresponsible of President Obama to decide whether to send thousands more troops onto this battlefield before he knew whether there was -- the presidential election there would produce a partner he could trust.
Let's take a look at that election. In the first round, the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, the official results gave him nearly 55 percent of the vote. His closest challenger is our guest today, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, he received half that, but the United Nations investigation found massive fraud, most of it benefiting President Karzai, knocked him down below to 50 percent. And then President Karzai last bowed to intense international pressure and agreed to that runoff. The stakes are enormous for the people of Afghanistan, for the U.S., and NATO troops risking their lives, and for a first-year president of the United States whose strongest supporters oppose sending more troops and whose most vocal critics accuse the commander-in-chief of dithering at a time they say he needs to be decisive.
KING: Dr. Abdullah, thank you for joining us on STATE OF THE UNION.
The runoff is fast approaching, scheduled for November 7th. And one question people have is, will it actually take place? There has been some talk of perhaps a negotiation, a power-sharing agreement between yourself and President Karzai.
Are there any active negotiations under way at this point?
ABDULLAH: Yes, first of all, I hope that it will -- going to take place on the November 7th. The people of Afghanistan should see the outcome of the runoff and get to work and see their government of choice in place. There isn't any procedures. There isn't any negotiations in that regard and we are all focused on the preparations for the runoff.
KING: In the last campaign, you obviously thought there was considerable fraud and you thought the government was complicit in some way in that fraud. President Karzai told our Fareed Zakaria this. He said, there were some mistakes, there were some incidents of fraud, but the election as a whole was clean and the result was clear. What do you think of that?
ABDULLAH: The -- to call this a clean election, I think this -- with all due respect to Mr. Karzai, this a bit -- a bit of ignorance, I should say. To say the least. This is like the fraud of the history. And unfortunately, the government was involved, IC was involved. That's according to everybody, international observers, UNAMA, elections complaints commission,the people of Afghanistan.
So to ignore it, just to deny is not the solution. Yes, it was a step forward that the people of Afghanistan participated in the elections, but it wasn't a service to the people to ignore the institutions, the rule of law, and come up with such a process.
But at the same time, one chapter is behind us. It led to the runoff. And we need to get it corrected in order to open the door for the new chapter. So denying it is not a solution, rather than admitting it and correcting it will be responsible leadership.
KING: Let's talk about some of those challenges going forward. You mentioned your concerns about fraud. And, obviously, the international community is hoping there will be a more clean election, this time. But the U.S. special envoy himself said on Friday: "I do not expect I will be able to eliminate fraud in two weeks' time. I think that is beyond the realm of what is possible in such a short time."
Are you worried we will have another contested, another, perhaps, corrupt election?
ABDULLAH: I am very concerned about this and I think I need to decide in the coming days on what to do about it. Of course, I'll come up with sets of measures and conditions. That's to clean it up as much as possible. But we are not going to take our nation through the same saga. Lives have been lost and international soldiers as well as our own national army and national police and security institutions have made sacrifices. ] People lost their fingers because Taliban had threatened to cut their fingers and they did so in some cases. Violence took place throughout the country. I lost many of my campaign people, campaign managers in people who have voted for me. So this is a serious, serious thing.
And if you think that we cannot exclude fraud this time around, so I do not want this upcoming opportunity to turn into another waste. So in that sense, I hope that together with the international community, we can come up with measures that ensures transparency and fairness of the elections.
KING: And what is your own sense of the situation, the level of tension, and the fear on the ground? For example, do you fear for your own safety in these final two weeks of campaigning?
ABDULLAH: It's not a secure environment, there's no doubt about it, but I don't spend a lot of time fearing about my own security. But I am worried and concerned about the security of our citizens, of our people. In some parts of the country, the war is going on, insurgency has taken root. And as a whole, the security situation is not good. So it is a major concern, security.
KING: Secretary of State Clinton was asked the other day about the runoff and she said that she fully expects it to happen on November 7th and she expects the incumbent, President Karzai, to win.
Listen to Secretary Clinton.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think one can conclude that the likelihood of him winning a second round is probably pretty high.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Is that helpful and is that proper for the United States to be out there publicly saying they believe President Karzai will win?
ABDULLAH: I think Secretary Clinton has talked about the likelihood, probability. And there were times that earlier, before the elections, before the campaign, the likelihood of Mr. Karzai winning an outright, absolute majority in the first round was being talked about. KING: President Karzai has been asked about the possibility of a negotiated settlement and he has said that that's simply not possible. He said it would have no legitimacy. But he also did tell our Fareed Zakaria that -- and it sounds like he means after the election, because of the confidence in his voice, but that he is more than willing down the road to invite you into a government. I want you to listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: If he wants to come and work in my government, he's most welcome. I'm known for consensus and building it, and (INAUDIBLE), and that's a good trademark.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Is he, Dr. Abdullah, known for consensus and coalition- building, and would you welcome a spot in a Karzai government should he win this election?
ABDULLAH: No, I think I left Mr. Karzai's government some three- and-a-half years ago. And since then, I have not been tempted to be part of that government. And my trust in becoming a candidate was not to be part of the same government and part of the same deteriorating situation.
Mine was for a change in this country. Mine was for bringing hopes for the people of this country and making the people of Afghanistan true participants in their politics, in the governance, in the developmental process, in the security situation, and as a whole.
So it's quite different from the criterias which Mr. Karzai has used that other people who are willing to join his government. So absolutely no interest in such a scenario. While at the same time, for the interest of my country, if Mr. Karzai is elected through a transparent and credible process, I will be the first person to congratulate him.
And wholeheartedly congratulate him and wish him well in this country in being the opposition and pursuing the agenda for change, which is changing the highly centralized presidential system into a parliamentary system, going for elected governors, having a truly independent election commission, independent judiciary, promoting the political parties, having the chance and opportunity for a credible group throughout the country and many other things, which is part of my agenda. I'll pursue this in an opposition, provided President Karzai is elected as a result of a transparent and credible process. This will be my hope.
KING: I'm going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we ask Dr. Abdullah about the strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan and whether he believes President Obama should send thousands more U.S. troops.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: Welcome back to "State of the Union." Let's continue our conversation now with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the challenger in Afghanistan's presidential run-off election. As this election goes forward, as we wait for the runoff, as you know, President Obama faces a monumental decision about sending more troops into Afghanistan. General McChrystal, the commanding U.S. general on the ground, has said the situation is deteriorating, and he believes the next 12 months are critical, critical to defeating the Taliban.
Do you share General McChrystal's assessment of the security situation, and do you believe that perhaps twenty, thirty or even forty thousand more U.S. troops are necessary in your country?
ABDULLAH: I do share Mr. -- General McChrystal's assessment. He's a military general, he's a professional person. He's known for his professional capabilities, and he knows Afghanistan also, very well.
But at the same time, this is one part of the strategy. Additional troops -- we should have been in a position eight years down the road not to call for more troops, but for lesser troops. We are not there. Why? Because of the failures of the current administration in Afghanistan. Any success for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will depend on the credibility of your partner, on the legitimacy of your partner.
So, hopefully, this runoff or the second round elections, whenever it takes place, will provide the United States and the international community with such a partner. There is no doubt that the partnership has not been working quite well in the past, in the past few months or few years. So, that one element missing, I don't see a successful strategy in Afghanistan.
One major element -- factor that I think this is the road ahead and I think -- the basic criteria has to be like when we do need more troops at this stage, how is it that we can draw down those troops down the line and then finally, Afghans take responsibility for their own security. Is that going to take place? What's the roadmap? What are the rules? And when one partner failing on its own mission, like what has been done in the past few years, I don't see a prospect for the strategy.
KING: Well --
ABDULLAH: Unfortunately. KING: ... you are very critical of President Karzai in the past and it seems that you have little faith that he could be that honest credible partner going forward, should he win run off. So what would your message to the American people be who are torn on this decision their President faces?
The American people are divided. In his own democratic party, most people are against sending more troops in Afghanistan. If President Karzai wins, are you saying it would be a mistake for the United States commander-in-chief to send more troops because he would not have a credible partner?
ABDULLAH: I think it's for the United States to make that judgment but everybody has the record of the past eight years. There was a golden opportunity that throughout the world. I remember as foreign minister and I was proud of that situation. That we used to enjoy bipartisan or multi-partisan support throughout the world. And that was in sending troops, more resources, diplomatic and political support. That golden opportunity we missed.
KING: Help me -- help me and help the American people further understand the security situation right now. We first met many years ago when you were the foreign minister and the Taliban -- the United States military gone in to kick out the Taliban -- to kick out Al- Qaeda.
What is the security situation now? How big of a threat is the Taliban in your country and how big of a threat is Al-Qaeda within the borders of your country?
ABDULLAH: The security situation is deteriorating unfortunately at this stage. And from three highways which leads -- four highways which leads to Kabul, or from Kabul to the -- leads to the rest of the country. Three are insecure, just 15 kilometers outside Kabul, in the outskirts of Kabul.
This is not the fault of the international community. I think there are major, major failures in domestic policies as well which has led to this. So, yes, mistakes have happened. But the security situation is not good. And I think it can be reversed; and still we have time.
Today, the whole project by the people of Afghanistan is not seen as such as their own. So, because there is, there is a highly centralized system, an incompetent system which cannot deliver to the people, that could be taken care of through the democratic process. Democratic process and credibility of it -- ignored today, it will cost us a lot. All of us.
KING: Some in the United States have accused the president of dithering, saying that the general on the ground in Afghanistan says he needs the troops, and because of the security situation, the president should act now and then deal with the results of your election.
Others have said, of course, he should wait to see who wins that runoff and who his partner will be in Afghanistan. Is the president undermining the safety of your country, the security of your country, and perhaps even the security of his own troops by waiting?
ABDULLAH: Well, I think to the extent that I can answer your question, John, it's -- if the president of the United States decides today that he is going to send troops, that doesn't mean that they are going to be here tomorrow. It takes months and months before these decisions are implemented.
So, I think it's perhaps right for the president of the United States to see what is, what is then -- that is which is undertaken. That by no chance means that hesitance in the decision. ABDULLAH: That's, I think, studying the situation in a critical time, so I think the president of the United States is doing the right thing.
KING: Well, based on your assessment of the Karzai record in the past and your doubts about his possibilities in the future, if President Karzai wins this runoff, if you were President Obama, would you send more troops to Afghanistan?
ABDULLAH: That's -- that's very -- that's very difficult. So I would rather put myself -- think about what will I do as Dr. Abdullah, here in Afghanistan, if Mr. Karzai's elected once again in the runoff.
KING: A diplomatic answer from the former foreign minister of Afghanistan. Dr. Abdullah, thank you so much for your time today.
ABDULLAH: You're welcome.
KING: Coming up, we go to Nebraska, Utah, and Ohio. Three senators with diverse views discuss Afghanistan and the big shifts in the health care debate here in Washington this past week. "State of the Union" will be right back.
KING: I'm John King and this is "State of the Union." Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. Terror in the streets of Baghdad after two powerful car bombs killed more than 130 people. Officials say the bombs went off in quick succession this morning near two Iraqi government buildings. More than 500 people were wounded.
President Obama has declared an emergency in Puerto Rico as a massive fire continues to rage at an oil storage facility outside San Juan. The president's emergency declaration will free up federal aid to the region. At least 1,500 people have had to evacuate as toxic smoke spreads throughout that area. The fire was triggered by an explosion Friday night.
Game six of the American League Championship series is tonight in New York. Mother Nature disappointed baseball fans yesterday raining out the Yankees versus Angels game. The Yankees lead that series three games to two heading into what could be a decisive game.
Those are your top stories here on "State of the Union."
Joining us now, Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. Gentlemen, I want to begin with the interview that we just heard, the challenger in the Afghan presidential election, pretty sober assessment. Abdullah Abdullah clearly has bias against President Karzai. He's running against him in the election.
But to you first, Senator Brown, does he have a point? His main point, as President Obama decides whether to send thousands of more troops and the White House says, the question is, do we have a credible partner? Is there any reason to believe another Karzai term would end the inefficiency, end the corruption, end the delays in getting the Afghan police and army up to speed?
BROWN: I was in Afghanistan about a month ago. In fact, literally a couple of days after the election, met with Dr. Abdullah, met with President Karzai.
The ambassador, all of us are very concerned about corruption in that government. That's why as Dr. Abdullah pointed out, it's been eight years of mismanagement with President Karzai and eight years of loss of focus from the Americans as we put all of our efforts, the previous administration put all of its efforts into Iraq.
Those questions remain to be answered. That's why the president needs time in making this decision. The president is going to watch on how this election was conducted. We know there was massive fraud in the first election. This runoff, we hope, is significantly better. I think international observers have learned some things.
But it's -- it's frankly, too early to tell. But that's why the president needs the time he is taking, listening to advisers, talking to Abdullah and Karzai and all that he needs to do to make this decision in the most sobering way possible.
KING: But Senator Nelson, in a perfect world or a close to perfect world, let's assume the election goes well and there is significantly less fraud.
The question is, would a new Karzai term bring a new Karzai? And if not, and if you have more corruption and what most people believe just incompetence, getting the Afghan army and the Afghan police up to speed, a high attrition rate, is it worth the risk to American lives to send 10,000, 20,000, maybe 40,000 more American troops?
NELSON: Well, I think that's a serious question that needs to be answered. I don't think we're going to know until the election occurs, but I think we should start off with the premise that when the Afghan people speak without fraud in the election, that that will establish some legitimacy for the Karzai administration.
I think we have to continue to work with them, that administration, to root out all that corruption and help them bring about an efficient government in the delivery of the services to the people as well as the security. This has to be a partnership. There's no question about it. When we have that many American troops stationed there, fighting there, and unfortunately, dying there. KING: Senator Hatch, this might sound like an odd question, but does it matter who the government of Afghanistan is? Whether the government of Afghanistan is corrupt or not? If the enemy is the Taliban and al Qaeda, is the mission of the United States almost despite the failings of the Afghan government to do the mission?
HATCH: Well actually, we have to worry about corruption, but we also have to work with whoever is put in there and whoever is put in there, you're going to find some corruption. The fact of the matter is, I think we ought to rely on the hand-picked general by President Obama, General McChrystal, who has said, we've got to have more troops there. At the height of our counterinsurgency in Iraq, we had 150,000 troops, here we have 68,000 troops. And even Great Britain and England admitted they had to do more because they increased their troops by 5 percent. Now they're not as large a group as ours, naturally, but the fact of the matter is if we don't support General McChrystal, and in the end, the president, I understand why these are tough decisions, but I think it's taken too long and some people have been hypercritical in suggesting that he's waiting until after this election because they have some tough governorships up for election. I hope that's not the case.
KING: Well let's follow up on that point. Senator Brown says he needs this time. Senator Hatch says it's time to make this decision. Let me add in here, you're all familiar with this, the former vice president, Dick Cheney, a scathing review of the current commander-in- chief, President Obama in a speech last week, saying he's not being decisive. In fact, Mr. Cheney says he's dithering. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Having announced his Afghanistan strategy in March, President Obama now seems afraid to make a decision and unable to provide his commander on the ground with the troops he needs to complete the mission. The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Senator Hatch, you just said you thought it was time to make the decision. Do you go as far as the former vice president?
KING: Is our commander-in-chief dithering?
HATCH: Well, I would never want to call my president dithering. And I know it's a tough position that he's in, but why not follow the advice of all of his generals and especially General McChrystal? He hand-picked him and McChrystal is one of the best there is. He and Petraeus set up -- they're the masters of counterinsurgency. They need these troops, there's no question about it.
And we're exposing our young men and women over there -- a number of them have been killed, I'm not blaming the president for that, but we're exposing them without the proper help that they've just got to have.
And I think it's -- I think it's a mistake to continue to just not make this decision when you have the best people on the ground who are living with that problem every day, saying, we've got to have more people over here if we want a counterinsurgency that's going to work.
And when you've had some progress like in the Helmand River Valley, where, you know, they went in there, that was a huge Taliban stronghold. We went in there, did counterinsurgency. Today, the people are happy. They're raising crops, we're building roads. They're -- the Taliban are no longer there. And we could do that throughout that country if we would follow the advice of the generals who are right there on the ground, risking their lives and risking our young men and women's lives over there.
KING: Senator Brown, Senator Hatch just put on the table the prospect that maybe the commander-in-chief is delaying this decision until after some very tough elections a week from Tuesday in this country. Do you believe there's any possibly of that?
BROWN: I think that's outrageous to claim that the president of the United -- and I know Senator Hatch didn't exactly claim it, he said...
HATCH: No, I didn't say it.
BROWN: ... some others, some others claim it, but pointed out nonetheless it's outrageous that any partisan -- that partisans in this country would say that the president of the United States is waiting on two governors' races, in New Jersey and in Virginia, to make a decision in Afghanistan. Look, to listen to Dick Cheney, who was the mastermind of the most failed decade of foreign policy that this country has had in -- at least in my political lifetime, perhaps my whole lifetime, perhaps my parents' lifetime too, I mean, to listen to him when he talked about dithering, when their mistake was to attack Iraq and lose sight of Afghanistan, as President Abdullah -- I'm sorry, as Dr. Abdullah, presidential candidate Abdullah said, that eight years of failure of Karzai implicitly is also eight years of failure by dithering by that administration. So just take Dick Cheney's advice off the table.
But one thing that's important, Secretary Gates, the secretary of defense, has gone to Slovenia to meet with ministers, defense ministers of NATO countries. We want to do this right. We should move deliberatively. We should move in a way that the president is doing by making this decision the right way.
We want to line up our NATO allies, which we have not been able to do for most of this decade before we make this decision. The president is doing it right, I think, waiting until the -- not the Virginia and New Jersey election, but waiting until the election in Kabul and in the Helmand province and in Kandahar is the right way to go.
KING: Let me shift subjects, gentlemen. I want to discuss health care in our next block But before we take a quick break, I want to discuss this story. This is the front page of Senator Hatch's paper this morning in Salt Lake: "Thousands seek H1N1 vaccine," stories like this are on front pages all across the country.
I want to ask you -- each of you, and start with you, Senator Nelson, about the government's preparations here. They ordered 30 million doses. They're now behind in getting them ready. Does it alarm you, does it say something about the state of our government preparedness to react when the government itself said, this is a big deal, and they said, we're going to rush these vaccines, but in each of your states, they don't have what they ordered and it could be some time?
NELSON: Well, I think everybody is concerned about making certain that the vaccines arrive in the states. I don't know that it says as much about the government as it says about the size or the challenge that's there for the government. That once you say, let's go, there's still a lag of time that you're going to experience.
So I think they're making every move possible. I'm not hearing a lot of criticism about the government's role in this. I think it's a better indication that this is a monumental challenge and the monumental challenge is being met. It's just -- there's a longer period of time associated with it than anybody might have expected.
That's nothing unusual about delays. It's just unfortunate, given the fact that this is so critically important to get the vaccine to the young people and the older people as soon as possible. And I know they're doing everything that they possibly can.
KING: You share that assessment, Senator Hatch? They're doing everything they can?
HATCH: Well, I think they really are. And look, it's a terrible problem. We have a lot of problems right out here in Utah and we're very concerned about it. A lot of people are afraid to take the vaccine because of the lack of knowledge about it.
But you know, I think the government is doing everything they possibly can, and the Centers for Disease Control. It doesn't appear to be as virulent as they thought it was, but we have a number of cases here in Utah that have been pretty serious.
KING: We're going to work in a quick break. When we come back, all three of our senators on the fascinating debate here in Washington over health care and how changes passed here might affect you. Stay with us.
KING: We're back with Democratic senators Ben Nelson and Sherrod Brown and Republican Orrin Hatch. Big policy decisions being made in the health care debate and the politics are getting pretty bruising.
Senator Nelson, on your television set today in Nebraska, you will see an ad by a group, the Americans for Tax Reform. They say you signed an anti-tax pledge back in 2006, and that if you support the Democratic health care proposals, you will be breaking that promise to the voters of Nebraska.
Let's listen to a snippet of this ad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only senator in his party to stand with taxpayers and take the pledge, no tax increases, Senator Ben Nelson. But now others in Congress want hundreds of billions in new health care taxes. (END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: You had a conversation, Senator Nelson, with your leader, the majority leader, on Friday. He needs your vote to get to the magic number of 60 in the Senate on procedural issues. You have raised serious concerns about the public option.
If there is a vote and Harry Reid needs 60, have you promised him, even if you disagree with the proposal and might vote no on the proposal, you would give him your vote on the procedural issue?
NELSON: I have made to promise. I can't decide about the procedural vote until I see the underlying bill. It would be, I think, reckless to say I'll support the procedure without knowing what the underlying bill consists of. And it's not put together yet. It's a draft -- it will be a draft bill some time next week, submitted the Congressional Budget Office for the review of the cost.
And until I've seen a completed draft... KING: Well, let me -- let me jump in, can you support...
NELSON: ... I'm not going to...
KING: Can you support a public option where states could opt out so there is a public option in the federal legislation, or will you only support a public option where the state would have to opt in, so there is not a national program already created?
NELSON: Well, I certainly am not excited about a public option where states would opt out or a robust, as they call it, robust government-run insurance plan. I'll take a look at the one where states could opt in if they make the decision themselves. Look, I'm a Jeffersonian Democrat. I think the states can make decisions on their own about their own citizen. And so I certainly would look at that. But I'm not sure where this is going. I don't think we know at this point in time. So I don't think I can make any decision about anything until I've seen everything.
KING: Senator Brown, let me come to you. A big state, health care's a huge issue. I'm wondering if you share the frustration that many progressives on the House side share when they're told, well, the White House is pushing this idea of a trigger, maybe, because they want to keep Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, the one Republican that has backed it in the Senate so far. There are many who have said, this is the United States of America, not the United States of Maine. Does the White House have the calculation wrong here?
BROWN: Well, I'll answer the question about the trigger first. The trigger says, let's give the insurance companies two more years after they've had five decades since World War II to do things right. They continue their practices of pre-existing condition. You know, reports recently that a woman has a C-section, by some insurance companies, will be denied care because that's considered a pre- existing condition. A woman that's been a victim of domestic violence, that's considered a pre-existing condition because her husband or boyfriend or whomever is more likely to hit her again. I mean, the insurance companies have had their chance to do this right. We need the public option now. We need it in large part because it will inject competition into places where they don't have it. In southwest Ohio in my state, two insurance companies have 85 percent of the market. They need more competition to discipline those companies, to make them more honest, to bring prices down.
That's why the trigger simply doesn't work. We don't give the insurance companies two more years or three more years to get their act together. They've had their chance. We need -- I'm fine with the state opt out. If Nebraska or Utah doesn't want to do the public option, their governor and legislature can pass a law saying, we're not going to give our citizens that right to have a public option.
KING: Is that a line in the sand for you? Many have said you might lose Olympia Snowe if you don't have a trigger. Will they lose Sherrod Brown if you do have a trigger? BROWN: No, I don't draw lines in the sand. I've gotten a lot of pressure from progressives saying, draw a line in the sand. I don't want to do that. I want to get the best bill possible. But I see that the public overwhelmingly wants a public option. Seventy percent of physicians according to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation want a public option. At least 52 or 3 or 4 Democratic senators have said they want a strong public option, according to Tom Harkin, the chairman of the committee. I think that's the best thing for our country.
KING: Well Senator Hatch, come in on this, because you hear these two Democrats making their case for health care reform and what they hear from Republicans is no public option. These two disagree, perhaps on exactly how to do it, but they're both open to some proposal. I want to show the front page of "The New York Times." Small business faces sharp rise in health care costs. The story goes on to say, insurance brokers and benefits consultants say their small business clients are seeing premiums go up an average of about 15 percent, double the rate of last year's increase. That means the annual premium that was $4,500 per employee in 2008 and $4,800 this year would rise to $5,500 in 2010. If, Senator Hatch, there can be in your view no public option, that's too much of a government role in this, what is the Republican answer to force the insurance companies to bring down rates?
HATCH: First of all, we know that Medicare, for instance, was enacted in 1965, that's a public option. Today, it's $38 trillion in unfunded liability. Medicaid is going broke within the next 10 years. We know that if the Democrats get 60 votes in the Senate, we're going to have a public option.
It may not be called that and they may call it an opt-out, but I guarantee you the process will go there. And why? Because they're going to have this in bill that they're going to cover people, 133 percent of the poverty level. And that's, like I say, that's 33 percent above New York's current expenditure. It's almost double what our expenditure is in Utah.
If that happens and states can't live with it, you're going to have a fiasco on your hands. So this vote to stop 60 votes in the Senate is really crucial. Now Republicans, we have six various plans. I agree with those who say that the states can solve their problems better than the federal government. Anybody who believes that this 1,500-page bill -- by the way, Hillary care was only 1,300 pages. That gives you some idea. That's just the bill out of the Finance Committee. Anybody that believes that's not going to raise taxes, not increase the deficit, and not affect our benefits, that's why the American people are so concerned.
They know that if the federal government takes over this, we're all going to be in trouble and it all comes down to whether or not we can stop them from getting 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans would like 50 state laboratories, 50 states working on these things with yes, the help from the federal government and doing it in accordance with the needs of those states. If we did that, I think you'd find a really good health care system that would incrementally grow, be better, save costs, save -- bring down insurance premiums from where they are going to go if we don't. And I have to say, you know, stop the federal government from taking over everything in our lives.
KING: Let me ask the two Democrats quickly in closing, after hearing that, Senator Hatch's impassioned case, Senator Brown, to you first, and quickly, please. Do you care about having a Republican vote on this bill or do you just want to get the bill?
BROWN: I would love to see Republicans' votes. On the Health Committee, on which Senator Hatch and I sit, we accepted 160 Republican amendments, a couple dozen from Senator Hatch that I think improves the bill. So it comes down to philosophically, and you can hear that in Orrin's comments, that Orrin and his party don't like much Medicare.
HATCH: We love Medicare. We don't like the way it's run.
BROWN: He talked about the $38 trillion which is really a myth of unfunded liability. The fact is, Medicare works, government can play a positive role. Medicare has 3 or 4 percent overhead, administrative expenses. Private insurance has 20 to 30 percent.
So the public option is just going to keep the insurance companies more honest, it's going to help bring prices down. It's an option. You can choose Aetna or Cigna, you can choose a company just down the street from me, Medical Mutual if you live in Cleveland or Akron, but you can also choose the public option, just an option, that's all we're asking.
KING: Senator Nelson, very quickly, you're from a conservative state. Can you vote for this bill if you don't have, what I'll call, Republican cover?
NELSON: Well, I've said, I think essentially what the late Senator Pat Moynihan said that any landmark legislation ought to have about two-thirds of the Senate. When I said that, that obviously means that I think it ought to have bipartisan support. And I think if you go with a state-based public option, you can get bipartisan support. I think we're all more comfortable, the people will be more comfortable if the states are engaged in taking care of the situation, recognizing that Utah's problems and California's problems are different than Nebraska's problems.
KING: Gentleman, we thank you all for coming in today. Senator Hatch, Senator Brown, Senator Nelson, thank you very much. We'll have you back another time, I promise you.
Up next, this week's "American Dispatch" from Nebraska's fertile farmlands. The economy there doing incredibly well thanks in part to crops that end up in your gas tank, not on your dinner table.
KING: As you know, in our travels, we often take a look at the state of the economy. Look at the map here. The brighter the state, yellow, for example, 15.2 percent unemployment in the state of Michigan. These darker states, they are the lowest rates in the country. And we went out to one of them this week. Our 41st state was Nebraska this week, a farm economy.
If you look at the map, the farm states tend to be doing better. In Nebraska, they say one of the reasons is because they have a market for their corn and ethanol. Nebraska is number two among the top 10 ethanol-producing states.
Of course, they care about the health care debate in Nebraska, and about the economy. In our "American Dispatch" this week, we learned the biggest immediate worry in the small Nebraska farm towns is a wet spell slowing the fall harvest that drives the state economy.
KING (voice-over): The trucks roll in all day, stopping over the giant grates and dumping their golden cargo: Nebraska corn. Tested for moisture and density, then sent here, 50 hours and one of seven mash tanks, Advanced BioEnergy plant manager Grant Johanson says each holds 800,000 gallons.
GRANT JOHANSON, PLANT MANAGER, ADVANCED BIOENERGY: It's probably about 12 hours from the finished product. It could be. Yes, just took -- we were ready to empty this right now.
KING: The finished product is corn-based ethanol.
(on camera): Three hundred thousand gallons a day, what does that get you over the course of a year?
JOHANSON: One hundred million gallons a year of finished denatured (ph) ethanol.
KING (voice-over): Plus this...
JOHANSON: This is dry distiller's grain. This is a byproduct of ethanol production. It's used locally for cattle feed, a very excellent source for cattle feeders in the area, and it's very high protein, good fat source. KING: Trains take the ethanol off to be blended into gasoline. The distillers' grain is shipped out cattle farms in giant truckloads. It all adds up to 45 jobs here and more than 1,000 total in ethanol plants across Nebraska.
JOHANSON: Greatly improved here the last four runs, you know, we went through 12, 18 pretty challenging months in the ethanol industry, but it's greatly improved. It's a good business to be in right now.
KING: The ethanol business is not without controversy. Some critics don't like the generous federal subsidies, others complain there are better energy sources and that corn should be grown for food, not fuel.
But here, the industry means jobs and University of Nebraska ag economist Dick Perrin says, a better bottom line for farmers.
DICK PERRIN, AGRICULTURAL ECONOMIST, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA: Corn and soybean prices, which are the main crop here, are up probably 50 percent compared to what they were before the ethanol boom started in roughly 2003, 2004.
Perrin says world population growth and advances in other alternative fuels will diminish the case for corn-based ethanol eventually.
PERRIN: It's not a big fuel, but I think it's an important fuel in this bridging period until we find other kinds of technologies that will give us the energy supply that we need. But I think it's going to be a bridge for 20 years, probably.
KING: At the moment, Jeff Shaner is more worried about the next 20 days. His family owns 40 acres and leases 5,000, and wet weather is complicating the harvest, too often, lately, idling this massive 12-road combine.
When they can harvest, this corn heads to an ethanol plant 10 miles up the road. A dependable market Jeff and his father Neale Shaner say makes all the difference.
NEALE SHANER, NEALE FARMS: There's a constant demand for corn right here.
KING (on camera): How much different would your business be if there was no ethanol?
JEFF SHANER, OWNER, NEALE FARMS: It would be dramatic. You would easily take 10 to 15 percent off of the top end.
KING (voice-over): To work a family farm for generations is to know the highs are often followed by punishing lows.
N. SHANER: One thing is certain and that's uncertainty.
KING: So as they enjoy the relative stability the ethanol market brings now, the Shaners know it won't last. N. SHANER: It's like all things. Technology will produce something better, but for right now it's the best we've got.
J. SHANER: And the food versus fuel argument is, you know, it's not my decision, it's a market decision. I do what I have to do in order to support my family, support my employees so that they can support their families. And so my products get sold to the person who can pay you the most for them. In five years, the market I'm being -- if the market is telling me to grow switch grass,we'll grow switch grass.
Whether it be corn or soybeans or whatever the case may be, I just hope I'm flexible enough to realize it and change to what needs to be done in order to be successful.
KING: I'm John King and this is STATE OF THE UNION.
KING (voice-over): Two weeks and no end in sight to the war between the White House and FOX News. Will other journalists ultimately be the ones who force a cease-fire?
KING: Plus, journalists fell for a phony news conference, just days after getting taken for a ride by Balloon Boy. Is it just a byproduct of a non-stop news cycle, or is the media's vetting process in need of an overhaul?
In this hour on STATE OF THE UNION, Howard Kurtz, as always, breaks it down with his "Reliable Sources."