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Senator Tom Daschle

February 25, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to the first of two newsmaker interviews with the leadership of the U.S. Senate. It’s with the Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota. Senator Trent Lott, the Republican Majority Leader, has also agreed to join us soon, hopefully next week. Senator Daschle, welcome.

As the leader of the Democrats in the United States Senate, what do you consider to be the most important thing this new Congress should accomplish?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, Jim, I think the most important thing we can accomplish is what the president addressed in his state of the union message, and that is how do we deal with the surplus effectively. How can we, at the same time address Social Security and Medicare and deal with the array of opportunities that we have as a result of extraordinary new development in our fiscal policy? That, it seems to me, if I had to list one thing, would be the issue that most Democrats if not all Democrats would say deserves our highest priority.

JIM LEHRER: Now, are you convinced that there really is a surplus separate and apart from the Social Security trust fund?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, no, there isn’t a surplus separate and apart. Obviously, in a unified budget, we are using the Social Security trust funds as we consider all the revenue available to us. I’m one who has always believed we ought to be setting that aside. What the president is proposing is that we set aside 62 percent of the surplus and put it back into Social Security and at the same time draw down the public debt we’ve accumulated now for about 200 years, most of which accumulated in the last 15 years.

JIM LEHRER: Now there are all kinds of suggestions on the table already about what to do about this surplus. One of them is the Republican idea, which is to use a bulk of — after the 62 percent or whatever percentage — to use the bulk of it for across the board tax cuts. What is your view on that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’m strongly opposed to it, and I would say with unanimity, our Democratic caucus is opposed to it. We just don’t think that we ought to be using 33% of the surplus for that purpose. Paying off the debt makes a lot more sense and that’s what the president and what all of us in the Senate and House have advocated. In addition, of course, have you the equity question. If you’re making about $800,000, you get a $20,000 tax cut; if you’re making $38,000, you get about 27 cents a day in tax reduction. The equity there is so improbable and so unsupportable that I am not surprised that many Republicans are now backing away from it.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the basic idea that when the federal government has a surplus, why not give some of it back to the tax payers? That’s the basic Republican argument.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s exactly right. Our argument in response to that is as long as we have basically a $5 trillion debt, $3.5 trillion in public debt outstanding, we are still paying about a billion dollars a day in interest payments. If we could eliminate $300 billion in interest payments, then we would be in a position to give some of the money back. But it doesn’t make sense to give it back if we are paying that much in outstanding interest each and every day.

JIM LEHRER: Now on Social Security reform – let me read you — I’m sure you’re familiar with it but Mr. Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve said recently about Social Security reform “In all likelihood, these taxes” meaning Social Security taxes “will have to be raised or benefits cut, given that the system as a whole is significantly underfunded.” Do you agree with that as a basic premise?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, the actuaries have said that if we do what the president is proposing, that we can take out the viability of the trust fund in another 23 years until about the year 2055. I think the president and most of us would agree if we want to go beyond that, Alan Greenspan and a lot of other people are absolutely right, that we are going to need to look at structural changes. But obviously that’s a matter that’s going to take some care. We have only three options. We can make better investments and get a better return. We can cut benefits or raise taxes. There are no other choices.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Well, now the president has suggested doing — changing the investments and putting some of it into the private sector, into the stock market. And that hasn’t gone down very well with Mr. Greenspan and others. How has it gone down with you?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, it’s gone down fairly well. I think that this is something we have to explore. I’m not sure that anybody is wedded to any particular concept. But keep in mind every single state has a pension fund program, a public pension fund program, where this is done. To my knowledge, not one state would ever consider repealing that concept or that approach. They obviously find that it works well. The president has proposed, in a very minimal way, to do something like that with Social Security. And I think it makes sense.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Greenspan has said, of course, that would play havoc with the stock market.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, that’s why the president wanted to limit the amount invested to a very small fraction of the overall trust fund. It’s why he feels we need to have a very independent board of governors who would be making the decisions with regard to this investment. I think we can do it without interfering dramatically in the trust fund – I should say in the stock market — and that would be the only way congress could approve it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Changing subjects dramatically — on Kosovo, do you support the inclusion of U.S. troops into a NATO peacekeeping force, assuming there is peace sometime?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Jim, I do. I think the president makes a very compelling case, that what we’ve seen in Bosnia, what we’ve seen in Macedonia, has been a tremendous success story. Without our presence, we don’t have the standing, or they don’t have the standing or credibility that I believe is almost a requisite if we are going to be successful. Keep in mind that the Europeans are going to take the lion’s share of the responsibility by far, and that our presence there is as symbolic as it is real, but they are really a small fraction of the overall commitment that would be required and would be ultimately provided. So I think it makes sense. I think we have to show our willingness to be cooperative. This is an opportunity to do so.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Secretary of State Albright, who said that the ethnic Albanians will not even accept a deal without U.S. involvement?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Secretary Albright in the last week, but I’m not surprised that that is their position. And I would expect that it would be. They realize of course this credibility is critical to the long-term success of this project. Our credibility is tantamount really to providing the opportunity for this to succeed. And we ought to recognize that.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of credibility, two key Republican senators, Senator Nickles and Senator McCain have questioned the credibility of the president and the administration on this and they cite Bosnia as an example where the U.S. sent troops in there and there was a deadline when they were going to come out. That deadline is long gone, and they are worried the same thing is going to happen here with an open-ended commitment. What is your feeling about that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, that’s an understandable concern, and it’s a justifiable criticism, but it’s an understandable response as well. We didn’t know what the circumstances would be going in, and I think it was a mistake. And, looking back, I’m sure most people would now admit that it was probably foolhardy to think that somehow we could put a time limit on with an expectation that that time limit could be adhered to. What we have found is that our presence has had extraordinary impact in keeping the kind of peace and the stability that we so want. That is the same kind of pitfall we want to avoid now. I think it would be a mistake to put a time limit on Kosovo, recognizing that there is a tremendous uncertainty there. And I’m hopeful that we can be a little more practical as we consider the length of time the troops would be committed.

JIM LEHRER: In your own conversations back in South Dakota and with other senators, are you convinced that the American people understand the need to put U.S. troops on the ground in Kosovo?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, I think there is a lot of skepticism and a lot of question right now about whether there is a need. And that’s clearly a matter of — for the president and the congress to be prepared to address. Obviously, it has to be explained. We have to be able to convince the American people that this is in our interests. I don’t think you need much of an imagination, though, to know what happens if all of this gets out of hand. What happens to Greece and Turkey? What happens to the region? What does instability mean in the long-term for both military and economic involvement in the future? I think we can avoid that with a little preventative medicine. That’s what this is all about. It’s preventative and I think it will work.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of post-impeachment atmosphere do you expect trying to resolve all these issues we’ve talked about thus far and many more we could spend the rest of the evening talking about?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Jim, I think you saw it this week. You had a – I don’t know what the exact vote was. I think there were 80 votes in favor of the military pay legislation that was taken up this week. We had a good debate, some amendments. I think the senate is really anxious too get back into the real legislative agenda, rolling up our sleeves and getting on with the work. We’re not going to take on the most earth shaking issue right off the bat. So, we’re warming up to some of the bigger ones but I think you saw the comity and the kind of bipartisanship that I hope we can sustain. Now, that doesn’t mean we are going to agree on everything. We shouldn’t agree on everything but there is an opportunity here to work in a civil way and that, I think, is the most encouraging result of what has otherwise been a miserable experience.

JIM LEHRER: Much has been made about this new relationship that has developed between you and Senator Lott. Describe that for us.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I have always felt we had a good relationship. I think we probably now have an opportunity to work more closely together. There is probably a little more trust. I think there is a sense that we know each other perhaps a little better having been through the fires that we have just experienced. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have our disagreements, we’re not going to have some opportunities to play out our partisan roles as well. Those things happen. But I think that it’s fair to say that we both came out of it with an understanding of each other that perhaps is far more enhanced than it was three or four months ago.

JIM LEHRER: Now on this trust issue, there have been a lot of stories in the last few days, particularly since the leadership meeting with you all and the congressional leadership meeting with you all and the president earlier this week that there is very little trust between the Republican leadership and the president. Do you read it the same way?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I’m not sure that there is a lot of trust but I’m not sure that trust is really the requirement here. What we need is a good cooperative relationship. There isn’t any requirement for them to go out on a limb and trust the president to do something as much as there is a need for us all to work together to accomplish some things this year on Social Security and on Medicare and on the surplus and on education – patients’ bill of rights. There is a lot there we can work on together. And I think it’s more the cooperative spirit. And I saw a lot of cooperative spirit during that meeting.

JIM LEHRER: But the word was that there was a very cold atmosphere between and among all of you. Not so?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Not so at all. In fact, I’d say just the opposite. I think it was very cordial. We had — there was humor in the room, a little levity, a lot of comity. Obviously, they’re not ever going to be the closest of friends, but I thought under the circumstances it was an even warmer meeting than I would have expected.

JIM LEHRER: Explain to the skeptics why it’s in either party’s interest to help the other with a presidential election year coming up. In other words, why would the Republicans want to help President Clinton enhance his legacy? And why would you want to help them, a Republican-led Congress, look good in the eyes of the voters going into an election in the year 2000?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, it’s a trite expression, Jim but I’m one who still believes that I think good governance is good politics. I thought we saw good governance last fall when we passed legislation that would allow the 100,000 teacher commitment that we made. I thought it was good governance to be able to respond to the agriculture crisis in my state. Those kinds ever things happen. That is what we normally call win-win. There will be other opportunities for win-win here politically. And I think in the end, the people win. That’s what this is all about.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Senator, three Democratic Senators Moynihan, Bryan and Lautenberg are the most recent to announce their retirements. There have been many, many more before them in both parties. Is being a United States senator not as great a thing as it used to be?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Oh, I don’t know what it used to be. I guess I’ve only been here 12 years, but I think that it’s every bit as good now as it has been. Now, obviously there are very difficult circumstances we all face in fund-raising and the public scrutiny that comes with the work but by and large it is still an awfully good job, Jim. I’m very proud of the fact that I’m here, and I think most of my colleagues feel the same way.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Senator Daschle, thank you very much. SEN.

TOM DASCHLE: My pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: And a reminder: We’re planning a similar interview soon with Senate Majority Leader Lott.