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Bush Prepares for Final State of the Union Speech

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Moving now from politics to matters of state - tonight, President George W. Bush gives his last State of the Union address. Here to give us a preview of the president's speech and to update us on the discussions about the bipartisan economic stimulus package working its way through the Congress is White House Counselor Ed Gillespie. He's also a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and we appreciate him for joining us today.

Thanks for coming.

ED GILLESPIE: Well, thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: In the past, the president's State of the Union messages have talked a lot about really big ideas. That's not really realistic, is it?

GILLESPIE: We figure there's a window here, Michel, where we can get some things done, probably before Congress goes out for their July - Fourth of July recess. And so, for five months, we want to identify things where we can come together and pass legislation that's in the interest of the American people. That begins with a short-term growth package, a boost to the economy to offset some of the concerns going on in the housing market, as well as some housing reforms that would help us to mitigate that damage and keep people in their homes.

But, you're right. In terms of big things like social security reform or immigration reform, things that the president has tackled in the past, we recognize that with Congress in control of the other party and a presidential election year taking place and, you know, a window of opportunity that's only about five months long, that we ought to keep our focus on things that are important and big, but also doable and realistic. And there's plenty of things on that list that we can get done.

MARTIN: Is it fair to say that the economy will probably be the dominant theme of the speech tonight?

GILLESPIE: Well, both the economy and national security, they're both important issues. Economy is the first third of the speech. The speech that breaks down, as they often do, about 50/50. Half of it is domestic and economic policy, half of it is foreign and national security policy. The first third is very much focused on the economy and dealing with that, including not only the need to have a short-term boost and a growth package, but also to make the tax relief that's out there permanent, that is due to expire in 2010. We think that would be a huge drag on the economy. A hundred and sixteen million Americans would end up paying higher taxes at an average of about $1,800. So we want to make those tax cuts permanent, but we also need to do things on health care and trade and energy policy that have a big impact on our economy. And the president will talk about those things as well.

MARTIN: What about his legacy? Will he spend any time talking to us about how he would like his administration to be remembered?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know, Michel, if I came to him and said, hey, here's an opportunity to look back and talk about your legacy, you know, there'd probably be a search on right now for a new White House counselor. But, yeah...

MARTIN: He'd be like, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILLESPIE: The president's not much interested in looking back. His mindset is to sprint to the finish. And like I said, we understand that when the conventions - the political conventions for a presidential nomination take place this summer that, you know, we're going to shift into - and the country is going to shift into a purely political mode if they haven't already. But we see an opportunity here for a few months to get some important things done. And so, that's where he's going to keep his focus, is looking forward. And he'll leave it to the historians to figure out legacy.

MARTIN: Speaking of trying to sprint towards some kind of finish. You know, the White House and the House leadership have put together this bipartisan economic stimulus package. Now, the senators are saying, they didn't have enough say in this whole conversation, and they have some things they'd like. Now, the hope was to get checks into peoples' hands by spring. Is that still going to be possible? You're going to have to reopen negotiations with the Senate?

GILLESPIE: I think it is possible. Anything that you can have - you know, Speaker Pelosi, and Chairman Charlie Rangel of the Ways and Means Committee and Republican leader Boehner and Jim McCrery, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, if they can agree on something, that's a consensus package. And one of the reasons that we wanted to reach that consensus was we needed to move something quickly.

We want to get something that helps to offset the adjustment that's going on in the housing market right now and make sure that it doesn't spill over into other aspects of the economy. There's plenty of time for a debate over some of these other issues that people want to load this bill up with. We need to keep this clean. Our line here is, you know, we feel the need for speed. And we think that it's important that we move it quickly and keep it simple and not junk it up or load it up with other provisions that can derail it or delay it.

MARTIN: Well, that raises a question. You're an old House of Representatives staffer, if I recall? Right?

GILLESPIE: I am.

MARTIN: You started your career there. So how come we haven't seen more of these kinds of bipartisan proposals between the Congress and the president that - you know, deals that are negotiated and the compromises made before everybody starts yelling about it. Like, for example, the SCHIP program - why haven't we seen more of these?

GILLESPIE: Well, we, you know, we did try to negotiate on SCHIP. And I think there was a determination made, and I'm not guessing this. I, you know, sought - stated outright that they - that Democrats in Congress felt that it was better to get a veto from the president on that bill and not have something that they could agree on. They thought that politically, that would be helpful to them.

MARTIN: They'd rather have the fight than the bill is your point of view?

GILLESPIE: They'd rather have the fight than the legislation.

MARTIN: And, of course, they say the same is true of the White House.

GILLESPIE: Well, we never said it. I mean, that's not really our view. We really did try to find something that we could reach accommodation on, and, you know, they had basically a $30-billion bill, which is a pretty significant difference.

But we, you know, we did come forward with the split difference approach. I mean, the president had, at one point, proposed putting $15 billion more into the program, and that was rejected. And we were never really brought into the drafting of that legislation in the way the Speaker brought in Secretary Paulson.

And, in fact, we sent Secretary Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury, on this tax package and growth package. But Secretary Mike Leavitt, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, was not really involved in the drafting of the SCHIP legislation, and that's unfortunate.

But I think that Democrats in Congress realize it's in their interest now to try to find some areas of common ground, to get some things that they can point to as accomplishments, because there is a pretty wide perception out there that this is a Congress that's been unwilling or unable to get things done. And if I could just set the record straight, Michel, I did actually start on the Senate side...

MARTIN: Senate side.

GILLESPIE: ...as a parking lot attendant. As I said before...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I wasn't going to bring that up. I wasn't going to bring that up, because I didn't know if that was something you'd like to speak - keep on your resume, but I'm sure you did a fine job.

GILLESPIE: I was a good parker.

MARTIN: I can't resist asking this. It's not too often that you get a former Republican National Committee chairman on the program. Did you ever think that we'd be this far into the primary season without clear front-runners on either the Republican or Democratic side?

GILLESPIE: No, I didn't. This is fascinating. I love watching it, and I love watching it for a couple of reasons. One is it's great, if you're a political junkie, it's really exciting to watch this and to see two wide-open races narrowing down, I think, but still wide open. It's hard to - I wouldn't bet on either side who the nominee is going to be. And at the same time, it's also great because I have - having been in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and been through those things, I know what my friends are going through on those campaigns on both sides. And I'm glad to not be in that mix right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So even though you have long days, you still get to go home at night.

GILLESPIE: I get to go home at night, and I also - I enjoy the public service aspect of it and the policy. And so I'm happy to be on the sidelines on the political front these days.

MARTIN: Do you think either party will have a clear nominee after Super Tuesday?

GILLESPIE: I don't. I think it's - I think they'll have a likely nominee after Super Tuesday, but I think it's going to probably take until March 5th before there's a clear nominee.

MARTIN: And you heard Gwen Ifill earlier use the B-word, brokered convention. Is that actually something that could happen, in your opinion?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know, when you look at the - it depends on how long the candidates, you know, competitive candidates are viable. On both sides, a lot of these states are not winner-take-all. They are a proportional allocation of delegates. And so it is conceivable. Now, folks like, you know, political reporters and columnists and pundits and activists in the both parties always love the idea of a brokered convention. But it is rare.

MARTIN: Well, they got to eat, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILLESPIE: Yeah, right. And I'd be surprised if we ended up in a brokered situation. But I've been surprised all along this year. So...

MARTIN: And I just want to go back to the whole question of the State of the Union tonight. And I take your point. You're saying the president isn't much for, you know, cogitating about, you know, his legacy. But I'd like to ask, you know, what's the mood around there? Is it like the sort of spring term in college where people are kind of nostalgic? Is there a sense of wistfulness about - is there...

GILLESPIE: There's really not...

MARTIN: ...spring fever yet? People like, get me out of here?

GILLESPIE: No, there's a, you know - as in any organization, all of the, you know, concentric circles going out reflect the, you know, the core. And, in this case, the president has, like I say, a mindset of sprinting to the finish. And it permeates the place. And so, we're constantly, you know, working on new policies and new ideas and, you know, a trip to Africa next month that I think is going to reinforce some of the things the president talks about this evening in the State of the Union. We had a very successful trip to the Middle East, and he's going to go back in May.

And so - and then these policy proposals, new policy proposals and unfinished business that needs to get done. So it is a - I wish we were a little more wistful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

GILLESPIE: I could stand a little more wistfulness.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If there is one initiative that the president could pass this year, what do you think it would be?

GILLESPIE: Well, I think he would like to get the tax cuts permanent and have that settled. He's got - I'm going to save, though, a little more for later on. He's got a proposal this evening on the education front that I think will help a lot of students in elementary schools that would be a very positive thing to get done.

And then, obviously, I think, you know, we're in danger of having the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act lapse. It is - it's been a very important tool in our tool chest in helping to keep America safer. We need to get an agreement on that. The Congress passed a six-month bill. That's not nearly long enough, and it expires on February 1st. We'd like to get that in place.

And obviously the, you know - we'd like to see the success in Iraq continue and make sure that that is in a good place for future presidents.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Ed.

GILLESPIE: Thanks, Michel, for having me on. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: White House Counselor Ed Gillespie, joining us from his office at the White House with a preview of the State of the Union. Ed, thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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