Senate Majority Leader: Senator Bill Frist
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GWEN IFILL: Senator Frist, welcome to the NewsHour for the first time as majority leader.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Glad to be with you.
GWEN IFILL: I want to start by asking you about Iraq. The president has been suggesting in the last few days that the focus should be on disarming Saddam Hussein. And that if the allies are not entirely willing to go with him on that, he suggested he is willing to go it alone, or with “a coalition of willing participants” is a term he has used. Do Americans have the appetite to go to war without the U.N. or Security Council approval?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Of course, Americans want as broad a support as possible. When you’re talking about war and potential loss of life, you want as many friends around you as possible. Yet, the president understands that at the end of the day, it is his obligation as commander in chief to make sure that he leads based on all the information is available, not necessarily with the consent of every single country. We have allies like Britain who are with us. We have others asking questions. But at the end of the day, the president has to make a decision, and he has said he will. And we have given him that authority to proceed with what is in the best interest of you, and your family, and your children, and the United States of America. And I have tremendous confidence in him. And he is progressing along a path that is making it increasingly clear that it’s Saddam Hussein’s decision.
GWEN IFILL: At the end of day, Congress has to weigh in on another way on this, which is the money for it, the budget. Can we afford this right now?
SEN. BILL FRIST: I think the more fundamental question is, can we afford not to do this? I think that’s the question that every American is asking themselves now, and indeed, I’m sure the president of the United States is asking himself. What is so unique about Iraq is that we have been trying to use diplomacy for the last 12 years. It’s not a few months, it’s not a few weeks, it’s not since the resolution that we’ve passed, but it is year after year after year, with an exhaustion of all the attempts to diplomatically come to a resolution.
What is unique about Iraq compared to, I would argue, any other country in the world, in this juncture, is exhaustion of diplomacy thus far, and, No. 2, this intersection of weapons of mass destruction. And I would argue biological weapons more than consideration of nuclear weapons, biological weapons, like anthrax and Botulin toxin, and chemical weapons, which this man has used on his own people, with 5,000 people dying from chemical weapons of his own people — this intersection of weapons of mass destruction, this nexus with terrorism, where we know that Iraq harbors terrorists, with this man being a mass serial killer. And that’s what unique about Iraq, and that is it what the president is addressing. That’s what we as the American people need to face up to.
GWEN IFILL: As the majority leader of the Senate who has got to, among other things, get a budget approved and passed this year, do you think dollars attached to this now, that we can afford in a deficit environment with other pressing domestic needs coming your way from governors, and other issues you care about — Medicare reform, for instance — all that tied up in this, do you still think that there’s any cost, that there’s any limit that we can put on how much we’re willing to spend for war?
SEN. BILL FRIST: I don’t think there is a limit when we talk about threatening democracy, when we’re talking about threatening freedom, when we’re talking about the security of American people. Smallpox is a perfect example. If smallpox comes from this mass serial killer, Saddam Hussein, comes to this country, it will kill. And it won’t kill just a few people; it will kill hundreds, thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of people. Is there any dollar figure you can place on that? No. The answer is, clearly not. It’s going to take an investment. And it’s not mutually exclusive.
If we do have to go to war or if Saddam Hussein basically says, “my choice is go to war,” we in the United States Senate have another domestic agenda. The war is really out of our control. Things like prescription drugs, fighting for global HIV, AIDS, domestically prescription drugs for our seniors, jobs — maybe first and foremost jobs — people listing now who feel insecure because of the economy. We’ll still be able to progress along those lines as well. And we’ll do so. As majority leader, I pledge that we’ll do so. They will take an investment as well. Again, it’s a short-term investment, where if we’re successful in growing this economy, we’ll look back and say, “it was a small price to pay” — a war, or a potential war — and we’re not there yet — for the freedoms of the people really of the world, and for the domestic agenda, for the seniors out there who are really trading off back in their homes now prescription drugs versus rent or their groceries.
GWEN IFILL: As you know, it’s very difficult to do it all. And as you know as majority leader, you have to focus on a lot of things, not just on one or two things. How do you begin to balance these needs, these domestic needs? You just outlined these international obligations that you just outlined, how do you do that?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, that’s the challenge, that we have this legislative body, the wonderful institution called the United States Senate. It does start with the budget. And if you look in the last Congress, we did not pass a budget, something that we’ve done every year since 1974, but the last congress, and it was disappointing to be in that last Congress because that budgeting process allows you to prioritize. It doesn’t mean spend wastefully — if you look at the amendments over the last several days on the floor of the United States Senate, we basically have this much money to spend, and already the amendments which we have defeated have been three… half of that on top — $350 billion on top. Basically, we can’t physically be irresponsible as we go forward. We have to maximize that investment.
GWEN IFILL: Excuse me, and the White House is asking you to spend half as much again as you want to spend, even the Republicans in Congress want to… you want to restrain growth, but you want to restrain growth at twice the rate that the president wants to restrain growth.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, you know, the great thing about the legislative body, you’ve seen it played out, and I’m proud of the fact that we have seen amendment after amendment come to the floor of United States Senate. We haven’t used procedural moves to talk about this prioritization as we go forward. And the sad thing is, we’re doing the work of last Congress now. Why? Because the last Congress failed to pass a budget. Therefore in February and March of this year, you’ll see under our leadership, Republican leadership, we’re going to address this budget, in which we can look at issues as we plan ahead, recognizing we can’t be irresponsible in our spending. Where exactly should jobs be? I put it high. Where should prescription drugs be and strengthening improving Medicare? I’m going to put it high. Where should the uninsured be in terms of reaching out and addressing it? 40 million people uninsured in this country, how can we not address that? Yes, it’s going take an investment. At the same time, we can be responsible in keeping the overall spending. And it takes prioritization. You’re not going to see at least Republicans argue for just spending after spending after spending after spending and sort of making you feel good, and “we’re taking care of the problem.” You’re going to see certain tradeoffs being made as we go forward.
GWEN IFILL: Well, explain these tradeoffs to me. When you outline your priorities, they don’t sound so different from what the Democrats are talking about. How are your priorities different than democrats who have 49 votes in this Congress, who can stop a lot of what you want to do?
SEN. BILL FRIST: It’s very different, and if the American people — and they are paying attention to the last two weeks — the approach is pretty obviously. Basically, we say that, “yes, there might be a war.” We clearly have a war on terrorism we’re fighting. We don’t know what is going to happen with Iraq. And that’s the realities, that’s the cards that we’re dealt with. And whether it’s in Iraq or others parts of the world, it really is in their court.
We have controllable things like prescription drugs, like a growth package, a jobs and growth package, like the one the president put on the floor. We have the issues of the uninsured. We have education in this country. Our approach is going to… I can’t promise you, but as majority leader, I’m going to do my best to bring those to the floor of United States Senate; to make sure we debate those, and that there are tradeoffs. The Democrats, unfortunately, will say, “well, let’s just keep spending more and more and more.” And $750 billion, which is in agreement with certain Democrats, the president and the Republican Congress, their approach for the last two days is to add, so far, $350 billion on top of that. That sort of money we just simply don’t have today.
GWEN IFILL: The president’s tax cut plan — you mentioned something like the president’s tax cut plan you would like to see on the floor of Senate.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Is the president’s tax cut plan, as he proposed it, as he sent it up, is it dead?
SEN. BILL FRIST: First of all, no, it’s not dead. If I have to step back, I’ll say, in the United States Senate, what we need to do is finish the unfinished business from the last Congress. Unemployment insurance. We have taken care of that — the appropriations bills, the 11 bills. We’ll soon have that to address. Now we can really look forward and address the various agenda items that are before us. And I would put — not necessarily at the top of that list — but one that you’ll see us address is a growth package, which in truth is a jobs package. You used the words “a tax cut package.” The Democrats will say, “a stimulus package.” What the President of the United States has said, and what you will hear us as Republicans of the United States Senate say, because it’s the reality, is that this package, all six different items, whether it is an element of accelerated tax cut, or the child tax credit, or reduction of marriage penalty tax, or the dividend exclusion, or the unemployment initiative in there, in terms of personal accounts — when you put that together, the purpose is to grow that economy over both the short term, midterm, and long-term, and that has the product of creating jobs.
GWEN IFILL: How do you avoid gridlock, both parties staring each other down with a different set of priorities and never coming up with a common goal?
SEN. BILL FRIST: I pledge, and I’ve have made it very clear, that we’re going to address issues which really do unite Americans, that pull them together. Yes, Democrat, and yes, Republican. And I’m a realist that we’ve got partisanship, and parties which enter into the debate. But at the end of the day, instead of gridlock, obstruction, my goal are results, are solutions. And when I say “prescription drugs” to you right now, for individuals with disabilities and our seniors today, my goal: Working together, Democrat and Republican, is to be able to deliver with results, with solutions, having people unite; recognizing that’s a challenge as we go forward, have good debate on the floor of United States Senate, and really capture the best of the 100 representatives of the American people that have given this period of their lives to serve for this country.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, well, Sen. Frist, thank you very much for joining us.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Thank you.