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Newsmaker: Sen. Tom Daschle

June 6, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And now, a Newsmaker interview with the new Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota. First congratulations Senator.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: The education bill — you went back to work as Kwame just said. Will we see immediate signs of the change and the debate and the way this education bill is going to be handled?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, of course the education bill was a bipartisan effort before the change took place. And so I don’t know that there’ll be any immediate appreciation of the change that might be seen down the road. I think the education bill is the first and maybe one of the best ways to launch this new time and bipartisanship and I hope we can do that collectively and comprehensively as we finish the bill next week.

JIM LEHRER: As you say it’s a bipartisan bill. Is it correct to say the major differences now between Republicans and Democrats — at least most of Republicans and most Democrats — has to do with the amount of money that’s going to be spent rather than a philosophical difference?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, I think that by and large it does involve resources. Clearly we are for reform but we have argued that you have to have the resource in order to enact meaningful reform, especially in education. We’re still having some difficulty in coming to agreement on that. There are other major policy questions; we’ll be debating vouchers at some point before the end of the debate and there will be other very controversial matters. But I would say of all the issues that are of importance to us the resources — the commitment we must make budgetarily is of paramount importance.

JIM LEHRER: But just to be — to make sure we understand this situation now, there is nothing that you can do as the majority leader to change the outcome of this vote on the education bill itself, correct — no procedural thing that changed today that would affect the outcome of that, this particular legislation?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: There is no procedural motion that could I anticipate that I would want to use at this point because we very strongly want to see a good comprehensive education bill that has both Democratic and Republican imprint on it. And that’s exactly what you’re going to see. I’m confident that we can successfully complete our effort and that it will get a good bipartisan vote.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s assume that happens. Then what’s the next order of business and when do we see the Daschle era of leadership begin, sir?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I would hope you see it today. I would hope with the tone that I attempted to set with my opening remarks, the tone that we created as we deliberated on education, the way with which we’re working through the organization resolution, all of those things are elements I think of this new majority and the tone that we want to create as we work through the more complex questions. But the next bill to come up in answer to your question is the Patients’ Bill of Rights. Our view that is one that should have been passed a long time ago; it has strong bipartisan support; my hope is that we can get that done too.

JIM LEHRER: Now that would not be next if you were not the Majority Leader, if Trent Lott were still the Majority Leader, correct?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a big change.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: But again that doesn’t mean the result and the final, when it finally comes to a vote will be different, is that correct too?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that’s correct, at least I hope that’s correct. My guess is that because of the way we have been negotiating and working now for a long period of time, the growing majority of people who support the bill will be in evidence and we will have a good vote — as you say — regardless of who would have chosen to bring it up.

JIM LEHRER: So the important thing here I’m trying to get at is that where the difference is going to come, at least in these first few weeks or so, is that Patients’ Bill of Rights may not have come up for a month or so or it may have never come up if the Republican leader didn’t want it to, but it’s going to come up next because you and the Democrats want it to.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, Jim, there’s two things that I think will be in evidence. First of all — how we handle the floor agenda, the schedule; I don’t think there is any question this is going to be perhaps a fairly significant departure from what was originally anticipated under the Republican majority. The second, of course, is at the committee level: What kinds of hearings will be held; what kind of bills will be marked up; what kind of opportunities will there be for us to explore the issues? That too will change and obviously the most important evidence of that will be the agenda set by each committee chairman.

JIM LEHRER: I want to get to some of those specifics in a moment. But I was struck by something you said and we just ran it — that Republicans and Democrats have two different philosophies. How do you see the differences in the philosophies of the Republicans and Democrats as constituted now in the United States Senate?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that the Democratic philosophy is one of collective good will, of a collective investment in our country, a recognition that we’re stronger together than we are separately; and that in working through the power of that collective achievement that we can do a lot for each other; we can do a lot for this country. Whether in education or in health care or in infrastructure, or in energy now, the array of opportunities, the array of challenges that we have to face can be more consequentially and successfully addressed if we do it together. I don’t think our Republican colleagues share that point of view. And that probably is the philosophical divide. Now there is a lot of overlap and I’m hopeful that over the course of the next several weeks we can find that middle ground as we address the many issues that we have in our agenda.

JIM LEHRER: The Republicans would probably answer the same question that well the Democrats want more government involvement in the solution than we Republicans do. Is that another way of saying it, would you agree with that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I’m not for more government; I’m not for big government; I’m for smart government. I’m for a government that responds officially and with the least amount of bureaucracy, the least amount of red tape, the least amount of tax dollars committed unnecessarily. That, in my view, is the difference generationally perhaps. And that’s something we’re going to impress upon our colleagues and I think will be the imprint you’ll see in most of our bills.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you mentioned the overlap. For instance the Senate has already passed tax cuts and you were and the other members of the Democratic leadership in the Senate were strongly opposed to that and yet many of your Democrats voted for that. And of course there were some Republicans who voted against it and we’ve had the Jeffords example as well. So it is a mistake to think that all Republicans vote one way and all Democrats vote with you on everything too, correct?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: Is that going to change?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: No, that won’t change. I mean, we’re united I think as a caucus and I feel very good about the cohesion but, you know, I’m not expecting absolute total unanimity on every issue that isn’t why we’re here. I think people have to feel free to express themselves, to vote the way their conscience tells them. We’re going to accept that, respect it and move on. All I can do is make the best case for our point of view and hope that I’ll get as good a vote as we can get and move on to the next issue.

JIM LEHRER: By when you go to one of your Democratic colleagues now as the Majority Leader rather than as the Minority Leader, you carry more ammunition in your parcel so to speak?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I think so. I think there is clearly a difference in part because I’m able to set the agenda. We’re going to be more on the offensive than we will be – than we would have been if we had been in the minority. Minority often times is forced to play a lot of defense because they’re responding to the agenda that’s set out by the majority. So I think I’ll have advantages that I didn’t have before most certainly.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lott and other Republicans wanted assurances from you that judicial and other appointees of the President would get a good hearing and get a vote. Did you give them these assurances?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I have assured my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that we are going to be as fair as any majority party could be as the consideration of both nominations, as well as the issues the administration cares about is considered. I don’t think we have any choice. We have got to do that. That was exactly our record the last time we were in the majority in the early 90s and that is going to be our record now.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Leahy, the new Judiciary Committee chairman, said on this program last night that nobody with extreme views whether they be of the left or the right should be on the federal bench. Do you agree with him?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I’m hopeful that we can encourage people to nominate – those in the administration who have the power to do so – to nominate those in the political mainstream. I don’t think our country — I don’t think the Senate is necessarily prepared to support extremist views, but do I believe that there is a desire. And I’ve had a number of conversations among my Republican colleagues about this, a desire to be as supportive of mainstream positions with regard to nominations as we can be.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush — as you know — during the presidential campaign often named Justices Scalia and Thomas as examples of folks that he would like to appoint to the federal bench. Would they pass the extremist tests of the current United States Senate, Democratic majority?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Jim, I’m not going to get into personalities and I don’t think it’s appropriate right now to hypothetically consider options — especially as you relate them — to current judicial appointments. I think that what we have to do is to recognize that we’ve got to work together; we’ve got to try to find a way to respond to the needs of the country with regard to the Judiciary. But we do have expectations and we’re going to insist that those expectations be a part of consideration of the Senate as we consider the qualifications and ultimately the eligibility of the nominees that are provided to us.

JIM LEHRER: So when Senator Lott says he’s worried that you all are going to apply some kind of litmus test that if somebody is too conservative or too much to the right you’re going to block the ratification, is that right?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’m not supportive of litmus tests per se. I don’t think that that’s the way we ought to proceed. There is a procedure that the Senate Judiciary Committee uses; there’s a procedure, of course, that is immersed in tradition here in the Senate. We’re going to follow that tradition, those procedures; we’re going to respect that tradition but we’re also going to be respectful of nominees. What I don’t want to do is to see pay back. As strongly as our Democrats feel about the way we were treated, about the way some of our nominees were treated I don’t think we ought to extend that practice. I think we have got to show fairness in ways that were not shown when we were in the majority or when we had the administration.

JIM LEHRER: Have you said that to your colleagues?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I have.

JIM LEHRER: Another power that comes to the majority is the power, as you said earlier, to hold hearings and full scale investigations and that sort of thing. There has already been a suggestion that there will now be hearings on high energy prices. First do you support that? Do you think the Senate should get into a full flown investigation of high energy prices?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do; in fact, I have called for it. I think a bipartisan investigation is very meritorious. I think we ought to find ways with which to better understand what’s happened, why it’s happened, why has it become so exacerbated in recent months; why the tremendous amount of profit we see now reported by some of the energy companies. I think we need to look into that; I think we need to expand that review of course into the larger question of what should be our energy policy especially as it relates to the crisis we see right now in California.

JIM LEHRER: You said bipartisan, but just for the record, do you believe there would be such an investigation if the Republicans had remained in the majority?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Probably not, but then again you asked question earlier, what would a majority under Democratic authority be and how would be in evidence — and that would be a good example I think. What we’ll do in energy is just yet another demonstration of the new direction that we hope we can move the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any other area that immediately comes to mind where you believe there should be something like this, Senate hearings, the whole nine yards that would not have happened under a Republican majority that will happen now under you all?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think election reform is also something you’re going to see a significant amount of effort and time invested. There is no question — we have got very serious problems with regard to the way the elections have been held. The evidence most recently and the most recent report would indicate that we’ve got a problem that has to be solved, that has to be addressed in a way that raises level of confidence among minority communities especially, so you’re going to see Democrats pursue that agenda as well and it probably will happen sooner rather than later.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of Senator Lott’s comment the other day that, yes, the Democrats now have a plurality but he said a couple of other things and he said the one thing they do not is the moral authority to run the Senate. What do you think of that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I disagree fundamentally. Anyone who has 51 place settings in his caucus has the moral authority and we have 51 place settings. I don’t think it’s a question of moral authority but it’s a question of making sure that we do the best we can with the authority we have to guide this country, provide it leadership in a constructive, bipartisan way and that’s what you’re going to see from us.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms, Senator Daschle, how do you see your role as Majority Leader, contrasted with that of — of that of the President of the United States in dealing with his agenda, dealing with what he wants and he feels that he was elected to do?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Jim I think we were both elected obviously by very, very narrow margins, by the slimmest of margins. I’m not sure the President fully appreciated that in the way he has conducted his strategy so far legislatively. It worked because he had protection under reconciliation and our budget rules but that won’t work in the future. I also have a very narrow majority; and I would hope that what we could do is to recognize that both parties must feel invested. Both parties must feel included in the process in order for this to work. Democrats have not felt invested or included. I don’t think that we ought to reverse those roles. I think it’s important for to us make sure Republicans do feel invested and included. That’s what I’m going to do; I hope that’s what the administration does.

JIM LEHRER: I understand you’re having dinner with the President tomorrow night?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to tell him what you just said?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I sure am.

JIM LEHRER: Have you hold him that before?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: If he’s watching tonight, I won’t have to.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Have you told him this before?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I haven’t had many opportunities to tell him anything in recent weeks but I hope this is a new day, and I hope that we’ll have many opportunities in the future to talk and constructively consider just how we might act together in a more bipartisan manner.

JIM LEHRER: Well, again, Senator Daschle, congratulations and thank you.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: And tomorrow night we will talk with the Senate’s new Minority Leader, Trent Lott.