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Majority Leader Tom Daschle

August 2, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST


JIM LEHRER: Now to our interviews with the two top leaders of Congress: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who spoke to Margaret Warner this afternoon. Senator Daschle is with us live now. Senator, welcome.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of this compromise on Patients’ Bill of Rights that’s moving through the House right now?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I’m disappointed. All the way through this process, we thought the prospects were very good that at long last we’d be able to ensure real patients’ rights. What we’ve done now is degrade the opportunity to ensure that there’s a remedy for those rights when those rights are infringed. That’s the concern most of us have. This is a step backwards, and I would say in most cases our sponsors and others who have been following this for a long period of time believe it’s a major step backwards.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to do everything you can to kill it if it comes out of the House?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, we’re not going to kill Patients’ Bill of Rights but we’re certainly going to try to strengthen it again as we did in the Senate. We had many occasions when we had to beat back approaches like this. We did it successfully in the Senate. Hopefully we can do it again in Conference. If not we’ll try all over again in the Senate at a later date.

JIM LEHRER: So this is an important matter to you?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Very important. This is the first bill that we took up as the new majority. We did that for a reason: because it has a high priority, because we’ve waited now for almost ten years, since the very first bill was introduced. This has been a long, long time in coming. And, as I say, we’ve made so much progress up until now. It’s just a disappointing setback on the eve of, perhaps, passage tonight.

JIM LEHRER: But the president says he would veto a version that was similar to the one you all have already passed in the Senate. So what is accomplished by continuing to push your version?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I wonder whether he would veto the bill ultimately when it reaches his desk. But he’s also said, Jim, that the bill that we passed was 90 percent to his liking. I don’t know many deals where you get 90 percent of what you ask for, to say that you’re going to veto a bill over the remaining 10 percent seems to be pretty extreme to me. That isn’t the way it would be done normally. And I can’t imagine that the president really believes that a bill that is that much to his liking would be a vetoed bill when it reaches his desk.

JIM LEHRER: The House also passed legislation this week that would ban human cloning of all kinds even for research. What’s your position on that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’m opposed to human cloning. I think that we have to draw a distinction between all the other kinds of research we do and that research that would promote human cloning. I oppose it. I think there is a very strong sentiment in that regard here in the Senate as well.

JIM LEHRER: And when are you going to take it up?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We haven’t made any decision with regard to scheduling. My guess is that the whole issue of stem cell research will be addressed at some point if the president chooses to restrict research on embryonic stem cells. If that happens, my guess is we’ll take up a bill, and it would probably be in that context that a cloning amendment would arise. There have been rumors throughout the day that some Republicans would like to take up a cloning amendment before we leave, but I’m sure we’ll have that debate sometime this fall.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning you’re not going to let it come up until this fall?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I don’t know that we have an opportunity. All we have left to do is an emergency agriculture bill and as much as cloning is of interest to all of us, I think it does deserve a good healthy debate. I’m not sure you can do it in an evening or an afternoon.

JIM LEHRER: Now on stem cell research, everybody is waiting for the president’s decision on whether there should be federal funding on that. Your position, you favor federal funding of stem research, correct?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: And if the president says no to it, will you just let that pass or would you move in the Senate to try to overrule that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I have indicated that we would intend then to bring up a bill. I have said that we would wait until the president made his decision to see what the lay of the land is. But clearly if the president chooses to prohibit embryonic stem cell research, we would move legislation. I think we have an overwhelming bipartisan majority in support of it and we would bring that bill to the floor sometime this fall.

JIM LEHRER: An important matter to you, Senator?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Very important. It would be one of our key issues as we go into the final months of this session of Congress.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the energy bill that the House passed yesterday. It allows for oil exploration in the, on 2,000 acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Can you support that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I can’t support it. Many experts have reported to the Congress and have testified that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would provide about six months’ supply, but it would do permanent damage to a national treasure. I can’t support that. That’s not a trade-off that I think is viable to many of us. I think that there are ways with which to promote production, to encourage it, to incent it. But I don’t think that providing opportunities for drilling in that very sensitive part of our country is something we should do.

JIM LEHRER: Shortly after you took over the leadership of the Senate you pretty much pronounced drilling up there dead. Does it still…is it still dead from your point of view?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I know that there are 40 votes, at least, in opposition. I would think that a long filibuster would be in order if we wouldn’t be able to defeat the bill outright. I don’t know where the votes are today. I’m reasonably confident that the votes are there to defeat it in its current form outright, but we’ll have to see. Debates sometimes bring about different results. But that would be one of those issues that I’m sure we’ll get into when we debate energy later on this year.

JIM LEHRER: Now on another energy issue, this bill that was passed by the House requires just modest raises in mileage requirements for sport utility vehicles. Can you support that or do you want more?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think we have to look at ways with which to promote efficiency. I don’t think there’s any question that we don’t do a very good job as a country, Jim. I think that whether we look at transportation or the array of other options available to us, conservation has to play a far more central role in energy policy than it has so far. So we would want to promote ledge legislation that would encourage efficiency, as I say, in all modes of transportation as well as in other forms of energy utilization.

JIM LEHRER: Tough times coming ahead, then, on energy and Patients’ Bill of Rights, just alone. Am I reading that correctly, and rather obviously?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, there are always tough times when you deal with controversial issues. You’ve mentioned some controversial issues. That’s the way the legislative process works. That doesn’t mean they’re irresolvable. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find some common ground. We’re going to look for common ground. But, clearly we hold very strong views about some of these issues.

JIM LEHRER: Now, we talked right after you became Senate Majority Leader. You said one of the big differences that would be seen is that the agenda would change, you would change the agenda. You and the majority Democrats would change the agenda. Do you feel you have done that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I believe we have. We wouldn’t be having the debate you’re having in the House tonight were it not for the fact that we passed the Patients’ Bill of Rights. That was a very important issue for us. There will be many more like that. Obviously, we felt it was quite important to work with the transportation and other appropriations bills that we’ve completed this week. We will be taking up the minimum wage, hate crimes, energy and an array of other issues this fall. The prescription dug benefit. So we have quite an agenda to address. We’re looking forward to that as well.

JIM LEHRER: Up until now would you cite the Patients’ Bill of Rights as the major effect of you having become the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I would guess that’s probably the major effect. We were very pleased to be able to complete the education bill after it had been debated for as many as ten weeks. We also, of course, were able to finally deal with the Export Administration Act. We’re taking that up as soon as we come. A number of things have occurred over the course of the last few weeks that we feel quite good about, but certainly Patients’ Bill of Rights is probably the most consequential of all of our accomplishments.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel pretty much in charge of the agenda right now in terms of what’s happening in Congress and with the president? How are you feeling about that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I don’t know that I’m solely in charge. Clearly in any setting like this, we still have the same 100 votes we had at the beginning of this session of Congress. We still know what narrow margins we hold here in the Senate. We know we’ve got to work together. The president is the president of the United States. He too has every right and every ability to move his agenda. So this has to be a shared agenda. We have to find ways with which to deal with the bills that he has considered to be important. I hope he’ll look at our bills in the same manner.

JIM LEHRER: The Wall Street Journal editorial page recently described you as being hyperpartisan. Guilty as charged?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’ll let others decide that. I don’t think I’m hyperpartisan. We’ve truly attempted to reach out to find common ground, to do as much as possible, to improve the comity in the Senate. We have passed out nominations as quickly as they’ve become available. As we speak we’re taking up more confirmations tonight including the FBI Director. So we’ve accelerated the number of nominations — in fact are ahead of schedule even though we weren’t able to complete our work on the organizing resolution until just about a month ago, we’re now actually ahead of where the Republicans were with the Clinton administration at this point in their term of office.

JIM LEHRER: But, in general terms, do you feel one of your duties as majority leader is to further the goals and the beliefs of the Democratic Party?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do, of course.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s not partisanship. That is what?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that partisanship is not all to be apologized for. I think that there is a value in taking partisan ideals in the best sense of the word and espousing them, articulating them and hopefully enacting them. To the extent possible it’s also important to find common ground. I think excessive partisanship means you don’t try to find common ground. You’re content simply to put those issues out there and obstruct and confront and do it in an acrimonious way. I don’t think we’re doing that. My view is that we’re truly attempting to accommodate the administration. I hope that they will reciprocate as much as they can.

JIM LEHRER: House Minority Leader Gephardt today accused President Bush of following what he called a “go-it-alone approach to foreign affairs.” Do you agree with him?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: To a certain extent I do. I’ve spoken out in the last few weeks in that regard. I am very concerned about going it alone, whether it’s the Kyoto Treaty, the national missile defense. There’s an array of other treaties and agreements that we’ve had internationally that the administration seems to be backing away from. I think that’s very disconcerting and I think it is important for us to call attention to those actions and bring about the public debate that I think is warranted. We simply can’t acquiesce. We’ve got to ensure that that public debate occurs.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned the appointments and the president and his spokesman have been knocking the Senate for not having taken up the nomination of John Negroponte to be UN Ambassador for the United States, citing, hey, you Democrats want the U.S. to be involved in all the UN things but you will not approve a new UN ambassador. What’s the problem with Negroponte?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, the problem is that we haven’t been able to acquire all of the information involving some of his past activities, some of the actions that he took as ambassador. And we want to be sure that we’ve had all of the questions answered and that his nomination is properly vetted. That’s all we’re asking. Certainly after all of that information is provided and after we are confident that we have the answers, we will move forward with the appointment.

JIM LEHRER: But there will be a vote on his nomination?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I assume at some point there will be a vote but we’ll determine that as we are provided the information and as we make our decision.

JIM LEHRER: And the problem has to do with his activities as ambassador of Honduras during the Contra Nicaragua situation many years ago?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s a problem for you?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: .I’m not saying it’s a problem. It’s potentially a problem. As Senator Biden has noted on several occasions, what we want to be able to do is to pursue some of the questions that members and others have asked about some of the potentially conflicting information provided to us. We want to sort that out and then make our decision with regard to the nomination itself.

JIM LEHRER: How would you describe your relationship…working relationship with House Speaker Hastert?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I think that it’s reasonably good. I had a good conversation with him yesterday. We agreed to get together as soon as the August recess is over to talk about our mutual schedules and how we might work together in the coming months. I have always had a good working relationship with him, and I assume that that will be the case this fall.

JIM LEHRER: You say mutual schedules but you’re essentially going your different ways, aren’t you? He didn’t want to do Patients’ Bill of Rights when you wanted to do Patients’ Bill of Rights, did he, or what?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, obviously there are a number of bills that the House feels are important and that we feel are important. You mentioned the Patients’ Bill of Rights. We’ve already talked about energy. There will be a series of appropriations bills that have to be addressed. Obviously we have to deal with the Export Administration Act. That will be coming up shortly after we return.

We’d like to take up minimum wage, prescription drug benefits. There’s an array of issues that Republicans and Democrats have indicated support for and interest in. So we hope we can find ways with which to deal with all these questions sometime before the end of the session.

JIM LEHRER: Is it more fun being the Majority leader than the Minority Leader?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: It’s a lot more fun. I’m enjoying it.

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

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: My pleasure.