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Newsmaker: Senator Bill Frist

May 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee. I spoke with him a short while ago from the Capitol.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, welcome.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: The AIDS bill President Bush signed today, that was a very important piece of legislation to you, was it not?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Yes. We use the word “historic” a lot around here; this was a historic bill. This is more money, a larger commitment than any country has ever invested for a specific entity, a specific disease in the field of public health in the history really of the world; this was truly historic.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a big problem, though. What will be the practical effect of this $15 billion?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, the problem is the greatest, I would argue, moral and humanitarian public health challenge that this country has seen in at least 100 years. We have 23 million people who have died from this little, tiny virus, it’s just a little tiny cagey virus that changes quickly; 23 million people have died, 40 million people infected globally and another 60 million people will die in the best of all worlds.

What the president did, and I give the credit to the president, because it was in the state of the union message that he laid it out, and Congress has appropriately followed, is for the first time to make this a global effort with international leadership with a substantial amount of funds behind it.

And what he accomplished and what this Congress accomplished is a linkage of preventing this disease, of caring for the millions, the 40 million people who have this disease and have this virus, and then also treatment, linkage of prevention, care, and treatment, and that will be an effective strategy in reversing this greatest of all pandemics.

JIM LEHRER: But there’s very little money that is spent right away, correct?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, we’ll have to see. You know, this was what we call “Washington speak,” the authorization. This is the commitment by the President of the United States and the United States, and he will take it in two weeks to the G-8 Conference and challenge other countries around the world to step up and do likewise. So this money, this commitment will be leveraged.

It’s $15 billion over five years in our appropriations, the spending process, which will be determined in the next several weeks and months, we’ll see how much that is this year — $15 billion over five years is a huge, huge, unprecedented investment.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, at a time when the growing U.S. budget deficits, we’re fighting terrorism, rebuilding Iraq, trying to reform Medicare, trying to bring health insurance to Americans, among many other things, where does AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean fit into U.S. priorities?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I think the president has spoken and the Congress, the legislative branch of government, has spoken, that it is a main priority. It shows that the United States is a caring nation, a compassionate nation that looks to caring for Americans but also people around the globe, including the peoples of Africa.

We are in a challenging overall fiscal or economic climate. At the same time we have – Americans – probably everybody who’s listening to me is worrying about, a little bit about their job and job security. Are they going to lose that job? Hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions of people are actually looking for jobs.

So in the same week that we’ve said that HIV/AIDS is a major priority for this country and for nations throughout the world, expressing our moral effort to express care and compassion, during that same week, in fact, just two days later, we passed a jobs and growth package that addresses those domestic concerns of job security, of creating jobs, and growing jobs. And it shows that we can be both a caring and compassionate nation globally and at the same time address those domestic challenges and problems that we have today.

JIM LEHRER: The president also today, in addition to signing this bill, also signed a bill authorizing the debt limit to be raised to the highest level in history. Are you comfortable with that? Are you Republicans comfortable with being in charge when the deficit is higher than it’s ever been in history?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, are we comfortable? I don’t like it. I don’t like the fact that we are having to borrow money today, but after we had the tragedy of 9/11, after we had the stock market technology bubble crash, after we’ve had this recession over two quarters and coming out in this slow, slow recovery, after fighting a war in Afghanistan, a war in Baghdad, in Iraq, and an ongoing war of terror, it is understandable today why we’re running a deficit.

Now is the time to do everything we can as a government, as individuals, as communities to invest and grow in our economy; and that’s what we did with this jobs and growth package, and that is to invest now so we can create jobs, grow the economy, make that deficit go away, and by making the deficit go away, we eventually will be able to pay down this debt.

JIM LEHRER: How does raising the deficit make the deficit go away?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, not raising the deficit – having a jobs and growth package that actually does that; it makes the overall pie of the economy bigger; it grows the GDP, the Gross Domestic Product; and it does that by doing two things: by giving everybody who’s listening to me right now in the next sixty days, next sixty to eighty days, more money to spend, more money in their pocket, more money to invest in their families, to pay for schools, to pay for books, to pay for clothes, to buy food, and at the same time through this jobs and growth package, which, yes, does cost some money now; there’s no question about it, does cost some money now, but creates jobs by investing in small businesses, by giving the appropriation what’s called bonus depreciation, and appropriate deductions so that businesses can go out and hire more people and produce more products. By giving individuals more money to spend and also creating more jobs in the economy, we will be able to grow that economy, which over time will make that deficit disappear.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s, of course, what you’re talking about is the tax cuts bill that the president is going to sign in a couple of days – or tomorrow, right?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: It’s going to be tomorrow.

SEN. BILL FRIST: It’ll be tomorrow, a truly historic week.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let me read to you what Sen. Mark Dayton, Democrat of Minnesota, said about this bill: “It is a shameful looting of the federal treasury by the rich and powerful of America, compliments of their friends in Congress. It uses every trick in the budget book to line the pockets of the upper class.”

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I think that Sen. Dayton and other Democrats, who – as you know – very few voted for this bill – are going to have to in about eight weeks go talk to the 100 million Americans who are going to benefit from it, the 70 million women who are going to receive tax relief this year, there are 36 million married couples – couples – who are going to receive tax relief this year; there are 26 million small businesses, small businesses; many people who are listening to me now-that’s the engine of economic growth – 26 million of those are going to have more money to invest in growing that small business so they can hire more people.

Or talk to that couple – this class warfare that you hear from the Democrats — talk to that couple that’s earning $40,000, a man and a woman, say there are two children, a family of four, making $40,000 a year; they’re certainly not rich; I wouldn’t call them rich. Yet, they’re going to see a 96 percent decrease in the amount of taxes they pay this year.

Even people who aren’t earning any money, who are not working, for every child they have, they’re going to receive $1,000 this year in cash, in cash, to spend, to invest. So the Democrats are using the old worn out, tired class warfare issue; they’re going to have to be talking to over 100 million Americans here in the next couple of months, and say that either you’re too rich to deserve it, or it’s not going to do any good for the economy; they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.

JIM LEHRER: Well, not only Democrats. One of the richest men in America, Warren Buffett, said the other day, particularly the dividend part of this tax cuts bill, it was class warfare for the rich.

SEN. BILL FRIST: I really don’t understand. You – not just you – but a lot of different shows and the media concentrate on Warren Buffett. I’m personally not that worried about the multi-billionaires and millionaires out there. Who I’m concerned about are the hard working men and women who are worried about losing their job.

Warren Buffett is not worried about losing his job, so what they say I don’t believe they speak for that school teacher and that policeman who are out there working hard each and every day, who may be worried about losing their job, who have two children that they get up every morning concerned about putting food on the table and buying their blue jeans; those are the people that I’m worried about, the Republicans are worried about; and the President of the United States is worried about. And I don’t understand why everybody keeps quoting Warren Buffett and an editorial he wrote; he’s not the one that we need to be focusing on; it’s the people who we need to be able to create jobs for, and that’s who this jobs and growth package addresses.

JIM LEHRER: Are you comfortable with the elements of this bill – using the word “tricks” is a word that has been used also not only by Sen. Dayton, by others, but the way some of these tax cuts are phased in and out and then cancel themselves out, and that are sunset and all of that, all as a way to get at a figure, an arbitrary figure, of $350 billion, you’re comfortable with that?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, gimmicks, tricks, sunset; let’s put it straight. What this bill accomplished, and it does it better than the original Senate proposals and the original House proposal and the original president’s proposal, what we were able to accomplish is to put the power, the thrust, the economic stimulus up front right now, not ten years from now, not fifteen years from now, not five years from now, but right now. It’s now that we have the real concern.

So what we’re able to accomplish, instead of taking say $350 billion – I wouldn’t say it’s arbitrary – it was a hard figure we all fought for – but instead of stretching that out over a ten year period or fifteen or twenty year period, have a little tiny impact now, we move up it all up front, so we can create jobs today, turn this economy around today, and that’s the beauty. So you can call it sunset; you can call it gimmicks.

Now, if there’s a tax cut, tax relief for married people today, I’m going to fight hard that it’s not taken away by the Democrats three years ago; we want to cut taxes; Democrats want to increase taxes. Sure, I’m going to be fighting to see that those sunsets don’t end, whether it’s the marriage penalty tax, the child tax credit. I can’t see the Democrats taking that away three or four years from now, and I’m going to fight that it’s not taken away. I’d like to see a trillion dollar tax cut, instead of $350 billion. So you can call sunset a gimmick, and kind of hide behind that. In truth, it allowed us to best stimulate the economy $60 billion this year, in the next three months, $60 billion stimulus to this economy; that’s doing pretty good.

JIM LEHRER: On another subject, Senator, Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican of New Mexico, said the other day that without stability in Iraq, there is a real chance that the people of that country will assume that the victory we claim is not a victory at all. Do you agree with Sen. Domenici, the thing’s in trouble?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I don’t look at this as being in trouble. We have had a great victory in Iraq to date. People say reconstruction is not going very well. Remember, we’re just several weeks after taking over Baghdad, and reconstruction, which I would argue is just beginning, we’re just getting things to settle down, is just beginning, and it’s going to take not just weeks but months or years. People who thought that we could come in literally and be successful in taking Baghdad and then six weeks later be out, I think are unrealistic or were unrealistic.

It is going to take time. It’s going to take investment. We’re building a democracy from scratch where a democracy simply has not existed. It is going to take time. I do agree with my colleagues that we need to do whatever it takes in order to complete the job; that we don’t want to pull out; that the ultimate outcome is freedom and liberty and democracy and all the things we celebrated just yesterday on Memorial Day.

And that is going to take time. It’s not just going in and having the victory and having just a regime change. It’s having those freedoms that we enjoy and that others enjoy. And that is going to take time. And I’m confident we are going to do that as a nation. We will lead. We’ll lead with our coalition of the willing, and we will be successful.

JIM LEHRER: Do you share Senator Lugar… of course Senator Lugar’s is a Republican from Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee…that there might be a tendency in Congress and the administration to want to get out of here, in other words claim victory and go too quickly and leave Iraq to kind of fend for itself. You’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I share Senator Lugar’s concern that we went really to capture that elements of the freedoms that we enjoy here. We don’t want to shortchange that. People who say we just wanted to get in and win the battle and then leave, I think are not consistent either with what Senator Lugar believes or I believe.

We will get the job done. The president will get the job as commander in chief. And I have the utmost confidence in the people who are there now, who are establishing some sense of order so we can build on that with democracy. But it is going to take time. It’s going to take discipline. It’s going to take focus, and it’s going to take investment.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, several of the Democratic presidential candidates are going out of their way to make health insurance for the 40 million- plus Americans who do not have health insurance, an issue. Do you think they’re right? Should this be a national debate right now and particularly in the upcoming presidential election campaign?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Yes, it should. As you know, most of those people are in the United States Senate. I wish they’d stick around here and help us solve some of these initial problems before just running for president. I say that really being pretty serious because in two weeks, in the last two weeks in June I’ve made it very clear as majority leader– and that’s one of the few things that I have the power to do in the Senate– is to say and tell my colleagues that we’re going to take on one of the biggest health care challenges since Medicare and Medicaid first came into being in the mid-1960s. That challenge is going to be on the floor of the United States Senate in two weeks.

So, yes, work for solving all of the other important issues, but help me, in a bipartisan way, to strengthen Medicare, to improve Medicare, to offer seniors the sort of choices that we in the federal government have. Keep what you want to — if you want to keep traditional Medicare, but you seniors deserve a plan that best suits your needs. I just hope my colleagues instead of running for president right now, or can begin addressing those issues afterwards would help me in a bipartisan way to address the issue that’s before the American people.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about bringing prescription drugs to the seniors.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Prescription drugs, at the same time prescription drugs is important because it is inexcusable and I say this as a physician that in the year 2003 we deny seniors the access to affordable prescription drugs if we’re in the business of giving them health care security. That’s what we’re going to be addressing on the floor of the United States Senate. At the same time, because of the huge demographic shift that is taking place in this country over the next 30 years we have to strengthen Medicare, overall Medicare. We have to improve and protect Medicare overall. We can’t just promise the benefit itself without linking it to true modernization. By that I mean strengthening and improvement of Medicare at the same time.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, it sounds like you are comfortable being senate majority leader.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, let me say we’ve been at it four months. If you look in the foreign relations field we had NATO expansion and we had the Moscow treaty. In terms of social issues, we passed the ban on partial birth abortion and at the same time we passed an element of the patients’ faith- based initiative. We talked about tax policy. We passed a budget on time which the last congress did not.

We passed a jobs and growth package that will benefit all Americans as we go forward. And we have passed the largest single public health bill on a specific disease that’s ever been passed in this country. So in four months I’m pleased where we are. We have another huge challenge next month in reforming and strengthening and improving Medicare.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Frist, thank you very much.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Thank you.