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Newsmaker: Tom Daschle

May 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota. I talked to him earlier this evening from the Capitol.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Daschle, welcome.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: On the big tax cuts debate is it fair to say that right now the major fight is among the Republicans and you Democrats are kind of spectators?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, I would not characterize us as spectators; we’re probably not as principally involved as the Republicans; they do have some very deep differences, and they’re trying to work through them. But we put forth a bill today Jim that I feel very strongly about, that I think offers an opportunity for a way out for everybody. It’s a good bill; it provides real assistance to people in South Dakota and New York and just about every state, and it does so in a way that’s fiscally responsible. So we feel very much a part of the process, just not as engaged as they are.

JIM LEHRER: And you do have a few tax cuts in your proposal today, right?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: That is correct.

JIM LEHRER: Not as large as the Republicans want, but you do have some, is that correct?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, economists tell us that if you’re going to be fiscally responsible, you should stay around the 1 percent of GDP that we provide in our bill — $150 billion versus the $726 billion that ultimately will be the result of the president’s plan. So not only are we fiscally responsible, we provide a lot more bang for the buck, if you will, 1 million jobs in the first year versus 600,000 for the president. That’s not our analysis; that’s independent analysis by objective economists. And so we feel that that’s exactly the approach we ought to use more money, less time, less cost to the federal government.

JIM LEHRER: But as a matter of practical politics, weren’t you all kind of shoved into a corner that you had to do something about tax cuts because otherwise you are the Democrats, my goodness, you’re not in favor of cutting taxes and the Republicans are?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, we’re obviously concerned about exacerbating the problem of federal indebtedness. We’ve got about a $500 billion projected deficit for this year, a record deficit; we’ve not seen anything like that. We’ve gone from a $5 trillion surplus to over a $2 trillion debt in two years. We don’t want to make the problem even worse, so we are concerned about tax cuts, but we also want to generate jobs and create prosperity and provide real opportunity. We want to offset the problems the states are having, so we feel that putting a plan in place to do that is something very much in keeping with our philosophy and our approach to government. That’s something we’ve felt a long time. You just have to be fiscally prudent, responsible, and that’s what we think this plan provides.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what would you say to the president who says, well, wait a minute, if you think tax cuts will create jobs, then the larger the tax cut, the more the jobs — the more jobs are created — you don’t buy that?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: That’s not what the economists tell you. The economists say that if you do too much in the tax cut area, you actually exacerbate the problem. In fact, even CBO has said that there is a negligible effect in the president’s plan for real economic prosperity, that there is very little to be gained. And the reason why is because what they say the president does with his plan is to exacerbate the problem of long-term interest rates. You’ve got the government with greater indebtedness competing with the private sector for available resources. When that competition becomes even more severe, interest rates go up. When interest rates go up, you offset whatever value there is for a tax cut; that’s the problem in the long-term. That’s why they’re so pessimistic about the president’s plan and what little impact it could have economically.

JIM LEHRER: But back to my first question, as a practical matter, and we’ll move on, it’s one of these Republican alternatives that’s going to eventually become law, correct?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, I would guess, they control the House; they control the Senate; they control the White House. We have certain opportunities to be a part of it but at the end of the day my guess is that whatever passes will be largely a Republican product. Yes, we hope to influence that product, but it will be theirs.

JIM LEHRER: How long do you Democrats plan to prevent votes on President Bush’s two nominees to the appeals court, Miguel Estrada and Patricia Owen?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think the other question, Jim, is: how is it that you’ve already confirmed 122 in two years? That’s what we’ve done. The score is now one hundred twenty-two to two. We just confirmed another one today; we’ll confirm perhaps two more this week. We’ll be up to close to 125 in a little over two years. We’ve opposed two: Mr. Estrada, because he’s been unwilling to provide the information that most of the nominees provide, if not all of them, and Ms. Owen, Judge Owen in large measure because she has continually insisted on putting her own views ahead of the law. We have been willing to accept that, and if Mr. Estrada would be willing to comply with our expectations in terms of cooperation, we’d take another look at his nomination.

JIM LEHRER: But as a practical matter, though, you’re not going to budge on either one of these until — unless Estrada gives you what you want and unless Patricia Owen has a change of complete philosophy and heart, right?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: So there is never going to be a vote on these two nominees?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, there have been votes. We’ve voted now consistently; we’re going to have another vote in the next couple of days on Ms. Owen, and I guess on Mr. Estrada as well, so there are votes; it’s just not votes sufficient to meet the threshold to move the confirmation along.

JIM LEHRER: Majority Leader Senator Frist says he’s going to continue to force you all to vote and you all are saying, yeah, we’re going to continue to vote the way we have been, so it’s going to go on and on like this.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, keep in mind — and I really don’t feel that the media has always been as balanced in reporting here because there’s been very little reporting of the 122 that have already been confirmed. We just confirmed a Hispanic judge again today — district and circuit judges. The real story is that the score is one hundred and twenty-two to two. We’re willing to settle with that.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Senator Frist, as you know, some House Republicans, among others, have been critical of him and his leadership, his new leadership in the Senate. What do you think of it?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, it’s a tough job to be majority leader with 51 votes; I can attest to that.

JIM LEHRER: By experience.

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: By experience, and I’ve been very empathetic with Senator Frist because I know how difficult it is. You’re in some ways the nominal majority leader because you’ve got to win that majority every day on every vote. When you’ve only got 51 in your own party, sometimes that means you’re going to see attrition that causes you to lose the majority. Senator Frist is figuring that out; he’s smart; he’s good on his feet; he can strategize as well as anybody can and that’s what he’s up against, just as I was and what Senator Lott faced too as majority leader in the latter years.

JIM LEHRER: How would you describe your relationship with Senator Frist?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: It’s very good. We talk frequently; we try to work together; we have our differences of course but we try to do it in a civil way and a very appreciative way of each other’s role. He’s got a tough job, so do I, and we try to make the most of it.

JIM LEHRER: How does your relationship with him compare with the one you had with Senator Lott?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, it’s different; they were both cordial. I just talked to Senator Lott about that today, as a matter of fact. He and I had a very good relationship, I had a wonderful relationship with Senator Dole, so this is the third Republican leader I’ve worked with in both majority and minority capacities, and I feel my relationship, while different, is every bit as good as his predecessor.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel Senator Frist has given you Democrats a fair shake?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: I think he has. He’s got many expectations and pressures and demands put upon him by the White House and by the House of Representatives, but by and large I have to say that when it has come to giving us the opportunity to present our views, to offer our amendments, to be heard, I think he’s accommodated by and large our needs as well as I might expect.

JIM LEHRER: Has Senator Santorum, who’s the number three in the leadership on the Republican side of the Senate, has he survived the storm of the remarks he made comparing homosexual acts with incest, adultery and similar things?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, it appears that he has; I can’t really speak to his political survivability at this point. It was very, very disappointing and very disconcerting to hear these comments but it has died down. I haven’t heard much comment in the last few days, so I suspect that by and large the issue is behind him.

JIM LEHRER: If a member of the Democratic leadership had said something similar to that, would you as the leader the Democratic leader removed him from the leadership if you could have?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Oh, I don’t know, Jim, that’s hypothetical and I’d have to know more about the circumstances what caused him to say it and what the issues were. I — certainly we would be equally as chagrined and would probably have been a little more harsh than his colleagues were on Mr. Santorum.

JIM LEHRER: Is this a difference in beliefs between two political parties?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: I suppose in part that’s the case, I don’t know; I can’t comment on that either. All I know is that that I would hope in this day and age we’re behind comments like that I should say we put those kinds of views and ideas behind us and that we are much more much more open and forward looking, but we’ll be reminded of the work we still have to do with occasions like this and I suppose that that’s to be expected.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your assessment of how the post war Iraq situation is going?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, I believe that we have a very significant task ahead of us. I think that putting this coalition government together, working to ensure that we really have a democratic institution in place, recognizing that that’s a long-term commitment that will involve international presence is something that still has to be done.

In some ways I think we probably have our expectations at a level that are higher than they should be, given our success militarily; the hard work involves putting that infrastructure in place, ensuring that we create stability economically as well as politically and continuing the fight on the war on terror, whether it’s in the Persian Gulf or other parts of the world, all of that still remains to be done.

This was a chapter in that effort. To a certain extent I think we can say that diplomatically we’ve got our work cut out for us to ensure that we have the international involvement that will be required, but no one can deny it was a huge military success and from that we can launch the efforts to do the rest.

JIM LEHRER: A huge military success, Senator, but do you believe it was the right thing to do?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: I do. I think that I’m — obviously I wish we could have worked more effectively at the diplomatic side; that wasn’t possible, but having exhausted the diplomatic effort, we had no choice, in my view, but to continue to pursue our goals, and that was done, done successfully.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe a precedent has been set here by the use of military action in cases like this? In other words, similar things happen, this is what the United States will do, or do you see it differently?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think we have to be concerned about the precedence that could be set. We have to take every precaution to ensure that we don’t send the wrong message about how matters like this ought to be resolved, but by and large I think in this case this was an ongoing effort that lasted more than a dozen years. I think everybody understands that this needed to be addressed. President Clinton attempted to address it; President Bush continued that effort, and it’s now been resolved militarily. As I say, we still have a long, long way to go. We should not look at this as a success in the larger context until we have found the kind of a democratic institutional presence that will be required to continue when we’re gone.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the message that countries… the other countries of the world should take from this? Should they take the message– I’ll just be direct– should they take the message: “Look, if you’re going to do something we don’t like, the United States will come after you militarily”? Is that the message that comes out?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: I don’t think that’s the message at all. I think the message is that we’ve got to continue to keep the press… to keep the fight on in the war against terror. They have largely engaged in that effort around the world. And our allies understand that as well as our adversaries, but I do think that it’s important for us to not lose sight of the larger issue here.

The larger issue is that you had a military dictator who was not only repressing and torturing his own people, but threatening the rest of the world besides; invaded another country 12 years ago; presented real destabilizing threats and forces within the region. You had a number of problems generating from Iraq that had to be addressed. It did have an effect, of course, on our effort to conduct the war on terror, as well.

So you had many implications, many ramifications that had to be considered as you considered our options. And I think that Iraq in many respects was unique in that regard. We still have a problem in North Korea. We have a problem, I think to a certain extent, with Iran. I think those threats, those concerns have to be addressed as well, but no one is suggesting that we use the same approach in North Korea or in Iran that we used in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: One of the justifications, of course, for going to war with Iraq was that they possessed or were developing weapons of mass destruction. None have been found yet. What if none are found?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that it’s fair to say this — we know that weapons existed at some point in the past. Whether they’ve been destroyed or not is yet to be determined. I think that we have to assume that they will have been destroyed if we can’t find them. But no one should come to any premature conclusion, Jim. This is going to take a long, long time. This is a big country. And weapons do not need much space or much cover to be… to go undetected for some time. We’ve got to continue the effort to make sure that we have the people, the resources, and the orchestrated strategy to ensure that whatever may be found is found eventually if it’s there. I’m confident that we will know a lot more months from now than we do right now.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Senator, you caught a lot of heat from Republicans and others by saying pre-war that… by indicating that having to go to war was a result of a failed diplomacy. Do you have any second thoughts about having said that?

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: I don’t, Jim. This is a… by definition war is the result of failed diplomacy. I voted for the resolution. I had hoped that we could resolve this diplomatically. When that was not possible, I said when we went to war that I would strongly support the commander in chief; I would support our troops. And that’s what I’ve done. I feel very strongly about what I said and my response, and I… I’m very pleased with the way it’s turned out.

But clearly this has, I think, united our country in terms of the effort made to ensure that we find a way to resolve the many, many threats posed by Iraq. If it couldn’t be done diplomatically, it had to be done militarily. And I supported that effort.

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

SEN.TOM DASCHLE: My pleasure.