Gloria Borger, U.S. News & World Report: Today on Face The Nation, what can Congress do before the election? Plus, religion on the campaign trail. With only two months before the November elections, Congress is in a rush to get something done. What does the White House want? Patients' bill of rights, an increase in the minimum wage? Is there room for compromise with Republicans? We'll ask President Clinton's point man, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. Then we'll turn to the campaign and talk about religion and politics. Vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman is being criticized for talking about his faith too much on the stump. Just what is too much? And why the emphasis on religion in this year's campaign? We'll ask Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, conservative activist Bill Bennett and historian Douglas Brinkley. But first, the president's priorities on Face The Nation.
Announcer: Now from Washington, substituting for Bob Schieffer, CBS News Special Correspondent, Gloria Borger.
Gloria Borger, U.S. News & World Report: Good morning. Joining thus morning here in the studio is White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. Thanks for coming here out this Labor Day weekend. We are heading into the home stretch now in Congress. We are also heading into the home stretch in the presidential election. The president wants to cement his legacy. Congressional Democrats and Republicans want to get reelected. Can you tell us now what is the president's number one legislative priority these next couple of months?
John Podesta, White House Chief of Staff: Well, Gloria, I don't think it's as simple as that. I think we've got quite a long list of things we're trying to accomplish. The reason the list is so long is because so little has been done.
Borger: If he could do one thing?
Podesta: Well, let me start by saying the one thing I think we're certain to do is continue this path of fiscal responsibility that has brought us and investing in people and technology that's brought such great economic progress to this country. I think then I go down the list. I think we want to raise the minimum wage. The president said that in his radio address yesterday, and I think we'll do that. I make a prediction we'll get that done. We want to pass a strong patients' bill of rights, a prescription drug benefit, the China trade bill stalled in the Senate. There is a long list.
Borger: Let's go down the list in a minute, but first I want to ask you about what the Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, said about your agenda. He said your agenda is "engineering a train wreck in order to make the political environment good for Al Gore come November." How do you respond to that?
Podesta: I think he has a short memory. It was the Republicans who shut the government down back in 1995, noPresident Clinton. President Clinton has no intention of having a train wreck. I think ... look, we'll sit here and we'll work right up to the election to get the important priorities done for the American people. But we don't want to see the government shutdown. Remember, that was their game, but not ours.
Borger: You're say there go is zero percent chance of a shutdown?
Podesta: What we want to do we'll do with the Republican leaders - in the short-term, continuing resolutions, stay and work on the priorities. They have not passed 11 of the 13 appropriations bills. They haven't passed the patients' bill of rights or the minimum wage or Medicare.
Borger: Let's get to the issues.
Podesta: We have a lot of work to do.
Borger: First of all, minimum wage. You said it is going to happen.
Podesta: I think it will happen.
Borger: Yesterday, the president said that he wants that to be his first order of business. The Republican speaker Dennis Hastert said there is a way to compromise here. He'll give you your dollar increase raising the minimum wage to $6.15, if you give him some more money for small businesses to offset what it would cost them. Will you work that compromise?
Podesta: Well, again, they've been talking and debating and stalling, but they finally ... I think at least some of the leaders and you mentioned Speaker Hastert, who sent a letter to the president and the president and the speaker talked about that when they went to Columbia on this trip this week. I think we have some particular problems with the package that he put on the table with regard to the tax cuts and most particularly with regard to the weakening of some of the overtime protections in current law. But we agreed we would come ... come Tuesday, we would sit down with the experts on the matter and work out a compromise to pass the minimum wage as the first order of business. I think we'll do that. We haven't heard from the Senate leadership, but I think they'll be agreeable to the scaled back. I think we will.
Borger: $76 billion you'll scale it back.
Podesta: We have a problem with some of the particulars on the table and with the overtime protections ...
Borger: Let's go through some other issues. The estate tax. The president last week vetoed this Republican version of the repeal of the so-called "death tax." The Republicans say they want to override that veto. 65 Democrats voted with Republicans on this measure. Can they override the president?
Podesta: I think that veto will be sustained, certainly in the Senate and I think in the House because the bill is a bad bill for America. Over half of the $750 billion that that bill cost in the second ten years goes to 3,000 families. That's a $7 million tax cut per family as opposed to all the other tax cuts targeted to middle class which the president has proposed like dducting college tuition, providing for long-term care tax credit. We could come together and make agreement on tax cuts if they're targeted and oriented to the middle class.
Borger: How about prescription drug benefits for the elderly? Is there a possible deal workable there? The president has proposed ...
Podesta: As you know, the House has passed a bill for a very close partisan vote we don't think will work. It leaves half the people without a prescription drug benefit out. It's an insurance-based program we don't think will work. Next week or the week thereafter, I think Senator Roth and the Senate Finance Committee will work up a Medicare prescription drug plan. That's a step in the right direction. That's what we think needs to happen. I know that Governor Bush is going to put his program on. We don't know the details of it. Sounds like he is going back to where the House is, you know that will be a mistake. That won't work. Insurance companies say it won't work. At least half the ... it leaves half the people out. It costs more and gives less. So I think that ... But we're going to continue to fight for this.
Borger: What you're hearing about Governor Bush's plan is that it means it is not viable as far as ...
Podesta: We don't think it's viable as a prescription drug benefit. We think again it's based on an insurance model the insurance company said won't work.
Borger: Do you have the votes for patients' bill of rights, HMO reform?
Podesta: We have gotten our 50 vote with Zell Miller coming into the Senate after the unfortunate death of Senator Coverdell. We have a 50-50 tie. I think the vice president would like to cast the tie breaking vote to have a real patients' bill of rights that does not leave people out like the Senate plan did. As long as we have a strong bill that's based on the Norwood-Dingel bill that passed the House. I think we could come together and pass a patients' bill of rights bill, one of our top priorities.
Borger: Let's talk about the campaign for a moment. There's been a lot of discussion about President Clinton's role in this campaign, how active he should be out there campaigning for Al Gore? How do you see it?
Podesta: I think we'll continue to go out and raise funds for the party and congressional candidates. He has been asked to campaign to some extent with some congressional candidates. But as the president said during the convention week, it's time for Al Gore to be on the stage and for Bill Clinton to be off the stage. I think Al Gore is doing a great job out there explaining to the people exactly what he wants to do for this country. I don't think he needs our help do it. I think the president is going to concentrate on the work that needs to be done in the congress and raising funds for the party and for congressional candidates around the country.
Borger: The person who seems o be taking on the president most directly in this campaign is vice presidential candidate, Dick Cheney. As you know, he has accused the president of "running down the military." He says the military is overused and underresourced and suffered from eight years of neglect. How do you respond to that?
Podesta: I think he has a short memory. During the Bush administration, they cut in real dollar terms the military budget by $76 billion. We slowed the cut and reversed it and have had 6-percent real growth. I think he should be asked because he seems to be debating his presidential candidate about where he would pull troops out of. Would he pull them out of Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq? where they left Saddam Hussein sitting in Baghdad with 20,000 troops in Iraq? But I don't think he is suggesting we should stop trying to contain Saddam Hussein. So I think that if you look at this, three out of the four services have a "most ready" rating that's higher than the one we inherited from the Bush administration. I think that when all is said and done, this is a matter that should not be politicized. I think the president has done a good job in keeping the forces ready and well-trained.
Borger: We have to leave it there. Thank you very much for being with us today, Mr. Podesta. When we come back, we'll talk about religion and politics in a moment.
Borger: With us now from New York is Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. In Washington is Bill Bennett of Empower America. And from Los Angeles, presidential historian Doug Brinkley. First let me go to you, Mr. Foxman. Senator Joe Lieberman has come under an awful lot of criticism lately for being a bit too vocal about his faith on the campaign trail. This past week he said, and let me quote to you the American people should "renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose." Mr. Foxman, you wrote a letter to Mr. Lieberman asking him to refrain from what you called overt expressions of religious values and beliefs. You say it's hawking religion. Why shouldn't Joe Lieberman be allowed to tell
us who he is?
Abraham Foxman, Anti-Defamation League: Well, there's no question that he should tell us who he is. And he has told us who he is and what he's all about and I also happen to be an observant traditional Jew and I welcome with pride the fact of him telling the world about his faith. But it is a matter of degree. And what has begun to happen is that faith has been brought into the political arena, into the policy ... public policy arena. That's not really where it ... where it belongs.
Borger: Bill Bennett, let me go to you. Joe Lieberman also said that "morality cannot be maintained without religion." He later struggled to explain that statement. Does that cross the line a little bit?
Bill Bennett, Empower America: That ws actually George Washington who said that. And Joe Lieberman was piggybacking on George Washington. I salute Joe Lieberman for his consistency. He does this very often when public officials talk about religion. But I think this is nevertheless part of the American tradition. Abe Foxman said the Anti-Defamation League ... I do not think there is defamation what Joe Lieberman is doing in terms of hawking religion. I'll tell you, if you need to choose the things about which you want to object, there is an awful lot to object to in American society. There is a lot of stuff said put out, out on the air and in radio and music, which is more damaging than Joe Lieberman's professions of his faith. Our kids are not really being overcome by piety. This is not the major problem some American life right now.
Borger: Let me go to Doug Brinkley. So far in the campaign, Al Gore says what he gets in a tough position, he asks what Jesus would do. And Governor Bush said his favorite philosopher is Jesus and Joe Lieberman is talking about his faith. Is this unusual?
Douglas Brinkley, historian: I don't think it's unusual. Faith and politics have always been mixed in America. All we have to do is grab a piece of currency and look at a one dollar bill or five dollar bill and it says "In God We Trust" in our money. If you walk into the Supreme Court, you see behind where the Chief Justice sits on the wall an engraving of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural mentioned 'God' 14 times. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, who is a born-again Christian, raised some of the same questions that Senator Lieberman's commitment, you know, what he is saying about faith. I do think what is different right now is that last statement, that George Washington quote. I think the Anti-Defamation League is correct to point out that that line goes over it because what it really says is that nine out of ten Americans believe in God, but that one-tenth that doesn't somehow could never be moral. I think that's a mistake. And I think Senator Lieberman should not have used that quote.
Bennett: That's not what Washington said. That assumes one interpretation of what Washington said. It's like saying the United States depends upon industry and frugality. That doesn't mean people who aren't industrious or frugal aren't Americans. It means by and large one needs industry and frugality. Washington meant we need the people to be religious. Not every single one needs to be. Washington addressed his letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport and said none should be afraid. What he was saying is what Adam said, what Roosevelt has said, and Tocqueville said - which is without religion among the people in general, without a strong religious base, we may lose our morality. I think that's right.
Brinkley: George Washington was also a slaveholder. There are many times Washington has ... Washington has mny great quotes, but that's not one I think that plays well in 2000.
Borger: Let me let Mr. Foxman in here. Do you believe that you cheapen religion by bringing it into this kind of a political discussion?
Foxman: Yes. First let me say it is a matter of degree. Almost every president or vice president went to church on Sunday. Jimmy Carter, probably the most pious of presidents, taught Sunday School. But he never wore it on his sleeve. In his inaugural address, he spoke about God once. We had two candidates, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Pat Robertson, ran for presidential office and they, too, spoke primarily about issues and not about faith. I think that once you begin preaching from the pulpit of a campaign, you are cheapening religion in that what happens is that, "Vote for me, because I'm holier than thou. Vote for me, because I embrace God more." We're seeing it as you indicated. We've heard it from Governor Bush when he talked about his political philosophy being Jesus Christ. We heard it from vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney this week. Tolerance in this country should be modeled after Jesus Christ's tolerance. We heard it from Vice President Gore when he talked about that he would govern based on the concept of what would Jesus do. And we heard it in terms of issues of morality now from vice presidential candidate Lieberman. That is an intensity and degree which we haven't heard for a while. And we think that it will cheapen religion and hurt religion rather than enhance it.
Borger: Bill Bennett, let me ask you whether you believe that, in fact, a political calculation has been made in all of this by the Gore campaign that somewhere people are sitting around in a room and saying, "Gee, let's have Joe Lieberman talk about religion, because it might help us with Southern conservatives."
Bennett: Yeah, sure.
Borger: Or Reagan Democrats.
Bennett: I'm sure it has. Look, as I know Joe Lieberman, it was natural for him to speak this way.
Borger: Has he always talked this much about religion? You know him.
Bennett: Mr. Foxman said he hasn't with his acquaintance. My knowledge of Joe Lieberman, we've worked together for seven years on Hollywood and other issues, religious persecution. I don't think there has been an occasion where Joe has not spoken about things religious and made reference to his faith. But as natural as that is to him, I think the political calculation is the most natural thing to the Gore campaign. I'm sure they're seeing how this is playing and saying, 'Stay at it, Joe.' That I object to. That's the cynical use of religion. I would object to it for a Republican or Democrat.
Borger: Will it work?
Bennett: It may work. That doesn't mean that Joe Lieberman doesn't have convictions. What they're doing is using Joe Lieberman's convictions in a cynical way. There I agre with Abe Foxman.
Borger: Is this what happens following a scandal, Doug Brinkley? Are we in the post-Clinton era where Joe Lieberman is becoming Al Gore's character witness?
Brinkley: Well, I think ... I mean what a great weekend there is for Al Gore and Lieberman. They're 10-percent ahead in the Newsweek poll and here we are on Sunday talking about the morality - (that) there is too much morality in the Gore-Lieberman campaign, instead of a Buddhist Temple scandal or White House coffees. I think the closest historical analysis has to be 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran as a born-again Christian in the wake of Watergate and Nixon's demise and with the Clinton scandals, it is good politics for Gore and Lieberman to ... Or for Gore to use Lieberman as a morality stalking horse.
Bennett: It's even better and I'm here defending Joe Lieberman - and I'm a Republican.
Foxman: When Jimmy Carter campaigned, it was a time of moral crisis. Did not flaunt his religiousness. Both parties in this election season, all the candidates have talked and projected themselves into terms of inclusion, how pluralistic they are. And yet when you talk on a campaign stump, you exclude, you exclude those who don't embrace the Judeo-Christian religion and those who don't accept religion and are atheist. At a time where we're a kaleidoscope of religions and faiths and beliefs, to harp on the specifics of these issues is exclusive rather than inclusive.
Borger: Mr. Bennett, let me ask you whether there is a double standard here. Some Christian conservatives who are defending Joe Lieberman say in fact while he has got some criticism, most notably from Mr. Foxman's organization, he has not gotten as much criticism talking about his own spirituality as say Christian conservatives do when they talk about theirs?
Bennett: That's indisputable. Empircally, that's demonstrable. When you see Pat Robertson speak out, you see a hailstorm of criticism. I salute Abe Foxman. He has been consistent. He is overreacting, but he has been consistent. You're absolutely right there. There is very little criticism of Joe and there has been a lot of criticism when Christians speak out. Joe Lieberman needs to be careful. He said the other day, "I think 'Honor thy father and thy mother' requires prescription drugs."
Borger: Is that mixing religion and politics too much?
Bennett: It sure is. My copy of the Commandments doesn't have the fine print that indicates that. He also said ... and I might add he compared President Clinton to Moses in which he said you might say the Red Sea finally parted and more Americans than ever before walk through behind Bill Clinton. The Bible is about a people's moral sense. Moses improved it. I think Bill Clinton helped corrupt it. Jeroboam II is who you want to look to. He did evil and corrupted the people. If you want to use the Bible, it works los of ways.
Borger: He compared Martin Luther King to Moses.
Bennett: That's a lot closer. Dr. King is closer.
Borger: Mr. Brinkley, can you tell us how has this country changed from 1960 when President Kennedy ran and promised that he would not mix his Catholicism with policy, that he didn't consult the Pope for policy? Now we have these politicians out here talking about their own spirituality, talking about policy in terms of their faith
Brinkley: The good interpretation is that we've come a long way. In 1960, Jack Kennedy was letting people know that he was a lapsed Catholic in many ways. Made a famous speech in Texas saying, "Don't worry, I'm not going to move the Pope here, I'm not that good a Catholic." With Senator Lieberman, we have an example of someone saying, "I'm an Orthodox Jew and proud of it." That's a great accomplishment for the country that we have a serious vice presidential candidate who happens to be Jewish. The objection comes if you seem to be over for cynical political reasons using quotes that alienate people that do not believe in God. They're as good citizens as anybody else. I believe that Senator Lieberman went over the top and I'm sure he will rectify it, because the Anti-Defamation League and Mr. Foxman put that letter out there and it has caused controversy. It's good to talk about faith but he went a little overboard.
Borger: Mr. Foxman, should the president be the moral leader in this country?
Foxman: He should. And there is a bully pulpit, but certainly it's not a pulpit. He is a leader by deeds, actions and words but not embraced in God's words or faith. I think the beauty of our country is the fact that you have three out of the four candidates, two of them born-again Christians, so they aannounce, and one an Orthodox traditional observant Jew. Yet the three of them got to this important position of leadership and hopeful their leadership in this country, without wearing their religion on their sleeve. Yes, Joe Lieberman has stood with you, Bill, on certain issues, because there is a moral crisis in this country. But they're not being elected to be our preachers, nor our priests nor rabbis.
Borger: We'll have to leave it there, Mr. Foxman. Thank you all gentlemen. I'll be back with a final word in just a moment.
Borger: That's our broadcast. And have a happy and safe Labor Day. Bob Schieffer is going to be right back here next week. In the meantime, thanks for watching Face The Nation.
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