'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Video via MSNBC: Oddball
Guests: Howard Fineman, Jonathan Alter, Roger Cressey, Jim Miklaszewski, Erin Billings, Christian Finnegan
DAVID SHUSTER, GUEST HOST (voice over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
The Obama transition: No, you can't be chief-of-staff but how about secretary of health and human services? Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle finds a spot in the new cabinet.
Will Hillary? New reports of it (ph) that she might not even want to be secretary of state because she likes being her own boss. But if she really doesn't want it, why did President Bill Clinton is getting all lawyered up for the vetting process?
Al Qaeda's election reaction.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI, AL QAEDA LEADER: President Barack Obama.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: Bin Laden's number two condemns President-elect Obama by using a racial slur. Is al Qaeda worried about the battle of hearts and minds with the president-elect who has worldwide appeal?
The GOP loses its appeal. Ted Stevens concedes and caps off a staggering list of Republican senators leaving Congress. Will more be on the way out? The Minnesota hand recount begins and Bill Clinton brings marquee star power to the Senate runoff in Georgia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Are you going to win this election?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: The pirate problem: Real-life drama on the high seas unfolds off the coast of Somalia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is about money. That's all really there is to it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: Their latest booty, a Saudi supertanker and $100 million worth of oil.
And how much can we pay these people to stop talking? Sarah Palin gets served with an ethics complaint after an interview with FOX. Joe the Plumber blames John McCain for the Palin backlash. Eliot Spitzer's call girl says being a prostitute was just like going out on a date with a stranger. And stranger still, Michele Bachmann's revisionist history.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALAN COLMES, TV HOST: You said the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, (D) MINNESOTA: Actually, that's not what I said at all. Actually, that's not what I said.
COLMES: I'm reading your exact quote.
BACHMANN: It's an urban legend that was stated.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: Are these just interviews or a sneak preview of the next seasons "Dancing with the Stars"?
All that and more: Now on Countdown.
(on camera): Good evening, everyone. This is Wednesday, November the 19th, 62 days until the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.
And today, at last, we have some indication whether Hillary Clinton will accept the position of secretary of state. Yes, she will-according to this report from Politico.com. Unfortunately, that's not the only indication we have on whether Clinton will accept the position, maybe she won't, says this report from Politico.com as well as the "New York Times" and Clinton vets, Joe Lockhart and George Stephanopoulos.
But first, in our number five story tonight: Let's get to today's signal flair over Washington, Obama's red flag that he won't mess around when it comes to overhauling American healthcare.
NBC today confirmed that former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democratic leader in the Senate for most of the past two decades has agreed to serve as Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services, overseeing Medicare, Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration and more. And that more is a big one because Daschle will be a key player in the Obama administration's effort to transform America's entire healthcare system.
Daschle's wife tonight confirmed to NBC that she is leaving her current position as a Washington lobbyist. Adding intrigue to Mr. Daschle's mission and the speculation about her future, Hillary Clinton, today, has been named to-no, not that-but she has been asked by Ted Kennedy to lead Democratic congressional efforts at reforming health insurance, a role, of course, that Clinton cannot play if she becomes secretary of state.
Bill Clinton is now reportedly bending over backwards to make that happen. He's hired a team to assist with the vetting process, agreed to someone else run his foundation with all the conflicts of interest it represents, submit future activities to ethic's reviews, abstain from foreign income, disclose future library and foundation donors, and, he's been even told, past donors of more than $250. But even if they were told they would remain anonymous, Clinton will now provide their names to the Obama team.
Let's bring in MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman, also, senior Washington correspondent and political columnist for "Newsweek" magazine.
And, Howard, good evening.
HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Hi, David.
SHUSTER: Howard, OK. So, Obama's offering, Bill's cooperating, so, why is Hillary agonizing and why are we hearing about it?
FINEMAN: Well, it's really interesting that we are hearing about it. The buzz back in Washington, based on my phone calls tonight, back to the Capitol is a lot of talk about leaks now. This was the leak-proof Obama ship. Now, there's talk about Hillary Clinton before things are sealed up. There's talk about Daschle who looks like, for certain, but hasn't been officially announced, and things of that kind.
Whether Hillary is agonizing or not isn't really clear. Bill Clinton is working overtime to try to make it possible. I do think there are a lot of Hillary supporters and I've talked to a number of them who question whether going into the secretary of state job would be the best thing for her.
She has independent power base in the Senate. She was elected by the voters of New York. Does she want to be beholden to another guy again, this time, not her husband, Barack Obama, who could cut her loose at any time? So, there's a lot of debate among Hillary supporters. But my sense is that Hillary herself wants it and that Bill Clinton is doing his best to make it possible.
SHUSTER: Howard, what's the point of Ted Kennedy asking Senator Clinton to take a lead role in healthcare? I mean, is that Kennedy's effort to essentially aid Clinton by giving her an out if she doesn't want to be secretary of state?
FINEMAN: I think maybe so, except that from the people I talked to tonight, it's pretty clear to me that Ted Kennedy isn't about to hand over the whole healthcare brief to Hillary Clinton. The way it was described to me about an hour ago, David, is that Hillary would be tasked with one portion of the healthcare task force, not the whole thing. And so, the people around the Hill were kind of diminishing somewhat the drama of whatever role she might play in healthcare. I think it's also a signal from Ted Kennedy as he talks about who he wants to have to help him, that he still fully expects to be in charge. And people who know Teddy, and have seen him and talked to him, think that he is physically up to doing it certainly at least for the foreseeable future.
SHUSTER: Turning now, Howard, to Tom Daschle. What does his appointment signal about Obama's ambitions for healthcare?
FINEMAN: Well, it signals that Obama is serious about it, but it also signals that Obama knows how tricky and time-consuming and arduous the task of selling some form of national healthcare insurance is going to be. I'm told that Tom Daschle has known for weeks this job was open to him. If he wanted to, as you alluded in the set-up, I think Daschle was maybe hoping he'll get chief of staff, he didn't get it. So, he thought about it for awhile and decided to take this job which he's really been preparing for a long time, David. Tom Daschle wrote a book about healthcare.
He basically wants to take all the existing healthcare programs-
Medicare, Medicaid, private health insurance, the federal program, and put them under a new umbrella organization similar to the Federal Reserve Bank, a kind of Federal Reserve for healthcare. He wrote a book about it which, by the way, I checked on Amazon, has gone from obscurity to number 29 on the Amazon list-that's every healthcare lobbyist in Washington has ordered multiple copies as of today, I can assure you.
SHUSTER: So, it's a wise choice both in terms of somebody who understands the process of trying to get things done, but also, in terms of the substance of healthcare because, obviously, Daschle knows so much about it.
SHUSTER: Does it mean we're actually in shooting distance of universal coverage?
FINEMAN: Well, I think that's Obama's long-range goal. I remain skeptical of whether that's going to be his main focus when he comes out of the chute on January 20th. I think it will be jobs, it will be unemployment insurance, it will be taxes, it will be infrastructure, the green economy and so on. But, I think, over the first term, Obama's going to look to try to get that done, probably in the fashion that Daschle is laying out. And as you point out, Daschle is well-liked on the Hill. He knows how Washington works and he knows how the Hill works. And that means that it's a high priority for Obama.
SHUSTER: MSNBC political analyst, Howard Fineman, also, of "Newsweek" magazine-Howard, thanks, as always, for your time. We appreciate it.
FINEMANE: Sure. Thank you, David.
SHUSTER: As we mentioned last night, behind the question of whether Hillary Clinton will serve as secretary of state lies the question, should she? In addition to her conflicts about giving up her leadership role as a prominent U.S. senator, there are external voices expressing concern about her ability to serve as America's top diplomat. "New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman, who has covered the State Department before, wrote today that foreign leaders can spot even a hair's breath of daylight between a president and his secretary of state with dire consequences and questions whether Obama and Clinton have that level of mutual trust.
More forcefully, David Broder of the "Washington Post," often called "the Dean of the Washington press corps" concludes flatly that appointing her would be a mistake, that Obama, quote, "does not need someone who will tell him how to approach the world or be his mentor in international relations."
Joining us now is MSNBC political analyst Jonathan Alter, senior editor at "Newsweek," and author of "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope."
And, Jonathan, first of all, thanks for being here.
JONATHAN ALTER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Thanks, David.
SHUSTER: Much of the left isn't crazy about David Broder, but put in perspective of what it means to have him-of all people-weigh in like this?
ALTER: Well, he is, as you indicated, he's the dean of the columnists. He's been covering politics since the 1960s and doing a terrific job of it. So, it's meaningful within Washington that he thinks this is a bad idea. He was, of course, very critical of Bill Clinton when he was president, said he trashed the White House and wrote some other very critical things. So, it's not a surprise that he's no fan of the Clintons.
I think I would take issue with him on this question of whether Obama will, you know, be the eager student and let Hillary tutor him on foreign policy. I don't think that's the way the relationship would work. I think he'll cast a wide net, have a pretty wide circle of advisors. And there are other people that he respects who know a lot about foreign policy, you know, on the Hill, say, John Kerry. In his own government, his own circle, Dennis Ross-who handled the Mideast negotiations during the Clinton administration.
So, it's not like it's going to be Hillary, as what Al Haig described, as being the vector of American foreign policy. Barack Obama won't put up with that.
SHUSTER: But put aside what Barack Obama may or may not do. What about Hillary? Would she be willing to subordinate herself and strive to advance Obama doctrines with which she disagrees especially when, as Broder points out, I mean, Barack Obama already has Joe Biden?
ALTER: Well, that relationship between Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden will be an interesting one to watch. They do like each other. And I think they can probably work in harness. Look-this is an "all hands on deck" situation. They really feel that there are so many problems around the world, that there's plenty for everybody to do. And they won't be necessary be these turf wars that everybody is anticipating. Of course, it probably will be.
ALTER: But, at least right now, it looks like they can submiss (ph) them. And it is helpful to Obama to not have to delve into the nuances of foreign policy. Not take a big trip to South America or to Africa early in his term because he's got bigger, more important things to worry about right now with the American economy. So, having a major player at the State Department would take some pressure off of him in the early months of this administration.
SHUSTER: What about Tom Friedman's point. He says that a president and a successful secretary of state need to be in lockstep so that foreign leaders know that when they're talking to the secretary of state, they're essentially talking directly to the president. Does Hillary Clinton's differences with Barack Obama, their history, does that not already give foreign leaders an opportunity to start working some of the angles?
ALTER: Well, only if Hillary Clinton gives them the opportunity to do that. And so, that all depends on her behavior, if she can really be a full team player. Now, you can expect that if she's not, if she starts to suggest there's even a hair's breath of difference, you can expect that Rahm Emanuel will be giving her an earful.
So, we do have an enforcer now who's going to be in the White House who obviously knows both the Clintons and Obama very well. But it is a danger-and there are some warning signs this week. Why is this dragged on for five days? Why hasn't she made a decision about accepting this? Why hasn't it been announced? And there's a bit of a sloppiness that's creeping in to this process right now that might not very bode well for their relationship down the road.
SHUSTER: Will any of the critiques, whether it's the sloppiness, whether it's the critique from Broder, from Thomas Friedman, does any of that really matter in the end whether she ultimately gets the job?
ALTER: I think probably not. I think this cake is probably baked. But, it's not very respectful for her to take such a long time in deciding whether to accept it or not. I mean, it would reasonable to take the weekend to think about it, but she's acting hamlet-like at this point, if reports are to be believed. Maybe there are-those reports are untrue, and she's already indicated that she's going to take the job. On that, we simply don't know. They've batten down the hatches and there are some leaks out of this transition, but not as many as you and I would like.
SHUSTER: Yes, certainly not very many at all.
Jonathan Alter of "Newsweek" and MSNBC-Jonathan, thanks as always.
We appreciate it.
ALTER: Thanks, David.
SHUSTER: A few more transitions. The president-elect made it official today, confirming earlier reports about two key appointments. David Axelrod, the chief strategist of the campaign that both made history and victory, and one Republican praised for the efficacy of its ground game, he will serve President Obama as a senior advisor in the White House. Gregory Craig, another Obama advisor, who served as President Clinton's counsel during his impeachment, he will now serve as President Obama's chief White House counsel. Craig played the role of John McCain in Obama's debate preparations.
And one final transition, Vice President-elect Joe Biden transitions tomorrow from 65 years old to 66. Mr. Obama surprised him today with 12 cupcakes. Yes, the spending cuts have already begun.
Coming up on Countdown: Al Qaeda goes after the president-elect with a bizarre racial tirade. Is the terrorist network feeling threatened by the prospect of an American president with worldwide popularity? Remember the never ending cycle of Sarah Palin interviews last week? Well, they might end up getting her in trouble golly, gosh, darn it, anyway.
SHUSTER: Al Qaeda's number two throws out some ugly terminology about our next president and calls into question Obama's honor. We'll examine the hidden meanings behind the new message from the terror network.
And the Alaska Senate race is official over. Republican Ted Stevens is rejecting a recount and has conceded. We'll look at how his ouster caps off a remarkable loss of senior Republicans in the Senate. That's ahead on Countdown.
SHUSTER: The number two leader of al Qaeda has confronted President-elect Barack Obama with a new audio/video message. It's the first salvo from the group's propaganda operations since the election. And it comes just days after Obama told "60 Minutes" that one of his major focuses would be capturing or killing Osama bin Laden.
In our fourth story on the Countdown: The nightly question about the Obama transition-what do we do now? And now, with al Qaeda back in the headlines, again. The dispatch is titled "The Departure of Bush and Arrival of Obama." In it, Ayman al-Zawahiri uses the racial epithet "house negro" to imply that Obama, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell do the bidding of whites, and that Obama is quote, "the direct opposite of honorable black Americans," citing Malcolm X, a polarizing civil rights figure in the 1960s.
The message was posted on militant Web sites. It appears to be and chiefly at persuading Muslims and Arabs that U.S. policy will not change under Obama's leadership. Visually, the tape contains an image of Obama praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. One corresponding passage, quote, "You have chosen to stand in the ranks of the enemies of Muslims and pray the prayer of the Jews, although you claim that your mother is Christian, in order to climb the rungs of leadership in America."
On Iraq policy, al-Zawahiri warns that, quote, "a heavy legacy of failure of crimes awaits" and that "what you have announced before, that you will withdraw troops and send them to Afghanistan is a policy that is doomed to failure."
Let's bring in MSNBC terrorism analyst and a man who served as director of the National Security Council staff, Roger Cressey.
And, Roger, good evening.
ROGER CRESSEY, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST: Good evening, David.
SHUSTER: Roger, not that they ever went away, but they're back and making headlines. What do you make of the latest al Qaeda tape and what should we do?
CRESSEY: Well, it reflects the problem that al Qaeda has and they have a huge problem. The United States decisively elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama. So, that undercuts a key element of al Qaeda's narrative which is the United States is at war with Islam. And so, in a battle of hearts and minds, the war of ideas, that type of president goes counter to what al Qaeda has been arguing for some time now.
So, in order to try and get ahead of that, they are coming out with both barrels blasting, saying, in effect, don't believe the hype. President-elect Obama is going to be more of the same, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, the images regarding Israel. This is a real challenge for al Qaeda because the president-elect is so popular in the international community and in the Islamic world. They are in a real difficult situation right now.
SHUSTER: President-elect Obama has publicly made bin Laden a priority. What will he do differently in the effort to capture or kill bin Laden?
CRESSEY: Well, you have to look at it in two ways. One is the short term tactical requirement which is-how do we deal with the safe haven in Pakistan and where bin Laden probably is. You may continue to see military operations like we've seen of the past couple of months. Question is, can the president-elect engage the Pakistani government differently?
Second part of it is the strategic issue. In this war of ideas, how does the United States position itself differently from the past seven years to argue to the Islamic world that the United States is not at war with them and that there's going to be a new policy in place? And I think that's where the president-elect has the greatest opportunity.
SHUSTER: You mentioned that the election of Barack Obama with all of the racial barriers and sectarian barriers that have fallen, that it essentially, perhaps, takes the wind out of al Qaeda sails, does it perhaps even threaten al Qaeda's existence to a certain extent?
CRESSEY: I wouldn't go that far. I think al Qaeda will continue to remodel itself regardless of the international environment, but it under cuts so much of their basic argument. And there's a large portion of the Islamic world that looks to this election and says, you know what, the United States is not what al Qaeda says it is. It really is a different place.
So, the hope and the potential that the president-elect comes into office with is a tremendous opportunity to counter the al Qaeda message, and also to speak to a large portion of the Islamic world and say the United States is different, in fact, we can do things the right way.
SHUSTER: As far as the idea that maybe al Qaeda is out of sync with the rest of the world, to the contrary, does it possibly demonstrate that they are in touch, at least, enough to have the tape subtitled in English and making references to 1960's African-American divisive figures?
CRESSEY: What you see in here is the influence of Adam Gadahn, who is the American born Qaeda leader. He has now influenced Ayman al-Zawahiri and other members. But Gadahn is so twisted in his view of the United States that for the intended audience, I don't think this is going to resonate with him. What I do worry about, David, though, is until al Qaeda conducts another attack, their view is preposterous around the world. So, I worry that whatever operational capability they still have, that's the way they become relevant again. And that is going to be a real pressing challenge for the new president.
SHUSTER: Roger Cressey, MSNBC terrorism analyst-Roger, thanks, as always, for your time. We appreciate it.
CRESSEY: OK, David. Thank you.
SHUSTER: The long national nightmare last week that was the Sarah Palin media blitz may instead turn into a nightmare for the Alaska governor. Why her interview with FOX News may bring her before the ethics board yet again. And in times of financial uncertainty, would you turn to KISS' Gene Simmons for investment tips? Oddball on your side-next on Countdown.
SHUSTER: I'm David Shuster in for the vacationing Keith Olbermann, and we interrupt the newsy news to bring you this important announcement. It's "World Toilet Day." Yes, in your "Green is Universal" moment of the night, the World Toilet Organization uses this day each year to raise awareness to the lack of proper sanitation around the world. So, put the lid down, give your bowl a big hug and let's play Oddball.
We begin at the New York Stock Exchange where this morning, Gene Simmons, the co-founder of the '70's heavy metal band KISS, rang the bell with his hand on Wall Street to plug his reality show, the shy Mr. Simmons managed to find another TV operation to hawkish wears (ph) and shared his tips for surviving this rough economic times. You wanted the best advise, you got the best advice?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GENE SIMMONS, ROCK ICON: Thirty-five years later, KISS still has 3,000 licensed products, everything from KISS condoms to KISS caskets. So, we get (BLEEP) going.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: OK, so to speak.
SIMMONS: When the market is down, buy. When it's up, sell. I buy burger stocks, I buy 7-11 stocks, I buy AT&T, I buy the things that we can't live without. And all the negatives we hear in the media has got to stop.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: That's from a guy who lost to Steven Baldwin on "Celebrity Apprentice." The Dow today was down about 430 points, closing below 8,000 for the first time in five years. Gee, thanks, Gene.
Let's (INAUDIBLE) go to outer space, where yesterday, working on the space station orbiting the earth, an astronaut lost track of a tool bag carrying grease guns to load up (ph) the station's solar panels. As the bag lurched out of reach, Houston recorded her reaction which was short and remarkably expletive free.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, great.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: Your tax dollars in orbit, folks. The tools are now space junk and are being tracked by NASA to avoid any collisions down the road. Luckily, there are other grease guns onboard, although some favored the idea of stopping off at the Home Depot between Neptune and Uranus. But damn it, Jim, there was just no time.
The Democrats pull out the big guns in Georgia. President Bill Clinton hits the stump in a Senate runoff there as the recount starts in Minnesota. And, Joe the Plumber is still working overtime on his 15 minutes of fame. He stands up for Sarah Palin while dissing John McCain. These stories are ahead.
But first, time for Countdown's top three Best Persons in the World.
Number three: Best dumb carjackers. Two would-be thieves approach a woman at gunpoint behind the wheel of the car in Kansas City around 11:00 o'clock last night. After demanding her keys and ordering her out, the duo of dummies jumped in and tried to flee. Their getaway was spoiled from the start as neither knew how to drive a stick shift. Oh.
Number two, best self imposed game of lost and found; Chad Toy made a successful jail break from the McCracken County slammer in western Kentucky early Monday, only to show that afternoon at the front gate and turn himself back in. When I rang the bell at the jail and I told them who I was, they were surprised. I guess they haven't seen that before, said Troy. No, probably not, for have they seen the Easter Bunny, the Lock Ness Monster or pigs fly.
Number one, best moral victory, the write-in votes from the presidential election of two weeks ago have finally been tabulated in Duvall County, Florida. The big winner? None other than the junior senator from the state of New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her 234 votes easily surpassed the 23 votes for Jesus, the three votes for Donald Duck and the one vote each for Homer Simpson, Willie Nelson, Weird Al Yankovich and Bill O'Reilly. Bill got beaten by a cartoon dog and was tied by Weird Al, and the guy who voted for him even spelled Bill-O's name wrong. How appropriate?
SHUSTER: He was a Republican stalwart of the Senate, the longest continuous serving senator in Washington for four decades. And yet, in our third story on the Countdown tonight, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska is officially out of a job. Meaning there are now 56 Democratic members of the Senate, which together with the independent caucus votes of senators Lieberman and Sanders puts the party just two seats away from a filibuster-proof majority.
Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich won his seat with 3,700 votes over incumbent Republican Senator and convicted felon Ted Stevens. Stevens conceded the race this afternoon, deciding against any bid for a recount, saying in part, quote, "it is apparent the election has been decided and Mayor Begich has been elected." He added, "I'm proud of the campaign we ran and regret that the outcome was not what we had hoped for. I'm deeply grateful to Alaskans for allowing me to serve them for 40 years in the U.S. Senate. It's been the greatest honor of my life to work with Alaskans of all political persuasions to make this state that we all love a better place. I wish Mayor Begich and his family well. My staff and I stand willing to help him prepare for his new position."
With Alaska now decided, all focus turns to the two Senate races that still remain TBD. President Bill Clinton headed to Georgia to stump for Democratic challenger Jim Martin, hoping to boost his chances in the December runoff election against incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss. Clinton riled up the crowd by playing off Chambliss' claim that he needs to be elected to be a fire wall against the Democratic filibuster proof majority.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL CLINTON, FMR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But we don't need a fire wall, we need a bridge. Martin is a bridge. Chambliss is the fire wall. This is not rocket science. Two weeks ago, people voted for the bridge. Don't let Georgia put a fire wall up in front of the bridge.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: The incumbent, for his part, was not bothered by the presidential appearance.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: I sure am glad I've got the National Rifle Association standing with me rather than Bill Clinton.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: Presumably, Mr. Chambliss feels the same way about Al Gore, who heads to Georgia to stump for Martin on Sunday.
And in Minnesota, where incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman officially has 215 more votes than Democratic challenger Al Franken, a mandated recount is underway; 2.9 million ballots must be counted by hand by December 5th. Still to be determined what happens to an untold number of absentee ballots that were rejected in the original election. A judge ruled today that Al Franken can at least see the information on the rejected ballots from Ramsey County, but there's still no decision on similar ballots in Minnesota's other 86 counties.
With Senator Stevens now out of the Senate, it's looking pretty thin and young on the Republican side of the center aisle. Stevens, along with retiring New Mexico Peter Domenici, former Tennessee Senator Trent Lott-former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, disgraced Idaho Senator Larry Craig and retiring Virginia Senator Warner were some of the most senior Republican members of the Senate. With them, gone; the mantle of seniority falls to Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana and Senator Orin Hatch, who were both elected in 1976.
Joining us now, Erin Billings, associate editor with "Roll Call."
Erin, thanks for your time tonight.
ERIN BILLINGS, "ROLL CALL": Thanks for having me.
SHUSTER: 40 years he served in the Senate. Is Senator Ted Stevens' dethroning indicative of his own status as a convicted felon or indicative as, soon-to-be Senator Mark Begich says, Alaska's desire for change?
BILLINGS: I think it's probably a little bit of both. The former, probably, more than the later. Certainly, this is a guy who was just convicted on seven felony counts. He's been embattled for some time. But look, Democrats have been looking at Alaska for some time. They wanted to turn Alaska blue or at least purple. As you know, Governor Sarah Palin talks about being a reformer, talks about trying to change the way that Alaska does politics. Alaska is a place that's been home to a lot of politicians with corrupt backgrounds. So Stevens had some head winds going into the race regardless of those convictions.
But I will say that that he really did kind of put the nail in the coffin for himself.
SHUSTER: Five of the most senior Republican senators will not be part of the 111th Congress. Who among the returning ranks will fill those shoes?
BILLINGS: It is going to be tough. There's a lot of change going on in the Senate right now. You mentioned some of the returning members like John Warner from Virginia, Pete Domenici from New Mexico, revered members who have been around for a long, long time, institutionalists. These are guys that really understand how the place works. They understand how to make a deal. They understand how to legislate. So they will be sorely missed.
But don't be confused. There are a lot of seasoned hands in the Senate that will be able to carry forward. As I always say, when these guys come over, whether they're from the House or they're former governors or they're just rookies to the political system, they all become Senatized at some point, and they learn how to get things done that need to get done and they learn how to legislate.
But it is a changing time and especially in the Republican field. They are looking at having, what, 41 seats at this point, maybe 43 if they're lucky? There's a lot of new faces. There's a lot of new blood and there's going to be a learning curve.
SHUSTER: Could the loss of senior statesmen actually help the GOP in the long run by giving that party an aura of change? Or are the current crop of Republican senators simply too conservative to own that mantel?
BILLINGS: I think that change is going to come no matter what. I don't know if you can say that losing these elder statesmen is what the party needs, as much as this is what's going to happen to the party anyway. There are new faces and these elder statesmen are gone. They are retiring.
Some have passed away, and they're not there to lead the charge.
There are still some old bulls, but there aren't a lot of them. And some of these newbies are going to be the new face of the party whether or not Republicans want it or if they don't. But the Republicans are in transition mode. You know that. They're trying to figure out their way. They're trying to figure out what their message is going to be, what their strategy is going to be, who is going to be their standard bearer. They haven't figured that out yet. And so, you know, time will tell, but I really don't think they have a choice at this point in the game, because there are so many new faces.
SHUSTER: With Stevens ouster, Democrats are now, with the two independent senator's votes, two seat away from a filibuster-proof majority. Could moderate Republicans like Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, could they suddenly become incredibly powerful as the Democrats try to hit 60 on key issues, or on issues like health care and defense does it even matter if Obama has to face conservative Democrats and the Hawkish Joe Lieberman, that he is not going to get close to begin with?
BILLINGS: I think regardless of 60, Barack Obama is going to need bipartisanship. And I think he knows it. That's why he is reaching out now. I think that's why he's talking about having Republicans in his administration. But you talk about these two senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snow-look, these women were hot commodities before the Republicans lost more seats and they're going to be even hotter commodities in the next Congress.
Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, is going to probably give them a lot of love. So, you know, I have no doubt that there's going to be a big premium put on some of those moderate senators who really are required to get anything done.
SHUSTER: Erin Billings, associate editor of "Roll Call," a pleasure talking with you tonight.
BILLINGS: Thanks for having me, David.
SHUSTER: You're welcome.
Too much talking could get Sarah Palin in trouble. Why her interview with Fox News last week may have crossed the line.
And the big problem on the high seas. Modern-day pirates are hijacking super tankers.
But first, a reminder that 44 can't get here soon enough, the headlines breaking in the current administration's 50 running scandals, Bushed.
Number three, abuse of power-gate; Vice President Dick Cheney and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have been indicted in Texas on state charges for their involvement with a private prison company that has been running federal detention centers there. Cheney is charged with engaging in organized criminal activity an a conflict of interest, due to his investment in the company the Vanguard Group. Mr. Gonzales is accused of using his power as attorney general to stop an investigation into abuses at one of the prisons in 2006.
Cheney's spokeswoman has, so far, declined to comment. Mr. Gonzales' lawyer says the charge is baseless. But obviously, the people of the state of Texas, in the form of a Grand Jury, found sufficient evidence to return the indictment. No action will be taken on the criminal complaint until the presiding judge signs the indictment, which is expected soon.
Number two, Iraq contractors-gate. The Pentagon spent 600 million dollars on 1,200 Iraq reconstruction contracts that were ultimately canceled due to mismanagement or poor construction. This according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. But that outrage pales in comparison to the other findings. Three firms that had been suspended or banned were rehired, according to the report. Lee Dynamics International among them. That company had been suspended for allegedly bribing Army officers. One of the Army officers involved actually killed herself after confessing to taking the bribes. But Lee Dynamics International was awarded a new contract two days after the suspension.
And number one, provider conscience-gate? What is it? A new rule being rammed through by the Bush administration that allows health care providers to refuse certain procedures based on religious or moral grounds. What it means is that legal abortions would have to overcome yet another hurdle. It would even give pharmacy employees the right to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or morning-after pills. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Health Services are expected to issue a final version of the rule within days. Though aides to President-Elect Obama say he will try to rescind it, that process will take three to six months.
SHUSTER: For all the Bush administration's concern that al Qaeda poses the biggest threat to the U.S. supply of oil, tonight there's a new enemy to consider, one that has been largely ignored by the government until now. Our second story on the Countdown, pirates holding ships and tankers hostage off the coast of Somalia, including a Saudi owned super tanker three times the size of an aircraft carrier, carrying 100 million dollars of oil bound for the United States.
Pirates currently patrol a maritime corridor through which some 11 percent of the world's oil travels. As our own Jim Miklaszewski reports, the world is finally taking notice.
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After seizing two more ships today, the increasingly brazen band of Somali pirates now hold a record 17 hijacked ships and 330 hostages. Eight thousand miles away, the growing crisis got the full attention of the White House in a meeting with officials from the National Security Council.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: To see if there are actions that we can do to more effectively fight against piracy and prevent it?
MIKLASZEWSKI: But how? An India war ship today destroyed a pirate mothership after it was warned to stop but instead opened fire. The British also announced they plan to lead an armada of European war ships against the pirates.
DAVID MILIBAND, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: To disrupt and to tackle the scourge of piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
MIKLASZEWSKI: But the problem now is as vast as the oceans themselves. The area where pirates operate today has expanded to well over two million square miles.
PETER HINCHLIFFE, INTERNATIONAL CHAMBER OF SHIPPING: It's such a big area of ocean that it's simply not possible to cover this with war ships.
MIKLASZEWSKI: Under the current U.S. military's rules of engagements, American war ships can only open fire in self-defense or if the pirates are caught in the act. All coalition war ships may have to become more aggressive and take out the pirate boats before they attack.
JANE CAMPBELL, US NAVY: Some of it may be as simple as sink the skiffs. Blow them up. Set them on fire.
MIKLASZEWSKI: A more immediate solution, the shipping companies themselves could hire armed private security forces to ride their ships and keep the pirates at bay.
GEOFF MORRELL, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: It's incumbent upon the companies to look more and more at what they can do to try to prevent these incidents from happening.
MIKLASZEWSKI: Defense officials say the ultimate solution is to attack the pirates where they live, on the beaches of Somalia.
(on camera): But for now, military attacks against any targets, even in a failing state like Somalia, have been ruled out, permitting the pirates to carry out their mission with impunity.
Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News, the Pentagon.
SHUSTER: She's back. Elliott Spitzer's call girl is out of hiding. Wait until you hear how she explains away her justification for being a high paid hooker. Countdown returns in a moment.
SHUSTER: In our number one story on the Countdown, how can we ever miss you if you won't shut up? Or put another way, why don't you at least consider shutting up since talking only makes things worse? The you in question, Governor Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and, yes, even the ex-call girl, Ashley Dupre. Good grief.
Governor Palin first, who now actually faces an ethics complaint because of her talking. It alleges that when Palin sat in the governor's office with Fox's Greta Van Susteren, she wrongly using state time and resources for partisan, political purposes.
But not to be outdone, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, otherwise known as Joe the Plumber, granted a long interview to a school newspaper, "the Tufts Daily." He complained about the treatment of Sarah Palin by Senator John McCain. "The campaign is trying to throw Sarah Palin under the bus. They are trying to allude to the fact she's the reason that John McCain might have lost this election. John McCain is not come out and said that Sarah Palin is an honorable woman and has not protected her."
But Senator McCain has, in fact, defended Governor Palin.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'm so proud of her. And I'm very grateful that she agreed to run with me. She inspired people. She still does. And look, I couldn't be happier with Sarah Palin.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: And let's not forget Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota. How could we? Last night on "HANNITY AND COLMES," she denied to Alan Colmes what she had said about then candidate Obama and others in Congress.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALAN COLMES, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: You've said you were concerned during the campaign that Obama hat anti-American views and you said the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.
REP. MICHELLE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: That's not what I said at all.
COLMES: I'm reading your exact quote.
BACHMANN: It's an urban legend that was created.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: But Ms. Bachmann, just like Joe the plumber, should learn about that whole videotape thingy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BACHMANN: What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro America or anti-America? I think people would love to see an expose like that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: Meantime, the call-girl that got Former Governor Eliot Spitzer in so much trouble has spoke within "People Magazine." Ashley Dupre explaining her former profession, "this wasn't any different than going on a date with someone you barely knew and hooking up with them. The only difference is I can pay my rent."
Well then, let's bring in comedian Christian Finnegan, also a regular contributor to TV-One's-VH-1's "Best Week Ever." Something like the. Good evening, Christian.
CHRISTIAN FINNEGAN, COMEDIAN: Good evening.
SHUSTER: The resident of Wasilla, Alaska who filed the ethics complaint against Sarah Palin said, quote, she knows that we know that she knows it's wrong." Has Governor Palin sort of rubbed off on her state citizens?
FINNEGAN: Yes, that and old episodes of the "Honey-Mooners," apparently. I feel compelled to defend Governor Palin here, because the woman needs something to help fill up her schedule. When you're governor of Alaska, there's no such thing as like a busy work day. She was gone for two and a half months, but other than a rise in the moose population, nothing changed a whole lot. So she's doing a little personal work on company time. You might send emails or manage a fantasy football team. She's trying to jump-start the culture war of 2012.
SHUSTER: And the Joe the plumber quote we used was just scratching the surface as far as he's concerned. He also said of Senator McCain, quote, "he has my respect for being a war hero and I told him that personally. But you've got to get along to go along or go along to get along."
Christian, do you care to take a stab at translating that?
FINNEGAN: Wasn't that the title from of one of the songs from the Muppet movie, I think? Honestly, when you consider this interview's source, I don't think we're going to have J the P's folk wisdom around too much longer. I'm sure the "Tufts Daily" is a great publication, but three weeks ago, "Newsweek" was banging down his door. Ten days before Joe Plumber grants an interview to the Penny Saver circular you get at the grocery store.
SHUSTER: Joe also said that Sarah Palin shines too much to be vice president. That's it. She was too bright.
FINNEGAN: She's too bright. Yes, her wings have melted. Get a room, Joe. Seriously. I imagine that Joe the Plumber spends most of his days like imagining Sarah Palin in an American flag bikini, like hand washing the hood of a Trans-Am or something. It gets kind of creepy at a point.
SHUSTER: Joe the Plumber also said he was not trying to be a country music star or the next bachelor, whereas Ashley Dupre told "People Magazine," quote, I want to do music, to do fashion. Your analysis?
FINNEGAN: That's the kind of entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that has made America great. Lots of young people say they want to do music or do fashion. But are they willing to do Eliot Spitzer? OK? Unless you're out there having sex with balding narcissist who always look like they're wearing eye liner, you're not really giving it your all.
SHUSTER: Finally, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, she really thinks that she can convince people that what she said is an urban legend.
FINNEGAN: Yes. I don't know, "Hardball" tapes in D.C., which I guess takes care of the urban part. The only urban legend Michelle Bachmann should concern herself with is what might happen if she stare into the mirror and says the words Chris Matthews three times. Spooky stuff.
SHUSTER: Yes, and yet she never gives up. What's with her? She keeps going. She has no shame.
FINNEGAN: She's the Energizer Bunny of a lack of dignity. That doesn't even make sense.
SHUSTER: Comedian Christian Finnegan of VH-1's "Best Week Ever," we appreciate you coming on and have a good night.
That will do it for this Wednesday's edition of Countdown. This, of course, has been a very busy day in the world of politics, a lot to talk about with Senator Hillary Clinton. There's also, of course, that announcement that Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, has agreed to take on the job in the new Obama administration as the secretary of Health & Human Services. He will play a key role in the Obama administration, shepherding health care.
A lot to talk about tonight. "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" is up next.
I'm David Shuster, in for Keith Olbermann. Thanks for watching.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END