Newsmaker Interview with Majority Whip, Senator Trent Lott
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining me now with the Republican view of the budget and debt stand-off is Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who’s No. 2 in the Senate Republican leadership. Thank you for being with us, Sen. Lott.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: (Capitol Hill) Thank you, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You heard Mr. Panetta say that this is economic terrorism, that you’re threatening the President and the country, saying that you’ll force a default if they don’t accept your priorities. What do you think about that?
SEN. LOTT: I listened to the remarks and, you know, if it wasn’t so inaccurate, it would be almost laughable. First of all, what Mr. Panetta and the President are advocating is the status quo. They don’t want to change anything. They expect the Congress to just vote to raise the national debt, over $5 trillion, without any actions on controlling spending and reducing the size of government, reducing regulatory burden on the American people. They want everything to be the way it was. And in addition to that, they’re not even engaged. The President–I don’t know what he’s doing, or where he is. I do know that he flew 26 hours on an airplane with the leaders of Congress earlier this week to the unfortunate situation there in Jerusalem where you had the services for Prime Minister Rabin, and the President never once discussed this looming situation with the leaders of Congress. He didn’t talk about the debt ceiling, the continuing resolution, and so they’ve got to also realize that the Congress has a job to do. We have to vote. We have to get the votes to pass legislation in the House and in the Senate, and then we either agree between the two or go to Conference to work out the disagreements, and then it goes to the President. The President is the one that by the stroke of his pen will keep the government operating or shut it down. We are going to fulfill our role to pass legislation through the Congress that would provide for the continuing resolution for the Appropriations bills for the government, and for a temporary, only a temporary, debt ceiling increase. It’s on his back if he vetoes that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Senator, what about Mr. Panetta said? He said, let’s remove the issue of default of the federal government from all these other issues. Why not do that?
SEN. LOTT: There is no issue of default if the President signs it. And let me tell you what he’s objecting to. What we put on this temporary debt ceiling increase are some requirements that really directly relate to the debt ceiling increase. No. 1 is that we have a balanced budget in seven years. Members of Congress are not going to vote for business as usual. They’re going to say before we get even a temporary debt ceiling increase, we’re going to have language in there that says there must be a balanced budget in seven years. We’re also putting language in there that says, Mr. President, you can’t raid the Social Security Trust Fund or pension plans and move that money around so that you can keep the government operating after you, in effect, veto the debt ceiling increase that we’re going to send you. We also say that after this temporary debt is reached, it will bounce back down to the permanent level. I mean, these things all directly relate to the debt ceiling. As far as eliminating a department of government, the Department of Commerce, you know, we can eliminate the Department of Commerce, move its important functions to other existing agencies and departments, save money, and Congress feels that this is directly related to beginning to get a control on the ever-escalating national debt. The American people realize that a $5 trillion national debt is something we cannot continue to allow to grow out of control. Congress is trying to deal with that. It would be nice if the President would join in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It sounds like the Senate bill may look a lot like the House bill. I had read that, for example, that Sen. Dole has said perhaps the provision in the House that would end the Commerce–close down the Commerce Department might not end up being in the Senate bill, but it sounds like you would support that.
SEN. LOTT: I would personally support that. We have not had a vote in the Senate yet. It will be–I’m sure–discussed, and I don’t know exactly that’s going to turn out, but there are some other provisions that have been added on, like the ones I mentioned, that clearly will be on there, regulatory reform. The American people support overwhelmingly trying to get a control of all the regulatory and rule burdens on individuals, on small businesses, on farmers. They want it desperately, and it directly relates to the national debt. If we could reduce the burden of regulations on the American economy, we would have more jobs, we would have more growth, and it would directly relate to controlling the debt. So I do think that some of the add-ons that are being included by the House will be accepted by the Senate. I hope so. And then we work out the differences between the two bodies, if there are any, it goes to the President. He has to make a call. But keep in mind this is a temporary debt ceiling. It’s–even if he disagrees, we will have, you know, the permanent debt ceiling will come due on December the, I think it’s the 12th. There will be another opportunity for him to express his concerns. It would be nice if he would join in the discussion, instead of speaking through the news media, through televisions, through Leon Panetta. Why isn’t the President of the United States engaged in this issue or these issues? They’re very important to the future of our country, our children’s future, controlling interest rates, and I think that they’re just using their, their rhetoric, and that’s all they used last month is rhetoric. They have not been engaged in discussions to try to work out the disagreements with the Congress at all. And let me tell you, I know that personally for sure, because I have tried to talk to ’em over a period of months. And for the last three weeks, it’s been like a tomb, nothing. They’re not engaged. They’re just standing over there saying, oh, if you don’t do it our way, we’re going to veto it and shut down the government.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator–
SEN. LOTT: Well, they’re going to have that opportunity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You heard Mr. Panetta describe what he thought the consequences would be of not raising the debt ceiling. He talked about this having an impact for 20 years. What do you think about that? Do you think the consequences would be as significant? Because from what you say, if there are add-ons in the bill that the Senate approves, we’re going to have high noon here, we’re not going to have a resolution to this conflict.
SEN. LOTT: High noon is not necessary. We could avoid it. We could have some communication with him, and he can sign it, and there won’t be high noon. There’ll be time to work it out.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But let’s say there is high noon. Do you think the consequences would be that extreme?
SEN. LOTT: Mr. Panetta needs to remember that Halloween is over. Scare tactics don’t work this week. Look, we have had confrontations between–he was in the Congress–he of all people knows better than to say the things he just said. We’ve had situations in the past where the Congress and the Presidents didn’t agree on the debt ceiling, and you had a temporary breach of that debt ceiling, 11 days one time, I think, back in the late 80’s. The government didn’t go into chaos. In fact, the markets continued to go up. One other thing, Mr. Panetta talked about all these add-ons–that’s not the way it’s done. I researched the record back to 1984, many years when Leon Panetta was chairman of the Budget Committee, and every year, every year, the Democratically-controlled Congress had add-ons anywhere from one or two to as many as six or seven. And I mean, really big, substantive add-ons. He’s not being truthful on what the past has been or what the impact will be. There will not be this big impact on the markets. In fact, the markets will react positively because they will say, gee, the Congress is serious about getting federal spending and regulations under control, and they will believe then that we’re convinced about getting a balanced budget over seven years, and in fact, there probably will be a positive reaction. He knows that. He’s being–to put it charitably–disingenuous in what he’s said.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator, are you worried that this is going to increase skepticism in the body politic about what happens in Washington? The polls show that people are, are–they very much want there to be bipartisan cooperation.
SEN. LOTT: I’m an advocate of that. This is not necessary. The President needs to be involved in working with the Congress. He is not. He doesn’t need to veto those bills; he should not. I think the important thing for us to do is to fulfill our commitments to get a balanced budget, to get genuine Medicare reform that preserves and protects for the future genuine welfare reform, tax cuts that provide tax fairness, and some growth in the economy. We can work with the President. We can get that job done. If we will do those four things and work together between the Congress and the President, the country will benefit, and there will be plenty of benefits politically to go around for everybody. That’s what we should do. It’s not happening because the Congress, which would work with the President, hears nothing from the White House. There is no communication from the White House or the President. He’s in a full campaign mode. That’s all. He’s checking the poll numbers every day. He is not serious about dealing with the substance of the issues that he says he supports and the American people want. So I don’t think that this is good for the country. I think it would be better if we worked together. It surely would help if the President would join in the exercise.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Lott, thanks for being with us.
SEN. LOTT: Thank you.