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Newsmaker: Tom Daschle

September 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Joining us now from Capitol Hill, for a newsmaker interview, is the Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Welcome, Senator.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Do you share the administration’s skepticism expressed today by both the president and the secretary of state that we should not be fooled by Iraq on this matter of weapons inspections?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do. I think there is reason for healthy skepticism. We’ve been through this before. We’ve been down this road. We know just exactly what he does. He offers the open access and then qualifies it and ultimately repeals or takes back that offer at some point down the road. This is nothing more than an effort to divert the attention and the resolve and the commitment of the United Nations, and I think we ought to see it as that.

GWEN IFILL: So you agree with Secretary Powell that the issue should be disarmament, a higher level of tests here, rather than just agreeing to inspections?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do. I don’t think it is just a matter of inspection. We know that there is a good deal of material, both chemical, biological, and perhaps at least some nuclear possibility, that ought to be addressed. It isn’t just a question of verifying it, it’s a question of destroying it. And I think it’s important that we send that message not only from the United States but loudly and clearly through the United Nations.

GWEN IFILL: Yet you said today even after the all the briefings you’ve gotten from the administration and your stated support here for the administration’s position, that you still believe the evidence is inconclusive to support an attack.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, what I’ve said is that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the situation warrants greater level of concern with regard to the weapons that we know to exist within Iraq. We can argue about how conclusive it is. But that doesn’t change what ought to be the action of the United States. The action of the United States is exactly as the administration has presented it.

Go to the Congress, go to the United Nations, seek international support. Acknowledge the fact that Iraq has been extraordinarily irresponsible in its actions, internationally, and with its commitments. I think we need to make that case as the President has, we need to get the commitment from the United Nations, and take the actions required to ensure that we change these circumstances before Iraq has even greater capability in weapons of mass destruction.

GWEN IFILL: Even with inconclusive information?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Correct.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. What the President is now asking you for and what the administration has been asking you for is for a resolution that puts in words, I guess, puts on paper the same kind of support you’ve just voiced for them. When can we expect that?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, actually, Gwen, they haven’t asked for it. They’ve talked about the need for the Congress to act, but there has not been any formal request. I called the White House yesterday and urged them to work with us so that we have a clearer understanding of what exactly their strategy is, what their plans might be, and we’re getting together tomorrow morning for breakfast as we do on occasion — the four leaders with the President and Vice President.

But that’s really what it takes, a formal request. And then we go from there. If I had to guess, I would say that there would be strong support for the administration’s actions, but it does require that we work together and find some resolution to whatever concerns there are with regard to the language itself.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming that the White House gives you the formal request that you’re talking about, when would you expect there to be a vote on that resolution?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, as you know, over the weekend the administration has said that they have not made any clear decision with regard to what their ultimate strategy might be what their options are, and they haven’t decided which of those options they’ll employ.

So until they make that decision — until they know what it is their intentions will be with regard to the next few steps — I think it would be very hard to write the resolution. First they have to give us some guidance; first they have to make those decisions; and then I’m quite sure that the administration will enjoy pretty broad support, just as they appear to be enjoying more support in the international community.

GWEN IFILL: And if they give you that guidance in the next week, say, do you expect there to be a vote before the midterm elections?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that it is possible and perhaps likely that there could be a vote sooner rather than later. But again, I think that that assumes some things that we can’t assume today. What will be the effort made within the United Nations? What will happen internationally? Can we continue to work with the administration to get a clear understanding of the ramifications of this action?

And those are the kinds of thing that have to continue to be worked out. But I’m confident at the end of the day, whenever the end of the day is, we will have the understanding sufficient to provide the kind of support for the administration’s actions.

GWEN IFILL: What do you want this resolution to be about? Do you want it to be about disarmament or do you want it to be about weapons inspections, or do you want it to be about regime change?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I don’t think it’s just what I want. I think it’s really what the international community decides it wants, in addition to the administration’s assertions for regime change. I think that whether we take this all in one lump resolution, whether we take this piecemeal and take it a step at a time, those are decisions that we have to work out. Clearly I think we know this.

We want to work with the administration to ensure the broadest support within the international community. That effort has begun. I think the President got a warm reception last week for good reason; he made a very strong presentation. We need to ensure that we have international support. We need to ensure that we have Iraqi compliance. We need to ensure that we have the ability not only to inspect but to destroy the weapons of mass destruction.

So we take this a step at a time and ensure that as we go through these steps, we have the kind of international support and backing that I think will be required and that we had in 1991 when we went through a similar situation.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about a step at a time, do you believe the UN has to act first before the United States Congress acts?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, as I’ve said on many occasions, I think it would be very helpful for the UN to act and for the international community to show the level of support that they would have. I think it would give us a clearer understanding about the degree to which we’re going into this alone.

A good example is the whole question of cost. You heard Larry Lindsey the other day say that this could cost the United States $200 billion. And he seemed to minimize the budgetary consequences of $200 billion. Well, last time we had a majority of that cost incurred and committed to by our allies, not by the United States. To what extent will we get international support for that cost, and should that be a part of our deliberations? I think it should.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Mr. Majority Leader, the President seemed to suggest this week or last week that the Senate and Congress would be abdicating its responsibility if it decided to let the UN act first, especially before the elections.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I’m not suggesting that we let the UN act first, although I would say that that’s exactly what happened in 1990 and ’91. The UN acted and then the United States Congress acted with a more specific resolution. Now, we could call upon the UN to act, which is one option we have available to us if that’s what the administration would choose.

But those are the options we have that ought to be very carefully considered. All I’m saying is that the degree to which we understand the level of support in the international community is a factor, not “the” factor, not the most important factor, but a significant factor, I think, in how the Congress would view this whole enterprise, and the level of support, enthusiasm that I think you could expect from the Congress on a bipartisan basis.

GWEN IFILL: You have been posing a series of questions to the administration about whether we should go and how to go into Iraq. You I imagine will be posing these questions again tomorrow at the White House. What are the answers you’re looking for and do you have counter proposals in your hip pocket that you plan to put on the table tomorrow?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I don’t think counter proposals are necessary. I think we have to do this together. In fact that was the reason I called the White House. We need to ensure that as we work through all of that, that we not politicize it. And I think we’ve gotten close to the edge on a couple occasions with statements made by others, and I would hope that that would not be the case. This is too grave, too solemn, too important for us to be politicizing any aspect of this debate.

So I don’t want to see competing Democratic and Republican proposals here. I want to see an American proposal presented to the international community and to Iraq, and hopefully in concert with the international community and that’s exactly our desire, and what I will articulate again tomorrow morning.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, I’ve been struck by what seems to be the lack of flat out anti-war sentiment in this debate, especially on Capitol Hill. Am I reading that right?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that there is a concern for war. I don’t know that anybody believes that war ought to be the first option. I think what we want to do is to see that it’s preserved as the last option.

But we shouldn’t be out there as having concluded that that’s the only way to get this job done. That’s why I say I think it’s very important for us to take this a step at a time. War is a very serious matter, lives could be lost, and we need to be very wary about going to war.

But I think short of war, there are a lot of steps, a lot of specific questions and needs that can be addressed through the international community, through the United Nations, with leadership from the United States. I hope we provide it.

GWEN IFILL: You had mentioned earlier how much this might cost, this incursion or whatever it will turn outs to be, into Iraq. Do you think that any effort in Iraq might undercut an ongoing efforts to conduct a war on terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, that’s one of the questions that I have posed on several occasions, and I don’t think there is a conclusive answer to that either, frankly. But all you need to do is to look at what happened this last weekend with the tremendous cooperation of Pakistan. With the cooperation of other countries, we were able to apprehend some of the most consequential of all of those people who have perpetrated this war so far over the course of the last seven or eight months.

I can’t think of anything more important for us to ensure — than to ensure that that effort, that ongoing cooperation, is maintained. I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that kind of cooperation, and I’m confident that if we do this in the right way, we don’t have to jeopardize that extraordinarily important goal.

GWEN IFILL: It is an election year, Senator, so let me ask you just the political question, which is: Do Democrats fear that all this discussion about war, war making and national security is going to in any way undercut Democrats’ ability to talk about domestic issues between now and November?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, you will see us talk a good deal about domestic issues; in fact we’re going to talk a lot about the economy. This economy is in a miserable state, we’ve lost 2 million jobs; we’ve got more long-term unemployed than any time since World War II. There have been more foreclosures a than at any time since World War II on homes, so there’s a lot to talk about there, and when you do the polls and all the research, the American people are saying without question, they still believe it’s the economy that is the most important concern going into this election.

So we’re confident that nothing has changed out there in the electorate, we’re going to talk about many of these issues and strongly suggest that that’s the reason why we need a Democratic Congress.

GWEN IFILL: Some of your number in your party have suggested that they’re suspicious about the timing that if Iraq has been such a problem for so long, why the rush now to get action from Congress and the United Nations. Do you share that suspicion?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I understand their concern, and the reasons for their suspicion. But no, I don’t at in point.

GWEN IFILL: So you believe that when the President says that we must act in order to achieve the peace, that everyone is on the same page?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I don’t know that everyone is on the same page, but I believe the President means what he says, and I would hope that he could make sure that he leaves no doubt about his motivation, or about that of the administration. I think it’s so important. We need to make sure that there or occasions, even this close to an election, where we can rise above politics. I can’t think of a more important time than now in that regard.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Daschle, thank you very much for joining us.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: My pleasure.