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Newsmaker: Tom Daschle

January 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Last night we heard from the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott. Now a newsmaker interview with the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota. Senator Daschle, welcome.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Do you expect a vote tomorrow?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do, I think we’ll have a vote early afternoon tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: How are you going to vote, sir?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’m going to be voting in opposition to the confirmation of John Ashcroft.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, because I don’t believe that he is capable of changing his philosophy in the magnitude required to fulfill his obligations as attorney general. He has been an ardent advocate, a very articulate advocate for his positions generally on the far right wing of his party. Now he is going to make the attempt to enforce the laws that he has opposed most of his public life. I think that is asking too much of any individual, and I would not want to put him through that. I don’t think he can do it even if he wants to have the responsibility.

JIM LEHRER: As you heard, Senator Byrd said on the floor that that is an arrogant position to take, the one you just stated.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, call it what you will. I just think that it, it challenges common sense to think that a man who has advocated a particular position for 25 years is now capable of enforcing the exact opposite position for the next four years. I would like to think he could to that, but I just think that there are better people that could enforce the laws without that conflict every day presented to him in a myriad of different ways, and that is a judgment of course each one of us as senators constitutionally must make as we weigh our decisions.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s say you are right, Senator Daschle, and Senator Ashcroft is in fact confirmed and he becomes the attorney general of the United States. You expect that to happen tomorrow, do you not?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do.

JIM LEHRER: There are enough votes there. And let’s say you are right, that he does not, he is not able to extract his own views from his official duties as attorney general. What then can do you about it?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, obviously there are an array of different options. We can call him before the committees to ask about specific incidents. We can call attention on the Senate floor to promises made in the committee hearing process and promises not kept once he has become attorney general. We can call attention to the American people these violations of those promises and the commitments that he made. So we have an array of options. Obviously, if it becomes a real pattern, we raise it with the administration itself, and then of course there are always legal obligations, if there are some serious legal questions involving commitments made. So there are a number of options. Primarily I think we would just call attention to the fact that that has not been the commitment that we were… expected would be made when he took the job.

JIM LEHRER: So you plan to keep him on the hook, is that what you are saying?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That is what we are saying, correct.

JIM LEHRER: Now you said earlier today that you wanted at least 30 Democratic votes against the nomination tomorrow. Why, why 30?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, what I said was that I think it’s important for us to make as strong statement as I think we can with regard to this nominee. That if the majority of our caucus has gone on record expressing the same concerns that I just articulated, that we’d be in a position I think on future nominations, and with this nomination, to say that we’ll be watching and we will care a great deal about whether or not John Ashcroft fulfills his obligation and the commitments that he made.

JIM LEHRER: Much is being made by the pundits, Senator Daschle, about how important this vote is tomorrow for any senator who, any Democratic senator who is interested in quote, national politics, a national future. Is it that important a vote for national Democrats?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think it’s important for all Democrats, Jim. I really believe that our base cares more about this. When I say our base, I’m just talking about the vast number of constituencies out there — the African-American community, the Hispanic and Asian communities, the women who make up a large percentage of our membership in our party. More and more of these groups have expressed heartfelt concern and very passionate objections to the record of John Ashcroft, the promises, the statements — many of the actions taken by this nominee over the course of many years. There is a very deeply held point of view that I think needs to be articulated and considered as our votes are cast. Now, that isn’t the only issue. Obviously there are a lot of other things to consider as one makes a decision this important, but that is an important issue.

JIM LEHRER: On the general, on the more general subject of getting along in the Senate of the United States, what is your assessment, it has only been a couple of weeks now, but of the new spirit, of the shared power. How is it working from your point of view?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I think it’s working very well and I would use the Ashcroft nomination as a case in point. We could have delayed this. We could have used a lot more dilatory tactics. We could have objected to having the vote tomorrow. There are a number of things we could have done that we chose not to do, in part because we really want this partnership to work; in part because I believe we’ve got to show that we are going to be responsible partners and that we are invested in this process. So I think it’s working quite well.

JIM LEHRER: And is it really something new? Is it different?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, it is. I don’t think there is any question that if you ask my colleagues, is this a different Senate than we had two years ago or four years ago, without question, and I would say with unanimity they would say it is.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lott last night gave you some of the credit for the new spirit. He agreed that there was also – he agreed with what you just said — and he gave you some of the credit, but he said the main credit goes to President Bush. Would you agree with him?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think a lot of credit goes to President Bush. I think he is doing a lot of the right things. He is reaching out to Democrats in a myriad of ways. He has made it clear that he wants to include us in the legislative and the policy-making processes that go on in Washington. So I give him very high marks for his early days as our new president. Obviously there is going to be a lot of rough spots along the way. We are going to have to work through those but he deserves some credit as well.

JIM LEHRER: How would you characterize your relationship with him?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I would say it’s quite good right now. Obviously, we are going to have differences as we have had with John Ashcroft but I’ve met with him now on a few occasions and I would say that I, there is nothing about which I could complain at this point. I think it’s a good start. I think there is a real opportunity for a good relationship. I think that it’s up to both of us to make that happen and I’ll certainly do my part.

JIM LEHRER: Is there an — what is the form of communication between you and the president? Is it an open line kind of thing?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, so far it is. Yes. We’ve had the opportunity to have lunch together the other day. We have had meetings. We have had phone conversations; we’ve had the array of different experiences you might expect between a Democratic leader and the president of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of things where there are differences, the Federal Reserve today lowered interest rates. What is your — because of the economy — the slowing of the economy. What is your assessment of what the economy is up to right now?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I guess most of us believe that we are going through somewhat of a softening of the economy, but I would call attention to the figures you were showing earlier. The CBO has indicated that it’s their strong belief that for the next ten years, we will average three percent growth. They didn’t say we were going to go from zero to five or something less. They said that for the next ten years consistently we might see three percent, not only we might — they expect that we will see three percent growth. So I think that is a strong indication that we are in very, very good position economically. And we need to take that into account as we make our decisions in public policy especially with regard to the budget.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan the other day endorsed the idea of tax cuts. President Bush said today, hey, these new figures from the CBO, particularly on the surplus, prove his point – that there is enough money now to not only increase spending a little bit and reduce the debt but also to have a tax cut. Do you agree?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, Jim, I do believe there ought to be a tax cut. And I think we can afford one. The question is how big a tax cut. What the president is proposing — and I don’t think there is any difference of opinion about this — is that 85 percent of the non-Social Security-Medicare surplus ought to go to a tax cut, leaving 15 percent or a mere $400 billion over the text ten years for everything from defense to education to prescription drug medication to a rainy day fund in case our figures are off. I don’t think 15 percent is enough. I think we have got to find a better balance between 85 and 15. And that is what this debate is going to be all about.

JIM LEHRER: So you don’t think the tax cut proposal of the president is in any better shape with Democrats today because of these figures or earlier in the week because of what Greenspan said than it was before?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Absolutely not. There is no way that we can afford a tax cut of the magnitude that the president has proposed. I believe that we’ve got to continue to find ways to pay down that public debt. We’ve got $3.5 trillion left in public debt to pay off. We’ve only paid $600 billion. There is a long way to go in that regard.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about President Bush’s faith-based charities plan?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that there is a lot to be said for involving more organizations, religious and nonreligious alike. I think we do have to be very concerned about accountability. I think we’ve got to be concerned about separation of church and state. I think we’ve got to ensure that we don’t reinvent the wheel. We are doing a lot of that now. I think it’s important we look at all of those pitfalls but there are opportunities for us and I think we ought to pursue them.

JIM LEHRER: Is this a potential serious problem between you Democrats and the president?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Potentially, but I think we can work out the problems if they’re willing to compromise and come to the middle. Obviously, there are some good ideas there. I like the fact that we ought to be able to deduct the contributions made to organizations without having a requirement that we use an itemized form. Those kinds of things can work. But I do think we’ve got to be concerned about the separation issue. I think we’ve got to be concerned about accountability and we’ve got to be, especially concerned that had we are not just putting money out there and not doing something that we could do better in another way.

JIM LEHRER: Is McCain-Feingold or some other form of campaign finance reform going to pass the Senate and soon?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, of course we now have an agreement that we’ll be taking up campaign finance reform the end of March. I think there is a real good chance — maybe the best chance we’ve seen in years — to pass it out of the Senate. I’m hopeful and optimistic. I’m more confident than I’ve been in a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to the president about whether he would sign something like that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We had that discussion last week. Obviously he wants to see what it is and I think it’s an understandable caveat. He’s going to have to see what the language looks like before he can sign it; I’m sure we’ll have to look at the language before we can agree to voting for it. But there is a lot of room there for common ground and compromise and agreement. I’m hoping we can find enough of it.

JIM LEHRER: Looking back for a moment, Senator Daschle, what is your assessment of the way President Clinton departed Washington?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, I think he departed quite well actually. I know that there are going to be those who disagree with this or that. I think you can look at it all and put it in proper perspective. He leaves a legacy of economic growth and vitality that we can all be proud of. He has a lot of very, very strong friends within our party and around the country. I was proud to work with him for the last eight years and I look forward to working with him in a new capacity in the future.

JIM LEHRER: What about the Marc Rich pardon? Senator Lott said on this program last night that he thinks the Senate should look into this and committees should look into it, see if everything was done properly. What is your view of that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, we don’t need another witch-hunt. I’ve already indicated that I expressed some concern about the way the pardon may have been offered. I’ve talked to President Clinton about it since then. I do think that there is another side. I happen to think that all things considered this probably wasn’t the most appropriate thing to do. But I’m not sure we need another lengthy investigation. I think we need to move on. There is a lot of governing to do. We need to keep our eye on the ball. There is a lot that we can do together. This isn’t it.

JIM LEHRER: How did President Clinton defend pardoning of somebody who was a fugitive from justice and who had renounced his citizenship?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, Jim, I’ll leave that to him. I think we can save that for another conversation. I’m not going to defend it; I’m not going to explain it. I’ve already indicated that I’ve got some misgivings about it. And I’ll leave it at that.

JIM LEHRER: But you don’t think the Senate should do anything about it really?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think it’s always appropriate to look into any question that we might have with regard to actions taken by this or any other president. We ought to look at public policy with regard to pardons and maybe a hearing of this kind might be in order. I’m just saying that a lengthy investigation, which could end up being another divisive, partisan fight, wouldn’t do anybody any good.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Senator Daschle, thank you very much.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: My pleasure.