Margaret Warner talks to five freshman House members for predictions and perspectives on the upcoming campaign season and the outgoing Congressional session.
MARGARET WARNER: Periodically over the last 16 months, we've taken the pulse of the 104th Congress, looking at both issues and politics by talking to a group of freshmen. We return to them now for their perspective on what's happening and what's likely to happen in Congress as the campaign season heats up. With us are our two Republican regulars, George Nethercutt of Washington State and Zach Wamp of Tennessee, and our two regular Democrats, Zoe Lofgren of California, and Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania. Joining them is Republican William Martini of New Jersey. Welcome, all of you. Bill Martini, let's look at the minimum wage first, which is certainly an issue that has a lot of political currency right now. You are one of several Republicans who have broken with the House leadership and called for an increase in the minimum wage. Why are you rebelling against the leadership on this issue?
REP. WILLIAM MARTINI, (R) New Jersey: Well, I don't know if it's so much an issue of rebellion. In my opinion, it's an issue of fairness, and I think for some weeks now the issue has been brought forward and, and when I analyzed it, I believed that even though there are studies on both sides as to what happened in 1989, when the minimum wage was increased, ultimately I felt that this was a matter of fairness. If we're interested in helping people earn more, which I think is very important, this is one part of it. But it's one small part of several things that I think are important that would work together with it. Tax relief is an important part of it. Reforming our welfare system to make sure people have an opportunity, an incentive, to get off of welfare and to get into a work position, and so I think those initiatives together will help the working people out there, and that's why I supported the minimum wage increase.
MARGARET WARNER: Is it troubling to you, Zach Wamp, that there is this division among Republicans, among House Republicans on this issue? Politically, is it a problem?
REP. ZACH WAMP, (R) Tennessee: Well, I think a majority party is going to have divisions on a lot of issues. And it's your ability to handle those issues like a big family may have a disagreement on a variety of things, but it's your ability to handle that disagreement and still move forward and grow your numbers, and I think we're doing that. Geographically, there's a big split on the minimum wage. It's much more of an issue in the Northeastern United States than it is in the Southeastern United States, which is where I'm from. My grave concern here is that five or six hundred thousand people will immediately lose their jobs if that's an enacted. That's a problem--I don't think anybody here wants five or six hundred thousand people to lose their jobs-- and we've got to look at cause and effect when you do something like this.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see the politics of this division in your party?
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT, (R) Washington: I think it's a very political issue right now. And I think the Democrats are exploiting it as best they can. The public has to recognize that Democrats between '92 and '94 did nothing, even through '95 did nothing to call for raising the minimum wage. So I think it's a very political approach on their part. On the politics of the Republican side, I think we have to be careful that we get our message out very clearly that we want to have prices across this country raised because we're lower--raising the starting wage of new potential employees in our society. I think we don't want to raise these prices. I think that's the, those are the economic facts, and so it's very political. I think it's being pushed because it's a very political issue in a very political year. And I think ultimately when the public understands the consequences they'll realize that our approach to putting more money in people's pockets is different than the Democrats and that just raising the minimum wage won't solve the problems that face low-income people.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you say the Republicans are on the defensive on this issue?
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: Well, I think we are because the press is playing it up that way in large measure and, frankly, I think we, we have to be more, I think, sharp about presenting our position on the issue of putting more money in low-income workers' pockets than we have been. So I think we're, we're defensive to the point that we're responding to their calls for an increase in the minimum wage when, in fact, perhaps we should have been out front and said this is how we're going to put more money in people's pockets.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Congresswoman, for the past year, as we've sat around this table, usually it's been the Republicans that have been on the offensive, of course, and you all have been responding to them. How do you think this happened, that suddenly the Democrats are on the offensive on this particular issue?
REP. ZOE LOFGREN, (D) California: Well, after the issue of a minimum wage has emerged just recently in the press, but it hasn't been entirely new in the Congress, and I think it's the, it's sort of taken hold in the, in the public mind as an important issue. I know people, I mean, parents of kids that my kids go to school with, who try and raise a family on the minimum wage, and you can't do it. I mean, if you work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, uh, you're getting a little over $8,000 a year. I mean, you can't live on it, and so I think most people say, yeah, that's not going to solve all the problems. We know that, but it's at a 40-year low. We ought to do something about it, and I think it's the public that's really pushing the issue, interestingly enough, and once again, they're ahead of, of politicians, and I think they expect us to work together on a bipartisan basis to do this simple thing that will help somewhat, won't solve all the problems, but it will help, and we ought to do it, and we shouldn't make this some, some silly fight. We ought to do this and move on to the other things that the country wants us to do.
MARGARET WARNER: Chaka Fattah, we just heard George Nethercutt say that the public doesn't like the idea that prices might rise. I mean, how do you see the politics of this issue? Is this just a clear winner for Democrats, or could the Republicans turn this around?
REP. CHAKA FATTAH, (D) Pennsylvania: Well, I think that was important to notice that over 80 percent of the public seemingly by all of the polls support a rise in minimum wage, and this has never been a partisan issue. I mean, the last time it was raised in 1990 or '91, President Bush and Bob Dole and a whole host of Republicans, the majority in the House, voted for raising the minimum wage. So now to have it seem like it's some principal position of the Republican Party to oppose the minimum wage is really not the case. I think that the Republicans, who have agreed to support raising the minimum wage, need to be commended, because what we're supposed to do is put the interests of the American people first. Now there are states like New Jersey where Bill comes from that have a higher minimum wage today by state law, and they haven't lost these jobs that others seem to be threatening us with, that we're going to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs. The result of a modest increase in the minimum wage won't be the loss of jobs. What it will mean is that families that are struggling to pay their bills and to meet their responsibilities will have a little more help towards doing it. It won't solve all the world's troubles, but it is a step in the right direction.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Martini, the "Wall Street Journal," which has been--the editorial page--a great champion of the House Republicans--wrote about a week ago that some of you-- the fact that some of you are supporting the minimum wage really was a sign that the House Republicans, in particular, were in intellectual retreat. What, what do you think is the status of the revolution, of the energy behind the Republican revolution, and is there a whole re-thinking going on here?
REP. WILLIAM MARTINI: Well, first of all, I think we have to recognize the accomplishments we've made this year, and we've made significant accomplishments. By this Congress pushing forward the envelope repeatedly on fiscal responsibility, eventually the President had to open up that envelope and take a look at it, and eventually we reached a budget agreement, at least on a big part of the budget. There's st ill a lot more to do.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Wamp, how do you and your fellow Republicans use the next six months in the Congress to maximize your chances of being reelected and the chances that you Republicans will hold onto the Congress?
REP. ZACH WAMP: Margaret, the revolution was really not about us to begin with, and it's certainly not about Speaker Gingrich. It was about the American people believing that things needed to change, and asking the other party to step aside in the Congress for the first time in forty years and let us come forward with budget responsibility, tort reform, regulatory reform, welfare reform, all the reforms embodied in a Contract With America which are still universally embraced. Chaka mentioned 80 percent. Those Contract With America items are still supported by 80 percent of the people. When you say the Contract With America, people think about Newt Gingrich. He's not popular, but this is not a personality contest. And if I would suggest that the fall campaign becomes a personality contest, Bill Clinton is going to win every time. He's a nice personality. He knows how to communicate. He's real good on his feet. He might be the best politician in the Democratic Party since Jack Kennedy, so that's who we're dealing with. If it's about the issues, which is the revolution, which is what we were sent here for, we're going to win every time because we're for the reforms. We are the party of reform. If you look at what we've done, our votes, not what we've said, what we've done, that's the difference. We're going to win as we go to the fall.
REP. CHAKA FATTAH: There people who have taken some issue with the level of reform, Ross Perot and this whole question of campaign finance reform, and a lot of focus has been on how the House Majority in some respects, not withstanding their well-intentioned efforts and other matters, have cashed in pretty well in terms of pat contributions and others. I mean, there's going to be a lot of issues to debate in November, and--but Bill Clinton won't be the issue. It'll be Bill Clinton's record. It will be family medical leave. It'll be a tax cut through the earned income tax credit for 40 million Americans, heads of household and their children, who have benefited, so there's some good things perhaps on both sides, and we'll get a chance to debate them.
MARGARET WARNER: We've just heard Congressman Wamp say that if the Republicans continue to run as they did in '94, they're going to win. Do you think that? Is the public still behind that agenda?
REP. ZOE LOFGREN: I don't believe they are. I'm not sure they ever were. Thinking about this, I think in large measure, the Republicans in '94 asked a lot of the right questions, and the public was dissatisfied with the status quo. They were right to be dissatisfied with the status quo. I was dissatisfied with the status quo. But the, the right questions and the wrong answers, and I think what has happened, what I hear from people back home is that when they see the details of what the proposed answers are, they're appalled. They don't agree with that, and so I think we'll have a discussion about what these--in some cases very radical responses to these questions have been, that the public for the most part is not comfortable with, and we also need to talk about how what our ideas are, not the status quo, but how we actually can respond to the problems that did exist in the 103rd Congress, the way government works needs to be changed, but not in these really very extreme ways.
MARGARET WARNER: Where do you come down on this?
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: We're not extreme at all. I mean, it's extreme to think that we have a $5 trillion debt and to realize that that's what's were facing. It's extreme to face the issue that we're going to have, interest on the national debt exceeding the defense budget next year. It's extreme to not do something about saving the Medicare system. We still have a $140 billion deficit.
MARGARET WARNER: So do you think you and the, and the Democratic President in the White House should try to cut a deal on all these things from now to the election? Or are you better served by having a confrontation with the President?
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: No. I think we can come to an agreement. We've been trying to come to an agreement with this man since, since, you know, last year. We expected he did too, but he says some nice things about wanting to come to an agreement but he really doesn't want to change the system, and that's very frustrating, because if we don't handle the entitlements in this country and make some major changes like saving the Medicare system and fixing the welfare system, we're doomed for the future, in my judgment.
MARGARET WARNER: Where do you come down on this question in terms of as a Republican running for reelection? Do you run on your '94 agenda? Do you run as a lieutenant of Newt Gingrich? Do you try to separate yourself?
REP. WILLIAM MARTINI: No, I think it's very clear in my district where we'll be. We'll be talking about things that got us here, and, and now our record reflects what we've done. We--we have a record that's fiscally sound, and my record in particular was sensitive to the environment and also sensitive to many working people's issues, and so frankly, if you compare my record with my opponent's record, which will be a long record of having bigger government and spending more, I'm very, very comfortable that the contrast will be there, and the people will be able to make the right choice.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you think you will do better in your election if in the next six months your leadership and the Democratic President Bill Clinton are able to make some deals on say welfare reform and Medicaid?
REP. WILLIAM MARTINI: Yes. I think we should continue to try to get the accomplishments done, but we can't do what prior Congresses have done, and that is abandon people principles and put out smoke and mirrors because it's election time and expect the people to swallow that, and I think those days are over.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think the prospects are for reaching some agreement on some of these issues between now and the election?
REP. CHAKA FATTAH: I think that there is room for an agreement. I think we have to stop worrying so much about the next election and worry about the next generation in terms of what our responsibilities are because, you know, we can't predict what's going to happen in an election, none of us can, and probably those people who predicted that we would be sitting here were predicting, you know, foolishly then, so I think that what we have to do is do our job every day. And our job right now is to look at the critical issues facing the country, try to get past our partisan leanings and focus on the key issues.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that doable?
REP. ZOE LOFGREN: You're within spitting distance of a seven-year balanced budget plan. There's no reason why we couldn't do that. We should do it. And I think the only reason for not doing it is presidential politics. And I don't think that's what the American people wanted us to do. They want us to pay attention in a bipartisan way on the main line issues that, that bothers them, the things that makes it more possible for families to be successful in raising their children.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.