SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: Thank you very much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How would you characterize today's meeting?
SEN. LOTT: Well, I thought it went well. It was appropriate that we have such a meeting. The President has been re-elected. The majority of Congress has been re-elected. We have work to do for the people of the country, and I thought it was appropriate. The President said come down and let's have a preliminary discussion. We didn't make any firm commitments or agreements. We agreed we'd meet again probably in December, and by that time, we should have more information. A lot of what's being talked about now is process sort of thing, and the American people have got to be saying what does all that mean? Look, we have all been indicating we want to work together. I am committed to making this a can-do Congress and producing for the people, and that does mean passing a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget, which I think is essential if we're going to be able to actually guarantee that we carry out the plan that hopefully we will agree to with the President. And it does include facing up to some decisions that need to be made with regard to Medicare. Now the President is the President. He is the leader, and he needs to show that leadership. I believe that he is--uh--in a position where he wants to do that, and I think that he's going to move in that direction. And if he does, we'll work together. There's no use arguing over exactly how we get there, except to say I believe we're going to get the job done, and I'm going to do everything I can to help make sure that happens.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator, we're going to get to some of those issues, but just on the meeting again, was the only specific agreement to meet again in December?
SEN. LOTT: More or less. The President, you know, he--he asked that we try to act expeditiously on his nominations to the administration, and I assured him that it would be our intent to do that. Some of the nominations might not go as fast, but where they're clearly good at nominations, we will try to act quickly. We talked a little bit about Zaire, the situation in Central Africa, just and sort of in the form that he was advising us what was going on, what, you know, we might consider doing, but no details there. We did talk about the budget and the need for a balanced budget for the best interests of the American people, and we did talk about some campaign finance reform, but we--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me ask you--
SEN. LOTT: --we were strictly sort of just talking about the areas where we're going to need to do some work to get it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On the budget first, will you have more sort of summit meetings like this, or will you wait for the President to propose a budget in early January and then work off that?
SEN. LOTT: Well, I don't think we've made a final decision on that yet. I had my first series of meetings today with our Senate leadership, Sen. Nickles of Oklahoma, Sen. Mack of Florida, Sen. Cochran was there, Strom Thurmond, Larry Craig, and we just started talking about the calender for next year and what would be our primary objectives next year, so we haven't made those kinds of decisions yet. We just had our first meeting this week, and we'll continue that in December, and then we will be talking with the President, but I don't think we're going to go through a whole series of early, you know, summit type meetings.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nothing that would set out guidelines and new target date.
SEN. LOTT: It could happen, but I think it's a little premature.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When you left the White House, you said, um, that the last two months of the last session provided a model for what should happen.
SEN. LOTT: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Moderates in the House and Senate were not able to get a balanced budget amendment or a balanced budget passed last year. What's changed? Why should it happen? Why should it be any easier this year? There are still all these thorny issues.
SEN. LOTT: Well, I think we've learned a lot. We've been through an election. We listened to the people, we heard what they had to say, they want us to work together, they want us to have about a balanced budget for the future of their children, they want us to address some of these issues without so much partisanship. And we learned better how to get that done in July and in September and early October, we produced real results. I think that people like that. I feel that's one of the reasons why we had a majority re-elected in the Congress with increased numbers in the Senate, because we did what we said we were going to do on welfare reform, on health insurance reform, on illegal immigration. We produced a major parks bill. We produced safe drinking water, environmental legislation. We did our job. The people said, gee, we like that. I think that's what they said. And so we--we're going to try to continue that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would a balanced budget amendment help? President Clinton seems to have dropped his objections to it, if there is an escape hatch, as he put it. Would you accept that?
SEN. LOTT: I think absolutely we need a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. It's not enough just to have a plan over, you know, six years to get to a balanced budget. We've had strong Presidents in the past that have pushed that. We've had plans. We've had procedures like Gramm-Rudman-Lata--uh--which set up a mechanism to try to make it happen. It didn't happen. So it's--it's fine to come to agreement with the President between this Congress and this President for something that would take place over six years, but I think we need that additional leverage, that additional constitutional requirement we live within our means. It's that simple. Now, we should have a way to make exceptions for economic emergencies or national security emergencies, but it should require a super majority, and it should be tight so that it's not abused just because, you know, a new Congress thinks, well, gee whiz, we might want to have some additional spending this year. It's got to be pretty tight.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, it passed the House in January last year, but it failed twice in the Senate. Think you can get it through this year?
SEN. LOTT: Well, we hope so.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Or next year?
SEN. LOTT: We have some different Senators in the Senate. I believe we are in a position where every Republican Senator will probably vote for a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget, we had some Democrats that voted for it last time; we've had a couple of new ones that were elected that indicated in their campaigns they would vote for a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget, so I think we've got a shot at it, but until the votes are taken, you can never be really sure, and you also need to make sure that you frame the--the whole debate properly. And we'll try to do that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator, on Medicare, you've said several times now you've made it clear that you want the President to take the first step. What do you want him to do specifically, basically to say this is a big problem and I was wrong in the way I approached it? What do you want?
SEN. LOTT: Well, I'm not asking for, you know, a great big mea culpa, where he says, it's--I'm not asking that. I do think he--he and the Democrats and the labor unions have put out a lot of misinformation, inaccurate information. They let on like there's no problem in Medicare, or we can fix that with just a few billion dollars here. Uh, it has real problems, and I think they need to hear from the President that we need to make sure this program is going to be preserved, improved, and secure for the future. It has--it--a lot more money is going out than is coming in. If we don't address this problem soon, we're looking at a $100 billion deficit in the Medicare Trust Fund by the year 2002. That is serious. And he has got to make it clear there is a serious problem, and he has got to step up to some of the choices that are involved in trying to help that program be secure in the future.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: If he did that and there were some kind of an agreement on a short-term way to save the hospital trust fund, would you then go for a bi--would you go for a bipartisan commission to deal with the longer-term problems?
SEN. LOTT: I think to start off talking about a commission is a copout. You know, we just had an election, and people said, hey, we elected you President, we elected the Congress, now do the job. Why do we have to punt the ball to a commission before we even see if we can address the, the problem ourselves, not only just a little short-term fix, but maybe, you know, help it a couple of years, but the longer-term problem too. Maybe there will be something between the two. I'm not saying that at some point we might not want to go with a commission, but I'm saying let's see what we can do first, let's see how we can address this, and then we'll look at our other options.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now to campaign finance reform, which you mentioned you discussed today too, what are the chances of it getting through Congress next year?
SEN. LOTT: I think it's going to be given a lot of serious consideration. I'm already planning on having some hearings on the existing law and what could be done to improve it, how can we make it fair, how can we address some of the problems. Some of them are going to be hard to address because they're constitutional problems. But one of the things that really I think bothers people is millionaires running that can come in and try to buy a Senate seat, and this is not unique just to Democrats. It happens with Republicans too. But I'm not sure that constitutionally we can address that problem. There is the question of the--the abuse of union dues without the members' permission to be spent in campaigns. There--there are problems with the so-called soft money and how that is used. So there are some legitimate concerns. We're going to have hearings on that. We're going to think very carefully about how we can improve the existing system. I think hopefully maybe we can reach some sort of an agreement, but it'll--it'll be tough because you've got different positions of how the problem should be resolved. You also have certain constitutional considerations that make it tough to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Speaker Gingrich in leaving the meeting today seemed to, to tie the hearings into just exactly what was spent this year by labor, by outside groups, and by the campaigns, themselves, to any campaign finance reform. Is that the way you understood what he said?
SEN. LOTT: I'm not sure I understood what you said he said.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He seemed to say--what he said was actually, we have to tie campaign finance reform--I think this is what he said--to laying out clearly what the contours of campaign spending are, including that spent by groups outside the campaigns.
SEN. LOTT: You know, I'm not sure exactly what he meant, again. Um, I do think that there--obviously there have been some abuses in terms of foreign contributions. We need to tighten up that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You expect hearings into all of that?
SEN. LOTT: Beg your pardon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You expect to have hearings into all that?
SEN. LOTT: Oh, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well, thank you very much, Senator--
SEN. LOTT: Okay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --for being with us.