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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Trent Lott interview is first tonight. Two weeks ago we spoke with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Margaret Warner talked with the Senate Majority Leader this morning at the Capitol.
MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for being with us, Senator Lott.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Just a couple hours ago, the White House announced that the Kosovar Albanians say they’re ready to sign this peace agreement in Paris. Now they say the pressure is going to be on the Serbs. As you know, the President has essentially committed the United States to one of two things: Either to help NATO put in a peacekeeping force to enforce an agreement if the Serbs agree, or to bomb Serbia if Serbia doesn’t agree. Do you support either of those options?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I think we should proceed with some degree of caution, and I think the President needs to do a better job in explaining to the Congress and the American people what is our national security interest in Kosovo. We’ve got to ask ourselves a lot of questions. What are going to be the rules of engagement if we do put troops in there? What is the exit strategy? How will that work? How will this be paid for? It’s estimated it will cost $2 billion a year if we have ground troops in Kosovo. That can’t come out of the Social Security Trust Fund. It’s got to be paid for. It’s got to be offset some way. The administration has not answered that question. So there are some really fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves in the Congress and ask the administration. The administration needs to answer these questions before we could get into what we would do. I want to work with the administration. This is a critical area. We don’t want slaughter come spring. We do want to work with our NATO allies. But to go quickly to bombing in order to force an agreement to have troops on the ground before a number of questions are answered, I have problems with that right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Is the Senate this week going to try, though, to put any limits really on the President’s options, either the bombing option or, which has been more talked about, the option of putting 4,000 U.S. troops in as peace keepers?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: The Senate will have a debate on this issue, and I think we should. We should not allow this administration or any administration to initiate this type of activity without advising Congress, without congressional input. And I think it’s legitimate we have a debate. I believe that Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and others — I think it will probably be bipartisan — will want to have some conditions that will need to be met, questions that will need to be answered. That will be debated and voted on. I think it’s legitimate that we have these debates and that we have these conditions in place.
MARGARET WARNER: Will these be conditions that put any real practical limitations on the President’s ability to do this?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I don’t think the Congress is going to be inclined, as you saw just a few days ago in the House, to say to the administration, “You cannot put U.S. troops into a NATO operation where there are small numbers.” The votes are probably not there to put that kind of limitation. Of course, Congress still has the power of the purse. If the action is taken improperly or without consulting adequately with the Congress, funds could be withheld. But Congress is hesitant to do that. But to the average American out there in Arizona or in New York or in Mississippi, I’m not sure they understand why we would want to bomb Serbia and put ground troops into Kosovo. And so a lot of work has yet to be done.
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s turn to another foreign policy issue in which Republicans have been very critical of the President, too, and this is this nuclear spying, China nuclear spying controversy. Last week after a lot of Republican criticism, the president, Energy Secretary Richardson, and the National Security Advisor Sandy Berger all came forward and said, we did take steps. You know, we tightened security at the labs. We cut off the suspect’s access to classified information. Have you been reassured at all by what you’ve heard in the last few days from the administration?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I have not been reassured by what I’ve heard the from the administration. As a matter of fact, it’s raised more questions in my mind. I thought it was really humorous, if it weren’t so serious, that they tried to say, “Oh, this was done back in the Reagan administration.” It’s been -
MARGARET WARNER: The original spying?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Yes. But it’s been on their watch for six — over six years. And I watched Secretary Richardson on one of the Sunday talk shows. I felt like he was really struggling to try to answer the questions about what is happening now. I thought National Security Advisor Berger was awfully defensive, but having said that, what we need is answers. What has happened? Why wasn’t more done sooner? Why don’t we declassify, and make available to the Congress and the public what is in the Cox Report, the Chris Cox, California, Report that has done some work in this area? What I really want is answers. And then most important, what are we doing about it? What are we going to do about it? This is dangerous.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So what is Congress or the Senate going to do about it?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I believe that Chairman Cox and others in the House are going to work with the administration, try to declassify and get this information that they have out in the Senate.
MARGARET WARNER: Just to explain, we’re talking about this bipartisan report -
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Bipartisan.
MARGARET WARNER: — that they came up with in December but has been classified since then while they negotiate all this.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Right, right. And then in the Senate there will be meetings and hearings this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee with Secretary Richardson. I believe the FBI is going to brief them. I hope to be able to attend at least part of those meetings myself to try to get some answers. And then we can decide what action to take based on what we find out if, in fact, legislative action is required.
MARGARET WARNER: Are these hearings going to be opened or closed?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I believe they will be closed, although I have urged the Chairman, Chairman Shelby of Alabama, to have some open hearing, as much as he can. But the most important thing is to get the answers, and if it has to be in closed meeting because of intelligence risks, then you just have to do that. But I think the American people need to know the seriousness of this. And they need to know that we’re going after it seriously, and then we need to be able to take some actions.
MARGARET WARNER: This past weekend, a couple of major foreign policy figures with long-time times to Republicans, Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State; Robert Gates, Former head of the CIA, have both written or said that, look, it’s naive to think that the Chinese don’t spy on us or we don’t spy on them; that is part of a modern relationship with another major power, and that it really shouldn’t affect the broader relationship between the two countries. Do you agree with that?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, I understand what they’re saying. But in the case of China, they have been trying to get our technology, military technology, nuclear weapon technology. Their trading policies are predatory. They’re targeted. I don’t think they’re trading with us fairly. Their human rights policies have not been getting better, even though the President went over there and went all over China. They got worse, either while he was there or immediately thereafter. The pattern with regard to China is troublesome. We have this policy of engagement. And they have a policy of taking advantage of this engagement.
MARGARET WARNER: But are you suggesting then that the administration should pull back on the policy of engagement say in the area of trade?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think we should stay involved in engagement. That’s my own view. But I think we need to do it in a way with greater strength to say, you know, you are not going to be able to unfairly take advantage of our trade policies. You cannot continue to try to steal from us in a way that is going to cause great alarm or great loss militarily. You must deal with human rights policy. I think to stay engaged is one thing, but to become a sycophant, to just accept conduct which the American people do not accept has got to stop.
MARGARET WARNER: Again, in practical terms, what really can Congress make the administration do? You’ve got Zhu Rongji, the Chinese premier, is coming here in April for instance. I mean, what specifically do you really want to see the administration do?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think the Congress during that time when he’s here can express our concern, in fact, our alarm at a number of areas from human rights to trade to national security interests. But I think also the Congress can take specific actions to deal with some of these problems — just one example: If they need more funds for counterintelligence, activities at Los Alamos, let’s provide that. In fact, let’s require that. So there are some legislative actions or some financing things that we can do. In the area of trade, you know, they do get Most Favored Nation status. I have supported that in the past.
MARGARET WARNER: And many other Republicans.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: But I mean, there, you know, there can be a limit.
MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying now that, for instance, you would oppose Most Favored Nation status?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: No. I’m not saying that, but I’m saying that we should raise questions and we should not put that off the table. If you have a full debate and if you feel like they are taking advantage of it and there is enough cause for concern there, then you do change your position. I’m not threatening that, but I have struggled with it every year.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this a coincidence that these two very hot issues right now, Kosovo and China, are sort of on the table and are points of contention between the Republican Leadership and the White House, or is there a feeling among Republicans that just national security in general was really a pretty potent political issue for Republicans against this administration?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think to a degree it’s coincidence. But I must say that this administration is skating very close to the edge in terms of confidence in the Congress, and I think the American people, in the actions that they have been taking in foreign policy. There are questions now about why are we bombing in Iraq every day? What did we get for that last bombing situation that cost about $1.6 billion? Why are we getting so spread all over the world where we have to be the policemen of the world or the nanny of the world? And also I think it’s important to add that there is bipartisan concern about a number of these areas. There are a lot of Democrats that are concerned about this loss of technology and now the intelligence that we’re losing and the information that was obtained from Los Alamos. So I don’t think it’s just partisanship. I think it’s legitimate national security interest. And I think the American people would say to us, and are already saying to us, Hey, Congress, why aren’t you doing more? We have a co-equal responsibility. And we’re trying to fulfill that.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there’s any or is there any post-impeachment residue in the relationship between Republicans and the President that is affecting the debate on these issues or others? It’s been a month now since the impeachment.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think in the Senate, and that’s the one I deal the closest with, there is a positive residue from the experience we had, and there has been bipartisan cooperation on bills involving our soldiers and sailors, education, and now even missile defense. We’ve been passing bills by overwhelming majorities. With regard to the administration, I think there that there is still a degree of concern and worry about just how much we can trust this president. I think with regard to my own situation, I’m looking at the President and I’m wondering, has he made the choice? He is at a fork in the road. Is he going to go down the road of trying to get things done from Medicare reform to Social Security reform to budget agreements, or is he going to go down the road of confrontation, try to work on taking control of the House or to just work to support Al Gore? I can’t tell if he’s made a decision.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, when you say there’s a question of whether you can trust him, how does that affect the way — do you think that’s going to get in the way of, for instance, coming to some deal on the Medicare, Social Security, tax cut, budget issue?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, the Medicare is real simple. It comes to a head this very week. We set that Medicare Commission up to try to come up with some reform ideas. We also set it up that it took a super majority, 11 of the 17, to make a recommendation. For weeks now, all of the Republicans, eight of them, plus two Democrats, the chairman, John Breaux, and Bob Kerrey, ten total have been supporting a reform idea that John Breaux came up with. It’s innovative. It will help address the long-term needs of Medicare. But not one of the President’s appointees, not one of the four had been willing to engage with those ten. And so this week it may collapse. And so I would call on the President, show your good faith, Mr. President; engage now. You have two days left to save the Medicare Commission. If they collapse, then John Breaux and the Senate Finance Committee will try to move Medicare reform, but it’s a signal to me that apparently he’s going to try to politicize Medicare instead of produce real reform. But we will know this week.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, thank you very much Senator Lott.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Thank you, Margaret.