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Democratic Senator Dorgan Predicts What’s Ahead in Congress

November 9, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The perspective on divided government from the newest side with power, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And we get that perspective now from Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, number three in the Senate Democratic leadership and chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee.

And, Senator, welcome.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D), North Dakota: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for being here.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: So you all are going to take charge in January. What’s going to be the first order of business?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, the first order of business is to address some things that have been stalled for a long, long while. Raise the minimum wage. It’s been nine years. The people at the bottom of the economic ladder have had a very difficult time.

We’ll deal with a number of issues, such as stem cell research, the re-importation of prescription drugs, a wide range of issues affecting jobs, affecting health care, energy policy. So we’re really excited about this, and we know that we have to work across the aisle. We hope to cooperate with the president; we hope he cooperates with us to get things done.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, will your approach on some of these issues — and these are on the list, also, that Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi has vowed to try to pass in the first 100 hours, I think she said — will the approach be to seek a compromise with the president in the interest of getting something, get half a loaf, or will Democrats be laying down a marker and then saying, you know, “Take it or leave it,” daring him to veto it?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, you know, the American people really laid down a marker on Tuesday. They made the decision about what kind of government they wanted, and I think it’s pretty clear that the agenda we’re talking about, whether it’s stem cell research or the issue of the minimum wage or good jobs that pay well with decent benefits, trade issues, all of those things, I think the American people want us to tackle these issues and do something.

We’re certainly going to be interested in reaching across the political aisle, working with the president, but I don’t think that we come to this job believing that we ought to leave half of it undone. We want to get these things done.

Pushing through new legislation

Sen. Byron Dorgan
Policy Chair
The new speaker of the House and the new majority leader in the Senate, Senator Reid, will now have the power of scheduling, and he will provide good leadership on these issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you as Democrats, now that you're in leadership in both houses, do you think now you're under pressure to perform and actually come up with legislation that's successfully passed and signed?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Sure. I mean, we need to deliver, as well. But, as you know, we still do have divided government. The president has two years remaining on his term. And so we need to work with him; he needs to work with us. But, you know, we have a responsibility here. We fully understand that.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's take an issue like embryonic stem cell research, which the president has made clear he doesn't support. How can you find a compromise on something like that?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, it's not easy, but it's also clear, it seems to me, just take a look at the polling on that issue. It has wide support across this country.

We've waited a long while. We've had it blocked for some long while. Now we have a majority in the House and the Senate. We will push. I mean, it was the basis on which we campaigned across this country.

The new speaker of the House and the new majority leader in the Senate, Senator Reid, will now have the power of scheduling, and he will provide good leadership on these issues. And we'll have votes on them, and hopefully we'll have the votes to move these things along.

Iraqis should handle security

Sen. Byron Dorgan
Policy Chair
President Bush was presenting false choices between the issue of "stay the course" or "cut and run." That was always a false choice. The American people want a change.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let's turn to Iraq, because we know a majority of voters said they wanted a change in Iraq. How much can Democrats deliver on that?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Once again, I think that the voice of the American people was really important here. I mean, they made some progress in sending a message to everybody in Washington, D.C., they didn't like what's happening.

And President Bush was presenting false choices between the issue of "stay the course" or "cut and run." That was always a false choice. The American people want a change.

And I think they want us to say to the Iraqis, "Look, Saddam Hussein is now under death sentence. He doesn't exist any longer in power. You now have a government; you have a constitution; and now you have to have the will to provide for your security. This country belongs to you, not us, and so you need to stand up its security so that we can bring American troops home." We can't do that in an instant, but we need to begin that process.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, the White House says that's what they've been saying to the Maliki government all along. I guess my question is, are Democrats ready, for instance, to go so far as use the power of the purse, if you don't see that the president is willing or stepping up to really changing policy in a way that you think needs to be done?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: We will not do anything that in any way ever undermines the troops. They serve this country because they're asked to serve this country. We won't do anything that undermines the troops.

But I think it's also clear that we now have this Baker-Hamilton group that will be reporting. Clearly, change is on the way, and we want to work with the president, with the Hamilton-Baker organization as they report and come up with some change that will move us in a position to be able to come out of Iraq at some point.

We need to get back to fighting terrorism. You know, Afghanistan still lingers; Osama bin Laden is still talking to us from the hills. We need to get back to the fight on terrorism.

The Democratic plan for Iraq

Sen. Byron Dorgan
Policy Chair
We need to work with the president. The American people expect all of us to find a way to come together, and resolve this issue, and get back to fighting terrorism, bring the troops home, and give Iraq back to the Iraqi people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some Democratic candidates ran calling for a pretty quick withdrawal of troops. You have others -- not yourself, you voted against the war resolution -- but some voted for it who haven't gone that far. Do Democrats now need to come up with a consistent position of their own on Iraq, on what to do going forward? Or is this still the president's responsibility?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, I voted to give the president the right to use force.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. I'm mistaken on the question.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Let me just say that we Democrats will attempt in every way possible to come up with an approach that makes sense for our country and reflects our best interests. We want to do that with the president, with Hamilton-Baker. But is that going to be easy? No, it's not. But the American people clearly said Tuesday night, "We want some changes."

MARGARET WARNER: But you know what the -- and I don't want to get into a partisan argument here, but you all never had to present the Democratic alternative on Iraq. Do you need to now?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, look, people say, "What is your plan?" The president has not had a plan. I mean, this notion of just being there and staying there, that's not a plan, especially when it's not working.

We need to work with the president. The American people expect all of us to find a way to come together, and resolve this issue, and get back to fighting terrorism, bring the troops home, and give Iraq back to the Iraqi people.

Let me make one quick point. I hope this country, I hope the president will clearly say to the world, "We have no intention of having a permanent military presence in Iraq." The president has now changed the secretary of defense; that's constructive. So we're making some progress already.

Other new responsibilities

Sen. Byron Dorgan
Policy Chair
We will have in the regular committee process the kind of oversight hearings that should have been held all along.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Another power you're going to have now, oversight and investigations. How far are you going to go with that?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, as you know, I've held 13 hearings on the Democratic Policy Committee, because the committees in Congress would not hold oversight hearings. We will do what the American people expect us to do.

When you have war profiteering, and it's happening, when you have big contractors abusing contracts with waste, fraud, and abuse, in my judgment, that fleeces the American taxpayer, it undermines our troops. We will have in the regular committee process the kind of oversight hearings that should have been held all along.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, the unique power the Senate has is the power to confirm federal judges, members of the cabinet, sub-cabinet posts, ambassadors. How are Democrats going to exercise that responsibility?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, we'll exercise it responsibly, clearly.

MARGARET WARNER: I gave you that opening.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, for instance, in the last two years of the Clinton administration, Republicans, I believe, basically just didn't confirm many judges. Is that going to be the Democrats' approach or...

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: No. Look, we're going to work responsibly here. We have confirmed so many -- it's an unbelievable number of judges and appointees, nominees from this president. We will continue to work with him.

But when the president moves names to the Congress that are objectionable to us, there's two parts to this process of confirmation. One is the president's; one is ours. They're equal parts. And we will be cooperative, but there will be occasions where we will decide that is not the person that we would accept and we will not move the nomination.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, thank you.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Thank you.