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JIM LEHRER: Now to a Newsmaker interview with the Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Lott, welcome.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Jim, it’s good to be back with you again.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, is the struggle over the Ashcroft nomination over?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: It’s not quite over. There will be a discussion tonight about his nomination right up until about 9:00 — all day on Wednesday — perhaps into the night, but I’m hoping that by Thursday we can find a way to bring this debate to a conclusion, and have a vote on John Ashcroft. He will be confirmed. And I’m hoping it will be a by a substantial number with every Republican and a number of Democrats. I think he should be confirmed. He’s a good man; he’s a close personal friend. I know him very well. He’s qualified by education, by experience and by the commitment he has made to enforce the laws of this land. And I predict he will make a fine Attorney General and he will be surrounded by good men and women that will help make sure that the Justice Department is run properly and that the laws are truly enforced, and, by the way, I don’t think there has been a very good job done in enforcing existing laws in the previous Justice Department.
JIM LEHRER: Have you been informed authoritatively by the Democrats that they will not filibuster this when it goes to the floor?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: They have not said completely flat out that there will not be a filibuster. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, has indicated that he does not support that maneuver. Pat Leahy, the chairman of the Committee, also indicated that he would not participate in a filibuster and I think even Senator Kennedy – who indicated that might do that — has said that he probably would not go forward with it partially because he was requested by the Senator from Missouri, Senator Jean Carnahan, not to do that, allow each Senator to cast his or her vote based on their own conscience and not make it a protracted debate or filibuster. So it looks like there probably won’t be a filibuster. The Senator is entitled to have the time they need make a statement. We’ll try and accommodate that every way we can.
But this has taken a good bit of time. They had a week of hearings in Judiciary; when it came time to vote a week ago, a week delay was asked for and agreed to because the rules provide for that. Now we’ll have several hours of debate over a three-day period and then I think it’s time cast a vote. Let me just say, Jim, that in the history of this country only nine times have we had a President’s cabinet nominee defeated — only once since 1959. That was John Tower in 1989, which was a tragic thing, too. I believe a President is entitled to his selection. John Ashcroft does have a voting record and he is a conservative; he feels very strongly about his religious faith but I believe that the President, President Bush has a right to make his choice for Attorney General and that John Ashcroft is qualified and should be confirmed.
JIM LEHRER: Much has been made Senator, and in fact you repeated it yourself, Senator Ashcroft has said too that he will enforce laws that he strongly — with which he strongly disagrees. Now that means as a conservative and you are also a conservative…
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I am.
JIM LEHRER: He is going to strongly enforce liberal, quote, liberal laws. Do you want him to do that?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Yes. I mean….
JIM LEHRER: Why you would want him to do that?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, first of all, you know, there’s a difference between being a legislator – you know — being a private citizen and being the Attorney General, the top legal officer of the country. And he will have to think in that way. Every day in our lives, Jim, you and I comply with laws that we don’t necessarily agree with or may vigorously disagree with, but it is the law. This is a government of laws and not men. And that’s what makes America what it is today. It’s about a democracy and a republic. And so I’m sure if it ever came to point where John’s conscience just was in such conflict with the law, that he would be big enough to step aside and say, I can’t do this. But I believe he will. And I predict right now I as a friend that knows him quite well — that knows his family and has been in his home and he’s been in my home, he will be an excellent Attorney General when all is said and done.
JIM LEHRER: And he will not work to undermine laws on abortion and guns with which he disagrees?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: He is working at the pleasure of the President, will support the President’s efforts. There may be efforts to change the law but I think he will good and faithfully enforce the laws as they exist until they’re changed. He still may feel that we can improve the laws in a variety of places and the Attorney General will be a witness for the Judiciary Committee I’m sure on future efforts to change various laws. But this is a been a real effort by, you know, the bitter left to try to smear John Ashcroft — question his religious commitments in a way that I haven’t seen since John Tower was really, you know, I think treated very shabbily by the Senate. And it’s really a shot at John Ashcroft but it’s a snooker shot because what they’re aiming for is to try to say to President Bush don’t send us a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court, which he will do. But he may not – you know, hopefully he’ll have one that will be so qualified by education and experience and knowledge that he or she will be confirmed.
JIM LEHRER: I said Senator McCain; I meant Senator Ashcroft a moment ago. One final question on this: if the roles were reversed — let’s say this was a strong liberal Democrat who was becoming the Attorney General and there were some strong conservative laws on the books, would you not be questioning whether or not this strong liberal would enforce your laws?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I could give you a really good response to that, Jim. Eight years ago Bob Dole put me in the position as the Republican point man to check in to President Clinton’s nominees for the cabinet. Now why I got that role I was never quite sure, because it was kind of a thankless job. But I was involved in that process and we confirmed three of President Clinton’s nominees the first day — all the rest of them the second day and eventually about I don’t know a week or two later we confirmed Janet Reno 98-0. There were a couple of people in that cabinet we had some concerns about. You know with all due respect to the dead there were some questions about the nominee at Commerce, Mr. Brown I believe it was.
JIM LEHRER: Ron Brown.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Ron Brown. And let me tell you there were some serious questions about Janet Reno’ her qualifications were minimal and there were some other things in her background that was of concern, but we weighed those and said, she’s not the best choice, but she is the President’s choice. We moved it expeditiously and she was confirmed 98-0. I voted for a nominee for Attorney General that I didn’t think was particularly qualified, and I had some concern about, you know, some of her background but we did the job. So there is a perfect example. Eight years ago in similar circumstances we did the job; the Democrats should do the same here.
JIM LEHRER: I mentioned Senator McCain. Let me ask you a real question about the real Senator McCain. You have agreed to give him his day in the debate and voting son on campaign finance reform; does he have the votes to prevail?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think there is a good chance that legislation dealing with campaigns and campaign finance reform will probably get through the Senate. I think there bill be a lot of ideas that will be offered in terms of substitutes or amendments, and I suspect some of them will pass. So what passes the Senate will not be just McCain/Feingold in its current iteration, and it has changed, by the way, year to year; he has added things and taken away things, and I don’t mean that critically. He has moved around as he has learned different things – as he’s gone forward. I think there will be some other amendments added to it – perhaps even a substitute added. But I think there is a good chance that something will get through the Senate this year, and depending on what it is I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve said all along we should have campaign finance reform. I just think that the McCain proposal, which primarily just eliminates money that goes to the political parties, is not enough; it’s not nearly as much as campaign finance reform as we should have.
JIM LEHRER: The bottom line is, in the past you and other Republicans have filibustered and prevented a final vote. You’re not going to do that this time
SEN. TRENT LOTT: We’re not going to do that this time.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. There was much talk going into about bipartisanship and cooperation; how is it holding?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Remarkably well. A lot of that is attributable to the President of the United States, George W. Bush. He has set a tone that is different; he’s reaching out to everybody. He has probably met with over 100 members of Congress since he’s been President, and it is bipartisan, Democrats and Republicans. It is not a glad handing sort of deal, and I’ll slap you on the back and we’ll see you later; we have been getting into discussions about issues that matter all the way from education to energy, to faith-based organizations and how that would work, defense of our country and he gets right into that discussion. The education meetings have been very far flung and involved Democrats that were stunned at how animated and how interested he really was in the subject.
In the Congress I must say that I’ve done a lot of things to try and get the atmosphere right where we can work together. I did that in the way we set up the rules for organization of the Senate and frankly that was part of my thinking with regard to getting an agreement with John McCain. I don’t want us to get distracted on rules or when we might proceed on a bill — more important is the ideas — the real issues people care about. I think people are seeing that and feel good about it. I think some credit also goes to Democrats — Tom Daschle has tried to respond in kind and keep things on a level of playing field. I think he would like not to have a filibuster on John Ashcroft. I think he would like to try and have a vote on Thursday and move on to legislative issues — so far so good. It’s only in the second week, but take them one week at a time.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think President Bush’s influence has even had an effect on you? Republicans, you’re you and your colleagues also the Republican side operating in a more bipartisan way than you had in the past?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think most people would say that I’ve done an awful lot to try and contribute to that atmosphere — the way we agreed on the rules of how the Senate would operate probably surprised some people; disappointed others. But I didn’t think it was wise to be arguing over part B of rule 25 right at the beginning of a new Congress and new administration having a filibuster on that. I really think the people want to us talk about how we can make sure that every child in America is able to learn and get an education and not be left behind. They really want us to look at the tax policy and let them keep some of their tax overpayment at home. I think they would rather see us doing that instead of involved in partisan shots back and forth but a lot of credit goes to George W. Bush. The tone is different here and I think Democrats would tell you that. One man, one woman a President can clearly make a difference, but we have to only pick that mantle up and be prepared to do our part and we’re doing is so far.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of one woman, has Senator Hillary Clinton gotten off to a bad start because of the gift things all of that the $190,000 she and the President accepted when they left office?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: That’s not for me to judge. She is a Senator and I’m sure she’ll work hard and be an effective Senator. I want to work with her. I said in one interview in the last 24 hours that probably people would wonder why it was done the way it was and maybe she would even question it now, but that’s not for me to same. She’s got to deal with that. It apparently doesn’t violate the rules of the Senate, the ethics rules of the Senate so we move on.
JIM LEHRER: What about on the pardons — the Marc Rich pardon, is the Senate going to move on that one as well?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: We are. I’ve talked to Chairman Fred Thompson of the Government Affairs Committee and Chairman Hatch of Judiciary and subcommittee chairman of that committee, Arlen Specter, about the need take a look at that matter and see exactly what did happen. Does that pardon apply? Were any rules or laws violated in the process? In our role we should look at it and ask questions. I that Arlen Specter under the direction of Orrin Hatch is probably going to take that lead role as it now stands.
JIM LEHRER: You agree it should be taken a look at?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Absolutely. I do. I mean, everybody that I’ve heard — most everybody — Democrats and Republicans say it really smells bad and it looks on its face as on outrageous decision. Take away that the possibility that money may or may not be related to it — just the pardon itself. This is a guy that is a fugitive from justice. This is a guy that renounced his citizenship. This is a guy doing business with Iran at a time that we were preparing to basically fight a war with them. Is this good? No it’s bad. I think we’ll need at least to the really ask why. Now, the power of the President to pardon is absolute but were there extenuating circumstances here; we should find out.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Lott, thank you very much.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Jim, thanks for the opportunity.