NEWSMAKER: SENATORS TRENT LOTT AND THOMAS DASCHLE
JUNE 27, 1996
The new Senate Majority leader, Trent Lott (R-MS) joins Senate Minority leader, Tom Daschle (D-SD), in an exclusive NewsHour interview. They discuss plans for the minimum wage, repeal of the gas tax, a deal for an independent study of healthcare reform, campaign financing and the White House/FBI files fiasco, with Jim Lehrer.
JIM LEHRER: We do go first tonight to a Newsmaker interview with the opposing leaders of the United States Senate. Sen. Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, the newly-elected Senate Majority Leader, and Sen. Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, the Minority Leader. Senators, welcome.
The lastest Shields & Gigot discussion on congressional leadership
Recent NewsHour Coverage of:
The White House/FBI file fiasco
Campaign finance reform
Raising the Minimum Wage :
Analysis of the economic impact;
Analysis of the political impact;
The Teamwork Act
Repeal of the gas tax
The Senate vote on Health Insurance reform and background on Medical Savings Accounts
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Senate Majority Leader: Glad to be with you.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE, Senate Minority Leader: Good to see you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Daschle, you said before that you could work with Sen. Lott as the Majority Leader and you could make things happen. It's been three weeks now. Do you still feel the same way?
SEN. DASCHLE: I do. I do. I think it's been a very productive period of time. As soon as Sen. Lott became Majority Leader, we were able to work out a schedule to deal with the Federal Reserve Board. We're working on the Defense bill. We're hoping we can finish that this week, and we're also, of course, we've got the big agreement on the minimum wage that we've been able to agree to, so I think it's been a real productive time.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Sen. Lott?
SEN. LOTT: Well, actually, Jim, it's only been two weeks but it may seem like three weeks.
JIM LEHRER: I miscounted. I'm sorry.
SEN. LOTT: Well, I said earlier today that I found out that it's not all honor and glory in this leadership position. It's a lot of hard work, and there have been a lot of different things on the screen simultaneously, but we are working together because in the Senate with our rules, if you don't work together, uh, you can be guaranteed gridlock. And what we're trying to do is see if there are some things we can work together on for the best interests of the country. We're working right now on meetings on health care reform. I think we're close to being able to come to some sort of an agreement on that, but we're making a mighty effort. And if we don't agree, well, then, you know, we'll deal with it accordingly. But, uh, Tom and I have a very good relationship, and when we are able to stay in communication, I think we are able to avoid problems. And we want to continue doing that.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's go through some of these things. You mentioned minimum wage, Sen. Daschle. The vote is now scheduled, is that right, for July the 8th, as I understand it?
SEN. DASCHLE: Well, it may be July the 9th. It'll come up on July the 8th, Jim, but we'll debate the bill on Monday and Tuesday, hopefully, a good two days of debate about the small business provisions that have been associated with the minimum wage bill and then the minimum wage bill, itself, and we have amendments that we'll be offering on either side, and so it should be a real good debate, and we'll--it'll culminate then with a vote sometime on Tuesday afternoon.
JIM LEHRER: But is that a clean bill, yes or no, raise the minimum wage?
SEN. DASCHLE: Yes. It'll be an up or down vote on minimum wage.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Sen. Lott, uh, the Democrats have wanted this for a long time. They couldn't get it. What happened? Why did you allow--why have you decided to let them have this--
SEN. LOTT: There were several parts to this agreement. It wasn't just the minimum wage issue. We are also going to have amendments in order and a package of small business tax provisions that would be helpful to small businesses that could be adversely impacted by minimum wage. It would allow them to offset some of the cost. We are working on things like a training wage and the House passed bill had a training wage in it too. So it is--it was several pieces.
There was the minimum wage piece. There were the small business tax considerations, and we are going to have a separate, freestanding debate and vote on a bill called the Team Act, which is one that would allow more work and cooperation between employers and employees. It'll be debated fully, not filibustered. We'll come to a vote, but we've got agreements on time and limits on amendments that had to be relevant. We also have agreed that at sometime down the road we're going to deal with the gas tax repeal issue, or some other way of dealing with the gas tax issue. So it has separate pieces to do it.
JIM LEHRER: You're going to do that separately, though, right?
SEN. LOTT: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: The gas tax.
SEN. LOTT: Yeah. It is--it will be freestanding sometime later on, hopefully in the month of July.
JIM LEHRER: But there's no deal on, on whether or not it's going to pass. The deal is only to bring it to the floor and have debate and vote on it, right?
SEN. DASCHLE: Well, Jim, let me just say--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
SEN. DASCHLE: --it's very important that, that we have the opportunity first of all to lay out the, the bill with the amendments. And you're right. There is no guarantee that this is all going to pass. We know that a majority of people in the Senate support an increase in the minimum wage. Now there will be some fairly significant differences in the Republican and Democratic amendments that we will be offering the minimum wage, and we'll have a good debate about that, but part of this whole agreement is that we will be able to send a bill to the President that he can sign and we can support. Obviously there are several steps in making that happen, but I'm confident that, that we're moving to the next step and we'll take it a step at a time.
JIM LEHRER: But--
SEN. LOTT: Jim, if I could respond to that--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
SEN. LOTT: --you can never guarantee a result in the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: I got you.
SEN. LOTT: As soon as you think you know what the result is going to be, you're liable to get surprised but what you can do is to set up a process that's fair. In the Senate, if a Senator decides he's going to offer an issue and is willing to talk till he drops, he or she can do it. And it's very hard to prevent that. All you can do is try to get an agreement on when it will come up, how it will be debated and voted on, and then when you get a result in the Senate, you take it to the next step, which is a conference.
JIM LEHRER: But you, Sen. Lott, and, and many of the other key Republicans in the Senate, remain opposed to raising the raising the minimum wage, is that correct?
SEN. LOTT: I think minimum wage will cost jobs. I think it does have an impact on people that can least afford it, those that are entry level people. I do think that it will be more acceptable if you have a training wage for people that may not be well educated or just entering the work force for a period of time. I also think that if you have some sort of legitimate exemption for the genuinely small businesses, that, that helps where it could hurt the most, and that's with very small businesses, and we'd like to have an exemption from them.
SEN. DASCHLE: Let me just say--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
SEN. DASCHLE: --an exemption is one thing. What, what the amendment offers, however, is something that goes way beyond anything we've ever done before. It's 180 days where every time anybody started another job on minimum wage, they'd have to take a sub-minimum wage at any age, so I think obviously we're going to way beyond what we've done in the past, but that will be the debate, and we'll have a good--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
SEN. DASCHLE: --a good opportunity to discuss it.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, much was made many weeks about lowering the gas tax--I mean, repealing the 4.3 cent gas tax, that part of the gas tax. And then it kind of went away. What happened?
SEN. LOTT: Well, it was tied up in these other issues, and they all kind of were on the side while we dealt with other issues that had to be considered by the Senate so that for a period there, there was not as much talk about minimum wage and the small business tax package or the gas tax repeal. That's one thing. Secondly, gas prices did start falling again. But the point is still the same. I have a great deal of concern about putting a gas tax charge, 4.3 cents or more, into the general Treasury. In the past, it has always gone into the Highway Trust Fund for highways and bridges, and I think the people would be more inclined to support it if they knew it was going to improve the federal highway system and bridges, many of which do need improving, but also, you know, take my state of Mississippi, if you have an independent truck operator, it costs him seven hundred and sixty something dollars a year just for that 4.3 cents a gallon gas tax. So it's still going to be considered. There are a number of options of how we will deal with it. And this sets up a process to do that.
JIM LEHRER: And that vote is also going to be sometime in July.
SEN. LOTT: We hope it will be in July. We'll work with the--
JIM LEHRER: So on that issue alone up or down?
SEN. LOTT: Yes.
SEN. DASCHLE: well, Jim, let me just say--
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
SEN. DASCHLE: --Trent has raised a couple of good issues here. One is whether or not the--the money ought to go into the trust fund. He and I are in agreement there. I think it ought to go in the trust fund. But the other issue is whether the gas tax ought to be repealed. I am not sure where many of our Republican colleagues are on that, but I think Democrats believe that we ought to keep that in place. I don't have anybody out there telling me that it ought to be repealed. I think we can make better use of it, and maybe there is an opportunity for compromise there.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, health insurance reform, what is holding up getting something done on the Kennedy-Kassebaum--that's another one that was--you all passed that bill unanimously, and then, then it kind of also--it kind of went up in smoke--what happened?
SEN. LOTT: Well, you know, Jim, in the Congress, our forefathers set up a process that involves several steps. It's not enough to get it out of committee and get it out of the Senate. It still has to come out of the House Committee and the House of Representatives. Then it normally goes to conference. You work out the differences that you can. Then the conference has to go back to both bodies and be approved, and it has to go to the President, and the President can sign it or veto it. So we're trying to work through all that. Obviously, there were some differences in the House and Senate-passed bills. Sen. Kennedy has blocked our effort to appoint conferees, and I think to be perfectly honest--and Tom would acknowledge this--it's been because of a disagreement over whether or not there should be medical savings accounts available as a part of this package. And I think we have agreed in principle that we should have a study, an experiment of a certain number of medical savings accounts and see how it works and then make a decision about how to go forward with it in the future.
JIM LEHRER: Is that a deal?
SEN. LOTT: The details of that agreement are what we are now working on.
SEN. DASCHLE: Jim, we could shake on a deal right now this minute if we could get our Republican colleagues to agree to a complete independent commission. Let the independent organization that we could choose together set up the study. If they're prepared to do that, we've got a deal on your show.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. DASCHLE: And that's how far we're willing to go to get a deal, and Sen. Lott has been very helpful in the last 24 hours to see if we can't find a way to breach our differences--or to bridge our differences. But I--I think that an independent organization that we could choose together could make that decision for us, could decide on the parameters of the study, and we'd be in business.
JIM LEHRER: Is that a deal, Sen. Lott?
SEN. LOTT: Well, I, you know, as always is the case, you know, who would be that independent group? I think we can come to agreement on the details. In fact, we're actually down to I think two or three points where there's still disagreement, but the important thing on all this is to remember the American people want some health care reform in the area of portability when you go from one job to another dealing with preexisting illnesses, a way to have coverage for long-term illnesses, and also for self-employed individuals to be able to get a higher deduction of their health care costs. Those are the four major components that we basically agree on and then medical savings accounts is something we feel that would give people the additional choice, and we'd like to set up a legitimate experiment that we can agree on to see how it would work, and that would be a winner for the American people.
SEN. DASCHLE: Let me just respond briefly. You know, who would decide? I would be prepared to accept a decision made by the Speaker of the House, the Democratic Leader, the Majority Leader, and myself, and somebody in the White House. The five of us ought to be able to find a compromise in that regard and select an organization that can do it.
JIM LEHRER: Well--
SEN. DASCHLE: But let's not let MSA's kill portability in this very small step to improving health care for everybody. We're on the verge of allowing that to happen if we can't resolve this, and I would hope we could put our differences aside and get the job done.
JIM LEHRER: I'm trying to make a deal. I'm trying to make a deal right here.
SEN. LOTT: I do believe, Jim, that the majority of the American people would like to have the opportunity, the option to have a medical savings account or a medical IRA. There is broad support for that. We'd like 'em to have that opportunity.
SEN. DASCHLE: The Senate voted on that and killed it, by the way.
SEN. LOTT: By a close vote.
SEN. DASCHLE: Well, it was--we killed it. We're on record in opposition to it.
SEN. LOTT: And the House voted for it, so we've got to reconcile the differences between the House and the Senate. And it's two bodies that are involved, and we've got to work with the House to come to a conclusion.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. DASCHLE: And an independent commission will get the job done.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, you talk about what the American people want in terms of reform. They've also said overwhelmingly in every poll in recent years they want campaign finance reform. It died yesterday again in the Senate. The New York Times said in an editorial--not yesterday--I guess it was--anyhow, a couple of days ago--anyhow, it--the New York Times said the leadership of both parties in Congress "spend half their time endorsing reform and the other half making sure it won't occur." Guilty as charged?
SEN. LOTT: Reform is in the eye of the beholder. Just yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that because of freedom of speech guarantees, the First Amendment of the Constitution, that we cannot limit the ability of the national parties to help independently candidates running for Congress. That is one of the basic problems wrong with what was involved in the bill that we were debating. You cannot limit people's abilities to participate and express themselves in elections. There--I think we do need some campaign finance reform, and I have some ideas on how we could do that, and I hope that maybe January of next year that we'll sit down and talk about how we can get perhaps an independent commission to work on that again and, and begin to move toward what maybe we can do to get some control on the amount of cost of campaigns and the length of campaigns. This bill, though, was not the solution.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Daschle, what about the, the Times' approach, though--the Times' charge that you all, both sides, talk about campaign finance reform and--but it never happens, why is that?
SEN. DASCHLE: Well, I tell you why it hasn't happened, because the special interests don't want it to happen. That's the answer. Listen, we had every single Democrat but one who supported our effort to get campaign finance reform yesterday. I don't think that's a legitimate charge. The Democrats again and again and again, Jim, have offered all kinds of proposals over the last several Congresses. We had it in one case eight cloture votes on filibusters by Republicans in the last Congress to stop campaign finance reform. We've got the same thing this time. We have no ability on the other side to get the kind of bipartisan support necessary for campaign finance reform. And as far as the decision yesterday, I think it's a disaster. I think it's an invitation to spend millions and millions of dollars more in campaigns, something the American people overwhelmingly have said they don't want.
SEN. LOTT: Now, Jim, let me tell you, that's exactly why we can't get an agreement. Let me tell you what they do in their campaign finance reform so called bills that they offer. First of all, they want public financing of campaigns.
SEN. DASCHLE: That isn't in this bill.
SEN. LOTT: That wasn't in this bill.
SEN. DASCHLE: No, it wasn't.
SEN. LOTT: But the one that you said that we had eight cloture votes on, it was in there. Another example, when I stand at the shipyard gates in my hometown on election morning, I have a number of labor union stewards standing across the aisle from me handing out my opponents' literature, and that is not reported to anybody. That's called educational. It's called soft money. They don't even have to report it. So at a very minimum--
SEN. DASCHLE: Let's change it--
SEN. LOTT: --everybody ought to have to report what they're doing in campaigns and then--
SEN. DASCHLE: We're willing to change that. That's the problem--
SEN. LOTT: And then don't limit the ability of people to do what they want to--
SEN. DASCHLE: You've got to start somewhere.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. DASCHLE: And we're willing to change soft money, but we've got to put a limit on this. And we can't wait much longer.
JIM LEHRER: Let's go on to something else. And that's the FBI files case. Sen. Daschle, is it a bureaucratic snafu, as the President says, or is it an abuse of power? Sen. Dole the other day called it a pattern of ethical arrogance on the part of the Clinton White House.
SEN. DASCHLE: I think it's a big mistake to jump to any conclusions. That's why these hearings are going on. They're trying to get the facts, to ascertain what exactly happened. That's all we can do at this point. Any prejudgment, I think, does a disservice to the investigations. We've got to get the facts and make some decisions about what happened.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, how do you feel about it?
SEN. LOTT: Well, obviously, we do need to try to find out what happened. How did those files get there? Who had access to them? Who directed that they be brought in? Clearly, it was a big mistake here. You're not supposed to give access to private FBI files to any undesignated person or any person without the authority to do that, and clearly they were out of control here. We were told first that maybe there were 300 files and then it was 400. Now I understand to make it 700 or more. Uh, there's something not right here, and clearly somebody was involved in a process that they shouldn't have been and probably was illegal. Now, I think, you know, maybe everybody is jumping to conclusions. Let's have the hearings. Let's find out what the chain of events were, who had 'em and why did they have 'em and see who needs to be, you know, punished for what happened.
JIM LEHRER: Is this a serious matter, Sen. Daschle?
SEN. DASCHLE: Well, again, I think it'd be premature to make any decisions.
JIM LEHRER: Based on what you know about it. Do you see it as a serious matter?
SEN. DASCHLE: Of course. I think it is, absolutely. It's a serious matter, and I think the President has said that he wants to do everything possible to get to the bottom of it. Everyone in the administration has indicated their desire to, to comply fully with whatever may be necessary to get the job done, to get the facts out, to respond to whatever questions may arise. I think that's the only way to get this job done and obviously, it's serious. We're treating it that way.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, let's go back to the Senate. David Broder wrote recently in The Washington Post a column that's been widely discussed, and he said the reason that so many of your colleagues, so many Senators are retiring, 14 this year for a record, is because of a hostile partisan atmosphere up there, and he said, "The result is a more polarized, less productive Congress and one which the public has come to despise." Is he right?
SEN. LOTT: No. I think he's wrong, and I think he went way too far, and it's a little bit out of character for David Broder to go that far. There are times when we become too partisan, it gets too personal. You've got to always, I think, in the Senate pay attention to the civility and a decent relationship with each other. We're working to try to move in the right direction. I think what's happening in the Senate is a generational change. A lot of the people who are leaving this year are in their 60s or 70s. They're being replaced by people like Tom and, you know, me.
We've been here eight or nine, ten years each. We're in our 50s or late 40s. There is a generational change underway, and with every new generation, the style is somewhat different. But I'll tell you this. The quality of people that we have in the Senate, the new people coming in I think is exceptional; when you look at people that have come in on both sides of the aisle in the last, you know, six or eight, ten years, I think they're very good people, and as the years go by, people develop into excellent legislators.
JIM LEHRER: Senator--
SEN. LOTT: But regardless of what the partisanship has been in the past, I, I want to contribute to trying to have a civil relationship, one that is not so partisan, and where we work together to get all we can done for the American people.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Daschle.
SEN. DASCHLE: Well, Jim, I think that David Broder was right, but I do think that Trent's right as well in that we're trying to deal with it. We've gotten way out of line here. I think the civility is as low as I've seen it since I've come to the Senate and served in Congress, and we've got to address it. I think we send the wrong message, the wrong image to the American people about democracy and about whether or not Republicans and Democrats can govern and put politics aside, so we've got to deal with this in a more civil way and I hope both sides can do that.
JIM LEHRER: Reluctantly, I have to put both of you aside for now. Thank you both very much for being with.
SEN. LOTT: Okay, Jim. Thank you.