GWEN IFILL: As Kwame and Robert Gibbs mentioned, the atmospherics at tonight’s joint address to Congress are likely to be a little different than in years past. Among other things, some Republicans and some Democrats will be seated together, among them, this bipartisan pair.
Judy Woodruff has that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And they are the two senators from the president’s home state of Illinois, newly elected Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Dick Durbin. He serves as the Senate’s majority whip.
Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.
Senator Durbin, to you first.
I don’t mean to be too personal, but how did this all come about? Who approached whom?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-Ill.): I can’t remember who started the conversation.
SEN. MARK KIRK (R-Ill.): You did.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: OK.
SEN. MARK KIRK: Yes.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I will take credit for it.
SEN. MARK KIRK: Right.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: And I thought it was a good idea.
Mark Kirk was elected back in November. On election night, we spoke on the phone and I said, the campaign is over. Let’s try to do this together. And we have been working together ever since. He was sworn in early. We have worked on a lot of issues involving our state. We’re going to continue to.
And I think, tonight, sitting next to one another is an indication of that spirit of cooperation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator Kirk, why did you think it was a good idea? Some of your fellow Republicans are saying this is a stunt.
SEN. MARK KIRK: It’s not.
For example, I’m wearing a ribbon that many of us will wear remembering Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and praying for her recovery and those of the other victims. It’s after the Arizona shootings that I think it’s incumbent on all of us to sit as patriots, not as partisans.
And so we have decided to sit together to make sure the people of our state see that we agree on more than we disagree on. And, yes, it — it extends beyond tonight. Senator Durbin and I just introduced bipartisan legislation to ban sewage dumping in the Great Lakes as part of this bipartisan cooperation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I ask you about that because, this morning, the Senate minority leader, your leader, Mitch McConnell, told a group of reporters — he said, seating arrangements during the State of the Union, in the end, he said, is going to mean absolutely nothing.
You apparently don’t agree with him.
SEN. MARK KIRK: No, I think that symbolism oftentimes can lead to progress. And, many times, disagreements on the House or Senate floor come from personal pique.
And I always think there’s — it’s always a good time to have good manners.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned stopping sewage dumping in the Great Lakes.
What about other national issues that you think you and — and Senator Durbin might be able to work on, that the two parties might be able to work together on?
SEN. MARK KIRK: Well, for example, the president will call for no earmark spending. I agree with him on that. He will also call for a new line-item veto that will reduce federal spending. And I agree with him on that as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you think this has staying power.
Senator Durbin, what about you? Do you agree with that?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think so.
And I do have to say a word about Congresswoman Giffords. I mean, what happened to her was a national tragedy, but it has inspired many of us. And I hope that, tonight, she’s strong enough to watch the State of the Union and to see the seating arrangements and the ribbons, which I will be wearing as well, and really understand that she’s inspired us to try a little harder to work together.
I think the lame-duck session, where we accomplished quite a bit, working with the president, Democrats and Republicans, I hope it set the tone for what we’re going to be embarking on in the next few weeks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator Durbin, what — what does the president need to say tonight?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, it’s an interesting balance he has to strike.
I think we all agree that the nation’s deficit and debt are major challenges. I was on the deficit commission that the president created. But we have to find a way to strike the right balance, so that the cutting of spending is not at the expense of recovery, so that we don’t kill the jobs that we need to have in Illinois and across the nation.
And, secondly, I — I know that this has been debated back and forth, but we have got to find out how to put more resources into education and innovation, so that America will truly be competitive in the decades ahead.
You know, the president of China came to Chicago last week, and he came there in a new capacity: America’s major creditor and major competitor. And I think — and I think Senator Kirk probably agrees with me — we have got to find a way to make sure America is more competitive in the decades to come.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator Kirk, what about this — this point? We are hearing the president is going to talk about investments in education and infrastructure, research and development, his argument being that this is all about the future, that you have to spend now to have a better future.
Is that an argument that makes sense to you?
SEN. MARK KIRK: Well, we can reallocate items in the budget as long as overall federal spending is going down, and going down by quite a bit.
What is left of federal spending, if it’s reallocated more towards helping America’s economic future, has a strong bipartisan support. But I think the message that we did hear in November is, we are worried about trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. It’s utterly unsustainable. And we need to, in the long run, cut federal spending dramatically, starting almost right away.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s not inconsistent with talking about spending on so-called investments, as the White House describes them?
SEN. MARK KIRK: Well, remember, even if we balance the budget tomorrow, the federal government would spend over $2 trillion. And, so, the question is, first, we need dramatic spending reductions. And then, secondly, with what’s left, if we reallocate it towards America’s economic future, there can be strong possibilities for bipartisan cooperation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Durbin, we also know the president is going to talk tonight about a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. Robert Gibbs was talking to Gwen about that just a moment ago.
Do you have a worry, though, that that is going to necessitate, in short order, deeper cuts in other domestic spending?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I do. I do.
And I try to imagine what it will mean to freeze it and what kind of cuts will take place. And — and you really have to play this out. Last night, I met with the chiefs of police and sheriffs from major cities across the United States. We talked about mental illness, in light of what happened in Tucson.
And these chiefs of police said to me, you know, right now, the first line of defense against unstable people with mental illness is the police department. It’s the young officer. It’s the jailer. And we have to understand that putting resources into caring for the mentally ill is not only the compassionate thing to do, but important for us to have stability and civility in our society.
So, these are going to be some tough calls. It won’t be easy. I believe we have to bring the deficit down, but I hope we do it in a humane, sensible way.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Senator Kirk, this — this idea of cutting what would amount to benefits that go to local or state governments to help those who are mentally ill?
SEN. MARK KIRK: If you’re cutting overall federal spending, then you can have a strong chance to get bipartisan support.
If, on the other hand, we’re not really cutting spending, I think we’re taking the country in the direction of Greece, that said to — yes to everyone and no to its economic future.
I think the principal danger to the U.S. economy is federal spending and trillion-dollar deficits. If we focus our attention on that number-one problem first, then there’s a lot of room for bipartisan cooperation on everything else.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, we will be watching the two of you sitting together in the gallery tonight.
Senator Mark Kirk, Senator Dick Durbin, thank you.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Thank you.