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Newsmaker: Senator Trent Lott

February 28, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: We talked with Senate Majority Leader Daschle two weeks ago, just before the Congressional recess. Here now, from the Capitol, is a companion newsmaker interview from the other side with the Senate minority leader, Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi. Senator, welcome.

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

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Senator Daschle, you had a very public, I just reported it, a kind of public exchange of words with Senator Daschle when he said the continued success of the war on terrorism was still somewhat in doubt, among other things. Why do you think he shouldn’t have said that?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: At this very moment, Jim, we have men and women engaged in the war on terrorism, putting their lives on line in Afghanistan and trying to patrol the skies over Iraq, those who are providing support for our troops in Afghanistan. We’ve got men and women in the Philippines. They’re doing important work. And one of the most important things that’s come out of the events of September 11 is the unity that we’ve had, the bi-partisanship

Any crack in the show of support for our commander-in-chief while we’re involved in this war I think is not helpful. We also need to be supportive of the necessary funds for the defense budget. Should the Congress raise questions about, okay, do you need all of this and exactly how is it going to be used, surely, that’s part of our job. But if you say that if we don’t get bin Laden, if we don’t get Mullah Omar, then it’s been a failure, or begin to raise questions about what is needed to do this job, I think it is not helpful. And I was concerned when I heard what was reported in the media that Senator Daschle had said.

JIM LEHRER: And you also said that it divides us at the time when we are united. How does that divide us, sir?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, when you begin to question, you know, the success or failure based on one or two individuals, I mean the President has said all along, we want to get bin Laden and Omar, too. But he’s also said it’s more than one person or two people. There’s a bigger network, the al-Qaida. It’s about terrorists worldwide.

And that begins to, you know, indicate that, well, if you don’t get those two, there’s failure, or you know, if the mission is not done in a certain particular way, then you begin to question the success. You begin to say, you know, do you need this for defense? While you need to ask legitimate questions, if you put it in such a way that it’s interpreted or reported in the news media as being critical, then I think that is not helpful.

JIM LEHRER: If Senator Daschle, or any other Senator, Republican or Democrat, any other House member, had questions like this or criticisms like this, what should he or she do about it, just remain silent, go talk to the President privately? What should be done?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: No. Look, members of Congress, House and Senate, have a right to say what they think is necessary and we’re all Americans, it’s a free country. But you know, when it’s leaders, it takes on bigger connotation. And I think one thing that caused me concern and others was this came after, you know, some criticisms or questions yesterday by Senator Byrd, and then it seemed that Senator Daschle was picking up on that and you began to wonder, well, is there a pattern here, or is there a strategy here? Is this the result of some screed by James Carville?

But if you have questions, you know, I think that there are committee hearings where you can ask them. We as leaders in the Congress, Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt, the Speaker and I meet with the President lots of mornings at 7:00 in the morning; we have a chance to exchange privately information about what’s going on or what our concerns are, what our thinking is. We have a chance to express that.

You know, perhaps, you know, sometimes this is taken out of context or it’s blown up beyond what was intended, but I think, again, the point is we need to, we do need to be careful how we say these things at times like this. I remember one time that I questioned some of the missile firings that went into Iraq and I got, you know, probably rightfully hammered for it. So, you know, you’ve got to be careful, particularly when you’re in leadership, when you’re trying to project a united nation, which we are. If you do that, then you’ve got a problem.

JIM LEHRER: You just think Senator Daschle stepped over the line?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: That would be my impression, from what I heard he said and now from what I have read in his remarks. There’s no question he said, if we don’t get bin Laden and Omar, then it’s probably been a failure. I don’t think that is the total test of success or failure.

JIM LEHRER: And he shouldn’t say it even if he believes it?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I think if he said it, he’s wrong in that regard. And it undermines, you know, the effort that we’re involved in.

JIM LEHRER: So it shouldn’t — that kind, I don’t want to go on and on about this, but that kind of thing should not be, you do not believe it’s a subject of legitimate debate right now?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think when are you’re at war and when you’ve got lives on the line and when there are people around the world that would be happy to see us begin to, you know, break apart and not continue to be supportive of this effort, I think that undermines our ability to hold our coalitions together, to build coalitions. When they look at America and say, “oh, yeah, they’re tough for about three months.” But then after, that they begin to go back to their old ways,” I just, I think that is an unhelpful message to be sending overseas.

JIM LEHRER: New subject, Senator: The Judge Pickering situation, he’s your friend, a federal district judge of Mississippi.


JIM LEHRER: He’s been nominated for a position on the federal appeals court. Senator Daschle and other Democrats have said they are opposed to this. Is this nomination dead?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: No, it’s not dead. He still has not been voted on by the Judiciary Committee. He has just recently completed answering questions that have been submitted to him or perhaps they’ve just been sent to the committee. Those will need to be reviewed, and I think members of the committee that maybe overreacted at first or saw some information that turned out was not what they thought it was — look, it’s been alleged that, you know, he has not been sensitive in civil rights, when, as a matter of fact, he’s done some really courageous things in that area in our state — and been on the point — taken a leadership position on occasion when it endangered his own life.

And I know for sure that at least a few of the Democrats on the committee are now saying, you know, that information was inaccurate and it’s not fair. But this is about something, you know, much bigger than Judge Pickering. This is about an effort to show that the President, look, any time you nominate basically a conservative Republican, we’re really going to go after him, we’re going to bring in these, you know, extremely liberal groups like the People for the American Way, we’re going to pound him. I think that it had connotations in terms of the Senate itself. Now, look, you know, I acknowledge that this has not been a perfect process for a long time.

And you know, unfortunately, too many people do look at certain issues as a litmus test, and I don’t think that is right. But I hope that he can, his record as a whole will be reviewed. Judge Pickering is a good man, a good family man, he’s got good education, he’s been a good federal judge and he has taken some courageous positions. He has been smeared unfairly.

It’s very hurtful, and I hope that we can find a way to overcome that, get him out of the Judiciary Committee, and I believe he’ll be confirmed by the United States Senate. And I might say that while Senator Daschle has told me he would probably vote against him, he would also guarantee me that he would have a straight, fair vote in the Senate and that’s all I could ask.

JIM LEHRER: But the next step… you asked that this be delayed, the vote was supposed to come this week in the Judiciary Committee. You asked that it be delayed a week, and is there any difference… there’s still ten Democrats and nine Republicans on that committee. Do you have any indication that those ten Democrats are not going to vote against him?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think it would be very unfair if they do. I think some of those Democrats have not finally made up their minds. They have not all made public commitments. I think they’re still reviewing the answers. When I made the request to Chairman Leahy on Monday, they there were still some 50 questions outstanding that Judge Pickering was trying to get answered to get back to the committee. I think at least before they make a final decision, they ought to see his response to all the legitimate questions that were answered — asked.

JIM LEHRER: You said something a day or two ago about that now it’s up to Judge Pickering to decide whether or not he wants to continue to do that and that was interpreted as your publicly suggesting, why don’t you just forget it and go away. That was not right?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: That was not right at all. As a matter of fact, the question I was asked is: What are the options? And I went through a whole list of things that, you know, it could be voted on later, there are several different ways the committee could vote to report him out without recommendation, to report him out, to report him out unfavorably. He didn’t have to make a decision of, you know, how long he’d want to go through this or how.

But then they said, “oh, that was a hint that he was going to withdraw.” Let me assure you that would not be my recommendation, and I also know from talking to Judge Pickering that he intends to see this through to hopefully a successful conclusion. He would not consider withdrawing at all because he’s qualified, and he deserves to be confirmed.

JIM LEHRER: And you said earlier that you think there’s more involved here than just Judge Pickering. And this just part of the new world in the United States Senate after Senator Jeffords defected and now the Democrats are running things up there, rather than you and the Republicans?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Yeah, I think it is part of the outgrowth of that. You know, now we see another judge for a circuit court may also be subjected to a lot of questions. I don’t know whether they’re legitimate or not, but the pattern once again is clear. President Bush has 50 judicial nominations, federal district court and circuit court that have not been acted on. Of the twenty-nine circuit court judges, only seven have been confirmed. There appears to be a clear effort not to move forward on the appellate court judges. Has that sort of thing happened before? Yes, on occasion.

But let me just give you one example. Ronald Reagan has the all-time record for the number of judges confirmed, 382. Bill Clinton is second. He had 377 confirmed in his eight years. And he would have had at least five more, except that there were objections from some Democrats because they didn’t want other judges to be moved if theirs couldn’t be moved. Now, that’s, you know,. there were fits and starts and disagreements and so forth, but the fact… the record is that President Clinton had the second largest number of federal judges confirmed in history. There is this litmus test that appears to be in place. There is, you know, a very slow process.

But you know, I think that, you know, you have to deal with that; you have to continue to hope that you can get it worked out. I’ve talked to Senator Daschle about it, I’ve talked to Senator Leahy about it. There’s a simple way to do this and that’s to move the process forward. I do think it’s going to be a real travesty if Judge Pickering is not confirmed.

JIM LEHRER: Campaign finance reform, is that going to pass the Senate next week, or whenever it comes to a vote?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Yeah, I think it will. There is a question about whether there are going to be some basically technical changes made in the bill that passed the House, as compared to the Senate. In some areas clearly the McCain-Feingold bill was better than Shays-Meehan and that is being looked into now on the both sides of the aisle. And maybe we can find a way to address some of those. But one way or the other, I think that campaign finance reform will be going to the President for his final determination in a relatively short period of time.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell, then, is not going to launch a major filibuster on the Republican side?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: He hasn’t made a final decision. He hasn’t indicated that to me. Hopefully, now, rather than looking for a way to you know, fight it even further or, we’ll look for a way to try to get it done in the best possible way and without a filibuster. So I can’t say absolutely that won’t occur, but I don’t see it at this time.

JIM LEHRER: Now, there’s a separate issue. There’s campaign finance reform. There’s also elections reform, and that has kind of hit a snag over ID for first-time voters. And the Republicans, you want something where there is a photo ID — the Democrats want it by signature, as I understand it. Is this going to kill this whole effort to change the way we vote?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, now, there’s a classic example of where a really good effort was made on a bi-partisan basis to address this issue. Chris Dodd, a Democrat, chairman of the Rules Committee, Mitch McConnell, the ranking Republican, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, Senator Schumer were involved and developed a bill that was bipartisan, and, quite frankly, I was quite pleased with that and we seemed to be making really good progress. But all of a sudden, one of the key components was removed by a Schumer amendment. And that is a problem. And you know, we want fair and honest elections.

There are a lot of states, there are a lot of places where there’s still a lot of fraud involved, you know, election rolls are not properly cleaned up, the registration process leads to what we’ve seen in places like St. Louis where a dog voted or people voted 17 times.

All we say is that there should be some minimum guarantee that, you know, you’re not going to have rampant fraud. And if you can register first time by mail based on your signature and that’s all, that’s an invitation for problems. We just think that there should be some identification that, yes this signature is a person. Now, it doesn’t have to be an ID. It could be a driver’s license with a picture on it, it could be some other kind of ID, it could be utility bill.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think this thing, do you in a word, do you think it’s going to be worked out where there’s finally going to be legislation?

SEN. TRENT LOTT: As I got into it today, this it– it looked to me like this could be worked out. And I believe that we can make sure that make sure that there’s not going to be fraud at least in the registration and as much as possible in the voting, we can still get this bill done. I’m not ready to pronounce it dead. I’d like to see it passed. But if we’re going to have a great big huge hole blown in it that allows for rampant fraud, that’s a serious problem. We need to fix that.

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

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Okay, thanks a lot.