Transcript: Flake, Dent, Ros-Lehtinen, Royce on "Face the Nation," Feb. 18, 2018

The Republican effort to retain control of the House and Senate in the 2018 midterm elections has been made all the more difficult by a slew of retirements by GOP lawmakers declining to run for reelection. More than 30 Republicans have announced their plans to step down at the end of this term or have already resigned, far outpacing the number of retiring Democrats.

Some retiring members are stepping down to run for another office. Many face tough primary fights they would likely lose. Others are heading for the greener pastures of the private sector.

We spoke to four lawmakers about their decisions to step down and what they've learned during their time in Congress. 

The following is a transcript of the interview with Sen Jeff Flake, R-Arizona; Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida and Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, airing Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, on "Face the Nation."  


NANCY CORDES, IN-STUDIO: The controversy over White House security clearances may have moved off the front pages this week, but when we sat down with 4 retiring congressional Republicans, they had strong feelings about the how the White House handled domestic abuse allegations against former Staff Secretary Rob Porter. Here are Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, plus Pennsylvania's Congressman Charlie Dent, Florida's Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and California's Ed Royce.

NANCY CORDES: When other countries see that this White House can't even get its story straight on something as simple as a security clearance, the rest of the world thinks what?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Security clearances for people who have not passed-- those-- those check marks, it-- it's just not-- not the normal way that we should be-- handling-- classified information. So I think it's-- it's sort of shocking when you see the list of all of the folks who've had access to sensitive documents who have not-- been cleared in-- in order to view them. I find it shocking.

NANCY CORDES: Should John Kelly step down?

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: No, I don't think John Kelly should step down. I think-- we are-- we're in a process now where the committee of jurisdiction here is doing an investigation of just this issue. And I think you wait until you get the facts and-- and then you can move forward from that.

NANCY CORDES: Do you agree?

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: Oh, I think he ought to step before a microphone and explain how this latest situation came to be. I think we do need a better explanation. But I think he can, if-- if he'll do it.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: It's bigger than one man --

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: Yeah.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: -- anyway. We get another chief of staff, the problem continues so--

REP. CHARLIE DENT: Yeah, the White House-- the White House-- I think completely mishandled this whole Porter situation. That said, prior to John Kelly coming into the chief of staff's job-- the White House had been in pretty much chaos and anarchy, and it was very dysfunctional. And so he did bring-- a great degree of-- stability and order and discipline to the management of the White House, until this recent episode. So I-- at this moment, you know, I-- I-- I'd like to find out who would be the replacement before I'd call for him to step down.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: (CHUCKLES)

NANCY CORDES, IN-STUDIO: The rest of our conversation with those four members about why they're leaving Congress will air in our next half hour. We'll be right back.

[BREAK]

NANCY CORDES, IN-STUDIO: Midterm elections are always perilous for the party in power, and this year a record number of Republicans have already decided not to run for reelection. Two dozen are retiring from the House and Senate, plus five are leaving to run for higher office. Why so many? Well, that's the question we put to four of them - including Ed Royce, who is one of ten committee chairmen who have announced they're hanging it up.

NANCY CORDES: That's a lot of experience out the door.

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: It is. And there's-- there's a debate. You know, I-- I think we should look at maybe the length of our chairmanships. But at the same-- same time, I think these term limits are probably good from the standpoint of bringing in new blood, new ideas. And so that's-- that's one of the things we weigh on the Republican side.

NANCY CORDES: Senator, when you left your House colleagues and went to the other side of the Capitol, I'm sure you intended to serve more than one term in the Senate.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: I always thought probably two terms. But-- I'm kind of out of step with my party. And-- it makes it very difficult to-- have the positions that I have and-- and-- you know, win reelection in a Republican primary.

NANCY CORDES: So have you changed or has the party changed?

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: I-- (CHUCKLES) I don't think I've changed that much-- but I do think the party has changed considerably.

NANCY CORDES: Do you all agree with that?

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: Well, from my standpoint, I think that the party has always been a big tent party. I think there's room in the party for a lot of different viewpoints.

NANCY CORDES: Do you think that the tent is as big as it used to be?

REP. CHARLIE DENT: No, I don't, actually. I think what's happening in Congress is the political center is collapsing. But that's not true across the country. What I've found is that-- we have become enormously polarized here in Congress, and that polarization has led to a paralysis. I mean, the very simple basic tasks of governing, just keeping the government open.

NANCY CORDES: But if folks like you leave, don't things just get worse?

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: I think that part of the answer here, though, is for us to look at what we can do to change the fact that no longer do we really have the types of friendships across the aisle that we once had.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: But when you look at--

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: That's important. But it's--

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: --when you look at the-- the future of the Republican Party, I think that we would be foolish to not see that we're heading into trouble. Very few women are running for-- on the Republican Party ticket for office. Far greater numbers of women are-- identifying themselves as being in the Democratic Party. Minorities-- that have always been traditionally-- a-- a group that we should really be going after, I don't see that we really have a-- a recruiting program that's active-- to get minorities involved in our party. So the growth of our party seems to be very limited in a specific group, whereas the demographics of our great country is changing greatly. When you look ahead, what's our future going to be? Are we going to end up a marginalized party? I think that we need to look toward the future, and we need to have the policies that attract millennials, women and minorities. I don't see that.

NANCY CORDES: Well you know, people have been sounding that alarm bell within the party for a while, and you're doing pretty well right now --

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: (CHUCKLES)

NANCY CORDES: You've got the White House, the House and the Senate.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: I'd-- I'd--

NANCY CORDES: So what incentive--

REP. CHARLIE DENT: There's--

NANCY CORDES: --is there to change?

REP. CHARLIE DENT: There's-- there's a-- I think there's a fundamental political realignment happening in our country. You look at where the Democrats are. They-- they've gone kind of full Bernie. Bernie has more or less taken over their party, even though he didn't win the nomination.

On the-- our side, you know, Donald Trump took over the Republican Party. And I-- I do think that this political ground is shifting under our feet. Nobody knows quite how it will settle. In-- in our party, a lot of members have adjusted their politics to suit the president. You know, it's really about loyalty to the man-- more than it is about any set of-- given principles or ideals. And I think that's what's really changed.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: I would agree with that. And I agree with Ileana in terms of where the Republican Party is going and the danger. If you look-- every four years, every presidential election cycle, we are as a country-- 2 percent less white. You know, voters of color. It's-- it-- it's changing that way. And-- and-- I don't think that we've made enough of an effort as Republicans to appeal across a broader electorate. And-- and then with young people as well. Given some of the positions-- and the behavior that the president has exhibited-- I think it makes it very difficult for young people to identify with the Republican Party. I think they've been walking away from the party in general. I think they're at a dead sprint right now. And-- and we've got to change that.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: We don't need to change our principles, we don't need to change what we stand for. But like Charlie said, not every vote is a loyalty vote, whether you're for or against the-- the president. And-- and that's how it's framed all the time. You've got to be-- a loyal soldier? I-- I-- I don't think people feel as comfortable, the-- the moderate Republicans feel as comfortable with this kind of tone.

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: Well, on this issue, though, it-- if you think about individually, Ileana, what we are doing-- we have recruited-- female candidates, Asian candidates, Hispanic candidates. You've helped elect three now. You've got three members who are Hispanic-- that I know you played a large role in their elections. I-- I think we'll continue in this vein.

NANCY CORDES: But she is pro-immigration reform. Pro-hiking the minimum wage. Pro-same sex marriage. Could you have gotten elected in a Republican primary for the first time now?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I think so. It depends a lot on the-- the personality of the candidate, and-- and getting back to what the Republican Party used to be, where we were accepting of all types. And-- and yes, we're doing-- a pretty good job in recruiting candidates at the local level, at the state level. But when you look at the makeup of the Democratic Party here in Congress-- I don't see those Asian women and-- and those minority women serving in the-- in the-- in the House GOP or in the Senate GOP. I mean that's the reality. Maybe we're-- our farm team is slowly coming up, but-- we used to be more accepting of having moderate positions, and now-- now it's getting harder.

REP. CHARLIE DENT: It starts at the top. I agree with Ed. Candidates matter, and we have a responsibility to do our bit. But-- at the top, you know, when the president makes incendiary comments on Hispanics, Muslims, women, you know-- the Charlottesville situation, and others, you know-- I think it-- it-- it narrows our appeal. And I-- I do believe that we have to be much-- much broader in our-- our-- our thinking, and-- and show that we want-- well, that the welcome mat is actually out and that we want everybody in.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: It's like Charlie said. It's-- it's become kind of a loyalty test to the man, rather than to principles. And then the problem is-- if you-- as a candidate or as an elected official, align yourself to a person, rather than principle, then you're-- you're wedded to that person, wherever he or she goes. And-- and-- and that's dangerous. It really is. And-- and I-- I see that-- a big problem for the party going forward.

NANCY CORDES: And you've got the-- Freedom Caucus, this group of conservatives telling the Speaker of the House, "Your leadership position is at risk if you stray too far from where we want to be on immigration."

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: You-- you know, I've never supported these types of tactics. Trying to sack your own quarterback is not a strategy, frankly, that-- usually when you're working as a team is going to lead to success. Right? Threats-- usually don't lead to success. What --

NANCY CORDES: They've had some success--

CHAIRMAN ED ROYCE: What-- what leads to success-- I-- I-- I don't-- I don't think that's successful in terms of getting legislation into-- into effect.

NANCY CORDES: Senator, when you talk about immigration, mass violence, opioids, has Congress lost its ability to solve big problems?

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: You know, it'd be hard to argue that we haven't. You know, in the-- in the Senate we-- we have a 60 vote requirement for most legislation. And we've had a hard time coming together. There are things that we should-- on-- on the gun issue-- obviously the bump stocks-- "No fly, no buy", those kind of things, there's broad consensus in the country, certainly. And-- and there should be. And I hope that we can move legislation like that. There's no reason we shouldn't be able to.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: But on-- on immigration, you look at the-- the president's position, and what he says on Monday may be different than what he says on Wednesday. And may be different-- on--on Friday. So it's very hard, I think, for-- for leaders on-- on DACA, on-- on Dreamers like Jeff Flake, to-- to figure out a way forward. It's schizophrenic what's coming out of the White House in terms of policy on immigration and Dreamers.

NANCY CORDES, IN-STUDIO: And we'll be right back with those high school students who are crafting a plan to take on Washington.