NEWSMAKER WITH SENATOR DASCHLE
April 23, 1998
In a Newsmaker interview with Jim Lehrer, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) discusses issues before Congress, from campaign finance reform to tobacco legislation to NATO expansion.
JIM LEHRER: Last night we spoke to Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Tonight, the other side with Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic Minority Leader in the Senate. I spoke with him earlier this evening from the Senate.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 22, 1998
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott discusses tobacco legislation, campaign finance reform and the GOP agenda.
April 21, 1998
Senator John McCain discusses his efforts to pass tobacco legislation.
April 17, 1998
Shields and Gigot discuss a new poll indicating a "disconnect" between Washington leaders and the public.
April 8, 1998
The tobacco industry withdraws its support for the Congressional tobacco legislation.
March 12, 1998
President Clinton endorses the bipartisan tobacco proposal.
March 12, 1998
The Senate fails to bring the debate over McCain-Feingold campaign finance proposal to a close.
January 29, 1998
Steven Goldstone, the CEO of RJR Nabisco, acknowledges the health risk of tobacco products.
July 9, 1997:
Secretary of State Albright makes the case for NATO expansion.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Congress and the White House.
Senator Tom Daschle
The campaign finance debate.
Senator, welcome. Last night, Sen. Lott said that the House decision yesterday to take up campaign finance reform would have virtually no effect on the Senate. Do you agree?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE, Minority Leader: I don't think so. I think that may be wishful thinking on the part of a lot of Republicans, Jim, who don't want to deal with campaign finance reform. The fact is we're picking up a head of steam here. He couldn't control a lot of Republicans who want to be able to vote on this in the House, and I think you're going to see this issue continue to be a part of our agenda for the balance of this year.
JIM LEHRER: So if it passes--if it ends up passing the House, what do you Democrats plan to do about that in the Senate?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, that's the luxury of being in the Senate. You have more of an opportunity in the minority to help control the agenda, and we intend to. We will offer whatever passes in the House as an amendment to another bill at some point in the future if that's the only way we can bring it up, but, of course, Republican leadership in the past have made definitive statements about their lack of willingness to schedule, only to change their mind. I'm hopeful that in this case we'll see the same.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Senator Lott when he says whatever it is, it isn't going to be McCain-Feingold that--in its current form--that's going to pass the Senate?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I guess I don't agree with that. I think that there is a real possibility that if ever we got to some real votes, McCain-Feingold is still the most viable vehicle. There is a tremendous amount of pent up support for it, and I think that with a push from the House, we could see an entirely different of circumstances here in the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: And you see that as a real push in the House. This is a real major development, from your point of view.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, this is a real breakthrough. I give a great deal of credit to the leaders on both sides, on the House side, who made the effort to get the number of signatures and force the leadership to cave on this question. I think it's a tremendous breakthrough and is something we've been waiting for a long time.
"Republicans have to make the decision as to whether they're going to side with the tobacco companies or the kids of this country."
JIM LEHRER: Senator, where do you stand on the McCain-tobacco bill?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I support it. I think there are ways with which to improve it, but I think it's come a long way. Any time you get a 19 to 1 vote on anything that controversial that's a big deal. We've got some real momentum here. I think it can be even better, but we--we really want to see this legislation pass.
JIM LEHRER: President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and some other Democrats have had some harsh things to say about Republicans on this issue. What harsh things, if any, do you have to say about them?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think the Republicans have to make the decision as to whether they're going to side with the tobacco companies or the kids of this country. That's really what it comes down to. That isn't meant to be harsh, but that's the reality, Jim. We really have to move this legislation. We've got some real opportunities to deal with advertising, to deal with the question of whether we have a tobacco policy that discourages teenage smoking. You know, 44 percent of the children in South Dakota smoke today, the teenage kids, and 14,000 of them will die prematurely as a result of the smoking habits that they have now adopted. We can change that with this legislation.
JIM LEHRER: You're saying then that you believe the Republicans are siding with the tobacco industry on this?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do at this point. Now, I wouldn't want to group them altogether. Obviously, John McCain has shown again some real courage in bolting from what has been the traditional Republican position. Others deserve credit as well. Virtually every Republican on the Commerce Committee who voted for it deserves a great commendation. So I don't want to cite all Republicans in the same way here. I think that Republican leadership--and I put a real emphasis here on the Republican leadership in the House--I think Sen. Lott is trying to grapple with this, and I give him credit for at least initially saying that the McCain bill was the bill that ought to be brought to the floor. I hope he keeps that position.
JIM LEHRER: So you're really talking about House Speaker Gingrich?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that there are others. I saw in the paper the other day where other Republican leaders have taken similar positions as Speaker Gingrich. So the problem primarily lies right in the House leadership on the Republican side.
Are the Democrats politicizing tobacco?
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to Sen. Lott's point that this criticism that's coming from you and other Democrats, particularly the president, is not helpful to the cause, all it does is harden positions? In fact, you said last night that it could lose 20 percent of the vote, or 20 percent of the support in the Congress for McCain.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: You know, we've tried to be the conciliatory partners that we tend to prefer to be in the legislative process, but obviously that isn't work. We're not getting the kind of commitment from leadership on either side of the House or the Senate in terms of scheduling these votes. So we've got to make sure that we ramp up the rhetoric, that we are in a position to make it very clear that these stakes are too high simply to get along and go along. We've got to find a way to commit to considering this legislation early so that the House will take it up in time to get it on the president's desk before the end of this session of Congress.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who suggest you Democrats are now smelling a great political issue, you're more interested in the issue than you are in really passing the legislation?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think the politics will take care of itself, Jim. The bottom line is what we can do legislatively to protect children, what can we do legislatively to change tobacco policy in this country? This is going to be the best opportunity we'll have to do anything along those lines for a long time to come. We want to seize that moment. We want to take substantive advantage and let the politics take care of itself.
JIM LEHRER: But if for some reason there is no tobacco legislation, are you all going to blame the Republicans?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, who else could you blame? Obviously, we want it done. Many of the Republican leaders are balking right now. I don't know that there's any other conclusion to draw from it. They don't want it. We want it, and we just hope that those courageous Republicans who have followed the lead of Sen. McCain and others will continue to push the Republican leadership for a commitment that will bring up this bill sooner, rather than later.
Are the president's problems distracting Congress?
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott also said that he thought that President Clinton's legal problems are distracting him from the business of governing this nation, and he listed several things that he felt like NATO expansion, trade legislation, and those sort of things are not moving because the president isn't pushing the way he should be, because he's distracted. How do you read that?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Jim, I don't agree with that at all. Trent and I agree on a lot of things, but that's not one of them. I have to tell you--I think this president is as engaged as any president could possibly be. I just met with him again yesterday at some length about the entire agenda. He is very engaged on tobacco, on the patience bill of rights, on NATO, on an array of issues that are very, very important to this country. We meet with them regularly. He talks to all leaders regularly. He is as engaged as I've ever seen him, and I think he's making real progress.
JIM LEHRER: Is it a distraction for you and other members of the Congress, particularly on the Democratic side?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I don't think it is. You know, as a matter of fact, I heard Sen. Lott yesterday say that it never comes up in Mississippi, it never comes up in South Dakota. This isn't an issue the American people are all consumed by. This is an issue oftentimes consumed by the national media but certainly by the American people and not by Congress.
JIM LEHRER: He said also that not only did this not come up--in other words, the president's legal problems--he said also tobacco didn't come up and campaign finance reform didn't come up, at least in Mississippi. What happened in South Dakota on those issues?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I would say they come up quite frequently.
JIM LEHRER: Is that right?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I will tell you that in South Dakota tobacco comes up a lot. People are concerned about it. When you've to 44 percent of teenagers in South Dakota smoking, that is a problem, that is up, by the way, from 38 percent just a few years ago. When you've got 14,000 of those teenagers who may die prematurely because of our tobacco policy, that's a problem. When you recognize that tobacco is the only product when used as directed will kill you, that's a problem; we've got to address it.
Debating NATO expansion.
JIM LEHRER: NATO expansion, where do you stand on that, what is your position on that?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I strongly support it. I think the president is right. Madeleine Albright came before our caucus this week to tell everybody how important it was not only for the country but for our world, and I believe that we've got the votes necessary to ensure a strong success next week when the vote occurs.
JIM LEHRER: Now, there is definitely going to be a vote next week?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Has it been scheduled for a particular day?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, of course, we never know when the debate will end, but I would guess that it could come up as early as Wednesday or Thursday.
JIM LEHRER: I see. Some columnists and other editorial types have said that this may or may not be a good idea, but what really is not a good idea is to do it without major public debate and consideration. Do you agree with that? Do you agree that there has not been enough yet on this issue?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do not agree with that. You know, this has been under consideration for years, virtually since the end of the Cold War. We've had many options discussed. We've had many discussions internationally. There have been many proposals. There have been extraordinary negotiations and discussions and at every level I think this has been an issue that has been very aggressively discussed and considered and carefully considered. I think we are ready to make a decision.
The disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country.
JIM LEHRER: Now, another point that Sen. Lott made was this question about a disconnect between those of us in Washington and everybody else in the country, and this was based on his going home for the spring break. What's your reading of that?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think we always have to be concerned about that. I share the view that he expressed last night, that you discussed. I think we have to be worried about the disconnect. I actually don't agree, however, that it's getting worse. I actually believe it's actually getting a little bit better. You know, when you can go home to the American people and tell them that for the first time in thirty years we've done what they said we should do--which is to balance the budget--we have a surplus now--that we are working to protect Social Security and find our way out of the Medicare mess that we've had to face, those are very important issues to the American people. And I think to see us respond as we have attempted to do gives them some additional confidence and a greater degree of understanding and appreciation of what Congress is attempting to do. We're not out of the woods. We still have a disconnect, but I do believe we're beginning to make real progress here.
JIM LEHRER: What's the cause of the disconnect, Senator?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think, Jim, it's an array of things. I think it's the bad mentality that sometimes we see in the media. I do believe that there's a focus on scandal disproportionate to the problem. I think that to a large extent there seems to be more of a focus on the problems we have in politics than there is the accomplishments and the success that we've enjoyed. Success doesn't generate the same news, and I think that's disappointing, but it is a reality and a fact of life in Washington.
"I think we could still make this session a real do-something session, rather than a do-damage session that it could turn out to be."
JIM LEHRER: As the Democratic leader of the Senate, how do you feel--what is your No. 1 thing that you would like to accomplish in what's left of this year in this session of Congress?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I would say the single most important thing that I would like to accomplish is passing a good tobacco bill, but, beyond that, we've got some very critical issues. I'd like to pass a patient's bill of rights. I'd like to see if we ca really make an impact on education. I'd like to see some real changes. We're having a huge debate on whether we abolish the national commitment to education. We'll have a vote on that tonight. And so those kinds of things are critical, but we can do a lot. There are some real opportunities here. I hope we can build on the surplus that we've achieved and hope we can protect Social Security. Those things are critical, and I think we could still make this session a real do-something session, rather than a do-damage session that it could turn out to be.
JIM LEHRER: Is the Congress doing its job right now?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think the Congress is doing part of its job. I wish it could do a lot more. If we don't do a tobacco bill, we're not doing our job. If we fail to meet the challenges in education, we're not doing our job. If we don't deal with a patient's bill of rights, we're not doing our job. So there are some missed opportunities here that will reflect poorly on the management of the Senate, largely Republican leadership, if we don't do the job that is there for us to do this year.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Sen. Daschle, thank you very much.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Jim.