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MARGARET WARNER: The Minority Leader Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Well, Senator, the budget plan passed today over your strenuous objections with five Democrats voting with the Republicans. What happened?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, Margaret, what I think happened is that a good number of us stood together and said this was unfair. This is not the way we ought to be budgeting. We had very serious concerns with the way the whole process was undertaken. Democrats were locked out. We have a real concern with the fabrication of numbers all the way through, including the base line. And most importantly we had a concern about the priorities represented in this budget. These aren’t the priorities the American people expect. These don’t represent the values that I think ought to be included in any budget. So the vast majority, 90 percent of us, voted against it.
MARGARET WARNER: But what did those sides – Democrats who voted for it – tell you as to why – because if you could have held them, Republicans could not have passed this, if they had the two defections on their side?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that there are some Democrats who favor a tax cut of the magnitude that is included in this budget. I think it was the tax cut that by and large drove the Senators to vote the way they did. I think in some cases that they had felt included in the process at the end of the early negotiations a few weeks ago. And because those negotiations were underway, they felt this was reasonably close to what had been negotiated and decided that as a result they’d support the budget. They did it with, I think in some cases, certainly with great regret that we couldn’t do better, but they decided, for whatever reason, that this was the best we could do. So I’m disappointed, but nonetheless I feel very proud of the fact that 90 percent of our caucus did stand together.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So now where do the Democrats go from here, because you heard Senator Lott just acknowledge, in fact, this is just about the beginning and you’re going to have fights over all the elements in this big package.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think there are a number of different fights that still are important to this whole process. The first, of course, will be the tax debate itself. What will be the package? What will be the size of the package? What will be the components? How soon could it be implemented? All of those issues are very important ones, and we’re deliberating that as we speak. In fact, I just came from a meeting where some of these questions were being addressed. So without a doubt, that is the next very important question. I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of Democrats believe that we ought not commit, even though the budget allows us to commit, to $1.35 trillion, but we don’t think we ought to go that far.
We think it ought to be a lot fairer budget. We think we ought to pay down part of the public debt with the balance of the resources. We think that we ought to target some of our investments to education. We’ll have that debate as well. We’re debating education issues right now. Contrary to what Senator Lott said, the fact is this budget cuts education. There is no question about that. There isn’t any new education resources invested in this budget, and that I think will become clearer as we go on, so this is not good for education; this was not good for health care; this was not good for the priorities that you heard Republicans and Democrats espouse over the last several months.
MARGARET WARNER: But I hate to keep coming back to the politics or the votes here, but do you think you can hold together the Democrats to make the kind of changes you’d like to, or amendments to what the President and the Republicans want, say within the tax cuts?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that’s a good question, and I think the answer is not one that we’ll be able to provide for some time. I think it will be determined in part by the components, themselves. I think that there is a majority of the Senate who believes the original Bush proposal could be made a lot more fair. I can’t believe that even Republicans would truly support providing a bill that would allow 43 percent of the benefits to go to the top 1 percent. That just doesn’t make sense, when we know the need is out there for working families at lower incomes.
I can’t believe that there are those who can’t really believe that there’s something more important than simply bumping up against the cap. I really think that there are going to be other tax proposals made and then the question is from where does that money come from, so rather than spend it all in the very first bill, a lot of us are arguing – and I think there is Republican support for this – to do it sequentially – to take a piece of it now. Let’s see what the deficit possibilities are. Let’s see really what the surplus projections will be in July. Let’s not rush to try to get this done by Memorial Day. That just doesn’t make sense. That’s an artificial deadline that really has no purpose. And I think we ought to avoid falling into that trap.
MARGARET WARNER: Now one part that I think the president very much wants to happen by Memorial Day is at least have the short term, the $100 billion, the stimulus part of this. You heard what Senator Lott said about his druthers and how that would work. What are your druthers? What do you think is going to happen?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I do think that if it’s at all possible, the Congress ought to act quickly to provide stimulus. I think to the largest extent possible it ought to be directed to those people where it can do the most good and where it would probably have the greatest effect, and that’s the lower middle income people. I don’t believe that Senator Lott is right in saying that it ought to only go to those who pay income tax because – as he himself will tell you – he supports the estate tax repeal. That’s not an income tax. So if he supports estate tax repeal, we’ve got to look at those people who only pay payroll tax and find that there’s a way of providing an offset as part of the stimulus makes sense and we include it as well.
MARGARET WARNER: And how do you feel about the difference between giving people a rebate check, which they would get in the mail, versus just reducing the withholding taxes?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that the rebate would probably have the greatest economic stimulus effect just because of the psychological value in a check in the mail. I think that there’s something to be said for receiving a check you didn’t know you’d get. Most likely, people in the lower middle-income brackets especially would probably go out and invest it or spend it in ways that might spur the economy. Rates are something you have to calculate. Rates are something you generally get later. So I think just my intuitive sense is that if you really want to stimulate the economy, doing something that would have more of a psychological impact would make more sense. But I’m not wedded to one or the other. I think the key is to do whatever we’re going to do as early as we can.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, on the spending side, how firm do you think this 4 percent increase really is? Will Democrats be pushing to spend – have the appropriators spend more, as they have in most other years recently?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: First of all, Margaret, that is a total myth. I have called this a fabricated budget. That is fabricated.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean the 4 percent is fabricated?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Absolutely. And the reason it’s fabricated is because it doesn’t tell the whole story. Our Republican friends tell you that it’s 4 percent, but if you look at the numbers, the numbers are that on the defense side of discretionary spending, you do see an increase. On the non-defense discretionary side you actually see a decrease, a decrease of about $5 billion under the cost of living that it would be this year required – the so-called base line – and a $62 billion cut over the next 10 years, and that is before we pass all of the tax cuts and it’s before we plug in the defense number that will come much later. So we don’t know what the full effect will be. We do know this: this actually represents a $62 billion cut from what we had as a base line last year.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, on the gas prices – same question I asked Senator Lott – Is there anything Congress can or should be doing now about gas prices in the immediate future?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I heard Senator Lott say he’s for conservation, and I hope he’ll join me in an amendment to reverse what the Bush Administration did in the conservation budget in the Department of Energy. They actually cut it by 30 percent, so it’s pretty hard to say you’re for conservation, and then support efforts to cut the conservation efforts made by the Department of Energy. I think we ought to have a full-fledged bipartisan investigation as quickly as possible into why these supplies are problematic, why the oil companies are making record profits, and why we can’t reconcile this a lot more effectively. I think we’ve got to include alternative energy. We’ve got to force a lot more conservation. I think we’ve got to be aggressive. I don’t see that coming from this administration, and frankly I didn’t hear it in Senator Lott’s answer to you.
MARGARET WARNER: Have – have you talked to Senator Lott about this idea of having an investigation into the rising prices?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We’ve had conversations generally about it. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk specifically with him, although we’ve called for it publicly today and I intend to talk to him directly about it in the next day or so. I don’t think there’s any question but that’s the only way we can as a Congress and really as a country better understand the problem and deal with what we consider to be the real questions about why we’re in this situation. Why can’t we do a better job of managing our energy supplies, and prices especially? I don’t want to see my constituents pay $3 a gallon, and yet, we do nothing, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Senator Daschle, thanks very much. Thanks for being with us.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: My pleasure.