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Trent Lott

June 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Joining us from the capitol is Senator Lott.

Senator, welcome.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Thank you, Jim. Glad to be back with you.

JIM LEHRER: Signing the tax bill today, the signing of the tax bill, does that ease the pain of no longer being Majority Leader a bit?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, it certainly does. That’s a highlight really of a career. I was thinking about it today as I brought back my pen the President used to sign the bill and will have it put in a framed shadow box; it will be one of the three pens that I value the most over my 29 years of service in the Congress. This is a major achievement. I’m delighted we’ve got it done for working Americans, for married couples, for people that want to help their children with education, it was a big plus, and it did make everything feel a little rosier today.

JIM LEHRER: Just for the record, what are the other two pens?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, the other one was the pen that President Reagan used to sign the Gramm-Lott budget restraint bill back in 1980, and the one used to sign Conable-Hance, which was the last time we had a major tax cut. That one – those two – with this one – are the ones I value the most.

JIM LEHRER: On your switch from being Majority Leader now to being Minority Leader, columnist Michael Kinsley suggested the other day that you appeared to be in a state of denial about your new status. How would you describe your state over this?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, it’s, you know, one of realism. We’ve got a job to do, and frankly I have been in the minority before. We were able to achieve a lot of things; in fact, those two bills that I mentioned during the Reagan years, where we were in the minority. I was the Republican Whip in the House during those years. In the Senate, the agenda is the same. And the people are the same and we’re going to have a lot of bills that we can pass in a bipartisan way. Right now we’re working on education. It’s very slow. There’s some fundamental disagreements about how the federal government can be involved and helpful with education, but President Bush has made those high priorities. The American people consider it a high priority, and I predict that within the next week or so we’re going to pass a major education bill, so as we go forward, even in the minority you have the opportunity to offer amendments, to offer alternative bills, and we’re going to do that, so while obviously I prefer to be in the majority and where it really does make a difference is in the chairmanships.

I mean, you’ve got John Warner of Virginia has been replaced by Carl Levin of Michigan. You’ve got Ted Kennedy as chairman of the Health & Education Committee instead of Judd Gregg in New Hampshire, and Pat Leahy instead of Orrin Hatch in Judiciary. Those are fundamental shifts in the philosophy and the approach of those Senators at the committee level, and that is important. But my own attitude is not one of denial; it’s one of this is a different kind of opportunity. I have a job to do. I’m still the leader of 49 out of 100 and frankly, in the case of the tax bill we held the vote of 48 of 50 Republicans and we also got 12 Democrats. I predict they’ll be both as bipartisan on education; I hope we can do something on the energy bill that’s good for America, that provides more energy, that takes into consideration environmental concerns and conservation. Maybe what it does is it forces us even more to work together to try to do the right thing for the American people. So I’m not in denial, and I’m not in a state of depression. I’m now in a mode of trying to plan a strategy. I will continue to work on the people’s agenda.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of agenda, you said the agenda would remain the same. Senator Daschle was on this program last night, and he said, no, that in fact is the major change in the leadership because, for instance, after the education bill is over, he plans to bring up Patients Bill of Rights. Now, under a Trent Lott majority leadership that wouldn’t have come up next, would it?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: It wouldn’t have been next. Energy would have probably been next, because I think there’s a certain amount of energy about that to make sure that we don’t have continuing rolling brownouts and raising – rising prices for gasoline and diesel fuel that affects farmers and businessmen and fishermen and all that. But I had indicated publicly and to the Democrats that the Patients Bill of Rights issue was one that was going to be brought up this summer. I had hoped actually we could get to it in late May or early June. But clearly we too would call up the Patients Bill of Rights issue; it would have been a different bill. It wouldn’t have been the so-called – I guess it’s the Kennedy-Edwards-McCain bill; there would have been the Breaux-Frist bill. We would have full debate and a vote on it. Another issue that they say they’re going to bring up earlier is minimum wage.

Actually, I tried to get an agreement to bring up minimum wage back in May. And it was objected to by the committee of jurisdiction, saying, no, we want to take it through the regular committee process. Now one of the differences is we’re going to try to mitigate the impact of minimum wage by some small business tax relief that will help small business men and women stay in business and will make sure that the entry level workers are not knocked out of their jobs.

JIM LEHRER: But isn’t that a huge difference between your approach and the Democratic approach, when it does happen?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, the approach will be different, but the issues are the same. I think they’re going to try to do an energy bill probably in June or July. We would have done Patients Bill of Rights and minimum wage. We’re going to have to do the regular appropriations bills. Hopefully, we will be able to work on trade promotion, which is also important. Hopefully, we can even address the question of Medicare reform and the needs of prescription drugs. Again, our approach is different. We think that prescription drugs should be made available as part of the services people are entitled to with some choice in the private sector for elderly poor. They want a broader, more subsidized program for everybody. But the point is we – the big issues that we need to deal with – budget, taxes, energy, health, trade, defense, and appropriations – they’re the same. The order may be different. The approach will be different. But the big issues are the same.

JIM LEHRER: What about the end result, will they be different because the Democrats are in charge?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: They may be some because I think clearly they will push for more government solutions, where we believe in incentives in the private sector; they will push for more spending from the federal level; we will push for more, you know, private sector solutions, more decisions at the local level, for instance, in education we think that the local people, parents and administrators, teachers, should have more flexibility and choice, along with accountability, and some additional money, where it’s really needed. Democrats still want to run education decisions more from Washington, and they want a lot more money, more than we could probably do in one gulp.

JIM LEHRER: But the fact that the Democrats are in charge of the agenda and the order and the committee you think will also have an effect on the outcome. In other words, they’re going to win more than they would have had you been in charge?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: The bills will probably be different than they would have been, although let me just say, having been the Majority Leader, the minority in the Senate has extraordinary rights, and the majority cannot really dictate the results. The result will depend on where the votes are.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. You don’t think they’re going to change that much?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I don’t think, no, I don’t think they will change a lot. I still believe that in the Senate we have a center right coalition, not a center left coalition.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you. I asked Senator Daschle last night if he thought he would have more – I don’t think I used the power over – but the power to influence his own Democrats as Majority Leader than he had when he was Minority Leader, and without a blush, he said, you bet because the power to set the agenda and all that sort of thing gives him a little bit of extra persuasion. Do you agree with him?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: He kept his troops together pretty well in the minority, quite frankly, but, yeah, being Majority Leader does give you extra powers and extra persuasion, I think, on a lot of issues within your own conference. Part of it depends on – on how you use it, and he’ll have to be careful about that.

JIM LEHRER: Are you worried about losing control of some of your Republicans because you’ll be in the minority?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I don’t really think so. We will have a couple of Republicans, obviously, on different issues that may be more inclined to vote the Democratic side, but different Democrats, like Zell Miller of Georgia and John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska and perhaps others that will be inclined to come our way. This is a very evenly divided Senate, and it will go back and forth, depending on what the issue is, and what amendments are offered.

JIM LEHRER: Now you mentioned energy. I also spoke to Senator Daschle last night about another thing that comes out of the switch in majority/minority, and that is the ability to have hearings, the ability to have investigations, and he said, yes, there’s now going to be a Senate investigation of high energy prices, and he said that would not have happened under Trent Lott. Is he right?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Yes, I think that the Democrats are going to try to use the power of the chairmanships to investigate and harass the Bush administration, instead of trying to legislate and deal with the issues legislatively. And energy is a classic example. There are those that want to assess blame and then have a very small temporary sort of solution instead of trying to quit looking back and trying to decide what we can do short term and long term. We don’t have a national energy policy. Yes, conservation is important and alternative fuels and environmental impact, which we need more production, how can we do that in a long-term plan?

JIM LEHRER: But you would agree that’s a major change?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: That is, that is a change.

JIM LEHRER: He also mentioned electoral reform. I asked if what else, besides energy, might there be a full bells and whistles investigation by the Senate or the Democrats, he said electoral reform.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, as a matter of fact, Senator McConnell and the Republican former chairman of the Rules Committee, ranking member, and Senator Schumer of New York had the bill, a bipartisan bill on election reform that has close to 70 co-sponsors. I think we do need to do something in the election reform area, and we were going to make an effort to do that this year.

JIM LEHRER: So it would have happened anyhow?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: It would have, but I think the Democrats have a different bill, one sponsored I think maybe by Senator Chris Dodd, and I’m sure others, that will have more of a federalization of elections and more mandates, and a lot more money, so the approach, once again, will be different, but we – this is an issue we’re going to address and we’re going to have a pretty good discussion about that.

JIM LEHRER: You said before that you wanted assurance from Senator Daschle that nominees of the President, particularly in the Judiciary, would get a fair hearing and a fair vote. Have you gotten those assurances?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: We’re working on that. Senator Daschle has been open to having discussions and meetings. He has met twice already with a little task force that I have working on that. We’ve got some language that we’re working on, on both sides. I think we’re going to make some progress on that with some understanding of how that’s going to proceed. Obviously -

JIM LEHRER: What’s your fear senator? What are you worried about?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, right after it looked like that the Democrats would get a majority, at least three Senators came out, Democrats, and were very aggressive in saying this is the end of the Bush nominations and we’re going to have a litmus test and we’re not going to have conservative judges, and really I thought went a little over the edge. We just hope that there will be a process for nominations to be considered and voted on. I’m sure they’re going to say, well, we’re going to help you in the same way that you helped the Clinton nominations, but there are some people on both sides of the aisle are saying, look, both parties and both administrations of the past have allowed this to get out of hand. Fred Thompson, for instance, from Tennessee is looking into the fact that it takes so long now to get a nominee through the process. You’ve got duplication, different forms are required, and the process now has just gone longer and longer and longer. It used to you could get all the President’s administration in place by March; then it slipped to June; then it was October; President Bush will be lucky to have his administration filled out by the end of the year, and –

JIM LEHRER: Is that the fault of the Democrats?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: No, it’s not all their fault; it’s the process that’s gotten to be cumbersome and messy, and we’re saying, look, it’s time to stop and fix – I talked to President Clinton about that at least twice, and he and I talked about trying to do something about it before he left last year, and events overturned that.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, you drew some heat with a letter you wrote to your colleagues about this change and that we need – we, meaning Republicans – need to go to war with the – you used the term go to war with the Democrats. Do you regret saying that? What did you mean?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, the media – this was, I think, about a two-page memorandum to try to give some inspiration and some direction and frankly cheer our people up that we were still going to be very much involved in the legislative process promoting the American people’s agenda, and we were going to work very hard to take back the majority and win those critical Senate seats in 2002. Somebody in the media – probably the Washington Post and New York Times – seized on that one phrase and now every media person has asked me about that one phrase. All that was trying to do was to say to our people in the Senate and around the country that while there will be a change in the personalities that the issues and the agenda will still be there, and we’re going to be very aggressive in offering amendments and making sure that the American people’s agenda, the things the President wants to have considered, whether it’s education or trade, will be considered, and that we are going to do our job. So there were some people that were saying, oh, woe is me, you know, what will happen, will we have any hope now, and this was an aggressive effort to assure people that we have a job to do and we’re going to do it.

JIM LEHRER: But no war?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: That is a term of art. You know, we quite often unfortunately speak in parlance like that; we’re going to fight for an issue; that doesn’t mean we’re going to go out here and shake it out; it means we’re going to speak with passion and conviction. When it comes to education and how it got done, as a son of a schoolteacher, I care a lot about that, so I’m fighting for it, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to condemn or attack physically anybody.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Got you. Thank you, Senator Lott, very much.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Okay. Great.