NEWSMAKER: SENATOR LOTT
April 22, 1998
From campaign finance reform to the tobacco legislation, Jim Lehrer talks with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott about the major issues facing Congress and the nation.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Congress and the White House.
Senator Trent Lott
JIM LEHRER: Now, the first of consecutive night Newsmaker interviews with the leaders of the United States Senate and to Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, the Majority Leader of the Senate. Senator, welcome.
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: Jim, good to be back.
JIM LEHRER: First, what do you make of the House action on campaign finance reform today?
On campaign finance reform.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I don't know quite what to make out of it. Apparently, they didn't handle its earlier consideration in a way that satisfied people by any stretch of the imagination, and they're going to have to bring it back in some form or another. I thought that Congressman Hutchinson had a good point, though. Even if we did something on this issue this year, it wouldn't be applicable until the next election. You know, what we really need in campaigns and the campaign law, Jim, is for people to comply with the law. I think that a lot of people want to change the subject, not change the issue. And so, first, let's comply with the laws that are already on the books. I think the time will come when we can hopefully come to an agreement on what we might can do in this area. The Senate has taken it up twice, as was noted in the last seven months. A consensus was not there yet. So I don't think that, you know, we should spend a lot of time additionally on it this year. We've already spent several days. When I was home during the Easter recess in my own state and as I go around the state and the country, people don't ask me about this subject. They ask about the quality of education, their schools, and violence and drugs at their schools. They talk about drugs and crime in their cities. They ask about IRS reform. That's what people really want to talk about, is things that affect their lives on a daily basis.
JIM LEHRER: So, when Congressman Shay said today this was going to put pressure on the Senate to do something on campaign finance, you're saying no way?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I was laughing when he was saying that. That's probably why you're saying that.
JIM LEHRER: Exactly.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I don't know who Chris has been talking to, or what Senators might have been calling over there trying to get people not to sign the discharge petition. I certainly have not. The way I view it, the House does what it has to do. The Senate does--with our rules--what we need to do for the American people. And we go to conference if there's disagreement.
JIM LEHRER: So it's over, from your point of view, right, campaign finance reform in the Senate this year?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think it will not happen this year, but, you know, in Congress and in Washington you never say never because, you know, too many things can happen.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: But we've already made two efforts at it. We spent a lot of time last year when we should have been passing the infrastructure highway bill last year, we got tangled up in this issue, and spent about two weeks trying to get over that. We agreed to bring it up again this year. McCain-Feingold is not going to get through the Senate. Nothing will get through the Congress that doesn't include, for instance, paycheck equity, and that's so that union members can say how their views will be used before it could be used and abused without their permission. So that's kind of where we are, and I don't see how you transcend those points in the time we have left this year.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Speaking of Sen. McCain, where do you stand on his tobacco bill?
On the tobacco bill.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I have talked to Sen. McCain a great deal. The Commerce Committee is the committee that reported out that the tobacco bill was pending in the Senate. Sen. McCain chaired that. It's very difficult legislation to deal with. It's complicated. There are a lot of moving parts. It's large. It does have some problems in it, but as Majority Leader, I asked Sen. McCain to try to move something through the committee that was, you know, that was responsible, and I think he did a good job of a very difficult package of issues. We're looking now at how do we proceed, how do we get it to the floor of the Senate. I think it's an issue that will be debated this year. Are there problems with it, or disagreements over it? Yes. Should we try to find a way this year to try to deal with teenage smoking and teenage drug abuse, for that matter, and see if we can deal with the health problems caused by tobacco smoking? Yes. And I'm trying as the Majority Leader to develop a strategy as to how we could get through that process. And we're working on that right now.
JIM LEHRER: What do say to--there have been a lot of Republican criticisms of this bill. Sen. McCain is also a Republican; that it's a back door way to try to increase the federal bureaucracy. Speaker Gingrich, in fact, has said and others have. What's your view of that?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I say again it's a complicated issue. There are a lot of pieces and parts to it. It's large. It is too big. I mean, in the Commerce Committee the amount of money involved rose too much and too many people--
JIM LEHRER: $600 billion now.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Yes. I mean, it can lead to, you know, bankruptcies or black markets of cigarettes. We don't need that. They had that happen in Canada, by the way. We shouldn't replicate the problems that they have created for themselves. So, I mean, I think they did go too high moneywise. I do think that there is some bureaucracy that was added in there that probably we don't need that. When you--and there is concern that this is a cookie jar that President Clinton wants to use to pay for all of his programs that don't even relate to tobacco-related problems. But without saying, oh, he did that, or he did the other, we need to continue to see if we can work something through the Senate, that the House do what they can do, and see if we can come to some conclusion this year. That's the way I approach it. I fear that there are those in Washington that view this as a way to spend money, or this is a good political issue, and I think, instead we should be saying, what can we do to help address this problem of teenage smoking and help problems caused by smoking.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the political issue, President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and a lot of Democrats said yesterday that the Republican leadership is now doing the bidding of the tobacco interests; that's what is going on.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: That's the type of irresponsible conduct and comments that don't help the effort, and the Senate--no help from the president, by the way--here's a man that negotiated talk to the attorneys general, the plaintiffs' lawyers said, yes, we're going to be on board with this tobacco settlement. When they reached a settlement, they backed away from it, fumbled around with it for two months. The president keeps saying, yes, I want the money, but he hasn't done anything to help get it. Meanwhile, up in the trenches, where the work is done, the Senate has been working on it. We have a bill that's been reported from the committee. Is it perfect? No, but we're out there doing hard labor, and he's throwing bombs from down at the White House. Now, I know he's got to have something to talk about that will sort of change the subject of his problem. And I understand that. But if he's serious, if he's not just playing games, if he doesn't want it for a political issue, he needs to roll up his sleeves, get in there, help us find a way to bring something out that's reasonable, that will help the problems that are caused by smoking in America. It's going to take some leadership from him and some courage. I just spoke to a White House representative on the way to this show, as a matter of fact. And I said the president's comments hurt; they didn't help. They reduced our chances by another 20 percent because--
JIM LEHRER: Reduced the chances by 20 percent?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
"He's (President Clinton) not serious about really trying to address the problems caused by smoking."
SEN. TRENT LOTT: It's hardens people. It makes people say, oh, phooey, the president's playing politics. This is just a way to change the subject. He's not serious about really trying to address the problems caused by smoking. If he's serious, why is he down there throwing bombs at us while we're actually working on it. We're actually trying to do it. Now, some people say, well, he meant that for maybe the House. It didn't say the House. It said the Republican leadership, pure, partisan baloney, and he needs to get in there. It's typical of a lot of things. The president calls up and said, hey, guys, we've got a problem here, you all ought to address it. And when you do your job, I'll let you know if I like it or not. That's not the way it works. I mean, this government has an executive legislative and judicial. We have co-responsibilities. I have proven and have gotten criticism for it sometime that I want to work with the person that serves in this White House as our president for the best interest of our country. I did it on budgets; I did it on tax cuts. I've done it on some treaty issues. Now, I need a little reciprocation, Mr. President, get in here and help us.
JIM LEHRER: From your point of view then there is no barrier to a vote on the McCain bill, right?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I don't see a barrier. I think we have to see if changes do need to be made before it comes to the floor. I think we have thought to what will happen when it gets to the floor. I don't want to just roll a live bomb down the center aisle of the Senate and say, you know, have fun, you know, kind of like the president has been doing, and let it blow up. See, there is a possibility that we could have a meltdown, that it could get so out of control, so much money, so many people trying to spend it here, spend it there, so many people saying we've got to punish the tobacco companies. You know, some people want to kill 'em; they don't want a solution. They want to execute tobacco companies. And we could wind up getting nothing. And so, again, as Majority Leader, my job is to try to think through how do we make this happen in a way to get a product that advances the issue to hopefully a reasonable conclusion at the end of the day.
JIM LEHRER: You mentioned President Clinton's distractions. You said earlier that his legal troubles were "beginning to have an impact on his ability to govern." How do you feel about it now?
The president's legal troubles.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think it is still causing a problem. Again, I expressed my current concern to the administration more than once that we have a very important vote coming up on a foreign policy issue soon, NATO enlargement, and I think it will pass, but I'm concerned that the administration is not staying close to it; the president is not addressing that. In the trade issue we've not been able to pass free trade in the form of fast track. We haven't been able to pass the Caribbean Basin initiative, and probably won't be able to pass free trade for Africa.
JIM LEHRER: It's his fault? It's the president's fault?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, he couldn't get the Democrats to vote for it in the House last year, and I just made a suggestion of how we might move some of those trade issues, and one example is the tobacco thing. Why is he out there? Why is he sending word I want to work with you, let's get this done? I mean, he's out there, you know, beating up on us publicly. I think it's because he knows that if he's not talking about something like that, that the questions from the press will be about other issues.
JIM LEHRER: He said in Africa the other day "This is a Congress." He's talking about your Congress. "This is a Congress with nothing to do and not time to do it." How do you read that?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: This is a president that talks a lot and doesn't want to get involved in the process of producing results if it's in any way going to cause him some problems. We have this year an agenda that is focused, and it's the agenda the America people want to talk about. Jim, you're asking me all these questions about campaign finance reform and tobacco. I want to say, again, that's not what real people are talking about outside this city. When you go to Centerville, Mississippi, they want to talk to you about the burden of government regulations and requirements.
JIM LEHRER: They don't care about that?
What the people care about.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I had a town meeting in Centerville, Mississippi, opened it up for questions for 30 minutes. Not one question. No. What they want to talk about is real life problems. What can we do to help improve the quality of our schools? And this very day the Senate has been voting all day on important amendments that will help parents be able to do more for their children in education, kindergarten through the twelfth grade. They're concerned out there--the real world--whether it's Boise, Idaho, or New York, Rochester, New York, about drugs, and the impact it's having on teenagers and the quality of education. They want to know what we're going to do to bring IRS under control. They do like the fact that we did get a balanced budget agreement, and, as a matter of fact, it's actually working, and we're going to get a surplus. Then they want to know, by the way, what are we going to do with that surplus? Are we going to get some of our money back?
JIM LEHRER: What do you tell them?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I tell them, well, first, I do think we should use it to guarantee the security of Social Security.
JIM LEHRER: So you agree with the president on that. That's what the president said-
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Look, when the president comes up with an idea that's got some merit to it, I think we ought to take it--now we might not do it the way he would like to do it. In fact, we probably won't do it, but I think to put some of it on securing Social Security--I do think that we should find ways to give people more opportunities to use their money, perhaps even to have a personal private savings account or a pension plan, in addition to Social Security, and I do think we ought to look at paying down the debt some. I worry about my son and daughter being saddled with the debt that we built up and having to pay the interest on the debt.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you about disconnect. You've been in politics a long time now. Is the disconnect between you and the folks and me and the people in Washington, whatever our jobs, and the people out in the country getting worse or getting better?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think it's probably getting worse. Right now I think it's probably the worse I've ever seen.
JIM LEHRER: Is that right?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Oh, yes. And, by the way, in the president's defense, I didn't get a lot of questions about the president's sexual allegations problems either. I mean, we are consumed with that here in Washington, and that's why I go home. That's why I did, oh, I don't know, 20 events last week from schools to civic clubs to Goodwill Industries to town meetings. I get re-immersed in what it's like when you're trying to make a living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when you get to hear what they were doing. We get an agenda of feelings driven by the Washington Post and the New York Times. You know, I've done Sunday talk shows. I do 'em occasionally. All I've got to do is read the Washington Post and more likely the New York Times. I know exactly what they're going to ask, what their position is, and what I should say, because it's all--it's all controlled by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The people out there in the real world, they're not reading the New York Times and the Washington Post. They're watching the-- they're watching you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: And they're going to hear me say, thank you very much, Senator Lott.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Glad to be back with you again.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you, sir.