JIM LEHRER: Now our Newsmaker interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. Gwen Ifill begins with some background.
GWEN IFILL: Republicans may be in the minority in Congress, but they have repeatedly blocked Democrats seeking to curtail the war. It happened again on the Senate floor last night.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: For Congress to fail to provide the funds needed by our soldiers in the field, it is inexcusable under any circumstances.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: What the other side says, “Let’s give this administration and this president a blank check to continue it.” How long do they want it for? When is enough, enough? That’s what they’re asking for. That is what they’re asking for.
GWEN IFILL: Sixty-seven votes are needed to override presidential vetoes. And because the Republicans control 49 of them, Democrats have lost battles on spending, health care, and the war.
In its most recent vote last night, the Senate agreed to President Bush’s demand for $70 billion in unrestricted funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Forty-eight Republicans, but also 21 Democrats, voted for the funding, which had been stripped from the House version of the bill.
Democrats were frustrated.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisconsin: The Senate needs to address the concerns and demands of our constituents, who more than a year ago voted for a change in congressional leadership in large measure because of the debacle in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: But Republicans argued the situation on the ground in Iraq has improved, with attacks on U.S. troops and civilian casualties both down.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: The last thing we need to do is to take action to pull the rug out from under the fabulous men and women who are serving us at great risk this very moment, whose highest and deepest wish is to be successful, to execute the policy we gave them by a three-fourths-plus vote several years ago.
GWEN IFILL: As Congress prepares to adjourn for the year, the Republican minority has also claimed victory in their efforts to amend or derail Democratic priorities on taxes, collective bargaining, and the minimum wage.
GWEN IFILL: We're now joined by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: Glad to be with you, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: At your end-of-the-session, pre-adjournment news conference today, you said among other things that divided government gives you the opportunity to get some difficult things done. What difficult things did divided government help you get done this year?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, I had hoped we'd do a lot more. You know, frequently divided government -- that is, one party in the White House and another party in Congress -- has done big, important controversial things.
I think of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill on Social Security in the '80s, Bill Clinton and the Republican majority on welfare reform in the '90s. We all know that Social Security needs another adjustment, and I had hoped that we would do something big and important for the country like that.
Regretfully, we've spent most of the first year having repetitious Iraq votes -- 34, as of last night, in the Senate alone -- and investigations of the administration. It seems like all that happened was the approval rating of Congress kept getting lower and lower, and now it has reached historically low proportions.
Having said that, I'm optimistic that maybe the new majority has decided to go in a different direction, because we have had bipartisan cooperation here at the end. We've been able to get an energy bill that Republicans felt comfortable supporting and the president signed today.
We were going to get an alternative minimum tax fix, that is it won't go into effect. And we're going to get it without raising taxes on a whole lot of other Americans.
And, of course, we passed $70 billion, of which will continue to fund our troops in the global war on terror in both Afghanistan and Iraq, probably carry us over into April, without any strings attached, without the Congress trying to substitute its judgment for General Petraeus' judgment about how to conduct the war.
And we've managed in an omnibus appropriation bill to trim $22 billion of excess spending that the new majority felt we ought to engage in, which really saves over $200 billion over the next 10 years.
So I think, once we learned to come together here at the end of the Congress, we got better results. And I'll predict, Gwen, that the approval rating of Congress will begin to inch up a little bit now that our friends in the majority understand that you really have to meet in the middle in order to accomplish things for the American people.
GWEN IFILL: Senator, we talked to Nancy Pelosi this week about her goal of trying to get Congress on the record against the Iraq war on withdrawal dates, timetables. As you pointed out, none of that happened.
What is it that the Republicans were able to do to stop that from happening?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, what I think stopped it was, in the Senate, as you know, a majority is not enough. It takes 60 votes to do most everything in the Senate. I have 49 Republican colleagues in my conference. Senator Reid has 51 in his. There's no way to do much in the Senate on a strictly partisan basis.
So here, at the end of the session, we began to come together, recognize the reality, which is that the majority really can't run roughshod over the minority in the Senate. And we were able to accomplish some pretty significant things that both sides can brag about and the president can sign, and we can actually make a law and not just make a point.
I mean, it occurred to me that, you know, that on the war most of the votes we were having were to sort of score political points.
You know, Gwen, we've had an election every two years since 1788 in this country. You can always use an election as an excuse not to do anything.
I think what the American people expected of this new majority that came to power about a year ago was to accomplish things. And maybe, at the end of the session, the new majority figured out that just scoring political points was not working for them politically, as the approval rating of Congress kept going lower and lower.
And just maybe we picked up some good habits here at the end of the first session of the 110th Congress that will get us off to a good start next year and realize that we have to meet in the middle in order to accomplish things.
Congressional approval rating
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the approval rating a couple times now, but the Republicans and Democrats have suffered a decline in their approval rating. Does that worry you?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, the rating of Congress is a good 15 points below the president, and we all know the president's not been terribly popular the last year or two. So I think it's a disturbingly low rating for Congress. The majority I know is concerned about it.
I think that, coupled with the fact that there's demonstrable progress in Iraq over the last six months, it's clear that General Petraeus' strategy is working and making things better.
I think a combination of concern about the low approval ratings of Congress, and the fact that the war seems to be going much better, and the fact that we're now beginning to bring troops home, which we all hope can occur at the earliest possible time, all of those forces kind of came together, Gwen, I think to improve the chances of getting legislation actually signed here at the end of the first session, 110th Congress.
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned a moment ago the president's role in all of this. Is the president's greater willingness to use the veto pen on things like health insurance, other issues? Has that strengthened your hand?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, we haven't had to go that far on most of the things. You know, in the Senate, you need 60 votes in order to do most things. Senate Republicans were able to improve the energy bill, for example, by getting rid of the tax increase and by getting rid of the provision that would have brought about a dramatic rate increase for utility bills all across the Southeast.
Once it was clear that the majority in the Senate could not get the votes to pass that, those items were stripped out, and we produced a bill that the president signed, had a signing ceremony on today, that Senator Reid attended, which I think is a good sign to see the Democratic majority leader there with the president of the United States celebrating an accomplishment.
That's the way to do things. You know, the Democrats may have the majority, but they don't have total control. They don't have total control in the Senate, and they don't have the White House. So in order to accomplish things, you need to come together.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about that coming together, because it seems the coming together you're talking about are the things that you stopped, through filibusters or through veto threats. Is that what the American public wants or that is that obstruction?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, they want us to either mold or stop. Let me give you an example of something we stopped and needed to be stopped.
The Democratic majority wanted to get rid of the secret ballot in the labor union elections, something that 80 percent of union members think is a terrible idea. They don't want management looking over their shoulders when they vote, and they don't want the union organizers looking over their shoulders when they vote. We stopped it cold; we think it was the right thing to stop.
There were other things that we used the power to block to mold. For example, we got tax relief for small business connected with an increase in the minimum wage. We molded that legislation.
On the energy legislation I just described, we got rid of a tax increase. We got rid of a rate increase. We molded that legislation. It ultimately went to the president for his signature.
On the alternate minimum tax, we're insisting that you not raise taxes on one group of Americans in order to provide continued tax relief on another. That's the way it will pass the House today and be signed by the president.
So shaping legislation is not the same as stopping it. We have stopped some things, in our view, that deserved to be stopped. Other things we've molded and made better. And they're going to become law.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about two of the issues you just mentioned. The alternative minimum tax that you shaped also would pay for itself, according to what the Democrats wanted, and that's what is not happening now. You called that a tax increase.
And in the energy bill, the tax increase that you described would have removed a tax break for oil and gas companies. Is that the sort of thing that we're talking about, tax breaks being preserved rather than taxes cut?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: What we're talking about is, when oil is, you know, almost $100 a barrel, the last thing you want to do is drive up the cost of gas at the pump. That's what that tax increase would have done.
You know, with regard to the alternative minimum tax, we all know we're never going to levy this tax on a broad number of Americans. It was a mistake made 40 years ago. We tried to repeal it entirely, my side did. President Clinton vetoed it back in the late '90s. We ought to get rid of it entirely.
But we certainly shouldn't use the AMT fix, as you call it, not allowing it to go into effect -- we're never going to allow that to happen anyway -- we shouldn't use that as an excuse to have permanent taxes increased on others.
So those are important principles. We believe the majority is looking for a reason to raise taxes on large numbers of Americans. We don't think America suffers from paying too few taxes. We think the tax burden is quite heavy enough. And we're prepared to fight any effort to raise taxes.
When they drop efforts to raise taxes, frequently these bills are then good measures that are worth signing.
New intelligence information
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about a couple of other things which have been taking Congress's attention recently. We have heard this week that the CIA tapes that were destroyed, that the Justice Department is asking Congress to hold off in investigating that because it might interfere with their criminal investigation.
Is that something you'd be willing to do?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, we have a new attorney general. We just confirmed him. He's a man with a long and distinguished record. I have every confidence that the new attorney general and the professionals at the Justice Department who are not political appointees of either side can start this investigation, and it's underway.
And I don't think we ought to compromise the investigation. There may be a time later when Congress can have hearings and do other things that don't compromise the criminal investigation, but the last thing we want to do -- if, in fact, a crime had been committed -- would be to make it less likely for the prosecution of such a crime to be successful.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about another issue, which is the National Intelligence Estimate, which said that Iran essentially had stopped production of material that would lead to nuclear weapons in 2003, which is two years earlier than anyone believed, or at least two years ago we had heard that they were still producing them.
Are you satisfied that that is an acceptable report? And do you believe that the results in that report should lead to a re-evaluation of the U.S. relationship with Iran?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, the report is quite large, and there's something in it for everyone. There are other parts of the report that lead you to believe that they are heading in that direction, so I think it's kind of a mixed picture.
What we know for sure is that Iran is a problem. We know they're financing Hezbollah. We know that they're sending devices into Iraq that kill our troops. We know that our Sunni Arab allies', like the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Jordanians, biggest fear is Iran.
We know Iran is a problem. We believe that this so-called peaceful effort in the nuclear area could quickly lead to something else.
And even if the NIE gives you sort of a mixed picture, let's assume that the part you cited is accurate. It's interesting to note that the year they may have stopped it -- if, in fact, they did, and there are a lot of skeptics who think they didn't -- is the same year we went into Iraq.
I think that they're nervous about American presence in the area. We know that they're a serious problem. And even if you take the most sort of lenient interpretation of the NIE, I don't think anybody would seriously argue that Iran is not a major, major international problem.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you to put your analyst's cap on for a moment, Senator. About a year ago this time, the Democrats were rejoicing that they had taken control of the Senate and the House.
The president was struggling to get his message across on Iraq, and yet here we are, a year later, apparently, as you described, a weak president and a weak and unpopular Congress, somehow have managed to -- the president has managed to pull out the triumph at the end of this year. Can you explain why?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, I think it's a triumph for the policy, in the sense that everybody admits -- you know, when the New York Times has front page stories indicating things are dramatically better in Iraq, they're dramatically better in Iraq, because that's a newspaper that both on the editorial page and the front page has been against this effort all along.
So I think it's indisputable that things have gotten better. Most Americans don't want us to lose. Their attitude about it has improved as the conditions have improved. And it's clear that General Petraeus' strategy has dramatically improved conditions in Iraq.
Is it over? No, but Americans are heartened. Growing numbers of Americans are heartened by the progress that they see, number one.
And, number two, they're certainly excited about seeing American troops coming home; 5,000 are already back. We know that up to 30,000 will be out by June. And if these improvements continue, there's every reason to believe that further troop reductions will occur in the second half of 2008. All of that is something we rejoice about.
GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Senator, there are 23 seats you have to defend, Republican seats in the Senate this year, six retirements, including, as of last night, Trent Lott, who served his final day in the Senate. How are you going to be able to do that?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, the numbers are tough for us in this cycle as a result of having a very good election six years ago. At the end of that, people are up again.
And you're right. We have 23 seats up. The Democrats only have 12. I have great optimism that we're going to stay roughly where we are. And as I indicated earlier, in the Senate, where it takes 60 to control the Senate, I think we have an excellent chance of still being in the high 40s after the next election.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Mitch McConnell, minority leader of the U.S. Senate, thank you very much for joining us.